Sunday, April 29, 2007

Thought vs. Feeling?

When I was going to school some 30 years ago, a friend of mine was working on artificial intelligence for the government. The two of us were both night owls and so we fell into the habit of discussing everything under the moon with each other.

One night, I asked him whether a thinking computer would have emotions. "It would be too intelligent for emotions", he responded. "How's that?", I asked. "Emotions are undeveloped thoughts.", he said, "The computer would think too fast for it to have much in the way of undeveloped thoughts."

Thirty years ago, the notion emotions amounted to nothing more than "undeveloped thoughts" was certainly not exclusive to my friend. Psychologists of the time barely studied emotions, focusing instead on behavior and cognition. Most of those psychologists, if asked, would have told you that emotions interfered with thinking.

The idea that emotions interfere with thinking goes far back in Western Culture. At least as early as the ancient Greeks and Romans, people thought feeling was inferior to thinking, and thought emotions were at odds with clear thinking. When you have a prejudice that deeply rooted in your culture, it's no wonder the psychologists of 30 years ago still clung to it.

All that seems to be changing now. Recently, psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered emotions as a subject of study. And some of the early results are astonishing to anyone familiar with the idea that emotions interfere with thought. According to Jonah Lehrer:

When [Antonio] Damasio first published his results in the early 1990s, most cognitive scientists assumed that emotions interfered with rational thought. A person without any emotions should be a better thinker, since their cortical computer could process information without any distractions.

But Damasio sought out patients who had suffered brain injuries that prevented them from perceiving their own feelings, and put this idea to the test. The lives of these patients quickly fell apart, he found, because they could not make effective decisions. Some made terrible investments and ended up bankrupt; most just spent hours deliberating over irrelevant details, such as where to eat lunch. These results suggest that proper thinking requires feeling. Pure reason is a disease.
Of course, it will take quite some time before the culturally ingrained notion that emotions interfere with thought is discarded by most people in favor of a more sophisticated model based on research. For one thing, there are ways in which the old model is true enough. Everyone has experienced a time or two when a strongly felt emotion impelled them to act rashly. And because there is some truth in the old model, it will take a long time before that model is replaced. Yet, we now know it's overly simplistic to say emotions are merely at odds with clear thinking.


Trinifar said...

One think I like a lot about simple meditation practices (like following the breath and noting when your attention wavers and you get lost in your thoughts) is that it sheds a powerful light on the nature of thoughts and emotions. I don't think we have anywhere near the control over either of those things as we normally assume we do.

Neither do we have much real experience observing them in a detached way in their natural habitat: ourselves. So we end up saying things like "Emotions are underdeveloped thoughts."

Paul said...

Hi Trinifar!

Meditation is an excellent way to examine the link between thoughts and emotions. It is especially useful, I think, when one does "walking meditations". That is, when one meditates while doing some task or activity, such as walking about a park.

david said...

Our rational minds are very good at linear concepts, like the narrow narrative of cause and effect. But in reality your karma and the karma of all beings is manifesting in infinite causal interconnectedness. The heart has a greater ability to "understand" this nexus. What we refer to as emotive, is really a glimpse of universal understanding.

Sadness for example, is a contextual understanding. From a purely rationalistic stand point why would we ever be sad ? But a conscious being is connected to the oneness of all beings at some level, so we feel sad when say "someone hurts us" , we experience separation. Separation is the antithesis of love, and it reverberates as an negative echo in our being.

Love on the other hand washes over us like a positive wave, as it is the nature who we really are.