René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who’s most famous for saying: “I think, therefore I am.” He believed that the mind and the body were completely separate, and that the mind could operate through conscious reasoning, unaffected by emotion.
Despite the fact that those ideas have permeated Western Culture for a long, long time:
Descartes was totally wrong.
The Short Version
We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.
– Antonio Damasio
Antonio Damasio, a Neuroscience Professor at USC wrote a book called Descartes’ Error, refuting the idea that sometimes reason detaches from emotion. Damasio tells the story of a patient named “Elliot” who had a life-threatening brain tumor removed. After the surgery, doctors tested Elliot. He was still smart and it seemed he’d lost no cognitive function. They’d removed a totally useless part of the brain.
Or so they thought. Elliot soon found he couldn’t make decisions, even small ones like where to go for lunch. He’d rationally calculate calories, available parking, and driving time, but couldn’t make a decision in an efficient manner. He also made other questionable decisions like leaving his wife of many years for a stripper and losing all his money to obvious scams despite being considered a financial whiz.
He eventually went to see Professor Damasio who immediately noticed that Elliot seemed completely emotionless. When he showed him graphic imagery that usually evoked a strong emotional response Elliot was cool as a cucumber. The reason was the surgeons had unknowingly severed the link in Elliot’s brain between thinking and feeling, essentially ruining his life. He lost his job, his wife, and ended up penniless because having emotions is necessary for making good decisions. Elliot couldn’t even feel the relief of sadness about it.
The moral of the story is that we are always being emotional unless you are like Elliot who had his Ventro-Medial Pre-frontal Cortex removed.
In reviewing the scientific literature, NYU professor Jon Haidt created an analogy to update our understanding of how the brain works: a rider sitting on top of an elephant. The Rider represents the Rational mind; it is analytical, strategizes, thinks long term, and carefully plans. The Elephant is our Emotional mind; fast, responsive, passionate, reckless, and motivated.
Ventromedial Prefrontal cortex
The Rider is Tiny. The Elephant IS Big & Powerful
The emotions are always driving, but sometimes the rational mind can steer. However, it takes patience and practice for the rider to train the elephant. It takes sloooooooow thinking, and the wisdom to evaluate whether your emotions fit well with reality.
Sometimes it’s easy to recognize your elephant is leading. You say things you regret in an argument, have a second piece of cake when you know you shouldn’t, put off an important project until the last minute, or give someone the finger in traffic. Slow thinking usually comes after the storm.
There are times when it’s less obvious that your elephant is in control. Outwardly, you might appear calm and collected, but that doesn’t mean your elephant isn’t stampeding at full speed. Because it’s not immediately obvious when your emotion runs out of control, slow thinking often doesn’t happen in the aftermath.
An example is saying or thinking something like, “I (or someone else) didn’t get the math gene.” You might feeeeeeeel like there is a genetic reason that explains why you (or others) aren’t excelling in math, but there isn’t. The only thing holding you back are your feeeeeeelings about math.
Thanks to dudes like Descartes, emotions have gotten a bad rap in Western Culture. They’re seen as clouds of negativity hanging over our judgment. It’s true that emotions do cloud our judgment, sometimes negatively, but they also improve our judgement, and essentially make it possible to judge at all, as the story of Elliot demonstrates.
The realization that thinking and feeling are always linked can be uncomfortable because it means that what you consider “being rational” is actually your feelings–of which you aren’t aware—driving your thinking.
But it’s not your fault. You are in a culture that taught you Descartes’ Error and that emotions are a sign of weakness. It taught you to be ashamed of your feelings; to put on a brave face or keep a stiff upper lip or be a serious person. In short, your culture taught you to try to be something other than human.
Mixed Mental Arts is about embracing our shared humanity. Emotions are part of that humanity. Understanding how emotions influence reason, and how reason influences emotion is part of becoming a better human.
In The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff compares each emotion to a key on a piano that can be used in positive ways.
Think of humans like a musical instrument. Every note on the piano has a function. We have to figure out what the notes are and when to play them. Emotions are like notes on a piano; we have to figure out what each emotion we have, what purpose they serve, and when each emotion is appropriate.
People try to live without sadness, anger, or hate because those emotions can feel unpleasant or do harm. Yet, each of those emotions evolved for a reason and properly channeled each can have constructive social functions. Anger has fueled social reformers from Jesus to the Suffragettes to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. Hating your significant other in a fight is actually how you come to see their faults. It’s part of developing a more realistic view of them, leading to a more mature love.
Pixar’s INSIDE OUT reveals the amazing function of sadness: It’s the emotion that brings your team to help. At the end of the movie, Riley is so sad she finally turns to her family and lets it all out; she misses her home and friends. Sadness makes her open up and that’s healthy.
Although INSIDE OUT is a kids’ movie, Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, two of the world’s leading psychologists helped with the science of emotion in the script. Their work is revolutionary in the psychology world. They believe emotions evolved to help humans adapt to the world they live in.
Managing emotions is something everyone should already know how to do. Control is about changing the story to RESET your emotions.
A RESET is a new story that helps your emotions fit better with reality.
Once you understand that thinking and feeling are ALWAYS linked, you can save a lot of time otherwise spent raging. Instead of trying to deny your emotions, you can begin to sort through them immediately. Now, the question isn’t “Am I being emotional?” it’s “How am I being emotional?” “How do I feel about this?” Then you can reflect and think sloooooowly. You can RESET your emotions by telling yourself a new story. That’s how the rider trains the elephant to go in the direction the rider wants to go.
It’s not Descartes fault that he made an error. A lot of it comes down to what information he had available in his day. Now we have better information so we can understand things more completely, and we can share all these insights with others who haven’t gotten the update, yet.
The Mixed Mental Arts community is full of people who want to share what we’ve figured out. We can compare notes on the emotional notes and see how it fits with each of our experiences of being human.