Home » Lisa Feldman Barrett: You Aren’t at the Mercy of Your Emotions – Your Brain Creates Them (Transcript)

Lisa Feldman Barrett: You Aren’t at the Mercy of Your Emotions – Your Brain Creates Them (Transcript)

Lisa Feldman Barrett

Here is the full transcript of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Talk: You Aren’t at the Mercy of Your Emotions – Your Brain Creates Them at TED conference. 


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.

So what are emotions, really? Well, strap on your seat belt, because emotions are guesses. They are guesses that your brain constructs in the moment where billions of brain cells are working together, and you have more control over those guesses than you might imagine that you do.

Now, if that sounds preposterous to you, or, you know, kind of crazy, I’m right there with you, because frankly, if I hadn’t seen the evidence for myself, decades of evidence for myself, I am fairly sure that I wouldn’t believe it either.

But the bottom line is that emotions are not built into your brain at birth. They are just built. To see what I mean, have a look at this. Right now, your brain is working like crazy. Your neurons are firing like mad trying to make meaning out of this so that you see something other than black and white blobs.

Your brain is sifting through a lifetime of experience, making thousands of guesses at the same time, weighing the probabilities, trying to answer the question, “What is this most like?” not “What is it?” but “What is this most like in my past experience?” And this is all happening in the blink of an eye.

Now if your brain is still struggling to find a good match and you still see black and white blobs, then you are in a state called “experiential blindness,” and I am going to cure you of your blindness. This is my favorite part. Are you ready to be cured? All right. Here we go.

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 snake where 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 mouth. Exactly.

Predictions are primal. They help us to make sense of the world in a quick and efficient way. So your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world. The way that we see emotions in others are deeply rooted in predictions. So to us, it feels like we just look at someone’s face, and we just read the emotion that’s there in their facial expressions the way that we would read words on a page.

But actually, under the hood, your brain is predicting. It’s using past experience based on similar situations to try to make meaning. This time, you’re not making meaning of blobs, you’re making meaning of facial movements like the curl of a lip or the raise of an eyebrow.

And that stone-faced stare? That might be someone who is a remorseless killer, but a stone-faced stare might also mean that someone is stoically accepting defeat, which is in fact what Chechen culture prescribes for someone in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s situation.

So the lesson here is that emotions that you seem to detect in other people actually come in part from what’s inside your own head. And this is true in the courtroom, but it’s also true in the classroom, in the bedroom, and in the boardroom.

And so here’s my concern: tech companies which shall remain nameless well, maybe not. You know, Google, Facebook 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.

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