Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist who has single-handedly helped us better understand why we feel how we feel. With the publication of her 2017 bestseller, How Emotions Are Made, Barrett presents a fascinating theory that states we have more control in our emotional life than we may believe.
Barrett has been top of mind for us as we’ve been exploring experts to turn to, as so many of us are feeling overwhelmed, distressed, tired, and more from the world. Here, she shares hopeful practices to better care for ourselves and help how we feel.
A note: The beginning of our conversation includes Barrett’s explanations of where feelings and emotions derive. This part is dense, albeit fascinating, so please skip to the tools near the end if you’re inclined. Still, Barrett puts it best: “You go through life more smoothly when you understand what’s going on under the hood.”
A CONVERSATION WITH LISA FELDMAN BARRETT, PH.D
It seems so many people are having very complex emotions right now. What are you seeing, and what concerns you?
People are suffering. This bothers me because I have empathy and because, as a scientist, the stories about why people are feeling so bad and what they need to do to feel better are in error. Here’s the popular story: People have inborn fight-and-flight circuits that are triggered all the time by various threats, and that’s why we’re so fatigued and distressed. This story is predicated on the notion that emotion circuits are prewired in the brain at birth and triggered by things in the world. However, this is inconsistent with my best understanding of the scientific evidence on how emotions work. It also misses the point of why people are struggling so much.
So, I wouldn’t say that people are experiencing so many complex emotions. Instead, when people get overwhelmed, they seek simple answers to complex questions. If you look at current events, people are having simple responses to very complex situations—and again, fight-and-flight is not the best way to think about what’s going on.
How would you reframe this story? What is important to know about how we are feeling?
Your brain’s primary job is to keep your body alive and working in the most metabolically efficient way. Your brain coordinates all the drama going on inside your body. It supervises over 600 muscles, balancing dozens of hormones, coordinating your lungs, heart, and other organs, pumping blood at a half gallon per minute, digesting food, fighting illness, and much more. To accomplish this feat, your brain is constantly predicting—guessing— what will happen next and what your body’s various systems must do to prepare.
You can think of all this regulation as running a budget for your body. This budget tracks water, salt, oxygen, glucose, and other resources as you gain and lose them. Anything that replenishes resources, like eating and sleeping, are like deposits into your body budget. Anything that spends resources, like exercising or your immune system protecting you from a virus, are withdrawals. A savings is anything that makes your budgeting more efficient, like support from a loved one or a friend. Anything that makes your budgeting less efficient, like social stress, loneliness, or social isolation, is like paying a little tax. This is a simplified explanation, but it captures the key idea that running a body requires biological resources.
And your brain is always guessing when to spend and save resources, tuning its budgeting efforts along the way.
As every investor knows, uncertainty is the worst possible thing for a budget. And we live in an age of uncertainty: economic instability, climate change, polarizing politics, school shootings, social media, COVID. The world is full of uncertainty, perfectly designed to create a deficit or even bankrupt a human body budget. And you experience this deficit in your body budget as mood. You can think of your mood as a barometer of your body budget. Your brain is always regulating your body; your body is always sending sensory signals back to your brain, and your brain makes these available to itself as simple feelings we call mood. Mood is not emotion; it is a part of consciousness: feeling pleasant, feeling unpleasant, comfortable, uncomfortable, worked-up, tranquil, or whatever else you feel. And when you’re living in an age of uncertainty that is creating a body budgeting deficit, you feel it as distress, fatigue, and even exhaustion. You can also feel really worked up at times as your brain attempts to learn in the moment so it can do a better job predicting next time.
So again, mood is not emotion; it is a property of consciousness with you 24-7.
How are we making these feelings of fatigue and distress worse for ourselves?
One part of the problem is that we’ve created an environment for ourselves that is full of uncertainty. A little bit of uncertainty is a good thing. It means you have an opportunity to learn, which is an investment in predicting better in the future. But dealing with persistent, unrelenting uncertainty is one of the most expensive things your brain must deal with, in addition to the cost of maintaining and moving your body.
Then, to add to this persistent uncertainty, we add a bunch of factors that make it much harder for the brain to regulate the body. We don’t get enough sleep. We eat ultra-processed foods. We’re often dehydrated and don’t exercise efficiently. And then there are other people.
Humans can be notoriously unpredictable, especially when interacting on social media, which enhances the uncertainty. Your nervous system didn’t evolve to regulate your body budget on its own. It’s a joint job. We are the caretakers of each other’s body budgets. We make deposits and withdrawals of a sort, adding taxes and savings into other people’s body budgets by what we say and do. The best thing for a human body budget is another person. And, unfortunately, the worst thing for a human body budget is another person. Add up all these factors, and you have a perfect storm of circumstances for people to be exhausted, stressed, and miserable.
And then there is one more factor to consider: the meaning-making process. Part of what your brain is doing when making predictions is creating a story to make sense of your mood (and the sensations that give rise to them) in relation to what is happening around you. This is how your brain makes an instance of emotion. An instance of emotion is a complex construction. It explains what is causing the drama in the body and what to do about it. So, if you’re running a body budgeting deficit and you are feeling crappy, you have the ingredients to make negative emotions more frequently. Emotions are not built into your brain from birth. They’re built by your brain on the fly to make sense of what’s happening inside your body in relation to what’s happening around you in the world.
The good news is you are the agent of this meaning-making process. You are an architect of your experience.
How can we start to feel better? Will you walk us through your tools?
Every moment of your life is some combination of the remembered past and the sensory present. When your brain is making a prediction, your brain is remembering instances from the past. Your brain is reassembling past memories similar to the present to guess what will happen in the immediate future. With help from the sensory present, those predictions become your experience and your actions. And the sensory present also influences the next set of predictions your brain makes.
So, if you want to change how you feel, you must either change the sensory present or the remembered past. Here’s how:
#1: Take care of your body budget.
One source of the sensory present is the state of your body. If you want to be a better architect of your experience, get your body budget in shape:
Get enough sleep. This is the most important thing.
Go for a walk every day.
Be kind to others. This helps their body budgets and yours—research confirms this.
All of these make it easier for your brain to manage your body’s budget.
Also, try to be predictable in speaking and acting towards others. When you’re predictable to other people, they’re more predictable to you, and that reduces the burden on your body budget.
# 2: Change your environment.
The second source of the sensory present is what’s going on around you in the world. The easiest way to change your environment is to get up and move somewhere else:
Go for a walk. Focus on the sky. The trees.
Move to a different room.
Avoid social media if it’s a cesspool of uncertainty for you.
Modifying your environment is another way to control your sensory present. Offer a random act of kindness. When I feel really bad, I bake bread for my neighbor. I’m cultivating a different sensory present here, engaging in what scientists call niche construction. As I bake, I imagine his reaction, and then when I present him with the bread, I can savor the smile on his face.
#3: Shift your attention.
Now, if it’s impossible to change your environment physically, say you’re in a meeting or trying to sleep at night, you can change your sensory present by shifting your attention. You can foreground certain features in your body or your immediate surroundings and background other features. You can:
Focus on your breath.
Focus on something in the room and try to experience it as pleasant or as the source of something to be grateful for.
Think of something in your life that fills you with awe.
#4 Change the Remembered Past
Of course, it’s impossible to change your past, but with some effort, you can change how your brain will construct your experience and guide your actions differently in the future.
You can invest time and energy now to curate new experiences by reading books, watching movies, trying new activities, and meeting new people. Every experience you cultivate, and everything you learn right now is an investment that seeds your brain to predict differently, make meaning differently, and, therefore, experience the world and act differently in the future. What you do today gives you a bit of control over who you can become tomorrow.
This is a big deal. And it takes practice, like any skill. At first, it takes effort, and then it becomes more automatic. Here is one skill I like:
Practice creating the experience of awe. When you experience awe, you become a speck, and so your problems also become very small. And this gives your nervous system a momentary break. You can practice feeling awe by taking five minutes of your day. You can start with these:
Look at a flower.
Look at the stars at night.
Listen to the ocean.
Eventually, you can move on to harder things. After much practice, I can look at a crushed-up dandelion poking its ugly little head out of a crack in the sidewalk and experience the awe of the power of nature to resist humans’ attempts to constrain it. And the cool thing is that now, when I’m in a very stressful situation, I can slip into a moment of awe. I can do this because I’ve changed the remembered past.
This is all very hopeful.
Yes, it is. This is one reason why I published my first book —How Emotions Are Made. People like it because it gives them tools to have more control over how they feel. Science is a set of tools for living your life better and being the kind of human you want to be. This message is very different than ‘You’re a victim, and here’s what you can do to protect yourself.’ I am saying, ‘You are an agent in your own life. You are an architect.’
Can we control everything that happens? No. Do we all wish we had more control than we do? For sure. Do some people have more control than others? Absolutely—and that is unfair. And we all wish control would be easier than it is. But still, you have more control over how you feel than you think you do. And that is very hopeful.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, is one of the most cited scientists for her research in psychology and neuroscience. She is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, and she holds appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. She has written two books, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain and How Emotions are Made. Learn more at lisafeldmanbarrett.com.