The Origin of Feeling

Your brain constructs reality based on emotional experience. Yet your emotions are mere illusions of the mind. Even so, understanding the circuitry allows you to warp the illusion. You can master your emotional view of reality.

Your Feelings are Simulated

Your Body’s Survival is Your Brain’s Duty

Your body struggles for survival in a chaotic world. Survival is about managing resources. Your body needs nutrition to build and protect itself. It needs energy to move. You are depleted with every step and every heart-beat. You are replenished with every meal, every sleep and every intimate companionship.

Your brain is in command of resource management. It tells the heart how much to pump, the lungs how deep to breathe. It controls the chemistry in your blood and guts, and moves your meat. Your brain is commander-in-chief, deciding where to spend calories and what proteins to manufacture. Like a good commander, your brain is devoted to the forces under its command.

Your Body Keeps Your Brain Informed

You have more senses than the five directed to the world. Senses from within your body send a constant stream of signals to your brain. Signals of heart-rate, breathing and hormone concentrations. There’s a signal for everything going on inside you (which is a lot). It's pandemonium.

Your brain has no time to deal with pandemonium. It summarizes all the signals into Affect, the general sense of feeling in your body. Affect is simple: it has two components.

The first is Arousal: the level of activity in your body. You have high arousal when your heart is pumping and your muscles run hot. If you're chill and sedate, then you have low arousal.

The second is Valence: pleasure or pain. Your Valence is unpleasant if your stomach yearns for food or you've been shot. Your Valence is pleasant when your body is healthy and functioning.

Your brain thinks of your body as Arousal and Valence. It doesn’t know the details of what is happening, just the general picture.


Your Brain Doesn’t Care What Your Body Says

I lied when I said that Affect summarizes the pandemonium of sensation.

Signals from the body (e.g. heart rate, breathing rate, blood-glucose) are sent to your brain. But your feelings don’t come from these raw sensations. The signals from your body are only used to adjust your brain’s preconceived beliefs.

Your brain relies on a simulation of your body, rather than direct input. Survival demands quick and accurate decisions. Raw sensations from the body are noisy and hard to interpret. Instead your brain just makes up a story of what’s going on right now. But it makes it believable by basing the story on your life so far (and through genes, the lives of your ancestors). In other words, your brain uses past experience to formulate a prediction for the present.

The simulation of your body is adjusted by signals of raw sensation. Signals that seem important update the simulation with new information. But most signals are filtered away. You feel what your brain expects you to feel. Your feelings owe more to previous experience than the present moment.

You can try this for yourself. Think hard about someone important. You may start to feel as if they were there. Your brain has just generated Affect in the absence of direct sensory information.


Your Mind Becomes Reality

Believing is Seeing

Your feelings come from your brain and not from your body. The commander-in-chief relies on computer simulations instead of reports from the field. But the simulation is treated like reality. This results in the human condition of Affective Realism, the tendency to treat feelings as facts about the world. When people experience something they assume it’s reality. They do not consider their experience as a story the brain tells itself.

This is important because feelings are involved with every decision in your brain. Your feelings can change your moral judgments. If you are holding a warm coffee you would judge some random guy as friendly (warm), while you would judge the same guy as distant (cold) if you were holding a cold coffee. Your feelings also alter your perceptions and sensations. Hills are steeper and cold is colder when you’re feeling down. Everything looks easy and nothing hurts when you’re feeling great.

Meaning Before Emotion

Most of your feelings are just feelings, like when your stomach hurts after eating old eggs. But some feelings are meaningful, and they become emotions. Like when your stomach hurts after being betrayed. Emotions emerge when you relate your feelings to your goals and beliefs.

This means that you can change your emotional experience. You can directly alter your emotions by shifting your Affect. Exercise and good diet cultivates an active and pleasant Affect, and hence generates positive emotions. Slipping into an unpleasant Affect brings depression and psychosis. You can also change how objects and events in your life relate to your goals. If you change the meaning of associations in your mind, you can change the emotions you experience.

Your Emotions Construct Your World

Your emotions keep you alive. They motivate your body to act. Emotions give you purpose to achieve victories and crush enemies. But emotions are fabricated by your brain. Nevertheless, they shape your reality. You perceive what you feel. You feel what you believe.

The wiring of your brain grants you a magic ability: you experience what you believe. And you can change what you believe. The neural circuitry that underlies your emotional experience can be rewired. Choose to do things that shift your Affect. Choose the meaning of things in your life. Like this, choose your reality.


Deeper Down the Rabbit Hole


How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

A neuroscientist explains how sensory signals are translated into emotional experience through Simulation. This idea of constructed emotion is overturning the classical view that emotions are hard-wired trigger-response mechanisms inside the brain.