The New Neuroscience of Emotion – Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at how the old triune brain theory of emotion and the universality of emotions are not supported by science. Rather emotions are constructed on the spot using concepts that we acquired from our parents and the culture we were brought up in. This means that emotions are individually and culturally specific and vary widely from culture to culture.

​In Part 2, we look at how the brain constructs emotions and what the new Theory of Constructed Emotion has to say about stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.

​The Purpose of the Brain is to Ensure that We Grow, Survive, and Reproduce​

​The purpose of the brain is not to make us happy or make rational decisions, but to ensure that we grow, survive, and reproduce. This is called allostasis, but Dr. Barrett  uses the metaphor “body budget.” This is why we need to look at the brain and body as one. To ensure that we keep our body budget in balance, the brain anticipates the body’s needs and attempts to satisfy them even before the need arises. This is called prediction and is the normal state of the brain. If the brain waited until it had all the information before it made a decision, we would die.

​Low Affect? Your Body Budget is Out of Balance​

​Your affect is the sum of your body budget. Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout your day. It’s not an emotion, but a much simpler feeling. You can feel good or bad, and with varying intensities. Affect is always there, even when you’re sleeping. When your affect is low, it just means that your body budget is out of balance!

​Low Affect Can Have a Physical Cause

​How do you get your body budget back into balance? The most important thing is to make sure that you eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get adequate sleep. You can also use other techniques that are often recommended for stress reduction, such as meditation, mindfulness, nature, etc. It may be that your internal model of the world is flawed, and that will deplete your body budget because you’re always making the wrong predictions. So you really have to be a sleuth and look for what you need to change to bring your body budget back into balance: As coaches, we don’t often consider that low affect can have a physical cause.

​Your Body Budget Affects Your Emotional Predictions

​The brain takes the sensory input it receives from inside and outside the body and makes a prediction as to what it means using your internal model of the world. Your body budget affects the kind of predictions, including emotional predictions, that your brain makes. If your body budget is out of balance, your brain will make the wrong kind of emotional predictions.

What does this new Theory of Constructed Emotion say about some of the common issues we, as coaches, deal with?


​You construct “stress” using the same mechanisms as emotion. What differs is whether your brain categorizes your sensations as stressful or emotional. We already know that our beliefs about stress affect our physical wellbeing and longevity. If your body budget is chronically unbalanced, you may experience chronic stress. Chronic stress is dangerous to your physical health, eating away at brain networks, causing them to atrophy and remodel brain circuitry that regulates your body budget.

​But, there is some evidence that people who effectively categorize their interoceptive sensations as emotions may be better protected against chronic inflammatory processes that lead to poor health. So, deconstruct your “stress” into its physical sensations and recategorize them as an emotion: Is that fast beating heart stress or excitement? Stress is permanent, whereas excitement is not.


​Many cases of depression begin with an imbalanced body budget. If depression is a disorder of affect, and affect is a summary of how your body budget is doing, then depression may actually be a disorder of misbudgeting and prediction.

​The traditional view of depression is that negative thoughts cause negative feelings. The theory of constructed emotion suggests that it’s the other way around: Your feelings right now drive your next thought, as well as your perceptions, as predictions. A depressed brain relentlessly keeps making withdrawals from the body budget, basing its predictions on similar withdrawals from the past. This means constantly reliving difficult, unpleasant events.

​So let in more prediction error, such as by asking people to keep a diary of their positive experiences, which can ease the drain on the body budget. I had a client who was highly accomplished and educated but with very low self esteem and perhaps depression. I asked her to identify, each day, three things that went well that day and then finish this sentence: “This went well today because I am … .” I remember one of her statements: “I successfully calmed down a client today because I am a good listener.” Within just a few days, her self esteem went up. This is an example of introducing more prediction error. In her case, her predictions were always negative. A positive prediction, as we set up, was, for her, prediction error.


​Anxiety, like depression, is a constructed category in the same fashion as emotion, pain, and stress. The misery you feel in anxiety and depression tells you that something is seriously wrong with your body budget. Either your brain is trying to secure a deposit, ramping up unpleasant affect, or it’s attempting to reduce your need for the deposit by remaining still, resulting in fatigue. Your brain may categorize these sensations as anxiety, depression, or, even pain, stress or emotion. And unpleasant affect can also have a physical cause.

​Chronic Pain

​Pain is an “experience” that occurs not only from physical damage but also when your brain predicts damage is imminent. Pain is constructed in the same way that emotions are made.

​Body sensations that are categorized as pain, stress, and emotions are fundamentally the same, even at the level of neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Distinguishing between pain, stress, and emotion is a form of emotional granularity.

​When people experience ongoing pain without any damage to their body tissue, it’s called chronic pain. Scientists now consider chronic pain to be a brain disease with its roots in inflammation. Chronic pain may be a misapplication of the concept “Pain” by your brain. At a talk I gave on this topic at the Coaches of Montreal December breakfast meeting, a participant recounted this story: Her mother, who had been experiencing excruciating pain from arthritis, took a meditation class and started to meditate regularly. Her pain lessened to the point that it was no longer debilitating.

​It's All About the Body Budget

​A common factor in these disorders that are traditionally viewed as separable is an unbalanced body budget. When you have too much prediction and not enough correction, you feel bad, and the flavour of badness depends on the concepts you use. In small amounts, you may feel angry or shameful. In extreme amounts, you get chronic pain or depression. In contrast, too much sensory input and ineffective prediction yields anxiety, and in extreme amounts, you might develop an anxiety disorder.

​What This Means for Coaches and Wellness Professionals

  1. ​Emotional granularity, or creating more concepts and refining our existing ones, is one of the keys to emotional intelligence.
  2. Many of the issues facing our clients are due to low affect (e.g., low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, low mood, etc.). Low affect is just the sum of our body budget. This means that low affect could be due to purely physical causes. Encourage your clients to keep their body budget in balance. This means eating well, and getting enough exercise and adequate sleep. Because without a healthy body, it’s impossible to have a healthy mind.
  3. Reframe: overcoming stress, anxiety, and other difficult psychological issues, may be as simple as reframing them.
  4. Help your clients change their beliefs: Low affect could be due to a flawed internal model of the world.

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