From ABC, this is the 10 percent happier podcast. I'm Dan Harris. Hey, team, I've I've often joked that as a man, emotions have not always been the most appetizing subject for conversation. However, as I've learned the hard way and repeatedly, emotions are there, whether you want to look at them or not. And if you choose the path of denial or compartmentalization, you will inevitably be owned by those neglected and overlooked emotions. But what are emotions anyway?
How are they different from feelings? Why did we evolve to have emotions in the first place? And what does science say about how we can manage emotions skillfully rather than being yanked around by them all the time? My guest today is at the forefront of understanding all of these questions from a scientific standpoint. She is Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a university distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. She's written several books, including How Emotions Are Made, The Secret Life of the Brain and Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain.
In this conversation, we talk about how we can deconstruct. That's her term, our own emotions. And we talk about the overlap between her research findings and Buddhism. Before we get to that, here's just one quick item of business next Monday, April 12th, we are launching at 10 percent happier, a two week series about hope. We're at an interesting and exquisitely difficult moment when it comes to hope. There are a lot of reasons to believe that we're emerging out of this pandemic.
But there are also still lots of variables out there, including new variants of the virus that we cannot control. So how do we skillfully engage with hope without setting ourselves up for massive disappointment? So we'll be exploring the notion of hope as a skill here on the podcast. But we also have new bespoke meditations from our podcast, guests and Teachers that will be dropping in the 10 percent happier app. So you can actually, as I said before, practice hope as a skill.
If you don't already have it, go get the app now so that you're ready to do the meditations that will be combined with the episodes that will be dropping in mid April. Download the 10 percent happier app for free wherever you get your apps to get started. OK, having said all of that, let's dove in now with Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett. Lisa Feldman, Barrett, thanks for coming on, appreciate it. My pleasure. Let's start with a little background, I'm curious, how did you get interested in Emotion's?
She's laughing already that a rueful laugh a little bit, a little bit.
How did I get interested in emotions? I suppose I got interested in emotions because it was a perplexing problem. When I was in graduate school, I was. Doing research, you know, I had my own little replication crisis when I was in graduate school in that I was attempting to replicate published research findings, which is what you do as a graduate student at first, before you conduct your own experiments, you try to replicate experiments that have already been published, peer reviewed and so on.
And I wasn't able to replicate eight experiments in a row, which led me to think that maybe I was trying to have the wrong career and there wasn't really cut out for science. But when I looked closely at all of the evidence, what I discovered is that the measures of emotion weren't functioning the way that they should have been functioning based on everything that I had read. And so the more I dug into it, the more I realized there were these really interesting paradoxes in the emotion research literature that no one was paying very much attention to.
And I found it super intriguing. But I thought really optimistically that I would just, you know, take a couple of months away from my main dissertation topic and kind of solve this emotion, this emotion measurement problem, which is how I was thinking about it. And then I would get back to my main topic of my dissertation and then fast forward almost 30 years and here we are.
So so the interest in emotions grew not out of some personal fascination. They often say research is me search. It sounds like it was quite a technical thing. I also trained as a therapist, and one of the things that I am really good at is detecting what people say. What people tell themselves isn't necessarily what the evidence from their own life indicates. So when there's a disconnect between what people believe and what the evidence shows in their own life, I'm really always drawn to that as a therapist.
I was always drawn to it as a person in my own life. I'm drawn to it and as a scientist, I'm drawn to it. So really what happened was in the emotion literature, scientists were writing about emotion in a particular way. But then when you actually dug into the data, it didn't match what the scientists were saying. And I I found this to be really fascinating and also. Really perplexing as a scientific problem that there were these massive questions that were unanswered, that other people didn't even seem to notice were questions, and this to me just seemed completely fascinating and I just was hooked.
What were the questions that people were overlooking?
Well, for example, pick up any introductory textbook in psychology or you pick up many, many popular books about emotion, many, many research papers. And it will tell you that every emotion has its own signature in the body. Right. That anger and fear and sadness and so on can be distinguished from one another by just looking at people's heart rates and their how much they're sweating and their respiration patterns and so on. And that really that this idea that each emotion category has its own fingerprint comes from William James, the great William James, who is considered one of the founders of American psychology.
Well, when you go and you read William James, he didn't say that, in fact, he said the exact opposite of that. I mean, literally the exact opposite, he said there's no physical entity for anger, anger can be many things. It can feel like many things. Your face can do many things. Your heart will do anything. So, I mean, think about it then when you're angry, how often do you give that stereotypic scowl?
That's supposed to be the universal expression of anger. Do you scowl frequently when you're angry? Well, I get angry a lot.
That's one of my big emotional go juice. Well, I remember from your book, but I'm just saying, do you when you think about when you're angry, do you sometimes.
But often I pretend it's not there and you just revert to passive aggressive behaviors.
Do you ever scowl when you're not angry?
I think my resting face is pretty close to a scowl. So, yes. OK, so interestingly, the evidence shows that people scowl when they're angry about 30 percent of the time, which is more than chance. And we'll get you a publication and a really good journal. But what that means is 70 percent of the time people are not scowling. When they're angry, they're doing something else that's meaningful with their face and sometimes that might be smiling.
Sometimes that might be crying or frowning. Sometimes that might be sitting silently and plotting the demise of their enemy. And your heart rate or your blood pressure will go up or go down or stay the same in anger, depending on what physical action you're taking. So if you were looking at someone's face and their body and trying to predict whether they were angry or not, you would be wrong 70 percent of the time. And also, people scowl when they're not angry.
You know, my husband makes a full facial scowl when he's concentrating really hard. And unbeknownst to me, so I which as I was telling my lab when I first met my husband, you know, we were dating and I was telling him, you know, he makes this full facial scowl when he's angry.
Can you believe that?
And they're like, yeah, because you do that, do you know that you do that? And it totally freaks us out. And I'm like, seriously, I had no idea.
So my point is that not that what you do in anger is not reliable, but that you have many anchors. You don't just have one. There's no entity. They're called anger. You have a whole anger for you and for me and for everybody else in the Western world is a population of variable instances.
And your brain is constructing anger in a particular situation for you to achieve a particular goal. And the expression of anger will be tailored to that goal. Sometimes anger is unpleasant, sometimes it's pleasant. Sometimes anger is very high, arousal, sometimes it's not.
And so the idea that there's one set of features that defines anger in the face, in the body, in the brain or what have you is completely amiss. But if you were to read most textbooks until recently or most popular science books, actually, you would be led to a very different story. And I found that really, really interesting. And it doesn't really matter whether you're looking you're studying the voice or the face of the body or the brain.
It's the same story over and over and over again. Variability is the norm, and that's just in Western culture. So that's actually just within a single person. So the idea that there are these universal signatures is not the evolutionary story of emotion.
There is an evolutionary sort of it's way more interesting and way more complicated and way more useful, actually.
Can you tell us about it? The evolutionary. Yeah. Why do we have emotions? I was going to ask my one of my questions was like, what are emotions and what's the difference between emotions and feelings and why do we have them in the first place?
Well, that's a really great question. So let's start with feelings first, because it's so much easier for me to describe. So let's go all the way back in evolutionary time to the Korean period in the Earth's history when the earth was populated with creatures that had no brains. These are really fascinating creatures. And some of them are still alive today because their environment there are nesh, as it were, that's what it's called, a nation and ecological niche hasn't changed very much.
So they haven't changed very much. And these animals are interesting because they can move. In sophisticated ways. But they have very few senses. They can't see they have no eyes, no ears, no smell, very simple touch, basically, if something like literally touches their skin, they're outside of their body, they would react to it. And they don't have eyes. They have an eye spot for light and dark. That's to regulate their circadian rhythm.
And they don't have a hearing, but they have one vestibular cell that lets them keep their bodies upright in the water, for example.
But they can move, which means they have some kind of internal system that keeps all the parts coordinated so that they can move under their own steam if they want to. And really what these animals do is they kind of plant themselves in the sand like a living blade of grass, and they just kind of filter food until the food goes away. And then they eject themselves from the sand and then they move themselves randomly to another spot where probabilistically there's just more food and then they plant themselves there.
So they're kind of like these little worms, essentially that I mean, they're not exactly worms because they have little gill slits, but they're kind of like worms either shaped like worms, but they have these internal coordination systems that helps them move like coordinate the parts of their body so they can move under their own steam.
So. When there's a looming darkness that happens really close to them or when something comes up and nudges them, that disrupts their internal coordination. So it's like they get a sense of the world for free. It's not a great sense because it doesn't tell them what's happening exactly and it doesn't tell them what to do about it exactly. But it just tells them, oh, something's going on out there that I need to care about because my internal coordination has been disrupted and that means something outside in the world is happening.
So if anything looms above it, like a piece of shell or like a leaf or another creature, it doesn't really matter. The animal will react and move in a particular way, like an instinct, kind of. So that's what it has. OK, but if you fast forward in evolutionary time, you see animals that have developed fairly large bodies and because they have large bodies now, they have internal systems like a heart and lungs and stuff like that, which has to be coordinated with each other.
And they have a brain. Now they also have eyes. And so when they see something at a distance. If it disrupts their internal coordination, they don't know what it is, they just know it's important if they've developed what's called a lateral line system to be able to sense things in the water because our feeling of touch actually evolved in the water as a distance since. So they could feel the vibration and they won't necessarily know what caused the vibration, but they'll know, oh, something is disrupting my internal coordination, that means something outside of me is important, is happening and so on and so forth with all these distant senses.
So now their environment has become not just this little shell around their body, but this very large expanse by time, because they can see at a distance and they can feel somatics, touch at a distance. And our ability to hear comes from that lateral line system so they can detect vibrations at a distance and so many things at a distance can now disrupt their internal coordination system. So. What do you feel that as you feel that as as affect as feeling when your internal systems is disrupted, you feel that you feel it as feeling pleasant, feeling unpleasant, feeling worked up, feeling calm.
That's what you feel it. So when you feel unpleasant, what does it mean? Well, it means something's wrong, but like what could be any number of things, really? So it's this really basic feeling that comes from this disruption of or synchrony of this internal set of systems that we have in our bodies that have to be controlled. Now, why do we have a brain, which I actually found to be really interesting question, like why do we even have a brain?
Because it's like a really expensive organ. So it's 20 percent of your metabolic budget. That's the most expensive organ that you have. Dan, is your brain. That three pound blob of meat is like super, super expensive. So why do we have it? And the answer is we have it because we have all these internal systems that have to be coordinated with each other.
So. The way I talk about this in my popularizing is to think about your brain is running a budget for your body. Your brain isn't budgeting money, it's budgeting salt and glucose and water and oxygen and so on, which are all the nutrients that are required to keep you alive and well. And your brain is budgeting for your body, kind of like running a supply chain. In a way, it has to make sure that the nutrients are where they need to be before they need to be there in order for the cells to use them so that you stay alive and well.
To perform your most important job. Which is not anchoring a news show, it's to pass your genes on to the next generation and make sure that generation lives to reproductive age, that's actually your brain's most important job.
So regulating your body, the systems of your body is your brain's most important job and. Your body is constantly sending information back to your brain about how coordinated things are or how copasetic things are inside your body, and you feel that your brain makes that available to itself as these feelings of feeling pleasant, feeling unpleasant, feeling worked up, feeling calm. These feelings are always with you, their properties of consciousness. They're always with you because your brain's always regulating the systems of your body and the body is always sending sense data back to the brain about its state.
And you are always in a state of feeling. Always. And sometimes your brain has to make sense of that, of the sense data that give rise to this feeling. So if you have a tug in your chest, what is it? Is it anxiety? Is it that you eat too much at dinner? Is it the beginnings of a heart attack? I mean, what is that tug? Your brain has to make sense of what's going on inside your body in relation to what's going on around you in the world.
And sometimes your brain makes sense of that orchestra of sensations as emotions. So let me see if I can restate this back to you just. Really, so that I know that I got it. Feelings are like pretty simple in some way they're the body or at least they evolved in a simple way. Want this don't want this safe, unsafe approach run away or neutral. Emotions are what we evolved to layer on top of that, which are more complex.
Reactions to the raw data of the Felix. Almost I might make a couple of adjustments, so I would say I get to see I got to see from the professor there, that's fine.
No, no, but maybe a B, maybe a B minus. No, I mean, what I would say is that your brain is always. Running a budget for your body. So when I say it's running a budget for your body, what I mean by that is you can think about everything that you do as in terms of deposits and withdrawals. Sleeping is a deposit, eating as a deposit. If you're eating healthfully, if you're eating junk food.
And I say this is somebody who I love, French fries, French fries are like God's most perfect food, I think, really. But even though I deeply committed to this view, I also know that junk food that we could have a whole conversation about junk food and what I've learned about how it completely screws up your metabolism.
But what I'll say is that eating real food, whole food is good for you is like a deposit. Eating junk food is is not pseudo food is what we call it. In my house, exercising is a withdrawal because you're spending resources. But it's kind of like an investment because if once you replenish it, you're actually going to get something for what you've spent. You know, you get a healthier brain and and a healthier body. Maybe you keep your memory a little longer working in tact and stuff.
You can think about learning something new as also an expense. It's an investment. It's like a workout for your brain, just like exercises. You can think about someone giving you a hug that you love as making things slightly cheaper for you to do. You can think about someone who gives you a hug, who you don't love and who you don't want, touching you as actually making things slightly more expensive, like you're paying a tax innocence. And these little taxes can add up over time to a really big deficit.
So you are always having some state of you in some state of feeling. The feeling actually just tells you that you're running a deficit, that there's some internal coordination which is off. It doesn't actually tell you what to do about it. It's not tied to action in any particular way, even though creatures without brains have what we would call instinctual responses. The idea that humans have these simple instinctual reflexes and layered on top of that or these more complex emotions and layered on top of that is rationality or rational thought is that's also just a mess.
The idea that reflexes are these like obligatory things that happen just like, you know, you see something or hear something, and that triggers this automatic, obligatory, stereotyped physical response like freeze or flee or what have you is also not exactly correct. Reflexes in a vertebrate are still very context driven. They're still modulated by the context. And so what I would say is that what your brain is really doing is it has to guess at what the census data mean.
Like when you hear a loud bang, what is that loud bang? Is that loud bang? Somebody slamming a door is that loud bang? Somebody dropped a box. Is that loud bang? Somebody their car backfired. Could it be a gunshot? I mean, that's actually a reasonable question if you live in the United States or in certain parts of the world. So depending on what your brain believes, the meaning that it's making out of that loud bang, that will dictate what the brain does, what it plans to do in order to keep you alive and well.
That's always true, always true, every waking moment of your life, this is true. Let me back up and say, where does the information come, allow the brain for it to make meaning out of what that sound means? And the answer is it comes from your past experience. So your brain is using past experience to guess at what sense data mean in order to plan so that you can act in a way that will keep you safe. And what you experience about the world derives from that action plan.
And that's true all the time. It's just sometimes whenever your brain is using past experiences of emotion to make that guess, then what it's doing is constituting an emotion in that moment. Which may or may not be appropriate. Well, appropriate and may or may not be advantageous to you, right. So, for example, this is an example I use a lot because I think it's just one of my favorite examples that has real meaning. There's research behind it, but there's also a real meaning there, you know.
When things are uncertain. Or when there are multiple meanings that your brain could give to something or when you're preparing for a big metabolic outlay so your brain's preparing you to do something super hard, you have an increase in arousal. There are systems in your body that will increase arousal there, systems in your brain that will increase arousal, you'll feel jittery. How do we usually make sense of that? We usually make sense of it as anxiety, sometimes fear, but you could make sense of it in other ways.
It's not a comfortable feeling, but you could make sense of it in other ways. When my daughter was 12 years old, she was a tiny little thing, but she was testing for a black belt in karate with this 10th degree black belt. This guy was seriously powerful guy. He's like a 10th degree black belt. I think they're like, what, like 10 of them in the country? I mean, like, just really powerful guy. And she's testing amidst all these, like big hulking adolescent boys who she has to spar with.
OK, and what does he say to her? He doesn't say, calm down, little honey. He says get your butterflies flying in formation. And I was like, that's brilliant. And it turns out there is this whole line of research. About people who have difficulty with testing Zaidi, who fail, not just fail tests, but they fail courses and they can't graduate, and that actually a college graduation massively changes your earning potential over your lifetime.
So we're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime.
And if you learn not to reduce the arousal because you don't want to do that, you have something hard you have to do. You have to do a test. But if you learn to make sense of it differently. Instead of conjuring anxiety, you conjure determination. You can master those tests and you can pass those courses and you can change the trajectory of your entire life. Now, that may sound like Jedi mind tricks to you if I wasn't a scientist.
It might sound that way to me, but it isn't. And in fact, you can train your brain to make sense of your sensations very differently as emotions or sometimes deconstruct them into something that is not an emotion, but just is that simple feeling, which is really I mean, in a sense, what mindfulness meditation is attempting to do.
Right. But I mean, the example I like to give is your audience, like our listeners can't hear me now, but I'll just show you and I'll hopefully they'll be able to simulate this, like if you pick up a glass of water or jingle it so people can hear the ice.
So you look at a glass of water. Now, to you, it looks like an object, a three dimensional object. But let's say you wanted to paint this on a canvas.
When I try to paint this on a canvas, I would look at this object and I would try to render this three dimensional object on a two dimensional canvas and it would look like a pretty rendering of a three dimensional object on a two dimensional canvas.
But what a professional painter will do. An artist will look at this object and deconstruct it into pieces of light like others. White, but there's blue and there's a little green and a little yellow and gray. And then what the artist will do is will paint the pieces of light. And Puf. You have a reasonable looking. Three dimensional object on a two dimensional canvas, unless you're me, in which case it will still look. But the point is that what you've done is you've deconstructed the object and you've constructed it closer to what you might call the stream of experience.
And mindfulness meditation is attempting to do something very similar to that, where you're attempting to not construct, not to grasp at perceptions and construct things out of them, but just to try to experience them in their most basic form. And one of the most basic forms is AFACT. So it would mean, for example, waking up in the morning and feeling like crap and not immediately trying to make sense of that as like what happened yesterday with your spouse or what's going to happen today or what new political thing is going to drive you nuts or no.
It could just be you didn't get enough sleep. It could just be you're dehydrated because it's the morning. It could just be that maybe you're not a morning person and it's not your time of the circadian rhythm to feel a lot of energy. It could be that, for example, throughout this whole covid mess, a lot of times people would ask me how I'm feeling and I would say my body budget is running a deficit today. And that's not just simple wordplay.
That's me saying, well, I'm kind of feeling like crap today, but I'm not going to blow this up in making it meaningful psychologically in my life that would lead to me engaging in actions with people. I'm not going to take this feeling as a sign that something is wrong with this relationship or something is wrong with not paying that bill or something is wrong with. I'm just going to say, well, I'm running a budget deficit. This is a really hard time.
I'm paying a little extra tax. Bear with me today because I'm not feeling quite at my best. And I think this is a very meaningful difference in how to architect your experience because you're not being yanked around by the sensations in your body and adding on top of it this whole story that can make everything worse.
Yeah, I'm adding a different story. The different story is my brain is running a body budget and there are feelings that come from that body budget and my brain tries to make sense of those as emotions or perceptions or whatever to guide my action. And so the action that is going to guide is that I'm going to go to sleep a little earlier tonight and I'm going to drink a little more. Maybe I might have some a little more tea today than I might normally because I need to use that caffeine to borrow a little energy from tomorrow, because I kind of really need it today.
Maybe I'll allow myself to have an extra piece of chocolate or something. Again, some kind of internal coordination thing is going on. Right? I'm running a body budget deficit today, but what I'm not going to do is make sense of it as anger or as fear or as anxiety or a sadness or as any of the other very easily and justifiable emotions that would lead to different actions that I don't think are particularly productive in this circumstance.
But maybe it is one of those things. Maybe it is said to me that, you know, it isn't.
Well, there is no maybe it really is, because there is your brain is making it I.
So here's the thing. When you have a tug in your chest or you have a tightness in your chest. You're at risk for a heart attack. There's a real there there because you really have a heart and your heart really does work in a particular way.
OK, but when you feel a tightness in your chest. And that tightness is caused by anxiety or I would say it's a sensation that you've made meaningful is anxiety, the tightness? Actually, when your brain is making sense of something, it's not just. Always that the sensation is there and then you make sense of it, like based on what's going on around you in the world right now and what the state of your body is right now, your brain basically uses past experience to make a guess of what's going to happen next.
And what is that? Guess that. Guess first is. It attempts to change your physical state and prepare you for an action, and that's actually where your experience comes from. If there's a rustling in the grass and based on past experience, my brain predicts that it will be a snake. The first thing that my brain is doing is changing my physical state, it's actually changing the state of my body. So I will start to feel arousal, anxious about I'll start to feel like worked up sort of feeling.
And it's preparing me to run. And that prepares me to potentially see a snake, these predictions are actually the brain changing the pattern of its own firing. It's changing its own neurons, basically firing. So when anxiety is causing in scare quotes, causing you to have a tight chest, there's no like there there it's not like anxiety lives in your body somewhere and your brain is perceiving it accurately or inaccurately. It's that your brain is responding to the world in the body as it is to make a prediction about what's going to happen next.
Those predictions are actual changes that your brain starts to execute.
And so the tightness in your chest can be caused by your heart, but it can also be caused by your brain preparing you to feel anxiety. And there's no real anxiety anywhere except the fact that your brain makes it. Like when you go to the gym or you work out, I mean, none of us go to the gym, right, because it's covered. But when you workout, when you go for a run or whatever, do you sweat?
Yes. Yeah. Do you feel that wetness? Is it real to you that one? Yeah. Yeah, sure. Of course. Right.
But you don't have any wetness sensors in your whole body or in your skin. So how is it that you feel wet with sweat when nothing in your skin gives you the feeling of wetness? And the answer is because your brain constructs it because your brain takes temperature information, because there are temperature sensors and your brain takes touch sensation because their touch sensors and it combines them to completely construct an experience of wetness that you take is normal. And that's what your brain is doing when you feel anxiety or anger or sadness or anything.
So again, I would say your brain is constructing experience for you that you take is completely normal part of your life and you're completely unaware that your brain is doing it.
But it is like your brain doesn't make it self aware that it's doing it. But it is. And that's the same thing with creating emotion. It's exactly the same thing.
Are you saying that we can just choose to tell ourselves a different story so we may feel feelings? Again, these are physical sensations and instead of for me, it's not uncommon to walk around with some tightness in my chest often produced. Well, the story I've told myself is often because I mean, I'm writing a book that feels anxiety producing to me, but I could choose to tell myself in a completely different story. Is that where you're taking this?
Yeah, I mean, Chew's is a hard word here because I'm making it sound like so much simpler than it actually really is in real life, but you never will have as much control over the stories that your brain tells itself as you would like.
But you definitely have more control than you think that you do.
The control, though, doesn't really happen so easily in the moment. You have to really, I think, extend the horizon of control is what I would say.
So, for example, if you're feeling worked up, you can try really hard to just talk to yourself differently and calm yourself down.
And that won't work, as you know, really changing actually your affect.
The mood or the simple feelings that come from body budgeting is actually really hard to do. It's not impossible to do, but it's not easy. I mean, even just deep breathing, unless you're very practiced at it, deep breathing isn't going to immediately calm you down.
I mean, it sometimes will, but it's really you have to do it for a long time for that effect to be able to occur. But you can definitely make the sensations, those simple feelings, give them a different meaning. If you try to do it in the moment as it's occurring, it's going to be really hard for you because you have to give a lot of effort to it. It costs something metabolically to do it.
And you might not have those resources available, but if you practice doing it.
When you're not in those moments and you practice, it's like any skill, you practice it. And you get automatic at it. It's like driving, you know, at first when you learn to drive, it's really hard and you have to give it all your attention. And it's metabolically expensive because you're doing something new and it's metabolically costly. But eventually, if you practice enough, it becomes a pretty automatic skill and then you don't even really think about it.
And it doesn't become very costly at all because your brain is predicting really, really fluidly and really, really easily, you know. And so it's kind of like that. It becomes easier to do because it becomes automatic. And that means your brain is predicting easy, is constructing the narrative. It's regulating the body just much more easily. It just takes some practice. So I'm from Toronto and it snows in Toronto. Not as much now as it did when I was growing up, but it does still snow there.
And I lived in Winnipeg for a year and it snows really a lot there. And so every year I would have to remind myself how to drive on icy roads. And so what would I do? I would deliberately the first snow of every year, I would go into a parking lot or on a street and deliberately put myself into a spin in my car so that I could remember how to get out of it. And I would just do it a couple of times just to remind myself how to do it right.
What was I doing there? While I was practicing, I was reminding my brain how to do this and reminding my brain to do it so my brain could just do it automatically when it was necessary. And so it's kind of like that how do we because, you know, it sounds like I mean, I would imagine you have no small amount of practice here. And you talked before about how occasionally you're asked how you're doing and covid times. And instead of telling yourself a big story about.
Or even repeating the story aloud about sadness, anxiety, whatever, you reframe it as the body running a deficit, how is that a skill that we could develop?
Well, there's really, really nice research to show that the more. Flexibility, you have to make meaning of your sensations in multiple ways, the more resilient you are. And so the way that you develop this skill is that you practice making meaning of your sensations in different ways. So, for example, I have a set of things I do in the morning. Every morning I wake up, I tell myself I'm not going to go to my computer and then read my email.
And then I go to my computer and I read my email and then I tell myself, I'm going to go downstairs and have a protein shake and get ready for my workout, which I do every morning. And so I go downstairs and I have my protein shake. I tell myself, OK, you're just only going to look at the front page. I tell myself I'm not going to get engrossed in reading anything. I'm just going to scan the front page while I drink my drink.
And of course, that never happens every day. And as I'm reading the newspaper, this is before the election. Recently, I would remind myself, I would say you're drinking something.
And if you are stressed within two hours of eating a meal, it's like adding one hundred and four calories to your meal because your brain will direct your body to metabolize that food in a less efficient way.
So it's like the equivalent of adding one hundred four calories, which I think I talk about this in seven and a half lessons about the brain. But this is one of these things that I find like really interesting as a scientist and sort of horrifying as a person. Right. And so I'd be telling myself, don't read the newspaper while you're drinking like this is just going to infuriate you, don't you know? And so in those moments, though, I have increased arousal and my brain is constructing anger, usually fury often.
That's a great opportunity to practice deconstruction right there. And so I would how does that go? So what does that look like when you're doing deconstruction? I might try to cultivate curiosity instead, so I might attempt to.
Take the sensations and conjure curiosity, and so instead of being infuriated by something that happened or somebody who did something or didn't do something, I might be curious and like, honestly, like authentically try to be curious.
Or sometimes I might conjure determination to see what I can do to change things and sometimes, you know, the only thing I could come up with was to beg my neighbor a loaf of bread. But one small act of kindness does a little bit to change the world and make it a little bit better. So sometimes it was only that that was all I could muster that day. One thing I often tell people is here's a practice that I still do.
I still do this every day. But now I'm inherently a skeptical person. That's just me. So there was this emerging literature, you know, on gratitude and awe and how important it is in your psychological life, how beneficial it is. And in fact, one of my colleagues actually is very well. He's one of the people who's done this very excellent research on gratitude. But I am skeptical. And so I'm like, there's no way that all and gratitude can have that kind of an effect on your life.
I'm sorry. It's just like, no, I just don't believe it. I just don't believe it. And so I don't. And, you know, but I'm reading the research and I'm like as a researcher, if you ask me in general, I would say I would always believe the data in a well designed experiment over my own experience because the experience of one person is not really diagnostic.
So, you know, so I'm reading this like incredibly well-designed research and I'm thinking I don't believe this was totally doesn't match my experience when, like, OK, fine. So, all right, I'm going to try it. I'm going to try every day. Gratitude is easy. The hard one is OK for me anyway. So I thought, OK, every day for five minutes I am going to practice feeling OK. I'm going to practice feeling like a speck for five minutes.
Because if you're a speck, then your problems are a speck and then the burden on your body budget just goes right down, right? So I'm going to practice this. And I did, and I still practice it, there are some easy ones, right, like when I would drive to work every day along the MassPike, there was a billboard. I talk about this in my other book, How Machines are Made. There was a billboard of this totally adorable orangutan baby like you just want to eat this baby up.
This baby is adorable. Actually, the name for that emotion from the Philippines is called Giggle, which is that you just want to squeeze something so cute. So it was like that. It was just this adorable, durable infant. So that was easy to make or at every day. What I didn't anticipate was that my moments of I would expand into the because I could start simulating or predicting, which is really like visualizing in your head the image of that infant before I even got to it, because I knew it was coming up, because I could put my brain could predict because I drive on this road all the time.
And so my moment of I would be starting to smile like well in advance of reaching this. So that's easy.
But there are harder ones, like you're walking on the street, you're walking on the sidewalk, and you I don't know whatever happens to you, but the tip of your shoe kind of catches on the sidewalk and then you kind of lurch for a little bit and you sort of you don't exactly trip, but you kind of lose your smooth gait and you try to look cool and you try to look like it's not a big deal that you almost tripped over your own feet.
And you look down and then what do you see? You see this ugly little gnarly little weed popping out of the crack in the sidewalk that you just tripped on. And you can make a moment of all you can look at that weed and you can see it as a a thing of beauty, of grandeur, of the breathtaking power of nature that will not be constrained by human attempts to constrain it, to control it. And even now, when I talk to you about this, I'm getting little shivers, I know this might sound like psychological mumbo jumbo, but it's not.
And I think now when I need it, when things are getting really stressful, I can shift into a moment of really, really easily. Like my relationships have been almost exclusively other than my little pod on Zoom for a year. And sometimes Zoom fails and well, not just zoom. I mean, sometimes it's Microsoft, whatever or whatever, like all these different platforms, but they're all over the Internet. Sometimes the satellite moves and you lose your Internet connection or, you know, it's delayed or whatever.
It's really frustrating. And when you're connecting with a family member who's sick or when you're trying to talk to your doctor and you're worried, or when you're trying to talk to your students and trying to keep them on track or whatever, it's really, really frustrating. And so those are moments where. Shifting into us really useful, like. Where are you, Dan, are you in Washington or New York, outside of New York City? You're outside of New York City?
I'm in Boston. So what are we, a couple of hundred miles away from each other? But look, here we are just talking to each other like we were having coffee together. And I can talk to people halfway around the world. And see their faces, that's miraculous. So in those moments when the Internet fails, as it does about once a day, at least, I say, well, you know, I know this is really frustrating, but let's just take a minute and realize that we're actually seeing each other and we're halfway around the world from each other.
And that's pretty amazing. So this sucks, but it only sucks because we also have this awesome thing that we're doing. And, you know, it works. It's just you have to really practice it and you have to take it seriously. Much more of my conversation with Dr. Lisa Feldman, Barrett, right after this. In 2021, it's finally OK to talk about our mental health, but what is therapy? It's whatever you want it to be.
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Is there any danger that in the process of deconstruction, you could stifle or stuff or compartmentalize in a way that would be deleterious to your psychological health?
Oh, for sure, I mean, there is a whole diagnostic section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM, that we use to diagnose mental disorders. Well, I think we but I mean, I don't do that anymore.
But the people used to diagnose mental disorders, that's called somatization, which means not acknowledging the affective.
Well, they would they would call it emotional, but that's because they're mistaking emotion and affect which people always do that, not acknowledging the affective significance of things and only experiencing them as physical symptoms. And that's unhealthy. So if I was, let's say, hypothetically, having difficulty with my boss and. I'm constantly experiencing this as a stomach ache and nothing else. That's not useful either, because while it is true that you are experiencing a stomach ache, that stomach ache isn't telling you what to do differently, it's not helping you solve the problem.
And it might be actually exacerbating the problem that you're not making a fuller psychological meaning of it. So. I don't think that there's a right or wrong answer here. I don't think that you should always make a mental meaning out of your physical sensations, and I don't think that you should always not. I think it really depends on you have to understand that your brain is using knowledge from the past to predict your immediate future, which becomes your present.
When it's doing that, it's not just constructing your experience. It's also guiding your actions. It's planning your actions and learning how to use that knowledge is a skill. It's a skill like any other skill that you can build. And you want to build that skill so that your brain does it pretty automatically, but that your brain has lots of options to choose from because that gives you flexibility and that allows you to be resilient. And sometimes it's better to have your actions guided by the physical sensation of a stomachache, and sometimes it's better to be meaning more productive for you, for your body budget, to make sense of those sensations as anger or as fear or as guilt or hunger.
Sounds like art and science know. It's like there's a lot of science here, but the application of the skill involved some you know, it's not black or white. You got to figure out for yourself when to apply and when to listen to your feelings.
Yeah, I mean, I would still see it as science, I guess. I would say it's like personalized medicine. Really what it is, it's like there isn't one anger.
There's a population of anger. It's like, for example, if I if I we published a study like this recently, if I instrumented you out down like I measured all kinds of physical signals on you, your heart rate, your blood pressure, your respiratory rate and depth, and maybe your the electrical it's called skin conductance, which is just like how much it's really a measure of how much you're sweating, which is a measure of your sympathetic nervous system activity.
And let's say I measure your facial movements.
I'm just measuring all kinds of things about you and I'm measuring them. You're out and about in your day. If your heart rate changes and you aren't moving, that means something psychological. It's just happened. Like something in your brain has just shifted. What it's predicting and at that moment, you hear a little signal, know you're cued and you're asked to. Rate your affect and then label your experience, what are you feeling right now and let's say I just did this across like two weeks hypothetically, because that's what we did.
We did it for two weeks with people.
And sometimes those labels would be anger and sometimes they'd be fear and sometimes they be sadness and sometimes they be gratitude and sometimes they be happiness and sometimes to be whatever.
OK, and if you just look at one person and you just look at their physiology, you can see that the physiology, their reliable patterns, their your brain is returning your body to particular patterns of physiology over and over again throughout all of these weeks, days, weeks, whatever.
And the labels that you give have a many to many correspondence with the patterns, meaning. Sometimes when you're angry, you're in one pattern and sometimes when you're angry, your body's in another pattern, and sometimes when you're angry, your body's in a third pattern and a given pattern can be associated with more than one label. So what does that mean? What that means is that what's happening is that your brain is making sense of that pattern as a particular emotion.
And sometimes that that pattern can happen and your brain will make sense of it as a different emotion.
And that sense making in air quotes like what does it mean to make sense of it means it's preparing your actions in a particular way that your brain has learned in the past, occurred in the past, and that learning can be that you yourself experienced it or you watched a movie or you heard someone tell you about it or you learned about it in a book, you might be thinking to yourself, well, it's not my brain does this automatically. It doesn't always do it really productively.
And that's because, well, your brain is usually juggling multiple goals and so may not be productive for one thing, but it's definitely going to be productive for something else. Your brain doesn't spend metabolic resources like frivolously the things that we sometimes label as like not rational or unproductive. What that means is that there's some other set of predictions, some other goal that your brain is attempting to optimize. And you just have to figure out what that is. If if that's what you want to change.
I want to make sure because we we started down this road at the beginning and I don't feel like I ever got it straight, at least in my own head, the difference between feelings and emotion, because I think they're often used interchangeably. But if I'm hearing you correctly, feelings are physical sensations. Emotions are the story. We tell ourselves the sense we make. Of those sensations. So let me just say that scientists don't agree on how to define emotion.
OK, so one scientist will tell you an emotion is an action. Like when a scientist tells you, well, there is a circuit in your brain for fear. The translation is there's a circuit in your brain for freezing behavior. And the scientist has determined has stipulated basically that freezing behavior is fear. They've defined emotion as a specific action.
OK, there are other people who define emotions as feelings, the feeling of terror, the feeling of delight, the feeling of the feeling of anguish. That's that's the emotion. It's the feeling.
But you've said there's feelings where physical sensations start to jump in.
Well, I'm talking about affect. I'm talking about simple feelings of feeling pleasant, feeling unpleasant, feeling worked up, feeling calm, tranquil, quiet. Your body feels quiet, your body feels worked up, your mind feels jangly. Your mind feels like you can focus and pay attention. I'm saying those simple feelings.
I'm not saying every feeling. I'm saying those feelings are very closely connected to your brain's modeling the sensory state of your body.
Your brain is making predictions about what's going on in your body. Your body is sending sense data back to your brain. It does a calculus that creates those feelings that these simple feelings affect or mood in the same way that your brain does a simple calculus or maybe not so simple calculus to create flavor or to create a feeling of wetness. It's creating a feeling that it doesn't have a sensor for it.
You don't have a sensor for feeling unpleasant or feeling uncomfortable. There's no sensor for that anywhere. There's no circuit for that anywhere either. Your brain's constructing it out of a combination of neurons firing in a particular pattern. So that's what I'm saying. You know, when you see red, you are experiencing red. That's a feeling of redness. It's not like when you hear a loud sound, you're experiencing the loudness of it. You're feeling it. I mean, so experience and feeling in general are words that are used interchangeably.
And what I mean by a feeling is these simple feelings, feeling pleasant, unpleasant or feeling comfortable, uncomfortable, feeling worked up and jangly, feeling tranquil and quiet. They are simple feelings that come from your brain's modeling, the state of your body, the conditions of your body. There's a whole drama going on inside your body that you hopefully are unaware of if you're aware of it. I feel really bad for you because it means something's wrong and you're really uncomfortable.
But most of the time we're not really aware of all the Michigan is going on inside our own bodies. Instead, what evolution has provided us with is a brain that will make a feeling of feeling pleasant or unpleasant or, you know, it's like a barometer for your body budget. How is your body body doing? OK, in the red, you know, that's what it's telling you, basically, and not much more. So then what are emotions?
So emotions are when your brain is attempting to make sense of that, what is it doing? It's using past experience to predict what to do next and predict what you will see next and what you will hear next and what you will smell next. And all of that and that whole shebang is an emotion. The whole narrative, the whole thing is the emotion. So is it a preparation for acting in a particular way? Yes, it is. But that doesn't mean that fear is always preparing you to run or freeze, because sometimes fear leads you to.
For you, it prepares you to approach something. Sometimes fear leads you to laugh. But what I'm trying to say is that why are we calling it an emotion? We're just calling it an emotion, because the information the brain is using, the past experience is using our past experiences of emotion. There's nothing that's different about the construction of an emotional event in your life than there is about an event of belief or an event of thought or an event of rationality or an event of perception.
If somebody cuts me off on the highway and I'm in my car, I mean, I don't drive, I haven't driven on the highway in a year, but let's imagine I'm in my car, I'm driving to work. I have a passenger inside me and out of my peripheral vision.
I'm unaware, but my peripheral vision, I can see a car about to drive into my lane and cut me off just as I initially. My brain is basically detecting the most the simplest, slight change in my peripheral vision. It's making a set of predictions about what's going to happen next, what's going to happen next. And it's predicting, predicting, predicting.
And so by the time I actually see that car consciously, I already have a flush of adrenaline already because my brain sent it in preparation and actually prepared me to see that car cutting into my lane. And I respond with what that person is for doing that right, and as if the is in the person right, it's like a property. So my negativity there is like a property of that person's. Now, you would say, what are you experiencing, and I'd be like, I'm experiencing that person isn't an onlooker might say, no, no, you're angry right there.
That's anger. Well, who's right? Is that a perception of a person or is that anger?
And the answer is it's a completely scientifically meaningless question because it's both because that event has a bunch of features. One of the features is this seeing a car cut me off, that feature is also constructed by my brain, but it's close to the sensor data that are coming in from my retina. So we call it a property of the world, but really my brain constructed it.
You see, in your brain, you don't see in your eyes. And my brain is also constructing the experience of my sweaty armpits in that moment because I don't have any sensors for wetness on my body and like anybody else. Right. So my brain is constructing that feature. So my brain is constructing the feature of unpleasant feeling and my my brain is constructing all of these features. And so is that an anger instance? Sure. Yeah. You could say that the word anger might come to mind in me or in you, and so anger could be a feature of that event.
And is it a perception of a person? Absolutely. It's a perception. There is also those features. I mean, basically, it's like a signal ground problem, like a signal foreground background problem, or it's basically your brain is creating a set of features in that instance.
And people who study emotion want to call that an emotion. And people who study memory want to call that memory. And people who study perception, they want to call that perception. But it's all those things. And what it is for you is whichever feature is in the focus of your attention.
So labels become tricky when you're trying to apply them to dynamic multivariate processes. You know, an engineer could not have said it better than you just did.
I was looking for a better grade. That's all I'm doing.
Yeah, no, I would say you're totally up. That actually gets you, like I would say in a actually that was in a yeah.
But then you can change the meaning. You can ask yourself consciously, deliberately if you must, but maybe if you've done it enough you might automatically ask yourself. It might automatically happen that your brain is predicting something different now because you practiced.
You might say maybe that person has to get their kid to a hospital or maybe that person has to be somewhere really importantly to help somebody else. Or maybe that person just didn't have enough coffee this morning and just didn't see you. Any of those things could be true if your brain is prepared itself with enough variation in experience. You have options to feel differently and eventually it will affect your affect first. It might just affect the story that you tell and whether the affect is prolonged by the actions that you take.
But eventually it might actually affect the affect because you are always cultivating your past. As a means of predicting who you will be in the future. And I'm saying that not as somebody who believes in. Mystical things, I'm saying this to you as a scientist who studies how the brain works. And as I understand it, while you're not a practicing Buddhist, you've done quite a lot of work with Buddhists and there seems to be quite a lot of overlap between your research findings and twenty six hundred years of contemplative practice and thought.
Yes, I will say that I am I'm a very big fan of philosophy in general, I think about philosophy as whether it's Western philosophy or contemplative philosophy. I think of philosophy as tools for living. And to some extent, I also think of science this way as well. And I've been very fortunate to have conversations with people who are very learned scholars and contemplative traditions, including John Donne, who actually works with Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin.
And one of my former postdocs actually works with them as well. And I mention this because previously to this taping, Dan, you and I had a conversation about Ritchie's work. And so what I've learned through talking to various people, including John, is that, you know, there's an Obie Dharmic tradition, the Dharma tradition in Buddhism that is very consistent with much of what my scientific work aligns with. The self is a fiction and that these fictions can interfere with your ability to experience the world authentically and that the world is made of Dharma's.
That experience, I should say, is made of Dharma's. But this is where things get a little tricky, because in the movie Dharmic tradition, there are Dharma's for pleasantness, unpleasantness for arousal like surveillance and arousal. These properties of simple feeling that I'm talking about. But there are also Dharma's for anger and fear and so on. And and so that's where we diverge, I think, because I also think of these things as constructed. They're constructed with the knowledge that you have from your past.
And we haven't talked at all about concepts. But what I understand the brain to be doing when it's making a prediction is to generating an ad hoc concept basically out of the past. And I can unpack that if we had more time. But what I will say is that interestingly, in Buddhist philosophy, there is also a revisionist version of that philosophy, which I think the key figure is Dhammakaya t, who I think lived in the I think its second century or seventh century.
Sometime after the Buddha who came along and said, no, these Dharma's are not actual essences of true experience. They're just constructed by the human mind with human concepts.
And I was like, yes, that's totally consistent with what we're driving at with science that we do so in every Western science, in physics, in chemistry and biology, and hopefully someday in psychology you see science moving from this very essentialist view of the world to this more constructionist or relational view. Right. So that's what quantum mechanics is. It's not saying that electrons don't exist. It's saying, well, that what we measure, this energy change that we measure in the way that we measure it, know we could describe as an electron what exists is always in relation to whatever else is going on.
And that's very much a constructionist view of the brain and of the mind. And it turns out that you see this kind of trajectory in all of these Western sciences and then you see the same trajectory in Buddhist philosophy, which is, I think, really cool. Right. So you go from the Abbey Dharma where. Yeah, sure. The self is constructed, but it's still essentialist. And assuming that the Dharma's have Essence's and are real in nature, and then you go from that to Dhammakaya to you who says no, no, even these things that we think of as Essence's now, they're actually constructed to you go to this really much more completely relational view of meaning and relational view of meaning.
Does it mean like what postmodern like the stereotype of postmodernist views. Right. It's not like nothing is real and there's no meaning in anything. It's that everything is meaningful in relation to something else. And a lot of that meaning which is real comes from humans who impose that meaning together. We impose meaning, we impose functions on things that, by virtue of their physical nature, don't have that function, but we impose that function collectively and then poof, they have that function like little pieces of paper serve as value, as carrying value for his money, because we all agree that those little pieces of paper can be traded for material goods.
And then when someone decides they can't anymore, then they don't have value anymore. So it's like that's what caused the mortgage crash, right, in 2008. So much of what we do works that way for humans. And what I would say is there's no physical change in your body that is uniquely or distinctly meaningful as an emotion unless you make it that way. And why would you make it that way? Because somebody taught you that that's the meaning that you should make and that other people make that meaning to.
So just in the same way that we impose a function on pieces of paper. And then, poof, those particular pieces of paper have value as money we impose meaning on the raise of an eyebrow or the curl of a lip or the beat of a heart and and then, poof, they have they have real meaning as that.
Maybe I'll close with one of my favorite quotes that comes to mind sometimes I'm having a discussion like this, I've probably said it before on the podcast, so apologies.
I'm keying in on the word real. There is a great Buddhist master who said to one of the students once, it's not that you're not real, you're just not really real. And I mean so. Yes. So things are OK. I mean, money is real. It's not really real. It's still on some level paper. And it's kind of just depends on what angle you're looking at it for.
Sure. For sure. And so is your name and your reputation. And so. Yeah, exactly. So am I. Yeah. I think the way I would say it is your brain constructs everything you experience. So when you experience redness like an apple is red, you know, your brain is constructing that experience of redness. It's not in your retina. Even the cones in your retina are have to three different kinds of cones have to work together in order to send the signal to the brain that will allow you to see red.
It's not even a single cone. It's like always a cooperation of things. It's always a pattern.
And so your brain is constructing the feature of redness. It's computing that feature for you to experience. Now, that feature tends to be really close to what's in the world, which is a wavelength of light at six hundred nanometers. But then your brain also can construct features that are not so close to the world like wetness, right. In the sense that there is something wetness in the world, but your brain isn't sensing those Sensata of wetness. Your brain's using other sensor data to kind of conjure or put together a feature like wetness that you experience.
So it's a little more distant from the actual world. And then there are some features that we just make up. We just make them up. But if we agree on them, then we can in certain cases, make them real. So you and I can agree that we can walk through walls, but that actually doesn't mean that it can happen. Right. We can't just make that happen. We can agree with each other that we can eat glass as food.
But that doesn't mean that we can, right? I mean, it doesn't change the physical reality constrains the meaning making. Right. We could agree that covid is not incredibly contagious virus and that we don't have to wear masks. But a virus really doesn't care what we think all it cares about. If you can say that it cares about anything is that we have a nice wet set of lungs. But there are things we can do to say, you know what, this airspace, this air, this empty air between two buildings, we're going to call that air rights and I'm going to sell it to you.
And then you give me money and then you can build anything you want there. And then, poof, if we all agree, then we can use one made up thing called money to get another made up thing called air rights that we can build something on and make it real. We can all agree that making a particular mark on a particular piece of paper is called a vote, and then those votes get counted to elect a person who has particular powers.
They only have those powers because we all agree they have those powers. And if we took those powers away, if we stopped agreeing, they wouldn't have those powers anymore. They only have those powers because we all agree they have those powers. And actually, some people might come along and say, well, those little pieces of paper, for certain people, they don't count as votes. Right. So all of this is what we call social reality.
It is a kind of reality and it has a very direct relationship off into physical reality. There's so much more to say about this and we really have to wrap up. But social reality is constrained by physical reality, but it can also influence physical reality.
And it does so all the time. And it does so when you make a stomach ache into an emotion because that dictates what you do next. And that will influence not only your own body budget and whether or not you're paying a little tax that will leave you to be vulnerable to a metabolic illness in 10 or 20 years from now. But it also influences how other people treat you in that moment, which then could set you on a very different trajectory.
So how you make meaning of things is not just like I said before, it's not well, if it is maybe like a Jedi mind trick in the sense that it actually has real implications, it's not just a game. This has been delightful and so interesting, and I realize that we've held you longer than we've intended, so I'm going to let you go, but not without saying thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Really appreciate it.
Yeah. My pleasure. My pleasure. I love that conversation, we're already talking about bringing her back, because as you probably have concluded by now, she's pretty awesome. This show is made by some equally awesome people, Samuel Johns, Jay Cashmere, Kim Biema, Maria Wartell and Jen Point, who we call Poy with audio engineering by ultraviolet audio. And as always, a big shout out to Ryan Kessler and Josh Cohen from ABC News. We'll see you all on Wednesday for a fresh episode.
During the state, there was too much looking down and I think it was a little too fair. How do you feel about it? Much better than last week.
From Best Case Studios and ABC Audio, listen to In Plain Sight Lady Bird Johnson, a new podcast about the power of a political partnership, one that somehow doesn't show up in the many, many accounts of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, told through ladybirds own audio diaries and available now on Spotify or your favorite podcast app.