Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Getting in on the Ground Floor of Emotion Construction

Pipilotte Rist

If a fortune-teller had told my 40-year-old self that I would one day be regularly traveling the world, standing at podiums, speaking into microphones, and addressing audiences of hundreds, even thousands, I would have dismissed them as a charlatan. Like most people, the idea of public speaking was a pretty hard no. Even speaking in front of preschoolers and their parents in our cooperative preschool made me nervous, so much so that it I avoided eye-contact with the adults in the room as spoke in front of the whole class. The result was that my first year performance reviews (conducted by the parents) almost universally praised me for my work with the kids, but found that I "need work" when it came to adults.

In this, I think, I'm like a lot of people. Surveys consistently show that public speaking is one of our greatest fears, rivaling even the fear of death.

Today, I feel nothing but excitement at the prospect of public speaking. What changed?

I still get sweaty palms. I still feel my racing heart. I still pace and fuss and giggle and show up way too early. I'm not exactly sure when it happened and it certainly wasn't conscious, but today the very same physiological conditions, the feelings, that I once identified as anxiety, I now identify as excitement.

The great William James, "The Father of American Psychology", well over a century ago wrote, "Common sense says, we lose our fortune, we are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike." But he insisted "the order of sequence is incorrect." It would be more accurate to say, "(W)e feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, and afraid because we tremble." (Italics are mine.)

Today, some of our leading neuroscientists, including Antonio Damasio (the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience, and professor of psychology, philosophy, and neurology at the University of Southern California, as well as author of the book Self Comes to Mind), believe that James was on to something. Experiments show that our thoughts and emotions originate, not in our brains, but in our physiological responses to what we perceive, and even more importantly that our bodies are capable of accessing more complex information, faster, and often more rationally than our brains, which are prone to cognitive biases, whereas our bodies are not.

As James says, our body trembles, our brains interpret that as fear, and then must decide what to do with that information. In James' construction we run from the bear, but if we've done any reading on what experts tell us to do when encountering a bear in the wild, our brains will know that running (flight) is the last thing we should do, because the bear can easily outrun us. Logic likewise tells us that we're not likely prevail in a fight with a bear, so that's off the table. Those of us who have tried to calm an agitated dog -- Good doggie -- might consider trying that (fawn), but good luck with that. What bear experts recommend is perhaps what our brains would consider the least logical, which is to, more or less, freeze, while throwing our hands up over our heads to create the impression that we are bigger than we are. If our bodies are to survive, our brains must overcome its urge to fight, flight, or fawn and let our bodies do what they are probably already doing: freeze!

In the case of a bear in the forest, the sweaty palms and pounding heart can quite obviously and rationally be identified as fear, but when it comes to speaking in front of an audience, especially an audience of early childhood educators who tend to be, as a group, the kindest, most supportive people on earth, I've figured out that my brain is flat out wrong to label my emotion as fear or anxiety. In this case, those very same physiological responses are the ones I felt on Christmas Eve as a boy: excitement. 

As science journalist Annie Murphy Paul writes in her book The Extended Mind, "(R)resilience is rooted in our awareness of our sensations that originate in our organs and extremities -- and the more alert we are to these inner signals, the more resilient we are able to be . . ."

I often think that my mother was a genius on par with William James. As a boy, our family moved often. By the time I was 12, we had lived in nine different homes in four different states and two countries. Moving house is considered one of the most stressful things one can do, yet at every step of the way my siblings and I were over-the-moon excited about each and every change in venue. Mom would start, months in advance, by telling us about our new home and all the things we would get to do, see, and experience. She didn't trying to calm or sooth us, but, on the contrary, she hyped it, helping us, and herself, interpret our physiological responses of sweaty palms and racing hearts as excitement or anticipation rather than fear or anxiety. She didn't know the neuroscience, nor was she pollyanna, but she did understand something quite profound: we were taking an active hand in constructing our own emotions.

Interoception is what scientists call our awareness of the inner state of the body. Just as we have sensors that take in information from the outside world (eyes, ears, noses, etc.), we have internal sensors that send our brains a constant, and constantly changing, flow of information. As Paul puts it, "(T)he greater our awareness of interoceptive sensations, the richer and more intense our experience of emotion can be . . . equipped with interoceptive awareness, we can get in on the ground floor of emotion construction; we can participate in creating the type of emotion we experience . . . Psychologists who study the construction of emotion call this practice 'cognitive reappraisal'. It involves sensing and labeling an interoceptive sensation . . . then 'reappraising' it -- reinterpreting it in an adaptive way. We can, for example, reappraise 
'nervousness' as 'excitement'."

Today, I recognize that this is what my mother, whether she knew it consciously or not, was teaching me to do.

We live in an era in which anxiety in young children is reaching alarming levels. We cast about for causes of this -- academic pressures at younger and younger ages, smartphones, the media, loss of childhood independence -- but I'm beginning to wonder if these things are as much effects as causes. Emotions like anxiety and depression tend to become self-perpetuating spirals, and the more into our "heads" we go, the more rapidly we spin. Meditation is one of the ways we can calm what the Buddha described as our mind's drunken monkeys. The reason meditation works is that when we quite our minds, we can better listen to our bodies, our interoceptive selves, which are, at the end of the day capable of more complex, more reliable, and more rational "thought" than are our brains. 

The modern world is one of hierarchies and we've mistakenly enthroned our brains at the top. In doing so, we neglect, ignore, and misunderstand what our bodies are telling us. And perhaps more importantly, we feel at the mercy of our emotions when, in fact, we are all capable of getting in on the ground floor of constructing them in ways that serve rather than hinder us.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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