You Aren’t At The Mercy Of Your Emotions – Your Brain Creates Them [Video]

Can you look at someone’s face and know what they’re feeling? Does everyone experience happiness, sadness and anxiety the same way? What are emotions anyway?

For the past 25 years, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett has mapped facial expressions, scanned brains and analyzed hundreds of physiology studies to understand what emotions really are. She shares the results of her exhaustive research — and explains how we may have more control over our emotions than we think.

A TED presentation by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Video presented with the permission of TED

Video Transcript

Lisa Feldman Barrett:

My research lab sits about a mile from where several bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon in 2013. The surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Chechnya, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Now, when a jury has to make the decision between life in prison and the death penalty, they base their decision largely on whether or not the defendant feels remorseful for his actions. Tsarnaev spoke words of apology, but when jurors looked at his face, all they saw was a stone-faced stare. Now, Tsarnaev is guilty, there’s no doubt about that. He murdered and maimed innocent people, and I’m not here to debate that. My heart goes out to all the people who suffered. But as a scientist, I have to tell you that jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody ever. Neither can I, and neither can you, and that’s because emotions are not what we think they are. They are not universally expressed and recognized. They are not hardwired brain reactions that are uncontrollable. We have misunderstood the nature of emotion for a very long time, and understanding what emotions really are has important consequences for all of us.

I have studied emotions as a scientist for the past 25 years, and in my lab, we have probed human faces by measuring electrical signals that cause your facial muscles to contract to make facial expressions. We have scrutinized the human body in emotion. We have analyzed hundreds of physiology studies involving thousands of test subjects. We’ve scanned hundreds of brains, and examined every brain imaging study on emotion that has been published in the past 20 years. And the results of all of this research are overwhelmingly consistent. It may feel to you like your emotions are hardwired and they just trigger and happen to you, but they don’t. You might believe that your brain is prewired with emotion circuits, that you’re born with emotion circuits, but you’re not. In fact, none of us in this room have emotion circuits in our brain. In fact, no brain on this planet contains emotion circuits.

So what are emotions, really? Well, strap on your seat belt, because … emotions are guesses. They are guesses that your brain constructs in the moment where billions of brain cells are working together, and you have more control over those guesses than you might imagine that you do.

Now, if that sounds preposterous to you, or, you know, kind of crazy, I’m right there with you, because frankly, if I hadn’t seen the evidence for myself, decades of evidence for myself, I am fairly sure that I wouldn’t believe it either. But the bottom line is that emotions are not built into your brain at birth. They are just built.

To see what I mean, have a look at this.

Right now, your brain is working like crazy. Your neurons are firing like mad trying to make meaning out of this so that you see something other than black and white blobs. Your brain is sifting through a lifetime of experience, making thousands of guesses at the same time, weighing the probabilities, trying to answer the question, “What is this most like?” not “What is it?” but “What is this most like in my past experience?” And this is all happening in the blink of an eye. Now if your brain is still struggling to find a good match and you still see black and white blobs, then you are in a state called “experiential blindness,” and I am going to cure you of your blindness. This is my favorite part. Are you ready to be cured?

All right. So now many of you see a snake, and why is that? Because as your brain is sifting through your past experience,