Emotions are a large part of what it is to be human – nearly all of us live in a soup of subjective feelings that often determine how we act. Not only do we let our emotions govern our actions, they also provide our motivation for, our connection with and, often, our understanding of our lives. Emotions, to a large extent, control our lives, but most of us never think to question them, or even to understand them – we just go along with pretty much whatever they tell us to do.
So what are emotions, and why do they have such an impact on our state of mind and the ways in which we behave? First, all primary emotions (including anger, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise, happiness, lust, and joy) stem from our midbrain or limbic system – I’ve covered this extensively before (see here and here), so won’t rehash this too much, except to say that this system evolved long before we did (as humans) as a survival system: it operates using a simple instruction set in order to keep us alive in the context of a relatively simple range of threats (mostly things that want to eat us), and it does this by taking over in situations that it thinks we need to either escape from (fear), defend ourselves from (anger), or do more of (joy, lust, etc.). It’s important to understand that, although this system is relatively dumb in comparison to our big brain (i.e., cerebral cortex), it has executive override: it can take us over relatively easily. It’s also important to realise that this system is just that, a system that resides in the same localised space as (and that is networked into) the part of your brain in which “you” live. Which means it’s not you – it’s just a survival engine that’s hardwired into the complex network that is called a human brain.
Probably the best way to conceptualise primary emotions is as predeveloped “modules” that perform a particular function. I’ve mentioned before (see here) that we employ two primary thinking systems in our brains: Type I and Type II. Type I is automated and requires no effort (e.g., 2+2), whereas Type II requires both substantial effort and resources (in the form of blood sugar, the brain’s fuel). Thus we have a preference for automated, simpler solutions because it saves us both effort and fuel. Emotions are kind of the ultimate Type I thinking – in that they’re fully formed, fully automated processes that take no effort to run. They’re kind of like lego blocks – predeveloped chunks of easy to run, fully contained code – that easily slot into the appropriate moment (e.g., anger clicks in next to not getting our way, fear clicks in when we see something we don’t recognise).
Because our primary emotions are so simple to execute and so readily available, it makes perfect sense not only that they would run in preference to more complex, resource-dependent processes (like higher thought, or more complex emotions such as compassion – see here), but also that we’d pay attention to them – after all, they present a nice, simple solution that is effortless to come up with. In other words, our primary emotions feel like just the right thing at just the right time because we’re so good at executing them; they feel like expertise, and they’re extremely beguiling. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, this sort of automatic, effortless processing is absolutely brilliant in situations where we need to make survival-based decisions. For running away from bears (and the like), our emotions are just the thing. It’s just that the world we live in requires us to make more complex decisions than bear escapes, so these preprogrammed models (that we call emotions) are (mostly) no longer appropriate.
The fact that our emotions feel so compelling is the key point here. They feel “right”, and so a lot of the time we just go along with them, without any thought (quite literally). As such, many of our actions are genuinely out of our control – something that often gets us into trouble, because it makes us act in ways that we don’t really want to (and that are often really bad for us), and denies us access to the things that are meaningful in our lives (see here). This was pretty much my argument for the importance of mindfulness in my last blog (here).
So this brings me to my argument for today: what if we could learn to use our emotions as another way of evaluating the world around us? We have many ways of viewing the world and taking in data – from senses, to cognition, to language. But we also have emotions: little packets of semi-autonomous, easily (often independently) activated code. What if, instead of just acting on our emotions when they activate, we’re able to notice them, evaluate why they were activated, and integrate that information into our ‘decision matrix’? Could they be another extremely useful data source?
If we follow this line of thinking, we could view our emotions as very informative and rapid data points, especially if we also understand the types of events that trigger them. For example, let’s say I’m driving absent-mindedly, and someone cuts me off. If I recognise that I’m frustrated, but use this feeling as a point of data that indicates that I (irrationally) expect people to drive rationally, I can be a lot more aware of what’s going on, and drive more safely. Alternatively, I could assume that the feeling meant that the guy who cut me off was an arsehole, and act in an aggressive, dangerous manner. This choice utilises a primitive, automatically activated piece of code in a useful, alternate way – either I can use it to my benefit (enhancing my survival in the modern context of driving – something my limbic system didn’t evolve for), or to my detriment (by putting myself at risk by behaving like a dickhead). The real trick is to combine the awareness of the data source (the emotion), with the deliberate choice to act in a way that uses that data source to your actual benefit (instead of what you would automatically do).
There are so many situations in which this alternative approach can be applied, from relationships, to sporting performances, to work interactions, to addictions*. For instance, imagine you find yourself feeling extremely anxious about an upcoming event (public speaking, meeting with your boss, competition, etc.). The anxiety represents a data point based on your fear of failing. Chances are your instinct would be to turn off the feeling by avoiding the event. This would have been fine were the event some sort of dangerous confrontation where your literal survival is at stake (that’s what the code was originally ‘written’ for). The alternate use of the data point would be to recognise that there is, in fact, a risk of failure (neatly highlighted by the unpleasant feeling), and to use that information as a warning: “if I don’t prepare adequately for this event, I could fail – so I should probably prepare some more”. Thus, the data becomes a useful premonition (despite feeling like crap), rather than an excuse to avoid something that is potentially good for you in the longer term.
Too many of us act too quickly on our emotions – we don’t treat them as the very useful, freely available data sources that they have the potential to be. Viewing emotional output as data can help us make different sorts of attributions: using our feelings (which require no effort to run) to help process what’s really going on, and coming up with an alternate action. Instead of trying to avoid, repress, or ignore our emotions, how about we learn to treat them as data points? Sure they often feel overwhelming, alternating from extremely crap to excessively desirable, but instead of simply going along with the outdated response to this very primitive code, what if you were to start learning to recognise your emotions as really useful information about what’s going on around you.
One way of learning about how our emotions affect our actions is to actually compile some objective data over time, like keeping some sort of quantifiable record of how you felt and acted in specific situations. Remember that your memory is a lot poorer than you think and you can’t rely on it to provide an objective record of how you thought, felt, or acted at a given moment or in a particular situation. Keeping a written or graphical record (completed immediately post event), therefore, can help us understand something that is too often viewed completely subjectively, and remembered poorly. A quick search of your device’s app store will come up with hundreds of apps designed around this sort of simple record keeping – and many of them will let you visualise the relationship between feelings and actions. In fact, there’s an entire campaign called the “quantitative self” movement, that justifies constant, objective record keeping of both objective and subjective information in our lives (from sleep patterns, to heart rate, to emotion tracking), to help us better understand how these variables interact with and influence our lives (I’m planning a future blog post about this in the future).
I realise that my proposal today is a difficult one. After all, our emotional reactions are inbuilt, and it’s difficult to separate our actions from our immediate feelings. But difficult is just difficult – this is only something that requires some effort and attention, not a complete rewrite of your life. And the payoff? Ask yourself: wouldn’t it be nice, for a change, to act in a way that was actually useful to a future version of yourself, rather than in a way that just make you feel better right now?