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Our Goal: From Emotions to Predictions to Wellbeing

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD entitled her 2017 book, How Emotions Are Made. The title understates the depth and breadth of the book. I think that the phrase,

“paradigm shift” is overused. My reading and rereading of her book will lead me to conceptualize what I am doing for you when you visit with me in

a significantly different way. It is a paradigm shift as I share in this Lesson Learned.

How Are Emotions Made

Dr. Barrett explains, “An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you. In the other words…In every waking moment, your brain uses past experiences, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.”

Your concepts regarding what is happening inside of you and outside of you are based on your brain’s moment to moment simulations. Dr. Barrett defines,” Simulations are your brain’s guesses of what’s happening in the world. In every waking moment, you are faced with ambiguous, noisy information from your eyes, ears, nose, and other sensory organs. Your brain uses past experiences to construct a hypothesis – the simulation – and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses. In this manner, simulation lets your brain impose meaning on the noise, selecting what’s relevant and ignoring the rest.”

Your emotions simply are not because someone did something to you or something happen to you. Dr Barrett points out, “Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experiences, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you did not have concepts that represent your past experiences, all your sensory inputs would be just noise. You would not know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to deal with them. With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensations, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.”

Why do we have emotions? What value do they serve in helping us in getting on and through life? Dr. Barrett suggests, “The first stems from the fact that emotion concepts, like all concepts, make meaning…The second function of emotions stems from the fact that concepts prescribe action…An instance of emotion, constructed from a prediction, tailors your action to meet a particular situation, using past experiences as a guide. The third function is related to a concept’s ability to regulate your body budget… Every instance of emotion involves some budgeting for the immediate future.”

Keeping You Alive by Predicting Well

Your memories are adaptive in many ways. In the most basic of ways, memories keep your body in order and on track. Dr.

Barrett calls it minding the “body budget”. Put another way, more than anything, your brain is dedicated to keeping your body functioning by directing bodily resources, including glucose and oxygen.

For Dr. Barrett, concepts are predictions. She delineates, “Two of the phenomena I’ve been discussing are actually one and the same. I am speaking of concepts and predictions…I could have used the word “prediction” throughout the book and never mentioned the word “concept” or vice versa, but information transmission is easier to understand in terms of predictions flying across the brain, whereas knowledge is more readily understood in terms of concepts. Now that we are discussing how concepts work in the brain, we must acknowledge that concepts are predictions.”

Your brain’s ability to accurately perceive, predict and respond to your body’s basic physiological needs is based on the “process inside you called Interoception. Interoception is your brain’s representation of all sensations from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and immune system.”

Prediction>Prediction Error> Successful Prediction

Dr. Barrett explains, “Through prediction and correction, your brain continually creates and revises your mental model of the world. It is a huge, ongoing simulation that constructs everything you perceive while determining how you act. But predictions are not always correct, when compared to sensory input, and the brain must make adjustments…Prediction errors aren’t problems. They are a normal part of the operating instructions of your brain as it takes in sensory input. Without prediction error, life would be a yawning bore. Nothing would be surprising or novel, and therefore your brain would never learn anything new.”

Dr. Barrett illustrates your brain’s predictive ability in keeping you alive and functioning in your world, even enjoying the experience. “All sensory information is a massive, constantly changing puzzle for your brain to solve. The objects you see, the sounds you hear, the odors you smell, the touches you feel, the flavors you taste, and the interoceptive sensations you experience as aches and pains and affect…they all involve continuous sensory signals that are highly variable and ambiguous as they reach your brain. Your brain’s job is to predict them before they arrive, fill in the missing details, and find regularities where possible, so that you experience a world of objects, people, music and events…”

Further Dr. Barrett elaborates on your brain’s predictive capacity, “Using this storm of predictions, your brain makes meaning of sensations, your brain makes meaning of sensations based on your past experiences…Your brain weighs its predictions based on probabilities; they compete to explain what caused your sensations, and they determine what you perceive, how you act and what you feel...”

Emotions Support Successful Prediction: Inside to Outside

Dr. Barrett points out. “You don’t need any other people involved in the experience in order to make meaning, to act, or to regulate your body budget. But emotion concepts (predictions) have two other functions that draw other individuals into your circle of social reality. One is emotion communication, in which two people categorize with concepts (predictions) in synchrony…The other function is social influence.”

In summarizing her own social interaction with the readers of her book, Dr. Barrett acknowledges, “in this book, I am trying to acculturate you into a new way of thinking about emotion. Whether you realize it or not, you have a set of concepts about emotions: what they are, where they come from, and what they mean…In a sense, I am attempting to draw you into a new culture called the theory of constructed emotion…Ultimately, if I and other like-minded scientists are successful in substituting the new concepts for the old, well, that’s a scientific revolution.”

Dr. Barrett advances the implications of this paradigm shift. “The theory of constructed emotion is not just a modern explanation of how emotions are made… It is also an ambassador for a radically different view of what it means to be a human being. This view is consistent with the latest research in neuroscience…You are not a reactive animal wired to respond to events in the world. When it comes to your experiences and perceptions, you are much more in the driver’s seat than you think. You predict, construct, and act. You are the architect of your experience.”

Mastering Your Emotions and Predicting Well

Dr. Barrett advises, “The most basic thing you can do to master your emotions, in fact, is to keep your body budget (energy resources) in good shape. Remember, your interoceptive network labors day and night, issuing predictions to maintain a healthy budget, and this process is the origin of your affective feelings…If you want to feel good, then your brain’s predictions about your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, hormones, metabolism, and so on must be calibrated to your body’ actual needs…So to whatever extent you can, eat your greens, go easy on the refined sugars and bad fats and caffeine, work out vigorously and regularly, and get plenty of sleep.”

Dr. Barrett suggests, “Diving into a compelling novel is also healthful for your body budget. This is more than escapism; when you get involved in someone else’s story, you are not as involved in your own. Such mental excursions engage part of your interoceptive network, known as the default mode network, and keep you from ruminating (which would be bad for your body budget). If you are not a reader, see a compelling movie.” She suggests, “There are many more things you can try that I haven’t mentioned yet. Adopt a pet, which gives you touch and unconditional adoration at the same time. Take walks in a public garden or a park. Look on line for research on your favorite hobbies, to see if they’re beautiful for stress, or just try things out and see what works.”

Dr. Barrett discusses improving your ability to form concepts, that is, to become better at predicting, inside and outside of you. “There are many ways to gain new concepts: taking trips (even a walk in the woods), reading a book, watching movies, trying unfamiliar foods. Be a collector of experiences. Try on new perspectives the way you try on new clothing. These kinds of activities will provoke your brain to combine concepts to form new ones, changing your conceptual system proactively so you’ll predict and behave differently later.”

Sharing Your Goal of Mastering Emotions and Predicting Well

What can be taking away from Dr. Barrett’s research and that of the neuroscientists to whom she eludes in her book? How does a reading of How Emotions Are Made inform treatment and enhance the value of the time you and I spend together in a treatment visit?

First, emotions can be mastered as Dr. Barrett puts it. Medications which I prescribe, such as antidepressants, mood stabilizers and anxiolytics can be successfully employed in assisting you and supporting you. In a parallel effort, what you do for yourself, as suggested by Dr. Barrett, will improve your ability to be the master of your emotions and experience emotional stability, and better yet emotional wellbeing.

Second, if you experience greater emotional stability, as I am given to say to patients, your brain is quieter. As your brain quiets, you have a greater ability to listen. You have a greater ability to listen to your outside world and your inside world. You more easily listen to and appreciate your own thoughts, feelings and impulses to action. If you are a better listener, to the outside and to the inside, you can predict more successfully. Consistent with Dr. Barrett’s work, you better conceptualize your world, predict more often and more accurately about your world, and more successfully function within it.

Third, my prescription of medications which enhance conceptualization and prediction, such as stimulant medication for increased focusing and memory medication for greater retention of that upon which you have focused, become even more helpful within your emotionally quieted mind. As I am given to say, one plus one is not two, but rather becomes three or four. Greater ability to predict often, correct incorrect predictions, and predict with increased accuracy follows emotional mastery and stability.

Fourth, the goal of treatment and the most important benefit in visiting with me is more than a decrease your emotional and physical pain. It is that you become a more active agent in your world. You more frequently make predictions about your world and act on those predictions. You more frequently formulate successful predictions and enjoy the success of those predictions. If you fail in your predictions, you learn from your prediction errors. With an increase in your knowledge about your outside world and your inside world you develop better concepts which enhance your ability to successfully predict and act. The goal is that you increase your successful participation in your life and that you enjoy the fruits of successful participation. You experience good health, a sense of wellbeing and a long life.

As I have shared this paradigm shift as a Lesson Learned, my concern is with you, my patient, as a unique person who has entrusted me with your life. Dr. Barrett ends her book with noting the larger implications of this paradigm shift. “Like most important paradigm shifts in science, this one has the potential to transform our health, our laws, who we are. To forge a new reality. If you’ve learned within these pages that you are an architect of your experience – and the experiences of those around you – then we’re building the new reality together.”

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