When we talk about emotions most people define them as something like feelings that are either pleasant, so they say that they like to have them, or unpleasant so they don’t want to have these feelings again. These feelings come from experiences or thoughts that are positive or negative. One way or the other they affect our life dramatically. At the same time we understand that they work in a subconscious level somehow but we haven’t explained them. Instead humans praise them theoritically in songs, poems and all forms of art. Maybe art serves the purpose of expressing them. However, according to what we believe, they are not so effective in influencing our logic and as a result our actions. The situations that people lose their logic are just exceptions, we are in control most of the times, right? We are humans and we have a big brain unlike the animals…
The truth is that even the whole science itself used to have the same approach on the subject till the late 60’s and the beginning of 70’s. In other words scientists hadn’t found any connections between a person’s behavior and the neurobiology of his brain. At these years the behavioral neurologist Dr. Norman Geschwind from Harvard changed the history of Neuroscience forever. He and his trainees proposed for the first time that behavior can be changed by neurological causes. One of Geschwind’s trainees was the Portugese neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio who from the 1980’s, under the influence of Francis Crick, Jonas Salk and the Salk institute evolved the sector of behavioral neuroscience and the study on emotions. Crick and Salk played a crucial role in research related to revealing the genetic code and, according to Damasio, Crick is the most important scientist of the 20th century. It was incredible to start discovering correlations between molecular genetics and human behavior.
So Damasio describes that in the end of the 80’s they came across a number of patients with the following characteristic: they had sustained damage to the brain as a result of a tumor or stroke etc. but there weren’t found any detectable intellectual deficits such as decreased IQ, language and motor impairements. Instead they had the inability to decide in a social situation. They weren’t able to decide which suit to wear or in which restaurant to eat. For example, when Damasio was asking a succesful lawyer who was his patient to choose a time for the next appointment, the lawyer would state all the advantages and disadvantages of the hours of the week but never conclude. So their behavior was normal apart from the decisions. In these people had been detected damages in the brain largely in the prefrontal cortex. However, the most important thing was that they had a disturbance of emotions. This made Damasio and other neuroscientists curious on studying the emotions further and try to explain this unexplored concept.
Emotions vs Feelings
In order to make the concept of emotions clearer we have to distinguish them from feelings because this is a mistaken identification. Through the evolutionary past of humans, we needed a brain that would be able to “make a very quick decision” about the actions that were appropriate in any given situation. These actions had to automatically promote survival. The brain has to efficiently measure the benefits and costs of every decision and the unconscious parts of the brain work tremendously faster than the consciousness. So there is a very old part of the human brain that is called Basal Ganglia. This part observes everything we do and registers every decision if it worked or not, if the experience was good or bad. Every time that we are making a new decision, even how to wash the dishes, the brain unconsciously scans for previous experiences and according to them makes the decision for the current situation. It works as a survival guidance. The important fact is that the Basal Ganglia has no connection with the neo-cortex, the place where the consciousness works, so it only “talks” to us via the gut feelings.
Emotion is a collection of automated packages of actions installed in our brains at birth that will serve as a way to solve a rapid problem without the need to think. ~Antonio Damasio
If we had to consciously think about every decision that would be too costly. This evolutionary intelligence comes in several aspects as fear, embarrassment, happiness, guilt etc. Because higher animals such as humans have an advanced consciousness we try to make a perception of what is happening when we receive a stimulus. The feelings are how we subjectively interpret this stimulus.
The emotion, then, labels every memory. When you make a decision you don’t remember only the facts but how you felt, too. This is critical. Damasio’s patients had a damage in the part of the brain that processed these emotional memories. Not that reason is not important but the facts showed that there wouldn’t be any decision without emotions. So you can clearly understand that we cannot interfere with the emotion, it’s extremely powerful. We can only accept it, evolve skills to understand your guts and afterwards try to decide if it makes sense. The real intelligence is to invent ways to solve the problems when biology does wrong in a case. And indeed, there are many ways found. Thanks to Dr. Daniel Goleman and his work on Emotional Intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence and its Importance on Success
Daniel Goleman used the neuroscientific groundings on emotions and evolved them even more. He has provided humanity with significant research findings that skills such as self-awareness, emotional mastery, social effectiveness and motivation had greater impact than raw intelligence (IQ) in career success, leadership, individual success and creation of succesful teams.
Among other experimental findings he found that there is no correlation on school exams and career success. The exams were only made to predict how the student would do in the first year of graduate studies. Many companies now use the concept of Competence Modelling. They study what traits distinguish their own best employees from people who are average in a systematic method. After identifying the top traits and competencies, they hire people who are characterized by them. Most world-class organizations of different sectors that used Competence Modelling independently found traits that had to do with the field of emotions and were among the aforementioned in the first paragraph. 80%- 90% of the abilities of the star members were on the emotional intelligence domain. It seems you need to be smart enough to get in the game. But since you are in, you need other abilities and these have to do with the emotions.
So as I described before about the mechanism of emotions, when a stimulus comes from the environment, most of it goes to the sensory region of the brain but a part of it passes from a region called Amygdala. Amygdala is associated with the state of fear, aggression and sexual orientation and belong to the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system. At that time the stimulus is identified as threatening or not. If it’s threatening the automated package of actions or else emotions are turned on and stress hormones are released resulting in the fight or flight response. The body reacts to the danger by high blood pressure, adjustment of the body language, different endocrinal levels etc. This response passes from the prefrontal cortex, tha part of the brain that processes thinking. PFC’s role is to “put brakes” on the emotional reactions. Even though these mechanisms exist to provide us with more chances of survival in the African Savannah environment of our evolutionary past, they still work nowadays even though actual physical threats are rare. For example, a woman may be in a fight or flight response because her mate doesn’t spend so much time with her whereas a man can be in the same response when he drives his car. The problem is that in cases of extreme fight or flight there is the Amygdala hijack. At that time the Amygdala take control of the prefrontal cortex and logic is gone. Unfortunately, I am sure that all of us have felt like this…
The basic idea about the importance of Emotional Intelligence then comes from the argument that even extremely intelligent people can be victims of their emotional brain. Being run by fears, angers and other emotions is what “closes” their prefrontal cortex leading them to mistaken behaviors and decisions. At the same time, the way stress works means that it is “fed” by cognitive capacity. The more fears are in our minds the less we can think about productive issues on our lives. Same may happen to people who are admired only for their cognitive achievements and IQ levels. They may need to use more energy in order their prefrontal cortex to handle the distressing emotions. I mention again that the prefrontal cortex plays the role of the brakes on our projection of our emotions. PFC will try to wake us up when we are ready to scream to our boss or go in a personal level in an argument. The good news is that controlled stress can be used productively because it helps us on focusing our attention.
Emotions as Drivers of Behaviour
Research is vast in the last years about the importance of emotions and the influence on decisions. And it is normal, we share the 98% of our genes with bonobos and chimpanzees. The effects of emotions on logic can go so far that Soon, Brass et. al. on 2008 found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 sec before it enters awareness. And this, among others, raises many ethical issues on how much we are in control of our actions and in the end how much should people be blamed about what we are doing. The human free will that societies have been teaching has started to stumble. This is a critical leap to be honest. Societies need to understand the high significance of the emotional influence on human behavior compared to the effects of logic. It sounds hypocritical in the year 2013 among wars, atrocities, child abuses, trafficing, obesity and many other irrational behaviors to still praise the rationality of humanity. At least now scientists have started providing with explanations for all these. But it was only in 1995 that there was the first Sumposium in Neuroscience that connected it with emotions. It seems that Sigmund Freud was a forerunner when he was showing so much interest on emotions. Modern science has now facts on what in the past times was only speculations.
Emotions cannot be controlled but can only be managed. The suppression will result in aggressive expression of it in another level and that would be even worse. What is needed is acceptance and as a cold-blooded as possible knowledge of the existence of the emotion. This is the whole foundation of the eastern philosophies and the meditation and yoga techniques. As I said before, humans have the feelings in order to understand their emotions. The feelings are our own interpretation of what is happening to us. As I have mentioned again we should not overestimate our rational abilities and think again how frequently we are manifesting them in our everyday behavior. The truth is that it is needed extensive training in our skills to observe and understand right what is going on inside us, how we really feel and at the same time make the rational choice. Take a minute and think; Do you believe you are in control? If yes, then you can try what the great motivational speaker David De Angelo suggested to his audience: “All of you that think that are in control choose a thing, even a simple one, that if you do it every day for one year your life will improve. Even to wash your teeth. Then make an arrangement with a good friend to put an amount of money in a bank account. A significant amount, let’s say $5,000. Every night you have to text him that you did what you had to do. Even if one day he wakes up and doesn’t see a message, he has to immediately drag your money from the bank account.” If you are in control, I guess, you should definitely accept this challenge because you want to improve your life so there is no reason not to follow your plan. This means that being afraid of losing your money is unacceptable.