Let's rethink our emotions
Yesterday, my husband and I were having a relaxing day at the beach, on our mini-vacation in Rhode Island. Then, he gets a text from his well-meaning brother, who has some last-minute plans about dinner that evening, involving his us, his family, a restaurant that doesn't take reservations, and my wheelchair-bound mother-in-law. For a planner like me, this is the type of situation that tests my values of planning and organization. Then, my husband asks me the perfect question, "What is your brain predicting about this situation?"
Here's why this is the perfect question. New research from Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist and author, tells us that our brains are predicting all the time. And, furthermore, that our brain's predictions help make our emotions. Our emotions, Dr. Barrett says, are not uniform constructs that we are born with. Instead, our emotions are built by us, in every situation, based on three things:
- Our body state -- Our brain is monitoring our body state (temperature, heart rate, muscle tension, etc,) all the time.
- Our surroundings -- Our brain is also monitoring our surroundings all the time.
- Our past experiences -- As our brain monitors our body and our surroundings, it tries to figure out how to respond. To do this, our brain draws on our past experiences to figure out how to approach our current situation.
In other words, our brain is not simply waiting to react to a stimulus; it is predicting how we should feel. In my situation, it was predicting feelings of impatience.
So, what do we do with this new understanding of emotion? When we feel a certain way, we can try to remember that we are having an emotional response about a situation that has not yet actually occurred. Knowing this, we can choose to approach a situation with more curiosity, staying open to the fact that the outcome might actually be different than what we are predicting.
Try it for yourself. The next time you are having a negative emotion when thinking about something, ask yourself, "What might I be predicting in this situation?"
Here's to predicting more positive outcomes,