Emotions are a central piece of the human experience because they guide many decisions in our lives and many of our reactions to the world around us. But what exactly are emotions? Throughout the decades several thought leaders have attempted to answer this question. Modern neuroscientific advances have deepened our understanding of how the brain creates and experiences emotions. Yet, several myths persist. Here are some top myths that persist about emotions.
1. Emotions are automatic.
Scientists used to think that emotions were automatic responses to events, wired into different parts of our brain. The old model of emotion suggested that our physiological cues (e.g., beating heart, increased pulse, etc.) and our cognitive appraisals (e.g., “That is scary.”) gave life to our emotions through activating different parts of our brain where they were hardwired.
New neuroscience literature suggests that emotions don’t actually live in specific areas in our brain. Rather they are a whole-brain experience that is our brain’s best guess of how it should feel in certain situations. These best guesses are influenced by your physical sensations, your surroundings, and your past experiences.
2. Emotions are uncontrollable.
Emotional responses can feel like they happen so quickly because the brain is processing information about your physical sensations, your surroundings, and past experiences at a rapid pace. This happens because the most important job your brain has is to keep you safe. The fact that our emotions aren’t hard wired in our neural networks is actually good news. It means that we do have the ability to influence the emotional conclusions our brain makes. How do we do this?
We can re-interpret our physical sensations. Dr. Kelly McGonigal discusses her research in her infamous TED talk, How to Make Stress Your Best Friend, which has shown that stress may only negatively impact our bodies if we believe that stress is bad. When we shift our perception to stress being a helpful experience, the negative impact of stress on the body disappears. You can see more of her talk here:
While we can’t change our past, we can cultivate experiences that significantly influence how we unconsciously react to events, people, and other details in our world. For example, we can practice mindfulness, meditation, change our beliefs or relationships with emotions, or cultivate relationships that make us feel safe and secure. Research has also shown that the more words we have to explain our emotions, the more ways our brain has to interpret our emotional experiences, the more likely we are to have healthy ways of coping with the emotion.
3. Women are more emotional than men.
Lisa Feldman Barrett’s lab has tracked men’s and women’s emotions throughout the day. Her research has consistently found no significant difference in the emotions men and women experience in a day. Her research is consistent with other neuroscience research that shows that male and female infants do not show a difference in their experience of emotions or empathy. However, females are encouraged to express and explore their feelings. Whereas males are often discouraged from displaying a diverse range of emotions. These differences are important because of the ways that they distort and truncate boys’ innate emotional needs.
If you’d like to read more of Dr. Rezendes articles on this topic, take a look at the following, What are the ingredients of emotional connectedness in a relationship?