Balancing the Brain Budget


I try to set aside time during the week to watch or listen to something new in my field (psychology), so I don’t get stale in my knowledge-base.

Last week I tuned into an episode of The Knowledge Project, an interview with Lisa Feldman Barrett – psychologist, neuroscientist and author.

When I think something I’ve been exposed to has practical lessons for students that can be taken from it, I like to share them on this blog.

The interview contained lots of interesting nuggets of wisdom, but I’ve focused on just a couple here. They are particularly pertinent to thinking about why it is so important to care for one’s mental health.


The brain is running a budget for the body

Think of the brain as the body’s accountant, keeping a track of and regulating many of the different resources and processes in your your body – oxygen, salt, water, sodium, hormones etc – all the stuff your body needs to function and keep us alive and kicking.

At any given point in time, your brain is assessing internal data and external data and making meaning and constructing a response. In preparing for that response it generates emotions, thoughts, feelings, memories and pushes them into conscious awareness – it is how the brain communicates the meaning it has made of the incoming data.

It is a big and complex job, so the brain uses a lot of energy, about 20% of our total energy.

When the brain detects something that needs to change or a resource that needs to be obtained, it uses emotions as part of of the motivational process. Feeling ‘hangry’? Well that is part of the signalling process telling you to obtain something to eat.

Whilst it would be great if there was a perfectly defined set of common emotions that signalled clearly defined actions, in reality it is much more difficult than that.

We each bring to our moment-by-moment experience slightly different biology, different learning experiences, different beliefs, memories and perceptions.

So whilst there is definitely some overlap between us in terms of our emotional experience (my anger is probably similar in some ways to your anger), how we feel at any given point in time is the result of a complex set of very individual factors, designed to uniquely motivate us in that moment to take appropriate action. So anger for me today might about chasing up a recalcitrant plumber, whereas for you it might be about getting another student to do their part of a group assignment. This is why trying to find a perfect categorization system for emotions, that holds across all people has proven to be very difficult.

Now creating and implementing emotions/feelings is costly – it is like an expenditure, where the brain expects to get back something in return.

If it doesn’t it incurs a debt. If I keep getting angry at work because of the behaviour of a colleague, but do nothing to address it, then the brain starts to accumulate an anger debt. It has spent a lot of energy trying to motivate me to fix a situation, but my failure to do so leaves it in arrears.

Now for small things, this isn’t really a big problem. But sustained emotional debt can lead to chronic stress which can lead to illness, physical and mental. You’ve probably experienced this before. You feel stuck stuck in a situation where you experience the same emotion/feeling over and over again, but can’t find the appropriate action to address it. Over time, you get weary and defeated and as such vulnerable to illness.

In fact, mood (which is like our background emotional state) is a good barometer for our overall health and wellbeing. Always irritable? Might suggest you have a number of anger debts in place. Always sad? Might suggest you have unprocessed losses to consider. Always anxious? Maybe there are feared situations you need to prepare yourself better for.


Self-care is about investing effort in activities that help cancel or buffer against significant emotional debt

You’ve no doubt been told by many people over your lifetime to pay attention to things like sleep, nutrition, physical activity, social connection, breathing and time for rest.

These activities, and their value to you, can now be understood in terms of emotional debt.

You spend each day constantly acting and reacting to situations, driven partially at least by your emotions. Each time you do so, you incur a debt, which is hopefully repaid by the action you take.

But if you don’t, you can finish the day with a significant emotional debt.

That is where activities like sleep, nutrition, physical activity, breathing and social connection come in. Used wisely, these activities generate more emotional currency than they use. Think about how much more clearly you can think about a difficult situation after a good night’s sleep. Or think about how much easier it is to solve a difficult problem in the presence of a loved/trusted person.

If you are neglecting these components of your life, you are missing out on their emotional buffering capacities.

And whilst sleep might be a significant investment (e.g. multiple hours), some of these activities, like breathing exercises can be used effectively and briefly. I just posted a simple breathing exercise recently.


Mindfulness might be about creating a space to better understand your emotional experience

If you are anything like me, you don’t always understand what it is your emotions are telling you, what action they are trying to motivate. So you can end up expending a lot of energy and time on activities that don’t address your underlying needs (or your brain’s needs).

This might be where mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness is paying close attention to the present moment, without judgement.

You can pay attention to many things in a moment of mindfulness: your breath, your 5 senses, physical sensations. You can also pay attention how you are feeling and the thoughts in your head.

When you take a moment to tune into how you are feeling and thinking, whilst delaying taking action, you can often arrive at a better understanding and description of those underlying feelings and thoughts.

For example, when I experience road rage (which is very common for me), but try to take a moment to be mindful of the underlying feelings and thoughts, I often discover a lower level of frustration related to feeling powerless or out of control. The road rage is just a symptom of a message my brain is sending me about feeling a lack of autonomy in my life.

Mindfulness can often be the cure, as well as the method of observing the underlying emotion.

Often, an appropriate response to an emotion is simply to acknowledge and sit with it, to give it time to express itself and then integrate it into a bigger picture. For example, I can integrate my worries about autonomy into a bigger picture in which I remind myself what aspects of my life I am in control of.

If you can learn this skill in your own head, you are often then in a better place to help others with their difficult emotional experiences.


Your emotional life is important

A key takeaway here is that whilst our emotions don’t always simply and unambiguously point us in the right direction all the time, they are incredibly important.

They are one of our brain’s key motivational drivers, designed to get us to take action to address underlying needs.

Interpreting our own (and others’ emotions) is a skill, that can take time to develop.

There are a number of settings where we can develop such skills.

One might be to experiment with mindfulness meditation. A good starting point is an app like Smiling Mind.

Another might be to do an emotional intelligence course –

A simpler place to start is just to spend time with others and get used to talking about your feelings (and inquiring about theirs). When something happens to someone you know, ask them about their feelings. How did they feel when it happened? How do they feel now? What do they think their feelings are telling them? Get used to having conversation in which feelings are treated with the same importance as facts and actions.


Learn more

If this stuff sounds interesting to you, feel free to hit up the original interview from which I took these ideas.


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Mental Health Podcast Psychological Tools Recommended Watching

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