Our emotions are more pliable than you think

Lessons from Masterclass: Interior Design

Choose your words intentionally

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When did you last cry? How about the last time you got angry? Like really angry. I missed out an opportunity I had coveted for months and reacted badly. The decision was out of my control, yet I still remember how visceral my sadness and anger were.

A couple of months after this, I landed on this podcast on Emotions by Invisibilia, an entity of NPR. The subject of the podcast was an examination on what research says is the process through which we experience emotion. It has added a layer of nuance to how I now interpret the idea of emotions.

Ask any person on the street about how emotion comes about and you would get the following answer: 

Emotions are instinctual responses to things we experience; be it joy, love, anxiety, etc. For example, get punched and you are going be angry. When a loved one passes away, you can’t help but grieve. If you find out you win the lottery, you are going to be ecstatic. 

That was my answer before listening to this two-part look at Emotions by Invisibilia. 

In How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, Lisa Feldman Barrett summarises the research around this. How we think about emotions is completely wrong, at least according to the evidence. 

The research says that emotions are not instinctual but rather constructed. Interoception is the method through which we interpret the collective state of our internal systems e.g. our different physiological responses. The thing with interoception is that it is fuzzy. We can only broadly identify one of the following four responses upon reacting to some stimuli:

  • Pleasantness
  • Unpleasantness
  • Calmness
  • Arousal

This means that for every person you meet, activity you do, or event you take part in, you can only ever have one of those four responses. We can treat these as our four base responses. Note that they are not our emotions, that comes after. 

Let us go back to one of the examples of physical assault. This new model of emotion suggests that your base response will likely be one of unpleasantness. So where does the feeling of anger come from? It comes from our experiences. Your previous experience tells you that assault should be followed with an angry outburst. You associate their angry reactions with the action of getting it. Makes sense so far right? So when you get it, you may be feeling and underlying unpleasantness, but your mind and body colours in the experience by feeling angry. In a sense, you react in a angry manner because your body has “learned” that this is the expected behaviour when someone hits you in the face.

This may seem like a stretch. I thought so the first time I encountered this idea. Barrett looked into studies on different cultures around the world that did not have words to explain specific emotions. She found that consistently if they did not have a word for an emotion, they would not ‘feel’ it. Similarly, the opposite would occur if the other cultures had words for emotions that did not have an English-equivalent.

In the podcast they look into one such example, a feeling of leggot originating the remote Philippines village of Illigot. Two anthropologists, a husband and wife, embedded themselves with the tribe for the span of a few years to try map how well their emotional concepts mapped with the ones we have in English. They were able to map emotional concepts like fear, excitement, and joy fairly easily. But they stumbled across an emotion unfamiliar to them leggot. After surveying the villagers about how they would describe leg-got, they received the following words: vital, critical, essential.

One evening, the villagers wanted to hear the recorded conversations they had with the husband and wife. They are happy to hear their voices until they heard the recording of a village elder that had passed recently. Silence followed, and the villagers got angry and demanded the recording be turned off. Some started wailling, others howled. What was clear was that everyone in the village was visibility distraught. The researchers tried to ask what they were feeling. Their guide said they had an intense and visceral urge to cut someone’s head off.

I should also mention that this tribe was infamous for being head-hunters.

The next day, after people calmed down, they were told that it was the feeling of leggot that consumed the village. Now this strays away from what the researchers thought leggot meant. It was a meaning that evaded them right until they left to return to the United States.

A few years later, the couple, now with kids, went to another Philippines village called of Ifugal to learn about their culture. One day an accident had befallen the wife, she slipped 20 metres down to a river into her death. Once the villagers retrieved her body. Crouching against the body of his deceased wife, the husband felt an intensity and ferocity that he had not felt before. The world slowed down around him and he became hyper-sensitized to his surroundings. He later identified the feeling has the one that eluded him several years earlier: leggot.

Weeks later, after returning back home with his kids and after the funeral, this emotion bottled up by the researcher. While he was driving, he stopped, and started howling. This urge to howl would continue to the point where he would find secluded places to howl for upwards of an hour for the following months. He described it as leggot, the feeling of having electricity run through you, feeling high-voltage. He accepts that had he not been embedded with the Illigot and bore witness to this feeling over a few years, he would unlikely have grieved in the way he did.

So what? As we grow up and accumulate experiences, we subconsciously learn emotional concepts like regret, fear, and schadenfreude. If emotions are constructs we learn, we can unlearn them by updating our interpretations of emotional concepts by having new experiences. In an ideal world, you can re-train yourself to view fear as a “healthy challenge”. This new model for emotions allows for more control over our emotion, meaning we also have more responsibility. It is a chilling implication, especially as it relates to different forms of mental illness, but it is one for which all the evidence points to.

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