Book Review – “How Emotions are made”

What do you think are the skills of this century? AI, IoT, coding may seem to be taking over the world, but matters of the human soul are even more critical than they have been ever before.

Aren’t emotions at the heart of a human life! But they are the construct of our mind; unique, learnt concepts like any other thing our brain learns. And that is what the Book of “How Emotions are made” is all about.

In this groundbreaking book Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist, psychologist and now the author of this book, brings down firstly, the notion of ’emotions are hard wired, primal, having a unique fingerprint in terms of expressions, posture’. And counters it with building case after case, how in fact they are constructed, contending that emotions are part of the rational functioning and not separate from the rational functioning of our mind.

Secondly the book counters another notion held as a given in the past that  – a single part of the brain (eg. Amygdala controls the emotion of fear) responsible for a single set of emotions, while showcasing proof that in fact our neurons and emotions seem to have a “many to one” and “one to many” relationship, ie many combinations of the neurons produce the same outcome, and a single brain area or network contributes to many different mental state. Plasticity, fluidity, adaptability at its best!

The books says our brain is like a scientist who is constantly predicting, simulating while using concepts to make meaning of what is happening inside our bodies. And here is the breakthrough third point of the book – the main ‘goal’ of our lived experience is to ensure our ‘bodily budgets’ are in balance. And our brain makes the most important prediction about Body’s Energy to stay alive and well. And these predictions are key ingredients that go into making emotions. This to me is the most important point the book makes since I am an ontological coach who is working to integrate the workings of the body-mind to help shape and create new realities.

To enlist a few key points on how our brain works to construct emotions…

  • Our Brain is a Simulator, hardwired to predict the demands on your body energy budget. It uses past data, present data and is constantly running simulations and classifying what the new data it is receiving is like what it knows or predicts. This data that it receives is both Inner Data and Outer Data.A core ingredient of the “Inner Data” the brain receives depends on our critical sense called Interoception. Yes, we have more than 5 senses. Interoception is the “Inner feeling” and this sense works consciously and unconsciously. An example of it working consciously is when we feel fullness, or feel hungry. We can bring ourselves to consciously feel something too, by using the special neuron receptors in different parts of our body like the muscles, tendons, etc to notice what sensations we are feeling in different parts of our body.

  • As kids, we feel affect. Affect is also a feeling – till we start learning about “Emotions”.

  • What is Affect? It is the general feeling we sense throughout the day. Not an emotion – but a feeling. It can be PLEASANT or UNPLEASANT also called VALENCE or CALM or AGITATED also called AROUSAL

  • To Construct Emotions we need – Both our Mind Stuff
    (which includes Interoception, Affect, Past information ie memory, Current sensorial inputs or data from the environment) + Linguistic Abilities

  • Why Language Matters? Because our Mind – is not just our mind but includes the minds of others which we get a peep into through language. That helps us construct the concept of emotions when we are young.

  • The moot point is that emotions serve our “body budgets”

This is the explanation of emotions…

“An emotion is your brain’s “creation” of what our bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on in the world…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 emotional concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion”

“Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensorial feelings and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. Sometimes that meaning is an emotion”

“Emotions are not distinct from perception or cognition”.

In summary, and this is where change can come about in the way we experience life and growth, our affective feelings are simply body budget summaries. Affective feelings can be misleading because when we experience affect without knowing the cause, we assume its “information about the world” not “our experience about the world”. In reality, when we experience unpleasant affect (aka unpleasant feelings) it means we are taxing our BODY BUDGET. It does not always have to mean that something bad has happened in the world (remember the world also includes our sense of Self) to make us feel the way we feel. A case in point being women who are menopausing often feel like the world has turned on them, whereas what’s happening is an imbalance of a body budget.

Ok so what does it mean for leaders, coaches, and anyone who is interested in self-awareness work to create ultimate results in life:

  1. Stop trying to guess what people are feeling. Everyone’s experience is different. Don’t label other’s emotional state. 
  2. Support yourself and others to unpack emotions, ie what is the experience of that emotion for them. 
  3. Take care of inner body budget,through inner work, yoga, meditation, visualization, healthy nutrition, sleep, because that has a direct impact on the making of Emotions
  4. Since moment to moment interoception infuses us with affect, which we then end up using as evidence about the world, and the world being also us – take up one mind – body practice – Yoga, tai-chi, aikido or others to help you in conscious interoception. In my experience when we have moved and stretched up well, an inner pleasantness affect is a felt experience. That makes us literally makes me give a new meaning to the world (our sense of self and the world outside us).
  5. Everything we perceive around us is represented as concepts, compared with past concepts in our brain. Without concepts we would experience world of new data every time, overwhelming us! To help emotional agility, coming back to the present reality is important to refresh concepts.
  6. The more emotional concepts we know, the more emotionally fit we are. So let’s learn emotional granularity (aka emotional words and concepts)

The scope of emotions at work is immense. Handling conflict, building trust, influencing and creating impressions, managing anger, managing day to day frustration, feeling challenged, stress management, being assertive – are all aspects we deal with at the organizational level. 

Where can we begin as leaders? At the foundation, I believe. Of what it is to be human. At how emotions are made.


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