You don’t think – except that you do

In a post this week, Nick Shackleton-Jones expressed a set of insights where he suggests humans don’t think – certainly not as we have been made to believe.

The affective context model claims, in essence, that we don’t ‘remember’ anything.

Instead we have subtle affective (emotional) reactions to events around us and we use these delicate affective patterns to reconstruct situations as needed.

What we call ‘thoughts’ are merely subtle forms of feelings. The same cognitive apparatus underpins both; the brain does not have ‘thinking areas’ and ‘feeling areas’ but instead ‘primitive feeling’ and ‘sophisticated feeling’ areas.

It seems to me that when people open their mouths to speak – to argue or discuss, explain or convince – that they are merely expressing sentiments more deeply felt.

I have a different set of insights I’d like to share to Nick’s. Some chime with what he says, and some are different.

Emotions drive human behaviour. Anyone who has read about or taken the time to understand emotions and what their purpose is will be able to articulate this. Emotions are the basic function for humans which enables us to act as we choose. In our early years as largely unthinking creatures, our emotions enabled us to respond to our environment. They did our thinking for us. Our emotions prepare the body to act in ways which are quicker and more responsive than anything we could rationally decide. Over time, with the development of language and of higher thinking capabilities, we have developed the capacity to understand our emotions, regulate them, and become more aware of how our emotions drive behaviour. We are also able to provide some expression to our emotions in ways we’ve never really been able to do before.

We are thinking creatures. Our thinking is largely predicated by what we are feeling. This is a reality many of us would not like to admit to. It explains why we see otherwise rational adults reacting in ways which do not seem to make sense. Largely, it is because they do not acknowledge their emotions are driving their behaviour. What they do not realise is that they are simply articulating their emotions.

Often when we see or hear people express their emotions is that they are limited in what they can express. This is largely because we have not spent the time – through formal education or other means – to be able to understand our emotions better, to be able to express them well, and to understand that emotions are transient. When people think they can control their emotions, what they are doing is reinforcing a belief that they are in control. This fallacy is reinforced by nearly every institution we have around us.

As thinking creatures, and for those who do take the time to understand emotions, we are able as a people to think beyond the realm of emotions. Once an emotion has been expressed / dealt with / resolved it ceases to be useful and the body and the mind doesn’t bother with it anymore. We are then left with our thoughts. Those thoughts need to then be dealt with / resolved / expressed. The layer of thinking we did initially was in response to an emotion. The next layer is in response to the thought itself. What do I actually think about the thing I was thinking?

It is that next layered level of thinking which enables us to think well, act well and be well. It is also this next layered level of thinking where we are able to do the higher level functioning stuff.

Add to all this, and we have better understanding of the functioning of the brain. This has been possible precisely because we are emotional and thinking creatures. Nearly every action we take has an element of both. Ask someone why they did something, and the most common response is “because I wanted to” or “because I felt like it”. The next level of inquiry normally reveals the thinking process behind the feeling and emotion.

Our understanding of the brain has arisen because of marvels in modern technology enabling us to understand things like energy capacity of the human brain, how neural pathways are formed, the purpose of neurochemicals, and so on. We know these things because our thinking capabilities moved beyond the emotional capabilities. Our emotions will have provided a driver to explore and appreciate something. Our thinking will have taken that initial thought and done more with it.

If we didn’t think, we wouldn’t have advanced as a human race over the last 500 years as radically as we have. When we think, we are better able to:

  • philosophise about the purpose of life
  • create amazing pieces of art
  • create wonderful music
  • develop medical capability
  • construct wonders of engineering
  • travel to the moon and beyond
  • develop new languages that are inspiring new technologies that are creating new problems for us to solve

And, we do remember things. Quite observably and objectively we know this. People can recall facts. They can recount exact conversations. They can think and remember events exactly as they happened. Yes, human memory is extremely fallible and in many cases unreliable, but that doesn’t mean we don’t remember things, or that we don’t think. It means we have to appreciate the impact of emotions on our ability to remember and think clearly. When I remember that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, it is not because I have an emotional reaction to that piece of data. It is because the human brain has the capability to retain facts and we have the ability to recall those facts. That’s not an emotional reaction – it’s a thinking and intellectual capability.

So, Nick, I wonder if this post is a development of your piece, or if it’s evidence that we are emotional creatures, or if I’ve presented something else to consider.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

Say something...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s