How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain

Most of what we know about our emotions (and how our brains work) is just plain wrong—and sometimes harmful!

Book review

California Department of Public Health


June 11, 2018

Most of what we know about our emotions (and how our brains work) is just plain wrong—and sometimes harmful! Myth: our emotions are hard-wired by evolution in our “limbic” (“reptilian”) brain and emotions are “triggered.” Myth: across the globe humans have universal facial expressions for core emotions (e.g., joy causes smiling). Myth: we control our emotions with our “rational” (neocortex) brain. Myth: the amygdala is the “fear center” of the brain. Myth: we can learn to read others’ emotions with reliability. Myth: seeing is believing. Myth: we cannot go wrong trusting our “gut” feeling.

Reading Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions are Made: The secret life of the brain was transformative. Our emotions, brain, and body do not function as depicted by brain science myths that have been debunked, but persist because scientists, health professionals, and the “emotion,” “emotional-intelligence,” and “brain science” industries are not current with the latest neuroscience. This book will set you on the right course.

At birth, the brain is a blank slate awaiting “wiring instructions” from a caregiver. Every second we are alive the brain processes “big data” of sensory input from our body (through interoception) and from the external world (through our senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste). Through evolution, humans solved a neurobio-engineering problem: how do we efficiently procure and balance energy and accumulate learnings on how to survive and procreate. The brain evolved into a predictive learning machine. The memories we accumulate through experiences become the predictions (“hypotheses” or “priors”) that the brain compares to new sensory input (“evidence”). The gap between prediction and sensory input is prediction error. If the prediction error is small or negligible the brain accepts the prediction, thereby saving cognitive energy expenditure. If the prediction error is large (e.g., cognitive dissonance), the brain must choose either to accept the prediction (cognitively and energy efficient, so our brain strongly prefers this), or to learn (cognitively and energy inefficient, so our brain strongly resists this).

The brain must make meaning of this sensory input in order to prepare for what the body needs to do next (based on prior experiences) to survive, etc. The brain prepares the body to respond through our nervous, cardiovascular, immune, endrocrine, and musculoskeletal systems. Emotions are the on-the-spot meanings the brain gives to these external and internal sensory input (bodily sensations). “In other words, emotions are your brain’s best guess of how you should feel in the moment. Emotions aren’t wired into your brain like little circuits; they’re made on demand. As a result, you have more control over your emotions than you might think.”1

All of this happens automatically at a nonconscious level: that is why it “feels” like our emotions are “triggered.” In fact, our emotions are constructed in the moment based on:

  1. sensory input (from body [interoception] and surroundings [exteroception], includes social environmental context),
  2. goal (survive, human drives, etc.),
  3. predictions (memories accumulated from prior experiences).2

The implications of understanding this evolution-designed engineering achievement are huge! How the brain processes the big data of sensory input also provides lessons on how we should process the new big data we are accumulating in the “cloud.” (Hint: read my book review of Judea Pearl’s The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect.)

Designing an emotionally fulfilling life

Even today, we are taught, incorrectly, that emotions are hardwired by evolution and that we should “control” (i.e., suppress), accept (i.e., embrace), or release emotions. For example, someone or something “triggers” an emotion and a stress response (“fight-flight-freeze”) in us, and we can use mindfulness to notice, acknowledge, and “release” this emotion. Yes, mindfulness works; however, mindfulness is much more powerful when we understand that emotions are acutually constructed rathered than “triggered.”

We have the power to design and build an emotionally fulfilling life by the experiences we choose to have and the cognitive and motor memories we encode in our brains. This explains how “doing” rewires the brain! Interestingly, Buddhism3 practices (e.g., mindfulness meditation) align nicely with this modern scientific understanding of brain and emotions. For example, Dr. Barrett studies and describes how Buddhism can strengthen interpersonal relationships and improve your brain and body health.4

Mindfulness promotes stillness, awareness, and being in the moment without judgment or expectation. Then, we can exercise curiosity about what contributed or is contributing to our feelings (affect) and emotions (meaning). This is critical because our brains are quick to draw false conclusions to save cognitive energy rather than to “get it right.” Interestingly, the more vocabulary we have to describe feelings and emotions, the more ability we have to recognize these in ourselves and others. This is called emotional granularity and is the actual basis of emotional intelligence.5

Dr. Barrett’s How Emotions are Made covers many practical applications of this emerging science, including mitigating implicit racial bias.

Key resources from Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

Dr. Feldman Barrett’s book covers a lot of content. To get you oriented, I recommend first watching the three videos below. The first video is 5 minutes, followed by two TED talks by LFB.

1: This is why you feel the way you feel

This is an outstanding 5-minute summary of construction of emotions:

2 (TED): You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions: Your brain creates them

“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 analyzed 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.”

See reading list for above TED talk.

3 (TED): Cultivating Wisdom: The Power of Mood

“Do you believe that what you see influences how you feel? Actually, the opposite is true: What you feel—your affect—influences what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett shares the groundbreaking discovery that you experience the world through affect-colored glasses. She also reveals how affect can be a source of wisdom that helps you to make better, wiser choices”

4 How Emotions are Made (Cinematic Lecture)

Emotions don’t happen to you. They are made by your predictive brain, in specific situations: a brain that feels affect and makes concepts absorbed from your life experience while conversing with your body + the world around you.

This cinematic lecture by Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett is based off her book of the same name.

LFB’s website (includes numerous academic lectures)

Here is her website with a wealth of material:


  1. Barrett LF. The science of making emotions: Three main ingredients contribute to how and why the brain creates feelings. Available from↩︎

  2. For example, implicit bias is a biased prediction stereotype that operates at a nonconscious level.↩︎

  3. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson et al. Link:↩︎

  4. Barrett LF. Buddhists in love: Lovers crave intensity, Buddhists say craving causes suffering. Is it possible to be deeply in love yet truly detached? Aeon (website). June, 4, 2018. Available from:↩︎

  5. Barrett LF. Emotional Intelligence Needs a Rewrite: Think you can read people’s emotions? Think again. Nautilus (website). August 3, 2017. Available from:↩︎