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  • My research lab sits about a mile from where several bombs exploded

  • during the Boston Marathon in 2013.

  • The surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Chechnya,

  • was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

  • Now, when a jury has to make the decision

  • between life in prison and the death penalty,

  • they base their decision largely on whether or not the defendant

  • feels remorseful for his actions.

  • Tsarnaev spoke words of apology,

  • but when jurors looked at his face,

  • all they saw was a stone-faced stare.

  • Now, Tsarnaev is guilty, there's no doubt about that.

  • He murdered and maimed innocent people,

  • and I'm not here to debate that.

  • My heart goes out to all the people who suffered.

  • But as a scientist, I have to tell you

  • that jurors do not and cannot detect remorse

  • or any other emotion in anybody ever.

  • Neither can I, and neither can you,

  • and that's because emotions are not what we think they are.

  • They are not universally expressed and recognized.

  • They are not hardwired brain reactions

  • that are uncontrollable.

  • We have misunderstood the nature of emotion

  • for a very long time,

  • and understanding what emotions really are has important consequences for all of us.

  • I have studied emotions as a scientist for the past 25 years,

  • and in my lab, we have probed human faces by measuring electrical signals

  • that cause your facial muscles to contract to make facial expressions.

  • We have scrutinized the human body in emotion.

  • We have analyzed hundreds of physiology studies

  • involving thousands of test subjects.

  • We've scanned hundreds of brains,

  • and examined every brain imaging study on emotion

  • that has been published in the past 20 years.

  • And the results of all of this research are overwhelmingly consistent.

  • It may feel to you like your emotions are hardwired

  • and they just trigger and happen to you,

  • but they don't.

  • You might believe that your brain is prewired with emotion circuits,

  • that you're born with emotion circuits, but you're not.

  • In fact, none of us in this room have emotion circuits in our brain.

  • In fact, no brain on this planet contains emotion circuits.

  • So what are emotions, really?

  • Well, strap on your seat belt, because ...

  • emotions are guesses.

  • They are guesses that your brain constructs in the moment

  • where billions of brain cells are working together,

  • and you have more control over those guesses

  • than you might imagine that you do.

  • Now, if that sounds preposterous to you, or, you know, kind of crazy,

  • I'm right there with you, because frankly, if I hadn't seen the evidence for myself,

  • decades of evidence for myself,

  • I am fairly sure that I wouldn't believe it either.

  • But the bottom line is that emotions are not built into your brain at birth.

  • They are just built.

  • To see what I mean, have a look at this.

  • Right now, your brain is working like crazy.

  • Your neurons are firing like mad trying to make meaning out of this

  • so that you see something other than black and white blobs.

  • Your brain is sifting through a lifetime of experience,

  • making thousands of guesses at the same time,

  • weighing the probabilities,

  • trying to answer the question,

  • "What is this most like?"

  • not "What is it?"

  • but "What is this most like in my past experience?"

  • And this is all happening in the blink of an eye.

  • Now if your brain is still struggling to find a good match

  • and you still see black and white blobs,

  • then you are in a state called "experiential blindness,"

  • and I am going to cure you of your blindness.

  • This is my favorite part. Are you ready to be cured?

  • (Cheers)

  • All right. Here we go.

  • (Gasps)

  • All right.

  • So now many of you see a snake,

  • and why is that?

  • Because as your brain is sifting through your past experience,

  • there's new knowledge there,

  • the knowledge that came from the photograph.

  • And what's really cool is that

  • that knowledge which you just acquired moments ago

  • is changing how you experience these blobs right now.

  • So your brain is constructing the image of a snake

  • where there is no snake,

  • and this kind of a hallucination

  • is what neuroscientists like me call "predictions."

  • Predictions are basically the way your brain works.

  • It's business as usual for your brain.

  • Predictions are the basis of every experience that you have.

  • They are the basis of every action that you take.

  • In fact, predictions are what allow you to understand the words that I'm speaking

  • as they come out of my --

  • Audience: Mouth. Lisa Feldman Barrett: Mouth. Exactly.

  • Predictions are primal.

  • They help us to make sense of the world in a quick and efficient way.

  • So your brain does not react to the world.

  • Using past experience,

  • your brain predicts and constructs

  • your experience of the world.

  • The way that we see emotions in others are deeply rooted in predictions.

  • So to us, it feels like we just look at someone's face,

  • and we just read the emotion that's there in their facial expressions

  • the way that we would read words on a page.

  • But actually, under the hood, your brain is predicting.

  • It's using past experience based on similar situations

  • to try to make meaning.

  • This time, you're not making meaning of blobs,

  • you're making meaning of facial movements

  • like the curl of a lip or the raise of an eyebrow.

  • And that stone-faced stare?

  • That might be someone who is a remorseless killer,

  • but a stone-faced stare might also mean

  • that someone is stoically accepting defeat,

  • which is in fact what Chechen culture prescribes for someone

  • in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's situation.

  • So the lesson here

  • is that emotions that you seem to detect in other people

  • actually come in part from what's inside your own head.

  • And this is true in the courtroom,

  • but it's also true in the classroom,

  • in the bedroom,

  • and in the boardroom.

  • And so here's my concern:

  • tech companies which shall remain nameless ...

  • well, maybe not.

  • You know, Google, Facebook --

  • (Laughter)

  • are spending millions of research dollars to build emotion-detection systems,

  • and they are fundamentally asking the wrong question,

  • because they're trying to detect emotions in the face and the body,

  • but emotions aren't in your face and body.

  • Physical movements have no intrinsic emotional meaning.

  • We have to make them meaningful.

  • A human or something else has to connect them to the context,

  • and that makes them meaningful.

  • That's how we know that a smile might mean sadness

  • and a cry might mean happiness,

  • and a stoic, still face might mean

  • that you are angrily plotting the demise of your enemy.

  • Now, if I haven't already gone out on a limb,

  • I'll just edge out on that limb a little further and tell you

  • that the way that you experience your own emotion

  • is exactly the same process.

  • Your brain is basically making predictions, guesses,

  • that it's constructing in the moment

  • with billions of neurons working together.

  • Now your brain does come prewired to make some feelings,

  • simple feelings that come from the physiology of your body.

  • So when you're born,

  • you can make feelings like calmness and agitation,

  • excitement, comfort, discomfort.

  • But these simple feelings are not emotions.

  • They're actually with you every waking moment of your life.

  • They are simple summaries of what's going on inside your body,

  • kind of like a barometer.

  • But they have very little detail,

  • and you need that detail to know what to do next.

  • What do you about these feelings?

  • And so how does your brain give you that detail?

  • Well, that's what predictions are.

  • Predictions link the sensations in your body

  • that give you these simple feelings

  • with what's going on around you in the world

  • so that you know what to do.

  • And sometimes,

  • those constructions are emotions.

  • So for example, if you were to walk into a bakery,

  • your brain might predict that you will encounter

  • the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

  • I know my brain would predict

  • the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate cookies.

  • And our brains might cause our stomachs to churn a little bit,

  • to prepare for eating those cookies.

  • And if we are correct,

  • if in fact some cookies have just come out of the oven,

  • then our brains will have constructed hunger,

  • and we are prepared to munch down those cookies

  • and digest them in a very efficient way,

  • meaning that we can eat a lot of them,

  • which would be a really good thing.

  • You guys are not laughing enough. I'm totally serious.

  • (Laughter)

  • But here's the thing.

  • That churning stomach,

  • if it occurs in a different situation,

  • it can have a completely different meaning.

  • So if your brain were to predict a churning stomach

  • in, say, a hospital room while you're waiting for test results,

  • then your brain will be constructing dread

  • or worry or anxiety,

  • and it might cause you to, maybe,

  • wring your hands

  • or take a deep breath or even cry.

  • Right? Same physical sensation, same churning stomach,

  • different experience.

  • And so the lesson here

  • is that emotions which seem to happen to you

  • are actually made by you.

  • You are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits

  • which are buried deep inside some ancient part of your brain.

  • You have more control over your emotions

  • than you think you do.

  • I don't mean that you can just snap your fingers

  • and change how you feel the way that you would change your clothes,

  • but your brain is wired

  • so that if you change the ingredients that your brain uses to make emotion,

  • then you can transform your emotional life.

  • So if you change those ingredients today,

  • you're basically teaching your brain how to predict differently tomorrow,

  • and this is what I call being the architect of your experience.

  • So here's an example.

  • All of us have had a nervous feeling before a test, right?

  • But some people experience crippling anxiety before a test.

  • They have test anxiety.

  • Based on past experiences of taking tests,

  • their brains predict a hammering heartbeat,

  • sweaty hands,

  • so much so that they are unable to actually take the test.

  • They don't perform well,

  • and sometimes they not only fail courses but they actually might fail college.

  • But here's the thing:

  • a hammering heartbeat is not necessarily anxiety.

  • It could be that your body is preparing to do battle

  • and ace that test ...

  • or, you know, give a talk

  • in front of hundreds of people on a stage where you're being filmed.

  • (Laughter)

  • I'm serious.

  • (Laughter)

  • And research shows that when students learn

  • to make this kind of energized determination

  • instead of anxiety,

  • they perform better on tests.

  • And that determination seeds their brain to predict differently in the future

  • so that they can get their butterflies flying in formation.

  • And if they do that often enough,

  • they not only can pass a test

  • but it will be easier for them to pass their courses,

  • and they might even finish college,

  • which has a huge impact on their future earning potential.

  • So I call this emotional intelligence in action.

  • Now you can cultivate this emotional intelligence yourself

  • and use it in your everyday life.

  • So just, you know,

  • imagine waking up in the morning.

  • I'm sure you've had this experience. I know I have.

  • You wake up and as you're emerging into consciousness,

  • you feel this horrible dread,

  • you know, this real wretchedness,

  • and immediately, your mind starts to race.

  • You start to think about all the crap that you have to do at work

  • and