How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain By...

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life Of The Brain By Lisa Feldman Barrett

By Eta Feuerman-Yaeger, LMSW

This book will help you:

  •  Gain new perspectives on your emotions
  •  Give you the power to notice and change your emotional interpretations of the world around and inside you

Neuroscientist Barrett discusses her research on how emotions are made. We are used to thinking that emotions are inevitable reactions to outside triggers. It’s true that, in the moment, it feels like your emotions are triggered and out of your control. However, How Emotions Are Made shows how our emotions are shaped more significantly by our inner interpretations and predictions, which are based on previous experiences, rather than present reality and sensory input. Furthermore, our interpretations of sensory experiences into emotional categories are shaped by social reality and shared language.

Barrett’s ideas actually give individuals much more power and responsibility over their emotions than the classical view. Reading and identifying emotions are not about an objective reality, or of what is the correct or incorrect label of emotion. Most of what we think is objective reality is really social reality, meaning that we as a society have decided on certain concepts and ideas, but they could just as easily be differently interpreted in a different society. We only have the concept of “sad” because we have a word for it and our society has collectively decided that certain sensations add up to the feeling of “sad.” If we didn’t have a word for sad, we wouldn’t have a way to label and identify the feeling and may categorize the sensations as a different feeling or experience instead of sad. I wrote about hygge a few weeks ago, which is a concept that the English language doesn’t have words for. This is an example of a feeling that didn’t really exist in our mind until we had the word for it.

Barrett’s ideas actually give individuals much more power and responsibility over their emotions than the classical view

“Emotion words are not about emotional facts in the world that are stored like static files in your brain. They reflect the varied emotional meanings you construct from mere physical signals in the world using your emotion knowledge. You acquired that knowledge from the collective knowledge contained in the brains of those who cared for you, talked to you, and helped you create your social world. Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world. If you could distinguish finer meanings between feeling good, such as ecstatic, excited, or satisfied, your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotion, providing you with the tools for more flexible and functional responses. This is having high emotional granularity. You could predict and categorize your sensations more efficiently and better tailor your actions to your environment. With practice, you can learn to deconstruct an affective feeling into its mere physical sensations, rather than letting those sensations be a filter through which you view the world. You can dissolve anxiety into a fast-beating heart. Once you can deconstruct into physical sensations, then you can recategorize them in some other way, using your rich set of concepts. Perhaps that pounding in your chest is not anxiety but anticipation, or even excitement.”

Personally, I found the concept of construction helpful for me, as it encourages me to pay more attention to my body, and the role it plays in my emotions, in order to defuse their intensity. To describe how this process worked for me, I was feeling down this week. I was assuming I was feeling a certain kind of lonely because that has been something I have been struggling with lately. However, I was kind of sick of feeling this way, and wondering if I wasn’t doing a lot of misinterpreting. I decided to pay attention to how my body felt and see if I couldn’t sniff out another interpretation. I noticed my heart feeling heavy, which has been for me an indicator of sadness, in addition to loneliness. So I thought about what might be making me sad, and realized I had encountered a lot of sadness during the week from others. I made time to write and talk about what was making me sad, instead of attributing it to the loneliness I thought I was feeling. Maybe I really was feeling lonely, but that problem was less solvable at that moment, and I was better able to defuse the intensity by reinterpreting in this way. This book made me think a lot about emotions and the power I can have over them.

Eta Feuerman-Yaeger, LMSW is a psychotherapist who works with children, adults, and groups, with offices in Queens and Brooklyn. She can be reached at