EPISODE 7: How Emotions Are Made & Why It Matters for Fundraisers with Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

This episode is sponsored by:

watch on youtube


“It is hard to expect an entire industry to change or evolve if we don’t change or evolve who is at the table to make these decisions.”

Episode #7


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

I talk to one of the top most-cited scientists in the world, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. Lisa is an expert in affective neuroscience, psychology of emotion, and social and personality psychology. She has published more than 240 peer-reviewed scientific papers and is the author of two books: Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain and How Emotions are Made. 

In this episode, Lisa and I talk about how our brains work based on prediction and how we can train them away from pain and anxiety and into a different present. Plus, she gives life-changing tricks that can radically improve any fundraiser’s experience out there!

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett is one of the top-cited scientists in the world for her revolutionary research in psychology and neuroscience. She has written more than 240 peer-reviewed scientific papers and is the author of two books: Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain and How Emotions are Made.

She also has a very good TED Talk called “You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions — your brain creates them”, in which she explains where emotions come from and how we can control them. Lisa’s work sheds light on many issues around handling day-to-day life, especially in an environment of high uncertainty (like fundraising!)


Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett



Brought To
you By:

Top takeaways & resources

Favorite quotes

related content


Other episodes you would enjoy



I teach nonprofit fundraisers to bring in more gifts from the RIGHT donors… so they can stop hounding people for money. Fundraising doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.


Other episodes you would enjoy


Get to know The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior!

The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior puts the most accurate and actionable neuroscience in the hands of judges, lawyers, policymakers, and journalists—people who shape the standards and practices of our legal system and affect its impact on people’s lives. We work to make the legal system more effective and more just for all those affected by the law.

Visit clbb.mgh.harvard.edu

Get to know Heifer International!

We work to end hunger and poverty in partnership with the communities we serve. Our programs support entrepreneurs around the world, creating lasting change from the ground up.

It begins with a seed investment of livestock or agriculture, followed by mentorship to help project participants build a business, and ultimately to gain access to supply chains and markets.

These families are able to earn a living income and continuously lift up their communities as they train the next generation of leaders.

By supporting and training the world’s farmers, ranchers, and female business owners, we’re investing in a new breed of success.

Visit www.heifer.org

episode transcript

Mallory: Thank you so much, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, for joining me today on What The Fundraising. I am thrilled to have you here, and I am so excited to dive into this conversation. 

Lisa: I’m good. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Mallory: Thank you. As I mentioned, I have been talking about your book, and your research for a long time, but let’s just start with you introducing yourself to everyone and giving us some background on your incredible work.

Lisa: I am a university distinguished professor of neuroscience and psychology at Northeastern University. I have research appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. I’m the Chief Science Officer for the Center for Law Rating Behavior at MGH, Massachusetts General Hospital, where we educate judges and lawyers, and other legal actors about the use of neuroscience, and just generally about science in the courtroom.

My career has had a really windy path, but I think that’s true for most people. I think I know one person who actually had a plan in high school for what he wanted to do, and then he just did it. Not me. I guess if you looked at my career, you could say that I retrained in a new scientific discipline about every seven years or so. I started off as a clinical psychologist and then obtained training in other domains of psychology; in physiology and neuroscience. Now in some engineering. 

I would say that I started off studying the nature of emotion: What are emotions? How do they work? How does your brain create them? And that turned out to be a really useful lens for understanding brain function in general. That three-pound blob of meat between your ears is the most expensive organ you have metabolically speaking. And so what’s it good for? How does it work? 

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how brains function. I just find that fascinating and the sort of modern science, the modern scientific understanding is really counter-intuitive, which is also really fun in a way. That’s what we really study now in the lab. I run a pretty large lab by most standards in psychology and in neuroscience. I would say we have about 25 full-time scientists in the lab, plus undergraduate scientists every year, and it’s a really lively, very diverse group. We study a lot of different things. Emotion is just one of them now that we study. 

Mallory: Let’s talk about emotion because I am fascinated by the way that emotion plays such a critical role in nonprofit leadership and fundraising, and everything really in life.

But I think oftentimes, from my experience in the nonprofit sector, we tried to pull emotion out. Even when we talked about the science of fundraising or the art of fundraising,  for 13 years I felt like I was never able to express or share how I felt emotionally as a fundraiser, that there wasn’t really space for that.

I’m particularly interested in talking about that piece. So tell us just like at a high level. How are emotions made?

Lisa: It’s actually easier to say how they’re not made. So to start there, I think there’s a very persistent belief that emotions are baked into your brain from birth. That your brain has some kind of ancient part, this ancient inner beast where your emotions and instincts live, and that there are inward circuits for emotion and that they trigger and then they cause you to do and say things that are, maybe ill-advised at times.

Something in the world will happen and it will trigger one of these circuits, and so you’ll react and that you react with consistency. Consistency in what you’re doing in your face, what happens in your body, the way that you feel, the actions you take every time this circuit is triggered, there’s a lot of consistency there so that somebody else could look at you and just read emotion on your face or in your body language.

And almost everything I just said isn’t true. That’s the belief though, right? 

That rationality, which is newly evolved and lives in your cerebral cortex, is really keeping a damper on these emotional circuits so that your brain is like a battleground between your desires and your rational self.

All of that is a really popular and very, I would say successful story, but it’s not actually scientifically valid. That’s not what’s happening under the hood. It feels that way to us, particularly those of us who’ve been raised in a Western culture, but that’s actually not how your brain works at all.

So the actual description of what’s happening is a little harder. You can’t just give a little snippet and have it make sense. But what I would say is that your brain is actually always guessing, always predicting. It’s always guessing what’s going to happen next. And those guesses are functional attempts to, or opportunities to regulate your body, to plan for action, and to make sense of the sensory consequences of those changes. 

If we were to stop time right now, just stop time, your brain has a representation, a story that it’s telling itself of what’s going on around you in the world, and what’s going on inside your own body. And then it makes a guess about what’s going to happen next.

And those guesses are, does your heart rate have to go up? Does it have to go down? Do you know, do you have to breathe more deeply or do you have to breathe more shallowly? Do you have to get glucose into your bloodstream really quickly? Cause you have to do something really ever full or is what you have really okay for the moment?

Those guesses are the preparations for action for literally physical movements. Should you smile? Should you stand up? Should you run away? Should you hug someone? And then these guesses are also a sort of predictions of what the sensory data mean that you’re exposed to. 

If your brain is predicting that you’re gonna hear a loud bang. What caused that bang? Your brain doesn’t know, right? Your brain only receives the information about the loud bang. It doesn’t know. Was it a car backfiring? Was it a gunshot? Did somebody slam a door? If you’re anticipating that someone’s going to smile? If your brain is predicting that you’re going to see a smile on someone’s face, is that smile a smile of welcome? Is it a smile of threat? What’s the likely cause of that?

If your brain is predicting that your heart rate is going to go up and you will feel your heart thumping in your chest, then it’s also predicting what is the cause of that thumping? Is it because you’re anxious? Is it because you’re exhilarated? Is it because you just had too much coffee? 

All of this is happening automatically, effortlessly, continuously. You’re really not aware of it. By the time you become aware of taking an action, it’s several seconds beyond when that action was planned. Your brain is basically just doing this continuously, using your past experience to anticipate the future, which becomes your present.

What this means is that emotions are not baked into your brain from birth. Your brain is making emotions on the fly as you need them. And emotions are the way that your brain makes sense of what is going on inside your own body, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.

A tightness in your chest can be indicative of many different emotional states, depending on how your brain understands, what that tightening is, what caused that tightness, and what to do next. 

Mallory: Okay. This is so interesting. So when you think about the prediction piece, and maybe this isn’t even the right question but how often is it that we are predicting for something maybe more “negative” because it’s in anticipation of something maybe we need to protect ourselves around or be prepared to have some resilience around. 

Does that prediction tend to be more negative or more positive? 

Lisa: I don’t think it’s really one or the other. I do think that it really depends on the person. It depends on that person’s developmental history we all have. Your brain is basically using your past to make sense, to predict your future, to make sense of your present.

If I, during my Ted talk, for example, I show this blobby black and white image, and most people haven’t seen it before. And when most people look at it, they see black and white blobs. They are what we would say, experientially blind to what the image is because all they see are these black and white blobs. But then I give them an experience and then they look at the blobs again, and now all of a sudden they see something, an actual image that they didn’t see before. 

And it’s because now when their brain searches for their past experience, they have a new past experience that wasn’t there before that they can use. And what it does is it helps people understand that whatever you experience at the moment is really some combination of what’s going on inside you and around you, but also what is in your head; your brain’s ability to reassemble past experiences for the purposes of predicting and making sense. 

Some of it has to do with that, I would say though that the most pervasive example of making something negative that doesn’t have to be negative is the way that we treat increased feelings of arousal in our cultures.

When your brain can’t predict something really well, it attempts to learn something new. So what your brain is always doing is comparing its predictions to the data, the sense data that it gets from the sensory surfaces of your body. It predicts what you’ll see, and then literally sense data comes in through your retina, up to your brain and it’s making those comparisons, and if there’s information there that it hasn’t encountered before, that’s called prediction error. 

And it’s a cue that your brain can learn that error and then update its ability to predict, and then it will predict better the next time. So what does your brain do when it can predict very well? It raises certain chemicals, they become increased and your heart beats faster, and you start to feel really jittery and worked up and maybe even a bit more alert, but in our culture, the immediate go-to explanation of this is anxiety. 

So people make anxiety out of an increase in arousal that doesn’t have to be anxiety. And what I mean by that is if your brain is making sense of an increase in arousal as anxiety that will lead you to experience the arousal as negative, as unpleasant, and also it leads you to behave in a certain way.

But if you experience the arousal as just a sign that things are ambiguous or uncertain, and so maybe you should search for more information or maybe it’s an opportunity to be determined, there are many ways that you can use it as a cue to construct something, a completely different experience like awe or wonder.

For a moment, you become a spec and so your uncertainty becomes a spec. And so you’re giving your nervous system a little break. Uncertainty and ambiguity are probably one of the hardest things for our human nervous system to have to deal with. There’s a very strong, metabolic reason for your brain to be predicting and correcting as opposed to reacting. And that is it’s attempting to reduce uncertainty, which is extremely metabolically expensive. And metabolic expanse doesn’t feel good, it just feels really unpleasant. Think about exercising, when you’re like 20 minutes into it, it starts to really suck. But that’s because you’re deliberately metabolically taxing your system.

So I guess what I would say is that what we have is an epidemic of uncertainty and ambiguity, and that is taxing for human nervous systems, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be anxiety. And I know that this sounds crazy to people who haven’t really read the science and understood it. And frankly, if somebody was just saying this to me, I’m not sure that I would really believe them, but, as a scientist, this really is how it works.

I’ll just say one other thing, I’ve been recovering from spinal surgery for the last couple of months and something really interesting happened. And that is when I had a spinal fusion, as I recovered, the pain receded, and I started to become more active. I started to have unexpected sensory data coming from my body. Like I have titanium rods and screws in my back now, and I’m not expecting it. So it’s very uncertain, it’s very ambiguous. What is it? What are these sensations? Are they pain? So is this pain or is it just something unexpected that’s slightly uncomfortable? 

Because if it’s pain, I’ll stop moving. If this is just an unexpected sensation that is slightly uncomfortable, I’ll probably keep moving and maybe even move a little more. And it turns out it’s really hard. You can’t really tell actually. And the reason why you can’t tell is that you’re constructing it, there’s nothing to tell, they’re just sensations. You have to make sense of them. 

It’s the same thing if you’ve ever had work done on your teeth, and you have a filling or a tooth removed and you just find your tongue constantly probing, it’s because there is sense-data there that is unexpected because your brain hasn’t learned to filter it out yet. All of that tongue probing is learning because your brain really doesn’t like uncertainty. 

All of us put ourselves in situations where sometimes things are novel and uncertain, but certainly different people have different tolerance for that. But in general, it’s a very expensive metabolic state for you to be in. When I say that anxiety is at an epidemic level, and when I say that you could construct something different out of that arousal,  I’m not trying to minimize people’s suffering, but I am saying actually that you can reduce your suffering a little bit by coming mindful about how your brain works to construct meaning and to create experiences out of this meaning-making process that it’s constantly going through to anticipate sense data and make sense of them.

Mallory: Oh my gosh. There’s so much about what you just said that I want to double click on, but first of all, I’m so sorry to hear about your back. I actually had a very similar experience a few years ago, dealing with chronic pain in my neck, and I read this book called How To Heal Your Back. I’m not sure what you think about the science behind it, but for me, the awareness around how sensory data moved between my brain and my body was so empowering for my pain.

Just being able to do what you talked about, where I would start to feel a sensation that sometimes was unknown, but sometimes also felt like my brain was quickly going to, “Oh, no! This is the beginning of injury!” 

Lisa: Yeah. Exactly! I talk about this on How Emotions Are Made. It’s really important that people understand that every experience you have, every action you take, is caused partly by what’s in your head and partly what’s going on around you or inside you. I’m not saying that in a pejorative way. I’m saying that in a scientific way. 

So let’s say you had tissue damage. Let’s say you hurt your neck in some way. The first time you hurt your neck, the sensory surfaces in your neck are going to send information to your brain: there’s tissue damage here. And your brain will learn that and you’ll feel pain. And then as you heal, your brain will track that and it will learn, or it might not, it might not learn. So sometimes the brain doesn’t learn prediction error,  sometimes especially if you’re stressed, if you’re metabolically encumbered in some other way because you’re stressed financially, socially, because you’re not sleeping enough.  There are all kinds of reasons why this can happen, and scientists don’t understand all the reasons why it happens. 

But sometimes the brain doesn’t take in the prediction error, and it just goes with its prediction. Chronic pain is your brain predicting what’s called nociceptive input from your body, information about tissue damage for your body, but it’s not there.

Chronic pain is actually a brain disorder. It’s not really a disorder of the body, although it can cause disorder in the body if it goes on for a really long time. It can actually change the wiring in your peripheral nerves, if it goes on for a really long time, like years.

But I think to say that it’s a brain disorder doesn’t mean it’s not real. It’s extremely real because frankly, everything you feel in your brain. You see with your brain, you don’t see with your eyes, you see with your brain. Your eyes could be working perfectly, but if your brain isn’t working perfectly, you won’t see. 

You smell in your brain. You taste in your brain, everything is happening in your brain. If I say to you, have you ever walked around with a song in your head that you’re just not able to get out of your head? You can just hear it and it’s driving you nuts? What your brain is doing is changing the firing of its own auditory neurons so that you hear something that isn’t there and that is how prediction works. 

When I say that your brain predicts, I don’t mean that some kind of abstract description, your brain is literally changing the firing of its own neurons before the sense data arrives. So it starts to prepare your experience before you have it so that you’re just ready to have it.

And once the sense data comes, if they confirm the prediction, that’s it, the neurons are already firing in a way that explains that input. So poof! Your experience emerges really quickly and it feels like a reaction.

Mallory: Okay. There’s something that you just said that I’m really curious about for fundraisers, because as I’m putting this together: the anxiety piece, the interpretation of anxiety… I think fundraisers experience anxiety at so many points. They experience that jolt of anxiety when they’re going to press send on an email or when they’re picking up the phone to just make a phone call or walking into a donor meeting where they’re going to make an ask. 

And so they are, it sounds like, making a lot of predictions around what is going to happen, and what might happen based on their environment, based on past experience or they’re feeling anxiety because they can’t predict. And this is one of the questions I get asked so often: How do I prepare for any question the donor might ask me? One of the biggest pieces of anxiety is that uncertainty that they’re going to get a question that they’re not prepared for. 

So I’m thinking with everything you’re talking about, I’m thinking of them walking into this room, and then they see the face of the donor. And what if the donor isn’t smiling and then they go into an interpretation of the donors’ current emotional experience, and how does that impact theirs. 

Lisa: There’s a lot to unpack in what you said. So first thing I would say is when you are uncertain, or something’s ambiguous and your brain makes anxiety, it’s giving an interpretation to a sense state. What you feel is authentic. That’s authentically anxiety, your brain’s making anxiety and you feel it. 

My point is that your brain can also authentically make something else in those moments, and then that’s what you’ll feel. If you practice it enough, it really does work that way. What you’re doing is you’re teaching your brain. Your brain is teaching itself to make different concepts, to make different sorts of groupings of knowledge to draw on different past experiences to make sense of the present. 

Right before my Ted talk, if anybody had a heart rate monitor on me, I could feel my heart beating in my fingertips. Like I was anxious and in that moment, I basically constructed determination. And there’s actually research to show that if you can train yourself. Your brain is automatically using your past to predict and make sense of the present, right? You can’t really easily go back and change your past; that’s what psychotherapy tries to do. 

But what you can do is change your present. Just like you would invest energy in exercise, you can invest energy in training yourself in the present to see your brain to predict differently in the future. For example, when you’re not with a client, when you’re not sending an email, when you’re not in that situation, you can put yourself in conditions of uncertainty and attempt to make something other than anxiety. And if you practice, you’ll be able to do it. It’s like driving it. It’s effortful at first, and it’s a big investment of energy because you’re basically attempting to teach your brain something new. But if you practice it enough, it becomes pretty automatic. 

So the first thing that I would say is before you send that email, or before you walk into that room, before you have that zoom call, the arousal that you’re feeling is probably uncertainty. And that means that probably I would think the best stance to take is one where you’re attempting to construct determination or maybe curiosity. 

Usually, the thing that helps the most when you’re uncertain is to collect more information. And oftentimes when people are faced with uncertainty, particularly in a social situation. Some of that uncertainty really is not as much about the job they’re doing, as much as it is about their uncertainty about what the other person will think of them and that social evaluation.

I’m a professor, I stand up in front of hundreds of college students and I’m supposed to know the answer to every single thing that they asked me, except I don’t actually know. You may ask me something I don’t know the answer to, so it’s okay for them to know that I don’t know the answer to everything. This is something it took me a long time to learn, that most of the time when you’re anxious about what other people think about you, it’s because you’re grasping to aspects of identity to make meaning about yourself that isn’t really necessary in a given situation. 

My husband told me something once that I put in the book because I thought it was just brilliant. This is really his. He said to me, “So you’re saying that like another person, what they think about me, it’s just like electrical activity in their brain.”

And I’m like, “Yeah, actually it is. It’s just the electrical activity in their brain”. That’s it? That’s what your reputation is. It’s just electrical activity in their brain. That’s what’s someone’s evaluation of you. If somebody’s mean to you, if they’re insulting to you, that’s just electrical activity in their brain. When you think about it that way, it really disarms it. It takes meaning out of it. 

So I guess that’s the first thing I would say. The second thing I would say is that you can’t read someone’s emotion in their face. You can’t read emotion in their body movements. Facial movements are not a language. There is no such thing as body language.

That’s just, it’s a nice story, but it’s not true. Your brain is inferring the meaning of those movements and a person could be smiling or frowning or have their eyes drift away from your gaze for all kinds of reasons that you are unaware of. Maybe the person slept badly. Maybe they have something else on their mind. Most often when you worry that someone is evaluating you, really that person’s just thinking about themselves. They’re wondering what you think about them. 

So I would say it’s really a bad idea. Even the most competent person, no matter how confident you are, you can’t read other people, you are not reading, you are inferring very automatically and often effortlessly. And you’re doing it predictively based on your experience with that person or with people who are like that person or in situations that you’ve been in before that are similar to this one.

I would attempt to be more curious and try to elicit more information from that person to try to understand where their brain is at right at that moment, as opposed to thinking that you know, because you don’t, you’re just inferring. So in uncertainty, if your life physically isn’t on the line, curiosity is always the best strategy to take, even in moments where you just feel you know, you probably don’t. 

Mallory: I love that. It’s actually funny that you’re talking about this because curiosity is actually my number one business and personal value for exactly that reason. I feel like what helps me regulate everything in my life is to get curious.

And I have found that even in the situations where I feel like I know the most, that is actually when it serves me the most. Even in that situation of chronic pain, getting curious about the pain, even though I was so sure I understood it because it felt so sure in my body that I was injured, and when I got curious about where it was coming from or why I was getting certain inputs, it really just opened up the possibility of a different lived experience for me.

Lisa:  Exactly, and I think that’s a really important thing that you did. Actually, the research shows that in people who are suffering from chronic pain, if they start to become curious about the sensations, rather than immediately just constructing pain, they can actually learn to pick apart the sensations and separate so they can feel discomfort without feeling distressed. And research shows that that reduces the dependence on opioid drugs.

So a back injury is not a really fun thing to have. If I could have avoided it, I would have, but actually, I thought of it as a really good opportunity to put my money where my mouth was.  “Okay, I’ve written this book and I’m talking about these things.” I knew that I was going to have substantial discomfort and that I would actually feel pain for some time. I knew that there was a risk of developing chronic pain, cause there’s always a risk of developing chronic pain, but we were living through the pandemic. 

I often talk about your brain’s regulation of your body as your brain is running a budget for your body. It’s not budgeting money, it’s budgeting, glucose and salt, and so on. And so you can talk about making deposits and withdrawals from your body budget. We’re all walking around with practically bankrupt body budgets in this environment, and that’s actually what leads your brain to ignore prediction error. So I thought, “Great. I’m having back surgery at this time where we’re all suffering from a little bit of a deficit in our body budgets. And that’s a really perfect opportunity for me to develop chronic pain.”

And in moments where the pain was really intense, like for those of you who had surgery, and someone’s asking you, what is it on a 10 to 1 scale? And if this were a conversation about pain, there was so much to say about that. But it’s like when I’m eight, what do I do? Do I distract myself from the pain? No! Because distracting yourself is taking you away from the sensation and your brain is not able to learn, it’s just going to keep predicting based on what you already know. 

So instead, what I would do is I would surprisingly focus directly on the pain. I would focus my attention on the pain quite directly, and it didn’t make it more intense. What it did was it allowed me to pick it apart. And the analogy that I often give people is anybody who’s ever learned to paint realistic images, objects, you’re taking a three-dimensional object, like a glass, and you’re trying to render it on a two-dimensional canvas.

Now, if you just look at this glass and you see a glass, you’re ignoring a lot of detail in this glass, you’re just seeing a glass. And so if you try to take this three-dimensional object and draw it on a two-dimensional canvas, it’s gonna be a pretty crappy-looking drawing. But if you start to pick it apart into pieces of light, you focus on the details that usually your brain is not attending to. 

So what colors do you see here? Can you see any colors? 

Mallory: Yeah, I see like a light, almost mint green, and there’s like a baby blue. 

Lisa: If you start to pick this apart into pieces of light and you then paint or draw the pieces of light on the canvas, you will get a pretty decent-looking three-dimensional object rendered in two dimensions, unless you’re me. Cause I’m like a real crime. 

But the point is that you can change your focus on the details that you attend to and by doing so change the meaning that you make out of those sense data. And that’s true for everything that you do, including your interactions with potential donors, including interactions with your coworkers, including interactions with your family members including the sense data that come from your own body.

It’s not a magic bullet. It’s not a superpower or Jedi mind tricks or whatever you really have to practice. It’s like any skill you have to practice it and practice it. You can get pretty good at it and you need to practice it when you don’t need it. If you want to reduce anxiety in asking people for things, then you need to practice transforming your anxiety into something else. Meaning you have to get yourself into an anxious state, let your brain construct it, and then try to deconstruct it and construct something else. 

I’m from Canada originally, I learned to drive in the ice and snow and every year now that I live in Boston, after signs of the first big snow, I get into my car and I deliberately try to put myself into a spin. So that I can remind myself how to get out of it. 

Mallory: I love that. In my course, I do something called the Seven Day No Challenge where I have folks pick a group of low-stakes donors, and I have them start to make phone calls, but their goals are actually around getting a certain amount of no’s. It does put them into that anxious state and start to help them bring awareness to what’s happening.

How can they shift? So I love everything you’re saying. I’m like, oh my gosh, there’s so much for fundraisers to take away from this. And I want to make sure we have, I’m just watching time. Could you say really quickly a little bit about how we regulate each other’s nervous systems with this piece?

Like maybe back to where you were talking about anxiety and converting anxiety. Will you just tell us a little bit about why that matters in terms of regulating the nervous system of the people we are with?

Lisa: I will do that, but I just wanna go back to one point. You asked me about the uncertainty of a donor asking you something you can’t answer. I don’t know. I’m not a fundraiser. I am a fundraiser in the sense that I run a lab and every grant application is like begging, it’s like advocacy for, “please give me money so that I can do this research”.

But when there’s something that you don’t know, you could just say, “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you on that. I’ll go look it up.”  “I will respond to your question and I will bend over backward to be responsive to you.”

So this actually is a relevant answer to the question that you just asked me. We are the caretakers of each other’s nervous systems. Humans are social animals, we evolved as a species to metaphorically, make deposits and withdrawals in each other’s body budgets. 

This is something I talk about in How Emotions Are Made and also in the new book, Seven and A Half Lessons About the Brain, which is a little set of essays. You could read it on the beach really. 

Mallory: We’ll link below so people can get it. 

Lisa: But you know what you’re doing when you raise a child is you’re managing that child’s body budget and the child’s brain is being wired by those efforts and eventually learns to manage its own body budget to some extent, but never a hundred percent.

If a person is regulating their own nervous system, managing their own body budget, almost exclusively on their own. They’re going to die some number of years early, which is actually when you’re lonely or you are socially isolated, you are more at risk for certain types of metabolic illnesses, and you’re more statistically likely to die earlier than you would otherwise. Because your nervous system is too much of a burden for your brain to manage all by itself. We evolved that way. 

So we are constantly regulating each other and we regulate each other by what we do, and also by what we say. This is hard for people to understand, it’s hard for people to accept. Especially in a culture where we really prize individual rights and freedoms and especially free speech as we should.

But we also have to recognize that we have socially dependent nervous systems, and that is a reality. Both of those things are reality. What you say and what you do impacts the nervous system of the person that you’re interacting with and they return the favor. Whether you smile, whether you lean in, if you’re having a conversation with someone and you trust each other and you like each other, your heart rates will synchronize, probably because you’re breathing synchronizes. Sometimes movements actually synchronize to some extent. 

It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens usually when people are feeling in sync, like they’re feeling like they’re really connecting with each other. It’s because they are actually physiologically connecting with each other. That means that if you’re feeling jittery because there’s some increase in arousal in you, the person that you’re interacting with might not be consciously aware of, but it’s possible that their nervous system will react.

When I trained as a clinician, one trick that I learned is called pacing. I would match their breathing rate and then I’d slow my breathing down and they would feel more comfortable. Because breath is really the only way that you can grab a hold of your autonomic nervous system and try to regulate it.The only way to do it, actually, that we know of.

That’s why, things like yoga, singing in a choir, anything with a lot of breathwork, the more control you have over your breath, the easier it is. You can’t completely control your autonomic nervous system, but it does give you a little bit of a tool there.

So you can make someone feel anxious or make them feel comfortable, just by virtue of the state of your own nervous system, combined with the words that you use, which will invite the person that you’re interacting with to construct certain types of experiences. This is true with doctors and patients. It’s true with parents and kids. It’s true, Mallory, for me and you. 

If we were sitting in a coffee shop and I used certain words with you, those words literally little invitations for your brain to construct experiences, make sense of your own physical date, and the sensations from your state in a particular way.

We can very much influence the extent of comfort and discomfort that people feel in interacting with us just by the state of our own bodies, but also the words that we use and the actions that we take towards them. How much eye contact we make, and all of these things really influence these more automatic processes that go into constructing or making emotions in the moment.


Mallory: Wow. Okay. There’s so much for us to take away and unpack, and I’m probably gonna write like quite a few blogs even on this conversation. I just want to thank you so much for having this conversation with me today and talking to fundraisers about this really important work. 

Tell us where can folks find you, and will you mention the two books again? And then we’ll just wrap. I’d love to invite you to share a nonprofit that you love for folks who want to go check it out and give if they can. 

Lisa: If people want to find me, you can go to my website, lisafeldmanbarrett.com. On that website, there is an email address, but also there are also articles, there are free lectures that I videotaped. If I’m giving a public lecture, almost all of the podcasts where links are available, you can find them there. All of my popular writing is there, for the New York Times and The Guardian, and other papers. So it’s a wealth of information that’s all free.

I do have two popular books. I have also 250 academic peer-reviewed articles. If you want to read those it’s at affective-science.org. I don’t know if you want to read them, but if you do, they’re all there.

My popular books are How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. You can see all of the reviews, and actually, there are links to purchasing the book on the website. The new book is Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. My husband calls it the first neuroscience beach read.  I love to read essays and I read a lot of essays and I’ve always really admired the writing form of an essay. So I thought I’d give it a go and see if I could do it. I like to read essays in the bathtub at night before I go to bed or sometimes on the beach when I go out for the summer holiday.

So I thought I wanted to write something that’s fun and interesting, but that gives people a couple of nuggets of neuroscience that they can impress their friends with at a dinner party but then leaves them thinking about big questions like what is human nature? And what kind of human are you? What kind of human do you want to be? And things like that. 

So the essays are quick reads, but they do linger with you and make you think about these sorts of larger questions in the context of your own life. Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain is also there on the website with all of the reviews.

So I’m really a fan of nonprofits. My daughter actually is about to go to business school to do an MBA because she wants to work in the nonprofit sector. And actually, as an undergraduate, she was involved in the startup of a non-profit health clinic for transgender youth.

That’s the career path that she wants to be on, her name is Sophia Barrett. She’s a really wonderful person, she’s going to business school, she’s going to get an MBA, which is something really different in our family. Now my nephew has an MBA, but the rest of us are all like… my husband’s a computer scientist, everybody’s a doctor or a physician or like a Ph.D. or whatever. So she’s actually going to go out into the world directly to help people, which is fantastic. 

I have a lot of nonprofits that I’m very attached to, so it’s hard to pick one. I would say The Center for Law, Brain & Behavior is a nonprofit. Today, for example, there was an article in the New York Times in the opinion section about the teenage brain and the way that police officers are being trained to understand it. So that’s an example of something that we have written briefs on and that we educate judges about, the arrest and charging and sentencing of youth and relative to what their brains actually can do given their developmental stage.

So there are a lot of different topics, but that’s a really great non-profit. I basically donate my time to them. I don’t get paid for that work. It’s completely done pro bono because I think it’s so important. 

There are the standard ones, like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. I also really like Heifer International. So this is a nonprofit where you can purchase for a family in some other part of the world, animals for them. You can purchase a cow or for a family, or a flock of chickens. Really what you’re doing is you’re empowering people to help themselves by giving them resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have. I just really liked that idea very much. That’s one that we’ve actually supported since we became aware of it. So probably more than a decade now. 

Mallory: Wow. Amazing. And I will I’ll have those links below this episode and Center for Law, Brain & Behavior

Lisa: Yeah, thank you.

Mallory: And I just want to thank you again for your work and for having this conversation. I know we could’ve talked forever, but I’m really grateful for your time. Thank you so much for being here with me today. 

Lisa: My absolute pleasure.Thank you so much for having me on your podcast.

Scroll to Top


Just put in your name and email to let the magic begin….

You're one step away from getting my favorite tools!

Just put in your name and email to let the magic begin….
This is default text for notification bar