A neuroscientist reveals the crucial difference between feelings and emotions

Do you also have a problem with emotions and feelings? Getting them confused, or thinking they are two words for the same experience?

Do you also sometime surprise yourself with utterly childish behavior? You thought you were this adult, but suddenly, out of the blue you miserable, everyone makes you miserable and you feel you have failed at life.

Welcome to the club. You are not alone, and thankfully there are some clever people around to explain ourselves to ourselves.

For the first time ever, I understand the difference between feelings and emotion.

I learned the nitty gritty of this important distinction from a Ted Talk given by Dr. Alan Watkins, founder of Complete Coherence.

His talk is about understanding why you feel what you feel so that you can take control and not feel like a victim. We have to understand that no one can make us feel anything, we create that ourselves.

A neuroscientist by background and an international expert on leadership and human performance. Watkins takes us through the key phases of human development and explains why poor emotional control is holding us back.

In his talk he comes to a point in our development, round about midlife, where we experience what is called “the disease of meaning”. We suddenly wake up to the realization that we have followed all the rules, and yet we are unhappy. Why? Watch the video and see him eloquently give us the answer.

Here’s the key point.

Emotions and feelings not the same. Emotions are energy in motion – composite biological signals like a fast beating heart or sweaty palms. Watkins says we all have emotions every single moment of every single day but we don’t necessarily feel it. Feelings are the awareness in our minds of the energy. So the energy is there, but we don’t necessarily feel it and that’s where we are stuck: we have not really learned to understand our own emotional life.

It gets even more interesting.

If we want to transform our lives, we have to understand that ultimately emotions will predict our health, personal sense of well being, success, fulfillment, motivation and decisions. If you don’t know anything about them, then life is a little bit of a lottery.

According to Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University who has been studying decision-making for over a decade, the surest way to maximize happiness has nothing to do with experiences, material goods, or personal philosophy.

It’s all about who you decide to spend time with. But “it’s not just advice to choose your friends carefully,” Cerf told Business Insider.

There are two premises that lead Cerf to believe personal company is the most important factor for long-term satisfaction.

The first is that decision-making is tiring. A great deal of research has found that humans have a limited amount of mental energy to devote to making choices. Picking our clothes, where to eat, what to eat when we get there, what music to listen to, whether it should actually be a podcast, and what to do in our free time all demand our brains to exert that energy on a daily basis.

(Cerf has actually made it a personal policy to always pick the second menu item on the list of specials when he’s out to eat, for just that reason.)

The second premise is that humans falsely believe they are in full control of their happiness by making those choices. So long as we make the right choices, the thinking goes, we’ll put ourselves on a path toward life satisfaction.

Cerf rejects that idea. The truth is, decision-making is fraught with biases that cloud our judgment. People misremember bad experiences as good, and vice versa; they let their emotions turn a rational choice into an irrational one; and they use social cues, even subconsciously, to make choices they’d otherwise avoid.

But as Cerf tells his students, that last factor can be harnessed for good.

His neuroscience research has found that when two people are in each other’s company, their brain waves will begin to look nearly identical. One study of moviegoers, for instance, found the most engaging trailers all produced similar patterns in people’s brains.

“The more we study engagement, we see time and again that just being next to certain people actually aligns your brain with them,” based on their mannerisms, the smell of the room, the noise level, and many other factors, Cerf said. “This means the people you hang out with actually have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike.”

It’s apparent in people’s behavior, too. Buzzkills bring people’s moods down; fast-talkers cause the pace of conversation to pick up; comedians get people feeling light, or funny.

From those two premises, Cerf’s conclusion is that if people want to maximize happiness and minimize stress, they should build a life that requires fewer decisions by surrounding themselves with people who embody the traits they prefer. Over time, they’ll naturally pick up those desirable attitudes and behaviors. At the same time, they can avoid the mentally taxing low-level decisions that sap the energy needed for higher-stakes decisions.

Following Cerf’s restaurant policy, he said he also likes to avoid picking the restaurant. Instead, he prefers to make one decision — who to eat with — and pick someone who he trusts. Chances are that person will pick a place Cerf enjoys, which means the second special option is also more likely to leave him feeling satisfied.

In other words, he avoids making two smaller decisions by making one larger one.

The same can apply for people who want to exercise more, watch less TV, take up a musical instrument, or become more sociable. In all cases, Cerf said, the most important decision is who you surround yourself with.

7 thoughts on “A neuroscientist reveals the crucial difference between feelings and emotions

  1. Brilliant! A good excuse not to make a decision then? Or is it?

    Actually, the business of becoming like people you spend time with is true. My husband and I often say the same thing at the same time, or else one of us says what the other was thinking.

  2. This is really a smart presentation but it is not as brilliant as it seems. On the difference between feelings and emotions (which is by the way a matter of definitions) he gives a very brief and simplistic explanation. We don’t get any neuro-scientific elaborations on that. Instead we are very quickly presented with a fancy “map” of all possible emotions of which there are, so it is proclaimed, 34.000. This is of course nothing more than an arbitrary statement to impress the lay-person. In buddhist teachings, it is said that there are 84.000 of them. We can imagine what an arduous process it would be to describe all of them and make an inventory. Still a very quick witted speaker! But not the expert he purports to be.

    • From what I know of TedX audiences they don’t want complex elaborations. Some of the best speakers I know are good for the very fact that they distill complex ideas in to simple explanations.

  3. Yes, that is my experience of Ted audiences as well,however, there is a difference between distilling and diluting. A bit more data could make many talks that much more meaningful/substantial …..??!!

  4. We are made by God for God to be with God . Original creation in the likeness and image of God .
    Sin marred this image , separated from God , became insensitive and we were broken within and without . Our tripartite being was turned upside down and we became a contradiction and a bundle of paradoxes . Body, soul and spirit ; intellect , emotion and will ; faith , fact and feelings ; all in our fallen nature are in conflict , discord and defiled . In and through redemption , reconciliation and regeneration we are made a new creation being conformed to the image and likeness of our redeemer Lord Jesus to be a sound whole person .

  5. Great summary of the talk and research by Moran Cerf. I heard a lot of we only have so many making decision ability per day for a few months now So that might explain why people ar so reluctant to make some. They feel overwhlemed and their energy level are depleated. It may be cause how we choose to live

  6. All true, but where do emotions come from? Human Givens College and FasterEFT give the answer: emotions are “locked” to experiences we have from birth on. Our mind is a “pattern matching machine” that learns or builds on experiences. Tobe able to distance yourself from your emotion of anger e.g. you must know how that emotions was “patterned” into your emotional makeup. When you can see/discover the “anger-pattern” in your automatic reactions, you have a chance of putting a distance between you and your “emotion of anger”. Find the pattern and how you learned to react with anger and you van change your emotion.

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