Why Emotions Are Important
Reason vs Emotion
Emotions are responsible for our best moments and our worst moments. They’re what makes love so good and heartbreak so bad. Have a few too many drinks, and reason seems to take the backseat while emotion grabs the wheel. This often leads to some of our worst and most impulsive decisions. At times, we’ve all wished that we could be less emotional, or we’ve told someone else to keep their emotions under control. We admire people who are cool, calm, and rational; we look down on people who are too emotional. Do emotions hold us back? What if we could get rid of them? Would we be smarter and more calculated? It’s time to go down the rabbit hole and answer the question: what if we had no emotions?
In his book Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio tells us of a patient he had named Elliot who had a brain tumour removed. As is typical in this sort of case, the damaged part of Elliot’s frontal lobe also had to be removed. After the surgery, Elliot’s abilities to make decisions effectively and plan for the future were weakened. Lots of tests were performed, and Elliot was found to be mentally average or even superior in many ways. In Damasio’s words,
“…Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters.”
In terms of language, learning, memory, and attention, Elliot seemed fine . There was, however, one thing that struck Damasio as odd. In all his time with Elliot, he never noticed a single emotion arise out of the man . Could this play a role in his impaired decision-making? Elliot confirmed that things that had once made him emotional ceased to do so . He could reason just fine, and, in fact, he could reason for hours. Elliot’s problem was that he could not, and would not, make a final decision . As Damasio put it,
“…the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options, and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat.”
The landscape was flat: I think that’s a brilliant way to put it. Without emotion, it’s hard to act [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. Emotions make some actions more salient or favourable than others. Without them, we would do nothing. They help prescribe the action that is the most meaningful or useful at the time [2, 4, 5, 6]. Without emotion, we can deliberate for hours, weighing the pros and cons, but we’d be unable to come to a decision . Anger may be a prescription to act aggressively; sadness may be a prescription to seek comfort or reassurance from others.
You don’t think randomly; we’re always thinking towards some end. Thinking is goal-directed. Because of this, goals often need some value or weight attached to them so we know how to act. Some goals have to be more important than others. Otherwise, we’d do everything and nothing. Depending on the scientist, the value of a goal comes from affect or emotion (a distinction we’ll touch upon in future videos).
The False Divide
It’s important to realize the false divide between thinking and emotion for several reasons.
First, all of your actions are affected by emotion. Emotions need to be respected and understood: they often indicate what an individual values or needs.
Second, if emotion prescribes action, we can change our actions by understanding and altering our emotions.
Third, if we can change the emotions another individual feels, we can change their behaviour — for better or worse.
And, lastly, if they are linked, we can probably change emotions through changed thinking, or we can change thinking through changed emotions.
I’ve went over what most scientists agree upon: emotion is important for action and can’t be separated from thinking [1, 2, 4, 5, 6]. What I didn’t go over is how emotions are made and whether we can control them. This is because there are many competing theories of emotion. Some scientists believe that emotions are things that happen to us while others believe we construct them ourselves. The theory you adopt will decide how you understand and learn to manage your emotions. The different theories are something that we’ll have to explore in a future video.