Understanding emotion (thru road crossings)

Alastair Somerville
5 min readAug 7, 2018


I was reading Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s “How Emotions Are Made” over the weekend. It’s very good and, as its title directly states, it is very helpful in explaining a modern theory of emotions.

Just to get some rather big ideas out of the way now:

  • There are no specific emotion centers in the brain
  • The Amygdala is not the Fear center
  • There is no Triune brain (the reptile brain, limbic and neocortex ideal)

All of which is interesting but that leaves a lot of questions about how emotions are made and why.

I’m going to use my walk into my home town of Stroud to explain emotions. More specifically, the two main road crossings I encountered going in and coming back home.

This is a very simple example but it’s something you can test by yourself when you take a journey thru your own town or village.

Reality is a construct

I’ve worked in sensory and emotional design for a few years so the complexities of human perception are something I’ve had a growing and changing knowledge of. This book is the most challenging I’ve read. It is quite clear that the reality we perceive and experience is made by us. As Professor Barrett says:

We are architects of our own experience

Our minds predict and simulate realities to enable our passage thru it. Our memories are used to construct realities and our senses are used to nudge their “truthfulness” in the moment. Our imaginations can fill in gaps and our emotions can manipulate our specific actions.

Everything is built.

Emotions are constructed.

We build our emotions in preparation for events and not in reaction to them.

And so, back to Stroud road crossings.

Going into town

It’s about 10 minutes walk into town. Mostly I walk alongside the main road and can cut under it at one point. I need to cross the road only once. At a crossing that does not have pedestrian control of lights.

In the UK, a crossing like this gives pedestrians priority. I step out, cars must stop.

This crossing is very bad for that not happening. Drivers are distracted, heading down the hill, by the double roundabout. They fail to see the pedestrian crossing.

I know this. I’ve seen too many cars cut in front of people. I’ve had to hold my own children back when a car fails to stop.

I know. I anticipate.

Within myself that means my body is preparing itself. As I approach the crossing, cortisol is being released. I am, without conscious knowledge, preparing to avoid being hit. Extra energy for sudden movement.

This is the visceral construct of the experience that my embodied system of being is preparing.

Predicting, simulating and preparing.

But there’s another construction going on.

An emotion is being prepared.


Bloody drivers

It’s dangerous when someone driving a couple of tonnes of metal nearly hits you. It’s bad for you. It’s bad for people, like your family, who may be with you (or at home).

Offhand, your body doesn’t like wasting energy and your brain is a spectacular energy hog. Avoiding energy use is good and it’s within this framing that emotion must be judged.

You are not reacting to events.

You are preparing for them.

  • There is no reptile brain playing havoc with your more evolved neocortex.
  • There are no emotion centers in the brain suddenly activating to disturb your rationality.

You are preparing to be emotional because the situation demands it. You predict and simulate the possibility of being clipped by a car.

You prepare for the need to take decisions more quickly.

You need the clarity of purpose of emotion. To help you act, to help you communicate, to help you live longer.

So, as I approach the crossing, the visceral preparation is joined by an emotional preparation.

I could be angry.

Today, there were no cars passing at that moment. I just crossed the road.

I wasn’t angry.

A lot of our lives are spent like this. We are prepared for emotion but don’t need them.

Returning home

I came home later after shopping at the supermarket.

The only road crossing I need is a controlled pedestrian crossing near that shop. I press the button, wait, the lights change and the cars stop so I can cross.

I have never seen a car cross at red at this crossing. I know it happens but not here.

That means I don’t remember any visceral or emotional reactions to this crossing.

I don’t anticipate the need to avoid a car. So, throughout me, there is no need to simulate or construct such an experience.

It’s not likely so why prepare for it? There’s no need for cortisol so don’t release it. There’s no need to construct emotions.

Save energy. Save effort.

Today, as before, I crossed over and walked home.

Building emotions

What I’ve tried to explain here is that emotions are made by you in anticipation of their need.

You don’t react emotionally.

You construct experiences that may require emotion.

We are architects.

You can feel the architecture when you go for a walk tomorrow.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. www.linkedin.com/in/alastair-somerville-b48b368 Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX