What I learned from How Emotions Are Made:
In this book, Lisa Barrett offers the results of her scientific study in her lab bringing the most recent neuroscience explorations to understand how our bodies including our brains work to make emotions.
In the journey of this book, we learn how one brain with notions such as concepts, social reality, and affective realism can create many minds. How our emotions are made is the question.
Barrett argues emotions are concepts that we learn as we grow based on what we get exposed to. Emotions are not universal. Depending on the environment and our exposure to life we could have different understanding of different emotions and express them differently. It is important for each one of us to understand that the emotion represented by a common name like sadness could be experienced and expressed differently by different people. She argues that our brain perception is also affected by our mood that is called Affect in this study. She brings examples of studies on judges who approved more paroles after lunch compared to before when they felt hungry.
Barrett mentions in her book, “What’s innate is that humans use concepts to build social reality, and social reality, in turn, wires the brain. Emotions are very real creations of social reality, made possible by the human brain in concert with other human brains.” Us, humans constantly create new social realities based on our new beliefs.
As she describes, affective realism is the phenomenon that you experience what you believe. And then she writes, “Nobody can completely escape the affective realism. Your own perceptions are not like a photograph of the world. They are not even a painting of photographic quality, like a Vermeer. They are more like a Van Gogh or Monet.” Impressionism is the best each one of us can do to see our version of reality.
Based on the stimulus inside or outside, we could experience a mix of emotions that could be hard to understand, let alone to regulate them. How can we understand our mixed emotions that our brain experiences? Barret suggests that we need to come up with new concepts such as chipslessness where we enjoy eating chips while we feel guilty and when we get to the last piece, we feel disappointed and relieved at the same time. Or how about the power of mixed emotions for an immigrant feeling safe and even relieved by not being in her motherland, while heartbroken watching her country facing hardship, and feeling helpless that she cannot stop the violence in her land. There are unlimited numbers of these mixed emotional experiences that could be even unique to each person. We need to learn how to recognize our emotions, conceptualize the experience, and accept them before taking any action or shaming ourselves on the contradiction of our emotions.
To understand our emotions better and to practice self-regulation, it is necessary to understand the complexity of what happens to our body when emotions are aroused.
When we understand better how our emotions are made, then we need to learn how to regulate them to build a flourishing life. Barrett introduces the concept of body budget that is constantly calculated by our brain based on moment-to-moment activities and our perceptions based on our previous experiences. Other variables in calculating our body budgets are the genes we inherited as well as our perception of reality and the relationship with other humans around us and what their brains’ perceptions bring to us.
In general, we replenish our body budget by eating, drinking, and sleeping and reduce our body spending by relaxing and spending time with loved ones.
Other budget balancing activities suggested in this book are included, getting a massage, practicing Yoga, having house plants, making our living environment tidy, having regular meet up with people who we enjoy their presence, watch a sad movie that gives us a good cry, walk in nature, handy crafts, learn a new skill or language, adopt a pet, get up and move, change your location, and learn what habits don’t serve you anymore and practice changing them.
Other ways to replenish your body budget could be keeping track of the positive events in a day and what bring a smile to you. When possible, recategorization of our emotions is another way of regulating our body budget. For example, the anxiety felt in our gut for having an exam could be recategorized to feeling energy and determination.
What I’d like to be able to do is bring this concept offered in this book together with The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren, and the research study on “An Atlas of The Human Body That Maps Where We Feel Emotions”. The tree studies offer depth of understanding on our emotions from different stand points yet provide overlap. For us to understand our emotions and regulate them in order to live from a connected state of being rather than impulsive and reactive, we need to understand how emotions are made, where and how we sense them in our body, and what message each emotion represents. That understanding helps us to learn what practices could help each of us – uniquely – to regulate our emotions and develop deeper wisdom.
Let’s create more clarity on our reality,