Recently I visited the University of Virginia to attend a guest lecture from a visiting professor. I was so excited about the speaker and her topic that, waiting for her to begin felt much like waiting for my favorite band to come on stage. In fact, had a staff member stepped to the podium to announce that the talk had been cancelled, but that we were welcome to stay in our seats for a live acoustic set by U2, I would have been disappointed. Music is nice, but so are good ideas--especially ideas with the power to alter our worldview and our understanding of ourselves.
Lisa Feldman Barrett is a Psychiatrist and Neuroscientist at Northeastern University in Boston. Reading Dr. Feldman Barrett’s 2017 book, How Emotions are Made was a unique and memorable experience for a social sciences nerd like me. Her ideas were big and new. Her research challenged my understanding of the human experience so profoundly that I often had to pause, even for a day or two, to allow what I was reading to sink in.
How Emotions are Made summarizes decades of work by Dr. Feldman Barrett and her team. Her various studies challenge the classical Western view of emotions as essential, universal and hard-wired into the human brain. For centuries, the assumption has been that our experience of the world triggers an automatic and predictable emotional response. For example: A colleague criticizes our idea during a meeting and we are flooded with anger.
This notion that emotions are wired into some deep part of our brain, perhaps one that we share with animals, has been a part of Western culture for centuries. It is one of those ideas that we are so steeped in that we do not question it, partly because the theory aligns with our subjective experience. Emotions arrive so quickly that they do seem automatic.
We’ve been taught that the brain is operating on a stimulus and response model. Dr. Feldman Barrett’s work, and that of a growing body of other Neuroscientists, demonstrates that the brain is actually running a predict and correct model. It is looking at the world and cross-referencing our current experience with our previous experience in an effort to determine an appropriate response, be that a feeling or an action or a combination of both.
If our prediction is a bit off, we make corrections. The incredible processing speed of the brain and nervous system creates the illusion of stimulus-response. In truth, our brain is constantly active, running cascades of multiple predictions which all occur so fast that we experience them as automatic.
Consider this scenario: Her back toward us as she reads a report we just gave her, our manager says, “No, no, no! This is all wrong!” Our body tenses. Depending upon our relationship to our boss, we may even get a surge of adrenalin as we prepare for an instance of anger, frustration or fear. Then our boss turns and we see that she is smiling, even laughing. There was an oversight in our paper that she found humorous. Our brain instantly corrects. No need to prepare to argue and defend our work. This is an instance of humor. The flow of adrenalin shuts off, our muscles relax and we let out a laugh. Prediction and correction.
Life experience teaches us to recognize situations where a particular emotion, say anger or happiness, is appropriate. As we get older and older we refine that learning via repeated experience.
Fine you say. We don’t want to read a 400 page book on brain research so we’ll take your word for it. But please tell us, what has all this got to do with our work in relocation?
I will try to connect Dr. Feldman Barrett’s work to relocation, but first another concept.
If the brain is working on a predict-correct model, looking at the world and interpreting it through past experience to help determine what is the appropriate response to our current situation, then what happens when our prediction is way off? That experience would be called “learning.”
Assuming we are not too tired to take in the new information, and assuming we don’t simply deny the fact that our prediction was incorrect, our brain incorporates the surprising outcome in a learning experience that will lead to more accurate predictions in the future. If we are just getting to know our boss, we will wire in the tone and body posture of her “No, no, no. This is all wrong.” and learn that she may use such language in a state of amusement, not necessarily anger.
We’ve all heard that old chestnut, “Experience is the best teacher.” In fact, we’ve all experienced it. We learn when our experience-based prediction does not align with reality. In fact, if our prediction was way off there is likely to be strong emotion associated with the experience, which only serves to strengthen the learning and to solidify it in our memory.
So what happens when we find ourselves in a situation for which we have no relevant experience that might help us form an accurate prediction? The brain will continue to search for relevant experience but it is truly in the dark. We either settle on a poor prediction or find ourselves in the unsettling circumstance of not being able to generate a prediction. Almost dumbfounded. Dr. Feldman Barrett refers to that state as “experiential blindness.”
Toddlers offer a great example here. A toddler is a pioneer living in a world of experiential blindness. One can’t explain the laws of physics or the fundamentals of psychology to a toddler with words. Experience is his teacher and the world around is his laboratory. What will happen if I push this lamp over? What will happen if I take that boy’s toy truck? What will happen if I drop this bowl of spaghetti? We haven’t discussed the metabolic cost of learning. Put simply it is very high. The brain uses a lot of energy to encode new experiences. If you think of a toddler as a brain awash in a world of new experiences, the need for naptime makes a lot of sense.
And finally we reach our assignee. Yes I am leaping from toddlers to assignees. Many of you are probably a step ahead of me in making this connection. Much like our toddler, an assignee is a pioneer living in a world of experiential blindness. Sure our assignee has the laws of physics down. No need to drop spoons to the floor to affirm that gravity is still working. But the adult world is less one of physical action and more one of social interaction.
Our assignee is experientially blind to the culturally specific rules for managing a team, or standing in line at the bank, or greeting strangers on the elevator, or conducting a performance review, or receiving dinner guests, or filling her car with petrol, or punching her metro ticket. She can try to read body language, but she is missing the verbal cues that may have pointed her toward the appropriate action or response in her home country. The word “foreign” is truly appropriate here. Foreign in the sense of new and unknown, even strange at times—at least in comparison to what is familiar. An encounter with the foreign is an encounter to which we are experientially blind. Such is the daily life of our assignee, especially early in her assignment.
Certainly exploring a foreign culture can be an adventure, but the stakes are high for our assignee. This is no vacation. She must insure that her spouse and children are adapting and that her critical work projects are on target and that her new, culturally different team is aligned with her, all while wearing experiential blinders which make it difficult for her to function with the confidence and facility that she is accustomed to in her country of origin.
Our toddler will not be fired for errors that result from his experiential blindness. The adults around him understand that he is learning and the stakes aren’t that high. Not so our executive assignee who has deadlines and revenue targets to meet, and whose career prospects are bound to be impacted by how well she navigates this strange new world.
Living with this kind of uncertainty is stressful. The original definition of stress is the body’s non-specific response to change. This “non-specific response” means turning on fight-or-flight mechanisms and turning off essential long term functions such as the digestive, reproductive and immune systems. Living in this state over long periods is what we call chronic stress and it eventually leads to illness.
Our expatriate’s success, and perhaps even her health, will depend, in large part, on her ability to learn from and adapt to each incidence of prediction error. Yet learning is much more difficult, sometimes not even possible, when we are tired or stressed. Tired and stressed due to time zone differences. Tired and stressed because we spent the weekend shopping for furniture and ended up with a mattress that doesn’t fit our bed. Tired and stressed because our social calendar is full of required dinners with colleagues and other expats. Tired and stressed because we are up at night talking to our spouse about the challenges our child is having adjusting to the new school. Remember those toddlers and their need for naptime? A tired toddler doesn’t take on new information when he encounters a prediction error. He is more likely to throw a fit. The stimuli are too much for his nervous system to handle.
Relocation is a tidal wave of experiential blindness and prediction error. This is where professional support from a qualified destination services provider and a cultural trainer are critical. The role of such relocation professionals is to reduce experiential blindness via education and to accommodate for it by assisting in critical decisions such as where to live.
We have already discussed the fact that experience is the most impactful teacher. Cultural training and destination service support can prime an assignee to learn from moments of prediction error more easily. Such moments are likely to be accompanied by a light bulb moment, “My cultural trainer told me about this!” and the assignee gets the rewarding sensation of connecting an idea with a real life experience. That is learning at its best.
This is probably my longest article for EuRA. If you’ve made it this far you may just be a social sciences nerd like me. I’ll get you a badge. Seriously, though, I believe that most of us are fascinated by questions of human behavior. What makes a novel or a movie interesting if not the opportunity to step inside another mind? Meaningful insight into human behavior creates opportunities for us to better understand, and therefore better serve, our clients and assignees.
Dr. Feldman Barrett’s findings allow us to see our work in a new light. Our role is to minimize stress and uncertainty by reducing experiential blindness, empowering our assignees to make better predictions about how to move through life in their new host country. In so doing, we enable them to achieve the work objectives that prompted the relocation in the first place.
Back to that lecture hall and my preference for neuroscience over rock and roll. Here comes Dr. Feldman Barrett now. Excuse me while I start screaming and fire up my lighter.
This article was written for The EuRApean - Edition December 2018