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How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain Book Summary by Andrea Seydel

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D

Emotions feel automatic, like uncontrollable reactions to things we think and experience. Scientists have long supported this assumption by claiming that emotions are hardwired in the body or the brain.

When we were young, emotions seemed pretty straightforward. We dropped our ice cream cone, we were sad. We got to go to the park, we were happy. And so on. But as we got older, our emotions became increasingly more complex and confusing. And it doesn’t help that there are tons of widely believed myths out there about emotions.

Here’s one you might believe that’s wrong: the world has universal facial expressions to express emotion, like smiling for joy. And here’s another: emotions come from the limbic or “reptilian” brain, and we must use our “rational” brain to control them.

We’re supposed to frown when we are mad. We’re supposed to smile when we’re happy. We’re supposed to scowl when we are angry. Proposed as universal-but, it is not. No Universality to Universal expressions. No evidence of universal expressions across cultures. Context changes interpretation and emotional meaning. Expression of emotions are stereotypes.

In the book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, author and distinguished professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett sets out to clear the air. She challenges pretty much all you thought you knew about human emotions. This transformative book will tell you the true story behind your feelings.

Are you ready to dig deep and understand your feelings a little better? Let’s learn!

Here are three powerful lessons this book teaches about emotions and an OVERVIEW:

OVERVIEW: Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions are housed in different parts of the brain and are universally expressed and recognized. Instead, she has shown that emotion is constructed at the moment by core systems that interact across the whole brain, aided by a lifetime of learning. This new theory means that you play a much more significant role in your emotional life than you ever thought.****

This book is about how your emotions are not merely about what you’re born with but also about how your brain pieces your feelings together and how you can contribute to the process.

The book is a challenging read that is well-researched and is a deeply thought out book that reveals new insights about our emotions. Lisa Barrett draws on contemporary research to offer a radically different picture: that the experience of emotion is highly individualized, neurobiologically inseparable from cognition.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. She received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for her groundbreaking research on emotion in the brain.

1. The classical view of emotions dominates today, though science does not support it.2. We spontaneously create emotions in the moment based on sensory input and predictions made by the brain. 3. Our concept of emotion comes from our culture and beliefs about emotion.

Lesson 1: We still believe in a classical view of emotions that science doesn’t support anymore.

In our society, we often think of emotions of something we can’t control, almost like a reflex. This classical view is the idea that emotions are more or less irrational reflexes leftover from our evolution.

This essentialist look at emotion also assumes that everyone experiences, expresses, and interprets emotions in the same way.

But think about it, do you always express anger in the same way? Of course not. The classical view doesn’t work because we can express every emotion in multiple ways. Sadness isn’t just one distinct feeling. Find a thesaurus, and you’ll see the myriad of different variations, all of which have a slightly different feeling.

Each emotional response is specific to the situation, rather than us experiencing the same few recurring emotions.

Experiments in emotion show that single emotions don’t originate in a specific region of the brain. Barrett found there isn’t a universal response in the brain to each emotion.

Lesson 2: The brain makes emotions on the spot based on sensory input and predictions.

The author advocates for the theory of constructed emotion. This is that we create emotions spontaneously and concurrently in more than one area of the brain. Furthermore, emotions are based on the individual. We form our feelings from a combination of unique sensory input and the brain’s best predictions.

The theory is that the brain doesn’t just spontaneously create emotions per the situation. Instead, the source of emotions is in each person’s individual experiences. The brain makes predictions and anticipates sensory inputs such as vision or taste.

Sensory inputs either affirm the mind’s predictions as correct, or the brain learns and changes wrong predictions.

This is why we experience a myriad of anger responses. Sometimes we may shout, others we might stay quiet. Each response has its own neural pathway and bodily movements. The brain uses prior experience and sensory input to predict which reaction will be best for the specific situation.

The author compares this to Darwin’s theory of evolution that each animal varies subtly depending on their environment. Similarly, our emotions are not innate or fixed but are constructed by our experience.

Lesson 3: Our experience of emotion is primarily based on culture and our beliefs about it.

Not only do people not experience emotions the same way, but culture also shapes our concept of emotions. In the Tahitian language, they don’t have any words to describe sadness. Instead, they use a word meaning something along the lines of “the fatigue that comes with the flu.”

Our reality depends on the concepts we have to describe what’s around us, and these depend on our culture. It means that once we know the concept of an emotion, we can experience that emotion.

Smiling is a relatively recent concept. Interestingly, the Ancient Romans didn’t even have a word to describe it. The author believes it was not associated with being happy as it is now. Humans probably didn’t “invent” it until the Middle Ages. It’s likely there was some other gesture in Roman culture to indicate happiness, but we don’t know. Our concept of what emotions are is highly dependent on the culture we are a part of.

Final thought:

How Emotions Are Made is a refreshing new take on the true source of our feelings.

We learned about how your emotions are not merely about what you’re born with but also about how your brain pieces your feelings together and how you can contribute to the process. We are missing meaning.

Food for thought: Why do you think this new science of our emotions matters? How will knowing this enhance your life?


‘How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain’ - Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett (link)

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Andrea Seydel

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Live Life Happy Book Club Podcast ‎Live Life Happy- Andrea Seydel on Apple Podcasts (link)

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