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Emotions are maybe not what you thought they were

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

Sometimes something happened that shakes one’s assumptions and beliefs. At times having out beliefs and opinions shaken is enjoyable, sometimes not. This last year a reseracher and author of books about the brain, neurology and emotions has made me change my approach to emotions. And for me, working with Nonviolent Communication, this is a central thing, as emotions are a big part of what I focus on. Lisa Feldman Barretts book How emotions are made, has helped me reflect deeply on my view of where emotions come from, how they are made, and what they are really for.

I used to look at feelings in a similar way as they are described in “the classical view of emotions”; that emotions are something we share universally and that can be recognized in the faces of the person feeling them.

After a lot of resistance, I have altered the way I see emotions, as I don't want to be blind by modern research (even if it is more comfortable to keep my confirmation bias and believe in the same things as before).

The classical view of emotions was formed in the -90s by Paul Ekman and others, but with roots back to Platon. The claim that it is possible to read what someone is feeling by looking at someone’s face independent on culture has proved wrong. This universality approach sometimes also claim that emotions are triggered from a certain place in the brain, have a certain essence and/or move in some kind of circuits in the brain or something along those lines and this has also fallen. All kind of other theories are based on this like work with emotional circuits or essences.

Scientists ( Lisa Feldman Barret and her team amongst others) tried to duplicate Paul Ekmans research upon which the classical view of emotions was formulated – and realised a lot of different flaws in the old research methods upon which the next generation of research has based its assumptions[1]. Scientists have, in different ways and for a long time, tried to understand what role the brain has when it comes to emotions. And now it it is evident that we cannot expect others to know what we feel, just by watching our face or our eyes.

New research of science tools, like brain scans, force us to think out of the old research box.

We just don’t have the exact same reactions when we have an emotion and it also differs from person to person. Emotions are constructed, they are not reactions, and variation is the norm. This might seem counter-intuitive for most of us as we are mainly not aware of how and when the emotions are constructed.

One of the things that has led to new assumptions about emotions are that researchers has realized that we are all bad lie detectors. Our view of emotions has fooled us to believe that there is a certain “lying or guilty face”. One liar looks different than other liars. We also look different when we feel guilty at one occasion to another one. So, we cannot detect lies neither in children, nor in adults just by looking at the expression in their face. And if you are like me this is really hard to believe as I really want to think I can see when someone is lying!

But why does this matter for you and me? Well, one reason is that if we believe emotions can be read from our own face, we might start to demand of others to know how we feel. And I might blame myself from not being able to read in someone else’s face that they felt sad or scared.

"… the theory of constructed emotions is a biologically oriented, psychological explanation of who weare as a human beings. It counts on both evolution and culture. [2]

Lisas Feldman Barrets theory, based on this new research, is that emotions are constructed, not stimulated or triggered. When I feel something, I call sad, this might not be the same experience as when you use the same word. I might even use the word sad for different inner experiences as this is the word that at least describes part of what I’m experiencing. Emotions are also not some kind of essences that awakens in different situations, they are not triggered as a result of somethingt. There are no emotional brain buttons that can be pushed (oh how I hate that the option of blaming our anger on someone else pushing these buttons is lost with this view of emotions!). Instead emotions are constructed by a mix of body, affects, memories and thoughts, in order to predict the best possible reaction to next moment. Emotions are constructed (mostly unconsciously) by us, to create meaning in what we experience. Emotions are important predictors for what we can expect of the next moment and they are trying to support us in keeping our energy budget for our bodies.

So how does this science of emotions affect our use of the principals of Nonviolent Communication (NVC)? One of the things we need to explore is how we approach the concept of emotions being triggered or constructed, but still do it with acceptance and empathy for ourselves and others. According to the research, emotions are both physical and social. They are needed to create meaning and to make predictions that will balance our body budget. In NVC we create meaning by connecting our emotions to needs and thus create meaning. It also helps us predict what request or behavior that will meet needs in the future. What we need to take a look at is our way of saying that needs are “triggered”. We will also need to take a new look at the connection between observations and emotions. And maybe we need to let go of the habit that a big part of the worlds seems to like at the moment, to attach emojis with different emotions in our messages assuming that they make it clear how we feel. Or at least to use them with awareness that they are not always capturing what you hope they are.

More about this in my next blog.

1] The book describes the research and its implications in much more detail. Feldman Barret, Lisa (2020) How emotions are created. The secret life of the brain.

As Im a mediator this approach is also informing my work on mediation. To lean toward the contracted theory of emotions is very supportive for NVC based mediation. Take a look at our online mediation training if you are curious to learn more.

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