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

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.

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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.

Thank you.


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