umans are emotional beings. Recent research points to fascinating details about how our emotions arise and the way our brains use them. These insights can help us better shape the emotional experiences we want to have. It was thought that when we experience something, our emotions arise immediately and uncontrollably. But those may be incorrect assumptions, according to NPR interviews
with leading neuroscientists.
For example, say you hear a series of sudden, explosive sounds nearby. The old theory assumed that fear arises when we are startled, and then the body reacts, our heart rate climbs, our pupils dilate. We experience a “fight or flight” response.
But current research shows that as the brain registers the sounds, it is actually our physical responses that kick in first. Then emotion arises.
Emotions form based on what’s going on inside and outside the body. This allows the brain to calculate what is happening at the moment and what’s needed to survive. The brain also uses memories of similar experiences to give context to what’s happening.
Maybe your last experience of explosive sounds was a delightful firework show. Fun! You likely felt joy and excitement, maybe awe. But probably not fear. However, if you previously had a life-threatening experience with explosive sounds, fear likely ran high.
“You can, in fact, modify what you feel in very direct ways,” psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett says in the NPR article. “If you know that your brain uses your past in order to make sense [of] and create the present, then you can practice cultivating [positive] emotions today so that your brain can automatically use that knowledge when it’s making emotions tomorrow,” Barrett says.
We can reprogram our brains by practicing specific emotions. “Your brain grows new connections that make it easier for you to automatically cultivate these emotions in the future.”