Monday, March 01, 2010

How I’ve Changed – Part II Emotions

In Part I of this series I introduced my musings on a few of the fundamental ways I’ve matured over the last two decades. Specifically I chose to focus on three aspects:

  1. The use of philosophy as a practical science for determining how to live one’s life, and more specifically a framework to understand what role value plays in one’s life. i.e. this is the science of ethics, what should man value, and how should he go about pursuing those values.
  2. The development of a useful framework to be able to deal with and integrate my emotional responses.
  3. The development of a useful framework to characterize and deal with my relations with other people.

I focused on personal relationships in Part I, and I’ll be focusing on integrating emotions in this post. Specifically, I want to discuss a framework from which to think about and work with emotional responses, and ultimately being able to harmonize emotional responses with our conscious values. Here are a few of the observations I made from the last post with regards to emotions:

  • I find today a far greater integration of my head and my heart, of my thoughts and emotions. This yields a feeling of peace or centeredness or balance.
  • I think my daily emotional responses today are far less mixed, or clouded and as a result are much more intense, pure and powerful. I describe this to people as living in “technicolor.”
  • I seem to be able to stop and live purely in the moment, savoring even small pleasures and joys fully without the immediate weight of that adult list of goals, and tasks, and worries. Again, this lends an incredible feeling of intensity in the moment. 
  • I don’t feel a nostalgia for a “simpler, easier” time in my life. The simplest, easiest, most joyful time in my life is right now.

Why might we be interested to think about this? The basic answer is the emotions have utility in leading our lives. They can be powerful motivators or demotivators to action. I’m sure you’ve all felt the surge of drive and motivation when something you’re doing also generates a positive emotional response. When choosing a career for instance, the popular bromide that you should so something that you’re passionate about reflects this. Emotions help us sustain and act upon our conscious decisions. Conversely, I’m sure you’ve all felt the lack of action or initiative when our emotional responses are negative toward the action. I had to work out this morning and my heart wasn’t in it, even though I know and want to be physically fit. Because emotions can be so powerful, it would benefit our lives greatly if we could find a way to harness their power and align them with the things we want to pursue.

Before delving into the ideas here I want to make a disclaimer. First of all, this will not be a post about psychology or psychological theory. My intent is not to provide the methods by which we analyze and modify our emotions, but rather to provide a framework for thinking about them that sets the stage for our approach to them. I have little familiarity with psychological sciences other than lay reading and small levels of experience with psychologists directly, and I don’t try to represent them. Nor is it any comment on psychotherapy or the use of medications in treating psychological conditions. All are valid practices in the right context

Emotions as automated, evaluative responses to sensory input

In order to articulate a framework for thinking about emotions, it is first necessary to say something about what emotions are. Simply stated, emotions are automated responses to sensory inputs. That is, subsequent to sensing something, our minds respond with some sort of processing of those sensory inputs, and this results in an emotional response. Unlike sensations such as pain and the automatic reflexes that might follow, there is some sort of processing that our minds perform in an intermediate step that results in an emotional response. By automated I mean that emotional responses typically operate faster than our conscious reasoning processes. It is not that we stop and think about something in order to realize how we feel about it, but that we usually feel something first and only subsequently might we know why. You’ll notice that I use the word automated rather than automatic. This is important and I’ll elaborate on the distinction shortly. What do I mean by evaluative? Emotions unlike other automated responses (such as reflexes), reflect some sort of judgment about something. They indicate an assessment of something as good or bad. A marathoner feels pain (a sensation) in his legs and responds with anxiety (an emotion) because he is too far from the finish line. Another also feels pain but responds with joy because he knows that he is near the finish line and pushing himself as hard as he can. While the sensation, pain, may be the same, emotional responses vary depending on the situation.

What’s interesting here is that normally we associate evaluation with conscious thinking, Yet emotions are evaluative in nature but not really products of conscious thinking. How do we to account for this observation? This for me comes in the explanation of how emotions come to be automated. Emotions come to be automated through experience. It is through repeated experience that emotional responses develop. However, experience by itself is insufficient to explain the evaluative nature of emotions. Rather it is our past experiences coupled with our past evaluations of those experiences that serves to automate our emotions. The first time our marathoner raced he may not have known what the early pain he felt would portend. It would be only after experiencing a disappointing performance(s) and realizing that the pain was an early indicator of this problem that he might feel anxiety at the first sign of pain. Now I’m not going to spend too much time developing this point as I want to get to the framework for dealing with it. Specifically I don’t want to get into the realm of early emotional development or how emotions develop from early ideas, only to acknowledge that there certainly times during development when the impact of experience can be much more critical to healthy emotional development and that the basic mechanism of automation has to in some way be genetic. However I don’t think that these observations take away from the basic idea which is that emotions are products of our past experiences and also our ideas and evaluations of those past experiences.

Emotions are not cognitive

Emotions do not automatically give us information about the world that can be taken as valid without conscious reasoning. In other words, emotions are not mechanisms for automatically knowing the truth. If our past evaluation of an experience was in error, then it is certainly possible that we have trained our emotions in error. If our marathoner does associate the early pain he feels with the resulting performance, he may subsequently respond to the pain ambivalently, when it really should concern him.

It is possible that if our previous evaluations of experiences were correct that emotional responses may yield correct evaluations of a situation; however, it is not necessarily so. It is also possible that while our previous evaluations of experiences were correct that the experience that is causing our emotional response now does not match our previous experiences. In other words it is possible to mistake the experience one is having now and respond with the wrong emotion. If our marathoner switches to running 5K’s he may not realize that the manner in which he experiences pain will be different, and he will mistake early pain as a sign of trouble.

Emotions as trainable

The fact that emotions are developed experientially provides us with a mechanism by which we can shape our emotional responses. Because we are beings of freewill, we can choose both the ideas we hold, and the experiences we undergo; these are the critical components of emotional development. That is, at a certain stage of maturity we can direct our emotional development.

Now, this does not in any way suggest that emotions are infinitely malleable or that directing them takes no effort or knowledge. To the contrary, emotions have a specific nature. They come to be through a specific mechanism. And as such, one cannot simply wish for them to be different. However the fact that they do have a specific nature provides us with the mechanism to direct their development. The fact that they are trainable affords us the opportunity to train them, and that is a powerful concept.

Note also that because emotions arise out of experiences in the context of ideas, neither is sufficient by itself to cause desired emotional development. It is insufficient to simply change one’s ideas and expect one’s emotions to automatically change to reflect those ideas.  In addition it is insufficient to simply throw oneself into new situations and hope that your emotions develop properly.

Moral Judgments of emotional responses as invalid

A very common response I have seen in myself and others is to make negative moral judgments about unwanted emotional responses. Because I feel a certain way, that must say something about me as a person. If I continue to desire chocolate cake after I’ve already pledged to a diet and weight loss, this can bring feelings of guilt simply for having this sort of emotional response. I may even question myself wondering “I know that’s not good for me; why do I still want it?” The fact of this response does not warrant a moral evaluation of the person. Emotions are automated responses, and moral evaluations apply to those things that are volitional. Just as one wouldn’t make a judgment about themselves for having a slow reflex, so one should refrain from taking emotional responses personally.

This is especially true of adolescents just becoming aware of their emotional natures or people who have recently changed fundamental ideas that they hold. Both are liable to feel emotionally out of control or disconnected from the ideas they hold. The proper perspective on this is to take emotional responses as they are, without moral judgment, and then set about to understand and craft them into a set of much more useful, harmonious responses.

Introspection as a key skill to aid emotional development

Suppose you were wandering in the desert and came upon an ancient, alien form of transportation, some sort of spaceship maybe. You found the control center and notice a set of controls and an instrument panel. How would you go about understanding the craft? A couple of obvious questions to ask are “What do the instruments tell me?” and “Are they in proper working order?” You might try operating the craft and seeing what controls resulted in certain actions, and which instruments responded to various actions. You might remove some access panels and examine how the instruments are wired to various parts of the craft.

The process is analogous when dealing with emotions. They are or can be effective instruments for the operation of our corporeal “craft.” However, we become aware of their existence and operation as already formed entities. Only then do we set about to understand their function, and where their function is not useful or helpful to rewire them so as to make them more useful.

One of the fundamental ways that we understand how our emotions are wired, and how they function is through the process of introspection. By introspection, I mean the focusing inward to understand what is causing your emotions. I mean an conscious active probing and seeking, as opposed to a passive “pondering” or reflecting. Active introspection about seeks to answer two questions: “What am I responding to?” and “What ideas led to the formation of this emotion?”. The second question might not seem so obvious at first, but if you buy the explanation above, that ideas held now or in the past are built into your emotional responses, then this has to be at the root of figuring out your emotional “wiring.” There are lots of ways to accomplish this step. I find journaling a good way of verbalizing feelings. Other methods include role playing, fantasizing, and replaying events or memories in your head. All are methods of experimenting with your feelings to find out what ideas they are connected to.

As a side note, cognitive psychology seems to be the psychological school that best reflects therapy based on these principles, i.e. that emotions can be understood, and bringing them to a conscious level of understanding allows you to then work on modifying your responses.

So that’s the basic framework. So much more to discuss, methods, contrasting perspectives, errors, etc. But the post is long enough. Ask a question and I’ll go there though.