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Lisa Feldman Barrett: You aren't at the mercy of your emotions -- your brain creates them

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Can you look at someone's face and know what they're feeling? Does everyone experience happiness, sadness and anxiety the same way? What are emotions anyway? For the past 25 years, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett has mapped facial expressions, scanned brains and analyzed hundreds of physiology studies to understand what emotions really are. She shares the results of her exhaustive research -- and explains how we may have more control over our emotions than we think.

- Neuroscientist, psychologist, author
Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with positions in psychiatry and radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Full bio

My research lab sits about a mile
from where several bombs exploded
00:12
during the Boston Marathon in 2013.
00:17
The surviving bomber,
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Chechnya,
00:21
was tried, convicted
and sentenced to death.
00:24
Now, when a jury has to make the decision
00:28
between life in prison
and the death penalty,
00:31
they base their decision largely
on whether or not the defendant
00:34
feels remorseful for his actions.
00:39
Tsarnaev spoke words of apology,
00:42
but when jurors looked at his face,
00:44
all they saw was a stone-faced stare.
00:47
Now, Tsarnaev is guilty,
there's no doubt about that.
00:52
He murdered and maimed innocent people,
00:55
and I'm not here to debate that.
00:59
My heart goes out
to all the people who suffered.
01:01
But as a scientist, I have to tell you
01:04
that jurors do not
and cannot detect remorse
01:07
or any other emotion in anybody ever.
01:11
Neither can I, and neither can you,
01:16
and that's because emotions
are not what we think they are.
01:19
They are not universally
expressed and recognized.
01:22
They are not hardwired brain reactions
01:26
that are uncontrollable.
01:30
We have misunderstood
the nature of emotion
01:32
for a very long time,
01:35
and understanding what emotions really are
has important consequences for all of us.
01:37
I have studied emotions as a scientist
for the past 25 years,
01:43
and in my lab, we have probed human faces
by measuring electrical signals
01:47
that cause your facial muscles to contract
to make facial expressions.
01:53
We have scrutinized
the human body in emotion.
01:57
We have analyzed
hundreds of physiology studies
02:01
involving thousands of test subjects.
02:05
We've scanned hundreds of brains,
02:08
and examined every
brain imaging study on emotion
02:09
that has been published
in the past 20 years.
02:13
And the results of all of this research
are overwhelmingly consistent.
02:15
It may feel to you
like your emotions are hardwired
02:22
and they just trigger and happen to you,
02:27
but they don't.
02:30
You might believe that your brain
is prewired with emotion circuits,
02:32
that you're born with emotion
circuits, but you're not.
02:38
In fact, none of us in this room
have emotion circuits in our brain.
02:41
In fact, no brain on this planet
contains emotion circuits.
02:45
So what are emotions, really?
02:51
Well, strap on your seat belt,
because ...
02:55
emotions are guesses.
02:59
They are guesses that your brain
constructs in the moment
03:02
where billions of brain cells
are working together,
03:08
and you have more control
over those guesses
03:12
than you might imagine that you do.
03:15
Now, if that sounds preposterous to you,
or, you know, kind of crazy,
03:19
I'm right there with you, because frankly,
if I hadn't seen the evidence for myself,
03:23
decades of evidence for myself,
03:27
I am fairly sure
that I wouldn't believe it either.
03:29
But the bottom line is that emotions
are not built into your brain at birth.
03:32
They are just built.
03:39
To see what I mean, have a look at this.
03:43
Right now, your brain
is working like crazy.
03:46
Your neurons are firing like mad
trying to make meaning out of this
03:51
so that you see something
other than black and white blobs.
03:55
Your brain is sifting
through a lifetime of experience,
03:58
making thousands of guesses
at the same time,
04:03
weighing the probabilities,
04:05
trying to answer the question,
04:08
"What is this most like?"
04:09
not "What is it?"
04:12
but "What is this most like
in my past experience?"
04:13
And this is all happening
in the blink of an eye.
04:16
Now if your brain is still struggling
to find a good match
04:19
and you still see black and white blobs,
04:24
then you are in a state
called "experiential blindness,"
04:27
and I am going to cure you
of your blindness.
04:31
This is my favorite part.
Are you ready to be cured?
04:35
(Cheers)
04:37
All right. Here we go.
04:39
(Gasps)
04:43
All right.
04:48
So now many of you see a snake,
04:49
and why is that?
04:54
Because as your brain is sifting
through your past experience,
04:55
there's new knowledge there,
05:00
the knowledge that came
from the photograph.
05:01
And what's really cool is that
05:04
that knowledge which you just
acquired moments ago
05:06
is changing how you experience
these blobs right now.
05:09
So your brain is constructing
the image of a snake
05:15
where there is no snake,
05:18
and this kind of a hallucination
05:20
is what neuroscientists like me
call "predictions."
05:23
Predictions are basically
the way your brain works.
05:26
It's business as usual for your brain.
05:30
Predictions are the basis
of every experience that you have.
05:33
They are the basis
of every action that you take.
05:36
In fact, predictions are what allow you
to understand the words that I'm speaking
05:39
as they come out of my --
05:44
Audience: Mouth.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Mouth. Exactly.
05:47
Predictions are primal.
05:49
They help us to make sense
of the world in a quick and efficient way.
05:53
So your brain does not react to the world.
05:56
Using past experience,
06:02
your brain predicts and constructs
06:04
your experience of the world.
06:07
The way that we see emotions in others
are deeply rooted in predictions.
06:12
So to us, it feels like
we just look at someone's face,
06:17
and we just read the emotion
that's there in their facial expressions
06:20
the way that we would read
words on a page.
06:24
But actually, under the hood,
your brain is predicting.
06:26
It's using past experience
based on similar situations
06:31
to try to make meaning.
06:35
This time, you're not
making meaning of blobs,
06:36
you're making meaning of facial movements
06:39
like the curl of a lip
or the raise of an eyebrow.
06:42
And that stone-faced stare?
06:46
That might be someone
who is a remorseless killer,
06:48
but a stone-faced stare might also mean
06:53
that someone is stoically
accepting defeat,
06:55
which is in fact what Chechen culture
prescribes for someone
06:58
in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's situation.
07:02
So the lesson here
07:05
is that emotions that you seem
to detect in other people
07:08
actually come in part
from what's inside your own head.
07:12
And this is true in the courtroom,
07:17
but it's also true in the classroom,
07:20
in the bedroom,
07:23
and in the boardroom.
07:25
And so here's my concern:
07:28
tech companies
which shall remain nameless ...
07:30
well, maybe not.
07:34
You know, Google, Facebook --
07:35
(Laughter)
07:36
are spending millions of research dollars
to build emotion-detection systems,
07:40
and they are fundamentally
asking the wrong question,
07:45
because they're trying to detect
emotions in the face and the body,
07:48
but emotions aren't in your face and body.
07:53
Physical movements
have no intrinsic emotional meaning.
07:57
We have to make them meaningful.
08:03
A human or something else
has to connect them to the context,
08:05
and that makes them meaningful.
08:09
That's how we know
that a smile might mean sadness
08:11
and a cry might mean happiness,
08:16
and a stoic, still face might mean
08:20
that you are angrily plotting
the demise of your enemy.
08:23
Now, if I haven't already
gone out on a limb,
08:29
I'll just edge out on that limb
a little further and tell you
08:33
that the way that you experience
your own emotion
08:36
is exactly the same process.
08:40
Your brain is basically
making predictions, guesses,
08:43
that it's constructing in the moment
08:47
with billions of neurons working together.
08:50
Now your brain does come
prewired to make some feelings,
08:55
simple feelings that come
from the physiology of your body.
08:59
So when you're born,
09:04
you can make feelings
like calmness and agitation,
09:05
excitement, comfort, discomfort.
09:10
But these simple feelings
are not emotions.
09:13
They're actually with you
every waking moment of your life.
09:16
They are simple summaries
of what's going on inside your body,
09:20
kind of like a barometer.
09:25
But they have very little detail,
09:27
and you need that detail
to know what to do next.
09:30
What do you about these feelings?
09:32
And so how does your brain
give you that detail?
09:35
Well, that's what predictions are.
09:37
Predictions link
the sensations in your body
09:39
that give you these simple feelings
09:42
with what's going on
around you in the world
09:44
so that you know what to do.
09:46
And sometimes,
09:47
those constructions are emotions.
09:49
So for example, if you were
to walk into a bakery,
09:54
your brain might predict
that you will encounter
09:59
the delicious aroma of freshly baked
chocolate chip cookies.
10:03
I know my brain would predict
10:07
the delicious aroma of freshly baked
chocolate cookies.
10:09
And our brains might cause
our stomachs to churn a little bit,
10:11
to prepare for eating those cookies.
10:14
And if we are correct,
10:17
if in fact some cookies
have just come out of the oven,
10:19
then our brains will
have constructed hunger,
10:22
and we are prepared
to munch down those cookies
10:25
and digest them in a very efficient way,
10:29
meaning that we can eat a lot of them,
10:32
which would be a really good thing.
10:33
You guys are not laughing enough.
I'm totally serious.
10:36
(Laughter)
10:38
But here's the thing.
10:42
That churning stomach,
10:43
if it occurs in a different situation,
10:46
it can have a completely
different meaning.
10:48
So if your brain were to predict
a churning stomach
10:50
in, say, a hospital room
while you're waiting for test results,
10:53
then your brain will be constructing dread
10:58
or worry or anxiety,
11:01
and it might cause you to, maybe,
11:04
wring your hands
11:07
or take a deep breath or even cry.
11:10
Right? Same physical sensation,
same churning stomach,
11:13
different experience.
11:18
And so the lesson here
11:20
is that emotions which seem
to happen to you
11:22
are actually made by you.
11:26
You are not at the mercy
of mythical emotion circuits
11:32
which are buried deep inside
some ancient part of your brain.
11:37
You have more control over your emotions
11:42
than you think you do.
11:45
I don't mean that you can
just snap your fingers
11:47
and change how you feel the way
that you would change your clothes,
11:49
but your brain is wired
11:53
so that if you change the ingredients
that your brain uses to make emotion,
11:56
then you can transform
your emotional life.
12:02
So if you change those ingredients today,
12:06
you're basically teaching your brain
how to predict differently tomorrow,
12:09
and this is what I call
being the architect of your experience.
12:14
So here's an example.
12:20
All of us have had a nervous feeling
before a test, right?
12:23
But some people experience
crippling anxiety before a test.
12:27
They have test anxiety.
12:32
Based on past experiences of taking tests,
12:35
their brains predict
a hammering heartbeat,
12:40
sweaty hands,
12:43
so much so that they are unable
to actually take the test.
12:44
They don't perform well,
12:50
and sometimes they not only fail courses
but they actually might fail college.
12:51
But here's the thing:
12:57
a hammering heartbeat
is not necessarily anxiety.
12:59
It could be that your body
is preparing to do battle
13:02
and ace that test ...
13:08
or, you know, give a talk
13:10
in front of hundreds of people
on a stage where you're being filmed.
13:12
(Laughter)
13:16
I'm serious.
13:17
(Laughter)
13:19
And research shows
that when students learn
13:21
to make this kind
of energized determination
13:26
instead of anxiety,
13:28
they perform better on tests.
13:30
And that determination seeds their brain
to predict differently in the future
13:33
so that they can get their butterflies
flying in formation.
13:38
And if they do that often enough,
13:41
they not only can pass a test
13:43
but it will be easier for them
to pass their courses,
13:46
and they might even finish college,
13:49
which has a huge impact
on their future earning potential.
13:52
So I call this emotional
intelligence in action.
13:57
Now you can cultivate
this emotional intelligence yourself
14:01
and use it in your everyday life.
14:05
So just, you know,
14:07
imagine waking up in the morning.
14:09
I'm sure you've had
this experience. I know I have.
14:11
You wake up and as you're emerging
into consciousness,
14:13
you feel this horrible dread,
14:16
you know, this real wretchedness,
14:19
and immediately, your mind starts to race.
14:21
You start to think about
all the crap that you have to do at work
14:24
and you have that mountain of email
14:27
which you will never
dig yourself out of ever,
14:29
the phone calls you have to return,
14:32
and that important meeting across town,
14:34
and you're going to have to fight traffic,
14:35
you'll be late picking your kids up,
14:37
your dog is sick, and what
are you going to make for dinner?
14:39
Oh my God.
14:42
What is wrong with your life?
14:43
What is wrong with my life?
14:45
(Laughter)
14:46
That mind racing is prediction.
14:52
Your brain is searching
to find an explanation
14:55
for those sensations in your body
that you experience as wretchedness,
15:00
just like you did with the blobby image.
15:05
So your brain is trying to explain
what caused those sensations
15:10
so that you know what to do about them.
15:16
But those sensations
15:19
might not be an indication
that anything is wrong with your life.
15:20
They might have a purely physical cause.
15:24
Maybe you're tired.
15:27
Maybe you didn't sleep enough.
15:28
Maybe you're hungry.
15:29
Maybe you're dehydrated.
15:31
The next time that you feel
intense distress,
15:33
ask yourself:
15:39
Could this have a purely physical cause?
15:41
Is it possible that you can transform
15:45
emotional suffering
into just mere physical discomfort?
15:48
Now I am not suggesting to you
15:54
that you can just perform
a couple of Jedi mind tricks
15:56
and talk yourself out of being depressed
15:59
or anxious or any kind
of serious condition.
16:02
But I am telling you
16:07
that you have more control
over your emotions than you might imagine,
16:08
and that you have the capacity
16:12
to turn down the dial
on emotional suffering
16:14
and its consequences for your life
16:17
by learning how to construct
your experiences differently.
16:19
And all of us can do this
16:24
and with a little practice,
we can get really good at it,
16:25
like driving.
16:28
At first, it takes a lot of effort,
16:30
but eventually it becomes
pretty automatic.
16:31
Now I don't know about you,
16:35
but I find this to be
a really empowering and inspiring message,
16:36
and the fact that it's backed up
by decades of research
16:41
makes me also happy as a scientist.
16:44
But I have to also warn you
that it does come with some fine print,
16:47
because more control
also means more responsibility.
16:50
If you are not at the mercy
of mythical emotion circuits
16:57
which are buried deep
inside your brain somewhere
17:01
and which trigger automatically,
17:03
then who's responsible,
17:05
who is responsible when you behave badly?
17:08
You are.
17:12
Not because you're culpable
for your emotions,
17:14
but because the actions
and the experiences that you make today
17:17
become your brain's
predictions for tomorrow.
17:22
Sometimes we are responsible for something
17:25
not because we're to blame
17:28
but because we're the only ones
who can change it.
17:31
Now responsibility is a big word.
17:35
It's so big, in fact,
17:38
that sometimes people feel the need
to resist the scientific evidence
17:39
that emotions are built and not built in.
17:45
The idea that we are responsible
for our own emotions
17:50
seems very hard to swallow.
17:55
But what I'm suggesting to you
is you don't have to choke on that idea.
17:59
You just take a deep breath,
18:02
maybe get yourself
a glass of water if you need to,
18:04
and embrace it.
18:07
Embrace that responsibility,
18:08
because it is the path
to a healthier body,
18:10
a more just and informed legal system,
18:14
and a more flexible
and potent emotional life.
18:18
Thank you.
18:21
(Applause)
18:23

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About the speaker:

Lisa Feldman Barrett - Neuroscientist, psychologist, author
Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with positions in psychiatry and radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Why you should listen

Twenty-five years ago, Lisa Feldman Barrett ran a series of psychology experiments whose conclusions seemed to defy common sense. It turned out common sense was wrong, and has been for 2,000 years. The result is a radical, new theory of how the brain creates emotions and a novel view of human nature.

Dr. Barrett is now a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory (IASLab) at Northeastern University, with research appointments in the departments of psychiatry and radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She has published more than 200 peer-reviewed research papers in top scientific journals on emotion, psychology, and neuroscience. She educates the public about science with her articles for the New York Times and other media outlets. Her research teams span the globe, studying people in the West, the East and remote parts of Africa.

More profile about the speaker
Lisa Feldman Barrett | Speaker | TED.com