The 1% Podcast

Lisa Feldman Barrett

  • 01

    Lisa Feldman Barrett

    Mastering Your Emotions for a Better Life


Lisa Feldman Barrett is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. She also has research appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Her research focuses on the psychology and neuroscience of emotion. 


She is among the top 1% most cited scientists in the world. Her work has been described as ‘inspirational’, ‘transformative’ and ‘ground-breaking’ and she has been awarded numerous prestigious awards for her research, including Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association. She has been named “among the most important effective scientists of our time”. 


Her TED@IBM Talk ‘You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions – your brain creates them’ has been viewed over 6 million times. She has published two books, ‘7 and a Half Lessons About The Brain’ and ‘How Emotions are Made’.


Show Summary


2:51 When and why Lisa first started researching emotions

  • Emotions are very good flashlights to understanding human nature
  • Lisa ‘fell into’ the subject after she was first drawn to understanding self-esteem at grad school
  • It’s a tough area to study objectively as there are no biological markers
  • There numerous disciplines in the psychology field so there a many different approaches and perspectives
  • Psychology became a science in 19th century


7:33 The myth of the ‘Triune Brain’

  • Lisa has been credited with some myth busting in the world of psychological science
  • The story doesn’t match the data about the three layers of the theoretical Triune Brain: lizard, limbic system and neocortex
  • All mammals have the same neurons – it’s just that they are structured in different ways


12:09 How we respond to the environment that we’re in

  • The brain’s most important job is to regulate and coordinate the systems of the body
  • It’s not the simple narrative that the logical and illogical ‘sides’ are at war with each other
  • The brain receives sense data as it is regulating the body
  • “You are always feeling something”
  • Rationality is not the absence of feeling


18:54 Emotions are not things that happen to us

  • Our senses send information to the brain – the brain doesn’t know the causes, just the outcomes
  • The brain has to make a guess at what the information means, e.g. a loud bang could be thunder or a gunshot, by using past experiences
  • “The brain is a meaning-maker”
  • Cultivate new experiences to help rewire the brain


24:27 How much control do we have over our emotions?

  • There is a three-way conversation between your brain, body and the world
  • Your mind is a product of that conversation
  • To ensure you are in emotional balance, check in with your ‘body budget’ – sleep, hydration, exercise, social health, etc.
  • “The more your brain learns about the variety of possible emotions, the more flexibility and tools it has to construct your emotions to fit the situation that you’re in, in the most beneficial way”
  • Metabolic efficiency helps our overall resilience, including responding to physical illnesses


32:25 Turning negative emotions into positive ones

  • The physical arousal of excitement and anxiety isn’t similar – it’s the same
  • “The physical changes in your body have no inherent emotional meaning; you make them meaningful”
  • Jeremy Jamieson’s research into test anxiety
  • The brain is a cultural artefact


37:32 Using language to describe your emotions

  • The brain needs to plan your actions
  • Learn to search for information and be curious
  • Constructing your emotions in a flexible way will help your brain regulate your body more efficiently and plan more effectively


40:34 On personality measures

  • Personality measures don’t often correlate with behaviour
  • Lisa recommends either The Big Five personality test or Wiggins’s Dominance and Nurturance
  • Explore the work by social personality scientist Walter Mischel on the importance of context


43:05 The difference between emotion and mood

  • It’s not the same concept
  • Mood is the simple feelings that come from the physical reactions of your body, e.g. displeasure, feeling calm, etc.
  • Emotions are more complicated constructions about what those feelings mean


44:47 Making decisions based on your intuition

  • Gut feelings don’t happen in your gut – they happen in your brain
  • Your intuition is accurate if your past experiences are well calibrated to the situation you’re in


46:28 Making good decisions when feeling emotional

  • “You’re as responsible for your thoughts as you are for your emotions”
  • You are not 100% in control of your mood, as your body can react in ways beyond your control
  • “You are responsible not because you’re to blame for your emotions, but that you can change them”
  • On working with victims of abuse: they are responsible for changing the situation that they didn’t cause


53:17 The power of mentally stepping back

  • A heightened emotion often triggers a strong urge to take action
  • It’s a good opportunity to pause and take stock so you can learn about the situation that you’re in
  • “Anger is a form of ignorance” – Buddhist teaching


55:59 Dealing with someone in a heightened state of emotion

  • There are lots of different approaches, e.g. shifting perspective or humour


1:00:02 On memory

  • Research by Daniel Schacter
  • “Your brain doesn’t detect, it constructs”
  • Nothing is ever stored in your brain, but reassembled
  • The mechanism of the brain ensures you can’t get trapped in the past


1:02:24 The ‘Tyranny of Happiness’

  • Negative emotions are as powerful as your positive emotions
  • We shouldn’t strive to always be happy
  • You will achieve more from a meaningful life, as opposed to a pleasurable life
  • “Feeling bad doesn’t mean something is wrong, it can mean you are working hard towards a goal”


Links Mentioned: