The Current

Emotions are not hardwired but learned in our brains, says author

If emotions could talk, they'd tell you we don't understand them as much as we think.
Sadness and other emotions are not universal, says author Lisa Feldman Barrett, who adds the way people make sense of sensations differ by culture. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Though many of us have experienced joy, anger, sadness, and disgust, new science suggests that our emotions aren't as hardwired as we may have first believed.

University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in her book How Emotions are Made that emotions are not in fact hardwired.

"Emotions are made in our brain. They're not built in ready to be revealed. They are made by us," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

Feldman Barrett compares the brain to a kitchen where there are many different ingredients that your brain uses.

"Everyone has the same networks but the wiring is dependent on experience," says Feldman Barrett.

Emotions are not hardwired but learned and shaped by our experiences in life, says Lisa Feldman Barrett. (Pan Macmillan Publishing)

"Anger, sadness are not universal. The way people make sense of sensations differ by culture."

She points to the fact that everyone responds differently to different emotions.

"People, for example, smile when they're sad, they cry when they're angry, they scream when they're happy."

Feldman Barrett says understanding this has implications for medicine, media, government and the law.

"There's an assumption that we can look at other people and know how they feel."

But she adds that can be dangerous if we think that people like judges and jurors can always accurately read emotions of the people whose fate they are deciding.

Feldman Barrett tells Tremonti that as children are growing up and learning emotions, parents can help nurture emotional intelligence by speaking to them — using emotion words — even as young as three months.

"Babies can use words even though they don't understand what a word means in a conventional sense. They can use words to start to understand what's going on in the world around them."

But she says there's no need to create an emotion. 

"So if you have an ache in your stomach sometimes it might be ... a feeling of disgust, sometimes you might create a feeling of anxiety, but you also might be just tired, you might be hungry, you might be coming down with the flu," Feldman Barrett explains.

"Not every sensation from your body is an emotion."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.