In our society, emotions have a bad reputation. They are treated as something that gets in the way – something that we have to control or suppress so we can make clear headed, rational decisions.
Aren’t we told to not be so emotional and keep emotions out of it?
This common way of thinking about emotions is outdated and overly simplistic, according to recent neuroscience research on the role of emotions in the brain. In situations as different as determining the steepness of a hill to analyzing the real estate market, researchers have found that our entire world is wrapped up in emotions – and that trying to keep them “out of it” may not be very wise after all.
Emotions Influence Visual Perception
We generally think of our visual perception as fixed. A hill is simply so steep, or a balcony so high off the ground. It doesn’t matter how we feel about it because that’s simply how it is. We see things as they are, right?
But this is actually not the case, according to recent research from the University of Virginia. Your perception of the steepness of a hill changes based on your emotional state. How can that be, you ask?
The authors of the study suppose that this is because the goal of our brains is not so much to interpret the world accurately as much as it is to ensure our survival. So even though visual processing and emotions are traditionally seen as totally separate functions, our vision is actually deeply intertwined with our emotional state. They are, actually, inseparable.
A hill appears much steeper to someone who has low levels of glucose, the primary source of energy for immediate muscular activity. So when you are tired, the hill looks a lot steeper than when you are full of energy. What’s more is that your mood also impacts how you see the hill. The sadder you are, the steeper it looks. If you are happy, it doesn’t seem so bad. Our emotions literally change what we see.
And it’s not only your vision that is more emotional than you probably thought.
Your Music Is Too Loud! Or Is It?
Our sense of hearing is similarly thought of as detached from our feelings. A bang is loud or it isn’t. When someone shouts, you don’t have anything to do with the loudness, other than having to hear it!
But recent research from the University of California, Davis has shown that emotions play a bigger role than previously thought in auditory perception. In a laboratory setting, the same sounds were rated as louder by participants in the negative emotion condition, who were conditioned with an aversive stimulus before hearing the sound.The participants’ feelings helped determine the loudness they heard.
So next time you come home from a long, frustrating day and your roommate is playing music that is too loud, remember that our own emotions play a big role in our perception of the world.
As if that’s not enough evidence that keeping emotions out of it isn’t a reasonable proposition, it only gets more outlandish from here.
Emotions Where They Aren’t Supposed To Be
Okay, so emotions influence our perception of the world. But when people talk about keeping emotions out of it, they are rarely talking about climbing a hill, or the loudness of someone’s music. They are talking about the cut and dry life decisions where you need to be thinking rationally. Decisions like whether you should sell your house or refinance. Or whether to make a specific business investment. Good old rational thought. That’s when you have to keep emotions out of it.
But according to prominent neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, even rational thought is an inherently emotional process – and they have plenty of evidence to back it up.
The realization that emotions play a fundamental role in rational thought, like many breakthroughs in neuroscience, came by studying neurological patients who had suffered brain damage to a particular region of the frontal lobe. The brain lesions these patients had suffered had not impacted their knowledge base or logical reasoning abilities. They understood what made a good business investment. They understood and could describe the social rules and convention that should guide one’s actions. Yet these previously upstanding men and women began to make disadvantageous decisions in many different aspects of their lives. Why?
It was found that what they could not do was use past emotional knowledge to guide the reasoning process. Even though they knew logically that a specific business deal was risky or that a certain decision could endanger their relationship with someone close to them, they could not access the past emotional knowledge and use that to guide the reasoning process. As Damasio and Immordino-Yang put it in We Feel, Therefore We Learn, “rational thought and logical reasoning do exist… but they cannot be recruited appropriately and usefully in the real world without emotion.” So even rational thought isn’t of much use without emotions. (For my latest article on the role of emotions in cognitive thought, click here.)
Keeping emotions out of it isn’t looking like such a good idea anymore, is it?
Keeping Emotions Out Is a Myth. So, What Next?
Once we fully embrace that keeping emotions “out of it” is impossible, we have a really amazing opportunity: welcome them. Treat emotions as your ally. There’s no need to suppress them or lock them out, because they are here to help. They provide data about yourself and about the world, and it’s incredibly valuable data.
Treating emotions as the enemy keeps us trapped in an endless struggle against our own feelings.
But there is a better way, and it starts with recognizing that emotions play a fundamental role in how we interpret and interact with the world. Only then can we start to use emotions to be more intentional, thoughtful, and purposeful – more emotionally intelligent.
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