Have you ever noticed the language we use to describe emotions? When we see a parking officer putting a parking ticket on our car, we are angry, so we will curse and yell. When someone close to us passes away, we are sad, and we cry. We talk about events that happen in the world as triggers for anger, fear, disgust, sadness and happiness and the actions that we took because of the triggered emotion. Emotions happen to you. You have no control over them. That's the way our culture thinks.
Respected neuroscientist, professor and psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett is now asking us to reconsider how we think about emotion. Two decades of research has brought Barrett to understand emotions as constructions of the world, not reactions to it. That is to say, that anger you felt getting that parking ticket, was an emotion you learnt. You saw someone in the street cursing at a parking officer and you learnt how to react. You learnt a concept. Think for a minute what this means for how we experience the world.
The world is built on concepts and we are all passing on these concepts to each other. We have responsibility and control over our emotions. It’s a complete game changer for understanding mental, physical and neurodegenerative disorders (Barrett, 2017).
I don’t particularly feel like repeating neuroscience jargon on a blog post but if you’re interested in the exact science-brain happening there are some references at the end of this post.
So where did I learn this information? My doctor? A journal article? No. A podcast. Invisablia’s “Emotions” podcast, released June 1st 2017.
The argument sounded incredibly malicious, yet I almost certainly agreed with the idea. Barrett sounded like one of those people who tell people diagnosed with depression to “Suck it up and get on with it” or people with anxiety that “It’s all in your head”. Nothing enrages me more than anyone downplaying the importance of seeking professional help for mental illness.
So why did I agree with Barrett ?
I’m starting to have a problem with the internet's dark information magic. Podcasts, like Invisiblia, Youtube personalities, Instagram heros are telling us information which may or may not be relevant to you or your situation. Who has time to cross check a podcast? Who would want to cross check a podcast. The answer is me. I'm that nerd.
It’s the nature in which podcasts are accessed that annoys me. Podcast’s are listened to as a time filler, to keep your mind preoccupied and usually while your doing another task. You learn something new which you can add into a conversation for a little extra spice and that’s about as far as podcast’s take you. At best they can ignite an interest in something you can continue adding knowledge to through other resources. At their worst they plant ideas in your head that grows into strange mutations and feed destructive behaviours.
I hear this most potentially in the “Emotions” episode by Invisiblia. Hanna and Alix even acknowledge how risky the information they were presenting was for audiences, “This isn’t a quick bite you get in a podcast, this is huge”. This understanding of emotions being constructed by us, means we are the creators of own experience. This is an ideology I unknowingly brought into in my post-pubescent life and it created fertile ground for eating disorders to flourish. It was not a good time.
Whether it was reading the body and soul in the weekend Australian or a predisposition for perfectionism or being a Scorpio? The full moon? That green ghoul that visits me in my dreams sometimes? The magic potion the fairy gave me at the Eumundi markets when I was 9? There are a lot of factors behind why I developed these eating disorders. It’s something I will never be able to justify, but i was able to overcome it.
I believed I could better myself with diets and hard work. This was the answer my 15 year old brain came up with. Control your eating, control your emotions. I wasn’t aware that’s what I was doing at the time. I couldn't go to parties because there would be alcohol, alcohol had calories. I couldn't go to sleep overs because there would be junk food. I isolated myself.
I remember these prize moments i would play over and over every time i grew hungry. Standing outside of art class clutching my sketch book across my chest a classmate came up to me and grab my wrists, "Your so skinny!" she exclaimed. Or when we did health and physical fitness class and we had to record our bmi weekly. The teacher would get us to read out our measurement and mine had dropped from healthy to underweight. "How the hell did you do that, what did you do?" one of boys on the table asked me. Finally, something i can be proud of i thought.
I stuck with it for three years. Until I became so very underweight, and so very depressed. Despite spending every waking moment outside of school at the gym, my high school friends, remained my friends. To this day, they are my best friends. They just kept being my friends. They accepted me not because i was skinny but because I liked music, drawing and quoted the Simpsons. I began to eat. I was seemingly better. I resolved the physical appearance of the disorder I neglected why I had developed these destructive behaviors in the first place. It all seems so obvious now to link the mind to behavior, but for nine years I tried to resolve these eating issues myself. But, you’d better be joking if you think the internet is going to be able to define your cognitive behavioral problems that had been constructed from your childhood.
“Ok just eat the meal Shannon, don’t eat 5 meals, just the meal, no 15km running either, everyone else eats normally why you don’t?” I had no answer to that last question. I didn’t know why I was choosing not to eat and I didn’t know why I couldn’t stop eating. I still believed the answer was inside of me and that one day it would all just stop. Hope buys you about five days of normal eating. Then you binge for two, restrict for three, binge for two, read a helpful article online and eat normally for two days, then mispronounce a word in your design presentation and binge for four days, you feel guilty and pathetic and restrict for a 3 weeks. Did you get exhausted reading that sentence? Imagine reading it over and over again for nine years.
It’s impossible to overcome an addiction without understanding why you are addicted in the first place. Eating disordered behaviors produces the same chemical stimulation as all types of drugs and alcohol. When I started seeing a psychologist I started to understand how these eating disorders were how I escaped an underlining loneliness, depression and a feeling of being worthless.
Emotions. The reason for my disordered behavior was my emotions. There was no way I could have resolved my disordered eating and mental health issues on my own without clinical help. Which is why I advocate for others to seek help so strongly. It’s not Barrett’s findings I have a problem with it’s how the information is presented and the lack of sensitivity around what is potentially harmful information.
We are responsible for our emotions and we can construct them and reconstruct them. To my understanding (as a non-neuroscientist or psychologist) my experiences with mental health support Barrett's findings. I had to become aware of my emotions and where they were coming from. When i could see the triggers I could avoid them or at least manage them, when they happened. Things that made me upset, I told myself--this is why you are upset. And then I would get upset, again and again and each time it would be less painful until eventually i had learnt that emotion didn't mean i had to repeat destructive behaviors.
I unlearnt hardwired concepts. Years of psychology helped me. Not a 1 hour podcast i listened to a couple of times.
I wonder how a high achieving school student would understand, “You are the architect of your experience”?
There is without a doubt space for podcasts in the hypermetabolic information age but i just wish psychology podcasts would consider that most of their listeners are not neuroscientists or psychologists. Or at the very least acknowledge that they are not offering a substitute to seeing your doctor.
Barrett, F. L. 2017, The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interception and categorization from Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience retrieved from https://lisafeldmanbarrett.com/academic-papers/
Emotions, Invisablia, July 2017, Podcast Accessed from: http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/530718193/emotions