The Green Belt
Despite the fact that those ideas have permeated Western Culture for a long, long time:
Descartes was totally wrong.
This is the Green Belt of Mixed Mental Arts:
- Thinking and feeling are always linked as shown by the story of Elliot who had part of his brain removed.
- Jon Haidt uses the rider and the elephant analogy to demonstrate the actual relationship between the “rational” and “emotional” mind.
- Humans are very good at rationalizing our emotions, but our emotions are always driving our thoughts.
- Your rational “rider” can train your emotional “elephant” by first understanding when and why each emotion is appropriate, and then using new stories to RESET your feelings.
We are not thinking machines that feel; rather, we are feeling machines that think.
– Antonio Damasio
Or so they thought. Elliot soon found he couldn’t make decisions, even small ones like where to go for lunch. He’d rationally calculate calories, available parking, and driving time, but couldn’t make a decision in an efficient manner. He also made other questionable decisions like leaving his wife of many years for a stripper and losing all his money to obvious scams despite being considered a financial whiz.
The moral of the story is that we are always being emotional unless you are like Elliot who had his Ventro-Medial Pre-frontal Cortex removed.
The rider is tiny.
The elephant is big and powerful.
The emotions are always driving, but sometimes the rational mind can steer. However, it takes patience and practice for the rider to train the elephant. It takes sloooooooow thinking, and the wisdom to evaluate whether your emotions fit well with reality.
Sometimes it’s easy to recognize your elephant is leading. You say things you regret in an argument, have a second piece of cake when you know you shouldn’t, put off an important project until the last minute, or give someone the finger in traffic. Slow thinking usually comes after the storm.
There are times when it’s less obvious that your elephant is in control. Outwardly, you might appear calm and collected, but that doesn’t mean your elephant isn’t stampeding at full speed. Because it’s not immediately obvious when your emotion runs out of control, slow thinking often doesn’t happen in the aftermath.
An example is saying or thinking something like, “I (or someone else) didn’t get the math gene.” You might feeeeeeeel like there is a genetic reason that explains why you (or others) aren’t excelling in math, but there isn’t. The only thing holding you back are your feeeeeeelings about math.
Thanks to dudes like Descartes, emotions have gotten a bad rap in Western Culture. They’re seen as clouds of negativity hanging over our judgment. It’s true that emotions do cloud our judgment, sometimes negatively, but they also improve our judgement, and essentially make it possible to judge at all, as the story of Elliot demonstrates.
The realization that thinking and feeling are always linked can be uncomfortable because it means that what you consider “being rational” is actually your feelings–of which you aren’t aware—driving your thinking.
But it’s not your fault. You are in a culture that taught you Descartes’ Error and that emotions are a sign of weakness. It taught you to be ashamed of your feelings; to put on a brave face or keep a stiff upper lip or be a serious person. In short, your culture taught you to try to be something other than human.
Mixed Mental Arts is about embracing our shared humanity. Emotions are part of that humanity. Understanding how emotions influence reason, and how reason influences emotion is part of becoming a better human.
In The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff compares each emotion to a key on a piano that can be used in positive ways.
Think of humans like a musical instrument. Every note on the piano has a function. We have to figure out what the notes are and when to play them. Emotions are like notes on a piano; we have to figure out what each emotion we have, what purpose they serve, and when each emotion is appropriate.
People try to live without sadness, anger, or hate because those emotions can feel unpleasant or do harm. Yet, each of those emotions evolved for a reason and properly channeled each can have constructive social functions. Anger has fueled social reformers from Jesus to the Suffragettes to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. Hating your significant other in a fight is actually how you come to see their faults. It’s part of developing a more realistic view of them, leading to a more mature love.
Pixar’s INSIDE OUT reveals the amazing function of sadness: It’s the emotion that brings your team to help. At the end of the movie, Riley is so sad she finally turns to her family and lets it all out; she misses her home and friends. Sadness makes her open up and that’s healthy.
Managing emotions is something everyone should already know how to do. Control is about changing the story to RESET your emotions.
A RESET is a new story that helps your emotions fit better with reality.
Once you understand that thinking and feeling are ALWAYS linked, you can save a lot of time otherwise spent raging. Instead of trying to deny your emotions, you can begin to sort through them immediately. Now, the question isn’t “Am I being emotional?” it’s “How am I being emotional?” “How do I feel about this?” Then you can reflect and think sloooooowly. You can RESET your emotions by telling yourself a new story. That’s how the rider trains the elephant to go in the direction the rider wants to go.
The Mixed Mental Arts community is full of people who want to share what we’ve figured out. We can compare notes on the emotional notes and see how it fits with each of our experiences of being human.