CM 076: Lisa Feldman Barrett on Rethinking Our Emotions

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Blog Post - Lisa and EmotionsWhen we get angry or excited, our emotions can seem automatic. But are they?

For decades, scientists have described these feelings as hardwired, beyond our control, and associated with certain parts of the brain. But recent breakthroughs in neuroscience and psychology are upending this classical view, with revolutionary implications for how we understand ourselves and the world.

In her book, How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, helps us rethink what it means to be human, with repercussions for parenting, our legal system, and even our health. Lisa received an NIH Directors Pioneer Award for her groundbreaking research on emotion in the brain and has been studying human emotion for over 20 years.

In this interview, we talk about:

  • The fact that our emotions are not hardwired but are made by our brains as we need them
  • Old, inaccurate ways of thinking about emotions and the brain, like emotions as associated with specific parts of the brain
  • How variety is the norm when it comes to expressing and feeling emotions
  • How having emotional granularity helps us feel, express, and understand our own and others emotions more deeply
  • The fact that our brains are not reacting but rather are predicting and constantly guessing what will happen next based on past experiences
  • How the predictions our brains make, based on past experience, yield the thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and beliefs we hold and feel
  • How the brain of a baby is awaiting instructions for how to wire itself by capturing experiences it can draw on in the future
  • How baby brains look very different from adult brains because they have not yet had the experiences an adult has had
  • How our present and future selves are conjured from our past
  • The fact that our emotions are not universal or identical by have variations and shades based on the situation
  • How we actually have not one anger but many angers and happinesses and so on
  • Why we must have knowledge of an emotion in order to experience it
  • How the easiest way to gain knowledge of an emotion is through emotion words
  • How an extensive emotion vocabulary benefits us socially and academically and helps us see varied emotions in other people, gives us greater empathy
  • The fact that we can combine past experiences in brand new ways to create new knowledge if we have not yet had those actual experiences
  • The fact that emotions are abstract concepts rather than physical properties and that they can guide us toward a particular goal of say using anger to overcome an obstacle
  • If a tree falls in a forest and no human is there does it make a sound? No!
  • If we have no concept of a tree then we would not hear the sound of it falling in a forest.
  • Why we cannot understand unfamiliar languages or music
  • How our brain is constantly anticipating sights, sounds, tastes and taking in information from the world and our bodies based on past experience
  • How granularity in color perception is similar to what it means to have emotional granularity
  • Why staying physically healthy is tied to being emotionally healthy
  • How awe experiences help us gain perspective and regulate our physical and emotional health
  • How curating awe experiences daily — like walking outside, reading something new, taking in nature — helps make our immediate problems seem smaller and less worrisome
  • How the physical health of our bodies is intricately connected to the emotional health of our minds
  • How many gun laws work against what we now know about our predicting brains the the ways past experiences taint our beliefs and what we see and how we act
  • How understanding how our emotions are made helps us see that we are more in control and empowered than we may think to create the life we want to have
  • How we are the architects of our own experience

Links to Topics Mentioned in this Podcast


The Memory Illusion by Julia Shaw

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