Our brains are always making predictions; it is how they work and take action. These predictions allow us to understand everything around us, patterns, stimuli even words that are spoken or written. It’s why and how we can sometimes complete a sentence for somebody before they even deliver the words. We are predicting what they will say based on our experiences in similar situations with similar words and context.
These predictions are primal and help us to make sense of the world in a quick and efficient way. Our brains do not react to the world using our past experiences, our brains predict and construct our experience from the world.
The way we see emotions in others is deeply rooted in our predictions. Under our own hoods, in our brains, are billions of neurons busy firing and in just nano seconds we are making meaning out of what we actually experience.
The emotions we detect in others come from what is inside our own head. So, when we look at someone’s face or their grin or forehead the emotions must be connected to a context, it’s how we know, or think we know what a visual expression means. The way we experience our own emotions is by the same process, it is our brain making predictions, guessing in the moment with the information that is available to us.
Contrary to popular belief we do not come hard-wired with numerous different or separate emotional circuits. Yes our brains are pre-wired to make simple feelings that come from the physiology of the body. From a very early age children can experience calm, agitation, comfort, discomfort etc. However, these are not considered emotions, they are with us all the time and are just simple summaries, like a barometer, of how our bodies feel. The brain then gives us the detail, the emotion, by linking these sensations to what is going on around us, so we know what to do next and how best to react.
Think about this some physical feelings we have are the same for really good experiences as they are for anxious and stressful ones. But in these different situations or contexts we can elicit different responses.
Say you are in a restaurant and smell the fabulous food, the aroma from a favorite glass of wine and see the fresh baked Italian bread. You have not eaten for 8 hours and you are hungry, your stomach may begin to physically churn, you may salivate and with these physical sensations you begin to anticipate the wonderful flavors and a wonderful experience. Because of the context of these physical sensations and your brain’s predictions you will have a specific positive emotional responses.
Now imagine that you are sitting in a hospital room awaiting the results of an important medical test that may have life altering consequences if the test results are not favorable. You may experience that very same physical churning of your stomach, your mouth will be dry and you will experience a different response. You may feel the urge to pace, you may sweat and become agitated. You are experiencing many of the same physical sensations as you did at the restaurant but now, due to your brain’s predictive nature, you are having a very different conditioned emotional response that is not pleasant.
So, as neuroscientists believe, emotions may seem to you, to appear to happen to you but they are actually created by you. You are not at the complete mercy of mythical emotional circuits and you do have more control over your emotions than you may believe. But this then begs the question, if I behave emotionally and irrationally, and this is in fact true, then it makes me responsible rather than my emotions!
Your brain is wired in such a way that if you change the ingredients that your brain uses to make predictions then you can control and transform your emotional life. You can teach your brain how to predict situations differently in the future.
We can learn then that when we get stressed, we can accept or become accustomed to the physical discomfort without allowing emotional suffering. We have the ability to reduce the emotional suffering with practice.
The actions and experiences you make today become the predictions your brain will make tomorrow.
To learn more about this fascinating topic you can research the work of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett