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It’s a great pleasure having Dr. Ira Glovinsky back this week to discuss Lisa Feldman Barrett‘s 2017 book, How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. A reader told me about the book and after getting through it, I knew Dr. Glovinsky was the person to discuss it with as we discussed Interoception last year. Dr. Glovinsky is a clincal psychologist in Michigan using a Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) framework. We discuss some of the surprising discoveries made by Dr. Feldman Barrett, her take on interoception, and where DIR/Floortime fits in.

Affect Depends on Interoception

by Affect Autism | affectautism.com

The New Theory: Constructed Emotions

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s 2017 book and Ted talk (explained further in this lecture) caused quite a stir when she not only suggested that we are not at the mercy of our emotions, but that our brains actually create them. She backed up this theory of constructed emotions with undeniable evidence from meta analysis studies and neuroscience research from her lab in Boston. 

It challenges the classical theories of emotions on a few fronts. There are no universal expressions of, nor physiological responses to, emotion, and there is no ‘reptilian’ brain where the amygdala is the ‘fear centre’, contrary to current popular viewpoints. The brain has many ways to produce fear. Variation is the norm. Wow!

There is no accuracy of emotion. Only consensus.

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barret in "How Emotions are Made"

Her work doesn’t come as a surprise to Dr. Glovinsky because he says how we learn about the world is that we develop concepts. We are bombarded by sensory input that we have to make sense of. We do that through our experiences and based on our histories, he says. Why should emotions be different than any other concept, he asks? Our brains search through our histories and do so very quickly before we can think about it, Dr. Feldman Barrett says in the book. And we know from The First Idea that our concepts are culturally dependent and our culture histories are passed on from our ancestors. Without concepts we’re blind.

Individual differences

In the book, Dr. Feldman Barrett talks about population thinking and pattern classification where we mistake a mathematical average for the norm. We take the average of all of our past experiences with ‘joy’, let’s say, and form an average idea of what joy looks like, but the pattern is an abstract summary that does not exist in nature, like when we say that families have an average of 2.1 kids, for example. There is no such thing as  ‘2.1 children’. 

What Dr. Glovinsky pulls from this is the area of individual differences. Every person has a different way of experiencing and handing stimulation from our senses, he states. We all have different sensory and arousal thresholds. The way one person experiences emotion is different from how another does. Thinking about averages gets us into trouble, Dr. Glovinsky suggests. Our brains really are predictive as our neurons formulate the emotions from these predictions and refine the predictions as we receive more information from our senses.

It’s very optimistic, I added, because we can impact how our brains construct emotions, which we’ll get into later. I loved the example of her daughter’s 12th ‘Disgusting Food’ birthday party where they served drinks in urine sample containers, fruit puree on diapers and put green food colouring on the cheese that was on the pizza so it looked mouldy. People actually gagged because their brains predicted they were eating poop, mold, or were drinking urine! Dr. Glovinsky says this is where our prediction and the correction comes in.

Theory and Data

Dr. Glovinsky thinks it’s an important distinction to make between theories versus actual data. The data Dr. Feldman Barrett has comes from high quality research, in his opinion, and it backs up the theoretical framework of what she’s saying. It’s not only neuroscience research using fMRI but also meta analysis research looking at hundreds of studies. Dr. Glovinsky says we struggle with people who see the world in a different way and have different concepts. The struggle is not with her work, but how to fit this new work into our current concepts. Dr. Glovinsky also enjoyed Dr. Feldman Barrett’s follow-up book, 7 1/2 Lessons About the Brain which summarizes much of what we are talking about today. 

Interoception and Affect

The theory also focuses on interoception. In the book she calls interoception ‘the origin of feeling’ and states that the only thing we know from birth is whether we feel pleasant or unpleasant. The book refers to James Russell’s circumplex model of affect where there are two dimensions: arousal and valence. You can be high or low on either so that your valence is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel and your arousal is how calm or agitated you feel. Our brains then construct why we feel that way and are wired for predictive precision, as she calls it.

We are in effect simulating our reality based on the sensory input we receive. We feel something unpleasant, we have to make sense of it and we use what she calls our ‘body budget’ to expend our energy to figuring out if it’s hunger or something else, based on our experiences. 

Dr. Glovinsky clarifies that we put all of our recognition of our sensations towards naming the emotion. He says there are three brain systems that are involved in this: the salience system tells us what’s important or not, the default system related to thinking and mentalization, and the executive function system.

Your interoceptive predictions which produce your feelings of affect determine what you care about in the moment.

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

These networks work in sync, he explains, so that what you come out with from interoception, or sensations, to feelings to your experience is what you then name as an emotion. I added that we are likely to treat this as information about the world rather than about our own experience of the world, as the book described. So as Dr. Feldman Barrett says, believing is seeing. You feel what your brain believes.

Every thought, memory, perception that you construct includes something about the state of your body: a little piece of interoception. A visual perception doesn’t just say what did I see last time I was in this situation? It asks what did I see last time I was in this situation when my body was in this state? Any change in affect you feel while reading these words (more or less pleasant or more or less calm) is a result of those interoceptive predictions.

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett in "How Emotions are Made"

Interoception, Regulation and Co-regulation

In the book, Dr. Feldman Barrett explains that our interoception network regulates our ‘body budget’. Your body is constantly assigning how much of your body budget to assign to each sensory input. Dr. Glovinsky says that this is called allostasis and our allostatic load. We’re constantly trying to balance our interoception with our exteroception. 

And Dr. Feldman Barrett says that affect is your best guess of the state of your own body budget and that it is the driver, which you cannot overcome with rationality. She takes it into the interpersonal realm, though, when she says that others can impact your body budget, too.

From the brain’s perspective regulation is just categorization.

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett in "How Emotions are Made"

It’s all about the co-regulation we do in Floortime. When we interact with others our breathing, heart rate, and other physical signals are synchronized. This happens when we hold hands. When we have a photo of a loved one, it reduces activation in your body budgeting regions of the brain and makes you less bothered by pain. The book says if you’re standing at the bottom of a hill with friends, it will appear less steep and hard to climb than if you were alone. If you grow up in poverty, where your body budget tends to be taxed more, having one supportive person in your life helps you. 

Putting it all together

Dr. Glovinsky gave an example of discussing a child’s unruly behaviour with his father who was struggling. They differentiated between good experiences and bad experiences. When they are playing and having a good time, he’s getting good signals and it feels right. But if they have to go out to the market and the child doesn’t want to put his coat on to go, there is a struggle and the child becomes reactive and angry and now it’s a bad experience. Dr. Glovinsky wondered if you took the ‘good or bad’ of the experience out of it, you’d deal with it in a different way.

What if you engaged with the ‘I’m not putting my coat on’ experience in the same way you engaged with the playful experience? It’s just another experience, Dr. Glovinsky says. “I’m going to spend the time with you” and “we’re going to resolve it“. All of that affect, he says, is going to be settled because I’m working on both experiences in the same way. Instead of thinking, “This is a terrible experience“, it’s just another experience, and if you spent 21 minutes with your child playing, you can spend 21 minutes in this ‘I’m not putting my coat on’ experience as well. By changing that concept, it will be easier for the parent to handle the child’s behaviour.

Emotion Concepts from Interpersonal Events

Dr. Feldman Barrett said that successful communication requires that you and another are using synchronized concepts, that we’re creating these concepts, and that they’re usually based on goals. In Dr. Glovinsky’s example, the parent has the goal of getting to the store without a hassle, calmly. So following Dr. Feldman Barrett’s theory, you can shift the concept to, “This isn’t working and it’s not calm” to “I’m in another experience with my child” so that your brain searches for different experiences in your brain and predicts a different response. Instead of rushing and feeling impatient, you can be in a more playful mode.

The book also stated that kids learn that emotions are events that develop over time. It’s not like the feeling-face emoticons you hold up to preschool kids. It’s the event of Mommy arriving, you smiling at her, and getting the smile back. There’s a beginning: Mommy arrives, a goal that I’m happy to see her, and then the consequence of meeting the goal are the exchange of smiles and hugs. So the instance of the emotion concept helps make sense of the sensory input coming in. We divide it into categories in our heads like we divide a stream of wavelengths of a rainbow into distinct colours.

Our emotion concepts help us make sense of these distinct events. Dr. Feldman Barrett gave the example of people with Alexathymia seeing two shouting men. While we might use our emotion concepts to say that there are two men angry with each other, those with Alexathymia will say they see two shouting men. If we feel a pang in our stomach we might say we are hungry while they’ll say they have a feeling in their stomach. Dr. Glovinsky says this gets into the interoception piece, or the awareness of what we are feeling in our body. 

Interoception Launches Predictions in our Brain

Our interoception launches predictions. You’re predicting your sensory input before it arrives and simulating your emotion so it ‘seems’ to be happening to you when in fact your brain is constructing the experience, Dr. Feldman Barrett says in the book, and that’s held in check by the state of the world and your body. It tries to be precise in order to be efficient. Dr. Glovinsky says we can get tripped up between what we’re thinking in the moment and what our brain is predicting in the moment. They’re not always in sync.

The book also explains that emotion requires a perceiver. An emotion doesn’t exist as some entity ‘out there’. We make meaning from our past experiences as we predict our incoming input. Dr. Glovinsky brings up the book, The Nature of Emotion (2nd Edition) in which Dr. Feldman Barrett writes a chapter that might clear up some of the confusion. It really helped turn Dr. Glovinsky’s therapy around, he said, as he’s made sense of her work.

Theory of Autism and ADHD

One of the more controversial claims in the book is her theory of ADHD and Autism. She suggests that ‘the hub’ is broken and the brain might not be able to make predictions, thus you are constantly overwhelmed with sensory stimulation. Dr. Glovinsky says if the connections aren’t there, you can’t do the job of predicting. We’re both eager to watch future research in this area.

How can we apply this information?

The book definitely corroborates what we do in DIR/Floortime from acknowledging and respecting variation in individual differences and sensory processing profiles, to co-regulating, to labelling emotions, to making meaning of concepts, to the understanding that experience wires the brain, to seeking the ‘why’ behind behaviour (her notion that display of emotion does not reveal its causal mechanisms), to ‘the action is in the interaction‘, the focus on positive, shared joyful experiences, that successful communication requires that you and another are using synchronized concepts so we follow the child’s lead and enter their world, to her point to take turns having conversations with young children, even when they can’t respond yet, and finally to give specific feedback to children instead of things like, “Good boy!“, but instead things like, “You made a good choice not hitting your sister back” so your children build more useful concepts. 

Dr. Feldman Barrett provides some great tips in the book:

  • Take care of your sleep, nutrition, and exercise to help your brain balance your ‘body budget’
  • Work on your concepts:
    • Gain new concepts by giving yourself (and your kids) lots of new experiences because positive experiences create new predictions
    • Hone in on the existing ones by describing your anger as being enraged or irritated to focus on emotional granularity (with your kids, too) because words “seed your concepts“, she stated
    • Speak about bodily sensations with your children as emotions and mental states and elaborate on your emotions, their emotions, and other people’s emotions with lots and lots of words, wondering what caused them and what the consequences are

Words seed concepts; concepts drive your predictions; predictions regulate your body budget; your body budget determines how you feel.

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett in "How Emotions are Made"

The book says that our detailed explanations to our children help them build their concepts, and create their social reality. This gives them tools to regulate their own body budget, make sense of their bodily sensations, communicate how they feel, and influence others effectively, it says. Like how positive experiences create new predictions, negative experiences do as well. The book says ruminating on negative experiences puts more negative experiences in the pool from which the brain searches. 

This has implications for mental health because the next time something happens, there’s a higher probability that you’re going to pick a negative instance.

  • Give yourself more positive experiences–including thinking about positive experiences
  • Move your body because by changing your environment it changes your predictions
  • Re-categorize any discomfort, which is physical, away from suffering, which is subjective, because it’s the affect that transforms the sensation into something we’ve predicted based on our experiences (e.g., if you feel nervousness in your stomach because you’re about to write an exam, try to re-categorize it as being excited to finish this exam that you’ve studied so hard for)

Dr. Glovinsky says that we need to do a much better job of teaching young children emotional granularity, such as giving children different words for the intensity and gradients of anger. The DIR Model‘s 8th Functional Emotional Developmental Capacity of Gray Area Thinking where you can explain that you feel more angry than you did yesterday, for instance.

Emotions are meaning, explaining your interoceptive changes and corresponding affective feelings in relation to the situation. They are a prescription for action.

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett in "How Emotions are Made"

This week's PRACTICE TIPs:

This week, try to being labelling emotions to your child with more granularity, as suggested by Dr. Feldman Barrett, and begin to create awareness of their interoception.

For example: If your child is really excited, you could say, “You look absolutely elated!” If your child is expressively angry, you could say, “You sure look enraged right now!” If you’re feeling down about the pandemic, you can say to your child that you’re feeling quite “meloncholic” about the virus.

You could also describe feeling hungry as having a funny feeling in your tummy, or feeling tired as your eyes feeling heavy. You can comment that their body is moving really fast and suggest, “Let’s slow down for a minute and take a break” or note that “This is fun and feels good” when they are laughing together with you.

Thank you to Dr. Ira Glovinsky for sharing his thoughts on Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on constructed emotions. If you enjoyed and found it interesting, please share it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below. Stay tuned for next week’s podcast where Maude Le Roux and Mike Fields join me to discuss ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), a VAST (Variable Attention Stimulus Trait) topic.

Until next week, here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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ADHD: A VAST Topic

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