We suffer for our ideas. Here are some of the concepts that can make me miserable: “I haven’t lived up to my potential;” “I don’t have enough friends;” “I’ll be alone in old age;” “No one takes me seriously.”
These thoughts are prompted by my personal history and situation, but they amount to vague and ungrounded fears. (How is potential defined? How many friends equals enough? Can I be sure about the future? How would I know if I were taken seriously?) It surprises me that I care so much about thoughts with so little solidity.
Why do mere ideas carry such weight? It’s a question worth asking from time to time. In answering, my first impulse is to turn to neuroscience. What might a basic understanding of the brain suggest about why beliefs feel important?
In simplest terms, we have emotional centers deep in the cerebral cortex that color our attitudes. The amygdala is a prime emotion generator responsible many negative feelings (and a few positive ones). It recognizes threats and primes us to react. It drives our rage and our terror.
Emotion centers are often considered more primitive than brain regions responsible for rational thought, because they evolved earlier. But emotions are vital even to logical decision making. It’s been shown that when people suffer damage to these ‘lower’ brain regions, they sometimes lose the ability to make choices. Despite being able to list the pros and cons of competing options, they can’t choose among them. Why not? Probably because they lack the feeling that choices matter. Without an emotional sense of better vs worse, the result is indifference or paralysis.
Emotions are valuable. They aren’t infantile, rudimentary surges that overwhelm higher thought. They’re the engines that propel us toward what matters in life. Still, although feelings are vital and necessary, they get us in trouble. Why is that?
Consider how emotions evolved. We share the amygdala and related emotion structures with other mammals. One of the reasons we bond better with dogs than with lizards is that mammals display emotional depth but reptiles don’t. Dogs can appear happy, downcast, hopeful, loving, and angry. Lizards can’t. As mammals became less lizard-like and more dog-like, something important was gained: feeling.
Emotions serve as a strong motivators for life-preserving action. Mammals respond to feelings as if they matter because, in fact, emotions weigh in on life or death decisions. A twinge of fear might warn of a lurking predator. A burst of lust might signal a chance to procreate. Craving might lead to a nutritious meal. Each of these cases makes a difference to survival, to reproduction, to life. Emotions are what motivate the vital choices that keep a species propagating through time. The animal that feels fear knows to hide, or flee, or fight. It does so with passion, driven by strong inner signals. In like fashion, an animal that feels love defends its young or its social group, and so preserves its progeny and kin.
In the wild, emotions drive behaviors that promote life: feeding, defense, reproduction. Feelings aren’t arbitrary preferences without import; they’re symbols of survival, death, and birth.
For humans, however, emotions no longer arise only in biologically meaningful situations. They pop up around concepts and beliefs. We can feel threatened by assaults on status, or hopes, or ideas. Think of wars fought over religion or ideology. Think of teenagers shooting neighbors who wear the ‘wrong’ colors. Think of children arguing over the TV remote.
We still have strong feelings, but they no longer relate to basic necessities of life like feeding, sex, and foiling predators. Instead, they’re attached to ideas, to abstract concepts that grow out of culture and history. But despite this disconnect, we respond as if our very lives are on the line. Why? Because that’s how it feels.
Every idea that we care about possesses taproots that draw sustenance from the emotional centers of the brain. If you mock my beliefs, I feel anger and want to attack. My fury would be appropriate if you threatened physical injury, but does it make sense if you just disagree with my ideas? Should verbal conflict escalate to rage? To violence? Probably not, but it often does.
Why? Because on an emotional level we are fighting for our lives. This is what our physiology remembers from the evolutionary past. Our emotion centers can’t distinguish between a fight over the only gazelle killed in a month on the savannah and an argument over which TV program to watch (the brain as a whole can, of course, but only if we exercise rational oversight sufficient to suppress emotional reactivity).
Nor do feelings readily distinguish between protecting a living, breathing parent versus defending a mythical concept of God, or a conviction that “God” is a dangerous delusion. I’ve lost both religious and atheist friends by challenging such beliefs.
We care about ideas more than we should because feelings evolved to aid decisions about life and death, not abstractions. This has implications on many levels; it explains a lot of political and social discord. But let’s keep it personal. Sometimes I feel badly about myself because I don’t measure up to society’s standards. To my amygdala, this doesn’t feel like mere failure to satisfy arbitrary criteria: it feels like I might be cast out of the tribe, an exile that would ensure death. No wonder I get upset!
Imagine what a relief it would be to separate the conceptual from the emotional. Imagine if I could recognize standards as contingent and historical rather than internalizing them as requirements for tribal support and survival. Imagine if my thoughts and feelings were less tightly linked.
What we know about neuroscience implies the possibility of disconnecting abstract ideas from strong feelings, because the two are generated by different brain regions that act at least somewhat independently. Interestingly, centuries before we knew anything useful about the brain, yogic and Buddhist philosophies were teaching that feelings and thoughts are separable. Working to recognize and increase the distance between emotion and cognition was one of the key steps toward achieving mature, enlightened peace of mind.
Am I reaching my full potential? Have I sufficient friends? Will I be isolated in twenty years? Does anyone think my blog worthwhile? With a bit of practice, I can ask these questions out of curiosity without surges of regret, insecurity, dread, or despair. The lexical and emotional gears don’t need to interlock, one driving the other as if my life depended on it.
Let’s close by remembering that sometimes ideas do matter. A belief that says unbelievers are dangerous can cause problems. But why? Because emotional turmoil might escalate and drive desperate, aggressive action aimed at defending the belief (as if it were life or limb). It’s hard to imagine fanatics attacking others if they didn’t feel strongly about their ideas. So the issue is partly with the logical content of thought, but it has more to do with emotional response to thought.
The prescription remains the same: separate ideas from feelings. If children were taught this skill, there would be fewer adults driven to insane acts by mere concepts.
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Last reviewed: 3 May 2013