Troy Swanson: Lisa, I’d like to welcome you to Circulating Ideas. I am so excited to be talking to you. For the past few years, I’ve been doing interviews with librarians, journalists, scientists, and any other writers who will talk to me about misinformation and disinformation and hopefully the role that librarians will play in combating them.
And one thing I’ve learned along the way is I think our profession could do a lot better with understanding how the mind works, and that’s why I wanted to bring you in to talk, so thank you. Maybe to get us started, tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and your research.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Sure, but first, let me say, I’m really delighted to be here today and to have the chance to talk to you. I have a soft spot in my heart for librarians because I actually worked at a branch of what is now the Toronto Public Library, but was the North York Public Library when I was putting myself through school, actually.
So, I love libraries actually, so it’s a pleasure. So, I’m originally Canadian, I’m from Toronto. I did my PhD in clinical psychology and then over the course of 15 years retrained as a physiologist and then as a neuroscientist, and now I’m learning engineering, like systems approaches to electrical engineering and evolutionary biology.
So basically, I’m a bit of a gadfly, I guess. I just like to learn that new things, but I started my career really studying the nature of emotion and in order to do that, it just required that I learn a lot about how the body works and then eventually how the brain works, and now, how the brain evolved and how it developed.
Troy Swanson: Could you maybe tell us a little bit about your lab and day-to-day life as a neuroscientist?
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Oh, sure. I co-direct a lab with Dr. Karen Quigley, who is a physiologist. So, we kind of joke that I’m the central nervous system and she’s the peripheral nervous system and then together we make a whole person. We have a pretty big lab for what we do. We have about 25 full-time scientists who work with us across two different research sites. So, part of the lab is at Northeastern University, which is in downtown Boston, and part of it is at the Massachusetts General Hospital, which is in Charlestown, which is in Boston. It’s affiliated with Harvard Medical School and all of our research is federally funded by the United States government, the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. We have a lot of different research projects going on.
We started really as a lab that studied the nature of emotion. What are emotions? How does your brain in conversation with your body and the outside world create emotions? But it turns out that this was a really good flashlight into really basic questions about brain function. And how does your brain create your mind in this conversation with your body and other brains in bodies around you?
I think what’s unusual about our lab is the size. It’s also unusual for two scientists to co-direct a lab. Usually, everyone has their own little fiefdom, but that’s not how we do things. Karen and I have collaborated for more than two decades, so it’s worked out really well for us. I think it’s also unusual that our lab spans lots of different domains. We draw from philosophy of science and the history of science and linguistics and anthropology and sociology, but also evolutionary biology, developmental neurobiology, systems engineering. So, we have really a broad reach and we use concepts and tools from lots of different domains of science to guide our very basic questions about how a brain creates your experience and controls your actions.
Troy Swanson: I wanted you to talk a little bit about your lab just because I think it really emphasizes how you’re one of the preeminent thinkers in this realm, and along with that though, your books that I’ve read are so accessible and understandable. They’re not always easy ideas. You take the reader through the path in an understandable way, and I think that’s fantastic.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: I really appreciate that. The hardest writing I do is science writing for the public.
Troy Swanson: Well, and let me tell you, I was a history and political science major, and I never even took biology or chemistry in college. So, if I can get through them and start to understand, then you’re doing great. Your most recent book, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain is written for those of us who are non-scientists, which to be fair, it’s probably most of the librarians who are listening to this right now, and so I thought that would be a good starting point for our discussion. Tell us about this book. Where did it come from and why should we pick it up?
Lisa Feldman Barrett: I wrote How Emotions Are Made first. It’s a very standard science book for the public, it’s about 300 pages long. It’s got like a thousand references. It’s got stories and anecdotes, but also some pretty solid science in there that I hope goes down somewhat more easily than the actual scientific papers. The thing is that there were a couple of themes in How Emotions Are Made that were in the background that I really wanted to foreground, about the nature of your experience and how much control and responsibility you may have for that. The fact that we are the caretakers of each other’s nervous systems, not in some new age gauzy wellness way, but actually in a very real biological way. And that’s important.
So, I think one of the reasons was that I really wanted to bring these really big ideas to the forefront, but I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t preachy, that was kind of fun, you know? So, I wrote these little essays. I’ve loved essays as a form of writing. And I’ve always wanted to try my hand at them. So, I thought, okay, I’m going to write some brief essays that have a couple of tidbits of science in them, really cool neuroscience stuff. So, if you went to a dinner party, because of course this was written pre COVID, right? So, if you go to a dinner party, you could just entertain your friends with a couple of little tidbits of neuroscience and that would make you really popular at the party, but that it would really unearth some big questions about human nature and about what kind of a human you are and what kind of a human do you want to be? And the idea was that the essays would be short and they would go down easy, each of them was only a couple pages long, but that the questions that they raise -and they really don’t tell you what to think, they more just raised certain types of questions for you to think about- that they would linger with you for much longer than it took to read the book.
And even though the book wasn’t written with current concerns in mind, like the rise of authoritarianism or the COVID pandemic or what have you, the themes in the book, which are really all rooted in pretty basic neuroscience, I have to say, I think are applicable still to the kinds of everyday struggles and concerns that people have.
Troy Swanson: Yeah. I think that’s right on target, like I ‘ve heard you describe the book as a neuroscience beach read, which I think is just fantastic.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: That’s my husband’s description of the book. I am probably the only person that he knows anyways, who reads neuroscience books, like scientific books and also deep books on philosophy on the beach. So, every year we go to the beach for two weeks most years and, I thought, well, you know, I like to read essays, non-fiction on the beach maybe this would be fun. And so, this is the kind of thing that I would personally read on the beach or in the bathtub at night, but my husband dubbed it, the first neuroscience beach read and that just really caught on.
Troy Swanson: Well, and I think that makes sense. All the librarians listening should add this next summer to their beach read list. I did want to dig in a little bit to some of those lessons and such it’s called Seven and a Half Lessons, I think I have to start with asking about the half lesson first, which is your brain is not for thinking, which may seem counterintuitive. So, could you help us understand this?
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. So, I started off by wondering, why do we even have a brain? Brains are really expensive organs. So that three-pound blob of meat between your ears is 20% of your metabolic budget. So, it’s the most expensive organ you have in your entire body. And I thought, well, why do we have a brain? What’s it good for? The assumption that most people have, at least in the west going all the way back to the ancient Greeks is that your brain is for thinking, it’s for rationality. It’s what makes us different, the thing that makes us different from the rest of the animal kingdom.
The thing is when you peer back into the evolution of the brain, and what’s known about when brains appeared on the evolutionary scene and what the selection pressures were that seemed to encourage the emergence of a brain, it’s clear that rationality is not the brain’s most important job. And so, thinking is not the brain’s most important job. Seeing, feeling, creating your experience is really not the brain’s most important job.
The brain’s most important job from the evolutionary evidence and also from developmental neurobiology, it seems pretty clear that the brain’s most important job is to regulate the systems of your body. And everything else it does, it’s doing in the service of the efficient regulation of the body, because each of us -you, me, our listeners -as we’re talking to each other and listening to each other, there’s a whole drama going on inside our bodies. We have lots and lots and lots of moving parts in there. Lots and lots and lots of systems, and they all require oxygen and glucose and salt and water to function. And there has to be some coordination of those systems, and it has to be done in a metabolically efficient way because metabolic efficiency is a major selection pressure on individuals and on species.
So, you and I don’t experience every moment of happiness, every moment of anger, every hug that we give, every insult that we bear, we don’t experience these things in terms of our metabolism or our metabolic health, but actually under the hood, your brain sees and feels and thinks in the service of regulating the body in the most efficient way. And that’s actually a key insight. Once you understand that a whole bunch of other puzzles seem to dissolve actually.
Troy Swanson: Well, what I have to ask, what are some of those other puzzles that might dissolve?
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Okay, so this one’s an easy one. There are record numbers of people who are suffering from metabolic illnesses, like diabetes, heart disease, and interestingly in diabetes and in heart disease, the comorbidity of depression and anxiety, but more depression is very, very high.
So, in heart disease, for example, 70% of people who have heart disease also end up developing symptoms of major depression. And when you are depressed, you also have an increased likelihood of developing diabetes and heart disease. And so, physicians and scientists ask themselves, what is it about cardiovascular illness that predisposes people to depression? Or what is it about depression that makes it more likely that you’ll develop cardiovascular disease?
What they don’t realize is that all of these illnesses are metabolic dysfunctions. So, there’s a common cause there, a common set of causes having to do with energy regulation in the body that give rise to depression and diabetes and heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease actually.
And I just want to be clear that I’m not reducing everything to metabolism, right? The body, the brain, complex systems. Lots of interacting parts that influence each other in a myriad of ways. But metabolism is something that is really overlooked. And even right now when people are puzzling over why they feel such malaise and why are they feeling such languidness and how come they wake up in the morning and just feel like crap, what is that about?
And the answer is, your brain, its most important job is running a budget for your body. It’s not budgeting money. It’s budgeting all these resources. And many of us are running deficits in that body budget. Cause we’ve just lived through, for us, we’ve lived through in the U S the age of Trump. There I’ve just shown my colors, but you know, for the people who are really conservative, they lived through the era of Obama. And that was probably really what we would say colloquially stressful, but what I would say is it probably had body budgeting consequences for them, and there are economic concerns and there’s the pressing issues of climate change, there’s COVID, and the important thing to understand is that brains, the way they work to run a body budget is they’re trying to reduce uncertainty. So, they predict rather than react, with the end game of reducing uncertainty. So, when things are uncertain to you, when you can’t predict what’s going to happen next, when you just don’t know, when things feel chaotic, that is one of the most expensive conditions for your brain to be.
So, no wonder we’re all feeling exhausted.
Troy Swanson: Right. And I know from listening to some of your talks and reading, the brain is borrowing against the future, right? So, if you’re not able to drink the water and get the sleep you need, then it takes time to recover and balance itself back out.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, Troy, and the analogy that I would use is like exercise. So, when you exercise, you spend into the future, right? You’re spending and then you start to spend at some point resources you don’t have. And that’s when things start to feel really unpleasant when you’re exercising.
So, for me, I hit my ventilatory load about 20 minutes in, and then I’m feeling like sh** really for the rest of the time. But the thing is, what do you do when you stop exercising? Maybe you have a protein drink. Maybe you just drink a lot of water. Maybe you stretch. Maybe you make sure you get enough sleep.
You do things, you eat something, you do things to replenish what you spent. And so, exercising is what you would call a good stress because it’s a big metabolic requirement that’s an investment in a healthier you in the future. And there certainly are times when we can do that by learning something new.
So, the two most expensive things your brain does really: move your body, learn something new under conditions of uncertainty. Those are really metabolically expensive things and learning something new can often feel difficult and challenging, particularly when it’s occurring over a duration of time, but it’s really good investment, as long as you repay that investment. And if you don’t and you start running a deficit, what do you do when your actual financial budget is running a deficit?
Troy Swanson: You either stop spending or do you get a loan or get a new job?
Lisa Feldman Barrett: What does it mean to get a loan? To get a loan means you start drinking coffee. You borrow from tomorrow, borrow energy from tomorrow to use it for today. And there are other things that we can do. You can take drugs to give yourself energy in the moment that will require you to make up that energy later, like SSRIs that people take for depression, for example. Serotonin is not a happiness chemical, it’s a metabolic regulator. It lets you spend when your brain is predicting there’s no immediate reward available, meaning there’s no immediate deposit coming. And so, if you’re already in a metabolically compromised state and you take SSRIs is you’re going to feel good for like 12 weeks, 16 weeks, 20 weeks. And then your brain’s going to adjust and it’s because you’re running a deficit. And so, then you’ll need to take more medication.
So, when we stop spending money, that makes sense when our budget is running a deficit, what does it mean for a brain to stop spending? It means you stop moving, you feel fatigued, languish, the apathy, you feel like every limb feels heavy, right? You just feel really fatigued, and you stop learning. That is, that you become insensitive to the context around you. And, you start feeling quite a bit of distress, like unpleasantness and discomfort.
Troy Swanson: Just to come back to the Seven and a Half Lessons, and I think this connects in with where we’re talking now, what’s the number two is your brain is a network. And so, I think that gets a little bit to some of the function or how does this thing actually work? So, if it’s balancing your body budget, what are the pieces that do that? What does it mean that your brain is a network?
Lisa Feldman Barrett: So, the way that people have thought about the brain for a really long time is that there are different parts of the brain that do different things, psychologically speaking, like this part’s for thinking, this part’s for feeling, this part’s for seeing, this part’s for decision-making, and so on. And that’s just not the case.
What’s really interesting is that, I guess we’ve been doing brain imaging now on live humans for maybe 30 years and sometimes you’ll hear people say, “well, we haven’t learned anything in 30 years of brain imaging, and that’s because we haven’t learned like, where is the center for fear and where is the center for rationality and where is the center for decision-making? And what’s interesting to me is that 30 years of brain imaging research, where we stick a live, breathing human into a big magnet with a big board and you just stick their head in there and they live very still, and basically, you’re tracking with magnetic signals, you’re tracking their blood for the blood flow in their brain. And then you can make inferences about neural activity and what the neurons might be computing.
What we learned is that there’s no part of the brain for thinking, and there’s no single part of the brain for feeling that doesn’t mean we’ve learned nothing. It means that we learned that the questions we were asking were completely wrong.
So sometimes people will ask me, “well, is it true that we only use like 10% of our brains at any given time?” And the answer to that is no. No. Your brain is a big network of billions of cells that are talking to each other all the time. And the information that your brain receives from your body and from the world through the sensory surfaces of your body, through your retina, in your eyes and your cochlea in your ears and the sensory surfaces inside your body which tell the brain about glucose concentrations and about, levels of water and so on, hydration.
These just kind of modulate that ongoing activity, which is always happening. And what this means also is that, instead of a thought or a feeling happening in a part of your brain, you can think of them more as whole brain events. So for example, the parts of your brain that are the most important for thinking, for language, like speaking and for understanding language, for imagining, and for regulating your body are all the same parts, right? All the same parts, literally the same parts, not like even close to each other, but like, the same. Something like what’s called primary visual cortex, which is the first area in the cerebral cortex, so information from wavelengths of light hit your retina and that information goes up your optic nerve. Most of it goes to a region called the thalamus, and then from there, it goes to primary visual cortex. That’s at the back of your brain and in what’s called occipital cortex.
It’s called visual cortex. So, the assumption is like, it’s performing a visual task, right? It’s allowing you to see, and it does that, but it also carries information about touch and it carries information about your motor movements and it carries information about what you hear. So, it’s not specific. It’s necessary for conscious vision, but it’s not specific to vision.
Troy Swanson: Maybe that leads us to the next, and I don’t want to go through every lesson in the book because I really want to encourage people to read the book. But I think to help unveil some of the behind the scenes stuff with how the brain works, I feel like lesson number four, your brain predicts almost everything, is important to talk about. You mentioned a little bit about unconscious vision, like the brain, I think we can say constructs the world around us. And that’s not always something that seems apparent. Like, it seems like we’re recording what’s happening around us, not building what’s happening around us.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Exactly. So, your eyes are not a window on the world. Your brain is not recording what’s happening. And I think before we started taping you, you said it really beautifully actually, that the idea that many people have and that many scientists had for a really long time was that we would learn something and then store it, like you would store a book on a shelf or a file in a file drawer. And then we would just retrieve it whenever we needed it. And actually scientists, even scientists who study memory and who study how memory when your brain is remembering it’s not retrieving anything that is stored anywhere. It is reconstructing or reassembling the memory. So, the neurons are talking to each other and in that conversation, they are reassembling an experience that you’ve had before. That’s what memory is. But even scientists who study the constructive nature of memory use words like storage and retrieval. It’s very very unfortunate because it leads people to the wrong idea.
Troy Swanson: And it’s so hard to not fall into the computer metaphor too. We think of our brains as computers sometimes, and maybe there’s some similarities in some ways, but not in major ways, I think.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah. A lot’s been written about the problem of thinking about the brain as a computer. And, I think if you look through the history of how people have written about brains, they’re always making an analogy about the brain as a machine. And the analogy is whatever machine happens to be popular at that particular point in time. So, a switchboard or a computer, and your brain is not a machine. It doesn’t work like a machine.
And the most important thing to understand is that, to us, it feels like we see things, we hear things, and then we react, we maybe we evaluate them in some way, and then we react to them. But your brain is not reacting to anything. Your brain is predicting. So, if we were to stop time right now, just magically stop time. Your brain has a model of what is going on inside your body in relation to what’s going on outside in the world. And based on that model, it’s predicting what you should do next and what you will experience as a consequence. So those predictions aren’t abstract things; they’re your brain literally changing the firing of its own neurons in advance of sense data that it’s predicting will arrive. And there’s some really fun examples of this. There are party tricks you can do to show people how this works. They’re in my TED talk and in the books, I give some visual examples of how this works.
There are a couple of discussions about baseball, so if you’re like a baseball fan, baseball, it turns out -actually all sports really -couldn’t be played the way they are, if the brain was reacting instead of predicting. And in fact, just a couple of nights ago, maybe it was last weekend, the Patriots played whatever team it is that Tom Brady’s on now and
Troy Swanson: Tampa Bay.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Tampa Bay. And he knows all the plays, right? So, they faked him out. They basically knew what his brain was going to predict so they would align themselves as if it was going to be one play and they knew that his brain would predict what was happening, and then they would completely do something different. So, they were actually using his predictive brain against him. Tampa Bay won anyways, right, I think is what happened there. That’s what my trainer tells me. He was very excited to tell me this story. I’m not personally a football fan, as I’m sure you’ve now gleaned, but he was really excited to tell me about it because it was a great example of violating predictions, like understanding the power of the predictive brain and also what happens when you violate it.
Troy Swanson: I think for those of us in libraries and especially those of us librarians that are teaching research skills to freshmen, which is my real job when I’m not hosting a podcast, we talk a lot about confirmation bias as this evil flaw that the brain is broken. It can be a problem and we should address it and try to overcome it but also, when you talk about the brain as a predicting mechanism it emphasizes that confirmation bias is kind of just inherent in how we process the world. Right? We emphasize things on past experience, based on beliefs, and there’s definitely going to be things that we’re blind to, because we haven’t been exposed to them or the situation or whatever.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yes. And I think there are a couple of things in there what you’ve said that I want to emphasize. One is that when you say confirmation bias is just business as usual for a brain, I would completely agree with that, but what we mean by that is that we’re not saying bias is condoned or bias with a big B, right? That bias is okay we’re not saying anything like that. But biases with a little B is inescapable. Meaning your brain is trapped in a dark silent box, which is your skull. It’s receiving input from the world through the sensory surfaces, your eyes, your ears, and so on, your skin, and is also receiving sense data from your body. And these sense data are the outcomes of some set of changes. Your brain doesn’t have access to the changes. It doesn’t know what the causes are. It just knows the outcomes. So, this is an inverse problem, right?
When you hear a loud bang, what is that loud bang? Is it thunder? Is it a door slamming? Is it if you’re in the United States a gunshot? So how does your brain solve this inverse problem? It solves the problem by using past experience.
Basically, your brain is basically asking itself “last time I was in a situation like this with this array of sense data, what caused this sensation and what did I do about it?” So figuratively speaking, this is what your brain is asking. “How is this similar? How is the present moment similar to the past?”
So, it’s using the past to predict the immediate future, which becomes your present. And if you can’t do that, you will be experientially blind to the sense data. You will hear it as noise. You will see it as noise, or you might not see it at all.
So, confirmation bias, well, let’s just say bias. That is, using past experience as a prior for constructing the present is how your brain works and there’s no escaping that. And you don’t want a reactive brain. You don’t want a brain that has no priors or that can’t create priors very well. You don’t want a brain that can’t assemble memories well enough to predict. That’s a non-neurotypical brain and we usually diagnose people with those brains as having autism. So reactive brains are metabolically inefficient and they present you with certain kinds of challenges that are just really, really hard to live with on a regular basis.
So, you can’t escape using your past to predict the future, which will create your present. What you can do though, you can make a little investment. If you have the spoons, you can make a little investment to cultivate new experiences for yourself so that you can seed your brain to predict differently in the future. And that’s how you reduce big B bias into business as usual.
Troy Swanson: As I’ve read your books and other people’s books along these lines, once I started to recognize that this bias is kind of inherent and there’s ways around it, but also helps explain why familiarity feels so good, the things that we’re familiar with, why we want to go with it, or even things like experiential learning in class, why it’s better to experience and be active in the learning process as opposed to being told because it’s ways that you jump into the deeper unconscious parts of your processing, and get into that predictive brain a little bit, or maybe I’m misunderstanding as an outsider.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: No, the pleasure of familiarity is, scientists call it fluency, because we always have to give things other names, you know? So that’s how you know, that something is really important and psychology is that the same phenomenon has like 15 names that people have given it different names. But humans have the capacity to learn from each other just by over communication, I can learn from you just by observing you. I can learn from you just by you telling me something but in order to be able to do what’s called conceptual combination, which is when you encounter something that you’ve never seen before or never heard before, your brain can, as it’s constructing, using past experience, it can take bits and pieces of the past and combine it in new ways. To predict the immediate present or the immediate future, which becomes your present. So, when you first see me, you might look at me and you may say, “oh, you know, she’s a cis woman.” and that would be a good prediction. How did you know that? You’ve never met me. You’ve never seen me before. How do you know, how do you know? And the answer is, you know because your brain can predict based on a whole set of cues, and you might be wrong and that’s called prediction error, and then your brain would have the opportunity to learn that new information, that error. So, correcting prediction error is called learning. That’s what learning is.
And when you actively work with material, it’s just easier for your brain to then be able to use it creatively in conceptual combination in the future. But all of this is mostly happening outside of your awareness, very automatically, very effortlessly. Most of us don’t walk around confused and surprised all the time.
Troy Swanson: Most of the time it works. That’s why we’re here.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: That is why we’re here, yes.
Troy Swanson: In your book, how Emotions Are Made, you talk about rationality and some of the problems with rationality, and we had talked before we started recording, one of the things I see all the time, and I think this is true in education, this is true in our classrooms, that we have this feeling that critical thinking is, we can just take some information and sprinkle some logic on it, we come out to the truth and if we can all just have the same information, we could all have the same truth. In How Emotions Are Made, you really kind of go after the rationality behind classical economics, but I feel like so much of that translates into ways that we teach. And I really wanted to ask, if you had to give some advice for librarians or teachers that especially high school teachers, maybe first year of college instructors, how should we think of how the brain processes information, and to throw away that assumption of rationality? Cause I think at the face value, we all say we know the brain’s not rational, but then I see us go into the classrooms and make assumptions that the brain is rational. How would you guide us?
Lisa Feldman Barrett: I wouldn’t say throw away rationality, I would say correct your notion of what rationality is. So, ever since the time of Plato, we’ve assumed that rationality is the absence of feeling. And that just can’t be true. I mean, just anatomically can’t be true. Biologically cannot be true. Your brain is not wired like that. You don’t have a lizard brain. There’s no limbic system in your brain. You don’t have like a deep ancient, inner beast that is regulated by the cerebral cortex, which is the home of rationality. That’s a myth, it’s a very popular myth and it’s very hard to kill that myth, but it is a myth. And we’ve known that it’s a myth for a really long time now. It comes from a morality tale from Plato really. And it doesn’t really match what we know about how the brain works or how the brain functions.
So, your brain’s most important job is regulating your body. Your body’s always sending sense data back to your brain about squirts and tugs and contractions and temperature and so. And you don’t feel those sense data directly. You’re not aware of them in the same way that you’re aware of what you see, or at least I hope you’re not because if you were, you would never pay attention to anything outside your own skin. There’s a drama going on inside you all the time, and your brain makes itself aware of that drama as simple feelings: feeling pleasant, feeling unpleasant, feeling worked up, feeling calm, feeling comfortable, feeling uncomfortable, feeling like you’re giving a lot of effort, feeling fatigued, and these simple feelings are what scientists like me call “affect” with an a or what we call mood. That’s where your mood comes from.
Feeling is always with you every waking moment of your life. Affect is part of emotion, but aspect is also part of seeing and it’s part of thinking and as part of perceiving, it’s part of acting. So, rationality can’t be the absence of feeling. If it were, that would mean the most rational person would be a psychopath. Someone who has an impairment of affect and mood and feeling.
So that means that rationality must mean something else. And one way to think about rationality is in terms of body budgeting. So, spending when you have the spoons and not spending or replenishing when you’re running a deficit or when you’ve had a bit of an expenditure. And in Seven and a Half Lessons, I explain how something that we think of as profoundly irrational, like PTSD, for example, we diagnose it as a disease, but actually it stems from a very rational brain. So, a brain that is mispredicting, can be still working by very rational principles.
So, one thing I do as an educator is I know that fluency affects make you feel very pleasant. So, when your predictions are working pretty well, you feel pretty good, and when you’re faced with information that violates your expectations, you might feel that body budgeting hit as distress or unpleasantness. You might conjure it into anger or fear, which is something I talk about in How Emotions Are Made, or you might experience it as a property of the other person? Well, that guy’s an asshole for having cut me off on the highway. Your feeling is evidence of this person’s assholeness, even though maybe they were like rushing to the hospital to see their sick kid, or who knows.
So, my point is that what I tell my students is when you are reading something or you’re engaged in something, watching television, you’re reading a book, you’re talking to someone, on YouTube, whatever, and immediately you have this really pleasant feeling like, “oh my God, that’s so right. Oh, that’s just absolutely right.” or “oh, my God that person’s an idiot. That’s so wrong. That’s not even wrong that’s so bad.” I think you need to really pay attention to both of those moments because they are touching that predictive model that you don’t have really good access to because either something is confirming a deeply held belief or it’s violating it.
And so, I kind of make a beeline for those things. And I also try to encourage people to not be afraid of tolerating discomfort because feeling bad doesn’t always mean that something is wrong. It might mean that you’re learning something really hard. The two most important things that are expensive, are moving your body and learning something new.
And there are lots of lessons, like the feeling of jitteriness, that feeling of like jittery uncomfortableness, doesn’t have to be anxiety. You can train your brain to conjure other emotions out of that jittery feeling, and that may sound like hocus pocus, but it’s not, and there’s really good data to back up what I’m saying.
Like right before a test, for example, you don’t want to calm down. That would be bad. You need that arousal to do well on your test. Your brain is preparing your body for battle. Instead, what you need is another way of making sense of those sensations. I tell this story sometimes, my daughter, when she was 12 years old, she was testing for a black belt in karate and she was this tiny little thing, and she was testing against these massive adolescent boys who were like twice her size. And so here comes her sensei, he’s a 10th degree black belt. So, this guy could like break a board by looking at it, like he’s just this really powerful guy. And what does he say to her? He doesn’t say don’t be scared. He doesn’t say don’t be anxious. He says, get your butterflies flying in formation. So, what is he saying? He’s saying use that as fuel to focus.
And in fact, there’s a whole literature on training people how to do that, how to experience determination out of their jittery feeling, instead of anxiety. This is important because a lot of people suffer from test anxiety and that can keep them from passing a course or maybe even finishing school, which has a huge effect in terms of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their earning capacity or the course of their lifetime. So, learning how to make meaning from your sensations in ways that are productive for your action for learning can really help people in very like concrete, substantial ways.
Troy Swanson: It really is fantastic. There’s all these different areas of librarianship where we talk about having students or patrons be reflective, take that pause and be reflective on the information that they come in contact with. And I think the idea of controlling the anxiety or even noting when I get really excited or when I get really angry, those are maybe those kind of red flag moments to reflect and to step in. I think that’s just a great way to think about it.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Yeah, to be curious. Oftentimes this increase in arousal comes from, I’m not talking about sexual arousal. I’m talking about that jittery feeling comes from uncertainty, and what happens in uncertainty is that when things are uncertain, when your brain can’t predict, it just doesn’t know, it’s gonna release chemicals like norepinephrine and some other neurochemicals that are going to have the effect of helping to create this feeling of being really jittery, like really wired and our go-to way of making sense of that is as anxiety. But you could just experience it as uncertainty. You could take it as a cue to be curious, to search out more information, basically, to try to reduce the uncertainty instead of the other, maybe less desirable ways of dealing with that feeling.
Troy Swanson: Yeah. And I’m sure it’s easier said than done, but the mindfulness practice is a good path to go down.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: It’s easier said than done for sure, but I do want to say that surprisingly to me, as a human, as a person, once you practice it a lot, like any skill, it becomes much easier. So, I’ll just say that before I knew about all the different literatures that indicate that the brain is predicting and functioning predictively, instead of reactively, I have a colleague whose office is just down the hall from me, who studies positive emotions, and so he studies gratitude and awe and compassion, and there’s all this literature coming out about how it’s really good for you to be compassionate and to experience awe and gratitude and so on.
And I’m just like an inherently skeptical person. And so, I was like, I don’t know. And so, I thought, okay, I’ve read the studies. I can’t find anything wrong with them, but all right, I’m just going to try it. So, I’m going to try for five minutes a day, I’m going to cultivate awe. I’m going to see a dandylion poking its ugly little head out of a crack in a broken sidewalk. And I’m going to try to experience the awe at the power of nature not to be constrained by humans’ attempts to rein it in, and wouldn’t you know it, I can slip in and out of experiences of awe much more easily than I ever could have imagined. And here’s the neat thing about it. It’s a form of mindfulness in the sense that you’re foregrounding certain features in the world and you’re backgrounding others, which is driving your predictions in a different direction. And it gives your nervous system a break for a minute. If you’re a speck, then your problems are a speck for a moment. So, it takes longer to learn how to do it than you might imagine, but it is doable.
Troy Swanson: Yeah. That’s great. That’s a great example. I do want to be cognizant of your time. So maybe just to wrap up, I know that Seven and a Half Lessons just came out, but I wanted to ask, are there other projects on the way that we should keep an eye out for? Or are you taking a break? This is a break from the next big book.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: Well, I’m taking a break to write an academic book. So, I’m writing a book on evolutionary and developmental neuroscience as approaches to understanding the mind really. So, it’s really a book for scientists, but then I have a series of children’s books that I’m working on that will take some of the lessons in How Emotions Are Made and in Seven and a Half Lessons and try to present them for kids, and then at some point I’d really, really like to look at the way that brains have been depicted throughout history, in drawings and images and interrogate those for ideas about human nature at that time.
Troy Swanson: All right. Well, I will keep those on my radar as they come out. I’m sure that your books are in library collections, but one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is I really hope that librarians are adding them to their personal collections and actually taking the time to read them because there’s so many lessons in there that will help us, as a profession, understand how the mind works and help us do our jobs better. If we wanted to connect with you online, where can we find you?
Lisa Feldman Barrett: You can find me at lisafeldmanbarrett.com, all one word and that has information about the books and it has my email and my Twitter handle, and it also contains many of the podcasts that I’ve been on and many of the articles that I’ve written for public venues, like the New York Times, the Guardian, and so on. And all that material is available for free.
Troy Swanson: Well, thank you so much for the time. This has been a fascinating conversation.
Lisa Feldman Barrett: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on your podcast.