How Emotions Are Made: Lisa Feldman Barrett On The Neuroscience of Feeling

Creator: Russell Edwards

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Sometimes when you feel uncomfortable, sometimes when you feel bad, it doesn’t mean something is wrong, it just means your doing something really hard – Lisa Feldman Barrett 

In this episode, we discuss how emotions are made and how insights into how our brains make us feel can help us cope with challenging situations. 

My guest is Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor, and neuroscientist at Northeastern University, who is the author of seven books on emotion and the brain, including the best-selling book How Emotions Are Made, The Secret Life Of The Brain, and most recently, Seven And A Half Lessons About The Brain. In addition to her books, Dr. Barrett has published over 260 peer-reviewed scientific papers. She received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for her revolutionary research on emotion in the brain.

When feeling is believing. 

Professor Barrett describes the phenomenon of experiencing sensations and emotions as equally real as “affective realism.” According to her, affective realism is the use of feelings as evidence of the world’s particular state. For instance, if you feel negative, you may conclude something bad is happening, or if you get into an argument at work, it might “feel” like the other person is threatening you – when they probably aren’t.

You’re not experiencing the world as it is; you’re experiencing the world through affect colored glasses.

This happens to me quite frequently when I’m playing tennis. I’m playing a game, it’s supposed to be fun, but the nature of the game is one-on-one and zero-sum. So when I lose the advantage, or the score gets tight, my system ignores the fact that I’m trying to have fun, and it goes into panic mode as if my life is at stake; if I don’t manage the physical reactions and my feelings, my errors start piling up.

Using software terminology, this is a feature – not a bug. 

Your brain is a prediction machine. Due to the limited time available to perceive and process the environment AND quickly take action, affective realism provides a means of feeling as though our predictions are valid, enabling us to adapt to our surroundings and survive – with little hesitation. 

Her groundbreaking research overturns many prior assumptions about emotions, like the idea that emotions are innate or hard-wired in an ancient, “reptilian” part of the brain. There are no distinct parts of the brain dedicated to specific emotions, such as the amygdala for fear, for example.

I think you can see some of the implications here for how we understand and respond to emotions in both ourselves and others. 

On this show, we cover these and other topics like …

  • A discussion about theory in scientific contexts
  • The classical view of emotions
  • An overview of her research in constructed emotion
  • The problem with the “amygdala hijack” and the reptilian brain
  • The brain as a prediction machine
  • Rationality
  • Mood and metabolic efficiency
  • The body-budget
  • How emotions can be recategorized
  • A new take on depression
  • Implications for psychotherapy and approaches to mental health
  • The story of her daughter and the “emotional flu.”
  • Decision-making, rationality, and the use of emotion


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