Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Emotion and reason

It is said that before the emergence of reason, the kind of logic that we do not instictively use but which says things like "if A=B and B=C, then A must equal C", there was a more primitive way of doing things. The original form of reasoning was emotional.

For millions of years of evolution, we relied of how something made us feel to decide what we did and mostly this was a visceral instinctual response rather than a considered one.
And this made sense. When you were a stone age child and your thrown toy spear went into the bushes, if fear of leopards decreed you left it there and did not pursue it, it stayed there. Unless of course someone bigger, braver or more capable decided to retrieve it.
Emotions, in the form of instinct, kept us safe, or rather kept those ancestors who survived to ultimately produce us safe. It kind of works, up to a point.

But then, about 10,000 years ago came civilisation and with it, a whole set of new ways to live. Forests were cut down and the darkness of their gloom banished along with the creatures who inhabited them. Less often did we have to fear the sharp teeth of bitey things and the pouncing of predators.
But the emotions remained. Look into a wood late at night and see what ancient warnings they still issue. This system is still perfectly functioning within us.

And then came trade and organised labour and all those constructs that made us such a successful species, but which required a way of thinking that evaluated our situations with regard to other parameters beyond those of survival. We learned to reason more systematically regarding the use of resource and its deployment. And as a result, ultimately, we have civilisation as we know it today, which is based almost entirely on the fruits of that pinnacle of reason: The Scientific Method. It gives us our food, our transport, our health, and regardless of individual opinions on it, our survival as an abundant species far beyond the Malthusian bounds which should limit our numbers.

But we are still very poor at reasoning. Flaws such as availability error, fundamental attribution error and the sunk cost fallacy all plague our daily decisions. It seems that the older version of decision making, emotions, still dominate since they have helped us through millions of years of tricky evolution and been honed by the process to be the best we could do under non-optimal conditions.
And we have this upstart Reason which has been around in its current form for probably about ten thousand years, though it appears it may have been in operation long before, perhaps when we were a small band of homo sapiens eking out a living in East Africa some 65000 years ago or so. Somebody must have said "Oh look! It's getting really crowded round here and there just isn't enough antelope and tubers to go round. How about some of us head off that way over the horizon? There's bound to be more food over there!" And they did and now there's us.

It is a very useful approach but still contains many flaws that evolution has not had time to iron out (partly because rationality has itself subverted evolution thereby removing many of the pressures that would have seen it refined by ruthless removal of flawed approaches)
So, since reason is new-ish, it hasn't had the bugs ironed out yet, we still "allow" emotions to dominate proceedings even when we are trying to be rational or when they are inappropriate to the modern day with its laws and strictures upon behaviour.

Mostly, I don't have a problem with this (apart from on Saturday nights when aggression given vent by alcohol is rather too revalent around here). Some of my most enjoyable outcomes have been as the result of emotional reasoning. It makes sense to buy this bike as the spec is higher, but I like this other one more so I will buy that. And I did and it was a bloody lovely bike.
But also some of my most stupid and regrettable actions were emotional and in those cases a bit of rational thought could have prevented a significant amount of grief all round. But we are human and this happens.

What strikes me most about emotions, however, is their sheer unpredictability. We cannot know how they will behave under certain situations. It seems that since the process of prediction is predicated upon logical projection of factors in situations, we cannot apply the process to emotions.

For instance: When my father died, we had a lot of warning. As an alcoholic, his downward spiral was only ever going to end one way. We knew this and it took time enough for us to be able regard the outcome with some degree of contemplation. In that time, I often thought about how I would feel when he finally went. I thought I had some idea and that it would be the usual feelings of loss, sadness and bereavement.
However, when it happened, there were a whole load of hitherto unexpected emotions (which I wont go into now since they are somewhat personal and irelevent to the point I am attempting to make). I was astonished at how I felt. Astonishment also was unexpected. It turned out that my predictions of what I would feel were largely wrong. But my emotions seemed to act rather well in my best interest and the blow was softened somewhat by how I felt.

This is one example of a situation where projection of events failed to give an accurate prediction of subsequent emotions. There are more but I think the point does not require further illustration.

But it was a lesson I learned which has not been entirely helpful except to teach me not to try to anticipate how I will feel under certain circumstances, because my expectations will most likely be wrong.

Emotions will do as they will. They had their way for millions of years and will not yield to our bidding now. And, frankly, in general, I am glad they do not. I rather enjoy their rebellious and absolute refusal to be coralled and controlled. It keeps life interesting, as long as we have the wit to acknowledge them and to be wary of their demands on occasion.


Jenny Woolf said...

Yes, agree with you that emotions behave differently from how you expect when you're not in the situation that provokes them. (Does that sentence make sense? Yes)

One reason I suppose why one should think carefully about right to die legislation that depends on living wills. Hate to say it because I do believe in peoples' right to choose such a fundamental thing as when to die.

PerlNumquist said...

Yes, that thought has struck me on more than one occasion and I think is not taken adequately into account when living wills are drafted. A firmly held conviction about expected feelings can turn 180 round when actually faced with death or infirmity rather than their mere theoretical proximity.

And yes, the sentence does make sense :-)


It's the primitive fears which stop us from acting upon emotion at times. Fear of the unknown.
Embarrassment is perhaps the worst offender (as a stumbling block to progress), or fear of it. The world is very accommodating to those who fail to become embarrassed by their actions. Shame is certainly a look I've seen on cats and dogs' faces!

PerlNumquist said...

Embarrassment is an emotion, i suppose. I refuse to feel it now since I caught my fly-zip on the door handle entering a crowded dentists waiting room and realised they were more embarrassed on my behalf than I was at a genuine accident. I realised there were enough people to feel it for me that I didn't have to do it myself.
Life is much more fun without it.

Librarian said...

Isn't it great to have all those surprises and adventures (real and imagined ones) in store when not trying to control the uncontrollable, i.e. emotions?
Sometimes I need to reason with myself when the rational part of my mind knows that the emotional response to a certain situation is not justified, and I am getting better and better at it. But most of the time, I enjoy the free reign policy.
As for being "prepared" emotionally for some major event such as the death of someone close, I agree; when a close friend of ours died of AIDS, we all knew he was not going to leave hospital alive, and we had had plenty of time to "prepare" for that day. When my husband died, completely out of the blue, I had never before thought about what it would be like when he would die, because that simply was not to be expected. In both cases, the "prepared" and the unexpected one, a lot was going on in the emotional department, and ultimately, allowing all those (sometimes contradictory) emotions, contributed to me being able to keep going, and keep going surprisingly well at that.