I was teaching week 2 of MBSR today to my wonderful new group. We were discussing perception, the way our brains make predictions and hedonic tone.

It reminded me of this wonderful article by Lisa Feldman Barrett in Science Focus “How Emotions Trick the Brain”. 

My take homes:

Your brain’s most important job is keeping your body alive. To accomplish this, it devotes most of its time to predicting what will happen next, so your body can be ready for any contingency. It’s making thousands of predictions in each milisecond primarily based on our past experience and the chosen prediction or “mental model” is pretty often (but not always) right.  I love the example that is used of the brain anticipating how your foot will land each time you take a step and noticing how weird the first step of a moving walkway feels. 

Along with predictions about the world, your brain also makes them about your body so you stay alive and healthy. It forecasts when your heart should speed up or slow down, when your blood pressure should rise and fall, when your breathing should deepen, and when you need more salt, sugar, water or hormones, and attempts to meet those needs before they arise. It’s like running a budget for your body, but instead of money, the currency is biological.

This budgeting process Is constant while we are alive and a lot of it is under awareness. However we can develop more awareness of what in MBSR we call hedonic tone or feeling tone. Lisa Feldman Barrett calls it affective valence and this article simply refers to it as your mood. 

Somehow, through a mysterious process that nobody understands, physical movements inside your body become mental [conscious]. You feel generally pleasant, unpleasant, or anywhere in between. You feel calm or agitated. Your mood [hedonic tone] is like a barometer for the health of your body.

Now keep in mind emotions and thoughts are not the same as hedonic tone. I think this statement gives a lot of food for thought: Emotions are your brain’s best guesses for what your body’s sensations mean, based on your situation. When I feel butterflies in my belly it might be anxiety when I’m about to confront someone, excitement when I’m about to run a new course or perhaps even a tummy upset if I’ve eaten something that disagrees with me. Interestingly learning lots of emotion words can help, because the more emotions words we know, the brain has more choice of appropriate emotions to finally tailor for each situation! Yes, the brain appears to actually construct emotional states – we don’t have emotional “essences” or “fingerprints” already within us. 

Often our brain is anticipating threats, readying our body for action. Sometimes it’s a bit over the top and made a “needless withdrawal from our body budget”. For example producing cortisol unnecessarily. And because it learns from previous experiences, it might do it again when you’re in a similar situation. If your body budget is constantly overdrawn you can start to suffer all sorts of physical and mental health problems. 

Lisa Feldman Barrett says that “Your brain’s most important job isn’t thinking; it’s running the systems of your body to keep you alive and well. According to recent findings in neuroscience, even when your brain does produce conscious thoughts and feelings, they are more in service to the needs of managing your body than you realise.”

I’ve found this all very thought provoking and at times cognitively dissonant. There’s lot more interesting stuff in the article and some more links to her articles in my Resources. I’d love to hear what you think! I’m going to run a new course Frame by Frame based around this concept of hedonic or feeling tone for those who’ve already done MBSR or MSC so keep an eye out on my website.

  • Glenn
    Posted July 12, 2023

    This is a fascinating article. Progressing from psycho-physical experience to computer based prediction of human emotions. There’s so much food for thought in here. The body budget is something I can act on and the transformation of physical experience to emotional or psychological states really show the complexity of the processes involved in being human.

    • Adele Stewart
      Posted July 17, 2023

      Thanks Glenn

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