You’re at the gym and maybe between the final curls or presses of an intense workout — this strange sadness comes on just out of nowhere — and then it’s gone.
Has this ever happened to you? If it has, you’re far from alone.
Lisa Barrett, a psychologist, and author of “How Emotions Are Made,” has had this same experience. She works out a lot.
“I can tell you what it feels like … from a layperson’s view, like if I take my science hat off,” Barrett said.
“Usually, as I’m breathing myself back into a calmer state, I feel a, well, just a surge of sentiment. I feel a very powerful wave of feeling,” she said. “Sometimes, it feels like a sadness. Sometimes, it feels like gratitude or awe, but it’s usually, it feels like it just rolls over me.”
She doesn’t weep, and this happens pretty rarely, but Barrett said she has gotten a bit teary-eyed. Experiences like these, though, challenge the classic view of emotion, she said: that we’re all born with these circuits for each feeling — fear, anger, disgust, loneliness.
The idea was that one of these circuits gets tripped in the brain, and the body responds in a predictable way.
“So for fear, it might be that your heart rate goes up, your heart starts to race,” she said. “And for anger it might be that your blood pressure goes up and things like that.”
But Barrett said research doesn’t seem to back up this classical view. For one, these body changes seem pretty inconsistent, and, if there are particular brain circuits for sad or lonely or angry, she said, no one’s found them.
Brain in a ‘dark and silent box’
To start understanding how emotions work, she said, imagine your brain is locked away in a “dark and silent box, which is called your skull.”
“It receives sensory changes from the world through your eyes and your ears and your nose. And it also receives sensory changes from your body,” she said. “And it has to figure out what those changes mean. It has to figure out what those sensations were caused by.”
We all have these four most basic types of sensations. They’re called affect, Barrett said. “Things like feeling worked up, feeling calm, feeling pleasant, feeling unpleasant,” she said.
Affect is basically always there while you’re conscious.
“Emotions are the brain’s attempt to make sense of what the bodily sensations mean in a particular circumstance, in a particular situation, based on past experience, based on memory,” Barrett said.
Your brain has to take memory — basically your experience — merge it with sensations and use that to figure out what emotion to conjure. Barrett brings up a single unpleasant sensation, as an example — an ache in the gut. It can mean a bunch of different things.
“The same ache in your stomach can be hunger, it can be anxiety, or it can be longing,” she said.
It’s vague, Barrett said, so the brain constructs emotion to kind of fill in the blanks and help you figure out what to do in response. Do you respond to that ache in the stomach by making a sandwich, or do you text your ex?
And all this happens predictively, Barrett said.
“Your brain is always working predictively it’s trying to anticipate what’s going to happen next so that it can prepare you to meet those needs before they arrive,” she said.
So the brain is doing guesswork from its dark lockbox using pretty limited information — and it has to do this on the fly.
Things actually get even more complicated when you drill down further, when you start talking neurotransmitters — they’re the body’s chemical messengers, like serotonin, dopamine or adrenaline.
“The role of neurotransmitters is really complex,” said Laura Boxley, a neuropsychologist at The Ohio State University.
“They’re often kind of stepping on each other’s toes. You have dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine playing important roles in mood, but then also in exercise and then also in addiction or fight-or-flight.”
For example, dopamine shows up in all kinds of places.
“It plays a role in nausea and mood and psychosis and lactation and Parkinson’s disease and addiction,” Boxley said. “There are many common neurotransmitters that wear lots and lots of hats, the roles of neurotransmitters can also overlap.”
With limited types of neurotransmitters, the brain has to create the full spectrum of human experience.
“It’s like a piano chord or some kind of dynamic where you have things that are feeding into each other, into feedback loops over and over again across time,” she said.
So, like notes on a piano, musical chords.
Take C major, the first chord many music students learn.
It’s a happy-sounding chord, made of three notes, C, E and G.
If you take the first two notes, but swap out a G for the next note in the scale, A, you get a completely different feeling chord – A minor. It’s kind of melancholy. Most of the ingredients are the same, but it sounds completely different in terms of mood.
And again, in your brain, Boxley said, all this mixing and swapping is happening constantly, literally every conscious second, and using way more notes than a piano could produce.
“So it can be very challenging to say exactly what’s causing what. In reality, all these things are having this kind of mutual communication back and forth, not one direction,” she said. “It’s constant, it’s complex.”
So if emotion is an imperfect thing, and if it’s something we create instead of something that happens to us, a circuit that gets tripped, what can we do with that?
“I’m not saying you can just snap your fingers and then do a couple of, you know, Jedi mind tricks and then can completely revolutionize your emotional life,” Barrett said. “And in fact, trying to change how your brain makes meaning in the moment is actually really hard.”
Hard, but not impossible, she said. There are whole therapies built around recognizing where emotions come from, what thoughts precede which feelings, and how to take control of that. A lot of meditative practices are built around this type of mindfulness.
Boxley, the Ohio State neuropsychologist, understands emotions better than most, and she said she still struggles with hers.
“I definitely don’t have perfect control. Everybody’s human,” she said.
But she said recognizing that emotions are imperfect, that they’re something we create instead of something that happens to us, that’s useful.
“Rather than letting the emotions happen to us all the time, we can kind of make a decision about: Is this thought working for me? Is this benefiting me, or is this something that I’m terrorizing myself with,” Boxley said. “Is there another choice here?”