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.
And sometimes, those constructions are emotions. So for example, if you were to walk into a bakery, your brain might predict that you will encounter the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I know my brain would predict the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate cookies.
And our brains might cause our stomachs to churn a little bit, to prepare for eating those cookies. And if we are correct, if in fact some cookies have just come out of the oven, then our brains will have constructed hunger, and we are prepared to munch down those cookies and digest them in a very efficient way, meaning that we can eat a lot of them, which would be a really good thing. You guys are not laughing enough. I’m totally serious.
But here’s the thing. That churning stomach, if it occurs in a different situation, it can have a completely different meaning. So if your brain were to predict a churning stomach in, say, a hospital room while you’re waiting for test results, then your brain will be constructing dread or worry or anxiety, and it might cause you to, maybe, wring your hands or take a deep breath or even cry. Right?
Same physical sensation, same churning stomach, different experience. And so 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.
You have more control over your emotions than you think you do. I don’t mean that you can just snap your fingers and change how you feel the way that you would change your clothes, but your brain is wired so that if you change the ingredients that your brain uses to make emotion, then you can transform your emotional life.
So if you change those ingredients today, you’re basically teaching your brain how to predict differently tomorrow, and this is what I call being the architect of your experience. So here’s an example. All of us have had a nervous feeling before a test, right? But some people experience crippling anxiety before a test.
They have test anxiety. Based on past experiences of taking tests, their brains predict a hammering heartbeat, sweaty hands, so much so that they are unable to actually take the test. They don’t perform well, and sometimes they not only fail courses but they actually might fail college.
But here’s the thing: a hammering heartbeat is not necessarily anxiety. It could be that your body is preparing to do battle and ace that test, or, you know, give a talk in front of hundreds of people on a stage where you’re being filmed. I’m serious. And research shows that when students learn to make this kind of energized determination instead of anxiety, they perform better on tests.
And that determination seeds their brain to predict differently in the future so that they can get their butterflies flying in formation. And if they do that often enough, they not only can pass a test but it will be easier for them to pass their courses, and they might even finish college, which has a huge impact on their future earning potential. So I call this emotional intelligence in action.
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? (That mind racing is prediction.
Your brain is searching to find an explanation for those sensations in your body that you experience as wretchedness, just like you did with the blobby image. So your brain is trying to explain what caused those sensations so that you know what to do about them. But those sensations might not be an indication that anything is wrong with your life. They might have a purely physical cause. Maybe you’re tired.
Maybe you didn’t sleep enough. Maybe you’re hungry. Maybe you’re dehydrated. The next time that you feel intense distress, ask yourself: Could this have a purely physical cause? Is it possible that you can transform emotional suffering into just mere physical discomfort?
Now I am not suggesting to you that you can just perform a couple of Jedi mind tricks and talk yourself out of being depressed or anxious or any kind of serious condition. But I am telling you that you have more control over your emotions than you might imagine, and that you have the capacity to turn down the dial on emotional suffering and its consequences for your life by learning how to construct your experiences differently.
And all of us can do this and with a little practice, we can get really good at it, like driving. At first, it takes a lot of effort, but eventually it becomes pretty automatic.
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.
Now responsibility is a big word. It’s so big, in fact, that sometimes people feel the need to resist the scientific evidence that emotions are built and not built in. The idea that we are responsible for our own emotions seems very hard to swallow.
But what I’m suggesting to you is you don’t have to choke on that idea. You just take a deep breath, maybe get yourself a glass of water if you need to, and embrace it. Embrace that responsibility, because it is the path to a healthier body, a more just and informed legal system, and a more flexible and potent emotional life.