I thoroughly enjoy watching TED Talks as they are a quick way to disseminate some good information.  While I was working at the hospital last week, I came across an interesting TED Talk about emotion regulation.


Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains her recent research finding on emotion mechanics.  In short, Dr. Barrett explains that we previously believed that emotions lived in a certain part of the brain and were completely automatic in nature.  Now, based on her latest research, we are now finding that emotions are actually learned.

Dr. Barrett points to facial expression recognition research to explain this.  A smile or other facial expressions are not universal in the way we previously thought they were.  For example, a smile does not necessarily mean happiness.  In some cultures, it could mean politeness instead.  We teach children not to take candy from strangers who smile at them and ask the child to get into a car because we, as adults, know that all smiles are not the same.

What Are Emotions Then?

If you continue to watch the video, you’ll see Dr. Barrett put an ambiguous picture on the lecture screen.  She will later fill in the colors and details of the photo to reveal that the picture is really a snake.  Then she reverts the picture back to its ambiguous state.  However, it’s difficult to un-see the snake even though it’s difficult to make out in the ambiguous state of the first picture.

This is similar to how our brains work.

Dr. Barrett states that our brains make predictions about a current event based on past events.  This is how our emotions work.  For example, if we ate ice cream that we found enjoyable in the past, when we are presented with ice cream in the present that appears to be of a similar flavor, our brains make a prediction that we will enjoy the ice cream again and we feel happy about it.

The same can be said of fears.  It is common knowledge that humans are born with only two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises.  We learn every other fear that we have.

Fear is an emotional state.  Therefore, it shouldn’t be that difficult to comprehend that we learn other emotions in a similar fashion.

Gaining New Understanding of Ourselves

It can then be said that when we experience an emotion that we maybe find perplexing, a healthy thing to do would be to ask ourselves how we learned that emotion.  This can oftentimes be particularly helpful in the case of trauma.

We experience massive panic during a traumatic event and enter what is described as a trauma state.  We can reexperience that state of trauma when triggered.  A trigger is a stimulus that reminds us of our traumatic event.  Based on our exposure to that trigger, we then can go back into that traumatic state because our brained has learned that panic is the correct emotional response to that trigger.

The same can be said of emotional states like grief.  When we lose someone or something important to us, our brains automatically look back to similar, past experiences and predicts our future experiences based on present circumstances.  Based on the desire to be around who or what we lost, our brain may calculate that the correct emotional state would be grief.

Depression and anxiety, then, are also interesting to consider.  It behooves us to consider how we learned these emotional responses as they, like trauma responses, may not always be helpful in a given situation.  Let’s look at dating as an example.  I believe the majority of us have had awful, terrible breakups in our past.  If you’ll indulge me, mentally go back to that time when you began your next relationship after a heartbreaking breakup.  There’s a decent chance you felt some substantial anxiety as you didn’t want to repeat the pain of your past breakup.  Maybe you didn’t even pursue the relationship that far because the anxiety felt so strong.

The reason Dr. Barrett’s work is so exciting is that it means you can teach your brain to unlearn that emotional response and potentially create a new one!

Emotions as Good vs. Bad

Even though emotions are learned, they’re still not good or bad.  However, when we don’t understand where our emotions originate from and we try to push them away, that’s when we can oftentimes become very stuck.

As I have always said, emotions are information.  Before learning this new research, I always stated emotions tell us good information about our present environment.  For example, when we feel angry, there’s a chance we’ve been wronged.  Or when we feel happy, we’re experiencing something we like.  Little did I know, emotions tell us even more than we initially realized.

Happiness may have been learned when you were a child and your parents played with you.  Physical comfort may have been learned when you scraped your knee and your parent held you for a while.  Emotional comfort may have been learned when you went to a parent after being bullied at school.  Things like depression or anxiety may have been learned from early experiences of rejection.

When we understand this two-fold picture of emotions, we have an even greater understanding of what our emotions are trying to communicate.  It can even be an opportunity to heal wounds from our past.

How to Learn from our Emotions

Fortunately, it’s pretty simple.  Mindfulness and self-awareness.  Both lend themselves to another.  Mindfulness is learning to view our world with non-judgment and self-awareness is the ability to be cognizant of who we are and how we became who we are in addition to knowing our present tendencies.

Mindfulness is important because we may not like an emotional state that we feel. However, we if judge that emotional state and try to push it away, we will often be controlled by that emotional state.  It will define our lives.  Therefore, utilizing mindfulness tools like deep breathing and grounding techniques and intentional ceasing of judgmental language can help us better understand our emotional states.

This can help increase self-awareness.  Self-awareness is really mostly about being our own, personal historians.  If we cannot identify and understand a behavior or emotion and how it came to be, how do we hope to change it?  Being aware of our personal triggers and environments and people that may initiate various emotional states is our responsibility.  However, when we do the hard work of understanding ourselves, we can prepare ourselves to face these things with more fortitude, readiness, and mastery.