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A Leading Expert on Emotions Explains What They Really Are

Daryl Weber

The below is an interview I conducted with Lisa Feldman Barrett - professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of the great book “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

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DW: Let's start with some basics. How do you as a scientist define "emotions," and how is that different from how most laypeople think of them?

LFB: Most people think of emotions as reactions that happen to us. You see a snake at your feet and you react in fear. You see your friend and react in happiness. It's effortless and automatic. If you actually look at brain structure and activity, however, a whole different definition comes to light. No part of your brain ever sits idle and suddenly switches on when a snake arrives. Instead, your whole brain is active all the time; neurons pass information back and forth all the time.  This is called “intrinsic activity.” And that activity consists of thousands of tiny predictions of what's going to happen in the next moment, and what you should do about it. Some of these predictions ultimately become emotions. In my book, I describe fear in predictive terms.  Brains predict, rather than react, because it is metabolically efficient.

Part of the prediction process is making sense of the physical sensations from your own body.  For example, if you have an ache in your stomach and you're at the dinner table, your brain may predict that you are hungry and you should eat; your brain might automatically prepare you to ingest food, secreting enzymes in advance of food actually entering your mouth. However, if you have the exact same ache when your lover enters the room, your brain may predict that you might have sex; your brain will construct lust and prepare your body accordingly. The same ache before a big test may be constructed as anxiety, with a cortisol surge because your brain predicts you will need quick energy in the next moments. As I explain in my book, predictions eventually become your experience of emotion (or hunger or whatever).

So, in short, an emotion is constructed as your brain's prediction of what your body's sensations mean in a given context, based on your past experience. Emotions are not your reactions to the world. They are your constructions OF the world.

DW: Some argue that emotions play a key role in decision making. What is your take on this? How would you describe the role emotions play in helping us make decisions as we go through life? 

LFB: Many scientists have written about emotion and decision making. One example is Antonio Damasio, author of "Decartes' Error," who says passion is a requirement for wise decision-making. All of these thinkers, however, have considered emotion and decision-making to be separate in the brain, with one influencing the other. In my book, I discuss more recent neuroscience findings, showing first that emotions are a form of decision making – they are not separate from and influence decision making. An emotion is a decision, in a sense, to understand sensations and act on them in a particular way.

Furthermore, in my book, I introduce an important scientific distinction between “emotion” and “affect.” Affect is described as simple feelings of pleasure and discomfort, activation and calmness.  These feelings are the usual way we experience sensation from our bodies; they are features of consciousness, similar to bright and dark.  Affective feeling and decision-making are biologically inseparable. The same brain networks that form the basis for every decision and action also create your most rudimentary feelings of pleasure and displeasure, and of activation and calmness. This means no decision can ever be separate from your feelings. Your brain structure guarantees it.

DW: It seems the emotional/rational dichotomy is an oversimplification, and that really emotions help guide us and actually help us think rationally. How would you describe emotions' role in rational thought?

LFB: For over two thousand years, since the days of Plato, scholars have considered emotion and reason to be separate and in conflict. In the past century, scientists have tattooed this view of the mind onto the brain, claiming that there are separate regions or systems for cognition and emotion. However, modern neuroscience shows us that this arrangement in the brain is a myth. Both emotion and reason are created by general networks spanning your whole brain. Thoughts and emotions seem different to us because the intensity of affective feelings is usually stronger when the brain creates emotions, but the brain’s architecture does not respect these two categories. No neurons are exclusively dedicated to just cognition or just emotion, and therefore your mind is not a battleground for the two.

So, the whole idea of "emotions influencing thoughts" or vice-versa is a compelling story that matches our personal experiences, but it does not reflect how the brain controls behavior. Instead, your brain is a network of billions of neurons that forms trillions of patterns, some of which are thoughts, emotions, memories, dreams, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and so on. All of these experiences and perceptions are produced by interactions of the same general ingredients, just in different recipes.

DW: Marketers today know they can't just win over consumers by focusing on the functional aspects of their brands - the benefits, facts and figures. Instead, they are trying now to "connect with consumers emotionally." This has led to the rise of what Fast Company dubbed "Sadvertising" where every ad seems to be trying to get you to cry. I think this is a too literal interpretation of how emotions work - they are just trying to elicit emotions, rather than building a long term emotional feeling for their brand. Do you agree? How would you advise marketers on the role emotions can play in advertising and in building brands?

LFB: The brain, as I mentioned in my answer to your first question, is constantly making predictions of what will happen in the next moment. These guesses not only become your emotions, they also drive all of your experiences, perceptions, and actions. So if you want someone to feel good about your product long-term, you need to influence their predictions. This is best done through repetition, continually associating your product with things that the customer finds pleasant. Each of these associations will be encoded in the customer's brain as a past experience that seeds predictions, which become the experiences and actions of the future. It is also worth pointing out, as I explain in my book, that in the architecture of the brain, experiences result from automatic decisions to action, not the other way around.