Why Our Emotions Drive Us Crazy: Take 1, They Have To Shout!
Charles T. Tart
As usual, these are thoughts-in-process…
As a person who likes to think of himself as a rational individual, I have often been amazed, embarrassed, and blown away by the way a feeling, an emotion, suddenly arises and takes over my consciousness, hijacking my thinking and perceiving so it fits in with the tone of the emotion.
Most of my life I just lived with this is as a fact. My lines of thinking and perceiving would give me a certain understanding and a plan to act in a certain way, and suddenly everything changed. If it was a positive emotion, like joy, I didn’t particularly mind, but most emotional takeovers involved negative emotions. I can remember how as a kid I was in a hurry to grow up, as I thought adults were more rational and less susceptible to such emotional hijacking. Of course I eventually learned that that wasn’t true.
It all made a lot more sense to me when I read P. D. Ouspensky’s book, In Search of the Miraculous, about Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way psychological and spiritual teachings. Gurdjieff said we had three kinds of “brains” or psychological functions, one intellectual, another emotional, and the third bodily/instinctive. Becoming a more mature human being (as a solid basis for further spiritual growth) involved educating each of these kinds of functions as you went through life, so they performed their inherent functions properly. Unfortunately, for practically everybody, one of these brains was much more dominant than the other two, so it would take over in inappropriate ways. Thus one function was often doing work it wasn’t particularly suited for, or the sheer press of necessity activated one of the other functions, but they hadn’t really been very educated, so our non-dominant functions tended to be relatively ignorant and, given what I learned about psychology later, neurotic, if not psychotic. For me, my intellectual function was dominant, which made me very clever with words, but, for example, my clever words about a situation were often not relevant or even counterproductive to some situation that was really an emotional or bodily-instinctive problem. One of my main psychological growth tasks in life has been to give some education to my emotional and body instinctive brains, so they can both work properly on their own and work more harmoniously with all three together, within a wider kind of consciousness.
Gurdjieff taught that the emotional brain operated much faster than the intellectual brain, and I recognized that from my own self-observation of my functioning. I would be just starting on some kind of intellectual analysis of a difficult situation, e.g., but an emotion which was an evaluation of the situation was already rising and often took over almost instantly, and hijacked my further thinking and remembering to fit the emotion.
In the last couple of decades we now have neurological research to support this idea that the emotional functions operates “faster” than the intellectual function. If you trace the path of neural impulses from our sense organs, our raw information about what’s happening around us, you’ll find that shortly after they start toward the brain they split into two separate paths. The raw sensory information, after a few additional neural relay steps, each of which takes some real time, goes on to the frontal cortex parts of the brain where we think “higher” intellectual appraisal and decision-making happens. But the other split path is shorter and goes to a cruder part of the brain, so arrives there before anything gets to the intellectual parts. This cruder part is not as discriminating, and tends to make binary “Good!” or “Bad!” decisions rather than “a little good but also some bad” kinds of decisions. This emotional function has the power to instantly generate strong emotions, which can both drown out what the intellectual part is going to try to work out a few moments later and/or hijack practically all of our conscious attention, so the emotion, the reaction is central to our experience, rather than the information it’s supposed to be about. This can also distort our otherwise rational thinking processes so they support the emotions. The emotional brain is yelling “Bad!” and the thinking brain somehow starts to pull up relevant bad memories, etc., reinforcing the “Bad!” signal. The strong way the emotional brain “yells,” it usually takes priority in shaping experience.
This kind of distortion is often talked about in Buddhist teachings. A traditional example is you are walking through the jungle at twilight when you suddenly see a poisonous snake on the path, and leap back in fear. Then as you calm down and look more clearly, you see it’s just a piece of rope lying in the bushes, not a deadly snake.
This traditional teaching story is an excellent example of the way our consciousness is distorted in illusory ways, but it could also be used as an example of the value of the emotional brain. In dim light conditions the piece of rope looked enough like a snake that the emotional brain instantly made its “Deadly danger!” decision and spurred you to jump back. If you had stood there your intellectual brain might have told you to look more closely, “Oh, it’s a piece of rope that just looks kind of like a snake, no need to get excited.” But, if it actually had been a snake, you might of been bitten and then died while your intellectual brain was being more precise. So the extra rapidity and the, to use a Western metaphor, “Shoot first and ask questions later!” operating style of the emotional brain can save your life. Better embarrassed at being spooked and alive than dead.
What got me thinking about this was a retreat this weekend with Lama Sogyal Rinpoche, where, among many other things, the value of training your attention in a “meditative” kind of way included a more clear and precise sensing of ongoing feelings in the body. This made perfect sense to me as the primary Gurdjieffian technique I practiced for many years involved splitting my conscious attention, with a small percentage keeping track of bodily feelings.
I usually thought of that attention to bodily feelings as primarily being a way of anchoring my mind in the here-and-now. My intellectual and emotional minds can wander way off in the “there-and-then,” but my body feelings always take place in the here-and-now, and so serve to anchor me here. But I observed after doing this for some time that deliberately using some of my attention to monitor bodily sensations sensitized me to low levels of emotional feelings in the body, the first stirrings of the emotional function. These often would serve to remind me to pay more attention to the emotional components of my ongoing experience, and discover some feeling had indeed been activated, some decision about the situation I was in had been made or was at least being considered by the emotional function, but I wasn’t yet consciously clear about it through being lost in intellectual activity. I feel the tuning into my emotions this way has made me more emotionally intelligent, not to just my own feelings, but in sensing emotional states in others.
This brings us to the main point I want to put on record here. Many (most?) of us do not keep much track of all of body sensation, so insofar as our emotional center is somewhat aroused and trying to get our attention, we don’t notice it. Yet this emotional center is designed to be noticed, so the need to get our attention may build until a powerful jolt of emotion demands our attention, hijacks our consciousness. Insofar as it’s our habit to not pay attention to these more subtle bodily feelings that could be a cue to the working of our emotional center, it makes some sense to think that the emotional center is not only shouting at us what it thinks there is deadly danger, it’s gotten in the habit of shouting at us most of the time because otherwise we simply don’t pay any attention.
If we’ve gotten used to only noticing emotional shouting, that reinforces our habit of ignoring the more subtle emotional information presented us. If we will only notice powerful emotions, we will be bombarded with powerful emotions as the only way to get our attention.
I think we’re lucky to live in the present time, certainly at least in the modern West, as many techniques have been developed for becoming more sensitive to, accepting of, and intelligent about our emotions, such as various psychotherapeutic methods, sensitivity training, etc. Paying clearer attention to subtle bodily feelings is certainly not the only way to then develop emotional intelligence, but I’m very impressed with what it can do and recommend it. I’ve discussed the practical side of it in various ways and at some length in my three books which work at integrating Gurdjieff’s ideas with modern psychology, Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People.