Emotions and Thinking

Emotions and thinking go together. We use emotions in our thinking. They are inseparable. How they go together in various individuals influences the effectiveness of the individuals’ thinking.  The magnitude of the emotional response should be appropriate to the situation we are thinking about. In this there is great individual variation. Sometimes the wrong kind of emotion is used. More often it is the amount of the emotion that is wrong.

The type and amount of emotion a person associates with a thought or action is a measure of the importance the person places on the thought or action. Seeing a snake close by is more scary for most people than seeing a rabbit. Being physically injured is more fearful than being yelled at.

Emotion is contagious. An angry person elicits anger in many of those around him. Fear and anger are emotions which are very often used in inappropriate amounts. Anger is actually physiological and psychological preparation to physically fight. Many people use too much fear and anger in many aspects of their lives. They are thinking with too much fear and/or anger. This in itself is a distortion of (correct or appropriate) thinking. If a person has an “irrational” fear of spiders, that person may do unnecessary or harmful things such as spraying too much cancer causing bug spray in their house. If a person has too much fear of people they don’t already know, they may avoid people they don’t already know. Other people can see the emotions we are having. Emotions show on our faces, our tones of voice, bodily postures, and the words we speak. When other people see the type and amount of emotion we are having, they often will experience that same emotion. This is the contagion of emotions. So a person who approaches a stranger with fear may very well elicit fear towards himself in that stranger. And there is the possibility that the stranger’s fear, when perceived by the first person, will reinforce or make his own fear greater. Similarly for anger. Similarly for hatred. Similarly for disgust and contempt. But also, similarly for happiness, openness, acceptance, confidence, compassion, empathy, and love. In all these emotions contagion often occurs and mutual reinforcement can occur.

The key to effective thinking and action in all cases is the appropriateness of the types and amounts of emotions attached to, associated with, the thought or action. (For background see “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman and see “Emotions Revealed” by Paul Ekman.)

I am now reading “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky. This book is about the stress response in animals and humans. Sapolsky provides a broad and detailed physiological and psychological description of the stress response based on recent science. This is relevant to emotions and thinking because the stress response is what excessive fear or excessive anger or any strong emotion produces in people. Actually the stress response is, or is a part of, any strong emotion. This is because emotion is by definition the body and brain’s reaction to events and to thoughts. And this is what the stress response is — increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, tensing of muscles (facial and bodily expressions of emotions), increased alertness and attention to the perceived event or situation, turning on the sympathetic nervous system and turning off the parasympathetic nervous system, secretion of epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine, secretion of glucocorticoids (cortisol, etc.). So when we speak of emotions and when we speak of the stress response we are pretty much talking about the same things. The different emotions correspond to different variations of the stress response.

There is an aspect of emotions and of stress responses not yet mentioned. And that is our feelings when emotions and the stress response occur. We all know the feeling of fear. We know what it feels like to be angry. We know what it feels like to be happy. The feeling is not the same as the emotion — the bodily changes. Yet the feeling comes with the emotion. The feeling actually is our perceiving of the bodily changes actually occurring — increased heart rate, increased muscle tension, increased alertness, etc. We feel the changes in our body. (Read Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux for discussion of this distinction. Not everyone makes this distinction.)

Where am I going with all this? I want to show that poor thinking leads to many social problems. In particular thinking with excessive emotions is a very bad way to think and to live. Yet many people go through their whole lives fearful of all kinds of things. Others go through their whole lives angry at almost everyone and everything. Many hate. As a shortcut I call all this thinking with fear and anger. But remember what I mean is thinking with excessive or inappropriate fear, anger, etc.

For a zebra running for his life to avoid being killed and eaten by a lion, a full-blown stress response is appropriate. For a human couple planning some activity together, a full-blown stress response is almost always not appropriate. Yet many humans argue rather than discuss all kinds of matters day after day. They think with fear and anger. Why is this bad? For one, too great or too frequent stress responses cause many health problems. Beyond that thinking with fear and anger by a human couple or between two groups of people is much less likely to lead to an agreement between them. (See “Non-Violent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg.) This is because although an event that causes a stress response can pass — be over with — the adrenalin and cortisol secreted into the bloodstream stay high for some period of time after the event that initially caused the stress. This is called the refractory period (see Ekman). The important point is that during this refractory period, the person’s attention is still focused on the event and similar events. So it is very hard for them to think about anything else. So it is hard to move on. It is hard for them to make progress to a solution that would otherwise be satisfactory for both of them because they are still distracted by whatever caused their fear or anger in the first place. The fundamental fact is: After thinking with fear and anger, our thinking about anything else is seriously degraded during the refractory period. Furthermore, if the stress response to the original event is great enough, if our fear and/or anger is great enough, the event, along with a large amount of fear and/or anger will be stored in our memory, to be retrieved and reviewed and worried about indefinitely. So it is not just the initial refractory period that messes people up. It is also their memories stored away with excessive fear and anger, which when recalled can cause a stress response similar to the original one. This can go on indefinitely (consider post traumatic stress disorder, an extreme example).

So if Osama bin Laden had not thought with hatred (or contempt, or disgust, or …) or if vice president Richard Cheney had not panicked (thought with fear) after 9/11, then we might not have had depraved torture and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

OK, so poor thinking leads to many social problems. BFD. We already know that. So what? What can we do about this thinking with fear and anger? Isn’t this human nature? We evolved from some ancestral primate. Many primates — chimpanzees and baboons — organize themselves in hierarchies where there is a lot of fear and aggression. If it (thinking with fear and anger) is natural in them, then maybe it is natural in us too.

Implicit in the above line of thinking, at least for most people, is the idea that the emotions we express are a matter of genetics. Our genes make us do it so there is nothing we can do about it. Genes are involved but they are not the whole explanation. The capacities for fear, anger, and other emotions are built into our bodies and brains, mostly by our present genes. But what we fear, what or who we get angry about, who we hate, and by how much and under which circumstances — these things come from our environment, our culture, through learning and our development. THEREFORE THEY CAN BE CHANGED. We are not doomed by our genes to be as fearful and as angry and as hateful and as aggressive and violent as we presently are. This stuff is learned — either actively as in school or passively absorbed from our cultures, our traditions.

This is a big deal because the science references above prove that our emotional and stress responses are very variable, and most importantly that we can control them, that we can learn to control them as to what circumstances and to what degree to use them. For a zebra being chased by a lion, the stress response is automatic. For many present day humans it is also automatic most of the time. But many people today have learned to not think with fear and anger. Already some Buddhists completely eliminate anger from their lives. There are effective anger management courses. There is psychotherapy for phobias like fear of spiders, fear of snakes, etc. There are effective negotiating and communication strategies that do not use fear and anger. (See Marshall Rosenberg’s “Non Violent Communication” and others.)

How is this relevant to the revolution we need? It means we can greatly reduce and essentially eliminate thinking with fear and anger from all of our cultures. This will improve human health worldwide, improve social interactions, ultimately eliminate hostility, aggression, and violence. This is a big part of the revolution we need, but only a part. We still have to evolve a new economic system that provides a just and fair distribution of the human necessities to all people, we have to get our democracies back from the 1%, preserve the environment, and accommodate ourselves to the earth’s limited resources. But improving our thinking will help us a lot both in terms of social groups and in each individual life. The fact that thinking better in general, and thinking without fear and anger in particular, will lead to more satisfying and productive lives for the individuals who make the changes in their own lives — this will cause more and more people to adopt improved thinking. So this is a self spreading meme. It has Daniel C. Dennet’s frequency dependent fitness. (See “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by Daniel C. Dennett.)






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