the magic pill

If you've been in class lately, or seen me in the grocery store for that matter, you know that I can't stop talking about the book How Emotions Are Made by neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett.

This book is causing a bit of a ruckus in the psychology world, even though many of the ideas Dr. Barrett is talking about have been proven (or disproven as it were) for around 100 years.

The main premise, as I understand it is:

Our brains are constantly making predictions based on our concepts and past experience to interpret the pleasant and unpleasant sensations in our bodies. The feedback from the body (in the form of sensation) about how the physical systems are working is called interoception -- being aware of the internal world.

Those concepts and guesses are how we make sense of sensation so we know what caused the sensation and what to do about it. More intense sensations are used to make emotions; less intense sensations are used to make thoughts and beliefs.

Emotions don't happen to you. Emotions aren't reactions to the world. 

Emotions are your brain's effort to make sense of your body in the world. 

An example: a dull ache in your stomach could mean... you're hungry, you're anxious, you're tired, you're disgusted by someone, you're nervous to give a talk, you have a longing, you're getting the flu... the possibilities of what a dull ache means go on and on and on.

All of the previous times you've had an ache in your stomach help your brain solve this current ache so it can get your body systems back into balance.

Mind-Body

Every waking moment of your life is simultaneously physical and mental. Every experience has both.

The connection between mind and body is biological, not just metaphysical. The brain is trying to keep all the systems in the body in balance, like a financial office of a company will shift resources around to make sure all departments have what they need. Dr. Barrett calls this your Body Budget.

If your Body Budget is out of balance in any way, you'll feel distress, and your brain needs to make sense of why, what it means and what to do about it.

It's more helpful if your brain is able to distinguish -- through practice, past experiences and available concepts -- the difference between the feeling of disappointment and the feeling of anxiety. Instead of just feeling "bad" which would require the brain to make many more guesses about a useful solution, if the brain can be very specific about its interpretation of a body sensation, it will have more precise concepts for feelings and it will be more successful in finding a remedy quickly.

Like that dull ache -- it wouldn't be very helpful to eat a sandwich to satisfy hunger if the sensation really meant you were nervous about a presentation. 

In the most simple terms, emotions are the brain's interpretation of basic body sensations.

How Emotions Are Made

 

Emotional Health

Your brain uses a lot of energy to manage your body's budget and if your budget becomes unbalanced, it's exponentially harder for your brain to manage your emotional states.

The great news is that Dr. Barrett gives us the magic pill to feel more balanced and emotionally stable. Here are her exact instructions:

The neuroscience is very clear - if you want to control your emotions better, if you want to be more of an architect of your own experience, then the first thing you must do is get enough sleep. You must get enough exercise, and you must eat properly in a nutritious way.  

Keep your body budget in balance.

Isn't this great news!? Our physical health, mental and emotional well-being are dependent on the simplest things that we have access to every day.

The secret is always that there is no magic pill -- for anything worthwhile. 

If you're reading this, you are probably already doing a great job at taking care of yourself.

It still may be worthwhile to ask --

  • Is there any area where I'm still believing in a magic pill?
  • Do I get a full 8 hours of sleep every night? If not, why?
  • Can I do better at choosing nourishing food and making sure to eat greens every day? 
  • Can I get another 10 minutes of increased heart rate activity in a few times a week? Even if it's just doing jumping jacks and push ups in the living room?

We can drop the search for the magical fix (whew), and invest a little more time and consistent effort into ourselves, and we'll be able to do everything with more energy, attention and joy.

(Stay tuned for my nighttime concoction for good sleep!)

Have you read the book? Any thoughts about this article? Would love to hear.