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You want to manage your anger better. Your brain wants you to stay alive. Here’s how you can do both.

Can you discern the differences among all the subtle shades of your anger? Graphic by Hannah Moore/Northeastern University

Chances are, something has made you angry recently. Maybe it was an argument. Maybe it was accidentally burning a dinner you’d been looking forward to all day. Maybe it was something that a politician said.

“A lot of people are angry these days,” says Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor at Northeastern University who studies the psychology of emotion.

How do you know you’re angry? Perhaps your blood pressure rises, your heart rate increases, your cheeks flush. It’s your brain’s job to interpret these signals and create an emotion from them: anger. But your blood pressure rises, your heart rate increases, and your face flushes when you’re running, too. The precision with which your brain makes specific emotions is known as emotional granularity, Barrett says, and the more emotional granularity you have, the better your brain can do its job.   

“For some people anger, sadness, and fear are all synonyms for ‘I feel unpleasant or bad,’” says Barrett, University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern. “But for other people, their brains can make fairly distinct concepts corresponding to these words that then guide their actions in a specific way.”

To better understand how this works, imagine an artist and an ordinary person looking at two slightly different blue lights. While they’re both shades of blue, the artist experiences them as indigo and cyan while the ordinary person experiences them both as blue. The artist, therefore, is better able to choose complementary colors accordingly. Similarly, a person who experiences frustration as distinct from annoyance is better equipped to respond to the source of that frustration.

To understand why, we need to make a quick detour into the mechanics of the brain.

For your entire life, Barrett says, your brain is entombed in a dark, silent box called the skull. “It learns what is going on in the world only indirectly, via scraps of information from the sensory channels of the body.”

That sensory information—sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells—are the effects of what’s happening in the world. Your brain has to take this information and figure out what caused it, so it knows what to do about it to keep you alive and well, Barrett says. The tricky part is that any given sensory input (take a flash of light, for example) can have many different causes.

The brain has to make this same backward inference with your body, and encounters the same challenge.

“An ache in your gut could be hunger if you’re sitting at the dinner table,” Barrett says. “But if you’re in a doctor’s office awaiting test results, you might experience the exact same ache as anxiety. Your brain has to determine the causes of sensations when all it can access are the effects.”

The brain has one crucial tool to solve this problem: past experiences.

Your brain remembers experiences that are similar in some way to the present, Barrett says. So in any given circumstance, it’s not asking ‘What is this?’ It’s asking ‘What is this like?’

University Distinguished Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

And that’s where having high emotional granularity—very precise emotion-making—can help. The more specific experiences your brain can call upon, the more accurately it can determine those causes. Then, it can use this information to figure out what to do next.

“The brain is always preparing what to do next,” Barrett says. “So when you’re faced with sensory events and need to know what to do next, it’s not useful to create a negative mood. To prepare how to act, your brain needs to do better than ‘This sucks.’ There’s not a lot of behavioral specificity associated with ‘This sucks.’”

Interpreting your accelerated heart rate and flushed cheeks as, ‘This situation is frustrating me,’ is much more useful.

Barrett says we can develop higher emotional granularity by exposing ourselves to situations that might provoke new emotions, by learning new emotion words, watching movies and reading books where characters face situations unfamiliar to us, and interacting with people whose cultures are different from ours.

For example, Barrett explained in an interview with NPR, understanding that ancient Greeks differentiated between a flash of anger and a long-lasting anger can help our brains learn to make different varieties of anger that are more precisely tied to specific situations.

There are concrete benefits to having high emotional granularity, as well. Barrett says people who have high emotional granularity “cope better with stress, and are less likely to rely on alcohol to manage emotions.”

Having high emotional granularity means “you’re not wasting a lot of metabolic energy figuring out what to do in a given situation,” she says. “Your brain can take very specific actions quickly.”

Barrett cautions about interpreting every bodily sense as emotion, though.

“The main physical symptom of dehydration isn’t thirst, it’s fatigue,” she says. “Sometimes it’s better to experience sensations as purely physical rather than emotional.”

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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