Many of us probably assume that because emotions arrive so quickly, they are automatic, that they are hardwired into the human brain. But that is not the case. In her TED talk "You aren't at the mercy of your emotions - your brain creates them" Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that we have misunderstood the nature of emotion for a very long time, and understanding what emotions really are has an important consequences for all of us.
"It may feel to you like your emotions are hardwired and they just trigger and happen to you, but they don't... 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."
In her book, "The Theory of Constructed Emotion", she explains that emotions are concepts that are constructed by the brain. Our brains are constantly receiving all this sensory information (data) which is informative, but also ambiguous and it has to be interpreted. So the brain uses concepts to quickly interpret the data...and sometimes it is an incorrect interpretation. This is known as “experiential blindness” – the inability to perceive what you don’t already have a concept for.
Besides highlighting this predict and correct model for how the brain actually functions, she goes on to enlighten us on how much our own past experience impacts our interpretations on how someone else is feeling too. When our experience leads us to incorrect assumptions or interpretations of those feelings, that state of misperception can be said to be due to our experiential blindness.
In his fairly recent article "Destination Services: Supporting the Experientially Blind" Jon Harman applies this theory to explore the emotionally charged process of relocating. He explains that an expat's success will depend on their ability to learn and adapt to each incident of prediction error. But add all of the stress, cultural and language differences that impact the situations, and an entirely new set of rules for governing and interpreting behaviors, and there is a huge potential for errors. Jon states:
“Relocation is a tidal wave of experiential blindness and prediction error. This is where professional support from a qualified destination services provider and a cultural trainer are critical.”
I would say that all of us involved in supporting mobile employees and their families should understand this concept, how it is impacting the overall mobility experience, and consider our own areas of blindness as we seek to empathize, understand, and support! Want to dig further into the concept, try this: How Emotions Are Made: The Theory of Constructed Emotion
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.