I’ve come over all emotional – but why?

Eddy Canfor-Dumas


January 2021

I’m reading a pretty mind-blowing book at the moment – How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. It has profound implications for how we understand the interplay of human emotions and human behaviour – and how we can better deal with conflict.

Barrett argues that while human feelings – the sensations we experience in our body – are hardwired in us, human emotions are not. Rather, our emotions are socially-constructed interpretations of those sensations (called affects) and heavily influenced by the culture in which we’re brought up.

It follows from this, says Barrett, that there is no universal ‘palette’ of human emotions, since different cultures interpret affects in different ways. The Romans didn’t have a word for ‘smile’, for example, while the Ifaluk people of Micronesia 'consider emotions as transactions between people. To them, anger is not a feeling of rage, a scowl, a pounding fist, or a loud yelling voice, all within the skin of one person, but a situation in which two people are engaged in a script – a dance, if you will – around a common goal. In the Ifaluk view, anger does not "live" inside either participant.'

According to Barrett, the ‘classical’ model – the story – of how our emotions work, which most of us take as a matter of fact, is simply not borne out by close scientific observation.

One implication of this is that as culture changes so do our emotions. Where the feelings prompted by the public torturing of animals – bear-baiting, bullfighting – might once have been generally interpreted as excitement, they’re more likely now to be interpreted as revulsion. In other words, the affect is the same but the emotion is different.

The brain as story-maker

Barrett also explains that how emotions are made is consistent with how the brain works generally.

It creates what are called simulations – ‘best guesses’ about the various sensory inputs that it receives – and tries to make them into a coherent whole, consistent with everything else that it’s experienced to date.

In short, the brain keeps telling us stories – simulations – about the world, including our feelings and emotions, and keeps trying to make them fit with what we already ‘know’.

Now, this is an argument that resonates strongly with an idea I've had for some time; namely that for each of us life consists of a series of ‘nested’ stories that we struggle to make consistent with each other.

It’s a bit like one of those Russian dolls.

Our personal life story is at the centre, nested within the story of our family, which is nested within the story of our locality, which is nested within the story of our nation, our culture, our civilisation, our world and the universe.

It’s up to each of us to join all of these nested stories together in a way that makes sense to us; that is consistent and coherent and meaningful. And if we can’t do this we experience a kind of existential unease because we all have a deep, human need for order and understanding.

Reality is 'plastic'

This is why I think what Barrett is explaining is so exciting and ground-breaking. At its heart is the idea of plasticity, that our reality is constantly being shaped and reshaped by our brains, which are simulation-making, story-making all the time – even when we’re asleep and dreaming.

The upside of this is that while we can be convinced by these simulations, these stories, we’re not destined to be forever trapped by them. They might serve us well for a time but they can always be re-examined and, if found wanting, remade.

This is especially pertinent when it comes to dealing with conflict, particularly where the parties are stuck in what seem to be incompatible stories – as currently in the USA. With effort and application, the stories can be reframed to help bring about a better reality, as we saw in Northern Ireland and South Africa. And as we see in our work at The Creative Conversation Company when using creative conversation as the basis for conflict transformation.

But the US example also points to the downside of this ‘plasticity’.

The capacity to make convincing stories can also completely mislead people into embracing alternative realities that set us at each other's throats. And going down that story route can lead to terrible disasters, as we saw during the last century in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. There are many, many examples, past and present, of misleading stories leading people into terrible suffering – and not just in religion, politics and economics. They’re legion in our personal lives, too.

So when we understand that reality is not fixed but malleable and that even our emotions are made, the urgent question that arises for me is ‘How do we use this realisation to create maximum positive value for ourselves and others?’

I think that the stories we tell to answer that question are going to determine the future of life on this planet for the rest of the century – and beyond.

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett.

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