Emotions and how are emotions made

EMOTIONS, how are they made?

How are you?

How many times have we asked this question? Particularly over this past year.

A lot.

And, now ask yourself how many times did we really want to hear the answer or how many times did we really answer honestly?

Hmmmm, not so many.

“How are you?” is probably the most asked question of all time and simultaneously the most unanswered.  Why?  Because let’s face it emotions are running through everything we do, think, create, decide, say!  And yet we don’t talk much about them really, and perhaps it’s because at the end of the day we don’t know much about them.

How many emotions are there?

If you like me, I grew up with the classic 5 faces on the classroom wall on how we feel or supposedly feel:


Years later, nothing appears to have changed and my kids have grown up with the exact same framework!  SIMPLE. However, I guess we all discover soon enough that actually it is much more complicated than that.  And many of us probably begin realise we never actually knew how to describe how we really felt deep inside!  Moreover, what to do with the hundred thousand other nuances of emotions that we felt.

Technically if it doesn’t have a name then technically it doesn’t exist in our experience.  And so it floats inside us like a cloud, an unnamed fog, an undefined mood.

Stuck at home

Understanding and confronting our emotions

I’ve been always fascinated by the world of emotions!  However, as a so called “self controlled” person for most all my life, I was somehow a bit scared of them I guess.  Meaning, never too in touch with what was happening inside me and quite good at ‘bottling up’, pushing away and covering it up.   A perfect example of “Yes! All is good thank you!”  .

But one day, I decided to take a different look at myself in the mirror.  And I decided to dig a little deeper, dig deeper in a more scientific approach of trying to understand emotions themselves.

I probably thought that looking at emotions with a “scientific microscope” would been less scary and vague.  And I guess I was right! Because what I found during this journey to the epicentre of my emotions is not only safe, but also truly empowering.

The world of emotions is indeed a complex one, but not in the way I first imagined.

We all deal with a two thousands years old assumption that goes on and on.  Described to us by Plato to Rene Descartes to Darwin and through much of the dogma of different religions that basically tell us the same thing.

We live in a constant battle between our irrational heart and our rational mind, the good and the evil, the superhero and the villain, the divided selves that teared us a part constantly.  But apparently this is just a myth, a catchy story that has found no evidence in the recent neuroscience research which is telling us completely different story.

In fact, a rather astonishing one.

We are not divided, there is no evil or good inside us, neither a left nor a right brain.  There aren’t 3 brains from different stages of evolution, ie. we don’t have a lizard brain lurking inside us.  And we are not divided, instead we are a whole, a whole person.  Keep reading before you decide this goes against everything you currently know.

As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio beautifully wrote in his revolutionary book “The Descartes error”, perhaps the over estimated role of “the Thinking” has caused the misunderstanding.  Because as it turns out, the first feature of our sophisticated brains is not Thinking.  In fact, our brain, it’s designed to keep us alive more than “right and happy.” It’s an efficiency machine not an efficacy machine.   Furthermore, one of the top neuroscientists of the moment, Phd Lisa Feldman Barrett, explains this beautifully in her 2 books “ Seven and Half lesson about the brain “ and “ How emotions are made”.

In essence, our brain does’t distinguish between reality or imagination, between good or bad but rather what costs us less in term of our metabolic consumption.  Well, if you are still following me here, this is a lot to reconsider isn’t it?

I found it quite literally, MIND BLOWING.

So how are emotions made?

Well, emotions are created by our brain and they fuel everything we do, chose and decide.

“They are not built in, but built.” (Cit Lisa Feldman Barrett)

There is no logic without emotions, no emotions without a logic.

“We are not thinking machines that feel, but feeling machines that think” (cit. Antonio Da Masio)

The new theories of “constructed emotions” replace the classic view of rationality and irrationality.  We experience our emotional world though the experiences we’ve had in the past.  For example how we grew up, what we saw and experienced during our childhood and continuously through our lives.  Essentially this all forms part of how we experience and make predictions on how we are supposed to feel in any given situation based on how we once felt.  So what feels instinctive in our reactions is in fact a “constructed” choice our brain makes every single time based on past interactions and experience.

Can we change how we feel?

So the good news is, that how we “construct” or how we feel today is not something unchangeable.  In fact it’s quite the opposite.  We can change how we experience what we feel and the actions that follow. It’s called awareness and direct neuroplasticity.  And what comes with this knowledge is the freedom to make choices of what is or is not serving us well today and tomorrow.

As the ‘Expat Brain explains, we are live wired!  Meaning, we collect experiences that shape our emotional world but we are also malleable if we put attention and effort into what we want to change.

Often times we tell ourselves stories like, “I’m born that way”, “that’s me, this is how I function” or “I always do that”

Well, we are not and it’s not true.  We don’t need to be a slave to the stories that don’t serve us.  Unquestionably it’s within each us to change if we so choose.

Of course, our Brain may be happy with autopilot, of repeating the same story over and over, it’s an efficiency machine.  The question however is, are we?

A simple process?

It’s that easy? Unfortunately no, it’s not.

We are built to take short cuts and most of the times painful ones.  But as I mentioned it does’t have to stay that way indefinitely.  It requires plenty of practice and huge amounts effort. That is the truth!

Importantly though it’s doable!  Absolutely we can create another path in our brain on how we respond to life.  Walking over and over on that new path, falling down and rising up again and again.  Think of it like tracing a new path in fresh snow.

What you repeat inside your head you become.  And this too, works for emotions.

Where/How do I start?

First and foremost it’s about wanting the change and committing to it.  Secondly, it’s about asking ourselves better questions.

How my emotions are serving me right now?  What is the message they are carrying for me and what do I want to do with this message?

In short keep asking yourself good questions and don’t believe everything you think (and feel)!

So on that note I leave you!  I believe I have left you plenty to reflect on in terms of the immense and beautiful world of our emotions 🙂

Further Recommended Reading

  1. How Emotions are made by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  2. 7 and half lessons about the brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  3. Emotional Agility by Susan David
  4. Permission to feel by Mark Brackett
  5. Livewired by David Eagleman

Monica Scillieri

Monica is British/Italian (Born in Genoa, but Sicilian by heart), the mom of 3 (ages 14, 13 and 7) and has been living and working abroad for the past 15 years. She is the founder of Expatminded a consultancy firm that supports Expats wellbeing around the world.
Monica is a ICF PCC Certified Coach, Intercultural Trainer and is NeuroScience Academy accredited

relocation and the brain

The Expat Brain, does relocation ‘REWIRE’ you?

Let’s talk about relocation and the brain!  

During the past 15 years, I’ve often wondered how my life abroad was changing, crafting, and moulding me?  And with every passing year, I felt strongly that I was becoming something/someone else.

I’ve always loved change. I left my hometown, Genoa, when I was 23, immediately after I got my BA in Education Sciences and I moved to Milan. And I never regretted it.  Because even if I deeply love my hometown, I always felt it wasn’t the right place to fulfil my dreams and projects! 

I remember when all of this ‘life on the move started’.  It was 2006, and my husband had just told me he had received a job offer to move to London.  My initial reaction was strange, strange in the sense that it was not what I was expecting from myself.  I felt I wasn’t ready.

I’m a quick decision-maker; I jump into new things without thinking too much or overthinking things.  But the news about moving to London sounded ‘too adventurous for me’ for some reason.

To be fair, I’d just had my first baby, Emma, and she was only three months old.  I knew nothing about babies, and on top of it,  I had just found out I was expecting my second baby boy, Filippo.  So, yeah, my hormones were all over the place and probably had something to do with it!

How much do we really Change?

So, how much did I change from that moment in 2006 when I was about to move to London, full of doubts and uncertainties, until now, 15 years later?  And for the record, this is eight moves later. There have been London, Italy, Delhi, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Chennai, Pune, and Delhi.

The answer is quite straightforward:  A lot.  But why?

Understanding our ‘Black box’, our brain

In order to understand and try to figure out what was happening inside my own skull, inside my ‘black box’, I ventured into studying neuroscience.  I became pretty nerdy about the whys; I wanted to know the nitty-gritty reasons about the brain and change.

Of course, Neuroscience is an immense field, and I’m a coach, not a physician, but after some years of studying, I know substantially more about it.

We are live wired and born like open boxes with tons of wires we connect throughout our lives.  It’s happening all the time, even when we are unaware of it.  Honestly, it’s happening in every situation, even right now, while you are reading my story.

Our brain works on predictions. This is to say, we experience, read and feel the world around us through our past experiences. Every moment of every day, our brain stamps an emotion onto everything we experience and do.  This emotion, also called a somatic marker, helps us project the future and decide what to do when we reencounter a similar situation.

The expat brain SUPERPOWER

And this is where our Expat brain reveals its superpower as it’s constantly wiring and rewiring itself through experiences.  Getting faster, getting more efficient with each new rewiring and experience we have.

However, a key ingredient in this process is awareness.  For example, even Spiderman and Superman weren’t fully themselves until they figured out they had superpowers…right?

This rewiring superpower requires awareness, intention and effort to truly master* it.

The more I live in different places, learning, unlearning and then relearning, the more my brain is developing its neuroplasticity, and at quite a speed, I might add.

But there is a catch: neuroplasticity requires exposure.  That is to say, intentional exposure to where we live, the people, the culture, the food, the language, all without too much judgment involved. And let’s be honest, that’s not an easy job! But hey, as they say, ‘no pain, no gain’!

A lesson learnt, isolating and refusing to change never works.

For example, when we moved to India, where we have spent almost ten years now living in 3 different cities, I lived in a total psychological nightmare for the first six months.

Admittedly, I was doing everything written in the manual of ‘Never Adapt’ (if there was one), going vicariously through each and every chapter in it.

I was angry and judgmental, I was not believing in my ability to change, I was living in the past, I isolated myself, not sharing, I was feeling trapped inside my armoury of invincibility. And I pushed myself so hard against the current that I almost broke!

Suddenly, one day, I decided to wake up from the nightmare!  I kicked my ass out of the dark castle of “feeling sorry for myself” and pushed myself out the front door…

Undoubtedly, it was a hard lesson but a necessary one!

When/How does relocation change the brain?

Rewiring our brains through life always requires a hefty daily dose of self-compassion, intention, and effort!  And all three combined make another potent magic sauce!

When our brain (and its amygdala) are exposed to novelty, the first thing it does is compare what is happening with what it already knows.  And, if it doesn’t find a good fit, we suffer, panic, and get tired and disoriented.  However, this is also precisely when the magic happens when new synapses are created and we rewire.

Where our attention goes, energy flows; it’s science!

Eat, Sleep, Experience, REPEAT

But energy alone is not enough.  It requires repetition and practice (and patience)!  As with any sport and every muscle, it needs practice to master and repetition to build.  You don’t run a marathon on day one or bench press 800 pounds; if you try, you may break.  So…don’t.

Small amounts of progress are still progress, and new habits are created an inch at a time!

Reach out to others

Please realise that we are co-regulated systems.  Meaning you don’t have to do it alone, we learn from each other.  We calm down or hyp up with the influence of others.  Our brains secretly work with other brains; change requires connection. Learn from me, and don’t make the mistake I made when I first moved to India.  REACH OUT; your brain will love it, and thank you for it!

To summarise, there is plenty of good news here my fellow expat brains!

Our brain supports us well through change; it moulds and evolves, and we can be 100% sure of that.  However, remember, to add more wiring, we need to let go of what is not serving us any longer.   Release it with self-compassion, intention and repetition, and then it all becomes easier!

So, in a nutshell, this is what I’ve learned about relocation, my brain and change so far!  And as I’ve said before, remember we are all ‘works in progress’ and that each step we take is an opportunity!

Happy REWIRING to you all!

*to be precise, if you are under 25 years old, then you are still damn lucky because rewiring occurred with minimal effort

Monica Scillieri

Monica is British/Italian (Born in Genoa, but Sicilian by heart), the mom of 3 (ages 14, 13 and 7) and has been living and working abroad for the past 15 years. She is the founder of Expatminded a consultancy firm that supports Expats wellbeing around the world.
Monica is a ICF PCC Certified Coach, Intercultural Trainer and is NeuroScience Academy accredited