Touchy-feely and not that new really

We’re more than our emotions


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

How are you feeling? Tired? Happy? Bored? How open are you about your emotional status? As a kid, I was always amazed by the difference in answers to the traditional “How’s it going?” greeting from both my English friends and Irish family. While the Brits would usually reply with something apathetically positive like “Fine, how about you?”, the response from my parents, grandparents or cousins was always more complex. “I can’t complain, I suppose” was a favourite — managing to be both a complaint and a challenge in one. When English people are hungry, they say “I could eat”. When my Grandad wanted lunch, he’d use the Galway saying, “I could eat a child’s arse through a chair.”

A full-blown self-care-will-save-you manual this is not

The chemical wizardry that makes up our emotions and feelings, and how these internal drivers impact the decisions we make, has fascinated scientists and philosophers from Plato’s chariot of the soul to Darwin’s theories of evolution. But emotions, and the importance we place on them, have taken a far more central role in the way we understand human beings in the twenty-first century.

We’re often told that the way we feel about things is more important than the material reality of what those things are or give to us. The OECD’s Better Life Index, launched in 2011, claimed that “there is more to life than the cold numbers of GDP and economic statistics”, instead measuring things such as work-life balance, health, satisfaction and safety to figure out how highly-rated countries should be.

Wellbeing is no longer simply a measure of emotion or health, it has become a global industry upon which policy and the distribution of resources are often decided. A 2018 article by the American economist, Joseph Stiglitz, claimed that measuring a nation’s success by GDP was “too materialistic”, and instead, the “hope is that governments putting wellbeing at the centre of their agenda will redirect their budgets accordingly”.

Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings Leonard Mlodinow (Allen Lane, £20)

Alternatively, we often discuss things that should be about material change in emotional terms. The phrase “climate anxiety” is regularly used to describe not the rational concern about what technology we’ll need to heat homes in the future, but the fear of climate change itself.

Into this fraught scene steps physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow with his new book, Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings. Continuing his interest in how we think the way we do (and why we do it) from his award-winning work on the unconscious mind and the influence of randomness on human activity, Mlodinow’s latest book aims to warm us to the idea that our emotions are not the barriers to rational thought they’re often made out to be.

“We know that emotion is as important as reason in guiding our thoughts and decisions,” he writes, “though it operates in a different manner.” Emotions, he argues, form a necessary “framework” through which we make our rational decisions — from the obvious (when you’re hungry you’re more likely to be short with your partner) to the subtle (how quickly or often you get short will depend on your learned experiences of being hungry).

Mlodinow is not a best-seller for nothing — Emotional is full of accounts of fascinating experiments carried out by scientists hoping to pin down evolutionary, chemical or social reasoning behind why we feel.

Leonard Mlodinow, author of Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings

From investigations on how transplanting faecal bacteria from stressed-out humans to rodents made the mice more anxious to the terrifying history of Robert Galbraith Heath poking around in sick people’s brains armed with electric currents, Mlodinow captures the excitement of trying to figure out what makes us tick. He is at times almost sentimental, describing human interaction as similar to the coordinated way in which a flock of birds changes direction. “We are all connected, and those connections are made through our emotions.”

But one has to ask oneself, why is there such an interest in human emotions and the idea that our rational, straight-thinking capabilities might be tempered by a bubbling and perhaps uncontrollable inner power? While Mlodinow argues that the “core affect” — our bodies’ temperature check on wellbeing, emotion and survival — provides an “appropriate undercurrent that colours all our experience and every action we take”, he also asserts that emotions are calculated and manipulated by our brains.

“Your rational mind enters,” he writes, “once an emotion is triggered,” upon which “our behaviour results from a mental calculation based on facts, goals, and reason as well as emotional factors.” A full-blown self-care-will-save-you manual this is not, but Mlodinow’s desire to make us “think differently” about the role our emotions play in decision-making has curious timing.

The “love trumps hate” slogan used by anti-Trump protesters in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election reveals a lot about the way in which emotions have become weaponised as a threat to our belief in rationality, and even democracy. Four years later, the same descriptions of Trump voters as emotional, irrational and untrustworthy were accepted throughout the liberal media, even if many Democrats were too sensible to use the term “basket of deplorables” in 2020.

Calls for reason and solidarity are labelled offensive or unfeeling

During the EU referendum across the pond, anti-Brexit commentators often resorted to describing their opponents as driven by emotion instead of political reasoning. Britain’s favourite female luvvie, Emma Thompson, infamously described Brexit Britain as a “cake-filled misery-laden grey old island”. Adam Curtis’s 2021 documentary “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” examined this tendency among Western ruling elites to lean on fears of the public being led by their gut instead of their head — an emotional reaction in itself to the threat that both Brexit and Trump voters posed to a middle-class status quo.

For this reason, the absence of agency in Mlodinow’s understanding of how we shape and form our lives together as a society is unforgivable. Even determination, which he examines throughout the seventh chapter, is understood in terms of subconscious desires — Buster Douglas was only able to knock out Mike Tyson at the Tokyo Dome in 1990 because of the emotions he felt after the death of his mother.

If recent political trends from the upheavals of populist movements across Europe to the rejection of authoritarian public-health mandates throughout the coronavirus pandemic are anything to go by, large sections of the public are increasingly proving that will, determination and choice are necessary and achievable, even within a climate of panic about emotions.

Emotional is a great read, but Mlodinow’s hope that it will bring us “self-knowledge” about our emotions to help us know that “none of us are perfect” reveals how indebted he is to a contemporary penchant for indulgent self-reflection.

One of the most alienating factors of contemporary life is the influence of therapeutic culture — in which individuals are encouraged to view the first and last priorities of their life in terms of how they feel about themselves. Identity politics is framed around the idea that how we perceive the world, emotionally, is the only true reality — calls for reason and solidarity are labelled offensive or unfeeling.

An old, elitist sentiment about how populaces cannot be trusted

Young generations at school are no longer asked what they want to do in life (that would surely cause anxiety) and are instead asked to sit in circles contemplating their emotional wellbeing. Doing things that go against our natural instincts, our wellbeing or our feelings about who we are is seen as a toxic enterprise, rather than the very thing that makes human beings unique — our ability to buck the trend.

In the emotional tests Mlodinow provides in chapter eight, I scored well above average in both aggression and anger. There is every possibility that I am an agitated psychopath with poor emotional control — you’d have to ask my husband — but it’s more likely that I was answering questions such as “some of my friends think I’m a hothead” with “extremely characteristic of me” because we spend most of our time shouting about political issues. Perhaps scientists or shrinks would say my emotional regulation is out of whack. I’d say it’s right where it needs to be if I want to change the world around me.

In his 1954 book, The Destruction of Reason, Georg Lukács described social Darwinism and the racism that weaponised it in terms of a reliance on biology. “Biologism in philosophy and sociology has always been a basis for reactionary philosophical tendencies,” he wrote, which had “nothing to do with biology as a science” but instead “stemmed rather from the conditions of the class struggle, which made pseudo-biological concepts and methods a suitable instrument of the reactionary battle against the idea of progress.”

Investigating the mystery of how human beings think and operate is a wonderful thing. But to me, Mlodinow’s new thinking about feelings smacks of an old, elitist sentiment about how populaces cannot be trusted to make unemotional decisions. Perhaps it’s just a gut reaction.

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