More Than Simply Feelings: Emotions Are Us

Posted on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 @ 03:26 PM

RobotWithFeelingAs a family activity, we like to pick a TV series and work our way through it on Netflix a few episodes a week. Among our favorites have been such greats as Firefly, Dr. Who, Monk, and Psych—but our current series is the classic version of Star Trek. You know, the one with William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy as the imperturbable and flawlessly logical Spock (whose first name is purportedly unpronouncable).

In the most recent episode we watched, the Enterprise and her crew had stumbled upon a wayward probe which had been lost in space for who-knows-how-long (having been originally launched in the year 2,000). Programmed to scan the makeup of any encountered life, its purpose had been accidentally altered to eliminate any life form that was found to be imperfect. The crew's mission, whether they chose to accept it or not (and yes, I'm old enough to remember that Nimoy also appeared in the series Mission Impossible) was to deactivate the probe before it realized all humans have imperfect thought patterns.

Fortunately, the probe scanned Spock's brain first and was suitably impressed by its order and efficiency. On the other hand, it was completely stymied in an effort to scan the brain of a female crewmember. In its even, emotionless robot cadence the probe noted, "That unit is defective. Its thinking is chaotic. Absorbing it unsettled me."

"That unit is a woman," Spock offered, as though no other explanation was needed. In metallic monotone the probe seemed to understand, "A mass of conflicting impulses," it acknowledged.

This was, after all, the sixties, I explained to two of my daughters, when they turned their wide eyes to meet mine in bewildered indignance.

But I wasn't only referring to the fact that the gender stereotype was outrageous. Just as outdated was the idea that an orderly brain was one in which logic had banished the messiness of emotion. Spock, the pinnacle of intelligence, was of a species that was free of the primitive feelings that held humans captive to illogical thought patterns and inferior decisions. Human males may have been flawed on that basis, but women were rated as even more emotionaland by extension even less capable of logic—than their male counterparts.

Fast-forward to 2013, and welcome to a new understanding of the role of emotion in human thinking. We now know that without emotion, logic fails. People can't actually come to a final decision using logic alone, however certain they may be that they can.

Not only that, our entire personalities rest on the basis of what researchers are now calling "emotional style."  Goodbye personality tests. Hello emotional style!

Feeling shy? Shyness is related to where you fall on the "social intuition" dimension. Notice I didn't say "extroversion" or "introversion." It's time for us to get dichotomies out of our head when it comes to personality traits. We aren't extroverts or introverts. We aren't optimists or pessimists. Rather (we are learning) we fall at various points on six dimensions, each of which has a neurally-based signature and each of which has partially genetic and partially environmental origins. Meaning that we can change where we fall on them if we want to. (Read: If our current position is cramping our ability to be productive in our lives, and keeping us from contributing to the welfare of othersa prerequisite to true happiness according to recent studies.)

Now hang on—no one is saying that emotion doesn't need to be regulated. But this is something we are best able to do with the help of others: within a setting of warm, compassionate, responsive interpersonal relationships.

Will it be easy to get over ideas that have been entrenched in our thinking for half a century or (perhaps) much more? Not likely. But we won't even take the first step in the process until we realize that there's no shame in emotion. More than simply feelings, emotions are at the center of who we are: our personality, our potential and our relationships.

You know this is true, right? Deep down, after all, who doesn't feel sorry for the efficient but emotionally bereft Spock? 

Tags: mind and brain, decision making, emotion