There is an interesting metaphor for living in the world: that we ride atop an elephant (our emotion, our instincts, and our desires) and that our rational mind is like the human who attempts to direct the elephant where one wants this beast to go. This blog is about the ability to integrate reason and emotion, and the positive effects it can have on creativity, habit formation (and habit-breaking), and living a fulfilling and happy life. And what does one need to cultivate in order to ensure that rational thinking enjoys the benefit of passion and emotions? As usual, the answer is: wisdom. The bulk of the following is really quotations about reason and emotion, as exemplified by this quote by the distinguished scientist, evolutionary biologist, and author, Edward O. Wilson: “Brain scientists have vindicated the evolutionary view of mind. They have established that passion is inseverably linked to reason. Emotion is not just a perturbation of reason but a vital part of it.”
Perhaps emotions are useful and adaptive and helpful. New York Times columnist David Brooks believes this: “Emotions are part of decision-making. Emotions are the processes we use to assign values to different possibilities. Emotions move us toward things and ideas that produce pleasure and away from things and ideas that produce pain.” He speaks directly to the tension and the relationship between reason and emotion when he writes the following:
“Reason is not like a rider atop a horse. Instead, each person’s mind contains a panoply of instincts, strategies, intuitions, emotions, memories, and habits which vie for supremacy. An irregular, idiosyncratic and largely unconscious process determines which of these internal players gets to control behavior at any instant. Context – which stimulus triggers which response – matters a lot.”
As well, psychologist Howard Gardner, who specializes in intelligence, points out that: “…if one wants something to be attended to, mastered, and subsequently used, one must be sure to wrap it in a context that engages the emotions. Conversely, experiences devoid of emotional impact are likely to be weakly engaging and soon forgotten, leaving nary a mental representation behind.”
The name most synonymous with the late 20th-century psychological concept of emotional intelligence is Daniel Goleman. Here he speaks of the fusion of reason and emotion with this succinct quote: “Gifted leadership occurs when heart and head – feeling and thought – meet. These are the two winds that allow a leader to soar.”
Few quotes could elucidate the subtle relationship between the two classic partitions of the human brain: reason and emotion, than this (also by Dr. Goleman): “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”
Blending one’s reason and emotion is a skill which, when practiced and improved over time can make life more enjoyable and meaningful, and one’s decisions wiser and more astute. Philosopher Robert C. Solomon of the University of Texas published a 2002 book, Spirituality for the Skeptic. Regarding the kind of life to lead, he compares and contrasts his thinking with philosophers Miguel de Unamuno and Albert Camus when they write about hopelessness and meaning in life:
“What gives life meaning is a form of rebellion, rebellion against reason, an insistence on believing passionately what we cannot believe rationally. The meaning of life is to be found in passion — romantic passion, religious passion, passion for work and play, passionate commitments in the face of what reason knows to be meaningless.”
He notes “Philosophy, because it is on the side of reason…” is not the be-all and end-all of ways to perceive life. Striking a balance between reason and emotion, he believes that “Among the many meanings that have been suggested for the concepts of reason and rationality, none has been more destructive than those that systematically oppose reason to emotion; that is, to oppose rationality and reasonableness to being emotional as being unreasonable.” He goes on to add: “Let me suggest that we would not go wrong in thinking of rationality and thus spirituality [he connects those two concepts] as having the right emotions, or caring about the right sorts of things.”
Psychologically, the brain moves at lightning speed, and teasing apart the relationship between reason and emotion is a tricky but enlightening one. In rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), pioneering psychologist Albert Ellis postulated that complex emotions almost always come about due to their antecedent: an event followed by a cognition. That is, one feels something because of the way one perceives an event. Is someone breaking up with you a relief or a tragedy; it depends on the cognitions you have about the relationship. Depression is theorized to (psychologically) often be related to loss.
Philosopher Robert Nozick in his worthy book An Examined Life writes the following (and adds to my point about Ellis that “sometimes we may discover our implicit beliefs and evaluations by pondering the emotions we are aware of feeling.”):
But in whichever direction the connection goes, the emotion is partially constituted not just by the feeling but also by its attendant belief and evaluation, a different emotion. …Emotion, therefore, is much more “cognitive” than one might think, and thus it can be judged in certain respects. An emotion can be defective or inappropriate in three ways: the belief can be false; the evaluation can be wrong; or the feeling can be disproportionate to the evaluation.
Finding a balance between white-hot emotions such as anger, envy, lust, and shame and purely rational cognitions is a delicate balance, but ultimately in our best interest. We know the character Spock from Star Trek; he might experience sensations such as jumping into a cold pool, but he doesn’t experience emotions as human beings do. This makes him a somewhat pitiable character, as any fan knows. The character of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation is rationality personified, and he is often found missing that deeper side of life. We also know how certain people in society can’t seem to get control of their emotions, and often it is determined that they are criminally violent. One of the most interesting things to come out of the CTE issue in football is that chronic brain injuries can lead to a rash of excessive and even bizarre emotions and choices (such as suicide, murder, and unhinged aggression). It shows the delicate balance between reason and emotion in a healthy brain, just as studies of meditation do.
Author and management consultant John Hagel writes: “So, how do passion and reason reinforce each other? Think of agency versus structure. Passion provides the first by generating energy and creating a sense of freedom. Reason provides the latter by imposing constraint and discipline. Without structure, agency becomes an aimless whirlwind of activity, constantly distracted by the bright lights, but unable to maintain forward movement. And without agency, structure remains an inert mass, sinking deeper and deeper into the ground below it, seeing but unable to explore the world around it.” It’s about integration and the interplay between reason and emotion.
Buddhists and those who practice meditation (and psychotherapists) have taught for quite some time that troublesome emotions (either in type or in magnitude) can be managed if one goes through the proper mental practices. Tara Bennett-Goleman is a psychotherapist, and wrote a book entitled Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart. She writes about mindfulness and other useful practices when it comes to finding success blending one’s reason and emotion for better mental health. Here is an example:
Buddhist psychology holds a refreshingly positive view of human nature: our emotional problems are seen as temporary and superficial. The emphasis is on what is right with us, an antidote to the fixation of Western psychology on what’s wrong with us. It acknowledges our disturbing emotions but sees them as covering our essential goodness like clouds covering the sun. In this sense, our darker moments and most upsetting feelings are an opportunity for uncovering our natural wisdom…. Mindful attention allows us to delve deeper into the moment, to perceive finer subtelty, than does ordinary attention.
Here is a blog entitled Quotes About Passion and Enthusiasm
I will now share some additional quotes on reason and emotion:
If there is a single message that has emerged from recent cognitive neuroscience, it is that the lightning-quick, emotional response system, while it undoubtedly kept humans alive in the fullness of evolutionary time and plunges us into a bath of invigorating neurotransmitters, often preempts a more deliberative, rational decision-making process. Yet that slower, newer, more rational part of the brain… is essential to foresight, planning, and the kind of delayed emotional reward we associate with enlightened political leadership. If we believe deliberation is useful to wisdom, then just about every tactic in the modern political campaign playbook seems designed to short-circuit (neurologically!) political thoughtfulness.
An intense emotion that is fitting is a close response to particular value, and is valuable in itself. It provides an analog model of the value that depends on the value’s existence and perhaps tracks it closely. This combination of emotion in relation to value gives us a further integrated structure…. Emotions make many things – the situation of having emotions, our lives as they include emotions, and also ourselves as beings with emotion – more valuable, more intense, and more vivid than otherwise. Emotions do not simply feel good; intense and fitting emotions make us more. ~ Robert Nozick
Mindfulness means seeing things as they are, without trying to change them. The point is to dissolve our reactions to disturbing emotions, being careful not to reject the emotion itself. Mindfulness can change how we relate to and perceive our emotional states; it doesn’t necessarily eliminate them. ~ Tara Bennett-Goleman
“…the less self-awareness a person has, the more he is unfree. That is to say, the more he is controlled by inhibitions, repressions, childhood conditionings which he has consciously ‘forgotten’ but which still drive him unconsciously, the more he is pushed by forces over which he has no control.”
This positive function occurs when a man takes seriously the feelings, moods, expectations, and fantasies sent by his anima and when he fixes them in some form—for example, in writing, painting, sculpture, musical composition, or dancing. When he works at this patiently and slowly, other more deeply unconscious material wells up from the depths and connects with the earlier material.
…concerning the power of the mind over the emotions and concerning its freedom. From what has been said we see what is the strength of the wise man and how much he surpasses the ignorant who is driven forward by lust alone.
We know too much and feel too little. At least, we feel too little of those creative emotions from which a good life springs. ~ Bertrand Russell
Lately, there has been some discussion about Aquinas’s view of emotion and its role in practical thought and action. For him, emotions such as love, joy, fear and so forth are not irrelevant to moral reflection and decision. They operate within practical reason and serve to motivate us toward the desirable good. ~ Shawn D. Floyd
“All men should strive to learn before they die/ What they are running from, and to, and why.”
Mindfulness has gained popularity in recent years. Rooted in religious practice and prayer, and especially in Buddhism, proponents claim that it can benefit the immune system, improve attention and memory, and increase the density of gray matter in the brain. It is said to enhance compassion, to ease relationship behaviors, to help people to overcome addiction, and to reduce stress. Now, researchers from Michigan State University have found neural evidence that mindfulness helps to control negative feelings, not just in people who are naturally disposed to be mindful or well-practiced in meditation, but in anyone. ~ Yvette Brazier
Even though a high IQ is no guarantee of prosperity, prestige, or happiness in life, our schools and our culture fixate on academic abilities, ignoring the emotional intelligence that also matters immensely for our personal destiny.
Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, where the teaching is not to suppress or oppose the energies of our emotions but to transform them, there is a useful model for doing this. Known as the Five Buddha Families, this system describes the transmutation for each of the five major energies and their emotional tendencies: anger, pride, passion, jealousy, and apathy. This method uses emotions themselves as spiritual vehicles by transforming their energies from a deluded, neurotic mode into a wise, enlightened mode. ~ Tara Bennett-Goleman
“The intellect is always fooled by the heart.”
Unlike reason, our emotions lack an internal system of controls; thus, they can become a destructive force within us if we allow them to run rampant. An excessive amount of uncontrolled emotional energy can indeed transform a person into a tyrant, a madman, a rapist, or worse.
We have created a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions.
In humans, emotional control largely depends on the ability (and will) to think rationally. As Aristotle stressed, when your reason habitually directs your thoughts, actions, and emotions, you have a good shot at living happily; but when you routinely allow irrational bodily tendencies and feelings to swell up inside and take control of you, then you are likely to live quite happily.
A man likes to believe that he is the master of his soul. But as long as he is unable to control his moods and emotions, or to be conscious of the myriad secret ways in which unconscious factors insinuate themselves into his arrangements and decisions, he is certainly not his own master. ~
“Without the stimulus and guidance of emotion, rational thought slows and disintegrates. The rational mind does not float above the irrational; it cannot free itself to engage in pure reason.”
It is wise to take a close look into the world of your mind and to make the distinction between beneficial and harmful states of mind. Once you can recognize the value of good states of mind, you can increase or foster them.
There are studies suggesting that conscious deliberation is good when the decision should be made on a few aspects, but is bad when you have to integrate information across a large number of details, whereas intuition offers you a more holistic version of processing.
I am more mindful of everything—my body, its movements, the food I eat, the smell of the grass outside, the color of the sky. By Sunday night, even the meditation itself is starting to seem within my reach. My mind is learning to be quiet and still for longer. I feel less impatient and hurried. In fact, I am so relaxed I do not want to leave. Without my realizing it, my brain has also been engaged in some very useful Slow Thinking. By the end of the weekend, ideas for work are bursting up from my subconscious mind like fish jumping in a lake. Before returning to London, I sit in the car scribbling them down.
What you are thinking about, you are becoming.
“No matter how much restriction civilization imposes on the individual, he nevertheless finds some way to circumvent it. Wit is the best safety valve modern man has evolved….”
Our emotions enable us to perform actions more promptly and easily than rationality alone; if controlled by reason, our emotions can actually intensify our moral life.
Modern man has exceedingly little discipline outside the sphere of work. When he does not work, he wants to be lazy, to slouch, or to use a nicer word, “relax.” This very wish for laziness is largely a reaction against the routinization of life.
There is growing evidence that fundamental ethical stances in life stem from underlying emotional capacities.
Throughout history, we have seen many champion the need for choice – rationalists side with reason while the romantics and assorted others (often not quite so appealing) side with passion. As I have grown older, I have come to challenge this basic assumption. In fact, reason and emotion [the author uses the word passion] need to be tightly integrated if we wish to achieve our full potential and make a difference in the world around us. ~ John Hagel
Holding these perspectives in mind allows us to accept our humanness without getting too trapped in our own emotional gravity, an especially crucial balance as we clarify our habitual emotional patterns on the way to freeing ourselves from them. …We can see the clouds of the mind from the vantage point of subjective truth, but also hold an awareness of a larger perspective, one that goes beyond the limited way we see things at the moment. …Perceiving things through these two perspectives – the seeming and the real – allows us to use our everyday experiences as opportunities for wisdom. ~ Tara Bennett-Goleman