The Science of Emotion

Over many years of scientific investigation, we have come to recognize that the old argument between nature and nurture is null and void. Science have proven that both nature and nurture work together to form personalities. At the same time science has also been proving that the split between intellect and emotion does not work either. Neuroscientists have been proving that without emotion, intellect cannot make sense of reality. Intellect and emotion work hand in hand.

In his 1999 book “The Feeling of What Happens,” neuroscientist Antonio Damasio addresses the question “What Are Feelings For?” “Having feelings is of extraordinary value in the orchestration of survival. Emotions are useful in themselves, but the process of feeling begins to alert the organism to the problem that emotion has begun to solve. The simple process of feeling begins to give the organism incentive to heed the results of emotion (suffering begins with feelings, although it is enhanced by knowing, and the same can be said for joy). The availability of feeling is also the steppingstone for the next development–the feeling of knowing that we have feelings. In turn knowing is the steppingstone for the process of planning specific and non-stereotyped responses which can either complement an emotion or guarantee that the immediate gains brought by emotion can be maintained over time, or both. In other words, ‘feeling’ feelings extends the reach of emotions by facilitating the planning of novel and customized forms of adaptive response.,” pgs. 284-285.

Robert Sapolsky is another neuroscientist who has studied, researched and written about the integration of emotion and intellect.  In his 2017 book “Behave, The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” he writes, “It shouldn’t require neuroscience to validate someone’s internal state,” and “It shouldn’t take neuroscience to ’prove’ what we think and feel,” (pg. 78).  He uses biological, chemical, and genetic knowledge to explain how we, “decide what you feel based on signals from your body,” (pg. 91).  On page 92 he concludes, “sensory information streaming toward your brain from both the outside world and your body can rapidly, powerfully, and automatically alter behavior.”  Sapolsky writes in detail about many different emotions.  He adds scientific information to the growing literature concerning the impact of childhood adversity on the developing brain.  “So,” he writes on page 195, “childhood adversity impairs learning and memory. Crucially, it also impairs maturation and function of the frontal cortex.”  In his chapter on “Us Versus Them,” Sapolsky explains how prejudice occurs and is maintained.  He points out that, “racial Us/Them dichotomies are frequently trumped by other classifications.  The most frequent is gender,” (pg.408.)  He ends that chapter by pointing out that, “in order to lessen the adverse effects of Us/Theming, a shopping list would include emphasizing individuation and shared attributes, perspective taking, more benign dichotomies, lessening hierarchical differences, and bringing people together on equal terms with shared goals,” (pg. 422).

These two books written by neuroscientists can reduce or even end arguments about intellect versus emotion.  Intellect and emotion occur in the brain together and when received as such give us important information.  “I feel this because of that,” or “I think this then feel that.” When we are aware of our thoughts and feelings, we can use them well. Both emotion and intellect are vital for our health.  Today “Emotional Intelligence,” Daniel Goleman 1995, is even being taught in master’s business programs.

Fortunately, our culture is more aware of that now however, there are still some adults who threaten children with, “If you cry, I’ll give you something to cry about,” or who ignore their child’s emotions or tell them to be tough and ignore their pain.  This sort of approach to children cripples them by teaching them to ignore important information.  When children try to push their emotions away, they are less able to understand themselves, relate to others and grow into adults who have difficulty empathizing or being compassionate.  The ability to be fully aware of one’s emotions is vital for all relationships.  One cannot be compassionate with other’s unless he/she can imagine what it must feel like to have the feelings of another. That sort of imagination is grounded in many years of fully experiencing and knowing one’s own emotions.

Some people do not want to know their emotions because they do not want to experience pain.  However, not all emotions are painful.  In order to experience great joy, awe, tenderness, love, warmth, etc., one must also experience sadness, fear and anger.  Emotions cannot be felt just when or how we want to feel them.  If we can fully experience joy, we must also experience grief.  That takes courage and knowledge that all emotions will end.

In the not-so-distant past books such as, “Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus,” suggested an unfortunate dichotomy between how men and women experience emotions.  Others suggested that women are “more emotional” than men.  Many scientists have shown this to be a false dichotomy.  It’s a harmful dichotomy in that it suggests that men and women are too different to be able to understand one another.  This thinking drives a wedge between the genders making relationships unnecessarily difficult.  I agree with Sapolsky and suggest we need to become aware of our emotional similarities, shared attributes, take each other’s perspectives and come together on equal terms with shared goals.

Everyone, men, women, boys and girls need to experience, appreciate, know and express their emotions. And emotions are similar in all people resulting in our being able to empathize and have compassion with one another.  Relationships benefit from emotional authenticity.  It is during our most difficult conversations that we experience the deepest emotional intimacy; when we are being honest and vulnerable with one another.

In order to do this, we must know ourselves and become comfortable with who we are.  For some that will take some work, and it can be very good work. It entails becoming aware of and getting rid of the many unnecessary criticisms and judgments that have been heaped on us over the years.  To do this we must develop a healthy inner parent who can gracefully accept the mistakes we make; encourage us to try again and to take the best care of ourselves.  That healthy parent can love us unconditionally, soothe us when we are scared or hurt and motivate us to speak our truth, while we listen to and understand other’s truth.  A good inner parent reminds us that the perception of reality is subjective and helps us listen to and accept other’s perceptions while still honoring our own.  That parent reminds us that when someone disagrees with us it does not mean we are “wrong”.  We do not have to fight for our perception.  We can accept differences and find ways to collaborate.

It is when we know ourselves well, the good, the bad and in between that we are our best selves.  All our thoughts, feelings and behaviors….when we can understand and accept them, we can be content within ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *