I am fascinated by our emotions and how they impact on us as humans. Next to understanding the brain and the human body, understanding our emotions is quite possibly the greatest challenge ahead of us. Some people understand emotions really well. Others, like me, have an ongoing fascination with them, and want to understand them better.
Well, partly it’s the psychologist in me. I’ve always enjoyed learning about what makes people tick. How does the human mind work? What is the development of cognition? How do we learn language? How do humans influence each other? How do we learn spatial abilities? What do we know about the brain and how it develops? Does a lobotomy actually help cure some mental illness? Why do people become mentally ill? What is senility? How do we adapt when we lose senses?
It’s only in recent years, though, that I’ve been realising just how fundamentally vital our emotions are to our very existence.
Big statement, huh?
Emotions don’t just help us to feel. They are there to help us survive and thrive. Equally, they can be our downfall.
There’s a common misconception that some emotions are good and some are bad. The truth is, that emotions are neutral. Each emotion we feel prepares the body in some way for its next action. And in most cases there are definite chemical reactions for each emotion felt. It’s our interpretation of our actions which determines if we saw it as a good emotion or a bad one.
We know from neurophysiology that the brain is made up of several important functions. One of these is the limbic system, where (amongst other things) our emotions reside. Our pre-frontal cortex is the executive functioning part of the brain. Both of these are at odds with the other. Our emotions demand we act in a certain way, and our pre-frontal cortex demands we act in logical and rational ways. It’s the marrying of the two which allows us to make the decisions we do daily. Sometimes, one influences the other because of the weight behind each initial action.
If our emotions help us to live our lives, it can be really hard to understand how they help us to do this at all.
With me so far?
When we move from there to understanding the purpose of different emotions, that’s when things become more complex. Because, as we might be aware, we don’t tend to experience emotions in isolation. They tend to come together with others in varying combinations. But before we even consider those combinations, there’s something more fundamental for me.
Why do the emotions exist at all in the modern age?
It almost feels like that we should be able to do away with one or two emotions and find a better and higher purpose for living.
The caveman argument is redundant for me these days. Yes, our emotions protected us and served us importantly when we didn’t have the ability to reason or the ability to communicate. But we’re more advanced now as a human race. Our thinking, creativity, intelligence, language and communication skills are so far evolved, that our emotions almost feel like they’re out of place. (also, when put into context like that, really makes you wonder what are the skills we think we’re hiring for in organisational settings)
Of course, it’s our emotions which help drive many of those things. Our emotions will either give us the drive and ambition to be our best, or will drive us to do some bizarre things, and sometimes make us act fatally towards ourselves or to others.
Which is the thing that confuses me. We don’t face the same dangers we did thousands of years ago. The modern day equivalent of being attacked by a tiger can range from flying an aeroplane, to being in a crowd of people, to fear of spiders. And that’s what fascinates me. How are those things the modern day equivalents? Logic and reason tell us otherwise. But our emotions, they make those things such a physiological reality, that it almost defies belief.
So when we talk about emotional intelligence, and many of us do, it’s not as easy as helping others to gain self-awareness. We’re talking about an essence of our being dating back to the very beginnings of homo-sapiens.