How Emotions Are Made

McInnes Associates brain emotions science

This is part of our quick reads series; helping you stay informed without hogging your precious time.  This post covers the book: “How Emotions are Made” by Lisa Feldman Barret.  We encourage you to read the book if this summary tickles your fancy, because as you will see – summarising this dazzling book in less than 10 minutes isn’t really possible.

Why should you care how your emotions are made?

Let me ask you this: how often do you feel a victim of your emotions?  Conversely how often do you feel fully in charge of your emotions?

Once upon a time

Many moons ago (around 24,000), ideas of how emotions develop started to form.  Ideas that are still the basis of much of today’s science, as well as day-to-day life such as sesame street and common approaches to therapy.

These ideas form the ‘classical view’ of emotions and go like this: we all have an innate/inborn understanding of emotions.  In addition we all express them in similar ways; in our faces and within our bodies (e. g. our heart rate, hormones, and other stuff).  It is as if we have a mental and physiological ‘fingerprints’ of certain emotions.

Past studies have even shown how we can recognise certain common emotions across languages/cultures and even within remote tribes with little access to the modern world.

Sounds reasonable doesn’t it?  It feels like how I intuitively understand emotions.

But they were wrong – doh!

Feldman Barret is bravely proposing a totally new theory of emotions, she calls it the constructed view of emotions.

Like it says on the tin – the idea is we construct emotions, moment-to-moment, based on our personal history and the cues we see in the environment and in our bodies.  It gets a lot more complex and there are lots of science-y ideas and concepts, but also a lot to back them up.

Perhaps the most captivating example that challenged the classic view of emotions in the book was a picture of a woman, close up, screaming in terror.


It was terrifying.

Turn the page and there is a wider view of one of the Williams sisters having just beaten the other sister at Tennis, and the emotions is -> utter joy plus that rush of victory (and hopefully a little concern for sis).

If Feldman Barret is right, it does not seem very dramatic, does it?  Who cares too much really?  Well actually it could change not only how we understand emotions in general but also how we do research, how therapists do therapy, and even how writers write children’s shows.

Scientists do self-help too

Barret goes on to provide some personal development tips based on her science (which is cool as let’s be frank – there is lots of nonsense in this space).  So here on some science-based tips: enjoy touch – get a massage, do yoga, surround yourself with quiet and greenery, enjoy a good book, have a regular lunch date with a friend, take it in turns to shout.  But wait there is more: try new stuff – take trips, try new clothing, try new perspectives (like they are new clothes), learn new words, and develop your emotional granularity.

You’ll have to read the book to fully understand emotional granularity.  My tip for now is: it is helpful to try and describe your feelings in a way that captures them better than ‘happy’, ‘sad’, or ‘angry’.  What about “the thrill and apprehension of apply lipstick before a second date”?

Hard Science Meets Pop Psych.

So there it is, hard scientists can offer up interesting enough stuff that one can enjoy it over a glass of wine.  It is time to embrace your very own “50 shades of feeling crappy/happy” – I strongly recommend beginning with this book.

Let me know what you think.

Yours as ever,

The wellbeingatworkDr.

Credits and all that Jazz

Adapted from

“How Emotions are made” by Lisa Feldman Barret. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcout (2017).

Art by Rose (12)

Photo Credit

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