Vaishnavi wanted to play in the game room at our hotel. She had already spoken about it the previous night before bedtime and in the morning during breakfast. Upon reaching the game room, the space to play board games we were taken by a family playing scrabble. We agreed to play a few other games such as foosball, and ping pong and after 30 minutes the family was still seated there. Her emotions started to elevate. She felt disappointed. She started to scream and cry. We tried to deescalate the situation by walking out. She didn’t feel like ending the holiday without playing snake and ladder.
We have a snake and ladder game at home but that’s not what her emotion-flooded brains can think. So where did the emotions come from and what we could have done? People were watching us.
The Theory of Constructed Emotion takes its name from its central premise: that emotions are concepts constructed by the brain. The brain uses concepts. A concept is a compressed version of hundreds or thousands of past experiences. Instead of remembering every encounter you’ve ever had with a “chair,” your brain stores a concept of a chair. The next time you encounter a chair, your brain must only match it with this concept to understand what it’s seeing.
Emotions like “fear,” “sadness,” and “disappointment” are concepts just like any other. Just as your brain interprets a pattern of light as a “window,” it might interpret a pattern of bodily sensations as “fear” or “disappointment.” These emotions don’t feel like concepts because we experience them so intensely. But they are.
It wasn’t anymore about the snake and ladder, it was the connection between ending the holiday and playing the game. She couldn’t end the holiday without playing the game. She wanted to play something that meant to her as happy as she always plays the game at home and she had associated family time and happiness with the game. If you are curious about what we did, we let her scream. We were late to check out and we made a scene as we had a 5-year-old screaming and crying. But as she calmed down, we could resonate and talk it out and left without playing the board game. We returned to the room, and talked it out more. Used imessage to convey our feelings, played another game, and headed home.
What we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell are simulations of the world, not reactions to it. We might think that our perceptions of the world are driven by events in the world, but really, most of what we see is based on our internal predictions. The data from our senses merely influences our perceptions, like a small stone skipping across a rolling ocean wave.
This startling conclusion is reinforced by research on how humans see. The part of the brain responsible for sight, the visual cortex, receives only 10% of its connections from the retina. The other 90% are connections from other brain parts, making predictions about what they think we might be seeing.
What does the brain do when its predictions are wrong? It can change its prediction to match what the senses are telling it. But it is just as likely to do the opposite: stick with the original prediction, and filter the incoming data to match the prediction.
In a sense, your brain is wired for delusion: you experience an elaborate world of your creation, which is held in check by bits of sensory input. Once your predictions are correct enough, they filter your perception and determine what you’re able to see in the first place. This can become a closed loop where the brain only sees what it believes, and then believes what it sees.
From the brain’s point of view, the body is just another part of the external world that it must explain. And it uses the very same mechanism we just examined to interpret sensations coming from inside the body – the changing rhythms of your heartbeat, the feeling of breathing, the rumbling of your stomach, and the contraction and dilation of your veins.
It’s important to understand that these purely physical sensations inside the body have no objective meaning. They feel so intense because they’re coming from inside you. But an ache in your stomach, for example, could just as easily be “explained” as Hunger (if you’re sitting at the dinner table). The process of interpreting these bodily sensations is called interoception. It is managed by an “interoceptive network” in the brain that takes in information from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system, among many others, and labels this information with a concept such as “hunger”.
Everything your body does, inside or out, requires energy. To manage its “body budget” across hundreds of body parts and billions of cells, the brain has to predict the body’s energy needs constantly. Just as a finance department needs a budget to forecast where money will be needed, the brain makes predictions and issues corrections about when and where it thinks energy will be needed.
Many of these “budgetary changes” we experience as emotional experiences. Your muscles running low on energy might feel like “exhaustion.” Too little sleep might be interpreted as “overwhelm.” A lack of positive social interaction might be experienced as “loneliness. By trying on new perspectives the way we try on new clothes, we can “try out” different body-budgeting regimes. In the same way, we might allocate more financial resources to one budget category or another, we can do the same with our body budgets.
Anytime you feel bad, recognize what is actually happening: you are experiencing unpleasant effects based on interoceptive sensations. With practice, you can learn to deconstruct the emotion into its constituent parts, instead of letting it become a lens through which you view the world. For example, the broad, ambiguous feeling of “anxiety” can be broken down and recategorized into “tension across the upper back,” “rapidly beating heart,” and “clenched jaw.” This deconstruction robs the sensations of some of their emotional power. Try labelling what you are feeling more precisely, meditating on different body parts, or looking for more immediate, physical causes such as hunger, dehydration, or lack of sleep.
One of the most effective ways of questioning the mind’s often overly dramatic interpretations is to talk about them with others. Getting feelings out into the open lends us a degree of objectivity, and allows others to show empathy and understanding.
Sometimes the predictive loops between body and mind are so strong that it is difficult to interrupt them consciously. Luckily, we have a backdoor: the body. Whether through walking, yoga, stretching, weight-lifting, or other forms of exercise, we can re-synchronize the signals flowing between our body and mind, putting our body budgets back into balance.
This might seem implausible, but there is substantial evidence that emotional granularity is closely linked to linguistic granularity. The more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your brain can identify what’s happening in the body and calibrate its budget accordingly. A study found that people who exhibit higher emotional granularity go to the doctor less frequently, use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. In contrast, lower emotional granularity is associated with major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders, autism spectrum disorders, borderline personality disorder, and general feelings of anxiety and depression. Whether reading sophisticated and nuanced works of literature, watching movies with complex characters, or looking up words you don’t know, expanding your vocabulary can directly impact your body function.
Our brain relies on models of what is happening or likely to happen in the outside world to make budgeting decisions. We can consciously influence and enrich these models by what we expose ourselves to. Writing is one of the most effective ways to shape the concepts directly our brain is constructing. Writing allows us to make our thinking more concrete, outside our heads, where it can be more objectively evaluated, analyzed, and changed. The words we put on the page can be reflected back to us, forming a different predictive loop in which we have much more agency.
The promise of constructed emotions is not that we will somehow gain complete control over how we feel. Emotions are inherently uncertain, and that uncertainty is exactly what makes a vibrant emotional life possible. Life can be unexpectedly joyful, unexpectedly meaningful, and unexpectedly profound. The promise is not that we can control the emotional waves that sweep over us as we move through life. The promise is that we can learn to surf those waves with skill and with pleasure.
When you feel angry, angry, talk it out, talk it out