How much do you know about emotions? Advances in psychology and neuroscience in the last ten years have produced some surprising discoveries about what, how, and why we feel.

Lisa Feldman Barrett by Mark Karlsberg

Lisa Feldman Barrett by Mark Karlsberg

Emotions differ around the world

Anger, sadness and other emotions may feel like they’re natural or built-in, but other cultures have their own natural-feeling emotions. For instance, the German language has three distinct angers and Mandarin Chinese has five. Tahitians feel an emotion called pe’ape’a in situations where you’d feel sad, but it’s not sadness — it’s closer to fatigue or illness.

Women and men are equally emotional, in general

The “emotional woman” is a stereotype. In real life, when my psychology lab tracks men’s and women’s emotions throughout the day, there are no differences on average.

Emotions are not reactions in your brain

For a long time, scientists believed that emotions were like little circuits your brain. You’d see or hear something in the world, like a news story about Brexit, and a so-called emotion circuit would switch from “off” to “on,” causing your heart to race and your face to make an expression. New research shows that your brain doesn’t work this way. Your brain spends most of its time making predictions of what’s going to happen next, in order to keep you alive and healthy, and checking the world to see if the predictions are right. Out of this storm of predictions, your emotions emerge. The whole process happens so quickly, however, that your emotions feel like reactions.

Emotion is linked to physical health in unexpected ways

Studies show that people who are more emotionally intelligent go to the doctor less frequently, use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness.

Babies are (probably) not born with emotions

This one surprises a lot of people. Newborns can definitely feel pleasant, unpleasant, calm, and activated, but research shows that they don’t experience adult-like emotions such as fear and surprise until they’re older. Now, plenty of parents (myself included) perceive their babies as emotional, but clever scientific experiments suggest that these very compelling perceptions are in our minds. For example, if parents in the lab hear exactly the same baby cry several times in different situations, they may perceive it differently: as anger, sadness, fear, frustration, tiredness, hunger, or a wet nappy.

Emotionally intelligent children perform better in school

In one study conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, schoolchildren were taught to broaden their knowledge and use of emotion words for twenty to thirty minutes per week. The results were improved social behavior and academic performance.

Emotion words help you control your emotions

Learn as many emotion words as possible. The more emotion words you know, the more kinds of emotion your brain can make, so it has more options for creating an appropriate emotion in a situation.

More surprising details about your emotions are found in my new book, How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

Byline: Lisa Feldman Barrett (@LFeldmanBarrett) is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and the author of How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.