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Why We’re Not at the Mercy of Our Feelings

A psychologist’s work shows the brain’s power to adapt, understand and name the emotional reality we encounter.

Power of brain to control emotions
Credit: Getty Images

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” said Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a quotation that is a succinct summary of the decades-long work of psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman-Barrett.

Dr. Feldman-Barrett’s research chronicles the ways in which our brains create what she calls our “social reality,” the emotional and relational worlds we live in. 

Through brain scans and studies of facial expressions, eye movements and other physiological reactions, Feldman-Barrett traces the process by which we evaluate and interpret what we come into contact with, assigning things meaning and attaching emotions to our experiences and perceptions. 

She says that sensory information interacts with memory—something the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman calls “the remembered present.” When we hear a loud noise, for example,  our brains shuffle quickly through our memories to guess that a slamming car door, rather than a falling dish, is the likely culprit.  

In a widely-viewed 2017 TED talk, Feldman-Barrett takes this idea into the emotional realm. Emotions, she said, are not “hard wired, like they just happen to you.” Her research—decades of psychological and physiological studies—finds that emotions are, in fact, “guesses.”

That’s a strange concept, especially for those of us whose emotional lives feel big, even beyond our understanding sometimes. But the idea comes with a huge, encouraging aspect—we have tremendous control over our emotions. We aren’t at the mercy of our feelings, we use our brain’s predictive power to adapt, understand and name the emotional reality we encounter.

“Physical movements have no intrinsic emotional meaning,” she said. “We have to make them meaningful, connect them to a context.” Think of the phrase “tears of joy.” How do we know when a crying person is overwhelmed with joy? Feldman-Barrett says, our brains have the contextual insight to tell us so.

This gives us tremendous power over our mindset and outlook, and it is an invitation to think of authentic positivity as something we can bring to everything happening around us. Perhaps the unhappy Hamlet could have felt freer had he understood that his “thinking” brain has more power than he realized.

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