Researcher Explains What 'Inside Out' Got Wrong About Emotions

You needn't be controlled by your emotions, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, a distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University. Cultivating new experiences of emotional situations can seed your brain to have more control in the future. (iStock)

Everything you thought you knew about the brain and emotions is basically wrong, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, a distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University. Unlike the portrayal in the Pixar movie "Inside Out," we don’t experience happiness, sadness, disgust, anger and other feelings as simple reactions to events, or even as discrete emotions.

Rather, we construct our emotions from past experiences and vary them based on input, Barrett says. The brain constructs emotions the same way it creates experiences of color based on wavelengths of light. When the brain processes new life experience, it produces new variations in emotion.

Barrett recently spoke with Michael Krasny, the host of KQED’s Forum radio show, to discuss why law enforcement’s playbook for "reading" emotions in body language is flawed, why particular emotions improve memory and keep the brain young, and how an autistic brain processes emotions differently from a neurotypical one. Her new book, “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” explores these questions in depth.

Here are some excerpts from Barrett’s answers  on the show, edited for length and readability.

Emotions Reside Everywhere – And Nowhere – in the Brain

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Scientists have been looking for the brain neurons that are devoted to sadness or fear for more than a century, and they haven’t been able to find them. Scientists used to believe that neurons embedded in the amygdala were the home of fear, for example.

But we know that people can experience fear without a fully formed amygdala. And exactly the same networks are used when you’re angry, when you’re happy, when you’re thinking and remembering and so forth.

We’ve done a meta-analysis, finding every published paper, every brain imaging study where scientists are peering into the brain when people experience anger or fear or sadness. We statistically combined this result and found that there is no set of neurons anywhere in the brain, no region, that is dedicated to any single emotion.

When It Comes to Body Language, ‘Reading’ Emotions Can Be Misleading

Scientists have been searching for the physical pattern for anger or sadness — does your heart rate rise? Do you sweat? Do you frown? Do you smile? Different patterns in different emotions. So, the stereotype of anger is that you scowl, your cheeks get red, your blood pressure goes up, maybe you start to breathe more quickly.

But scientists have discovered that people do lots of things in anger. People can tremble in anger, jump in anger. They can scream in anger. They can even laugh in the face of anger. Similarly, people smile when they’re sad. They scream when they’re happy. When it comes to emotion, variation is the norm — and every biological measure tells us that this is the case.

What we know about the research is that there is a particular kind of experimental method that when you use it, can make it look as if everybody scowls in anger and can recognize others scowling in anger. But when you use methods that mirror what people do in everyday life a bit better, you see that people don’t make a single expression in anger

Our Brains ‘Construct’ Emotions By Guessing

Perceivers are making guesses in the blink of an eye about what the facial movements mean. And understanding that you’re really guessing really changes how you read emotion in other people.

Our brain is using our past experiences to automatically guess what a facial movement means in terms of emotion. Brains are organized in a way that allows you to predict. So every sight, every smell, everything you experience including emotion, your brain is making a prediction, using past experience, about what sensations are going to happen next. And then it uses the input from the world and from your body to either confirm the experience, or to change those predictions.

Pain is a really interesting example. Scientists who study pain have defined it as an emotion. There are sensations, and your brain is trying to make sense of where those sensations come from. An ache in your body, for example, can be disgust, can be longing for someone that you miss. It can be anger. It can also be hunger. It can be nausea, or simple fatigue. Your brain is constantly guessing, and using your past experience, it usually guesses pretty well.

Harnessing the Brain’s Predictive Capacities to Alter Your Emotions

You can use to your advantage that variation is the norm, in that you can cultivate new experiences of emotion. So if it’s the case that your brain is using past experience to construct your experiences in the present, then anything new that you construct in the present will seed your brain to construct those experiences more effortlessly in the future.

So if you cultivate new experiences of gratitude or of awe, or even of anger—  where what your body feels like is different, but also what you do is different — then you are seeding your brain to have more control, more choice, the next time you’re in a similar situation.

Emotions Are Subject to Cultural Variation

Sometimes an emotion like sadness can mean something very different in one culture than another. And there are some emotions that some cultures have that other cultures don’t. So for example, there’s an emotion, "gezellig," a Dutch word that means to feel coziness and comfort with those whom you love. It’s not that we can’t make that emotion, but our brains have to take experiences from the past and combine them in new ways to make that experience. This is what cognitive scientists call “conceptual combination.”

You and I can make "gezellig," but look at how long it’s taken for me to describe it to you.

How Pushing Through Discomfort Keeps the Brain Young

We were doing research on the ways in which feelings influence memory, because we know that there aren’t dedicated parts of the brain for memory or for feeling. So it seemed evident that as people age, they rely more on their feelings as a guide for what to pay attention to and what to remember.

So we were running these experiments and what was noticed was in our sample of elderly participants, people over 65, about half of them on standard tests for memory in a way that was indistinguishable from the average 25-year-old. We found this to be exciting, because we’re really interested in trying to understand what the contributions are to successful aging.

We were doing brain imaging studies and we noticed a whole suite of brain regions that were not just thicker but also better connected in these “super-agers” when compared to the typical elderly participant. And then when we compared the “super-agers'’” brains to young people, we noticed no differences. So not only did they have youthful memory, they had youthful brains.

This makes a link between how well your brain is controlling the systems of your body and how good your memory is. These regions are also good for creating the simple feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness that come from your body. What we think is going on is that super-agers have really good memories because when they start to feel uncomfortable in doing a hard task, instead of stopping, super-agers take this feeling of yuckiness as a cue to work harder. Discomfort may be a sign of weakness leaving the brain. So if you work hard and push through the yuck, we think the likelihood is that will be very good for your memory.

The Connection Between Emotions and Treating Autism

There are studies that have children or adolescents on the autism spectrum, where they teach children to recognize a scowl as anger, to recognize a pout as sadness, and so on. But their ability to learn these faces does not translate into improved social and emotional functioning in everyday life. The reason why is, people rarely scowl in anger and they rarely pout in sadness.

Scientists have known all along that this training in stereotypes is not going to prepare kids for social and emotional functioning in the real world.

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What’s interesting about brains of individuals who are on the autism spectrum is that unlike a neurotypical brain, which uses past experience to predict what’s about to happen, brains of people who are on the autistic spectrum aren’t structured to predict very well. As a consequence, they have very high levels of anxiety, because they’re unable to make sense of a lot of the sensory information in their world.

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