More Than a Feeling

Human emotion has become a hot research topic in recent years and is yielding a much broader picture of what makes us who we are.

For most of modern history, scientists have turned a cold shoulder toward the study of emotion. At best it has been viewed as a mechanism to alert us to modify behavior. Fear might prompt us to escape from the presence of a threat; anger might galvanize us to mount a defense against enemies; empathy might be handy for motivating us to help others and ensure the continuity of the human race. But otherwise, many have felt, emotion is a primitive obstruction to the real work of the brain—the archenemy of logical thinking. A serious cognitive scientist wouldn’t study it; a serious article wouldn’t address it. To be concerned with the question of emotion was considered a fluffy, touchy-feely, trivial pursuit.

Then came the 1960s and ’70s, when a number of fledgling scientists arose who wondered whether it was possible to understand cognition without also considering emotion. At least three of them passed through Harvard University, and each found himself somewhat at loggerheads with the prevailing behaviorist wisdom. If they didn’t exactly embrace the tenet that “all you need is love,” perhaps that Beatles refrain was at least ringing in the ears of these students as they questioned emotion’s banishment from the halls of science.

One of the early newcomers, Daniel Siegel, describes his experience when he first went to Harvard Medical School. “During my first two years,” he writes in Mindsight, “. . . I was painfully and repeatedly reprimanded for a peculiar interest of mine: spending time learning about my patients’ life stories and inquiring about their feelings during patient interviews.” Excellent doctors, he was told by his instructors, dealt with only the facts: data, disease, physical symptoms. Now a UCLA psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Siegel is a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology.

Like Siegel, Daniel Goleman comments on the dominant thinking of the time. Author of the bestselling books Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, Goleman earned his doctorate at Harvard and later returned as a visiting lecturer. “During the middle decades of this century,” he wrote in 1995, “academic psychology was dominated by behaviorists in the mold of B.F. Skinner.” One of the so-called fathers of behaviorism, Skinner believed that only behavior that could be seen objectively, from the outside, could be accurately studied. Therefore, in Goleman’s words, behaviorists “ruled all inner life, including emotions, out-of-bounds for science.”

This state of affairs was brought home to another now-prominent emotion researcher and author, Richard J. Davidson, during his first week at Harvard as a graduate student in 1972. When he stepped onto an elevator and encountered Skinner himself, he explains in The Emotional Life of Your Brain, he became flustered. “I pressed the button for my floor and immediately realized I’d made a mistake. Mumbling, ‘I changed my mind,’ I pressed a different floor. To which Skinner said, ‘Son, you didn’t change your mind; you changed your behavior.’” Although the cognitive “revolution” had already begun to change the focus of psychology from the study of behavior to the study of intelligence, emotion remained out of bounds in mind and brain research. “To say that studying emotions was not very popular,” Davidson writes, “. . . is like saying the Sahara is a trifle dry.”

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; . . . a time to love, and a time to hate.” 

Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4, 8

Of course, preference for all things rational wasn’t confined to Harvard. Nevertheless, these and other researchers began to raise some interesting questions. Where do emotions come from? Are they the friend or foe of reason? Why do we differ from one another in the way we respond emotionally to life events? How do we learn to regulate our emotions, and why do we need to?

By the mid 1990s Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux and Jaak Panksepp, among others, had begun publishing their first insights into such questions, sparking the next revolution in psychology, along with a new field known as affective neuroscience. An interdisciplinary field, affective neuroscience brings together psychologists and neuroscientists in studying the neural basis of emotions, personality and mood. This blossoming field has illuminated some basic truths about our emotional scaffolding, among them the fact that the human brain is a social organ; that we connect to others through emotions; that from the first days of life our relationships shape our brain structure; and that our emotional and social processes are interdependent and essential to decision making, learning, and mental and physical health. These discoveries have also spotlighted the drawbacks of traditional IQ and personality measures, which can stunt our expectations and thereby our potential.

On the other hand, cultivating emotional and social intelligence—and becoming aware of our underlying “emotional style”—is an essential step to meeting our potential, not only because we gain a more nuanced view of our individual talents and abilities but also because these qualities are fundamental to how we think, who we are, how we find our place in the world, how well we establish our connections to others, and how effectively we solve problems.

Whereas IQ and personality have long been considered fixed genetic gifts (either you’ve got them or you don’t), we now know that neither is static. But as a society we still cling to a very narrow view of both aspects of human potential. Despite more than 20 years of research discrediting the virtue of personality and IQ tests, many administrators still use them to decide whom to hire or whether or not a child is educable. As we learn more about the connection between emotion and the human experience, it becomes ever more apparent that our approach to the question of our potential has been all wrong. We have failed to take account of a fundamental dimension of our being.

The Problem With IQ Measures

In Descartes’ Error, Damasio introduces a patient he calls Elliot, a competent businessman with a benign tumor intruding on the frontal lobes of his brain. Although it was successfully removed, some of the brain tissue was damaged by the tumor. Interestingly, he didn’t suffer any cognitive loss. Elliot’s “smarts,” as Damasio puts it, were unscathed. But despite scoring in the superior range on standard IQ tests, his personality took a dramatic turn. Otherwise healthy and intelligent, says Damasio, Elliot’s decision-making machinery had taken a fatal hit. The result? “He could no longer be an effective social being.” But is it really possible to score so highly on IQ tests with such devastating social impairments? Yes, says Damasio, and this is a reality that clinicians have long encountered. The question becomes, do we make any decision on a purely cognitive level?

When emotion is entirely left out of the reasoning picture, as happens in certain neurological conditions, reason turns out to be even more flawed than when emotion plays bad tricks on our decisions.”

Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error

Elliot’s case also raises questions about whether IQ tests, which do seem to be good at predicting how well we can handle certain cognitive challenges at a specific point in time, actually measure intelligence. It is becoming clear that cognitive ability (as well as IQ scores) can be improved. Unfortunately, the prevailing belief that IQ is a fixed measure of potential can set up low expectations in the minds of teachers and corresponding self-fulfilling prophecies for students.

Both research and classroom experience demonstrate that teacher expectation is an active agent in student achievement,” writes Louis Cozolino in his 2013 book, The Social Neuroscience of Education. How does this work? Robert Rosenthal, who coauthored one of the earlier studies of this phenomenon, says that when teachers hold high expectations about students, they tend to create a warmer interpersonal climate; they teach them more material; they call on them more often and let them talk longer, while collaborating with them to help shape their answers; and they give them more detailed and positive feedback.

Cozolino argues that it is precisely this warm climate that increases cognitive ability; we learn best in this context because relationships are our “natural habitat.” As Siegel and others point out, we actually regulate one another’s biology through social interactions. Beginning with our parents and then extended family, friends, peers, teachers and romantic interests, we are constantly seeking a network of safe, supportive relationships, which set the stage for neuroplasticity as well as for emotional regulation. It’s in this environment that we are able to learn and grow: caring relationships stimulate the production of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and endorphins. They are also linked to the presence of oxytocin. On the other hand, stress and fear shut down learning. When we are in fight-or-flight mode, levels of the stress hormone cortisol spike, diverting the body’s resources away from all but the most necessary systems. Parts of the immune system are immobilized and developmental processes are halted, including neural growth in the brain. This doesn’t necessarily hurt us if we can return to baseline levels reasonably soon. But if stress is chronic and cortisol levels remain elevated for too long, we begin to see ill effects in both body and brain.

Acute sensitivity to the emotional state of others is central to both empathy and compassion, since being able to decode and understand social signals means we can respond to them.”

Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain

Social support is the surest way back to a healthy emotional baseline, and this is communicated to us with the aid of touch, eye-gaze, and our ability to read facial expressions accurately. Our brain, we are learning, is shaped in some of the most fundamental ways by our first attachment figures; but it is constantly reshaped and regulated by relationships throughout our lives. Clearly, the success of this reshaping depends to some degree on our ability to relate to others. Those with the social intelligence to do this well, says Goleman, will be intelligent about—as well as in—their relationships and will have the capacity to see beyond their own self-interests to the interests of others. They will also display emotional intelligence, an ability that encompasses how well we know and manage our own emotions as well as how we recognize and apply ourselves to the emotions of others in handling our relationships. But separating emotional intelligence and social intelligence is a tricky prospect. “Psychologists argue about which human abilities are social and which are emotional,” writes Goleman. “Small wonder: the two domains intermingle.” Davidson goes further: “All emotions are social,” he observes.

Perhaps, then, what we’re looking for isn’t accurately thought of as intelligence at all. Maybe it’s something larger. Cozolino suggests that what we need to reach for is wisdom. “Wisdom appears to bring together intellectual and emotional intelligence in ways that maximize affiliation, compassion, and our common humanity,” he writes. And it’s the emotional and social side of our intelligence “that allows us to maximize our intellect in the service of others.”

There is more that could be said about wisdom, but understanding the concepts of social and emotional intelligence at least helps us appreciate how a healthy brain works. We begin to grasp how emotion and social connection contribute to learning, as well as to the integration of new knowledge into understanding, character and wisdom.

But where does personality fit into the equation? How do we connect with those who are nothing like us?

Goodbye, Personality; Hello, Emotional Style

Let’s go back to Elliot. After he aced his IQ tests, Damasio was sure they would find the source of his decision-making deficits by administering the standard clinical personality test, the MMPI. However, Elliot passed this with flying colors too. In all quantifiable ways, he was a man of normal intellect and personality who simply could not make decisions. Perplexed, Damasio enlisted the help of other researchers to put Elliot through a battery of problem-solving tests; they came up empty—at first. It seemed that Elliot could offer numerous appropriate options for addressing all kinds of questions, from social dilemmas to moral ones. Apparently his intellectual grasp on social and moral questions was intact. Then Elliot commented to Damasio that “after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!” That’s when it dawned on Damasio that in real life, unlike in such tests, we have to go further than simply thinking up possible courses of action. Real life forces us to choose only one out of any number of viable options to implement. This is what Elliot couldn’t do.

At the same time, Damasio had also begun to realize that Elliot’s remarkable emotional reserve was much more than a stiff upper lip. Further probing confirmed that, despite his life’s turmoil, Elliot was not distressed. In fact, he felt no emotional response to anything at all, whether positive or negative. “We might summarize Elliot’s predicament,” writes Damasio, “as to know but not to feel.” Figuratively speaking, he still had his mind but had lost his heart. The same combination of impairments has now been found in other patients with similar injury, leading to the conclusion that, while it’s certainly true that unbridled emotion can disrupt reasoning, removing emotion from the equation can produce equally devastating results.

Of course, the fact that Elliot’s deficits weren’t detectable by personality tests raises another question. Could something about our ability to experience and regulate emotion be more fundamental to who we are than the construct we’ve come to know as “personality”?

Davidson thinks so, and he calls this fundamental aspect of the mind Emotional Style. Distilling the brain science behind emotion, he says your individual emotional style depends on where you fall along continuums in six dimensions: Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention. On any of these dimensions, you can fall on the upper end, the lower end, or any point in between. Personality traits are combinations of these emotional styles. For instance, shyness is a combination of being “slow to recover” on the resilience dimension while also being low on the sensitivity-to-context dimension. Optimism is a combination of being fast to recover and having a positive outlook. Several of these dimensions can be recognized as aspects of what Siegel calls mindsight.

Unlike the less precise concept of personality, says Davidson, “Emotional Style can be traced to a specific, characteristic brain signature.” It is individual to us; there are not sixteen kinds of us, or five, or eleven, or any other finite number. But acknowledging individuality doesn’t mean we should accept our own emotional style “as is.” Perhaps the most exciting news science has ever stumbled over is the fact that the material we have to work with, our brain, is changeable. If our emotional style is inhibiting our ability to meet the minds of others—that elemental need of the human social brain—we can take advantage of our inherent neuroplasticity to make alterations in our emotional style. Shy people can learn to feel comfortable in anxious situations; bold kids can learn to read danger signals and pay attention to them. These brain changes can be brought about through experiences we have (especially in the context of nurturing relationships), or through the repeated practice of new thinking patterns.

A cheerful heart brings a smile to your face; a sad heart makes it hard to get through the day.” 

Proverbs 15:13, The Message

Understanding how emotional style impacts relationships can encourage us to accept that the emotional responses of others will often differ from ours, while also helping us identify when (and which) aspects of our own emotional style warrant modification. In fact, increasing our social and emotional (and even cognitive) intelligence could depend on how well we learn to tweak emotional styles that aren’t working well for us.

Whether these styles have been affected by our genetic predispositions or by our environment, this deep level requires focused attention if we hope to reach our potential as human beings. We are not rational beings who sometimes experience emotion. Our emotions are fundamental to who we are and how we approach others as we forge and maintain meaningful relationships with one another. More than simply feelings, our emotions have everything to do with who we are, where we are going, and whether we succeed in getting there together.