Weekly I/O #10

Emotional Contagion, Brain Budget, Breathe, Emotional Granularity, Play Dead

Cheng-Wei Hu | 胡程維
4 min readJan 28, 2021

Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.

Sign up here and let me share a curated list of learning Input/Output with you 🎉

The below is extracted from the email sent on Jan 24, 2021.

Here’s a list of what I’m exploring and pondering this week.

The inputs I want to share this week are all from a podcast interviewing Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist, psychologist, and author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Thanks to 黃岳涵|Yueh Han Huang for recommending me this intriguing episode.

1. The reason we say “don’t be upset” is often because we don’t want to have our emotions synchronized and be upset.

Podcast: Lisa Feldman Barrett: Balancing the Brain Budget [The Knowledge Project Ep. #92]

If we’re getting along with each other, or even just around each other for a little bit of time, our biological signals will start to synchronize. Our heart rates and our breathing will synchronize. It’s called emotional contagion.

Human nervous systems regulate each other. We’re social animals and we evolved to have lots of ways to affect the nervous systems of another person. A lot of time when we say “don’t be sad, don’t be angry” to our friends, what we’re saying is “I don’t want to deal with you being angry or sad, and I don’t want to feel that way so I want you to calm down”.

Therefore, it’s really hard to sit with someone else’s distress and just let them be distressed. We will want to help them regulate because we want to help ourselves regulate. We don’t want them to be upset because we don’t want to be upset. It’s not a completely selfish act, it’s just that one part of the mechanism for us to have empathy.

2. Balance the brain budget.

Podcast: Lisa Feldman Barrett: Balancing the Brain Budget [The Knowledge Project Ep. #92]

Our brain runs the metabolic budget of our bodies. We have cells, those cells require energy. Our brain makes big expenditures when we get intense emotions.

When our brain is running a deficit, it stops spending. It means:

  • We feel tired
  • We don’t move as much
  • We don’t learn about what’s going on around us in the world
  • Eventually, it starts cutting the budget by letting neurons die

The most important things to replenish our brain’s budget are:

  • Adequate sleep
  • Healthy food
  • Exercise
  • Sex
  • Physical and social connections

So if we’re continually getting stressed, getting mad, or getting afraid over and over, and the expenditure isn’t paid back, we’re not sleeping enough, we’re not eating healthfully, we’re not getting hugs from our loved ones, we are running a deficit. Running a deficit will translate into illnesses such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes.

Like buying a bunch of stuff using credit cards, we should pay the bill really fast to avoid additional tax and interest. Similarly, what we should try to do is balancing our brain budget fast whenever we make a big expenditure. Replenish our brain’s budget and pay the bill. Don’t let the interest of deficit build up over time.

3. Breathing is really the only way that we know of, biologically speaking, to deliberately get a handle on your nervous system.

Podcast: Lisa Feldman Barrett: Balancing the Brain Budget [The Knowledge Project Ep. #92]

If we do regularly and deeply diaphragmatic breathing, after a couple of minutes, we can slow our heart rates. Basically, it calms our system down to avoid continuous huge emotional expenditure.

Let’s follow the instruction below to take a deep breath right now if available.

“Put your hand on your torso or tummy. Don’t breathe from your chest, but from your diaphragm. When you breathe in, you don’t want your chest to expand. What you want is your stomach kind of to expand. So breathe in and have your stomach expand. Take in breath down to the bottom of your lungs, instead of just the top. Breath in for three seconds and out for another three.”

4. The ability to differentiate between similar emotions helps us do better and be more resilient.

Podcast: Lisa Feldman Barrett: Balancing the Brain Budget [The Knowledge Project Ep. #92]

Knowing a lot of emotion concepts, emotion words and being able to create very nuanced precise emotional events are really helpful. It’s called emotional granularity, meaning the emotional life is precise and granular. One instance of anger is not the same as the other instance of anger.

If we feel “bad”, we might not know what to do next to improve how we feel. But if we know we are feeling some specific kinds of anger, sadness, or afraidness, it will be easier to decide what we should do.

Research shows that kids with higher emotional granularity perform better in school. It’s helpful socially and allows them to be resilient when bad things happen to them. Those kids tend to use alcohol less when they’re stressed. People even recover faster from physical illness when they’re more granular.

5. Go to sleep to play dead so the negative emotion doesn’t take interest in us.

Podcast: Lisa Feldman Barrett: Balancing the Brain Budget [The Knowledge Project Ep. #92]

There’s one culture in the world where the prescription for what you’re supposed to do when you’re afraid is going to sleep. It is like playing dead so the threat doesn’t take any interest in you.

It’s a very interesting way to cope with negative emotions. But in the podcast, Lisa Feldman Barrett also stated that “If there was only one thing that you could do in your life, only one, it would be to sleep a decent amount every day, whatever that means for you. It’s usually somewhere between seven and eight hours for most adults, and it’s longer for kids and adolescents.”

That’s it. Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy it. If you would like to receive the content every Sunday, sign up below 😎



Cheng-Wei Hu | 胡程維

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