Most of us think of emotion as something that comes from deep inside and takes over. That’s how emotions feel, after all — like something powerful and subconscious that you can’t fundamentally control. But new science is challenging this understanding by showing that emotions aren’t inborn instincts, but taught understandings. And what you’ve learned you can unlearn.
The case for the idea that emotions are hard-wired is simple: We all have the same ones. If someone from a sub-Saharan band of hunter-gatherers looked angry or sad, a cosmopolitan Parisian or rural Chinese grandmother would have no trouble recognizing what that person was feeling. But as neuroscientist, psychologist, and author Lisa Feldman Barrett explained in a fascinating recent interview with Five Books, science greatly complicates that picture.
“The reigning ‘common sense’ belief, which has also been the scientific belief for a long time, is that emotions are reflexes: our brains are born prewired with emotion circuits,” she explains. When someone experiences one of these pre-wired responses — fear, say, “everyone can recognize them.”
That understanding is intuitive to most of us, but unfortunately, it also seems to be wrong. “There are decades and decades of research showing that we aren’t born with emotions that are built into our brains. Instead our brains build emotions as we need them in a way that’s very specific to the situation,” she insists. In one culture, a thumping heart might be labeled terror, in another excitement, and in a third some word that doesn’t easily translate into English.
Our various physical reactions to our surroundings, in other words, are preprogrammed. Human bodies work roughly the same everywhere. But how we interpret those reactions, which is essentially what “emotions” are, varies greatly from culture to culture.
Which is fascinating, but you could be forgiven for responding, “Who cares? I’m not a neuroscientist. Beyond the fascination factor, what’s in this for me?” The short answer is that if we realize our emotions are essentially constructed by how we interpret and label what’s happening in our bodies, rather than fixed physical reactions, we can control them better. And that can make many aspects of life, from work to romantic relationships, markedly better.
Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, for instance, has shown that reinterpreting signs of stress like a racing pulse and sweaty palms as excitement can help buffer against the negative health consequences of stress. Meanwhile, Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching founder Susan David has made a career of teaching people to get a better handle on their emotions by learning better ways to talk about them.
Emotions aren’t purely physical. They are interpretations of the physical. And learning new concepts and words for how you feel can, in a very real way, help you feel and respond differently. And that power, used thoughtfully, can help you lead a happier, more successful life.
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