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How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Lisa Feldman Barrett, Emotions & Neuroscience


Emotions & Neuroscience

Lisa Feldman Barrett


Lisa Feldman Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, and past president of Association for Psychological Science. Dr. Barret has authored How Emotions are Made and Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, and published over 240 peer-reviewed scientific papers. She has received numerous awards for her revolutionary research on emotion in the brain.

Transcription of the video


Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant positive societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

I would say that as a scientist, one thing we know is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So, when you look at past epidemics, you can see that in a crisis like this, like the flu epidemic and others, similar, Spanish flu epidemic and at the turn of the century and other epidemics, one aspect of social life that did in some ways get better, was the stratification of society and to some extent, some forms of racism. So one thing that crises do like this is they kind of reveal the cracks in a society. And I think we saw this with just in recent weeks with the reaction to the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives movement, in the United States and in Canada, and in lots of countries around the world, so one possibility is that people will take action, they’ll realize that one of our greatest strengths as a species is that we are social animals. And that means that we are necessary to each other’s well-being. And so hopefully, now that these cracks have been revealed, many of us have known they’ve been there for a long time. We’ll have the opportunity to do something about them.

What kind of wisdom will people need to capitalize on the positive societal and/or psychological change after the pandemic?

We have this really interesting dilemma in our species, and that is that we evolved as social animals, which means that we regulate each other’s behavior, but it also means we regulate each other’s nervous systems. The best thing for a human nervous system is another human. And the worst thing for a human nervous system often is another human. So I think this dilemma that we’re in is that we have these socially dependent nervous systems in a culture that prizes and prioritizes individual rights and freedoms. And so I think we have to realize this. And we have to realize that in a culture that prioritizes individual rights and freedoms, we’re aware of the fact that we’re responsible for ourselves, we’re responsible for our own behavior, we’re responsible for our own well-being. But as a social species, given our socially dependent nervous systems that we’ve evolved, we also have to realize that we’re more responsible for other people, for the well-being of other people, than we might know and like. We are responsible for each other’s well beings, even for people we don’t even know very well, for people don’t look like us, who don’t act like us, and who we might consider to be strangers.

Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant negative societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

It would probably be the same kind of thing in the sense when I said that if you look back to previous epidemics, you can see that there have been efforts that make things a little bit more egalitarian in certain ways where social stratification is reduced in certain ways. But there’s also evidence that it goes the other way, that people become more entrenched in their in-group and out-group beliefs. And there’s an opportunity, unfortunately, for increased racism in certain cases. In each case, when there’s been a large health crisis it’s certain groups that benefit and other groups don’t, what I mean by that is certain out-groups benefit and they do better actually, the minority culture broadens to include them more, but there are always out-groups that suffer more too. And I think that’s a real danger here.

What kind of wisdom will people need to master to overcome major negative societal and/or psychological changes after the pandemic?

First of all, history is really instructive. As a species, we cooperate with each other, we copy each other, we learn from each other, we communicate with each other in this really high fidelity way. We’re really creative when we work together to solve problems. It’s important to realize that we have this capacity to help each other but also to really harm each other. Unless we’re really careful. There are really good reasons to believe that watching out for the well-being of other people in the end also makes it easier for you to take care of yourself and the people that you love.

What piece of wisdom do people need to make it through the pandemic?

Remember you’re a social animal. Remember that. You need other people to keep yourself healthy. And you need social connection to keep your well-being intact. And other people need you. So, random acts of kindness, be kind to other people, treat other people with human dignity. Remember that your biology doesn’t only belong to you, you spread it around every time you breathe. If everybody remembers that they can have a good impact on other people or a bad impact on other people they can choose to be the kind of person who has a good impact, they can choose to be their best self.
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