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What are emotions really?

Well, strap on your seat belt, because ... emotions are guesses. They are guesses that your brain constructs in the moment where billions of brain cells are working together, and you have more control over those guesses than you might imagine that you do.

"Predictions are primal. They help us to make sense of the world in a quick and efficient way. So your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world." Lisa Feldman Barrett

"And so the lesson here is that emotions which seem to happen to you are actually made by you." Lisa Feldman Barrett

"When a jury has to make the decision between life in prison and the death penalty, they base their decision largely on whether or not the defendant feels remorseful for his actions. [...]As a scientist, I have to tell you that jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody ever.

Neither can I, and neither can you, and that's because emotions are not what we think they are. They are not universally expressed and recognised. They are not hardwired brain reactions that are uncontrollable.

We have misunderstood the nature of emotion for a very long time, and understanding what emotions really are has important consequences for all of us."

"Now I don't know about you, but I find this to be a really empowering and inspiring message, and the fact that it's backed up by decades of research makes me also happy as a scientist. But I have to also warn you that it does come with some fine print, because more control also means more responsibility.

If you are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits which are buried deep inside your brain somewhere and which trigger automatically, then who's responsible, who is responsible when you behave badly? You are.

Not because you're culpable for your emotions, but because the actions and the experiences that you make today become your brain's predictions for tomorrow. Sometimes we are responsible for something not because we're to blame but because we're the only ones who can change it."

"Now responsibility is a big word. It's so big, in fact, that sometimes people feel the need to resist the scientific evidence that emotions are built and not built in.

The idea that we are responsible for our own emotions seems very hard to swallow. But what I'm suggesting to you is you don't have to choke on that idea. You just take a deep breath, maybe get yourself a glass of water if you need to, and embrace it.

Embrace that responsibility, because it is the path to a healthier body, a more just and informed legal system, and a more flexible and potent emotional life."

Want more?

Decoding Our Emotions. We experience powerful emotions all of the time, but what are they exactly? Where do they come from? This hour, TED speakers invoke history, language, science and music to help us think about the way we feel.

Guests include writer John Koenig, cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, developmental researcher Kang Lee, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

Listen to an interesting Ted Radio Hour on NPR

Why listen

Can you look at someone's face and know what they're feeling? Does everyone experience happiness, sadness and anxiety the same way? What are emotions anyway?

For the past 25 years, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett has mapped facial expressions, scanned brains and analysed hundreds of physiology studies to understand what emotions really are. She shares the results of her exhaustive research and explains how we may have more control over our emotions than we think.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with positions in psychiatry and radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Twenty-five years ago, Lisa Feldman Barrett ran a series of psychology experiments whose conclusions seemed to defy common sense. It turned out common sense was wrong, and has been for 2,000 years. The result is a radical, new theory of how the brain creates emotions and a novel view of human nature.

Know more about Lisa Feldman Barrett

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