How Emotions Work: The Scientific Insights of Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett

Understanding emotions is essential for our well-being, and with the multitude of myths and misconceptions surrounding this topic, it’s vital to clear the air. Let’s delve into how emotions truly operate, guided by the wisdom of neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett.

Myths and Misconceptions About Emotions

  • Hardwired From Birth: One of the most prevalent myths is that emotions are hardwired into our brain from birth and remain consistent across all humans. However, this theory doesn’t hold water.
  • Emotions as Reactive Responses: There’s a common notion that our brain produces emotions as reactive responses, almost like a battle between our rational and emotional sides. When our logical side wins, we deem ourselves as morally right. However, if our emotional side gets the upper hand, it’s either a lapse in moral judgment or an inability to control our emotions.
  • Emotions Happen to Us: It often feels as if emotions simply happen to us, as if they appear out of the blue and drive our actions and words. Yet, this understanding doesn’t reflect how our brain truly creates emotions.

Defining Emotions: A Neuroscientist’s Perspective

While scientists universally agree that humans experience emotions, the definition of what an emotion is remains a point of contention. People’s emotional lives vary significantly. Some remain calm and placid, while others experience a whirlwind of intense feelings, often feeling that their emotions control them.

How do emotions work, exactly? Barrett points out that our brain always regulates our body. Our body sends sensory information back to the brain, like glucose levels, oxygen, and more. Rather than making us aware of every minor change, our brain provides a summary. These summaries manifest as feelings of comfort or discomfort, pleasantness or unpleasantness.

However, these feelings are merely features of an emotion, not the emotion itself. Emotions are constructed when our brain tells a story about what’s occurring inside our body, relating it to external events. This narrative uses past knowledge about emotions to predict our future feelings.

Implications of Understanding Emotions

Realizing that emotions are not just things that happen to us but rather are constructed by our brain based on past experiences has profound implications:

  • Architects of Our Experience: The first significant realization is that we are the architects of our experiences. Our past experiences become a part of our brain’s prediction toolkit for the future. Understanding this gives us a powerful tool to shape our future emotional responses.
  • Influence of Past Experiences: Though it might seem challenging to change our past’s influence on our emotional responses, Barrett suggests that the best way to influence our past is by altering our present.
  • Exercising Emotional Flexibility: Investing time and energy in cultivating different experiences can reshape our emotional landscape. Whether it’s learning new things, watching diverse movies, reading varied genres, or participating in unique activities, introducing variety into our lives can help our brains predict and create different emotional responses.

FAQs on How Emotions Work

  • Are emotions hardwired into our brain?
    No, emotions are not merely hardwired. They are constructed based on a combination of our past experiences and our brain’s predictions.
  • Do our past experiences play a role in our emotions?
    Absolutely. Past experiences act as a predictive tool for our brain, influencing our current and future emotional responses.
  • Can we change our emotional responses?
    Yes, by introducing new experiences into our lives and altering our present, we can influence our brain’s predictions and, consequently, our emotional responses.
  • Is there a clear definition of what an emotion is?
    While everyone agrees we have emotions, there’s no universal agreement on its exact definition.
  • Are feelings and emotions the same?
    No, feelings are features or properties of emotions but aren’t synonymous with emotions.


Understanding how emotions work is pivotal for personal growth and emotional intelligence. Emotions are not random events that overpower us; they are constructs of our brain, influenced heavily by our past experiences and the narratives our brain creates. By introducing diverse experiences into our lives and altering our current perspectives, we hold the power to shape our emotional futures.

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