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Jonathan Haidt


A Mind-bending Concept

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Emotions play a large role in any discussion, including political discussions. We react with excitement when someone shares our view, and outrage when a person expresses a view we find offensive. We may also feel disdain, amusement, joy, anxiety and many other emotions when in conversation with others, whether we show it or not. We feel entirely justified in our emotional reactions because we are defending our worldview, which is deeply rooted in our beliefs about right and wrong.

Several social scientists (most notably, Jonathan Haidt) have shown that emotions play an important role in our sense of morality, and that emotions and morality influence our rational arguments far more than we realize.

Now, some fascinating new research reveals that our brains create our emotions in a predictive process based on past experiences. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a social scientist and professor of psychology, recently published her research findings in a book titled How Emotions are Made. She also expounds on the topic in a TED Talk. (I have watched the Talk but not yet read the book.)

“Emotions that seem to happen to you are actually made by you.”

“Your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain predicts and constructs your experience of the world.”

These ideas are similar to the philosophical underpinnings of meditation, yoga, and some East-Asian teachings, which suggest that our thoughts and emotions are separate from us; we can observe them, view them through another lens, and perhaps come to a different conclusion.

Barrett seems to take this a step further. Where Buddhism says that we can choose how to interpret a situation and how to respond, Barrett is saying that we can also influence what emotion we create in the first place. This is a mind-bending concept, and the implications are profound. We have far more agency than we realize, and we can make intense discussions more fruitful with a new approach and a bit of practice.

I look forward to reading the book and learning more. In the meantime, I am practicing greater awareness of what I feel and how I interpret. Then again, there are some situations that are fine just as they are. Today I was moved to tears as I listened on the radio to the wistful and wishful lyrics of the Beatles’ song, Imagine. I have no idea why my brain created these emotions; it intrigues me, but I’m willing to just let it be a mystery.


Copyright © 2018 Sharon V. Kristjanson. All rights reserved.