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Learned Constructions, Made by the Brain: A new Neuroscience of Emotions?

When I was in primary school, I was one of those annoying kids who enjoyed taking tests.

To be clear, I was not superhuman: I had the same fluttering heart as those who hated tests. But for some reason, I felt an encouraging surge of energy for the task at hand: I wanted to show everything I knew.

Conversely, what some kids found exciting, such as flying, made me pretty anxious.

Emotions arise in us every day, and can, for some, feel automatic and overpowering.

Generally, when there’s an event, we appear to react emotionally, seemingly without much control. Our emotional experiences can be unpleasant, even debilitating, and sometimes totally wonderful. But are emotions biologically hardwired?

According to a growing, and to some, somewhat controversial, theory spearheaded by neuroscientist Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, our brains create our emotions— meaning we, neuroscientifically speaking, have more power over them than we know.

Debunking Emotion Myths

There are many different theories, some dating back centuries, as to why humans have emotions. Plato, for example, mused emotions were useless, separate parts of the mind that had to be tamed by reason.

In the classical view of emotions, emotions were similarly thought to be hard-wired, primal circuits, located in the limbic system. Emotions were long considered to be universal, meaning that every human experiences the same basic emotions.

Today, we know emotions are essential, as they exist to give us guidance on whether we are safe or in danger.

But according to Feldman Barrett, we aren’t born with pre-determined emotion circuits that are triggered automatically: in other words, humans don’t simply react to external events based on evolutionary wiring. Whilst current theories of emotions suggest the limbic system helps process emotions, it may be far from the only agent having a say in their appearance: research suggests several regions work across the brain to create them.

Rather than arising from the limbic system, emotions are culturally specific, learned predictions, created every waking moment from a number of key ingredients. Here’s how that works.

The Recipe for an Emotion

It is intuitive to think the world exists out there, and that we discover it as it objectively is. But our experiences are created by our brains. Colours, for example, do not exist physically: light waves only become colour to us when our brain interprets them as such.

In her book How Emotions Are Made, Feldman Barrett explains how human emotions work in the same way.

To create an emotion, we need to have a mental concept for that specific emotion, learned culturally when we’re children. These can be vastly different across the world: a study showed members of the Himba, a Namibian tribe, interpreted facial expressions very differently from the study’s American participants, suggesting emotion concepts and expressions of emotions evolve culturally.

Then, there’s our body budget, whose resources are allocated by the brain, guided by how well our biological needs are being met: our sleep, nutrition intake, and so on.

Status updates on these are always being received by the brain, creating a representation of every sensation — called “interoception.” Low glucose levels, for example, creates a “mood” from low energy — an “affect,” something experienced by all humans. Calmness or agitation, for example, may arise from these, but not strictly emotions.

Overlooking everything is the brain, the body’s command centre. The brain, sheltered in the skull, has no way of knowing what causes the sensations in the body, and therefore has to use our past experiences.

With these ingredients — interoception; affect, influenced by our body budget; and our past experiences, including our emotion concepts — the brain cooks together a prediction about what the experience means, and voilà: an emotion appears.

In a classroom where a test gets handed out, anxious memories from similar moments, a clear concept of anxiety, and a hungry stomach, make it more probable that a faster heart rate “becomes” anxiety — even when there’s no actual danger. In another context, the brain may create excitement from the same physiological event.

Predictions, then, are not always correct: school tests are generally not life-threatening, and it seems strange that our brain willingly creates unpleasantness for us. Its task, however, is not to always create happiness, but to nudge us to make the right decision for our survival.

Building your Emotional Life

According to Feldman Barrett, many still misunderstand how emotions appear, and believe that certain emotional patterns are unchangeable parts of who they are.

An important takeaway from the theory constructed emotion may be an encouraging one for some: that we are never doomed to feel any certain way, even if therapy is needed to build a new emotional life.

The neuroscientific theory of constructed emotion, then, nicely complements some therapy methods proven to help people better manage emotions, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. If emotions are not reactions to the world but created predictively by our ever-changing brains, we can teach our brains to predict fewer negative emotions.

Knowing how key body budgets are, we can boost our body budgets through exercising, eating well, and sleeping enough. We can also rework our mental concepts. Recent studies suggest that working on your emotional vocabulary — having more words to describe your emotions — helps people change their experiences.

Having a little more control than we thought, says Feldman Barrett, means we consequently have more responsibility over our emotional experiences.

Rewiring can be a challenging task, however, especially in the wake of trauma. Emotions may not be hard-wired, but that does not mean they are illusions, deliberate, or changeable overnight: they are real and should be validated. In cases of trauma, therapy may be really useful to interrupt stubborn emotion patterns. It’s also important to remember that everyone’s brain and experiences are unique, meaning emotional regulation may demand more from some than others.

A lot has changed since I found tests weirdly exciting.

My adult brain often conjures anxiety from a fast heartbeat, and tests now stress me out. But I feel motivated to interrupt the narrative about myself as a fundamentally anxious person: maybe I could sometimes just as well be an excited, energised one.


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