One of the many proposed benefits of the practice of mindfulness at work is its support for mitigating the Amygdala Hijack. It’s a concept that asserts that, as humans, parts of our brains are carry-overs from our very distant ancestors, perhaps as far back as when animals first emerged from the sea. The theory is that the Amygdala, one of these pre-historic parts of the brain, is responsible for some of the strongest human emotions; anger, fear etc. Diane Busho Hamilton describes the theory well in her [Harvard Business Review article that suggests mindfulness as an antidote to the Amygdala Hijack. She writes, “When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweat.”

The Amygdala Hijack is embedded in Goleman’s much larger work around Emotional Intelligence, which is the gold standard for many organizational training programs for managing emotions, conflict and challenging work place situations. Goleman and others also advocate mindfulness meditation as one of many tools that people can use to better manage their emotions and responses in the work place.

There is a catch, however, the Amygdala Hijack theory might actually be wrong. Emerging neuroscience research is uncovering a more complex understanding of the brain, its composition and its evolutionary history. This new understanding is also leading to a more nuanced explanation of how emotions are formed and how we can respond. In her book, How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett, describes a new theory of emotions where our brains are constructing emotions in the moment as a prediction, in an attempt to make sense of a wide range of stimuli–both from the outside world and from inside our own bodies.

She explains, “An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world,” an explanation she calls the theory of constructed emotion. In other words, and quite contrary to our intuition, the bodily sensations precede the arising of the emotion, not the other way around. According to Barrett, “In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your (bodily) sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.” So as a result, “emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise.”

This radical shift of perspective suggests that each moment is not only a constant flux of internal and external stimuli, but our experience of it is shaped by own perception of and interaction with it. This starts to erode the binary dualistic view of experience where there is a world and a self; one where the world is acting on the self, and I (the self) am acting on the world. We are actually engaged in a continual co-creation. With this theory, Barrett is using her lab’s neuroscience research to begin to document with data what the Buddha described as “dependent origination” or “co-dependent arising” and that the famous 21st century monk, Thich Nhat Hanh has called “interbeing.”

The Buddha, included emotions in a category of broader mental phenomena with thoughts, ideas and plans, called sankhara. In this view, these phenomena are no more substantive than the core of a plantain tree (which actually has no core; it is just leaves growing on top leaves!); in other words, there is nothing “real” there. Now, Barrett writes, “Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real—that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.” Nonetheless, using different languages separated by 2600 years, they are both acknowledging that emotions are not “hard wired” in the brain but are “constructed” by the mind.

Barrett’s explanation differentiates between categories (or concepts) of emotions and instances of emotions. An instance of emotion is always unique to each moment and situation. In an instance of emotion there are both physical and mental sensations arising with internal or external stimuli. This emotional instance is like a snowflake, no two are exactly alike. Yet, we can group these instances into familiar categories. Each emotional instance can be grouped into categories such as sadness, or anger, or happiness. Importantly, these categories are shaped by culture and social agreement–they are not hard-coded in our genes, or stored physically in our brains anywhere.

Because the emotional concpets are shaped by culture, not all emotional concepts are universally shared. Some African cultures don’t use the category sadness, Scandinavians experience hygge and Germans all understand Schadenfreude, which Americans are just beginning to use in common parlance. Barrett’s research provides data for practitioners who have often warned that emotional intelligence did not always work well in cross-cultural organizations and teams. For example, Darren Nebaney explains in his 2020 article in Forbes, “Having a high EQ (emotional quotient) isn’t enough when working with a different culture or on a multicultural team. Look at the example of expat assignments. Over 40% of expat assignments are deemed to be failures, and one of the biggest contributors to those failures is cross-cultural challenges. Think about that. Many expats are seen as top talent within their organizations. They are current or future leaders, and so by definition most of them will have high EQ. They have succeeded at home by excelling at leading through understanding social cues, using humor and saying the right things. While all these behaviors can work in the culture of the home country, they often don’t travel well.”

These results are not because of a fundamental flaw in these expat leaders, it’s because of a fundamental misunderstanding that is embedded in the original concept of emotional intelligence. But all is not lost. Lisa Feldman Barrett proposes an improvement on the role emotional intelligence can play in our lives. She writes, “with our new understanding of emotions, however, we can think about emotional intelligence in a new way. “Happiness” and “sadness” are each populations of diverse instances. Therefore, emotional intelligence (EI) is about getting your brain to construct the most useful instance of the most useful emotion concept in a given situation.”

It also means acknowledging that you can’t accurately detect an emotion in another person (a core tenet of emotional intelligence); especially if that person does not share your cultural background, social networks, or native language. According to Barrett, when we think we perceive an emotion in another person, that perception is formed from our own history, context and language, not necessarily what the other person may be feeling in the moment. “So, a key to EI is to gain new emotion concepts and hone your existing ones,” writes Barrett.

How do we do this? The goal is to develop emotional granularity by gaining new emotion concepts/categories and honing existing ones. This requires new methods for how leaders can become more emotionally intelligent and can develop more emotionally intelligent organizations. The focus can shift from trying to detect (guess) what someone else is feeling to developing a shared and expanded vocabulary and language for discussing the emotional content of our work within a team or organization.

Suggestions for increasing emotional intelligence that Barrett proposes include: (1) learning new words and emotional concepts, (2) learning how to categorize emotional instances with more granularity; seeing the 37 shades of anger, (3) keeping track of positive experiences so you can recognize them with more sensitivity in the future and access those more readily, (4) deconstructing an emotional instance into the affective feeling of the mere physical sensations and using those to reframe the moment from a broad label to a more nuanced understanding of the moment.

In Barrett’s view, emotions are social realities and the brain is constructing them in the context of its interactions with other human brains–our relationships with other people. Once we accept that there are no “universal” emotions that we all share, and that we cannot accurately “detect” what anyone else is feeling; we are free to use each situation as an opportunity to learn–about ourselves and about our co-workers. There is not simply “a self” experiencing an emotion, but instead “an instance of physical and mental sensations” that we are sharing together. This provides an opening to talk about the reality of the situation with less defensiveness and more opportunity for reframing the situation for future learning and growth.

The fact that emotional concepts are a social construction creates interesting opportunities for shaping a shared language among a team and organization for working more effectively together. As part of building a strong culture, leaders can explicitly foster dialogue around the arising of emotions that could lead to the development of a shared vocabulary and a shared set of norms around how team members communicate emotion concepts, respond to the negative events in the organization, address inevitable conflict and work through the inherent uncertainty. Leaders could no longer be limited to mitigating the impact of emotions on the work, but actively constructing emotional language and competence with their teams that both creates space for the emotional lives of team members, and sustains momentum for organizational initiatives.

Lastly, where does this theory land in terms of the role of mindfulness meditation and emotions? Barrett highlights a few studies, from her lab and others, that show several positive benefits on the brain from meditation while noting that the research is still incomplete. These benefits include: (1) increased activity in both the interoceptive network (the sensing mechanism) and the control network (the sense making mechanism); (2) increased efficiency in paying attention, (3) better management of negative emotions; and (4) increased reports of positive affect. There appears to be early evidence of physical changes as well, including less inflammatory response to stress, and increased growth in new brain synapses and other structures. These benefits potentially provide the meditator with greater ability to deconstruct the sense of self as well as more capacity for working with various sensations in the body and mind. Leaders looking to boost their emotional intelligence can clearly benefit from both of those abilities.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash