As mentioned before, I’m rereading the now classic tome on neuroscience, “Descartes’ Error.” And I’m reminded of the fundamental theme of the book — that what we refer to as emotions are really subtle and not-so-subtle changes in our physiology, changes that we sense in the same way that we sense pain, pleasure, stomach discomfort and whatnot. In essence, we “feel” emotions the same way we “feel” everything else — through our sensory nerves.
This is at odds with the conventional argument that emotion is… well, something almost indefinable. Something that belies description. Something that is both there and not there. And, that was my view up until reading the book, partly because I’d never really thought about it. (Obviously this conventional view ties in with most religious beliefs which espouse the concept of a soul, or some kind of nonmaterial mental presence in the body.)
After I first read the book, I found myself doing some home experimentation. In particular, I would lie in bed early in the morning, half awake/half-asleep, and just notice how thoughts affected my body state. Why just this morning I had a pertinent experience. I was lying there in that blissful “I don’t want to get up” state, and then was reminded of a Facebook post I’d posted the night earlier, one that I was eager to see responses to. Suddenly, sleep’s hold on me diminished, and I wanted to get up. (Fortunately, I was able to talk myself out of it.) The exact feeling was so subtle that it’s hard to describe, but it was almost a mild sense of tingling, perhaps a tightening of muscles. I’m guessing a mild shot of adrenaline was released into my system (I’ve mentioned in the past my idea that this “tingling” is the sense of nerves being stimulated by hormones or neurotransmitters.)
My point here is that this is emotion. It’s very subtle, often only tickling the surface of consciousness rather than brusquely announcing itself like a overweight woman pounding on the door get your support for her candidacy for the school board.
But the other main point of “Descartes’ Error” is that emotion — these subtle, shifting physiological states — are key in helping us reason and make decisions. More often than we want to admit, we make decisions because “they feel right.” (How our emotional systems come to these conclusions is complex and theoretical, but Jonah Leher’s book “How We Decide” explores the topic.)
But if emotions are so sometimes elusive, we can presume there are many people for whom emotions don’t register and that those people probably make shitty decisions. That’s somewhat disturbing. And, there’s another source of concern. I think people can be wired up to be too emotional, and their own emotional chaos overwhelms their decision-making processes so that they also make shitty decisions. (People who are overly anxious and frightened by the world, for example.) When you consider the possibility of people out there whose emotional system is either providing too little or too much information, well, the world starts to make a lot more sense.