If you think you know how emotions work, this podcast will turn your world upside-down. Enough so that you may find yourself arguing that what’s being presented can’t be possible.
Before hearing this, I had a hope that we have more control over how we respond to things than we sometimes think. It’s one of the reasons I started meditating: to learn to not get hooked as much by emotions.
Yet it often feels as if an emotion takes me over, as if I have no “choice” in feeling something. But what if emotion is the interpretation of a physiological feeling? What if it’s a way our body tries to “make sense” of a sensation? What if we do have control?
That’s the idea this episode presents.
The episode approaches the subject of emotions through different personal stories and through conversations with Lisa Barrett, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Northeastern University, who studies emotions.
We think emotions are like reflexes that reflect an obligatory response to a stimulus. We believe that emotions are “universally programmed” reactions to things happening to us. While we may choose to suppress an emotion, we still believe the emotion itself is “hard-wired” into us.
Then we get to Lisa Barrett, who says…they’re not.
She turns our beliefs about emotions on their head.
Her basic premise is that emotions are opposite of how we’ve thought of them. As Alix Spiegel summarizes it, “emotions aren’t reactions to the world. Emotions actually construct the world.”
According to Barrett, “for every emotion category that we have in the U.S. that we think is biologically basic and universal, there’s at least one culture in the world that doesn’t really possess a concept for that emotion and where people don’t really feel that emotion.”
At this point, the podcast dives into how our brain and bodies work, introduces the idea of interoception, and brings the science in in a way that’s engaging, fascinating and compelling. Barrett says interoception assesses internal sensations and characterizes them into one of four possibilities: pleasant, unpleasant, aroused, calm.
There’s no “meaning” initially ascribed, just pleasant, unpleasant, aroused or calm. Our brain and body now have to guess “why” that feeling is occurring; it references previous experiences and learned concepts to make a prediction about the sensation, and out of that comes the assessment that, perhaps, we’re angry. We conclude we’re angry because we’ve been taught the concept of anger, been given examples of seeing other people angry, and have had our own reactions described as anger. We understand the concept of anger so our interoception can translate a sensation into that concept.
This is a hard idea to wrap my head around. But Barrett refers to vision to help illustrate it. She explains that a person who was born blind and is subsequently given a chance to see, won’t see and recognize an apple if it’s held in front of them; they’ll simply see light and dark. The concept of “apple” isn’t there. With emotions, we can’t have a concept of “anger,” unless we’ve been taught it and seen it around us.
Barrett says “our concepts make the world.” We may think we’re walking down the street and reacting to external things, but Barrett’s argument is that we walk down the street, have pleasant, unpleasant, aroused or calm internal sensations, and then, based on past experience and concepts we’ve learned, we translate those things into meaning and respond to our interpretation.
I’ve listened to this a couple of times, plus watched a TED Talk by Barrett. The ideas she presents are both challenging to understand and inspiring, as they suggest we have more control over our emotional responses to things than we thought we had.
There’s something inspiring about that; it gives me a sense that I can change how I move through the world, moving from a belief that an emotional response is a “given,” to a place where I try and note a sensation I’m experiencing, and simply determine if it’s pleasant, unpleasant, arousing, or calming.
Of course for those times where I just “lose it,” I’d rather believe my response was simply an automatically triggered response, one that anyone in my situation would have had.
According to Barrett, that may just be fooling myself.
This is definitely worth listening to. It’s a mind-bender.
- Podcast Link: Invisibilia
- Episode Link: Emotions
- Host: Hanna Rosin and Alix Spiegel
- Date: 6/1/17
- Duration: 55 minutes
- Pursuing Podcasts Rating: 5 out of 5
Invisibilia “explores the invisible forces that shape human behavior—things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.”
- You Aren’t at the Mercy of Your Emotions—Your Brain Creates Them. Lisa Feldman Barrett, TED Talk. 1/23/18
- How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2017