Many of us think of emotions as reactions. A thief knocks down your door and you are flooded with fear. Your baby smiles up at you and you are filled with love. It feels like this is how emotions work: something happens, and we instinctively respond.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this action-reaction phenomenon makes sense. It would explain the basic constructs of survival, and distinguishes those who hold out from those who do not. When an early caveman discerns a low pitched growl — unmistakable of a hungry predator’s snarl, fear ensues, which triggers the sympathetic fight-or-flight response. Emotion helps us discern what’s safe from what’s not, and in the end, determines who survives.
This concept of emotion is a fan-favourite, its preservation in society feeding off our tendency to romanticise the easy and seemingly congruous explanations. This way of thinking is then passed on from generation to generation — further supplemented by popular culture and new-age mass media.
On June 8, 2004, Michael Jones, his wife Amanda Thornbury and their two children were driving down a slippery highway when their car spun out of control, hydroplaned across the median, and collided with a truck driving in the opposite direction.
Tommy Jarrett, the man behind the truck’s wheel exited his truck unscathed and helped the injured couple, but also saw two-year-old Mikayla’s lifeless body in the mangled Pontiac Grand Prix. The images caused an emotional scar so deep that he filed a lawsuit a year later against the grieving family for precipitating his emotional distress.
Later interviews revealed that Tommy was brought up in a conservative environment, where men were expected to protect the people around them regardless of the nature of the circumstances. He adopted this narrative throughout his life, and as a result, assumed responsibility for the consequences of events that day. In addition, he blamed Michael for failing to protect his family and take control of the circumstances that lead up to the accident — which most experts thought were inevitable regardless.
Consequently, this viewpoint caused significant emotional distress in him, which tragically lead to his suing of the grieving couple. Through the lens of the action-reaction phenomenon, this response made sense. Tommy felt an immense feeling of guilt and pain, feelings which he himself could not control, and that lead to his subsequent unemployment and mental overload.
Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett however offers a different way to look at emotions, proposing a similarly sound alternative explanation to the events that unfurled in this bizarre scenario.
The human brain is a tiny thing considering the massive checklist of tasks and targets it has to tick off on an hour to hour basis. It oversees the respiratory, cardiovascular, renal, endocrine, cerebral, musculoskeletal, and neurological functions — to mention just a few — which all fire up simultaneously, each requiring intricate attention. Our brain learns to simplify these tasks by automatising certain pathways, using our biological machine-learning capabilities to maximise our brain’s firepower.
Emotions take advantage of this capability. They are formed through synaptic combinations of neurotransmitters and their respective receptors, which are preceded by a specific trigger. Our brain assigns a specific ‘emotion’ to the stimulatory input (an event) by attempting to match these chemical combinations to a similar previous experience. The brain then categorises these responses to their respective stimulatory inputs, so that when a similar stimulation is generated in the future, the response can be automated.
Emotions, when perceived this way, become biological concepts. They help shape the way we view and understand the world — formed and moulded by our upbringing, early experiences, and social encounters. It’s difficult to completely grasp this concept because it runs paradoxically to our culture’s understanding and popular portrayal of emotions.
Barrett’s theory postulates that emotions are not fixed action-reaction responses, but rather concepts which are malleable and plastic. Though it isn’t easy to shift a worldview that has been glued onto your synapses since your early days — it is possible.
Tommy’s emotional distress, which was clearly caused by the worldview he adopted since he was young, could actually have been addressed and tackled appropriately if it was viewed from the lens of this hypothesis. Perhaps it could have prevented the lawsuit altogether.
I’m not trying to point fingers with this article. Instead, I’m offering you a new way to think about emotions and invite you to muse upon its implications. The differences do not present themselves in a black or white, right or wrong dichotomy — but one could more accurately elucidate our emotions and their origins.
In the former fixed approach, we become slaves to our past and often uncontrollable events. Since the basic input of this concept is extrinsic, there isn’t much incentive to remodel our emotions. The proposed new approach encourages us to view emotions as something we are in control of. Its intrinsic nature means we can actively mould and alter the neural pathways responsible for their formation.
The next time you feel a strong emotion, particularly an unpleasant one — try to question and excavate details surrounding its origin. Changing an unhealthy thought pattern could actually be the difference between a lifetime of needless suffering and a happy fulfilling life.