139 - What you didn’t know about your emotions


personal development

How to get your brain to reconstruct reality the way you want it to

Only you are responsible for how you feel

**Mcgurk effect (ba and fa) - **perception is a function of memory

_There’s an entire category of information that says you need to feel your feelings. You need to feel your feelings. You need to acknowledge that they’re there. You need to go into the feeling, maybe even full catharsis. _


But then there’s another category of thought, which is, no, you need to use your ability to top down control inhibition of the cortex on lower structures… Emotions pass. This is not real. This is just a limited set of high dimensionality stuff that's been summarized. And you know what? I don’t need to feel this way. I can make myself feel differently.

…should we feel our feelings or should we not feel our feelings?

Nearly a hundred minutes into his conversation with Lisa Feldman Barrett, who has spent three decades studying emotions, neuroscientist and podcaster Andrew Huberman asks this question.

At a time we were building a smart writing assistant for scientists, a group of engineers, product managers, and designers found ourselves in a virtual room sharing our thoughts on the organization’s values. Specifically, we had to pick out one guiding principle that resonated with us and one that we didn’t see eye to eye with.

One that rankled a number of folks was Take charge of your emotions. This bunch was probably in the ‘feel your feelings’ camp. Maybe not like Steve Jobs, who was known to be into scream therapy, but as proponents of some form of letting out steam.

Coming back, what was Barrett’s response to Huberman’s question?

So the answer there is it’s the wrong question.

…the point here is that in our experience, your brain conjures an experience, okay? And that experience is that you feel something first. You see something, you feel something, you act. That's not what’s happening. What’s happening is your brain is preparing the action first, and the feeling and your experience comes from that action preparation.

There are two very counterintuitive ideas in here:

1️⃣Your brain doesn’t react to stimuli and that process doesn’t produce emotion. The brain instead is busy continuously regulating your body. It is receiving sensory signals about the state of the body on the basis of which it is making a guess about what the body should do (or not do) to keep itself alive (or shift it to a better state). This guess or prediction your brain then relays to your body and your body does as it is told and then because of that it experiences something that you call an emotion. You don’t feel first and then act. You act, urged by your brain, and that produces an experience you label as an emotion.

Your brain is always regulating your body. Twenty four seven. And your body is always sending sensory signals back to the brain about the sensory state of the body.

2️⃣We can change our present by changing the meaning we’ve given to past events.

Now that you know that your double-masters or business-school or post-doctorate brain is not immersed in soup inside a dingy skull for the purpose of higher-level thinking but in the service of the very banal and animal goal of staying alive, here’s something more to consider:

Your brain is constantly trying to make an MP3 version of the high-definition signals it receives from sensory organs. Its input is metabolic and complex and its output is emotional and simple.

It makes sense of what is happening inside your body in relation to what is happening outside in the world, says Feldman Barrett. Say you’re trying to understand ergodicity from Nassim Taleb. It’s been forever that you’ve been stuck on the page and there’s no clearing of the fog in your head. A creeping sense of dread fills you. Maybe you’re not as smart as everyone thinks. Maybe there’s something wrong with you. Maybe you’re stupid.

At this moment, your brain is searching frantically through your experience library, trying to find a category match. It’s not asking What is this? but What’s this most like?

Our brain is searching to find an explanation for those sensations in your body that you experience as wretchedness,

_[....] _

So your brain is trying to explain what caused those sensations so that you know what to do about them. But those sensations might not be an indication that anything is wrong with your life. They might have a purely physical cause. Maybe you're tired. Maybe you didn't sleep enough. Maybe you're hungry. Maybe you're dehydrated. The next time that you feel intense distress, ask yourself: Could this have a purely physical cause? Is it possible that you can transform emotional suffering into just mere physical discomfort? Now I am not suggesting to you that you can just perform a couple of Jedi mind tricks and talk yourself out of being depressed or anxious or any kind of serious condition. But I am telling you that you have more control over your emotions than you might imagine, and that you have the capacity to turn down the dial on emotional suffering and its consequences for your life by learning how to construct your experiences differently.

So let’s try and reframe your brain’s story and take something else from it. What if you nudged your inner commentary to go something like this? Wretchedness comes before learning. Learning always feels exhausting and these feelings are nothing but a sign that you’re learning a new skill. So be happy and excited because you’re about to gain a skill.

If the brain’s job is to prepare the body to experience sensation (you deserve this break to be more comfortable OR you gotta stress because you’ll be facing an irritable boss later today), maybe you can get it to predict things that are overall helpful to you. Remember Feldman Barrett’s message that dropped the penny for me last weekend?

But as an adult, you can make decisions about what you experience now. You can make choices about how you act, and those decisions and choices either reinforce the predictions that your brain makes or it changes them.

[Insert scenarios on mental groove from the book Decisive]

That conversation with my wife was in December, last. Over the last weekend, on the road, we tuned into a recent interview of Lisa Feldman Barrett on the Hidden Brain podcast. That’s when I heard these words from Feldman Barrett:

When you enter this world as an infant, you're not wired full of memories that your brain will use to predict. Other people cultivate your world and as a consequence, they are wiring your brain full of experiences that your brain will then use to predict. You didn't have a hand in creating that world, and you are not responsible for it. But as an adult, you can make decisions about what you experience now. You can make choices about how you act, and those decisions and choices either reinforce the predictions that your brain makes or it changes them. Sometimes in life, we are responsible for changing things, not because we're culpable or to blame for those things, but because we're the only ones who can change them. And that can feel unfair, and it is unfair, in a certain way. But it's also helpful because it means that you always have tools available at your disposal to heal yourself, to act differently, and to feel differently.

The brain doesn’t respond to the signals your external (eyes, skin, ears, tongue) and internal (glucose, oxygen, salt) sensory apparatus are sending it with an emotion. It is receiving all those cues and compressing them into patterns and matching those patterns with previous instances and then labeling them using language. The labeled stuff—anger, joy, sadness, etc.—are what we call emotions.

Think of your memories as residing in a library of experiences. This is your library of experiences. When a set of signals comes close to the stuff you’ve read before from the Anger section in your library, the brain predicts that you’re in the Anger section. You then feel angry. Sometimes, the signals the brain processes don’t have an exact match so the brain has to find you a broad category. Ever said you felt angry when you felt angry and sad and frustrated and a bunch of other things too?

Why does the brain do this? Because its job is not to think but to manage the body’s resources effectively. Take that in. The brain didn’t evolve to think. It did so to run a body budget. What can I do to keep this body alive? If there’s danger, what resources can I ask this body to allocate to avoid it? If there’s food, what can I get it to do to get to the food? Metabolic processes are expensive. The brain tries to cut costs by preparing the body for an outlay.

My friend Pritesh who writes the Stay Curious newsletter is a great curator. He finds the most eclectic of ideas and stitches together fascinating reads for you and me. I find that intimidating. What I enjoy doing is finding connections. Same topic, different experts, often who don’t know of the others because they’re looking at it from just their own unique domain perspective. I’m a master of no discipline so I’ve no affiliations. It’s therefore easier for me to bring a wide and curious lens.

It is not uncommon for me to have this feeling where something I have heard about from one source I hear from another credible source and I think there’s no way the two would know of each other and I scratch my head until I hear the same thing from another, a third expert, and I wonder, Are these people all looking at the same thing and pointing to pieces of the same puzzle without perhaps knowing what the others are up to?

It’s fascinating to piece the puzzle together. But the start is always scary. John Mcphee wrote once that he found it reasonable to be lacking in confidence at the start. What is good for the great man is great for me. I’m okay with some butterflies in the stomach.

So I start with a big question that scythes across disciplines. The question belongs as much to psychologists and psychotherapists as it does to executive and life coaches. The question is:

_Can we reprogram our mind? _

The answer to the question starts with the reframing of our brain as not a detector but a creator. Here are a few more additions to what we think and what it is columns.

The short answer is YES. But I don’t expect you to agree, let alone grasp it. I’ve been where you are. There are periods where I find myself there.

So I’ll share with you glimpses of the same big picture from 5 different perspectives and allow you to process the meaning of all the information.

Emotions are events that happen TO YOU (drama triangle)

1️⃣Change your state, change your story (Tony Robbins)

2️⃣Broken promises (Dr Anna Lembke)

3️⃣Nothing ever happens to you. Everything is made up by you (Alfred Adler)

A conversation soon after I had recommended a book to my wife went something like this:

Wife: It says you’re responsible for everything. No matter what happens to you, you are the one who is in charge.

Me: Yes, as adults we are.

Wife: So there’s no such thing as trauma?

Me: There’s a time in our lives when others shape our reality for us. That’s when we’re children. But that changes when we become adults.

Wife: What about people who are victims of domestic violence, of sexual assault, of things beyond their control?

Me: [Silence]

My own experience with the book had been a torturous climb. When I first read the central idea of the book, it made little sense to me. It took me a good six months to complete The Courage to be Disliked. It had been a recommendation from a rather unlikely—though, in hindsight, entirely plausible—source: the product leader Shreyas Doshi.

I told my wife to put a pin on her questions and to dip more than her toes into the uncharted waters of Adlerian philosophy, which is what the book is about. I wish I had offered her more.

4️⃣"We did not have to be controlled by the mind with its random associations, sudden fears and angers and all the rest. We could take back the helm." (Richard Davidson, Altered Traits)

5️⃣Notice that the fear of public speaking, like many fears, is about your concerns about what will happen to you in the future. It's like the beep you hear that tells you you are going to experience pain 10 seconds in the future. Your anticipation of the pain is itself a source of pain. You haven't bombed your speech. You're just afraid it might happen, and your anxiety makes it harder for you to do well. (Shankar Vedantam, Serenity 2.0, Hidden Brain)

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