Are emotions a detrimental force?


Thursday 6th November 2014

This discussion emerged from a student’s sense of feeling the pressure of the oncoming mock examinations and the associated emotions of fear, anxiety and general suffering people experience during this stressful time. As the discussion progressed, it became increasingly clear (perhaps prompted by the wording of the question) that we tend to see emotions in a hierarchy to which we assign positive or negative values. So feeling happy is ‘good’ and would be higher on the hierarchy of positive emotions, whereas feeling low is ‘bad’ and would be lower down the scale.

There are at least two potential problems with this way of thinking:

a/ are emotions really measurable in this way? Surely emotions aren’t good and bad in themselves; we just feel them, go through them, experience them. They are, some argue, what makes us human and without them, we’d be robots.

b/ if we assign such values to emotions, aren’t we in danger of stigmatising or stereotyping people? Surely, it’s absolutely fine for you to feel unhappy when someone close to you dies – it’s not comfortable to feel this way, but surely it’s not ‘wrong’.

To resolve the second problem, students soon made a most helpful distinction between feeling emotions and the actions that emotions drive: it’s not that emotions are right or wrong, but that the actions that we commit based on our emotions are right or wrong. So you might feel angry when told off about not doing your assignment, in spite of having worked on it for two solid nights. Nothing wrong with your emotional response; it’s absolutely fine that you’re angry. However, if on the one hand, you should slap the person who told you off, this action would be inappropriate, overreacting and downright wrong. On the other hand, if you ended up channelling your anger to motivate yourself in the next assignment to show that teacher just how good you are, this action would most likely be appropriate, mature and good. Of course, this is a completely hypothetical situation and a range of emotions and actions exist in between the ones described. But you get the point: emotions have no values; actions are assigned moral values.

The first problem is a philosophical one and has persisted since at least the time of the ancient Greeks: the assumption that there’s a solid separation between the heart and mind; emotion and reason. Plato started it in the Greek philosophical tradition, explaining, by means of an analogy, how emotion and desire are two unruly horses that are controlled by a strong charioteer (reason). The argument is that emotions are overwhelming and cloud good judgement and are utterly detrimental to the rational functioning and organisation of the mind and of society. Science now explains that there is no physical distinction between the mind and heart (or body) and that both are functions of our unique brain architecture (See Descartes’ Error… – look at the Introduction.) We are naturally emotive beings and were designed to be so by the primitive emotive centres of our brain known as the amygdala. As we evolved, our brains developed those protruding frontal lobes, the neocortex, which became the centres of our more rational functions. In short, the emotion centres are much, much older than the rational centres; we are more used to being emotional than rational; we are more emotional than we think and couldn’t have survived to be what we are without them; in fact, it is argued that without emotion, we couldn’t reason very well, if at all.

This is, of course, a story about the importance of emotions, but there’s an entirely different story to explain HOW and WHY we have them…

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