Emotional maturity, Part 3: Feelings are amazingly useful

So far I’ve talked about how most of your thinking takes place in the subconscious, out of reach from your conscious mind. But what’s actually going on down there? How are our feelings created?

I like to imagine that feelings are the result of a thought process. Your brain takes in information about the world, and transforms it into a simple, usable output of “which things are good for me and which things are bad?” (This all happens subconsciously. You don’t just decide to feel happy and then suddenly feel happy. Some other part of your brain that you don’t control makes that decision for you.)

The “emotional thought process” that generates your feelings is fairly different from the rational thought process. Whereas rational thought strips away most of the world in order to focus on a few clear, well-defined ideas, emotional thought takes in absolutely everything. Rational thought makes conclusions with pinpoint accuracy, while emotional thought hits a very wide target. Rational thought can be written down and communicated in a transparent way; you can even have other people check for errors. Emotional thought takes much longer to communicate, because it is based on all of the experiences you have had in your entire life. Rational thought helps us discover new truths by combining existing information together. Emotional thought helps us understand what we care about and what to look for.

In theory, it might be ideal to use rational thought for everything all the time, but in practice this is a terrible idea. Rational thought is careful and deliberate, but it’s also slow and narrow. It’s only possible when we throw information out (say, by making a small mathematical model), and we have no way of knowing how important the missing information is.

Also, emotions provide us with the values that we need to even engage in rational thinking in the first place. (Reason helps us find truth, but why should we care about truth?) This was highlighted by an interesting patient one of my friends worked with, whose emotional center (amygdala) was disabled. This person had all of their rational thinking intact, but he couldn’t make decisions, even something as simple as choosing a black pen or a blue pen to write with. His case illustrates in a powerful way that we can’t function without our feelings.

Consider the process of buying a new home. There are many factors to weigh: price, location, layout of the space, amenities, subtle variations in interior decor, etc. We want to maximize the utility of this new house, but we can’t calculate it directly. Instead, we read the data sheet and walk around the house, then have a general feeling about how much we like the house. In a situation like this, your emotions do a lot of the heavy lifting. There is simply too much information to process rationally. If you tried, you would end up missing something really important and kicking yourself for it later.

Another instance of this is when you are single and deciding who to date. In the world of online dating, there’s lots of information out there about potential mates, but there’s no mathematical formula that distills that information into a metric of who will be a good match for you. (Match.com and OkCupid might claim to have such a formula, but I’m skeptical.) The critical part of the decision process happens when you meet someone in person and spend time with them. Again, all of the calculation is being done by your subconscious, and the results are passed on to you in the form of feelings.

In summary, it isn’t “rational” to ignore your feelings. They provide essential information that you just don’t have the time and resources to access in any other way. So it’s really important to use your feelings in decision-making. Unfortunately, you still have to be careful about how you do this — I’ll talk about this next time.

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