On the new science of emotions and growing your emotional vocabulary

Friday Brainstorm S2 E10 🧠

Hi friends — happy Friday!

This week’s newsletter delves into the science of emotions and tools for growing your emotional vocabulary. Thinking about emotions in a structured way is important because it gives you a framework for understanding what you're feeling and why. It also helps you develop a richer emotional life that translates to long-term satisfaction.

Here’s what I’ll be sharing with you in this issue:

  • the latest research on emotions

  • an app to grow your emotional vocabulary

Let’s get into it.


How Emotions Are Made 🔬

The latest research on emotions is not super intuitive and breaks from many of our most firmly held ideas about how emotions work.

Pixar's Inside Out is a great illustration of the classical model of emotion, which assumes that our actions are controlled by a number of basic emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.

This aligns with our intuitive sense of how emotions work and makes for great entertainment. The not-so-great part is that researchers studying emotions have spent a century essentially taking this model at face value and searching for these characters in the brain.

In her book How Emotions Are Made, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett proposes a radical theory on what emotions are, where they come from, and how they shape our lives.

Emotions are predictions

Rather than thinking of emotions as labels like happy or sad, Dr. Barrett describes three basic "ingredients" that make up the mental experience that we call emotion:

  • internal sensations from our body (e.g. Am I alert or calm?; Do I feel pleasant or unpleasant?)

  • sensory information from the outside world (e.g. Where am I?; Who am I around?; What is that sound?)

  • mental representations from past experiences (e.g. What is this like?; How do I expect to feel? )

Using these three sources, your brain proactively predicts what emotion is most appropriate for the situation and you start to experience that emotion.

This probably doesn't align with your intuition; we usually think about emotions as reactions to external events. The reality is that predictions allow us to respond much faster and more efficiently than if we were to react to everything in real time.

Emotions as concepts

In fact, your brain is always using past experiences to predict and create your current experience.

As Tiago Forte puts it,

"When you see something new, your brain doesn’t ask “What is this?”; it asks “What is this like?”. In other words, your brain is constantly trying to put everything you perceive into an existing category. This is much easier than trying to figure out what it is from scratch."

The labels or categories your brain forms to make sense of the world around you are called concepts. For example, we have different concepts for plants that serve different purposes – flowers are beautiful plants, weeds are unwanted plants, and salads are plants that we eat.

Emotions could be understood as concepts too. The same bodily sensation of a stomachache could be interpreted as "nervousness" in the context of a date, "hungry" if it's lunchtime, or "feeling sick" if we're in bed with a thermometer.

In all these cases, the emotion you feel is a self-fulfilling prediction about what emotion is best suited to help your body cope with the present moment. Emotions might not feel like concepts because we experience them so intensely, but it's all the same to our predicting brains.

In summary – emotions are created from concepts, which are the predictions that give meaning to our internal bodily sensations in relation to the outside world.

To learn more without committing to reading the book, check out Tiago Forte's excellent summary or this engaging 40-minute cinematic lecture by Dr. Barrett.


Mood Meter: grow your emotional vocabulary 📱

We learn emotional concepts as we grow. Whereas toddlers might only know whether they're happy and sad, older children might understand emotions like fear and anger.

Recently, schools have begun to incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) programs (i.e. RULER, Second Step) into the classroom to help kids make sense of their emotions. For instance, It might seem intuitive that we feel emotions in our bodies, but a child might not make the connection.

I would have personally loved to have this kind of education when I was still in school, but there’s no reason that adults can’t also use the tools developed for these programs.

The Mood Meter app was developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The idea is to help people discover and label emotions with more specificity.

You’re shown a 10 by 10 grid of emotion words, with the horizontal axis being how pleasant or unpleasant you feel and the vertical axis relating to high or low energy.

Once you choose an emotion, it gives you a chance to describe why you are feeling that way and then presents you with different strategies to shift your emotions. The app also provides some basic tracking of your emotions over time. That’s it!

It sounds simple, but many adults struggle with accurately labelling their emotions, and often have a limited set of words that they use to describe them. The Mood Meter app helps put more nuance on our words and language for emotions.

For instance, "stress" is a word that's commonly used to mean at least four distinct emotions, each with it's own source (internal or external):

  • Anxiety is worry about future uncertainty and our inability to control the outcome.

  • Fear is the palpable sense of a danger that lies just ahead and will eventually strike us.

  • Pressure is the force from the outside that tells us something important is at stake, and whether we succeed or fail will depend on how we perform.

  • Stress is what we feel when we’re facing too many demands from all of the above and fear we may not be up to it.

Although it might seem like semantics, attaching the correct label to emotions helps us begin figuring out what to do about it. Beyond that, it also helps other people meet our needs by expressing how we feel with more specificity.

Don't be satisfied with "happy" when you really mean "ecstatic", "blissful", or "inspired". Learn the difference between "discouraged" and "dejected" instead of settling for the generic "sad".

This is a bit speculative, but we can only assume that the size of our emotional vocabulary is correlated with the importance of emotions in our lives and the richness of our emotional experience.

I'll leave off with a quote from Marc Brackett, the founder of the Mood Meter app:

“When we don’t have the words for our feelings, we’re not just lacking descriptive flourish. We’re lacking authorship of our own lives.”


I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of Friday Brainstorm! What got you thinking? Anything to add? Let me know by replying to this email.

—Shamay