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What Moves You? The Power of Emotions
How Our Feelings Impact Our Thoughts: Reviewing ‘Emotional’ by Leonard Mlodinow
In the dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presents the soul as a charioteer with a two horses. He floats this analogy in an extended discussion about regulating desire. “Only one of his horses is thoroughly noble and good,” says Plato, “while the other is thoroughly the opposite . . . scarcely to be controlled with a combination of whip and goad” (246b, 253e).
The gods, according to Plato, possess two noble horses to pull their chariots. But mortals possess a motley team—competing emotions and drives, some of which pull us upward, others which yank us down. In this view, the job of the rational mind (the charioteer) is to gain control of his more stubborn stallion and ascend harmoniously like, and to, the gods.
Plato’s analogy is, to one degree or another, responsible for the common division in Western thinking between the rational and nonrational mind. But, as physicist and science writer Leonard Mlodinow points out, this division is “misguided.” Mlodinow’s new book, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, offers a concise and accessible summary of how and where this older view falters in light of contemporary psychology, neuroscience, and related disciplines.
Whereas the earlier framework encouraged us to see rationality as what separates humans from animals, Mlodinow flips the old view on its head. “Emotion is a part of the mental machinery we share with all higher animals,” he says, “but even more than rationality its role in our behavior is what sets us apart from them.”
The ground floor of emotion is what’s referred to as “core affect,” a moment-to-moment manifestation of our physical and mental well-being influenced by everything from blood-sugar levels to reading the Drudge Report. (Don’t do it!) Sometimes we just feel fab or funky and couldn’t say why; that’s core affect.
“In the genesis of an emotion, core affect is believed to represent the input of your body, which, when combined with the circumstances you find yourself in, the context of that situation, and your background knowledge, will produce the emotions you experience,” explains Mlodinow. “It is thus a crucial link between body and mind, connecting your physical condition to your thoughts, feelings, and decisions.”
Emotions form part of the brain’s flexible response calculus. Any number of stimuli might prompt the same response, say disgust or anger. Likewise, a single stimulus might provoke many different responses; something that makes you mad might, for instance, also trigger surprise, jealousy, even laughter. And you don’t need to be thwarted by a cartoon supervillain to access this emotional combo.
What’s more, emotions don’t toggle on and off. They vary and scale, which provides the brain necessary information in formulating responses. “A strange noise coming from downstairs when you'd thought you were alone might make you a little fearful if the incident happens at noon,” says Mlodinow, “but very afraid if it’s at midnight. The difference in reaction is a useful distinction based on your knowledge of the world (specifically in this case on your knowledge of when home break-ins are most likely to occur).”
With all of this in mind, we can see emotions as mental states produced by various inputs, both internal and external, enabling us to act and react more advantageously in the world. Emotions are, says Mlodinow, not merely precursors to thought; they are modes of thought that influence subsequent thinking.
Consider anxiety. Interpreting ambiguous data when we’re already anxious tends to produce negative conclusions. In another state, say one of ebullience, we might wave off the same data as meaningless or irrelevant. That’s not to say one state is better than the other. As Mlodinow points out, sometimes the negative interpretation is accurate and keeps us out of trouble.
Emotional influence goes well beyond basic states like anxiety or ebullience. Just think of the various social emotions. Mlodinow lists several: admiration, disgust, empathy, gratitude, guilt, honesty, indignation, pride, and shame. Our moral reasoning is heavily weighted by these and other social emotions, according to New York University professor Jonathan Haidt.
Positive emotions likewise aid resourcefulness and adaptability. So, surprisingly, does sadness. Says Mlodinow,
Sadness motivates us to do the difficult mental work of rethinking beliefs and reprioritizing goals. It broadens the scope of our information processing in order to help us understand the causes and consequences of our loss or failure and the obstacles to our success. And it is geared toward reassessing our strategies and accepting new conditions that might not be desirable but that we cannot alter.
Emotions affect goal achievement in other ways, too, most importantly through the emotion of determination. We can choose to do x, y, or z, but unless we take and maintain action toward those accomplishments, our goals will languish.
According to the results of recent neurological research, determination comes from an interplay of our brain’s emotional salience and executive control networks. The first filters the barrage of sensory inputs we receive to identify what’s relevant for our goals, while the second helps us stay focused on what matters to achieve those goals. The combined action of these two areas of the brain create our sense of determination and persistence.
Sometimes, however, our goals are confounded by rogue emotions. Mlodinow provides a fascinating example in liking versus wanting. We want to pursue goal x, but we like the way obstruction y feels and suddenly our pursuit is derailed. When reading this portion of the book, my mind kept pulling up St. Paul’s frustrated confession in Romans 7:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
Paul concludes, more or less, that sin splits him down the middle.
I don’t know how that position squares with contemporary neuroscience, but that discipline has isolated wanting and liking in two different and sometimes competing circuits in the brain. If we only wanted, we’d have little check on our behavior. But because we may in the moment like something more than we want a competing good (or bad), we have more control over our behavior than the wanting circuit firing on its own. It’s also worth considering how much these likes and wants are conditioned by habit and what Luke Burgis would call our cultural ecosystem of desire.
This takes us to the challenge managing our emotions, which is how Mlodinow closes the book. In short we manage our emotions best when we’re aware of their influence. Mlodinow outlines methods for increasing our a-ha moments, but the upshot is to change our conditioning through awareness and momentary intervention to more advantageous modes of interacting with the world.
Any parent or dieter or worker—or whoever—can share the news we already know: Easier said than done. But possibility is like emotion. It comes with a fader switch, not a toggle.
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