Lisa Feldman Barrett

Balancing the Brain Budget | Lisa Feldman Barrett on The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish

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Key Takeaways

  • The ability to differentiate between seemingly similar emotions helps us identify the best actions we can take
    • If you feel “bad”, you might not know what to do next to improve how you feel
    • But if you know you are feeling angry, sad, or afraid, it will be easier to decide what you should do
  • “When people say ‘don’t be sad, don’t be angry’, really, what they’re saying is, ‘I don’t want to deal with you being angry or sad, and I don’t want to feel that way so I want you to calm down'” Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • Our brain runs the metabolic budget of our bodies
    • When running a deficit, the brain stops spending
      • You feel tired
      • You don’t learn as much
      • Eventually, it starts cutting the budget by letting neurons die
    • The most important things to replenish our brain’s budget are:
      • Adequate sleep
      • Healthy food
      • Exercise
      • Sex
      • Physical and social connections
  • If there was only one thing you could do in your life
    • Sleep a decent amount every day (7-8 hours for most adults)
  • The idea that we make bad decisions when we are emotional is not supported by evidence
    • We can make very good decisions when we are emotional
  • “Breathing is really the only way that we know of, biologically speaking, to deliberately get a handle on your nervous system” – Lisa Feldman Barrett

Intro

What are Emotions?

  • “We all think we know what emotions are but no one can define them” Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • Scientist typically define emotions as a package of coordinated thoughts, feelings, facial expressions, and body patterns
    • Evidence now tells us that well-defined emotion packages don’t exist
      • There are no core or universal emotions
      • Each emotion can vary depending on the situation

Common Misconceptions About Emotions

  • There are no objective signs that explain emotions
    • Facial expressions, bodily and brain patterns don’t communicate emotions accurately
  • Emotions feel like they happen to us, but we can actually control them more than we think

Emotion’s Effects Vary

  • Like in other biological categories, with emotions there aren’t any perfect, representative example of a specific emotion
    • For example, there isn’t a perfect example of fear that causes one specific facial expression, bodily change, or brain circuits to activate
      • Fear may be pleasant (in a rollercoaster) or it can motivate us to take action or can make us freeze
    • No matter how much you try to categorize emotions in different boxes, you’ll always find variation
  • Based on what you learned in the past, your brain creates the instance of an emotion that best fits the situation you are in
    • That way, our brain prepares our body for action based on its predictions

The Hardwired vs. Learned Misconception

  • “Anything which is learned is wired into your brain. If it wasn’t wired into your brain it wouldn’t be learned” – Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • The question is: were you born with it or was it wired in your brain by your experience?
    • Infants are born with unfinished brains waiting for wiring instructions from the world
      • If an infant’s brain doesn’t receive visual information from the eyes after being born, it won’t finish wiring to allow the infant to see
      • Every time we label an object or emotion to a kid the brain is learning that pattern and storing it for future use
        • It’s important that we label emotions to kids so they can communicate properly with other people and increase their emotional granularity

The Benefits of Emotional Granularity

  • “Emotional Granularity” means that a person is able to identify and communicate a variety of different instances of emotions
  • Emotions signal what’s going on in the World and in our body
    • The ability to differentiate between seemingly similar emotions helps us identify the best actions we can take
      • If you think you feel “bad”, you might not know what to do to improve how you feel
      • But if you know you are feeling angry, sad, or afraid, it will be easier to decide what you should do next
  • More emotionally granular people have been shown to
    • Perform better in school and socially
    • Use alcohol less when stressed
    • Recover faster from physical illnesses

Our Brain Runs the Body’s Budget

  • The brain is constantly interpreting the meaning of internal and external sensations to regulate our body’s response
    • The brain budgets the intake and outtake of oxygen, water, hormones, and everything else our body needs to function
      • We are ready to take action because the brain gets the resources our body needs, where they need to be, and before they are needed
    • When our brain makes expenditures but doesn’t get the expected reward, it starts running a deficit
      • When running a deficit, the brain stops spending
        • You feel tired
        • You don’t learn as much
        • Eventually, it cuts the budget by letting neurons die (they are among the most expensive cells)
  • The most important things to replenish our brain’s budget are:
    • Adequate sleep
    • Healthy food
    • Exercise
    • Sex
    • Physical and social connections
  • The issue is not whether you suppress emotions or not, the issue is whether you pay the bills to repay your expenditures

If There Was One Thing You Could Do in Your Life

  • Sleep a decent amount every day
    • 7-8 hours for most adults and longer for kids
  • Lack of sleep is one of the reasons behind the high rate of adolescent depression today
    • Most kids are only getting 5-6 hours of sleep when they need around 10
      • They tend to go to sleep late but wake up very early for school
      • Electronic devices before sleep disrupt their circadian rhythm (through blue light)
    • When they grow up, they’ll be more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic illnesses

There’s No Difference Between Mental and Physical Illness

  • “There’s actually no fundamental difference biologically between a mental illness and a physical illness” – Lisa Feldman Barrett
    • People who are depressed, tend to develop heart disease and people with heart disease tend to be depressed
    • We normally think of depression causing heart disease or vice-versa but…
      • There’s probably a common metabolic problem that’s causing both an issue with your heart and with your mood because they’re related

Emotional Contagion

  • As social animals, when we are in the presence of a person we trust, our biological signals will start to synchronize (heart rate, breathing pattern, posture…)
    • This means that when someone gets angry, we might unconsciously also get angry
    • “A lot of times when people say ‘don’t be sad, don’t be angry’, really, what they’re saying is, ‘I don’t want to deal with you being angry or sad, and I don’t want to feel that way so I want you to calm down'” Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • As a therapist, Lisa learned how difficult it is to be with someone in distress
    • We’re immediately tempted to help them regulate their emotions

When People Close to Us Feel Low

  • Sometimes people only want empathy, while other times they may want a solution
    • For us to provide what they need, the best thing is to ask: “Do you want empathy or a solution?”
    • Some people tend to prefer one over the other, but it can vary depending on the situation
  • Empathy may mean listening, giving a hug, or being there with the person

Breathing Exercises

  • “Breathing is really the only way that we know of, biologically speaking, to deliberately get a handle on your nervous system” – Lisa Feldman Barrett
    • Deep diaphragmatic breathing helps slow down your heart rate and relax your whole body
      • Instead of breathing with your chest, you inhale with your belly
      • We only need 6-8 deep breaths to elicit physiological changes

Decision Making

  • What it means to be in control is different than what people usually think
    • We can control emotions by the way we design our environment
      • You can’t control who you love, but you can control who you surround yourself with
      • Loud noises are really hard on your nervous system because the brain is trying to figure out what is signal and what is noise
  • The idea that we make bad decisions when we are emotional is an old view that is not supported by evidence
    • Do emotions sometimes trip us up? Yes, but so does thinking
    • We can make very good decisions when we are emotional
  • When something confirms or violates our deeply held beliefs, we feel very strongly about it (either positively or negatively)
    • That’s a cue that we should take a moment to stop before making a decision

Taking Other People’s Perspective

  • Our brains tend to make meaning from our own perspective, but it’s useful to practice seeing things from other people’s point of view
    • “Taking somebody else’s perspective is one way to get closer to reality because it dislodges you from the illusion that your way of seeing things is the only way” – Lisa Feldman Barrett
    • A saying from contemplative philosophy: “Anger is a form of ignorance”
      • Maybe the person that just cut you off is rushing because their child is at the hospital
  • It’s difficult to see other’s perspective when we are upset with them
    • The idea is to practice this in advance so that we “build the muscle” and learn to do it effortlessly

Additional Notes

  • In our culture, we think that we “read” how people feel by how they act
    • Our brain is continuously trying to guess other people’s thoughts and feelings, but we usually forget that we are guessing
    • The best way to prevent this is to ask instead of making assumptions
  • The idea that suppressing emotions is a “bad” thing is not really true
  • Cortisol is normally called the stress-hormone, but that’s a wrong way to put it
    • Cortisol is normally released in what we call “stress”, but also in situations where our brain prepares us for big energy expenditure (e.g. running on a treadmill)
    • When released, it allows glucose to get into our blood really fast, preparing us for action
  • Some people are more emotional than others because their brains prepare them to expend energy more frequently than others
    • It’s called arousability
  • Lisa practices appreciating nature daily as that makes her problems feel very small
    • “Many things are bigger than me. That means my problems in the moment are really small and conditional. And that gives my nervous system a break for a minute” – Lisa Feldman Barrett
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Notes By Giorgio Parlato

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