In How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, a fascinating book by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, the author presents a research-supported paradigm shift. Emotions are not inborn things to be found; they are made. Just like any thoughts or perceptions, emotions are constructed, and variability is the norm.
Our brains are actively participating in our realities, imposing meaning on stimuli rather than simply receiving meaning from the world around us and/or the physical sensations within us. In other words, we see what we believe, rather than believe what we see. If the brain were merely reactive, it would require too many interconnections to be metabolically efficient and keep us alive. It is advantageous for the brain to represent information utilizing as few neurons as possible. It does this by separating statistical similarities from differences and categorizing a set of experiences in a concept, as a kind of shorthand, to provide meaning and inform action.
An emotional category such as “Anger” is merely a concept that we use, with the aid of language and a probabilistic assessment of past experiences, to understand a variety of experiences in the present. Just as our concepts of color guide us to see only seven colors of the rainbow despite the many frequencies within each color category, we recognize emotions only as much as our constructed concepts allow. These concepts are basically our best guesses at what is going on in any particular moment, so that we can figure out how to deal with it to stay alive and well.
Because the body is just another part of the world that the brain must explain, our emotions may be telling us as much about what is going on within us as much as what is going on around us. With our limited amount of energy resources, the brain must constantly use past experience to predict the body’s need for these resources, and to budget accordingly. When the budget is unbalanced, the state of that budget is felt, prompting the brain to search for explanations. This may then be conceptualized as an emotional experience. Misinterpreting the reason for a bad feeling can lead to mistakes. For example, judges are more likely to deny parole for hearings that occur just before lunchtime.
The author makes some recommendations for keeping your body budget as balanced as possible, i.e., with a solid foundation so the budget is easier to maintain and to keep you feeling generally well. The suggestions include:
- Exercise (Consider yoga, which includes a beneficial combination of physical activity and slow-paced breathing)
- Engage with books, movies, or other forms of storytelling (Involvement with others’ stories helps to avoid rumination)
- Eat healthy foods
- Get a good amount of sleep
- Surround yourself with greenery and natural light
- Practice giving and gratitude