You aren't at the mercy of your emotions — your brain creates them

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Can you look at someone's face and know what they're feeling? Does everyone experience happiness, sadness and anxiety the same way? What are emotions anyway? For the past 25 years, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett has mapped facial expressions, scanned brains and analyzed hundreds of physiology studies to understand what emotions really are. She shares the results of her exhaustive research -- and explains how we may have more control over our emotions than we think.


Let me use the words of Dr. Barret to inspire you to watch this talk: "... the lesson here is that emotions which seem to happen to you are actually made by you. You are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits which are buried deep inside some ancient part of your brain."


Videotalk is availlable at this link: WWW.TED.COM




My research lab sits about a mile from where several bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon in 2013. The surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Chechnya, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.


Now, when a jury has to make the decision between life in prison and the death penalty, they base their decision largely on whether or not the defendant feels remorseful for his actions. Tsarnaev spoke words of apology, but when jurors looked at his face, all they saw was a stone-faced stare. Now, Tsarnaev is guilty, there's no doubt about that. He murdered and maimed innocent people, and I'm not here to debate that. My heart goes out to all the people who suffered. But as a scientist, I have to tell you that jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody ever. Neither can I, and neither can you, and that's because emotions are not what we think they are. They are not universally expressed and recognized. They are not hardwired brain reactions that are uncontrollable. We have misunderstood the nature of emotion for a very long time, and understanding what emotions really are has important consequences for all of us.

I have studied emotions as a scientist for the past 25 years, and in my lab, we have probed human faces by measuring electrical signals that cause your facial muscles to contract to make facial expressions. We have scrutinized the human body in emotion. We have analyzed hundreds of physiology studies involving thousands of test subjects. We've scanned hundreds of brains, and examined every brain imaging study on emotion that has been published in the past 20 years. And the results of all of this research are overwhelmingly consistent. It may feel to you like your emotions are hardwired and they just trigger and happen to you, but they don't.You might believe that your brain is prewired with emotion circuits, that you're born with emotion circuits, but you're not. In fact, none of us in this room have emotion circuits in our brain. In fact, no brain on this planet contains emotion circuits.

All right. So now many of you see a snake, and why is that? Because as your brain is sifting through your past experience, there's new knowledge there, the knowledge that came from the photograph. And what's really cool is that that knowledge which you just acquired moments ago is changing how you experience these blobs right now. So your brain is constructing the image of a snakewhere there is no snake, and this kind of a hallucination is what neuroscientists like me call "predictions." Predictions are basically the way your brain works. It's business as usual for your brain. Predictions are the basis of every experience that you have. They are the basis of every action that you take. In fact, predictions are what allow you to understand the words that I'm speaking as they come out of my --

are spending millions of research dollars to build emotion-detection systems, and they are fundamentally asking the wrong question,because they're trying to detect emotions in the face and the body, but emotions aren't in your face and body. Physical movements have no intrinsic emotional meaning. We have to make them meaningful. A human or something else has to connect them to the context, and that makes them meaningful. That's how we know that a smile might mean sadness and a cry might mean happiness,and a stoic, still face might mean that you are angrily plotting the demise of your enemy. Now, if I haven't already gone out on a limb,I'll just edge out on that limb a little further and tell you that the way that you experience your own emotion is exactly the same process. Your brain is basically making predictions, guesses, that it's constructing in the moment with billions of neurons working together.

Now your brain does come prewired to make some feelings, simple feelings that come from the physiology of your body. So when you're born, you can make feelings like calmness and agitation, excitement, comfort, discomfort. But these simple feelings are not emotions. They're actually with you every waking moment of your life. They are simple summaries of what's going on inside your body, kind of like a barometer. But they have very little detail, and you need that detail to know what to do next. What do you about these feelings? And so how does your brain give you that detail? Well, that's what predictions are. Predictions link the sensations in your body that give you these simple feelings with what's going on around you in the world so that you know what to do. And sometimes, those constructions are emotions.

Now you can cultivate this emotional intelligence yourself and use it in your everyday life. So just, you know, imagine waking up in the morning. I'm sure you've had this experience. I know I have. You wake up and as you're emerging into consciousness, you feel this horrible dread, you know, this real wretchedness, and immediately, your mind starts to race. You start to think about all the crap that you have to do at work and you have that mountain of email which you will never dig yourself out of ever, the phone calls you have to return, and that important meeting across town, and you're going to have to fight traffic, you'll be late picking your kids up, your dog is sick, and what are you going to make for dinner? Oh my God. What is wrong with your life? What is wrong with my life?

Now I don't know about you, but I find this to be a really empowering and inspiring message, and the fact that it's backed up by decades of research makes me also happy as a scientist. But I have to also warn you that it does come with some fine print, because more control also means more responsibility. If you are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits which are buried deep inside your brain somewhere and which trigger automatically, then who's responsible, who is responsible when you behave badly? You are. Not because you're culpable for your emotions, but because the actions and the experiences that you make today become your brain's predictions for tomorrow. Sometimes we are responsible for something not because we're to blame but because we're the only ones who can change it.


Thank you.







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Psychologický ústav Filozofické fakulty Masarykovy univerzity
Arne Nováka 1
602 00 Brno
Česká republika