Recently I've been writing about a book that I'm enjoying a lot more than I thought I would, Lisa Feldman Barrett's How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.
It's dawned on me that in the course of sharing ideas from various chapters I found compelling, I've largely neglected to make clear the importance of a key concept in the book: that of our body budget.
This was a new notion to me, and I don't claim to fully understand it even after reading Barrett's description of it. But here's some quotes from her book that give a good overview of what the body budget is all about.
Your body-budgeting regions play a vital role in keeping you alive. Each time your brain moves any part of your body, inside or out, it spends some of its energy resources: the stuff it uses to run your organs, your metabolism, and your immune system.
You replenish your body's spending by eating, drinking, and sleeping, and you reduce your body's spending by relaxing with loved ones, even having sex. To manage all of this spending and replenishing, your brain must constantly predict your body's energy needs, like a budget for your body.
...Your body-budgeting regions make predictions to estimate the resources to keep you alive and flourishing, using past experience as a guide.
...Whenever your brain predicts a movement, whether it's getting out of bed in the morning or taking a sip of coffee, your body-budgeting regions adjust your budget. When your brain predicts that your body will need a quick burst of energy, these regions instruct the adrenal gland in your kidneys to release the hormone cortisol.
...Withdrawals from your body's budget don't require actual physical movement. Suppose you see your boss, teacher, or baseball coach walking toward you. You believe that she judges everything you say and do. Even though no physical movement seems calls for, your brain predicts that your body needs energy and makes a budget withdrawal, releasing cortisol and flooding glucose into your bloodstream.
...Stop and think about this for a moment. Someone merely walks toward you while you are standing still, and your brain predicts that you need fuel! In this manner, any event that significantly impacts your body budget becomes personally meaningful to you.
...To perturb your budget, you don't even require another person or object to be present. You can just imagine your boss, teacher, coach, or anything else relevant to you. Every simulation, whether it becomes an emotion or not, impacts your body budget.
As it turns out, people spend at least half their waking hours simulating rather than paying attention to the world around them, and this pure simulation strongly drives their feelings.
I'm finding this body-budget concept to be useful in my own life. It fits with the metaphor used for the title of a book, Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, which I wrote about in "No lions? Then relax. Especially if you're a zebra."
If a lion starts chasing a herd of zebras, their body budget predicts that they're going to need a release of energy for running away. But if zebras remained in this state of heightened arousal, with such a large withdrawal from their body budget, they'd be in bad shape.
So zebras quickly go back to grazing on grass after a lion attack, because they need to replenish their body budget. Lucky them. We humans, on the other hand, often fret and worry about a stressful event for a long time after the event has passed.
If this happens repeatedly, we can find ourselves in a chronic state of anxiety or depression, which Barrett says is the result of prediction errors.
When we're anxious, we're predicting that bad things are going to happen even though there is little or no actual evidence of this. Thus we can get into a state akin to zebras imagining lions about to pounce even when no lions are around. This leads to excessive withdrawals from our body budget.
When we're depressed, we try to reduce the need for a deposit into our body budget by remaining still, cutting way down on our activities, staying at home, ignoring friends and family, which leads to a feeling of fatigue.
Everyday language echoes the notion of a body budget. "I feel drained." "I'm overflowing with joy." "I'm running on empty." "Your words filled me with hope."
This evening I watched results of the runoff election in Georgia between incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker.
Being a political junkie, and knowing the importance of this election for confirming judges, conducting investigations, and doing other business in the Senate for the next two years (a Warnock win would give Democrats a 51-49 majority), I found my mood rising and falling as the results were reported by MSNBC over the span of three or four hours.
At first Warnock was way ahead, since Georgia counts early and absentee voting first, methods favored by Democrats. I felt great! Then Walker -- an absolutely horribly unqualified candidate -- moved ahead as conservative counties released their vote tallies. I felt awful!
Finally, the liberal-leaning urban areas around Atlanta finished counting their same day votes and Warnock was declared the victor. I felt really great! So my body budget was rising and falling even though I was doing just about nothing physically. My mind was predicting how I'd feel if I had to watch Walker blunder his way as a Senator for the next six years, versus how wonderful I'd feel if Warnock won.
The human mind is a marvelous result of evolution.
However, that marvel has resulted in mental abilities that can easily go awry. For our modern malady isn't being chased by predators on the African grasslands, but having to cope with psychological stresses caused by our ability to remember problems from the past that we worry will recur, and imagine problems in the future that we worry will occur.
Which is why I've taken up the habit of saying to myself, "No lions," when I find myself fretting unduly in the absence of clear reasons to do so.