Why Your Emotions Are Not “Things” In Your Brain

Emotions Are Not Things In Your Brain

A “common sense” theory of emotion views emotional reactions in interpersonal situations as a physiological reaction “caused” by something another person did. When you react emotionally, recognize your personal take on the situation. Here’s a new way to look at emotions.

This idea is captured in a statement such as: “You made me so angry when you stood me up!” Such emotionally tinged experiences are described as “normal.” What follows is usually some action (yelling, not speaking to the person, retaliating in some way) that is justified by the “normal” reaction of being angry at being stood up.

This “common sense” theory of emotion assumes that each emotion has a distinct physical state with a corresponding distinct brain state: For example, there is a set of “anger neurons” that are triggered when your co-worker, friend, or spouse does something that annoys you.

A New View

Research carried out by Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues at Northeastern University offers us a new way to look at emotions.[1,2,3] According to the new approach, emotions (even the basic ones like fear, anger, sadness, happiness, and disgust) are not distinct entities inside us. Feldman Barrett’s research found that no brain region is dedicated to any single emotion. Further, every supposed emotional brain region is also activated during non-emotional thoughts and perceptions.

8 Basic Emotions
Why Your Emotions Are Not "Things" In Your Brain

Feldman Barrett challenges the idea that there are unique biological “fingerprints” of each psychologically identifiable emotion that can be identified from your facial muscle movements, your body changes, and your brain’s electrical signals.

It Depends

Emotions like anger, happiness, and fear refer to diverse physical states that vary depending upon the context in which they occur. For Feldman Barrett: “When you’re angry with your co-worker, sometimes your heart rate will increase, other times it will decrease, and still other times it will stay the same. You might scowl, or you might smile as you plot your revenge. You might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.”

How can we understand our emotional reactions? How can we understand what context means when it comes to our emotions? How do we assess the context in which our emotions occur so that we can better understand and manage them?

There are two ways to think about context:
(1) our own history, the historical context; and
(2) the current situation, the situational context.

Also read How to Be Helpful When Someone Is Emotional: 9 Tips

You Have A History

You will want to understand your emotional reactions in terms of your own unique history. The way we react emotionally evolves in the context of our relationships with our early caregivers and how they respond to us.[4] Every child needs sustenance, comfort, and reassurance, and to experience cognitive mastery.

Early fear and anxiety are related to the growing awareness that we have little control over if and how others provide the things we need to survive and flourish. Anger likely develops because others do not respond well to our need for help, love, reassurance, or mastery of our world.

Anger at the unwillingness or inability of our caregivers to provide for us also challenges our young sense of omnipotence, the fundamental wish or belief that we are entitled to have all our wants be fulfilled on demand. Of course, all emotions begin in rudimentary, ill-defined form and become more refined over time with maturation and the changing nature of our relationships with others.

Also read 13 Practical Ways To Cope With Emotional Abuse

History And Context Merge

The common phrase “taking something personally” means that your own personal history is being played out in the current interpersonal situation. Here are a few examples of taking something personally:

  • “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”
  • “I can’t believe you are ignoring me like that.”
  • “My opinion doesn’t count; You treat me like a second-class citizen in this relationship.”
  • “You spend so much money on things that are not important; you’re so selfish.
  • “You always want to have sex… you’re a sex addict.
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