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On Creating Your Emotions

a man splattered with colorful paint, depicting emotions
Image by Midjourney


It's been a wild ride for the idea of emotions. So much has changed in the past 20 years around this, and all discussions, involving the brain. As it turns out, there aren't five universal emotions with universal facial expressions, emotions aren't discrete and innate, and you can't necessarily tell what someone's feeling by the look on their face. Furthermore, the story about reacting and responding, well, it's not supported by the current science.

Because the brain takes the path of least resistance and is a prediction engine like ChatGPT, it's not going to come up with some novel way of dealing with stress, anxiety, or sadness in the moment. It's not suddenly going to conjure a healthier, less maladaptive way to handle that person who lives to push your buttons.

There's still debate over free will and there's a semantic mess around whether we want to call certain emotions "negative" or "destructive." I prefer the latter, as emotions aren't negative or positive, per se. But one thing we do know that's supported by research and that we can observe in ourselves if we learn how, is a story frequently told by neuroscientists that goes something like this (and this passage is from Mindfulness for Financial Advisors: Practicing a New Way of Being):

Your brain is locked in a dark, silent vault called your skull. It gets vague sensory data that’s the effect of an external cause, but it doesn’t know what the cause is because it’s locked in a dark, silent vault. The data we’re talking about come from sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, interoception (i.e., internal cues such as a racing heart and a fluttering stomach), and nociception (i.e., cues related to sensations of pain). The brain’s job is to keep you alive, so it searches through your past experiences to find something that matches the sensory data it has gathered in an effort to predict the cause of the data and what will happen next. It makes a best guess (a simulation) about what’s going to happen next and prepares your body for it. Yes, it does seem that you are living in a simulation after all.
The brain is making sense of the small amount of data it has. Maybe its best guess is you need to move—you need a change in your internal systems. Maybe its best guess is an emotion, and if that’s the case it constructs an instance of emotion (which means emotions don’t happen to you, they are made by you). Either it’s correct about what you next see, hear, and feel based on its predictions, and it thereby has bolstered that particular prediction for the future, or it needs to update its prediction base so it can do a better job next time. In other words, either it strengthens a similar scenario that has occurred previously, or it learns that doesn’t always happen, and now it has a viable alternative scenario to consider next time.

So What?

This is important information because when you understand how you create your own emotions, you can learn how to manage them better. You can observe how you "do" emotions and what has been driving that process (it rhymes with memories). If your emotions land you in undesirable, unhealthy, unskillful, or otherwise dangerous territory, you do have some agency.

Now What?

You can develop a practice of observing yourself as you create emotions.

Through practices such as focused awareness and open awareness (there are 2-minute practices at the top of this page), you can eventually get to the point where you're watching as your sensory organs and hippocampus (where your memories are) predict what you'll do next, based on what you've done in similar circumstances.

With enough practice, you can change those predictions. With time and practice, your brain can predict that you'll pause and sigh. This is also helpful regarding sighing, as is this, by Andrew Huberman. That last one does misinform about meditation but once Huberman had Sam Harris on his podcast, he changed the way he talked about meditation and mindfulness.

The moral of the story is that we become what we practice. Our habits are who we are. Telling people to pause might be helpful during a particular moment, but it doesn't create the neural pathways of a brain that predicts pausing. You have to remember to do it, and willpower isn't the best way to train your brain.

Be on the lookout for updates on the course that will begin in the Fall, and check out the June issue of the Journal of Financial Planning for an article by yours truly about climate migration, retirement, and futures-thinking. If you want to delve into the construction of emotions, the best person for that is Lisa Feldman Barrett.

Any questions? Hit reply and ask away!

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Savor a moment today.

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