The latest episode of Emotion Lab is dedicated to the neuroscience of emotions and the human metabolic budget. Dr Charles Nduka, Chief Scientist at Emteq Labs, is joined by Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett – a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. She is among the top 1% most cited scientists in the world for her research in psychology and neuroscience. She has also authored a number of books about emotions and the brain, including “How Emotions are Made” and “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain.” Dr Barrett’s research focuses on the nature of emotion from psychological and neuroscientific perspectives.
From an evolutionary perspective, the brain’s main job is to regulate the systems of the human body and achieve metabolic efficiency. This metabolic efficiency is a major selection pressure in evolution, explains Professor Barrett. This concept is known as “allostasis”. As opposed to well-known homeostasis, rather than focusing on the achievement of a steady-state, it proposes that human body regulation requires anticipation of needs and attempts to meet them. This means that our brains make predictions about our next experiences and actions and try to prepare us for them, for example, our blood pressure rises slightly before we stand up. “It’s easier” for the brain to try to foresee the upcoming experience and then correct based on sense data rather than reacting, Lisa explains.
So what does the concept of allostasis mean for our everyday lives? We can think of allostasis as a body budget. Major metabolic challenges, such as chronic stress, can potentially put us in a state of “body budget deficit”. According to Dr Lisa, stress happens “anytime your body predicts that you have to do a major metabolic outlay”. Some stress is good, like exercise, but others can be harmful when a person cannot replenish what they “spend”. Running on metabolic deficit predisposes you to illnesses like diabetes, depression, cancers, in fact, there’s no illness that doesn’t have a metabolic aspect, explains Lisa.
Neuroscience of emotions
How does the metabolic budget link with human emotions? We are not particularly well-wired to sense the information about the budget from the data coming from our bodies (eg. information from the liver, stomach, muscles etc). And that’s a good thing! There’s a drama going on in each of us. If we were aware of it, we probably wouldn’t be able to pay attention to anything outside our own skin again – says Dr Lisa. However, evolution equipped us with simple feelings that act as a barometer of our metabolic budget. “An emotion is a complex construction that our brains create to explain how the sense data from our body relates to the current situation we are in so that the brain can make a predictive plan of what you should do next to keep yourself alive and well” – explains Dr Barrett.
The significance of the body budget
Emotions are an essential element in understanding human minds. Mental phenomena have a biological basis, including our metabolism which has been “overlooked in the last years” argues Dr Barrett. Studying emotions is key to understanding our minds and their development, which in the future could help us improve human cognition and treat mental health problems. Some of Lisa’s projects include studying the impact of childhood adversity on brain development and its long-term consequences. “Infants are born with brains under construction. The brain expects certain types of inputs to develop, some physical and some social”, explains Lisa. Thus, childhood adversity (eg. neglect or abuse) can lead to foreseeable, severe and long-lasting consequences – Charles and Lisa discuss some real-life application of emotions neuroscience.
Join us in reflecting on human perception, brains and emotions. Have you heard about the concept of “metabolic budget” before? Let us know in the comments below.
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Get in touch with the guest – Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett