“…the U.S. Surgeon General has estimated 80% of the people who die of non-traumatic causes actually die of stress diseases.”
– Jeff Mitchell & Grady Bray, authors
“I watched it twice, in fact! It really got me thinking.”
When Arthur returned the next week, I was ready for him. I had collected what I thought were the ten points the neuroscientist, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, has made from her 25 years of research on human emotion. I had put them on the flip chart in my office in preparation for my consult with him.
Once Arthur got settled, I asked him if he had completed his home assignment. When he indicated he had, I asked what he thought of Lisa’s Ted Talk.
Arthur responded with a hint of enthusiasm,
“It was very interesting, Ken. I watched it twice, in fact! It really got me thinking. I have some questions. But before my questions, you said last week you would give me a quick summary. Can we do that first…I don’t want to have missed anything important.”
Getting up and going over to the flip chart, I said,
“Sure, Arthur. I have broken it down in to 10 main points Dr. Feldman Barrett is making which are worth remembering if any of us want a future.”
“Is this them?” he said pointing to the flip chart.
“…you have control over those guesses.”
“Yes! Number one is emotions are actually guesses we learn to make about our body’s sensations when billions of brain cells are working very quickly together.” I said.
“Guesses? I remember her saying that!” he said, skeptically.
“Yep! Remember the saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder?’ Well, it turns out, so is pain and pleasure. That’s why some people like fried liver and broccoli but others don’t. Or, why some people call their racing heart and short breath from jogging painful and others call it pleasurable or invigorating.”
“So, Dr Feldman Barrett is saying her research shows each person determines whether something is pleasurable or painful on an individual basis…is that it, Ken?”
“Yes, number two is you have control over those guesses. You can actually determine how you feel about any sensation in your body. So for example, the tight expressions you see on the face of a weight lifter is actually interpreted by that person as the pleasure of what we might call severe muscle strain.”
“So, because that weight lifter wants bigger muscles, he or she would interpret the muscle strain as pleasurable while I would call it painful, right so far?”
“Emotions are learned interpretations of your body sensations from your past experiences.”
“Exactly, Arthur! Number three is emotions are not built into your brain before birth. Emotions are learned interpretations of your body sensations from your past experiences.
“Would you give me an example?”
“Sure thing. The jogger or weightlifter, from their past experiences, have learned to perceive specific body sensations such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, muscle strain, as positive instead of negative. They could learn one or the other.”
“That would mean then my stress is in my mind!” he said, taking the idea to a new level.
“Yes, again! Number four is your brain is continually sifting through a lifetime of experience, making thousands of guesses at the same time, weighing the probabilities of a body sensation, trying to answer the question, ‘What is this most like in my past experience?’”
“So, I’m always interpreting my body’s sensations as either positive or negative and so creating my perception of things around me as pleasurable or painful…yes?” he asked raising his eyebrows slightly.
“Bingo, Arthur! Number five is this all happens in the blink of an eye. And, if your brain is still struggling to find a good match, then you are in a state Lisa calls “experiential blindness,”
“Using past experience, your brain, predicts and constructs your experience of the world.”
Then I added,
“Number six is your best guesses or predictions are the basis of every experience that you have. And, they are the basis of every action you take.”
“That means I could be guessing incorrectly and not even know it…right?” he said, his awareness growing in leaps and bounds.
“You got it, Arthur! Number seven is your brain does not react to the world. Using past experience, your brain, predicts and creates your experience of the world.”
“This really makes sense, Ken!”
“Number eight is you create your own emotions using exactly the same process. Your brain is basically making predictions, guesses, in the moment using billions of neurons, all working quickly together.”
“So, my brain takes my body sensations and using my mind, interprets them, based on my past experiences, as either positive or negative, good or bad, pleasurable or painful.” he offered.
“… your emotions, which seem to happen to you, are actually made by you.”
“Great synopsis, Arthur. Number nine and Lisa’s big lesson is your emotions, which seem to happen to you, are actually made by you. You are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep inside some ancient part of your brain. Instead, you have control over your emotions and so your stress.”
“And, number ten, and most importantly, if you change the ingredients, the information, your brain uses to create your emotions…you learn new things, then you can transform your emotional life and so your manage your stress.”
“So if I change those ingredients today, I’m basically teaching my brain how to predict differently tomorrow. That is what she, Lisa, called being ‘the architect of your experience’ in her Ted Talk, right, Ken?”
“Yes! So, Arthur, a hammering heartbeat is not necessarily jogger’s fear and anxiety. It could equally be the excitement of crossing the finish line based on his interpretation. It would be the same body sensations, but interpreted in an opposite way because of the person’s past experiences.”
“It really makes a lot of sense, Ken!”
Arthur, this confirms the work of two other cutting edge thinkers with whom I have had the privilege of working.”
“Who are they, Ken?”
“… you have the ability to learn how to reconstruct any experiences differently…”
“Dr. William Glasser, considered by some as one of the Father’s of Modern Psychology, said over 50 years ago our actions and thinking determine our emotions.”
“And, Dr. John Demartini, a polymath and human behaviour expert, who says our thinking, in keeping with natural law, always has two sides, a positive side and a negative side.”
I continued further,
“Arthur, the work of these three people, William Glasser, John Demartini and Lisa Feldman Barrett, will enable you to have a future, if you’re willing to learn and practice the ideas and principles they offer to you.”
“So, Ken, you can cultivate an awareness or intelligence about your emotions and use it in your everyday life, like Lisa said in her talk, eh?’
“That’s it exactly, Arthur! You have more control over your emotions than you might imagine. And you have the ability to learn how to reconstruct any experiences differently in order to manage it and your emotions.”
“The idea we are responsible for our own emotions seems very hard to swallow.”
“And, you’re saying all of us can do this with a little practice. I can get really good at it, like if I took up weight lifting or jogging. At first, it would take a lot of effort, but eventually it would become more automatic. Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. But, as Lisa points out, there is some fine print, because more control also means more responsibility. The experiences you make today become your brain’s predictions for tomorrow. So, you are the only one who can control and determine your emotional life, your level of stress!
“Many people resist the scientific evidence their emotions are created by them and not hard wired into their brain. The idea we are responsible for our own emotions seems very hard to swallow.
“That would be me, Ken, in spades!”
But, what Bill, John, Lisa and I are suggesting to you is you don’t have to choke on that idea. You just take a deep breath and embrace it. It is the path to a healthier body, a healthier mind and a healthier future. Are you game to learn how to do this, Arthur?”
“Yes I am, Ken! Where do we start?”
“Arthur, we start by identifying your highest values and then go from there!”
“Stress is found in all biological activity on earth, motivating us to learn to make the changes needed to preserve our future.”
– King Ayles, author