Your Emotions Aren’t As Spontaneous Or Uncontrollable As You Think: Here’s How To Master Them

Even though you may pretend you don’t have any, we all have emotions. Historically they’re our primal response to a given situation – someone cuts you up in traffic and you fly into a rage, you hear an unexpected noise and the fight or flight response kicks in – everyone reacts the same and that’s just the way we’re wired, right? Actually, no, not according to a new theory from pioneering psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett. In her new book, How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, she puts forward the idea that our emotional response is not in-built at birth but cultural, and therefore something we can control and, with a bit of work, change. RISING spoke to her to find out if it’s possible to ‘Peace Out’ when we want to ‘Hulk Out.’

RISING You refer to our current understanding of emotions as the ‘classical’ view, what do you mean by that?

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT ‘The ‘classical’ view of emotions is the idea that we have a specific set of neurons, present at birth, dedicated for sadness, anger, fear, happiness etc., which lie dormant until triggered and the reaction is an obligatory set of movements on your face that we call an emotional expression. In this view, everybody around the world will make exactly the same face and we can all recognise that face as an emotion.’

RISING How does your theory turn that on its head?

LFB ‘The first thing is even though emotions feel like they’re reactions to the world, they’re not. When you feel sad, or angry, or happy your brain is predicting, not reacting. These guesses are the basis for every mental experience you have, including emotion and happen outside of your awareness, largely. By the time you become aware, the guesses have already become implemented. The second thing to understand is an emotion is not a thing or a single event. It’s actually a population of highly variable instances. There is no facial expression or pattern of bodily routines that uniquely identifies a single emotion. We can smile when we’re sad, we cry when we’re angry, we scream when we’re happy. Each time your body is doing something different.’

‘You not only become the architect of your experience, you become the electrician too’

RISING So, what about the idea that the brain, and our sense of self, is split between an emotional side and a thinking side?

LFB ‘There’s no part of your brain just for emotion, with another part just for cognition; that idea is a myth. What I’ve shown is your brain has got general domain networks that work in a similar way to ingredients that can be used to make lots of different recipes. The general networks in your brain combine in various ways to make different instances of emotion. Your brain is using its networks to make guesses, and then information comes from the world and the body, and either confirms those guesses or changes them. This is actually how emotions are made. When you have an ache in your stomach, for example, that could be disgust, it could be hunger, it could be anxiety or longing, it could be that you are about to develop an illness. The ache in your stomach is the same in each case, but your brain makes meaning out of it with these predictions.’

RISING Does that mean that our personal emotions are constantly evolving, then? That we’re constantly reworking the back catalogue?

LFB ‘Yes, but you may not be aware of the changes. The exact same feeling can be implemented by different sets of neurons each time. The bottom line is emotions aren’t your reactions to the world, they’re your constructions of the world. An emotion is how you make sense of what’s going on in your own body in relation to the world. Your brain is basically predicting what your body is going to need, and then meeting those needs before they arise.’

RISING So when somebody misunderstands your expression or your behavior, it’s because they’re thinking: ‘Well, you must be sad, because that’s sad to me.’

LFB ‘Exactly. If you and I are talking and I knit my brow, for example, your brain will automatically guess at what my internal state is. No matter how confident you feel about this, it’s just a guess. You’re basically the architect of your own experience, but when you experience somebody else as angry or happy or sad, you’re guessing; everybody is.’

‘Sometimes, being angry is the right response, but you don’t necessarily want to lose control’

RISING So is emotional maturity a result of your brain adjusting its predictions a lot of times?

LFB ‘Sometimes it’s just re-categorising the meaning of your physical sensations. So instead of just trying to calm yourself down it’s knowing what the sensations can mean and knowing that sometimes the physical sensation is just that: a sensation. You don’t need to make it into an emotion. Also, learning emotion concepts and words is really important for your brain to be able to predict well. The bigger your emotion vocabulary is, the better your brain will be at making the version of the emotion best suited to that situation. Sometimes, being angry is the right response, but you don’t necessarily want to yell or lose control.’

RISING So by understanding the way emotions are made, you can train yourself to have better responses in life?

LFB ‘Yes, you can train your brain to predict better. It puts you more in control of your emotions and your own behavior; you not only become the architect of your experience, you become the electrician too, because your brain wires itself to its circumstances. Instances of your brain not predicting well are called prediction errors, and your brain can learn from them to predict better in the future. I think we have more control over our emotions and our actions than we might otherwise believe. It’s really hard to control your emotions in the moment, but with a bit of effort you can cultivate those experiences, which then become the seeds of new predictions that will eventually be pretty effortless.’


Fire up an online thesaurus and learn some new words for emotions: ‘Learning new emotion words is really useful for being able to control your emotions,’ says Feldman Barrett. ‘For example, a lot of people have experienced ‘schadenfreude’ without knowing the word, but their brains have to work really hard to construct this concept and find the right emotional response. But once you know the word then it becomes much more automatic and you can feel it more easily.’ Knowing the lingo of emotion will help you to become more emotionally efficient and take some of the effort out of the equation.