Thinking clearly requires feeling deeply

Originally published in The Boston Globe

Thinking clearly requires feeling deeply

“The brain is a master of deception.”

So wrote neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett in her 2017 book, “How Emotions Are Made.” She didn’t mean that our brains are adept at fooling others. She meant that our brains are good at fooling us. As she explained, the brain “creates experiences and directs actions with a magician’s skill, never revealing how it does so, all the while giving us a false sense of confidence that its products — our day-to-day experiences — reveal its inner workings.”

To truly understand the brain’s inner workings, we have to rely not on our intuitions but on reports from the front lines of scientific research. Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, has just produced a new one: “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain,” a book published this week. In it, Barrett returns to a familiar if still-unsettling theme: “Common sense isn’t much use when it comes to understanding how a brain works,” she writes.

To take one example: Common sense leads us to imagine that we can set aside our emotions in order to engage in rational thought. This is a founding belief of Western civilization; essential social enterprises, such law and journalism, are based on the notion of dispassionate objectivity. But, said Barrett in an interview, “it is just not biologically possible for the brain to exclude affect from its mental processes.” Affect — as Barrett defines it, a general sense of feeling derived from the body — is with us every waking moment. “Your brain produces affect all the time, whether you’re emotional or not and whether you notice it or not,” she writes.

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