what are emotions?
Emotions are responsible for our best moments and our worst moments. They’re what makes love so good and heartbreak so bad. Have a few drinks, and the reason seems to take the backseat while emotion grabs the wheel. This often leads to some of our worst and most impulsive decisions. At times, we’ve all wished that we could be less emotional or told someone else to keep their emotions under control. We admire cool, calm, and rational; we look down on too passionate people.
What if we could get rid of emotions?
Do emotions hold us back? What if we could get rid of them? Would we be more thoughtful and more calculated?
It’s time to go down the rabbit hole and answer the question: what if we had no emotions? In his book Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio tells us of a patient he had named Elliot who had a brain tumour removed. Unfortunately, as is typical in this case, the damaged part of Elliot’s frontal lobe also had to be removed. After the surgery, Elliot’s ability to make decisions effectively and plan for the future was weakened.
Lots of tests were performed, and Elliot was mentally average or even superior in many ways. In Damasio’s words, “…Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who could not decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters.” Elliot seemed okay in terms of language, learning, memory, and attention. There was, however, one thing that struck Damasio as odd. In all his time with Elliot, he never noticed a single emotion arise from the man. Could this play a role in his impaired decision-making?
Elliot confirmed that things that had once made him emotional ceased to do so. He could reason just fine, and he could maintain for hours. Elliot’s problem was that he could not, and would not, make a final decision. As Damasio put it, “…the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options, and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat.” The landscape was flat: that’s a brilliant way to put it.
Life without emotions
Without emotion, it’s hard to act. Emotions make some actions more salient or favourable than others. Without them, we would do nothing. They help prescribe the activity that is the most meaningful or valuable at the time. Without emotion, we can deliberate for hours, weighing the pros and cons, but we’d be unable to decide. Anger may be a prescription to act aggressively; sadness may be a prescription to seek comfort or reassurance from others.
You don’t think randomly; we’re always thinking towards some end. Thinking is goal-directed. Because of this, goals often need some value or weight attached to them, so we know how to act. Some destinations have to be more critical than others. Otherwise, we’d do everything and nothing. Depending on the scientist, the value of a goal comes from affect or emotion. It’s essential to realize the false divide between thinking and emotion for several reasons.
- all of your actions are affected by emotion. Emotions need to be respected and understood, they often indicate individual values or needs.
- if emotion prescribes action, we can change our actions by understanding and altering our emotions.
- if we can change the emotions another individual feels, we can change their behaviour — for better or worse.
- if they are linked, we can probably change emotions through changed thinking, or we can change thinking through changing emotions.
I’ve gone over what most scientists agree upon. Emotion is essential for action and can’t be separated from thinking. I didn’t go over how emotions are made and whether we can control them. This is because there are many competing theories of emotion. Some scientists believe that emotions are things that happen to us, while others believe we construct them ourselves. The approach you adopt will decide how you understand and learn to manage your emotions.
Examples of people with two different emotions
It’s sometimes referred to as the spirit or the breath of life. It prescribes our actions and colours our world. The one who can master the emotions can master movements, and the one who masters actions is the master of all future realities. Today we look at the stories of 2 different men, two different world views, two different goals, and, ultimately, two different paths. first is Ram.
Story of Ram
He believes that there are two kinds of people: the conquerors and the conquered. If you want to be great, you have to become a conqueror. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and only the fit survive. You must determine who will conquer with you and whom you must conquer.
Ram read a lot as a kid. He fell in love with Greek heroes who displayed the highest virtues: courage and bravery. They were leaders — not followers. He didn’t have much as a kid and had to work hard for everything he had. This led him to believe that a person’s life is the outcome of their actions and that they must take complete responsibility for what happens to them. Physically and intellectually, he held himself to incredibly high standards. There’s no one he wanted to conquer more than himself every day. One day, he encountered a homeless man.
The man asked him for some change. Ram knew what he was seeing, a conquered man. How could this man let himself be dominated so severely? How many mistakes must he have made to end up in this position? Why doesn’t he take steps to dig himself out of this hole? Instead, he’s taking the lazy way out. He’s trying to take from those who worked hard for what they have. Those who made good decisions should not be punished by those who made bad decisions.
Ram knew that if the man wanted to eat, he needed to learn how to fish and not have fish given to him. He became enraged by the man’s weakness. “This man won’t get a penny from me,” he thought to himself, “that would only enable his destructive behaviours and poor attitude towards life. By suffering, he’ll learn, or he’ll die; that’s how the world works.” Next is Sham.
Story of sham
He believes that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who can help and those who need to be helped. His father taught him that the highest good is to serve those who have nothing and lift them. Life is difficult, and those who have should serve those who have not. Sham read a lot as a kid. He fell in love with various spiritual leaders who loved all and lived to serve. He grew up quite well off and always felt indebted to those who didn’t. He felt lucky to have everything that he did. One day, he encountered a homeless man.
The man asked him for some change. Sham knew what he was seeing, a completely underserved man. This man had been abandoned by society. Sham felt like weeping. “Imagine how much we have failed as a society to let someone get to this point,” he thought to himself, “life is so difficult and full of suffering and based on luck, that any one of us could end up in his position.” He grabbed all the money in his pocket and handed it to the man.
And so, both stories end here. Both men had unique worldviews shaped by their past experiences. They both perceived the same man in a different light. Where one saw a weak man, the other saw a forsaken man. Their perceptions led them to feel different emotions. Their emotions were heavily affected by what they thought they were seeing. Both men knew nothing about the homeless man, and they had no idea what led him to his position.
This is often the case in real life. Both men were surrounded by an invisible structure referred to as culture or environment from a young age. The knowledge they grabbed from this structure allows them to navigate the world. Ram grew up in a structure of personality responsibility, strength & weakness. He can only see people in this way. It’s all he knows.
Sham grew up in a structure of collective responsibility for the needy & the fortunate. He can only see people in this way. It’s all he knows. For both men, emotions are tools. In Ram’s world, anger is a useful tool that allows him to become strong — his highest ideal. In Sham’s world, compassion is a useful tool that allows you to become a giver — his highest ideal. One might wonder if you could change the invisible structure surrounding these men.
if they reversed the books they read or the family they had, would they perceive the world differently?
If they perceive the world differently, would they feel differently?
The master of emotions, then, is the one who can alter the invisible structure around them. This allows them to gather a diverse set of concepts to see the same scenario in different ways. They would be neither Ram nor Sham. They would be both. They could become either one depending on the circumstances.
Layers of emotions
Take a look at this image. What shapes do you see? You’d probably say a bunch of 3/4 circles and a square. Technically, there’s no square there. It’s simply a byproduct of how the 3/4 circles are arranged. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’ll always see it there because you’re familiar with the concept of a square. If you never learned what a square was, you’d never see it there in the image. There’s a layer of meaning hidden in the negative space.
Emotional mastery is about perceiving multiple layers of meaning in the negative space of life. It’s about seeing all of the potential realities that could exist. It’s about looking at a homeless man and seeing that his position could be a byproduct of his personal decisions or a cultural failure. I’m not saying that these men can think of different thoughts and change their emotions at the moment. But, they can experience a different worldview, so they see differently in the future.
They can find new ways of seeing or interacting with old things and all they need to do is listen to the world in its many forms. Had they listened to one another’s perspectives or asked the homeless man for his perspective, they might have seen the whole situation differently. As we conclude, let’s return to this image. You probably think that there’s nothing more to this image than the 3/4 circles and the square.
But what if I told you that this is just one shape: a rectangle with 4-3/4 circles removed from it. It’s called a FiT rectangle. Just by listening, you now have a new way of perceiving these patterns invisible to you before — a new layer of meaning.
How does one master the emotions?
By listening, but more importantly, listening to points of view that they haven’t heard before or that are contrary to their own. To feel differently, they have to see differently. To see differently, they have to gain knowledge that they don’t have. To understand that they don’t have, they have to experience new things. I think Sham Campbell said it best; the very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for.