“The classical view of emotion” doesn’t fit into today’s world
For centuries we have believed that the “classical view of emotion” explains how all human emotions are created. We are born with a set of emotions which are triggered by certain situations in our lives. These are created as a “fingerprint”, something which is ingrained within our very being. When we come into contact with a trigger, our brain’s neurons fire and that emotional response are created.
Our author never bought into the classical standpoint, seeking answers which were far more individual for every single human being. Beginning her studies as a clinical psychologist in the 1980s, she decided to study where emotions actually came from, finding many surprising results along the way. One study really piqued her interest and pushed her to study further; this was a study of patients who were suffering from either anxiety or depression.
Upon asking them questions, she found that neither set were able to accurately describe which condition they had by what it felt like. We know that anxiety and depression are two different conditions, with different feelings attached. From this, she discovered “emotional granularity”, i.e. the ability for some people to be able to recognise emotions better than others.
An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world
People respond to different emotions in different ways, so how can emotions be something we’re born with and have a set of fingerprint responses to? Our author set off on a journey to discover that perhaps emotions are far more individual than we realize.
Understanding how emotions are predicated and simulated within the brain from past experiences
The experiences we have had in the past give meaning and “meat” to the way we feel in the present moment. Our brains remember our experiences and the way they made us feel, the way we reacted, and all of this information is used to formulate a response when a similar situation, or one which the brain considers to be similar, arises in the future.
This process is called simulation, and behind the scenes, the tiny neurons within the brain are firing to recollect past experiences to put together the story of what you’re experiencing now. These neurons all have different jobs to do, e.g. some recognize the sensations of how something looks, some recognize how it feels, some recognize how to tastes, etc. This is a combination of sensory and motor neurons.
For instance, if someone handed you a piece of pineapple, sensory and motor neurons would work together to remember information from previous pineapples you’ve experienced and given you a full mental picture to work with. This is called simulation from a concept.
The concept is what you know something to be from your past experiences, and simulation is the process of your brain putting everything together. Our author, therefore, puts forth the idea that the same concept and simulation process could be responsible for creating emotions.
A good example is if you suddenly develop a stomach ache while sitting at a dinner table. You piece together the reason for the stomach ache from your experiences, e.g. you’ve eaten too much, or perhaps someone you miss terribly just walked into the room. It could be either option, and your brain will come to a conclusion based on your experience. Is this how emotions are also made? Our author calls this “constructed emotion”.
Do you believe that emotions are universally recognizable?
Our author shows us a picture of tennis player Serena Williams. This picture shows only her face, with her eyes screwed closed, mouth screaming. From the picture you could assume that she is terrified, screaming in fear. When you see the whole full body picture however, you see her body stance is actually showing relief and glee, because she’s just won match point. From this example, you can see how emotions could very easily be mistaken for something else, and therefore possibly not universally recognizable. Does it all depend upon the situation and what snapshots you actually get to see?
The classical view of emotions says that you don’t need to see the full picture; in this case, that would mean you would accurately be able to tell what Serena Williams was feeling from just the picture of her face. That’s clearly not the case, however.
Whilst our facial expressions are one of the biggest ways to communicate non-verbally, it completely depends upon how it is interpreted by the other person. In that case, the idea that basic emotions are clear via facial expression is not at all correct.
Communication between the brain and body creates a range of different emotions
The brain is a control centre of everything body — related, and that means your brain is constantly working, telling your body to do, feel, and show. From that, what your body shows to the outside world is a representation of what your brain thinks. The brain doesn’t work alone however, it works with the rest of the body. If your body is feeling lethargic, it’s likely that your emotions will be negative, and vice versa.
Your brain is always predicting what it needs to give the rest of your body in order to keep the energy at its optimum level. This is basic survival 101. For a long time, many scientists believed that emotions and their physical reactions were caused by the different parts of the brain, but it’s actually more of a complete picture. Your brain cannot work alone. For instance, if you move quickly to catch a tennis ball, you have to move your body quickly, and you have to breathe in a deeper manner, in order to get the oxygen to the part of your body that needs to move.
This entire process is called interoception, and within this you have something called a “body budget”.
Your body-budgeting regions can, therefore, trick your brain into believing that there is tissue damage, regardless of what is happening in your body.
Your body budget needs to be even at the very least, to ensure that your body is getting the energy it requires, at the right time. When your body budget is low, you’re tired, lethargic, and probably about to get sick. Within this, your emotions will also suffer. What goes on within your body affects your mental function too, and vice versa. This interoceptive process can cause errors in emotion, e.g. jumping to conclusions, being irrational etc, because your body budget needs to be in balance in order for everything to be harmonious.
A combination of concepts and categories helps the brain to create emotions
Earlier we touched upon the idea of concepts, and without these, your brain is literally working in the dark. As you move through life you add new concepts to your list, and that means you are able to experience a greater range of emotions as a result. Concepts help the world to make sensate you as an individual, and when you experience a new concept, your brain begins to categorize it, to make meaning of how it links into your interoceptive network, and how you will react to it in the future.
Put simply, a concept is what you understand something to actually be, e.g. the sky is blue. That is a concept. People can have different concepts of different things, and this is a completely individual thought process.
When a word is linked to a concept it becomes more powerful, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t experience that concept without an actual label or title for it. For instance, children do not know the words that describe something they’ve experienced, they only have the concept they’ve just encountered and how they felt about it, e.g. the emotion. Learning is faster when a word is attached, however, making concepts more powerful overall.
Categorization becomes more complex because there are many different ways to respond to emotion or situation. For instance, one person might start shouting and screaming when they become angry, whereas another person might simply sit there and seethe silently. Your brain comes up with the winning idea via categorization. This is chosen via your past experiences and how they felt/how you reacted, with a little prediction thrown in for good measure. Your perception of that emotion will then influence the way you act. This explains why reactions to certain emotions can be quite individual.
Does society and its “rules” affect the way our emotions are created?
Many of our emotions are influenced by what society tells us, and this can vary depending upon the type of society you live in. All it takes for someone to influence emotions is to come up with an idea via a concept, tell someone about it, and let the word spread.
For instance, if two people have the same idea of what anger looks like, they’ll be able to tell instantly when the other is angry, perhaps by simply furrowing the brow. This is because they both connect brow furrowing to be a sign of anger. These shared ideas are often part and parcel of closed societies.
Social reality is not just about words — it gets under your skin. If you perceive the same baked good as a decadent “cupcake” or a healthful “muffin,” research suggests that your body metabolizes it differently
Why constructed emotion gives you total control
The classic view of emotions doesn’t give you any control. It tells us that our emotions are part and parcel of our evolution and they are ingrained within us from birth. From there, a certain trigger will kick off the emotional response and we’re powerless to stop it. That’s really not the case.
The ideas that our author has presented throughout the book, known as constructed emotion, actually gives you total control over your emotions and how you feel. This, therefore, gives you control over your actions too, especially if you are someone who is particularly ruled by their emotions to a large degree.
Constructed emotion teaches us that the brain is predictive and that it isn’t reactive, as the classical view suggests. The brain is always trying to predict what is going to happen next, basically because it is trying to keep you alive. Of course, your past experiences and the state of your body budget at that time is also going to come into play, creating a full forecasting system for your emotions.
Look after your brain and body, learn to control your emotions
Our brain and our bodies, i.e. the mental and the physical aspects, are constantly communicating with one another and working together. When you do something physical, it affects the mental, and vice versa. For this reason, looking after both your brain and body is vital if you want to hold the reins of control over your emotions.
Our author gives us some useful suggestions on how to do this:
• Keep your body budget balanced by giving your body exactly what it needs, e.g. a healthy diet, plenty of exercises, and enough sleep.
• Try having regular massages, as touch is known to help with emotional health and wellbeing.
• Try yoga, helping you to calm yourself down in a difficult moment, with the help of breath.
• Spend more time outside in nature and in natural light.
• Stay away from noise and pollution as much as possible.
• Become more emotionally intelligent to give you more control over your emotions. You can do that by learning more words and opening your mind to new situations. Learning new words will help you create new concepts
Containing your emotions during difficult times can be achieved
Aside from controlling your emotions in the general run of life, you also need to be able to exercise control during difficult times. This is hard for everyone, but it can be achieved with a few useful methods. Our author suggests simply moving your body is one of the best ways to handle the way you feel in the heat of the moment. Animals use this method all the time and it is very successful. In addition, trying some general exercise will help you burn off excess emotions and gain clarity of thought through distraction.
Recategorization is a very useful tool, which can be used if you have a range of concepts at your disposal. By learning more words, creating new concepts, you’re able to use recategorization in order to help you overcome difficult moments, and therefore avoid actions which you may otherwise regret. This simply involves thinking about a situation in a different way and using a different concept. If you only have a handful of concepts at your disposal this will be harder, but if you have several, you can pick and choose as you like!
Another option is to try mindfulness meditation. This teaches you to be present and at the moment, rather than allowing your mind to wander off on a tangent, giving you a higher chance of detrimental actions. Mindfulness takes time but once you have mastered it, you’ll be able to simply observe emotions and thoughts without actually judging them or acting upon them. This cuts down on the chances of errors of judgement.
When we become ill our emotions are bound to be a little out of whack. This is also the case when your body budget has been out of balance for a long period of time. Stress is one of the biggest reasons for this happening. Everything suffers when your system isn’t balanced, and that includes your immune system. When your immune system is suppressed, you are far more likely to become ill physically and that, of course, affects the way you feel emotionally. This can become a vicious cycle which is difficult to break.
The idea that our emotions are born within us and are triggered by a set of predetermined footprints does not fit in with the modern way of thinking. The idea of constructed emotions, i.e. our brains using a complex series of concepts, predictions, simulations, and finally creating the emotion you experience first hand, is far more likely to be the real case.
Of course, emotions are very difficult to study because we cannot see them, we can only feel them. Measuring emotions are also extremely hard, especially in terms of scientific studies. Our author suggests that constructed emotion is far more likely to be the case, especially considering the vast differences between the way one person may react to a situation and emotion, versus the way another may react. A set of circumstances may not bother one person at all but may have another person in floods of tears and sadness. A regulatory set of triggers and footprints is therefore difficult to believe.
Despite all of this, the brain is a very difficult organ to study! As more research goes into how the brain works, perhaps we will finally get a solid answer on exactly how emotions are created within the human mind.
1. Make it your aim to keep your body budget in the positive. Focus on your diet, make a commitment to do more exercise, get outside in nature, and ensure you get enough sleep. You will find it far easier to control your emotions when your body budget is balanced.
2. Commit to learning more words, in order to help your brain come up with more concepts. Again, this will help you deal with the situation at the moment and help you to become more emotionally intelligent overall.