Transforming Trauma Episode 041: The Brain and Body Budget with Neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett
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In this episode of Transforming Trauma, our host Sarah is joined by neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. Initially working as a clinical psychologist, Lisa went on to study emotions and how our brains work, asking questions about the neuro-biological basis for mental and physical health. Lisa has written two books: The Secret Life of the Brain, about how emotions are made, and her newest book, Seven and Half Lessons About the Brain, a book of essays. She describes the essays as “neuroscience nuggets to live a different life, a better life, or maybe be happy with the life that you have.”
Since the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM) is informed by the latest findings within neuroscience, and particularly in the areas of attachment, emotions and trauma, Lisa’s work has much to contribute to more effective clinical interventions. Core to both of Lisa’s books is her assertion that “the most important job of our brains is to run a budget for our bodies.” Similar to the concept of Self-Regulation, she describes, “your brain didn’t evolve to think and feel and see…it evolved to control your body.”
Her view differs from commonly held perceptions of the triune brain, which many psychotherapeutic models have used to support their clinical approach. Lisa identifies the triune brain theory as a Western notion based on an idea of human morality. She states that this theory relies on the belief that our instincts (“lizard brain”) and inner emotions (limbic system) are in constant struggle with our “rational side” (cerebral cortex) for control of our behaviors, and that when our rational side wins, we are deemed righteous, moral and healthy. When our emotions or instincts (“inner beast”) win, we are deemed immoral or sick because we didn’t work hard enough to tame our impulses. She says that this morality view of the brain informed scientists into the 20th century, despite research in the 1970s showing evidence otherwise.
Lisa shares that what we know now about brain functioning is that every experience we have – a hug, an insult, a look – impacts our brain metabolically. “If you’re sleep deprived, if you aren’t eating healthfully, if you’re dealing with constant strain and stress, it’s very likely that your body budget will be running a deficit, in which case it’s going to be harder for your brain to update and adjust its internal model to match the current circumstances.” This will impact learning and body-movement especially, since they are the most costly of energy expenditures.
Lisa asserts that our body budgets form throughout childhood. Because an infant cannot manage its own nervous system, caregivers are the one who must maintain the infant’s body budget. All the things we do to care for infants: feed, cuddle, talk, make eye contact, help “to wire the baby’s brain” so that the baby, over the course of 20 years, learns to manage their own body budget. When there is neglect, or a chronically unresponsive parent, the baby’s brain wires to that experience. That means, Lisa says, “that the baby’s brain is wiring itself in a way that starts to pay a metabolic tax right off the bat.” These taxes add up over time, underlying and impacting the likelihood of illness later in life.
In regards to emotions and the brain, Lisa says that “emotions are really a story that your brain is telling itself about the cause of the internal sensations in relation to what’s going on around you in the world.” She says, “when you feel bad, it isn’t necessarily an indication that something is wrong in the world” and neither is it an indication that you are flawed. What it does tell you is that “something happened that is relevant.” Lisa reports that our feeling good or bad is an indication of body budget: when our body budgets are “flush” we feel good, whereas when we run a deficit, even a temporary one, we feel bad. Our brains do not know why, just that something is up that we then have to figure out. Our brains go on to make guesses based on our past experience.
Lisa shares that our brains work predictively, meaning that when we see or hear something, it is because our brain was already preparing itself to see or feel that data. That data then confirms the prediction, or changes it. “[Changing it] is learning,” she says. “If you are running on autopilot, it means that your brain is predicting and the sense data are confirming…but when you shift your attention to something new, deliberately,” as in therapy, or mindfulness, “you have broken the chain of automatic prediction.” That can sometimes feel disorienting. Sarah connects the possibility of this disorientation to experiences NARM clients report when they start to disidentify from previously held beliefs about themselves.
Sarah and Lisa end by talking about what this information can offer. Lisa names that knowledge about our brains gives us more choices and options, as well as increased “responsibility” for ourselves. This responsibility aligns with NARM and the concept of Self-Agency. NARM also aligns with Lisa’s research, that though we cannot change the past, we can change how we relate to it. Lisa closes by sharing the key invitation from her book, “to think about what it means to be human, and what kind of a human you really want to be.”
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Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, is among the top one percent most cited scientists in the world for her revolutionary research in psychology and neuroscience. She is a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
In addition to the books Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain and How Emotions are Made, Dr. Barrett has published over 240 peer-reviewed, scientific papers appearing in Science, Nature Neuroscience, and other top journals in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, as well as six academic volumes published by Guilford Press.
Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Barrett has testified before Congress, presented her research to the FBI, consulted to the National Cancer Institute, appeared on Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman and The Today Show with Maria Shriver, and been a featured guest on public television and podcast and radio programs worldwide. She is also an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the Royal Society of Canada.