Last month I wrote about how science demonstrates that we are emotional beings who sometimes think rationally. To quote Dr. Antonio Damasio, “We are not thinking machines that feel; rather we are feeling machines that think.”
I watch Ted.com talks quite a bit in my attempt to understand more about humans and how we interact with others. I watched a talk by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett titled “You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions your brain creates them.” In the talk she appears to be contradicting what other researchers have noted. She states that emotions are not uncontrollable hard-wired brain reactions.
This seems to go against what I wrote about last month and have been presenting at shows and conferences. I was on tilt for quite a while. How can highly trained and educated researchers have such divergent theories while studying the same data?
Dr. Feldman Barrett states that emotions are guesses that your brain constructs at any moment in time. You have more control of these guesses than you imagine you do. Emotions are not built into your brain at birth, they are just built.
The building process involves sifting through your life experiences looking for similar situations and making guesses at the probabilities that this experience is similar to a past experience. The brain is looking to match this present experience to a past experience to decide the emotion that should be attached. This prediction process is the basis for every experience that you have and every action that you take.
As you are reading this, your brain is actively predicting and guessing what I am actually saying and about to say. This prediction and guessing is what allows us all to quickly make sense of things and know what to do, how to react and what emotion to use in any particular situation. In other words, your brain does not blindly react to the present experience, using stored past experiences, it predicts your reaction.
This past experience based prediction process is why people witnessing the same event have different reactions and emotions to that event. Each individual will predict the response based on their own set of personal past experiences. This also explains why we have difficulty communicating with others whose experiences are different thus their predictions will be different.
I also conduct nonverbal communication presentations where I speak on how the body communicates more honestly than the words might intend. Here again, the good doctor hits me, and the proponents of body language interpretation, hard. It seems that much of the emotion that we attribute to the body language of others is based on our own predictions and therefore is in our heads.
Physical movements only have meaning in context. A smile can indicate friendliness, nervousness or sadness. Crying can indicate anguish, pain, sadness or happiness. It is only in context that there is real meaning.
Feelings are not emotions. The body sends signals to the brain summarizing what is physically happening. Your brain then predicts what emotion to apply to those feelings. Butterflies in the stomach is a physical discomfort that indicates what? It could be anxiety of having to speak in public, it could be anticipation of an exciting event. The brain predicts what emotion to attach based on your own previous experiences.
So … the bottom line is: Since the predictions are based on previous experiences, if we can feed the brain different emotions for a particular experience, then in the future the predictions will be altered. We are then in control of our future predictions and thus our future emotions. We are responsible for our emotions, not because we are to blame for them, but because we are the only ones who can control them.
Now, what do I do about the apparent disparity in what Dr. Feldman Barrett and I present? Do I now change all my carefully developed and stunningly delivered presentations? No, I do not.
You see, I have been presenting that our experiences are stored with an accompanying emotion for quite a while. I have been stating that when met with any incoming event, the brain immediately looks for similar experiences so that we quickly know what to do and how to feel about it. If we had to analyze every incoming event from scratch, we would go crazy. This is expedient and effective and allows us to move on to the next incoming event. Sometimes we get it wrong and must add that to our experience database for future use.
What makes us nuts is when the new incoming event has no similar stored experience. Dr. Feldman Barrett calls this “Experiential Blindness.” There is nothing to compare it to so we must analyze it until we come up with some crazy, emotion-charged decision or give up saying, “I don’t know what to make of this.”
My own brain was in quite a quandary when I viewed the Ted talk. I watched it a few times until my brain found the appropriate experiences to make sense of what I was hearing. I had heard it before. I was coming from a different angle, however it was not really new to me. I chose to change my emotion from anxiety to relief to happiness. Then, I celebrated with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
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