ReThinking with Adam Grant
You have more control over your emotions than you think with Lisa Feldman Barrett
January 17, 2024
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is Lisa Feldman Barrett. She's a psychologist and neuroscientist at Northeastern University and Harvard Medical School. She's revolutionized our understanding of emotions. She's been a Guggenheim fellow and won the American Psychological Association Award for Scientific Contribution.
Along with being a brilliant researcher, Lisa is a gifted communicator. She's the author of the books Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain and How Emotions Are Made, which was also the subject of her popular TED Talk. Get ready to rethink your view of what emotions are and how you manage them.
Well, hey Lisa.
[00:01:02] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
[00:01:03] Adam Grant:
I’ve been reading your work on emotion for a long time and it's upended a lot of my assumptions and beliefs, which is always fun.
[00:01:12] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
You know, if I wasn't a scientist, I'm not sure I would believe what I'm saying either. Um, but I have the data right in front of me most of the time. So it is pretty shocking sometimes how the world can surprise you.
[00:01:24] Adam Grant:
You look at emotions really differently from other people. And I want to, I wanna ask you to unpack how you do that, but, but let me actually start with your personal experience, because tell me a little bit about how you deal with emotions.
[00:01:38] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
You know, I think we all have the experience of emotions being triggered and kind of hijacking us, and it feels that way. It just so much feels that way. It even feels that way to me. Um, but that's really not what's happening under the hood. And so I can actually take the science and actually use it. And for me, like a really good example was right before I was about to give my TED talk.
When there's a lot of uncertainty, there's an increase in chemicals that make your heart race and make you sweat and your palm sweat, your uh, blood pressure goes up. And we make sense of those sensations as anxiety, but they don't have to be anxiety. You can make sense of them in, in many different ways. And you're not just relabeling things, you're actually making meaning out of those signals so that you experience, authentically experience, a different emotion.
And so right before I was going on to the TED stage, there were, I think about a thousand people outside. And I had to memorize my whole spiel, and I could feel my pulse in my fingertips, like my level of arousal was so high, and I was standing back there with my eyes closed thinking, “This is not anxiety. This is determination. This is not anxiety. This is determination. It's determination. Get your butterflies flying in formation.”
And so when I walked out on that stage, I was prepared. You know, I am…. Because when you're, when you have very high arousal, it’s usually because your brain is preparing you to do something really hard or to learn, um, something that you don't know, to reduce uncertainty, and it can feel really uncomfortable, but you don't necessarily wanna get rid of it. What you wanna do is experience it differently.
[00:03:32] Adam Grant:
That's so interesting. I was just telling our daughter, uh, she was nervous for a performance, and I said, you, when you feel anxious, it may be a sign that you care.
[00:03:41] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Oh, for sure. When your brain is attempting to learn something that you don't know, because it's predicting that it will be important in the future, you have this massive increase in arousal, which people usually experience as anxiety.
The difference is that what's happening under the hood is not a threat response, it's a learning response. Arousal usually means there's uncertainty and the brain cares about that uncertainty and is gonna try to reduce it.
[00:04:09] Adam Grant:
Tell me about getting your butterflies in formation. What does that mean?
[00:04:13] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Yeah, so this is one of the best ways to make meaning I've ever heard. When my daughter was 12 years old, she's a tiny thing. She was barely five feet tall and she was testing for her black belt in karate with these hulking adolescent boys who were like at least a foot taller than her, and she was gonna have to spar with them.
And her sensei, who is a 10th degree black belt. So this guy could break a board by looking at it, you know, saunters up to my daughter and says to her, not “Don't be scared”, not, you know, no, no placating like you can do a little girl. He just looks at her, he goes, “Get your butterflies flying in formation.” And I thought, “Oh my God, that's like the best thing I've ever heard.” That is such a great re-categorization so you experience your arousal as something other than anxiety.
There's this wonderful line of research by this scientist named Jeremy Jameson who trains people to recategorize their anxiety as determination so that they will stop feeling test anxiety. Sometimes it's called reappraisal, but really what you're doing is you're taking sensations and you're making meaning of them differently. You're using a different set of concepts or categories to make sense of those sensations. You’re creating a different reality out of those sensations, and as a consequence, you can act differently and your outcomes are, are, are, are different.
[00:05:43] Adam Grant:
You have some really interesting ways of reappraising. So, tell me about how you sometimes recategorize your emotions.
[00:05:50] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
You know, our brains are always guessing at the meaning of the sen-sensory information coming from our bodies. And, um, for people who live in the West and particularly in the US, our automatic guess at high arousal is anxiety. If you experience that as anxiety, that's a recipe for one action, like to withdraw, for example.
And so a really good example for me was right before the pandemic, uh, was announced, I was in New Zealand. My daughter was in college at that time. She was flying over to meet me, as she often would do during spring break. No one had made the decision yet, and so I called my husband, her dad, really what I needed to do was to gather as much information, forage for information, stay curious. And so I explained to him, well, “I'm feeling, how I feel is very high arousal. And it's very unpleasant.” And my husband, who knows me, I mean we've been married for almost 30 years, didn't say, “Oh, you're anxious.”
He was like, “What? What kind of information would reduce that uncomfortable arousal?” And when people hear me talk about this, usually their eyes roll back in their head and they're like, “Oh my God, she's such a ivory tower academic.” But actually, deconstructing anxiety into its more basic ingredients can be very, very useful because it lets you choose, it gives you more freedom to be curious about what might be causing that arousal.
Think about the last time you've gone to the dentist, and you get your teeth fixed, like maybe a tooth is pulled, or, you know, you have a crown or you have a filling. What do you do when there's something new in your mouth that you've never, that has never been there before. And it feels weird.
[00:07:42] Adam Grant:
[00:07:44] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
After the pain is gone, don’t you keep probing at it with your tongue? Like uh, You know, like you—
[00:07:48] Adam Grant:
Oh yeah. Constantly.
[00:07:49] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Yeah. Yeah. 'Cause what your brain is doing is it's foraging for information, and eventually what will happen is that your brain will decide that there's nothing meaningful there. There's no meaningful consequence to that sensory signal, so it'll ignore it.
One of the things our brains can do is ignore the sensory consequences of our own movements. When you walk, you don't normally feel your feet hitting the ground in any kind of substantial way. Right now you're not experiencing something directly that you will as soon as I say it, which is do you feel the back of your legs against the chair bottom?
Your attention wasn't on those things, but the minute I say it, it is, and the reason why your attention's not on those things all the time is that they're not really consequential for action. They don't require you to do anything.
[00:08:39] Adam Grant:
Lisa, one of the things I'm struck by when I hear you talk about emotions and when I read your work as well is you don't take your emotions that seriously.
[00:08:48] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Oh, I take my emotions very seriously. I just don't take them as obligatory or necessarily given. Emotions are real, but they're real by virtue of the fact that your brain creates them. Your brain is c—is a meaning maker. It's actively attempting to make meaning all the time. And one of the results of that meaning making is your whole emotional life.
And so you have more control over what you feel than you think you do. For example, when I've had an interaction with someone that has made me feel embarrassed or when someone, let's say, in a faculty meeting, hypothetically, says something that makes me angry, any kind of emotional instance where I'm feeling something and I don't really wanna be feeling it, I think to myself, “This is just electrical activity in my head.” And, you know, it completely just destroys the negative feeling, like almost instantaneously, like flipping a light switch.
[00:09:51] Adam Grant:
It's extremely liberating to be able to say, yeah, this, this thing that feels like a giant cloud is actually just an electrical signal in my brain. I, I've been telling my students for years that part of emotional intelligence is realizing that you don't have to internalize everything that you feel. And I think you've given us a series of skills for doing that. I think the beginning of that though, for a lot of people, requires something that you've discovered, which is emotional granularity.
[00:10:16] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
It feels to us like emotions happen to us. Like we're basically the victims of these, um, circuits that trigger and that hijack us and cause us to do and say and feel things that we would rather not.
But actually, your brain is making emotions on the spot as you feel them, and you have a lot more flexibility over how that works because you can train your brain to learn different emotion words, to learn different emotion concepts, to basically become an emotion expert. And when you do that, what happens is your brain makes emotional instances that are very, very tailored to the specific situation that you're in, and that's actually really good for you.
So for some people who are very low in granularity, meaning the emotions that their brain makes are very kind of general and global, so these are people who will use words like sadness and anger and fear are synonyms for feeling like crap. They're not specific, recipes, right, for action. They're kind of general.
What do you do when you feel like crap? Well, who the hell knows? Because it could be a million things. In fact, when you feel unpleasant, your, your mood, right? These, what we would call them, simple affective feelings or mood, they're determined by many, many things which add up to an unpleasant mood, and they're not emotions. Mood is like a barometer for how well your brain is regulating your body.
[00:11:57] Adam Grant:
I think about people who say, uh, “I'm upset. I feel sick. I'm stressed,” as opposed to describing more specifically what the emotion is.
[00:12:08] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Oh, exactly. And it's not that they're not describing the emotion more precisely. It's they're not feeling a precise emotion. They're feeling a jumble of stress or unpleasantness. 'Cause what your brain is attempting to do is make sense of your affect, these simple feelings in relation to what's going on around you in the world. And if you're not doing that in a very precise way, then you end up feeling this very general mood and you don't know what to do to make yourself feel differently. But when you have a very granular experience, then that goes along with very, very precise ideas about how to act, what to do next.
[00:12:57] Adam Grant:
I, I was just thinking about irritation versus frustration. I would reserve frustration for being blocked from a goal, whereas I would say I'm irritated when something is more mildly annoying, but isn't directly impeding my ability to achieve what I'm trying to achieve.
[00:13:13] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
That's your, like, summary, right? So for example, if you look at anger, for example, people, what's the theme of anger? Actually—
[00:13:20] Adam Grant:
I, I've been wronged.
[00:13:21] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Yeah, I've been wronged. But it turns out what you find is that people can get angry for all kinds of reasons. They feel anger when they're competing and they wanna win. People in sports do this actually. They try to cultivate anger because it fuels their actions, right? Sometimes people feel angry because they feel it, it’s a, it's a, an identity booster. They feel part of a group. Sometimes people become angry as a way of indicating that they care about someone else and they're trying to solicit closeness, to signal closeness.
So, in real life, anger is many things. Sometimes your blood pressure goes up, sometimes it goes down. Sometimes it stays the same. It really depends on what action your brain is preparing you to do, and all of that is very situated. So another aspect of emotional granularity is being able to make flexible instances of anger or sadness or fear that don't all look the same or feel the same, you don't do the same thing. This is also an aspect of emotional granularity, which is very important, this kind of flexibility aspect.
[00:14:32] Adam Grant:
The, one of the things I find interesting about the evidence on granularity is that it doesn't just give you more control over your emotions. It also has implications for wellbeing. Tell me about that.
[00:14:41] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
If you are a person who's higher in granularity, so you, you know more about emotion, you have more precise emotion concepts, you wield those concepts in a much more flexible and precise way. You are less likely to abuse alcohol in stressful situations. You're less likely to resort to violence. You're more likely to find other ways of repairing relationships. This is one that totally surprised me. You're less likely to get sick from physical ailments, and if you're sick sometimes with very serious things like ca-certain types of cancers, you're, you'll get better faster.
When I first started to read these findings, I was like, what is going on here? Because this isn't one study, Adam, as you know, this is like study after study after study.
[00:15:33] Adam Grant:
My initial hypothesis is this isn't so much of a cause as a signal, in many cases, of cognitive complexity or mental agility and flexibility, that it's useful to be able to recategorize all kinds of things, and you're tapping into that general capacity when you study emotional granularity. But some of your work had made, has made me think it's more than that.
[00:15:54] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
It's definitely more than that. I think a lot of psychologists would be satisfied with the explanation, well, if you're more cognitively agile and you, um, can categorize more flexibly, that's all things being, well, gonna give you better outcomes.
I just find that in… not satisfying as a scientist. I wanna understand why that's the case, and the answer that I would give now, my best guess now is the following. It requires actually knowing something about brain evolution. Like why do you even have a brain? What is your brain for? And what is categorization for?
Categorization is this basic thing that your brain is doing kind of all the time. It's what all brains do. It's actually what all nervous systems do. You're saying this thing which is happening right now is like these things in the past. And that means that I can generalize from the past and make a reasonable guess about what I should do here, based on what's happened before.
Why is that a good thing? It's a good thing because it reduces metabolic demand. So your brain's most important job is not thinking, it's not feeling, it's not seeing or hearing or sensing in any way. Your brain's most important job is regulating the systems of your body, coordinating them in a metabolically efficient way.
I know we don't experience ourselves that way. We don't experience every hug we give, every insult we bear, every emotion we have. We don't experience them as having anything to do with our metabolism and our energy regulation, but they do. And it's expensive to, to run a body. It's actually expensive to have a brain. Your brain is the most expensive organ that you have. Um.
[00:17:43] Adam Grant:
And, and it's so strange 'cause I paid nothing for it.
[00:17:45] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Actually, it’s not free my friend. It costs you 20% of your metabolic budget to keep your brain active and healthy. So that’s more than—
[00:17:53] Adam Grant:
I think that's a pretty high ROI, all things considered.
[00:17:57] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
None of us are frugal in that regard. If you think about what your brain has to do on a regular basis, it's constantly trying to solve this, uh, problem, which philosophers call an inverse problem. But, but basically the idea is sort of like this: that your brain is trapped in a dark silent box called your skull, and it's receiving sensory signals from the world.
Through the retina of your eye, each eye and the cochlea in each ear and so on, you're receiving these sensory signals. These sensory signals are the outcomes of some set of causes or changes in the world, but your brain doesn't have access to those changes. It only has access to the consequences, to the outcomes.
So something's happened and your brain has to guess what caused that change. Because otherwise, you won't know what to do next to keep you, to keep yourself alive and, and well. And when you're very granular, your brain can guess really, really, really precisely and well. And when you're very low in granularity, it over generalizes too much. 'Cause if you're just using unpleasantness, like, when's the last time I felt unpleasantness? If you're in my case, it could be many hundreds or thousands of times throughout a lifetime. So which one is the right one?
Well, if your brain can't choose, it's just more metabolically taxing. So the most expensive things that your brain can do are move your body, like drag yourself outta bed in the morning, exercise, whatever, learn something new, or have to live in uncertainty over a long period of time.
And when you can make a very precise guess, meaning you're, you're very granular then you're, you're functioning in a very metabolically efficient way, and that's really the arbiter of health and illness. It's the arbiter of wellness. I'm not reducing everything to metabolism, but I'm saying it's like this hidden factor that a lot of people are unaware of.
A lot of even physicians and therapists are unaware of, like, you wrote this beautiful piece for the New York Times on languishing, I believe. And when I read that, I was like, “Yeah, people are languishing not because of fight and flight, not because their circuits are overwrought, because there are no circuits for that, specifically, because they're exhausted by the uncertainty of everything.” I, like, there’s just too much uncertainty that they're having to deal with and it's, it's like bankrupting their body budget. So that's the metaphor I use.
[00:20:42] Adam Grant:
That, that a fascinating interpretation. I—
[00:20:44] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Yeah. It's like you're bankrupt.
[00:20:46] Adam Grant:
I, I never looked at it that way. When, when I was reading the research on languishing and, you know, trying to marry it with what so many people were, were describing from their experience, I thought it was much more the absence of momentum and purpose. But you're saying the underlying cause of that is the uncertainty that I, I can't do anything because I don't know what's gonna happen. So interesting.
[00:21:06] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Exactly. The absence of motivation and purpose is the result, I should say, of a bankrupt body budget. In Western culture, we pathologize when people experience things physically and we don't experience them mentally, but sometimes you do wanna experience things physically, right? So sometimes when you're fatigued, it's because, you know, you're running a deficit and you need to take care of yourself.
That's actually, I think one of the biggest things I learned on this journey, is that sometimes your mood is telling you something about your physical state. It's not telling you that something is wrong in the world. It's telling you that you're doing something hard. And it's expensive metabolically, or that you're just depleted.
You know, that your body budget is just running a deficit, and you need to take care of that before you'll feel better. And I gotta say this, Adam, when I'm having a body budgeting problem, like I'm just really overworked, or I'm, you know, stressed. What does stress mean? Stress is just your brain preparing your body for a big metabolic outlay.
That's what stress is. And if your brain is doing it over and over and over and over again, in moments of uncertainty, you're gonna drain the bank. You know? And when I have these moments, like sometimes at night, after a really long, stressful day, I will feel like the world is ending. You know, I'll feel like, oh my God.
You know, like it just feels to me like everything is wrong. And in those moments, I just tell myself, “You are having a body budgeting issue. Go to bed, get, take some water, have a bath, get a hug, and tomorrow, it will feel like a better day.” And even if there are things in the world that you wanna fix, you have more energy and more motivation to do those things when you're not feeling so encumbered.
[00:23:03] Adam Grant:
I think the, the discussion of emotional granularity is a great segue to the lightning round if you're ready for it. Let me start with, one of my favorite ways to gain granularity is to look at emotion words in other languages. Uh, so tell me what is your favorite emotion word that we don't have in English?
[00:23:24] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
I don't remember the word right now, but it's a Japanese word for the concept of the unpleasantness that you feel when you get a bad haircut. I just love, I, I love that. Another one that I like a lot is, um, is geegle, which is, is a word for the feeling that you have when you see a baby that's so cute that you just wanna pinch its cheeks. You know?
[00:23:56] Adam Grant:
Two of my favorites. One is German kummerspeck, I think it's pronounced, which is the extra weight that we get from emotional overeating when we're sad and is literally translated as grief bacon. I thought that was a classic. And then, um—
[00:24:11] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Grief bacon. Oh, I like that.
[00:24:11] Adam Grant:
I recently came across a Finnish word that I can't pronounce. It's something like tare-na-tare-a-dish, which translates to bouncy cushion satisfaction. And it's like whatever couch is nearest to you, like you, ah, like you fall on it and you, you feel relaxed. I thought that was great. Okay, next question. Have you ever invented your own emotion word that's missing from our language?
[00:24:34] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
In our house, we have several. One is the emotional flu. It means you feel like crap, and it feels like something's wrong with you or something's wrong in the world, but really there's just some physical imbalance. So instead of “I'm depressed” or, you know, “I feel miserable”, it’s “I have a touch of the emotional flu today.”
[00:24:57] Adam Grant:
I like that because it, it suggests you're, you're admitting that you don't know the cause of your unpleasant arousal.
[00:25:05] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Yeah. It's also saying, “Give me a little extra care today.” I need a little extra, I don't have so many spoons today. So, go easy on me a little bit. We, another one that we have is chiplessness. You know the feeling, you know, you, you're not really supposed to be eating potato chips. They're not healthy for you, but they're really delicious. And then you get to the bottom of the bag and you know it's done. So you feel kind of regretful, but you're also kind of thankful and relieved because you know, you're not really supposed to be eating them and you do want some more, but you know, you shouldn't have.
It's like this very complicated kind of mix of “I want more. I know I shouldn't have it. I'm kind of relieved that I don't have to show any more, you know, restraint because I don't really have any when it comes to this thing.” That is chiplessness.
[00:25:48] Adam Grant:
What is the biggest myth about emotions that's out there?
[00:25:51] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
That you're born with a limbic system or an emotional brain that's hardwired into your brain before birth and that you're, you're kind of at the mercy of that, you know, ancient, animalistic part of your brain.
[00:26:05] Adam Grant:
What's the biggest thing you've rethought since becoming a neuroscientist?
[00:26:10] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
I, I, like everyone, was trained into this idea that your brain is at war with itself constantly. You've got this emotional beast brain, and you've got this rational side, and they're, they're constantly at war with each other for controlling your behavior.
This is how we understand brain development. It's how we understand mental health and mental illness. It's how we understand how economics works. It's the foundation of the legal system in Western civilization, and it's just not, it's a myth. That's not how your brain is structured. That's not how it works. That's not how it evolved. You don't, you can't blame your bad behavior on ancient circuits in your emotional brain.
[00:26:47] Adam Grant:
What should I blame it on, then?
[00:26:49] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
That's a more complicated answer that I can't give to you in a lightning round.
[00:26:53] Adam Grant:
Fair. Okay. What's the question you have for me?
[00:26:55] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Which emotion do you have the most trouble with in your daily life? One that maybe isn't as useful to you or that you wish you didn't have?
[00:27:08] Adam Grant:
Oh. You know, I was accused recently of regulating my emotions so efficiently that I do it automatically without realizing I'm doing it. So in some cases I'm, I might say my problem is that I don't have enough emotion, but I, there, there, there is one that I can't quite get rid of that bothers me, and I think the emotion that gets in my way the most is anxiety.
Um, and I’ve, I've gotten, I think, pretty good at harnessing it as defensive pessimism following the Julie Norem work, and using it as a cue to prepare for something that's important and uncertain. But what I really struggle with is anxiety in the moment. Like I, I, I had a TV interview and because it's very short and high pressure and there are a lot of viewers, I just felt a little bit jittery, and I, I actually thought to myself, “This is just an electrical signal in my brain,” but you know what? I still had the physiological arousal and so it doesn't matter how many times I tell myself I'm excited or I'm determined, I don't feel like I can speak in the same relaxed tone when I'm feeling that, that I would, when I’m not aroused or when I'm not feeling that intense kind of feeling of being on edge. And so I would love your guidance on what do I do in that moment?
[00:28:27] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
And this is the way I think, the way that control works. We always think about control as changing what we're doing in the moment. I don't know that there's a lot that you can do. I think what you do is before the heat of the moment, you do some things to build that flexibility into your brain so that your brain very automatically has a bunch of choices.
So what do I mean by that? Let me go back to my TED talk. How did I prepare for that talk? I practiced jumping up and down in my hotel room, and I practiced on the stage the day before when the workmen were there constructing the stage. So there's like hammering and drilling going on and you know, and I practiced out loud, standing up in my outfit, gave the talk several times with all this noise so that when I walked on stage and I was filled with arousal, I could just give the talk.
Why? Because I had practiced it in the physical state that I was in. The thing about meaning making, which is important to understand, the thing about control that you have to understand is that in trying to grasp control in the moment is the hardest thing to do, no matter how flexible you are.
It's like a skill. For example, I use awe, a feeling of awe as a way of giving my nervous system a break in very stressful situations. And I have to say, I didn't believe that this was possible to do. And so I did for, for five minutes a day, I tried cultivating awe. And I started with easy things first.
Like the sky, the leaves, the sound of the ocean. Stuff that's awe-inspiring, makes you feel like a speck. And if you're a speck, then your problems are diminished for a very brief time. It gives your nervous system like a moment to reset.
[00:30:22] Adam Grant:
What I think is so powerful about what you just said, it, it, it’s a shift from making the sensation go away to getting better at performing while I'm feeling the sensation. Your, your advice is reminding me a little bit, I should have thought of this sooner. A few years ago I had a conversation with Nik Wallenda, the, the, the tightrope walker who walked across the Grand Canyon, and I was asking him how he trained because I just can't imagine, first of all, why anyone would wanna do that, but secondly how you get yourself ready to do that.
[00:30:49] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
[00:30:49] Adam Grant:
And he said some of the most important training he did was on a, just a one foot rope blindfolded, having his friends literally try to push him off the rope. And I guess that was a version of simulating, you know, both the extreme wind conditions that might arise, but also the intense arousal he was gonna experience, um, when something unexpected happened over the Grand Canyon, and you're saying we can all simulate those conditions more effectively.
[00:31:13] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
I am, but I'm even saying something more I think, which is that when, when he's being knocked by his friends, he's not simulating anything. He's actually physically experiencing the consequences of movement.
Sometimes simulation, technically in, in science, we use it to mean imagining or trying to invoke an experience away from its natural, um, context, and I think in, in what we're talking about here is actually deliberately cultivating those experiences very directly and very, very authentically, and then you just get better at, at working with them.
Because the fact is sometimes you feel unpleasant, not because something is wrong, but because something is hard. And if you have a surge of arousal, it's probably because your brain believes that's needed.
[00:32:10] Adam Grant:
Okay, so that, that goes to one other thing I wanted to talk about before we wrap up, which is the amygdala. When I was in college, I was introduced to the amygdala as the fear center that governs fight or flight reactions. The subsequent research I read said that's wrong. It's actually more of the threat detection center, and I wrote about it recently and you said, “Eh, that's not quite true either,” and I haven't gotten an explanation of why. So what am I getting wrong about the amygdala and can you help me rethink it?
[00:32:37] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
I'm so glad you asked, and that's something that I love about talking about science for the public, is that science is progressive. It's in incrementals. The best available evidence suggests that something is the case, and then more research is done, and then we find out that was mistaken.
It's just a normal part of science, right? It's not a gotcha moment; it’s just how science works. And there are people who still believe that the amygdala is the center for fear, but it really isn't. And I could tell you that, you know, only 30% of all brain imaging studies, for example, show an increase in amygdala activity during fear, which is more than chance, but it's not high enough to be the center for fear.
Or I could tell you that people without amygdalas can experience fear, which they can. And they could even learn fear. They can learn to be fearful of things. And then there's the problem that if I just stick your head in a scanner, Adam, and I show you images you've never seen before, we will get massive amygdala response to that.
The amygdala is like a sentinel. It's telling the rest of the brain that something important is happening where the brain has to marshal its energetic resources to learn something more or to learn something new, and it's involved in regulating that as well as physical movement. Those circuits are important in moments of threat. But they aren't threat detection circuits per se. They have a much more basic function that's like a sentinel to tell the brain this is something that's important to learn.
[00:34:12] Adam Grant:
So when people do their evolutionary hand waving about how the amygdala evolved to protect us from threats in the jungle, you're saying, “Eh, not so much.”
[00:34:22] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
I just don't think that that story, that the amygdala is the fear center or the threat center, and it has to be downregulated by prefrontal cortex. It’s a version of that myth that we have a ancient animalistic beast part of our brain, and then we've got this more rational side, and you know, one has to clamp down on the other in order for us to behave, you know, rationally and appropriately. It's just a myth. It's a morality tale. It's a tale that that, you know, we've been telling ourselves since Plato. If you look at the overarching amount of evidence, it does not support that view.
[00:35:00] Adam Grant:
Lisa, I love the way that you challenge us to rethink so many things we think we know about our emotions and our brains, and I've got a few on my list from today. So thank you.
[00:35:09] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Well, thank you so much for generously asking me about it. I really appreciate it.
[00:35:17] Adam Grant:
One of the biggest implications of Lisa's work is that recognizing emotions is actually a skill for regulating them. The more granular and nuanced you get about what you're feeling, the more agency you gain to shape your experience. And when you're grappling with an unwanted emotion, it's worth remembering: this is just an electrical signal in your brain. I'm gonna be using that one regularly.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma. Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
Well, you, you like me, have an inner logic bully.
[00:36:13] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
I, I do indeed have that.
[00:36:15] Adam Grant:
You suffer from the the curse, which is also one of your gifts of being both precise and contrarian.
[00:36:23] Lisa Feldman Barrett:
Yes, that is true.