“The brain is a master of deception.”
So wrote neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett in her 2017 book, “How Emotions Are Made.” She didn’t mean that our brains are adept at fooling others. She meant that our brains are good at fooling us. As she explained, the brain “creates experiences and directs actions with a magician’s skill, never revealing how it does so, all the while giving us a false sense of confidence that its products — our day-to-day experiences — reveal its inner workings.”
To truly understand the brain’s inner workings, we have to rely not on our intuitions but on reports from the front lines of scientific research. Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, has just produced a new one: “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain,” a book published this week. In it, Barrett returns to a familiar if still-unsettling theme: “Common sense isn’t much use when it comes to understanding how a brain works,” she writes.
To take one example: Common sense leads us to imagine that we can set aside our emotions in order to engage in rational thought. This is a founding belief of Western civilization; essential social enterprises, such law and journalism, are based on the notion of dispassionate objectivity. But, said Barrett in an interview, “it is just not biologically possible for the brain to exclude affect from its mental processes.” Affect — as Barrett defines it, a general sense of feeling derived from the body — is with us every waking moment. “Your brain produces affect all the time, whether you’re emotional or not and whether you notice it or not,” she writes.
In “How Emotions Are Made,” Barrett described how our brains use the raw material of affect to construct particular emotions. For example, depending on various factors, including our biological differences or even the cultures we grew up in, if you and I have the same physical sensations of arousal, I might interpret them as nervousness while for you they amount to excitement. In “Seven and a Half Lessons,” Barrett builds on this idea to show that all of our thoughts, not just our emotions, are infused with affect. “We say, ‘This meal is delicious’ or ‘This painting is beautiful,’” says Barrett. “We mislabel our own affective reaction as the property of something ‘out there’ in the world.” The meal isn’t inherently delicious; the painting isn’t intrinsically beautiful. It is our affective reactions — the feelings we bring to the object — that make them so, that tag them with a value judgment: positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant. Rationality doesn’t depend on eliminating these feelings. In fact, Barrett maintains, our decisions become more rational when we heed the judgments of value embedded in the body’s visceral feelings.
Barrett, who is 57, enjoys challenging conventional wisdom. “As a child, I was always asking ‘Why?’ and my parents’ answer was ‘Because I said so,’” she recounts. “I found that very unsatisfying. My motto is: ‘Follow the evidence.’ It’s the way I guide my life as well as my work.” The evidence leads her to question another seemingly self-evident assumption: that the brain evolved to think. In fact, Barrett declares, “the idea that our brains evolved for thinking has been the source of many profound misconceptions about mental life.” She advises the reader of “Seven and a Half Lessons” to “give up that cherished belief” on the way to “understanding how your brain actually works and what its most important job is.”
What is that important job? “It’s not rationality,” Barrett asserts. “Not emotion. Not imagination, or creativity, or empathy. Your brain’s most important job is to control your body — to manage allostasis.” Allostasis is the process of anticipating and preparing to meet the body’s needs (for food, for rest, for human connection) as they arise. This, she says, is what the brain is “for”: maintaining the body’s energy budget, keeping metabolic deposits and withdrawals in balance.
Accordingly, when the brain generates a negative affect — what we interpret as a feeling of sadness or anger — it’s often a signal that something is amiss in the body: Our metabolic budget is out of whack. “Thinking in these terms can be really helpful in managing our own stress and in understanding what’s going on with our kids and our partners,” Barrett observes. “It’s a good idea not to immediately ‘mentalize’ everything” — that is, to assume a psychological rather than a physiological cause. Such insights from research have changed Barrett’s own parenting. “When my teenage daughter is being annoying,” she says, “these days I’m less inclined to try to talk it over with her and more apt to just walk over and give her a hug.”
Perhaps the most convincing illusion orchestrated by the brain is the feeling that we sense what’s going on in our environment and then react to it. In fact, says Barrett, the brain is continuously generating predictions about the future, and reacting to those predictions. Only then does it consult information gathered from the senses to ascertain whether its forecasts were correct. “If your brain has predicted well, then your neurons are already firing in a pattern that matches the incoming sense data,” Barrett notes — a very efficient way of managing a body and its needs.
But on what basis does the brain make such predictions? It draws on past experience, Barrett explains — including the internal experience of affect. “Your brain asks itself in every moment, figuratively speaking, ‘The last time I encountered a similar situation, when my body was in a similar state, what did I do next?’”
Such “predictive processing,” by its nature, tends to reproduce the behaviors that have been enacted in the past. Efficient though this process may be, it can bind us to unproductive patterns. If the last time (or the last 100 times) that your body was in a state of stressful arousal, you erupted in frustration or broke down in tears, your brain will predict a similar outcome this time — thereby helping to bring that outcome about. What if we want to change how we react, how we behave? We can induce our brain to generate new kinds of predictions by exposing it to new kinds of experiences. “Everything you learn today seeds your brain to predict differently tomorrow,” as Barrett puts it.
Ever the skeptical experimentalist, she has tried this out for herself — following the evidence that shows that consciously cultivating a sense of awe can increase our sense of meaning and satisfaction. “This practice has had a huge effect on my life,” Barrett reports. “On my daily walk, I stop to notice the little weed pushing up from the crack in the sidewalk — to marvel at the unconstrained exuberance of nature.” She even takes a moment on Zoom calls, she says, to appreciate the technological wizardry that makes it possible for her to see and speak to colleagues halfway across the world. By searching out feelings of awe in the present, she says, she’s training her brain to expect more of the same in the future.
Annie Murphy Paul’s next book, “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain,” will be published in June.