ou might think that emotions arise as a direct result of what’s happening. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. The brain takes in what’s happening and contextualizes it. So, when our partner gives us flowers, brain neurons fire. And we think that is what makes us smile and feel happy. In fact, it’s much more complex.
We usually don’t have the mental energy to constantly re-examine and re-evaluate how we feel so instead our brains do a quick survey to generate a guess for how we “probably feel” based on our experience of getting flowers in the past combined with the sensations we notice, like perhaps a surprised smile and a flushed face.
Neuropsychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has researched and written extensively on the way emotions work. She explains that our brains guess the emotions that will be needed, but not always in reaction to external events. Our brains are actually doing complex work to generate our emotion based on the situation, our personal history, and how the body feels. This means there are things we can do in all three areas to make change if we want to. (More on that in a minute.)
And there are a lot of human emotions. Pixar’s animated film Inside Out highlighted five primary emotions – anger, fear, disgust, joy, and sadness. But in real life, our emotions are layered with nuances that allow for a much broader emotional range.
Humans are capable of feeling amusement, awe, confusion, empathic pain, horror, surprise, and relief, to name just a few. And, single emotions can be combined in infinite ratios. You might remember feeling both sad about and fond of something. Or feeling both surprise and joy when you received a gift you really wanted. Maybe even a little relief, too.
So how do we understand and modify our emotional reactions? Let’s go back to the three ingredients: Body, the past and surroundings.