Posts Tagged ‘interoception’

Mastering Your Emotions

May 12, 2017

This post is based on material in a revolutionary book by Lisa Feldman Barrett titled “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”   The first item is to remember to keep your body budget in good shape.  Your interoceptive network works day and night, issuing predictions to maintain a healthy budget.  This process is the origin of your affective feelings (pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calmness).  To feel good your brain’s predictions about your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature, hormones, metabolism, and so forth, must be calibrated to your body’s actual needs.  Otherwise you body budget gets out of whack, and you’re going to feel crappy.  Unfortunately, modern culture seems to be engineered to screw up your body budget.  Work and school schedules can make it difficult to get enough sleep, and junk food is omnipresent.  What can be done about this?  Try to adjust your schedule and diet as best you can.   Regular exercise increases the levels of proteins called anti-inflammatory cytokines, that reduce your chances of developing heart diseases, depression, and other illnesses.

Your physical surroundings also affect your body budget, so if possible, try to spend time in spaces less noisy and crowded, and with more greenery and natural light.  Reading a compelling novel is also beneficial for your body budget.  When you get involved in someone else’s story you aren’t as involved in your own.  These mental excursions engage part of your interoceptive network, known as the default mode network.  And do not ruminate, and if you are ruminating, stop.

After you body budget, Dr. Barrett says that the next best thing to do for emotional health is to beef up your concepts, to become more emotionally intelligent.  Remember that you create your emotional concepts.  Emotional intelligence is about getting your brain to construct the most useful instance of the most useful emotion concept for a given situation.  Sometimes it is important not to construct emotions but instances of some other concept.  Daniel Goleman, the author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” argues that higher emotional intelligence leads to success in academics, business, and social relationships.

Dr. Barrett writes that there are many ways to gain new concepts: walking in the woods, taking trips, reading books, watching movies, trying unfamiliar foods.  She says to be a collector of experiences.  Try on new perspectives the way you try on new clothing.  These kinds of activities will provoke your brain to combine concepts to form new ones, changing your conceptual system proactively so you’ll predict and behave differently later.

Try to develop higher emotional granularity.  A collection of scientific studies indicate that people who could distinguish finely among their unpleasant feelings, say fifty shades of feeling crappy, were 30% more flexible when regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate against someone who has hurt them.

Rather than ruminating about something unpleasant, keep track of positive experiences.  Each time you attend to positive things, you tweak your conceptual system, reinforcing concepts about those positive events and making them salient in the mental model of your world.

If you deal with children, be positive and try not to say negative things.  Studies have shown that children in low-income homes hear 125,000 more words of discouragement than praise, while their higher-income counterparts hear 560,000 more words of praise than discouragement, all by age four.  If a child is whining incessantly, instead of yelling “Knock it off,” try something like, “your whining its irritating me, so stop it.”

Dr Barrett offers the following tips for mastering feelings in the moment.  She says that the simplest approach is to move your body.  She writes that moving your body can change you’re predictions and therefore your experience.

Another approach is to change your location or situation.  For example, during the Vietnam War, 15% of U.S. soldiers are addicted to heroin.  When they returned home, 95% stayed off the drug their first year back.  Given the strong addictive effects of heroin, this is an extraordinary result.

Dr. Barrett writes that recategorization is a tool of the emotion expert.  The more concepts you know and the more instances you can construct, the more effectively you can recategorize in this manner to master your emotions and regulate your behavior.  So, if you’re about to take a test and feel affectively worked up, you might categorized your feeling as harmful anxiety (“Oh, no, I’m doomed”) or as helpful anticipation (“I’m energized and reading to go!”).

Last, but certainly not least, is meditation.  She notes that key regions in the interoceptive and control networks are larger for meditators, and connections between these regions are stronger.  Some studies have seen stronger connections even after only a few hours of training.  Other studies find that meditation reduces stress, improves the detection and processing of prediction error, facilitates recategorization (termed “emotion regulation,”) and reduces unpleasant affect.

The Origin of Feeling

May 11, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s revolutionary book “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”   Both pleasant and unpleasant feelings come from an ongoing process inside us called interoception.  Interoception is our brain’s representation of all sensations from our internal organs and tissues, the hormones in our blood, and our immune systems.  This interoceptive activity produces the spectrum of basic feeling from pleasant to unpleasant, from calm to jittery, and completely normal.

The intrinsic activity in our brains is not random;  it is structured by collections of neurons that consistently fire together, called intrinsic networks.  An intrinsic network has a pool of available neurons.  Each time a network does its job, different groupings of its neurons fire in synchrony.  Intrinsic brain activity  is the origin of daydreams, imagination, mind wandering, and reveries.  Dr, Barrett calls these activities simulations.  We simulate what we might experience in the world.  They assist in helping us to interact with the world.  Intrinsic brain activity ultimately produces every sensation we experience, including our interoceptive sensations, which are the origins of our most basic pleasant, unpleasant, calm and jittery feelings.

Our brains, with only past experiences as a guide, make predictions.  These predictions take place at a microscopic scale as millions of neurons talk to one another.  These neural conversations try to anticipate every fragment of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that we experiences, and every action we will take.  These predictions are our brains’ best guesses of what’s going on in the world around us and how to deal with it to keep us alive and well.  Through prediction our brains construct the world we experience.  It combines  bits and pieces of our past and estimates how likely each bit applies to our current situation.  Prediction is such a fundamental activity of the human brain that some scientists consider it the brain’s primary mode of operation.  Predictions not only anticipate sensory input from outside our skulls, but also explain it.  Our brains also use predictions to initiate  our body’s movements, such as reaching our arm out to pick up an apple or dashing away from a snake.  We are our brains, and the whole cascade of events is caused by our brains’ predictive powers.

If our brains were merely reactive, they would be too inefficient to keep us alive.  We are always being bombarded by sensory input.  One human retina transmits as much visual data as a fully loaded computer network connection in every waking moment.  Now multiply that  by every sensory pathway we have.

Evolution wired our brains for efficient prediction.  The brain predicts far more visual input than it receives.  Through prediction and correction our brains continually create and revise our mental models of the world.  It’s an enormous, ongoing simulation that constructs everything we perceive which determine how we act.  However predictions are not always correct, when compared to actual sensory input, and the brain makes adjustments.

Dr, Barrett notes that prediction efforts are not problems.  They’re a normal part of the operating instructions of our brains as they take in sensory input.  She continues, “Without prediction error, life would be a yawning bore.  Nothing would be surprising or novel, and therefore our brains would never learn anything new.”   She goes on to summarize,  “the brain is not a simple machine reacting to stimuli in the outside world.  It’s structured as billions of prediction loops creating intrinsic brain activity.  Visual prediction, auditory predictions, gustatory predictions, somatosensory predictions, olfactory  predictions, and motor predictions travel throughout the brain, influencing and constraining  each other.  These predictions are held in check by sensory inputs from the outside world, which our brains may prioritize or ignore.”

The most important mission of the brain is predicting the energy needs of the body.  Our inner-body movements and their interoceptive consequences occur every moment of our lives.  Our brains must keep our hearts beating, our lungs breathing, and our glucose metabolizing even when we’re not playing sport, even when we are sleeping or resting.  Therefore interception is continuous, just as the mechanics of hearing and vision are always operating, even when we aren’t actively listening or seeing.  However, sometimes we experience moments of intense interoception as emotion.  In every waking moment, our brains give our sensations meaning.  Some of these sensations are interoceptive sensations, and the resulting meaning can be an instance of emotion.

Dr. Barrett’s presentation of the interoceptive network is detailed and highly technical.  If interested, please read the book.  What is important for the purpose of this blog is the concept of a body budget that the brain needs to keep our hearts beating, lungs breathing, and our glucose metabolizing.  The requirements of the body budget strongly affect our interoceptive network and the emotions that emerge from this interoceptive network.