In Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book ‘How Emotions are Made,’ the neuroscientist offers a compelling look at how the human brain simulates emotions. Her constructed emotional theory provokes us to ponder how stories created in our mind about ourselves while perceiving the world are an interplay of mind, body and culture.

“If the self is a concept, then you construct instances of your self by simulations,” Barrett writes. “Each instance fits your goals for the moment. Sometimes you categorize yourself by your career. Sometimes you’re a parent, or a child, or a lover. Social psychologists say we have multiple selves, but you can think of the repertoire as instances of a single, goal-based concept called ‘The Self’ in which the goal shifts based on context.”

Weaving emotional science into storytelling

In reading this, I was reminded how storytelling can be enriched when we aren’t afraid to approach complexity in issues and in people. When developing a complex, a writer attempts to show the conflict of multiple selves. In each instance of drama, conflict moves the plot forward, giving the writer a chance for us to examine the many different aspects of our many selves. Compelling stories illuminate the mixed bag of emotions where heavy issues have some humor and hope.

Barrett’s findings explain the neuroscience behind emotions in ways that could help us, writers and content creators, be better attuned to the multitude of selves contained in our audiences that reach beyond demographics. In this seven-part blog series, I take highlights from Barrett’s findings and explore how understanding the mind as a manufacturer of emotions can teach us to be more empathetic in marketing, advertising and writing.

When content that embraces complexity provokes a surge in sales

A recent surge in chess sets sales has been linked to the enormous popularity of Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ a TV series that portrays an orphaned-drug-addict-fighting-girl-turned-chess-prodigy.

“The chess community fell in love with the series because it successfully portrays different aspects of chess in all its richness: It’s easy enough to be fun to play, but also complex enough to pose a challenge,” said David Llada, a spokesman for the International Chess Federation in a New York Times article.

“It is nerdy, but also cool and fashionable. It is intensively competitive, but full of interesting, creative and colorful characters.”

This high-quality content drove chess set sales without a cent put into advertising:

  • According to a CNBC Make It article, ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ garnered Netflix 62 million viewers in the show’s first four weeks.
  • Chess set sales rose 25 percent in 2020, but in the weeks since ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ premiered, sales shot up by 125 percent, according to toy industry analyst Juli Lennett.
  • “How to play chess” was searched on Google in October 2020 more than in the last nine years.
  • eBay sales for electronic, wooden, glass, or plastic chess sets, timers, and other chess paraphernalia jumped by 125 percent at the end of 2020.

Because of the compelling characters portrayed, viewers could see themselves as chess savants, identifying with various traits within a character.

So how does this involve brain science?

Brain science concepts worth a writer’s consideration

Barrett’s research shows that, as humans, we process information in the world based on predictions, which then result in simulations, which build our perceptions based on the social reality around us.

What’s a prediction?

Predictions are what your brain makes when millions of neurons talk to one another, taking in every fragment of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, and uses that to make the best guesses of what’s going on in the world around you and what you need to do to keep yourself alive. It shapes what you will experience, anticipating the actions you will take.

‘Queen’s Gambit’ example of prediction

Main character Beth Harmon scans a chessboard, trying to predict her opponent’s moves. For our brains, we do this for everything in a matter of milliseconds. To catch a ball in the air, we predict the trajectory, the wind, and our muscles move to place us close enough to catch the ball, calculating the placement of our feet while watching the ball in mid-air. So instead of merely reacting to stimuli, we are constantly making predictions to be ready before the thing that happens, happens.

As a writer’s exercise, writers can practice slowing the pace of a character’s actions, and space for these internal predictions to give more insight into the characters we create. ‘Queen’s Gambit’ writers effectively let her inside Beth’s head.

What’s a simulation?

A simulation is what neuroscientists call the built-in process where the brain constructs images and structures experiences based on past information. Without any outside input, the brain is building scenarios and playing them out as a way to cross-check our predictions.

‘Queen’s Gambit’ example of simulation

Harmon’s heart rate increases, her anxiety grows as she stares up into the ceiling and sees a chessboard. Her mind simulates the moves she will make, working through a series of possibilities so as to prepare her for the next match.

In no less dramatic ways, we work through our actions and fill them with the same intensified emotions. Upon seeing a red apple, before we’ve taken a bite, we’ve worked through the taste, texture and juiciness of an apple in our heads. Through prediction and simulation, we’ve already labeled the apple as “delicious” before we actually bite in.

Again, as a writing exercise, keenly describe the physical sensations that arise while your character is anticipating something. Make it something very small, but imbue that thing with emotions, as a way to let readers anticipate what’s to come. In describing details of a particular object, you are creating a simulation for the character and your reader.

What’s social reality?

As Barrett puts it, social reality is not just about words, but words and concepts within your culture indelibly shape how our brains are wired, cueing physical responses for different instances of emotions.

She writes: “Humans, as a species, can modify the biological reality we live in using a powerful, social tool: storytelling. We create compelling narratives that influence what we believe and how we act. Scientists call this ability of ours social reality.”

‘Queen’s Gambit’ example of social reality

Beth Harmon, as an orphan, has a hard time connecting with people emotionally. Her first real human connection at an all-girls orphanage is when she learns chess from the janitor, Mr. Shaibel. For the most part, Beth’s games are “all in her head.” Chess moves take up a lot of her mental space, haunting her in her drug-induced states.

In a game with Shaibel, they perform a synchronized dance of prediction and action, regulating each other’s stress levels in a match of both wits and cool. They basically sync up both mentally and emotionally, bonding, even after Beth wins. Beth asks: “Am I good enough now?” Shaibel’s response: “To tell you the truth, child, you are astounding.”

Beth’s perception of herself is shaped by the culture’s social agreements. In the 1960s, hardly any girls played chess. In fact, even appearing intelligent or equal to male competitors seemed a bit off from the social norms of the time. What’s striking about her characterization is that she is marked by her tragedy, and her character’s competing “selves” draw from a history steeped in western culture’s fascination with tortured genius and the lone hero narrative.

One of western culture’s social realities sees valor and grit in a protagonist who fights her own demons. Amid a male-dominated chess competition that pits Americans against Russians, Beth is a female outsider on multiple levels.

The more conscious we are of the different social realities that exist, the better positioned we are to be architects of our own experiences and those of others. When we attempt narratives for different cultures or audiences, it helps to understand how “happiness” or “success” or “healthy” are linked to different social agreements.

For example, a “healthy woman” as defined in advertising campaigns in the West may look very unhealthy to audiences in Asia, Africa or Latin America. The cultural lenses that influence those concepts can make us more attuned to how storytelling can influence behaviors.