Transcript of interview in Swedish television of Lisa Feldman Barret, psychologist, USA.
What are emotions?.
You start with the hardest question.
Emotions are your brain’s way of making sense of what’s happening inside your body and linking it to what’s happening around you in the world so your brain is always trying to make sense of sense data.
It’s receiving all kinds of sense data from your lungs, expanding from your heart beating and so on. It’s receiving sense data from the world sights and sounds and smells. And the information that your brain receives, is ambiguous there. A flash of light could be many things: an ache in your stomach. Could be many things, a tightness in your chest. Could be many things. And your brain has to figure out, make a guess about what those sensations are, to know what to do about them. So emotions are one way of making sense of all of that information, in order to plan how to act. Actually, brains didn’t evolve primarily to think or feel or see or hear.
They evolved to regulate your body. As bodies got bigger over evolutionary time and more complicated, brains got bigger and more complicated over evolutionary time. What does it mean to regulate a body?
It means that your brain is always trying to control the systems inside your body. And your body is always sending sense data back to your brain. Most of the time you don’t feel those sense data directly. You don’t feel most of the time your heart beating. You can never feel your liver doing its job . And we can see that we’re not really wired to feel every little sensation that goes on in our body. So instead what the brain does is that it creates a kind of a summary. It takes all of that sense data and it creates a summary, so that you feel pleasant or unpleasant. You feel kind of worked up or you feel calm. You feel comfortable or uncomfortable and those feelings, those simple kind of physical feelings, are with you every waking moment of your life. Because your brain is regulating your body every waking moment of your life even when you’re asleep.
The idea that thinking is somehow separate from feeling it’s a very old western view that just doesn’t match day-to-day experience and it also doesn’t match the neuroscience and the structure of the nervous system.
It’s a great myth. It’s a great story. It’s a fun story but it actually doesn’t match the evidence that we have about how brains evolved. And that story is really hard to kill. I mean it’s been with us really since the time of Plato.This idea that we have this inner beast, represented by by Plato by horses. And then we have this rational side which was represented by a charioteer, a driver of the horses. In Plato’s time, the idea is that the two are in battle, that your brain is like a battleground between this ancient beast and this more, newly developed rational part of your brain and that they battle all the time for control of your behavior and when emotion loses you’re being very rational and when emotion wins you’re either immoral or you’re mentally ill.
If you actually look at the genetic evidence that tells us something about how brains evolved, we can see very clearly that brains did not evolve in layers like sediments of rock or like icing on a cake.
Emotions are not things like anger is not a thing. Sadness is not a thing. It’s not. It doesn’t live in one brain area. It doesn’t live in one brain circuit. It isn’t one brain state.
So when you feel angry for example, you probably don’t have one experience of anger with one set of actions that you make.
Sometimes in anger, you probably shout sometimes. You might laugh in the face of anger sometimes. You might cry out of anger sometimes. You might sit quietly and plot the demise of your enemy in anger. People scowl in anger about thirty percent of the time, which means seventy percent of the time on average they’re doing something else with their face that’s meaningful. So you and I might experience instances of anger very differently much of the time. But we also may have some overlap. But anger for you isn’t one thing. It’s a whole population of variable instances. Because when it comes to emotion really or anything that your brain does, variation is the norm.
I recommend to listen to this Ted she held about emotions that might give you a deeper insight about emotions.
As I understand Lisa Feldman,tells that emotions are “simple summarise of what is going on in your body”, and “prediction links what is going on in your body with what is going on around you in the world”. As I wrote on a separate page about consciousness:
- Herman Helmholtz, a German physicist physiologist proposed the idea that the brain is a kind of prediction machine.
- What we see and feel is the brain’s best guess about the causes of sensory inputs.