The Science of Emotions: How do we "make" feelings?

The Science of Emotions: How do we

Here is a radical statement: we don’t actually feel our emotions, or more so, our brain can’t feel emotions. There are only two impulses that act as a barometer for our brain to read what’s going on in our bodies and make sense of it. Those impulses occur on a spectrum between

  1. Pleasant and unpleasant
  2. Worked up and calm


Obviously, this information lacks detail and is highly ambiguous. When receiving these impulses, our brain wants to prioritizes speed over accuracy. And to make sense of them quickly, it goes back to different experiences we had over the course of our lives in order to understand the pattern. Our brain then puts a label on the impulse, based on this experience – this label is what we call an emotion.

How can we take better control of our feelings?

They key to controlling your emotions is mindfulness and gaining awareness of the sensations we are experiencing as well as the labels we attach to them. I higher degree of self-awareness allows for more precision in the way we attach a label.

Understanding how we make emotions is a first step in understanding we have much more control over our emotions and the way we feel at any given time than we think. If we are able to bring more awareness and precision to how we label certain sensations, we can also alter HOW we feel in that moment.

The practice of mindfulness is an important component in taking control over our emotions. In mindfulness practice we focus on certain sensations in our body, like our belly rising and falling with your breath, our feet on the ground, certain sounds that surround us. Being present to them allows us do disconnect the experience of unpleasant/pleasant and calm/worked up in any given moment from the story we want to tell ourselves about it and how we want to “label” it.

Why we tend to avoid or make a mess of Last 8% Conversations

 The reason we tend to avoid what we call Last 8% situations – the more challenging situations, decisions and conversations in our lives – is because of the sensations they evoke in us. The impulse may be unpleasant or worked up, and before we can get present to it, we “label it” and create the emotion that something is threatening or negative, which is not necessarily accurate. In that state, is easy to misread a situation, jump to conclusions and as a result, resort to avoiding a conversation or decision that needed to be made or, based on our personality type, react too quickly and make a mess of it.

In reality, it may look like this: We are facing a Last 8% conversation during which we are observing the other person’s face and expression and assume we know what they are feeling. To us, they may be looking angry or sad, even though it can mean many different things. Research has even shown that how we interpret someone’s face is influenced by their gender alone.

Further, our own past experience affects how we perceive the expressions in other people. If you have grown up in a family or culture where sadness was not openly expressed, you will have a harder time reading it correctly when someone else is feeling sad. When we are born, we are equipped with a nervous system that’s designed to regulate our bodies and that wants us to take instructions from our environment on how to do so. Babies are at first incapable of calming themselves down, regulate heat or their sleep – this is something we learn from the physical and social environment we were born into.

It is important to understand that our brain did not evolve to think, see and feel – it evolved simply to be able to regulate the two sensations of calm/worked up, pleasant/unpleasant. It is only through the practice of mindfulness that we get present to these constant impulses and how we are labelling them as emotions, so that we develop greater ability to change the way we experience and “label” other people’s expressions, conversations and situations.