by Clay Skipper: A new book explains how our emotions—not just our rational thoughts—are often running the show upstairs…
Leonard Mlodinow has made a career out of trying to understand mysteries, both as a theoretical physicist and as a science writer. He’s written 11 books on topics as disparate as the way randomness rules our lives to his friendship with Stephen Hawking. For his most recent, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, he turns his attention to emotions, the understanding of which, he says, is undergoing something of a revolution in the scientific community. “Where we once believed that emotion was detrimental to effective thought and decisions,” he writes, “we now know that we can’t make decisions, or even think, without being influenced by our emotions.”
Recent developments in neuroscience have revealed how little we really know about what’s going on in our brains. In particular, new research is highlighting the role that our feelings play, often subconsciously, in affecting our behaviors. No matter how rational or objective we might think we’re being, we’re always under the influence of how happy, or sad, or anxious, or even hungry we are. (One study indicated that parole officers are least likely to grant parole right before taking breaks for meals.)
A bit unsettling? Certainly. The good news, Mlodinow told GQ, is that a better understanding of the emerging science of emotions can help us become more aware of just how much our emotions affect our thinking.
GQ: In what ways has our understanding of emotion been wrong?
Leonard Mlodinow: The first real scientific, modern approach to emotions was from Darwin, who was interested in why we have emotions from an evolutionary point of view. He came up with a theory, the main tenets of which are now known to be wrong.
One is that we have six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. Some people still use that classification, but it’s a lot less definite these days. We’ve expanded what we consider emotions [to include things] like awe, embarrassment, jealousy, social emotions, what they call homeostatic emotions—for example, people consider hunger an emotion. Another [myth] is that each emotion is definite and unitary in the sense that there’s one kind of fear, or one kind of disgust. We now talk about disgust for smells, for tastes, moral disgusts for individuals who violate social norms. There’s many kinds of fear. Why would your fear of a bear be the same as fear of cancer?
The fact that each emotion is distinct from other emotions is also wrong. Emotions overlap. They don’t have sharp lines between them. It’s more like a spectrum, like the colors of the rainbow. We say red, green, and blue, but there’s a whole continuum. The feelings of the emotions might be universal, but the classifications or the categories, and the way we express or make faces, seems to vary from culture to culture. Some cultures don’t have a word for sadness, and there’s a culture that has a word for the exhilaration you feel when you’re going head-hunting against another tribe.
As a physicist, you’re often working with the rational, logical conscious mind. A lot of what’s in this book is about what’s happening on the unconscious level. How did that shake up some of what you thought or had accepted as true?
I wrote an earlier book called Subliminal, on the unconscious mind and how that affects your decisions, behavior, and thoughts. I view Emotional as a kind of a companion volume. It’s about how emotions affect the same things: your thoughts, your decisions, and your actions. Emotion is a functional state of the mind. It’s a state of processing that you’re in. People are studying: If you’re in the disgust mode, how do you make your decisions differently? If you’re in the fear mode, how do you make your decisions differently? It affects your rational processing. It’s a mistake to say that the rational mind and the emotional mind are separate—much less to say emotions are counterproductive. You can’t even say emotions are separable from logical thinking. It all happens together.
It seems emotions are meant to drive us to actions. Is that fair to say? An emotion is meant to set us in motion?
Emotions are used in determining our actions. So some are focused towards specifically driving us to take immediate action, or a strong action. I would say they’re there to guide our action. Anger, specifically, spurs you to action. Happiness makes you more exploratory, more creative, more open to ideas. So you might do something that you wouldn’t ordinarily do.
How did you change your behavior based on what you learned in researching this book?
I’m much more aware of what makes me think and do things. Like, if you’re in a grocery store, and you’re hungry, everyone knows you’re going to buy more stuff. You go into the store, you have certain data. If you go when you’re in a non-hungry state, you have all that data in front of you, and all those choices to make, and you make a series of choices. If you go when you’re in a hungry state, same data, same information, and you make totally different decisions. That’s a good illustration of what emotions do. The emotions are a framework for your logical processing. It affects how you evaluate data, how skeptical you are of certain ideas versus how accepting you are of those same ideas. Your brain doesn’t process in a vacuum.
How has your understanding of emotion influenced how you think about making decisions?
It raises my consciousness about decisions. I might decide to revisit a decision later because I know I’m in a certain emotional state. I also realized, though, that that’s not always a bad thing. As a scientist, I tend to push toward, what is the objective thing to do? You make the lists: pros on the left side, cons on the right column. When I’ve done that in the past, I’ve often said, “Oh, okay, so my list tells me to do A, but I still want to do B.” And then, later, it turns out B was the right thing. Your feelings are a very important tool in understanding the world. Your unconscious mind does a lot of mental calculations that are more complex than your conscious mind is able to do. It can handle more information. That’s what comes back to your brain in gut feelings, hunches and intuitions. Those aren’t from nowhere. They’re the result of complex calculations your brain did on an unconscious level, in conjunction with emotion.
In the book you cover emotional contagion [“the spread of emotion from person to person or throughout an organization or even an entire society”] and core affect [“a kind of thermometer whose reading reflects your general sense of well-being based on data about your bodily systems, information about external events, and your thoughts about the the state of the world”]. With the pandemic and rise of incivility, I can imagine this must’ve been an interesting time to write a book about those things.
Emotions are very much part of the society, discourse, and politics today. Unfortunately, emotional contagion is a big factor with certain media, like Fox [News], who realize that fear and anger catch on with people. That draws people back to their shows to bathe in more of the same, and it’s all shared. It’s not just the TV shows. Social media also allows this emotional contagion to feed on itself. Each person can interact with thousands of other people—or hundreds of thousands of other followers on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. It’s unfortunate. But it helps you understand what’s happening in society today—to see how much emotion is driving people’s assessments of situations.
Are there any behaviors that you’ve noted and changed, as a way to curb some of this?
I use [a tool called] reappraisal. For example, when I was driving downtown, there was a roadblock for construction. I got really pissed because the signs were totally confusing, and the streets were all one way, and I was 20 minutes late. But then I converted it to, “Oh, I really didn’t want to be in this meeting, and I missed it for 20 minutes. That’s good.” Now, when people cut me off, which happens all the time in LA, instead of thinking, “What an asshole,” you just think, “Oh, the person is in a hurry, or oblivious, or didn’t even realize they were cutting you off.” You have to search to find for, what other reasonable explanations might I believe about this? I’m also a little more aware that if I’m hungry, and I’m clothes shopping, that also makes me more likely to buy. I don’t know if you were aware of that.
That your hunger can make you hungry for things that aren’t sustenance?
Right. And disgust is the same. So if I’m disgusted for some reason, and I’m going to a store, and I find the perfect shorts I was looking for, I still might not want to buy them. Because that’s part of that emotion.
I’m usually of the belief that the more information you have, the better. And I see the ways in which emotional self-awareness is positive. But I also find myself wondering if it might be exhausting to be like, “Okay, how is my core affect affecting this decision? Am I tired? Am I hungry?” Taking all these things into account seems like it could be a paralysis-by-analysis situation.
It shouldn’t be a burden. It’s a matter of learning, automatically, to have a raised consciousness about your own mind. Now you understand that when you’re hungry or tired, you might deny someone a request that you would’ve allowed if you were not in that state. Now you just know that. You don’t have to sit down and go through a tedious analysis of what your state is before you accept your decision. Just be more conscious of your bodily state, your core affect, your emotional state. Maybe it takes a little practice of self-awareness. But people who are more mindful are happier and live longer. So why not do that? I came across studies of life expectancies showing that people with better emotional regulation, for example, have 60% fewer heart attacks. It’s not magic. You can see it reflected in the statistics. We know that stress and anxiety and inappropriate emotion cause stressful situations.
You discuss how “supernormal stimuli” [a term coined to describe artificially enhanced substances and activities—think Doritos or smartphones—that stimulate us more powerfully than any natural stimuli can] disrupts the normal mechanisms we have to regulate emotion. How does that sit with you, this idea that we’ve created technology that can override our natural wiring?
I’m not optimistic about it. We’re getting more and more artificial. We were built to live in the wild in nomadic groups, to hunt and gather, and be very close to nature. What’s happened since then? We’ve gained a lot of—well, I was going to say happiness. But I don’t think we have gained happiness, because there’s studies showing that nomadic peoples, who even died young and had no doctors or medical care, were very happy. But, over time, happiness aside, through civilization, division of labor, and science, we’ve taken away a lot of hardships. We live longer and life is easier. But what’s happening now is life is we’re getting more and more artificial in the sense of the super-normal experiences that we have. For decades, since at least the seventies, food manufacturers discovered they could process foods to make you eat abnormal amounts. With the internet and social media, we’re now in contact with many more people than we were built to exchange ideas with in a given time.
In physics, there’s a lot of talk about how much autonomy and free will we really have given that everything is governed by a strict set of physical laws. How can we regulate our emotions if we don’t have autonomy?
I would divide that up into two questions. In terms of emotion regulation as a practical matter, you have a lot of control. You have to develop that. That’s why I talked about some of the methods that people have tried for years that we now better understand how and why they work—and how you can actually get better at it. For example, meditation increases “executive control” in your brain. That helps you with emotion regulation. Based on the new understanding of emotion in the brain, people are developing therapies, pills, medications, and some other technological techniques to help. Then there are therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy, and different ways of approaching or regulating your emotion.
Now, in terms of free well: Are you regulating it, or is it just in the cards that it’s going to work that way? Most physicists won’t want to discuss it because they don’t like philosophy. They think it’s a waste of time. But if you press them, they’ll say that there’s no free will because we, as physicists, believe that the laws of physics govern everything. So there’s no choice. Your body is in a certain state, the world is in a certain state around you, and the laws of physics determine what the state of you and the world around you will be a minute later or a second later. So we don’t believe that there are choices.
This interview has been edited and condensed.