In the last blog post about a cognitive neuroscience to understanding feelings, we discussed that we don’t see the world objectively. We’ll continue that discussion in this short article all about when and where we should rely on our feelings;. Hint: not as much as you may think! If you like this article, check out our podcast and course for more. Much more on the blog coming soon!
Feelings. When and where do they matter? When are we supposed to use them? What do they mean?
So often we hear in society that something “just doesn’t feel right.” All over magazines, some movies and TV shows, many things you see online, people are talking about how they feel.
But what do feelings really mean?
Reexamining the component theory of feelings
In the last article, we discussed feelings from the idea of their components. We learned that the way we feel in any situation can be related to the feelings we have to each individual component of what is there, as well as the weight we assign to each component.
For example, imagine that you are relaxing in your backyard, reading on a warm sunny day. You see a spider walk across the table next to you. What do you do? Some of you reading this will feel scared by the encounter and have your heart rate increase. Others may be curious by the creature and observe it, or even try playing with it. Some will just keep reading without the slightest change in arousal.
The difference here is the weight that we assign to the component of the spider in the interaction and the feeling that we assign to it. A large weight + fear component makes you feel scared. Large weight + curiosity makes you want to observe or play with it. Small weight + fear may make you feel agitated, but keep reading without much disturbance. And small weight + curiosity may make you glance at it out of interest, but not disturb your reading too.
As children, many of us initially place large weights on everything that is sensually stimulating – we want to listen to the street performer playing violin at the metro. We want to pay attention to animals and learn about them. (And consequently, can quickly get attracted and want to pay attention to tablets and phone screens too – their flashing lights, sounds and random rewards are a sure way to overwhelm your sensations and keep you glued to the screen).
But in this situation, what is right?
Yes, we must be respectful to nature and not cause undue suffering. But what about the reaction to running away from the spider?
Much of the time in North American cities, that spider would not pose significant risks to the reader. There are few ones that are poisonous, would even sting us, or could do much damage here (but not in other countries, be careful when you travel or if reading from another country).
What about snakes? We talked about the benefits of ingraining some hardwired components into things so that we would not have to learn them all from childhood, that would be a lot to learn, in previous articles. Yet cars cause a lot more damage to people than snakes in most North American cities today (think texting while driving, for example), yet for some, it is hard to be fearful of then. Children may even recognize faces in moving cars and not see them as a threat.
What’s the right decision?
In all of the examples that we spoke about above, such as with the snake and spider, we can reasonably expect different people to have different reactions. Why? Well, this is because they are different people, of course, right? Well, what makes them different?
A key component of the differences between people is the components they assign to different things and the weights that they assign to them. Some people feel curious about spiders and some feel scared. What they witnessed as children, as well as likely partially their genetics, plays a role as to how they respond to the same stimulus.
Because of this, we cannot expect two people to respond exactly the same way to the same stimulus. We can also not expect the same person to respond exactly the same way, for they respond differently based on how they feel.
Feelings are called feelings because we can actually feel them in our bodies. Therefore, the emotions that cause them play a key role in the way that we experience the world. The same event is experienced differently based on how we felt before it. That’s why sometimes people seem agitated when they are hungry. There is so much weight on the component of them being hungry in the situation that we may misperceive it as there is a problem with us. Have you ever heard of the term hangry (hungry + angry)?
This is also why relaxation techniques such as breathing, exercise and meditation are so important to helping us function with others and succeed in our work. When stress from things outside our current task is taking such a large component of our mental space, it is hard to engage positively or productively with anything else. These components are quite literally a lens that we see the world by.
Now because we can experience the same thing very differently based on how we felt before we started engaging with it, whether or not those feelings are related to the current task at hand, we cannot say that we see the world objectively. Especially, as our feelings change like clouds passing through the sky based on a number of things from hormones, hunger levels, work stress, relationships with those around us and news from around the world (to name a few), we cannot rely solely on our feelings to make major decisions at any one time.
The question no longer becomes if our feelings are right, for we are not totally in control of them. Have you ever tried to relax then found yourself more stressed than before? We cannot expect our feelings to not be distracting us from the task at hand at any moment.
A Scientific Method for Making Hard or Big Decisions
As a general rule of thumb, the larger the decision is, the more time and in more situations, you should spend thinking about it to mitigate the effects of your feelings at any one encounter.
For example, many people make horrible decisions after consuming alcohol. They have a drink (or hopefully not more), which places such a large lens over the way they see the world that their feelings become almost helpless in guiding their behaviour. They feel like it may be a good idea to kiss someone romantically who is not their partner, but would they feel this while sober? Would they feel like it is worth the damage it will cause to their and their partners’ lives?
Alcohol clouds thinking in favour of immediate feelings. The weight our bodies attribute to it blocks most of our rational thought from having an impact on our current perception of the world. It is hard to notice most things around us or pay attention to more than one thing immediately in front of us at once (which is why clubs have many flashing lights, they overwhelm sensation which some find exhilarating). With so much overwhelm of the mind, thinking can become all but impossible.
You wouldn’t make a major life decision while drunk, right? Well, we’d hope so. As extreme as this example is, it points out great perspectives to consider when making any life decisions. The point to remember is that our environment plays a large role in determining the way we see the world at any one time. The weight that we assign to components and components we assign themselves will change the way we experience a situation or conclusion we arise at any one time.
Has it been hard for you or your children to do their math homework when they are stressed over something else? This phenomenon is also demonstrated here, for outside stress can hinder the ability to even think with logic and reason at all. Therefore, instead of concluding that something is impossible, we should keep coming back to it until our minds are ready to get it. (More on the effect of stress and reasoning in the next section).
The scientific method comes to play to save the day here. Good scientists use repeated observation under different circumstances to ensure that what they see is indeed truly attributed to what they think it is. For example, if trying to see if helium makes a balloon rise, they would design an experiment to limit outside influence as much as possible. This would help determine if it is indeed the helium making the balloon rise and not something else.
Imagine a day with heavy rain and strong wind. If you tried to make the ballon rise then with helium, would it go up or sideways? This is the same way many of us make decisions without realizing the outside influences affecting us. We would conclude it goes sideways, without thinking it actually goes up and we were wrong in this regard.
A better experiment would be to try to limit any outside influence on the balloon. This could look like trying to identify the stress we experience it and limit it through meditation before reevaluating the situation. If we are under the influence of alcohol, for example, this could look like trying to reevaluate the situation when we are sober. For our scientists and balloon experiment, this could be like trying to fill a balloon with helium in a closed room without much wind and seeing if it rises then.
Is the helium making the balloon rise, or is it something else? Often we think that our partners are the problem or that something is causing a negative effect on our life, but it is often not that think causing the negativity. We think they are responsible, but really we are such as in the lens we use to evaluate them. Maybe we are projecting our own insecurities onto them. Or maybe our own lack of self-care is causing us to feel down.
For a scientist, this could look like trying to fill the balloon with different types of gasses to see if they change if the balloon rises or not. Does the helium itself cause it to rise? What about hydrogen (don’t try this at home, hydrogen gas is very flammable). What about another gas (don’t try this either, it could be poisonous). Or is it not the gas at all that causes it to rise, but something in the balloon like the string or rubber surrounding it? Does the pressure matter?
By changing the variables and seeing if the same effect still occurs, we can better understand what the cause of the effect truly is. Is it the way we are speaking to our partners, could we try to speak to them differently? Or is stress from trying to impress our parents causing it? Additionally, if something is not working, then what else can be done to try to resolve it (ex: reading a book about relationships or counselling?)
A final thing that a scientist would do when trying to determine if helium makes a balloon rise is to repeat the experiment many times. Does the helium cause the balloon to rise once, or more than once? As a general rule of thumb (a p-value of 0.95 in statistical terms), the balloon has to rise with the helium in it in 19 out of 20 times it is tested for it to be considered statistically significant (or a true effect).
When applying this to our partners, we can ask ourselves (for example, if we think negatively towards them) – are they always bad, or are they things that they do that are sometimes good to me? What could I do to get more of them? If talking to them with a kinder tone didn’t work one time, if I tried it 19 times, would it work then? If it didn’t work those other 10 times, will it work one more?
While exhausting, the scientific method can help to disassociate the effects that get in the way of what we are trying to understand – helping us to see things more for what they are, not just acting based on immediate feelings. We may decide at the moment to end a relationship, or do something negative, but may have resorted to this if we spent more time pondering on it in different settings.
Are feelings even grounded in reality?
In all the examples with the snake and spider, we can see a disconnect from feelings and reality. For example, one may be so fearful of spiders that they cannot continue to be outdoors, even though they pose very little risk to them. People may not be fearful of texting while driving, even though that poses way more rest of them than a garden snake.
We feel we have to act a certain way, or shouldn’t, but is that right for us?
Remember in the article What is anger and what drives our actions? Lessons from Neuroscience, that thoughts and emotions come from different parts of the brain (mostly the neocortex and limbic system, respectively). More so, in times of intense emotional arousal (like stress), the emotional brain can quite literally hijack the thinking brain.
This is by intercepting and reacting to stimuli before it has the chance to reach and be processed by the neocortex which sits farther away in the brain. While this can be great for immediate survival in some situations, it can completely change or ruin our life in others. (For example: is doing action XYZ that can completely change my life a good idea right now?). One might regret acting on emotions felt immediately for they may change later.
This same arousal may cause us to want to flee the spider in the moment (or say something cruel to our partners, for example). But just like the intense feelings from the spider, they are not always grounded in reality. The spider can’t really hurt us if we are in many cities in North America. But we flee from it anyway.
The lesson here is to recognize that feelings are not always grounded in what is logical. We feel strong for something that may not have a large effect on us, and react strongly accordingly. This is largely influenced by the distance from our thinking and feeling brain, and the way our brains respond under intense stress or arousal.
Recognizing the limitations of feelings can help us think twice before making large decisions based solely on our feelings. Because there are so many outside influences that affect them, they play a major role in how we see the world, they change often and do not even respond logically to some scenarios (like the spider), we should not place all the weight on them when making decisions.
The more important a decision is, the more you should think about it in different settings, try to think about it when you are calm, and multiple times, before acting on it.
We inherently know this to be true and think of it as common sense, but often lash out at others, say cruel things, or make bad choices in the moment which we regret later. This is not to say that we should not do any risky things in our life, or never act in the moment, but just to be more aware of the limitations of relying on feelings alone. Doing so can make us more aware of the true roles of things around us and act in ways that help get us what we truly want in life more efficiently.
The larger the decision, the more we should try to understand it without the confounding effects of our feelings. We must always choose to feel, not numb our feelings, but recognize their limitations in making major life choices. Feelings don’t always have IQ, but they are an incredible beauty of life regardless.