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Exciting reads in the Change space – ‘How emotions are made.’

22 October 2021

Change Management

I was delighted when my colleagues at CMC asked to me to recommend a book to support them in their change management journeys. I have chosen the incredible “How Emotions Are Made – The Secret Life Of The Brain” by psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett.

What’s it about?

It’s no nursery book! It’s 450 pages of well-researched and thought-provoking ideas that challenges the ‘classical’ belief that emotions are hardwired into our brains (or Essentialism – where the same ‘set’ of emotions is reflexive, in all of us and that we can recognise them in others) and turns it on its head with her ‘Theory Of Constructed Emotion’. Dr Barrett suggests that emotions are not innate mechanisms that we are born with and unified across all people, instead they are unique to each of us, co-created by our brains in concert with our environment, history, culture, pathology, upbringing and so on. There is no ‘neural fingerprint’ as such in the brain for any emotion. Think about it – do you always get angry in the same way? Are there times when your heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration increase? Conversely are there times when you became stonily quiet and calm? We each have a number of ‘versions’ of each emotion. She describes this as ‘populations’ of emotion instances. It’s a far more nuanced and complex phenomenon than a classical depiction of them.

Why did you choose it? How has it inspired or supported what you do?

I have worked in change management for over 25 years (hard to believe I know – I moisturise), and while we live in a world that is far more acknowledging of human needs and connection than when I first started as a fresh-faced engineer, there are still folks who somehow seek to park their emotion at the door and attempt to set-to their duties with ’emotionless’ logic and rational action. There’s absolutely a place for the analytical approach to, say, decision-making and it is enormously valuable, but even the most logical assessments will recruit networks in the brain associated with emotion-processing, so it is folly to think they are not involved. I am endlessly fascinated by neuroscience as a way to use scientific rigour to explore ‘what we do when we do what we do’, the mechanisms and role of emotion in our species, our fundamental need for social connection etc., so was hugely motivated to read this book after I discovered Lisa Feldman Barrett first in a talk with Dr David Rock (Neuro Leadership Institute) and subsequently with Sam Harris. She described the ideas of her theory and it was like a massive bell sounding in my head that this is significant. I likened it to quantum mechanics emerging after centuries of classical mechanics – you don’t need to study quantum mechanics to get the feel that is very different from the classical worldview (the very small is quite different from the large). Knowing that there is a quantum view does not lead to all the bridges and buildings constructed with classical mechanics to suddenly fall down as ‘wrong’ – it just gives you additional ways to perceive depending on what you are doing (like a street map of London versus a Tube map – neither is right nor wrong, they are useful depending on your context and goal).

In terms of practical help, I would say the implication of ‘affect’ (the neuroscientific word for mood) is worth paying attention to. According to Dr. Barrett, we observe the world through ‘affect-coloured glasses’ which influences what we see – feeling is believing. For example, depending on your affect (mood), you will see a hill as steeper or shallower as you are walking towards it. Where does this affect come from? Dr. Barrett describes our brain’s most important job as balance our bodily ‘budgets’ of resources (water, glucose, salt, oxygen etc). It’s a tricky job to balance all of those resources in our complex bodies of many interrelated parts (hence the need for a complex brain) and whenever there’s a change to this budget you will experience some rudimentary feeling called affect. These are not emotions, they are more like a fuzzy approximation of what’s occurring – not very precise, but thank heavens it isn’t because if you were consciously aware of all your internal goings-on all the time, you’d go insane.

So instead, we get this basic sensation reported back as a feeling of just two dimensions (the first is valence, or how pleasurable/unpleasant you feel, and arousal, or how agitated/clam you feel, as the other). The brain then tries to make sense of this through emotion, giving meaning to the affect and determining what we do (“…[emotions] are prescriptions for action” as Dr. Barrett puts it).

An example of where we might employ this idea is when we are utterly certain that we are correct about something – you know the sensation when you are positive that you’re 100% correct and why isn’t everyone else getting this for heaven’s sake?! We love certainty as humans – uncertainty could easily be danger in our evolution so needs clearing up straight away. However, in the change and innovation games, being ‘right’ rarely leads to anything new. It cuts off connection to alternatives, limiting our thinking through the many cognitive biases/heuristics we all run. These are trying to do us a favour, making daily life as fuss-free and low energy and undemanding as possible by automating a lot of otherwise tiring, heavy duty grey matter processing. Trouble is, they can leave us blind to possibilities…

…so the next time you are absolutely convinced you are right about something, remember that is your affect prodding you, so stop, take a breath, let that slow down parts of your nervous system and transform that certainty into curiosity.

Out of 10, what would you score it?

8/10 – but only because I do not fully understand it yet! It’ll probably be 10/10 when I’ve nailed it (whereupon I’ll notice that I think I’m right, so I’ll stop, take a breath, slow down…)

What’s your favourite quote?

So many from this book, and I am barely scratching the surface of what’s in store so go read it! But what I’ve gone with is a quote from a recent talk between Dr Barrett and Chris Hyams (CEO of Indeed) about her theory:

“There is no such thing as pure objectivity – it is a myth.”


By Will Izzard, Managing Consultant at CMC Partnership Consultancy Ltd

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