What are emotions? Sounds like an easy question, but giving it an answer seems like its hard enough to explain than how you realize it. Emotions are simply what we feel — most of us think of emotions as something that comes from within us, like something that’s part of your subconscious that you can’t control. However, new studies are challenging this thought by arguing that emotions aren’t naturally born instincts; and you acquire them as you grow; and what you’ve learned, you can unlearn.
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Your Emotions Are A Myth
The whole idea that emotions are hard-wired is pretty simple: We all share similar traits. If someone from a sub-Saharan band of hunter-gatherers looked angry or sad, you would have no trouble identifying that that fella is angry, no matter wherever you are, you’d know. Obviously! But according to neuroscientist and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, science pretty much complicates that picture, she explained in an interview with Five Books.
“The reigning ‘common sense’ belief, which has also been the scientific belief for a long time, is that emotions are reflexes: our brains are born prewired with emotion circuits,” she explains. If you experience one of these pre-wired responses — let’s say, fear, “everyone can recognize them.”
This understanding that emotions are universal sounds intuitive to most of us, but unfortunately, it seems quite wrong. For instance, in one culture, a thumping heart might be labeled terror, in another excitement, and in a third some word that doesn’t easily translate into English.
“There are decades and decades of research showing that we aren’t born with emotions that are built into our brains. Instead our brains build emotions as we need them in a way that’s very specific to the situation,” Barrett insists.
Thinking about your emotions enough seems like your physical reactions to your immediate surroundings is somehow preprogrammed — sort of how you behave naturally. Sounds right. Human bodies function roughly the same way everywhere. But how you interpret your emotions, varies depending on your culture. Emotions seem fascinating, but you’re pardoned if you thought otherwise.
“Who cares? I’m not a neuroscientist. Beyond the fascination factor, what’s in this for me?” Barrett asks.
Here’s the catch: If you realize your emotions are essentially constructed by how you interpret and label what’s happening in your body, rather than the physical reactions, you can control them better; and this could make several aspects of life — from your personal to relationship — seem quite better.
So What Are Emotions?
That’s not an easy question. According to psychologist Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University, has shown that reinterpreting signs of stress like a racing pulse and sweaty palms as excitement can help buffer against the negative health consequences of stress. Meanwhile, Susan David, founder of Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching, has made a career of teaching people to get a better handle on their emotions by learning better ways to talk about them.
Emotions aren’t purely physical, they are interpretations of the physical; and learning new concepts and words for how you feel can, in a very real way, help you feel and respond differently. And that power, used thoughtfully, can help you lead a happier, more successful life.
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Thu, May 07, 2019.