The Surprising Science of How Feelings Help You Think

A new book explains how our emotions—not just our rational thoughts—are often running the show upstairs.


By Clay Skipper Published in GQ February 18, 2022


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. WATCH Psychiatrist Breaks Down Psychotic Episodes In Movies

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.

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