Book Review: Why Our Emotions Are So Powerful

Yves here. As much as Leonard Mlodinow’s book about emotions sounds plausible, the review gives the impression it may not go far enough. We humans tend to think over-much of our logical reasoning, when I would argue that one of our most important cognitive capacities is pattern recognition. The problem with giving that undue weight is that it is very prone to sample bias; witness, for instance, how many gravitate towards relationships that resemble the bad ones they grew up with.

However, when we have a fight or flight reaction, or have a gnawing gut feeling, it is indeed often not based on logical reasoning, but on a process that we can’t pull into our rational process, either because we have to react too quickly, or we haven’t (yet) identified why a situation or pending action is giving us heartburn.

By Elizabeth Svoboda, a science writer based in San Jose, California. Her most recent book for children is “The Life Heroic.” Originally published at Undark

In the fall of 1983, Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was monitoring his country’s nuclear warning systems when alarm bells suddenly started ringing. The screen in front of him flashed the word “LAUNCH.” The alerts signaled what appeared to be a terrifying reality: The United States had lobbed five intercontinental missiles straight at the USSR.

Petrov knew what he was supposed to do next: pick up his phone and report the launch to the Soviet high command. Yet he hesitated as fear gripped him. He knew his report would mean the start of a nuclear World War III. Everything in him protested against such a possibility, and his fear mixed with an inchoate suspicion that the alerts might be wrong. So he waited, seconds ticking torturously away, until confirmation came that no missiles had been launched. Sunlight reflections, it turned out, had confused Soviet monitoring satellites and triggered the alert system. Petrov’s emotion-driven response had steered two world powers clear of mutually assured destruction.

BOOK REVIEW“Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking,” by Leonard Mlodinow (Pantheon, 272 pages).

In “Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking,”physicist and science writer Leonard Mlodinow explores our feelings’ power to spur this kind of intelligent, nuanced action, even if the world’s fate doesn’t hang in the balance. Whether positive or negative, our emotions linger like perfume clouds, profoundly affecting how we think — and, by extension, what we do. “[E]motion shapes virtually every thought we have,” Mlodinow writes. “It contributes, moment to moment, to all our judgments and decisions…”

Like Plato, who perceived emotion as a horse and reason as its driver, Western thinkers have long distinguished rational thoughts from non-rational ones. But Mlodinow rejects this traditional divide. Since emotion determines the ever-changing context in which our brains operate, he notes, reason and emotion have always been as interwoven as loom threads. “Even when you believe you are exercising cold, logical reason,” he writes, citing brain researcher Ralph Adolphs, “you aren’t.”

But much of the time, Mlodinow argues, that’s a good thing. Emotion, as Charles Darwin came to believe, often supplies an evolutionary advantage. It can help us solve problems more quickly and incisively than we could with reason alone. The smell rising from a jug of spoiled milk triggers the emotion of disgust, setting the stage for your decision about what to do next (dump it straight down the drain, most likely).

Likewise, it was Stanislav Petrov’s understandable fear of starting World War III that stopped him from reporting the apparent U.S. missile launch. Had he been able to excise his emotions from the equation, he would have passed the alert to his commanders immediately, as his training had primed him to do. A judicious blend of emotion and rationality, Mlodinow writes, “provides the more efficient route to achieving a workable answer.”

From this launching point, Mlodinow sends readers on an all-inclusive tour of the emotional landscape, describing the key roles feelings like love, determination, fear, and sadness play in our lives — both for good and ill. Along the way, must-see tour stops are interspersed with the odd clunker. Some of Mlodinow’s conclusions feel like old news: Most of us have heard the theory that sadness compels us to “do the difficult mental work of rethinking beliefs and reprioritizing goals,” something post-traumatic growth researchers have been contending for years.

Other insights are more philosophically interesting, like Mlodinow’s reflections on research showing that it’s possible — at least in animals — to enhance determination by sending laser light into certain brain regions. “By stimulating the right handful of neurons, we really can increase resilience,” he writes. Findings like this could potentially upend the moral value we accord some emotional states. We’ve long viewed determination as a litmus test for character, but if scientists can evoke something like grit with the flip of a switch, is that litmus test still valid?

Throughout, Mlodinow’s jocular storytelling style helps smooth some of his tour’s conceptual bumps. Describing a lovesick man’s plan to have a friend shoot him so that his ex would feel sorry for him, he observes that the man’s ex “didn’t seem to care.”

“Apparently,” he writes, “she didn’t feel that the bullet hole in Cardella had remedied the shortcomings of their relationship.”

The final chapters of “Emotional” deliver the biggest payoff, exploring research-tested ways to regulate emotion to produce better outcomes and softer landings. Compared to instinct, Mlodinow points out, emotion leaves far more room for personal agency — for crafting a tailored, deliberate response that aligns with your goals and well-being.

If, say, you’re stressed about being 10 minutes late to a meeting, you can tell yourself, “This won’t bother anyone because they know I am usually on time,” a reappraisal that will dampen the fear and guilt you might otherwise suffer. And if a friend ghosts you, you could consider other life commitments that might prevent them from getting in touch, which might help you feel sympathy rather than resentment. “If there are different ways of looking at something, which lead to different emotions,” Mlodinow writes, “why not train yourself to think in the way that leads to the emotion you want?”

If this sounds like a riff on the cognitive-behavioral approach of changing destructive thoughts to combat depression, that’s because in some ways it is. Yet Mlodinow’s prescription still feels fresh because it’s aimed not just at easing mental health struggles, but at helping more-or-less healthy people to flourish in new ways.

Since thought and emotion are so intertwined, harnessing reason to govern emotion might seem like a losing proposition. Still, research bears out the mental and physical rewards of taking new perspectives on your feelings — or at least attempting to — when they threaten to steer you off course.

The better people can modulate their emotions, studies show, the less prone they are to heart attacks — possibly because re-directing tempestuous feelings can calm the body’s stress response, limiting the tissue damage that often comes with it. “Once you are self-aware,” Mlodinow writes, “you can manage your feelings so that they always work in your favor.”

An absolutist claim, perhaps, but Mlodinow makes a strong case that this kind of emotional reframing is at least worth a try.

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  1. David

    I hope the book is better than the example quoted suggests. To trot out the hoary old Petrov story as an example of the supremacy of emotion over rationality seems wilfully perverse. Consider: Petrov was a highly trained professional who had been doing the job for some time. Seeing a potentially dangerous configuration on the screen, he first turned to Bayesian priors. Was there a state of tension between the two countries? Not particularly. Had there been any signs of war preparations in Washington? No. Did it make sense to launch such a small attack which stood no chance of penetrating Moscow’s ABM shield? No. Were false radar reports common? Yes. So he did the sensible and rational thing, avoided panicking and waited for more data. Had he reacted emotionally, he would have thought “OMG OMG they’re attacking we’re all going to die” and pressed the panic button. Maybe the author should stick to writing children’ books.

    The real issue hiding here, I think, is that few of our reactions are wholly, or even mostly, rational, because the vast majority of our decisions come from the unconscious mind. (Some psychologists suggest as much as 95%). In this view, the main practical function of logic and rationality is actually to provide a superficial protective gloss to unconscious emotional responses, such that we persuade ourselves we are acting rationally. I think most peoples’ observation of human decision-making, especially under stress, supports that. Petrov is to be congratulated for not responding emotionally.

    1. Carolinian

      Perhaps emotion versus reason is less useful language than thought versus lack of thought. Clearly there are many things we do that rely on instinct and training (nature and nurture) while others require reason and problem solving. Contra the article example, emotion can also cause people to make many bad decisions. And clearly that’s where our Western societies are at this fearful moment. Indeed propaganda and Madison Avenue sales techniques have come to dominate our public life and these depend totally on emotion. In this realm the last thing we need is more of it.

        1. NotThePilot

          I like it too, and it reminds me of its close cousin: care vs. carelessness.

          That explains so much of where we are today, how we got here, and maybe where we need to go next.

    2. Grebo

      Yes, Petrov acted entirely rationally. He didn’t panic and he didn’t ‘instinctively’ follow his training, if he was actually trained to pull the trigger without thinking, which seems unlikely.

      I love Star Trek but it always annoyed me that Spock and Data were so often used to demonstrate the superiority of emotional ‘human’ thinking since, it seems to me, emotions are a legacy of our evolution from animals.

      The human part of our brain is capable of introspective self-awareness and abstract symbol manipulation. My hypothesis is that emotions are how the less concious parts of the brain communicate with the more conscious, as they cannot do it in words or concepts.

      Obviously, the more conscious part should be in charge so we tend to rationalise post hoc to convince ourselves our actions are not driven by emotions. But most of us are driven by emotion most of the time. Rising above that is to become more human, contra Star Trek.

      1. Mel

        Cutting the rational part of the brain off from emotional support can lead to neoclassical macroeconomics. It really pays to be aware of that possibility and be ready to deal with an outbreak if it occurs.

        1. Grebo

          I’m not suggesting cutting it off any more than I would suggest cutting off one’s legs. Just that one should not let the legs decide one’s direction.

    3. David Long

      Petrov was faced with the classic dilemma in the trolley problem. He was supposed to take an action that could have saved the lives of far more fellow citizens compared to not taking the action. But he just could not do it when faced with the possibility of killing many strangers. (The author seems to convey that the “LAUNCH” signal was deemed reliable and actionable.) The rational (utilitarian) mind should recommend launch, but his emotions (Kantian mind) prevailed. As this was a novel event, Petrov could not have relied on unconscious pattern recognition. He also did not have sufficient time to reason, as the decision had to be made quickly. So, his action to hesitate was based on a gut feeling (Kahneman’s System 1/Haidt’s elephant/Plato’s horse) rather than on rational thought (Kahneman’s System 2/ Haidt’s and Plato’s rider).

  2. mistah charley, ph.d.

    “If there are different ways of looking at something, which lead to different emotions,” Mlodinow writes, “why not train yourself to think in the way that leads to the emotion you want?”

    This is what 19th century American humourist Josh Billings was getting at when he wrote “Take things always by the smooth handle.”

    1. David

      Yes, that struck me as well. I see Gilchrist has an even longer book just out, but I’m not sure whether I’m feeling strong enough to lift, never mind read, the two volumes. There’s also the classic Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow.

      1. Anonymous 2

        Yes, I agree. Another interesting read is Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves.

        It changed my views on humanity

    1. Bruno

      “Plato’s Horse”???
      By this metaphor Mr. Mlodinow proves himself illiterate, at least philosophically.
      In the metaphor referred to, Socrates uses the image of TWO horses:
      one “white” the other “black”. The role of the “charioteer” is to trust the “white” horse.

  3. NotThePilot

    “If there are different ways of looking at something, which lead to different emotions,” Mlodinow writes, “why not train yourself to think in the way that leads to the emotion you want?”

    I definitely have a weird perspective, but I think it’s interesting that what the reviewer sees as the culmination of the book leads to the crack in the whole edifice: emotions are culturally conditioned and culture can break down. After all, isn’t the idea you can choose your emotions like products on a shelf very indicative of a certain worldview?

    I mean, If you go with William James that emotions are a bodily response reliably coupled with a salient thought, what happens when things cease to be reliably salient in the same way? All you’re left with are a few flavors of tension and release, and a disorienting numbness beyond that (cf. PTSD or anhedonia)

    In a way, hasn’t that always been a weakness in the optimistic view of emotions and of human relations more generally? One has to account for the fact that there are genuinely cold, calculating, hard people, and that maybe they’re as natural as people with more emotional reason.

    So I agree that emotion can’t actually be separated from reason, but at least from this review, I don’t think the author has considered what that means in the face of the irrational.

  4. Susan the other

    Meh. Is it Emotion or is it Rationality: an obsession; a feeling; a fear; safety; a simple thought; a complex thought; a commitment? What is laughter? Wherefrom comes a good sense of the delightfully absurd? Love? An heroic act? A deep deception? Believing in imaginary beings? Where do we categorize pompous pontification – is it rational thought? Is it comical? Is rational thought rationalization? Justification? The list is endless. And there are no pure answers. We are each standing in the center of a circular firing squad and everybody is usually sticking to their guns. Fortunately the bullets are just spit wads. Is it a miracle that we have survived all this? Probably not. It’s probably more a factor of reality offering us few choices for action – so it’s fairly simple to choose or reject some impulsive behavior. Otherwise life would be an intolerable, overwrought and tortured movie on an endless reel.

  5. deplorado

    Well, forgive me for this, my pattern recognition capabilities appear to be telling me Mlodinow’s work is a form of promoting “mindfulness” by backing it with some claims of technical evidence – while promoting it directly.

    “If there are different ways of looking at something, which lead to different emotions,” Mlodinow writes, “why not train yourself to think in the way that leads to the emotion you want?” — there may be 1000s of reasons “why not”. That alone is worth a book, but obviously that’s not Mlodinow’s book.

    We know that “mindfulness” is a scam.

    1. PHLDenizen

      Mindfulness, IMO, became a dominant modality because of its appeal to insurance companies. Behavioral health coverage is always terrible. Good therapy requires significant amounts of time and a good therapist, which insurers balk out because they aren’t cheap. They’d rather pay the clinicians essentially poverty wages, which leads to a factory floor model, which does a disservice to the clinicians and patients.

      Mindfulness is a cheap bromide, which has the appearance of a legitimate treatment modality, but is ultimately a nickel plated turd for many reasons. It “feels” therapeutic, but is nothing of the sort. It’s reductive of the human experience, but employers can say “Look! We offer a benefit for you whereby you can just call this hotline and get help for your ‘blues’.” Uh huh. Sure. “All you need to do is think your way out of it”. Not quite that simple.

      Good providers are usually out-of-network because they can still have a full practice dedicated to healing. The insurers running interference and acting as the clinician by using the power of the purse might be workable for dermatology, but long term 60 minute sessions to really undue trauma, etc? “Sorry. We ain’t gonna pay. You’re on your own.”

      By way of reference, I pay my therapist 220/hr. Between malpractice insurance rates, paying both sides of FICA and all the other taxes, overhead for the office, practice management software, etc., she’s not rolling in dough. Plus she doesn’t get paid vacations, etc. My psychiatrist is even more as well as being a sole practitioner, but his expenses are higher. He’s not making orthopedic surgeon money.

      All in all, I pay about 25% of my income on treatment, but I don’t really have a choice. I’ve got bipolar mood disorders, trauma, anxiety that screws with my ability to concentrate, so I have a stimulant to at least be able to function. Insurance reimburses some of it grudgingly, but it’s still mucho expensive. Mindfulness as a “cure” is almost insulting.

      Behavioral health in this country sucks. And a primary driver for its need are the consequences of predatory capitalism.

  6. LAS

    Gary Smith in discussing the books “Good to Great”, and “In Search of Excellence” dispatched these type of books as follows: They are based on backward-looking studies of successful businesses, marriages, and lives. There is inherent survivor bias. If one would select persons beforehand with and without the emotion trait, and then monitor their success over time according to some metric established beforehand … but they did none of this.

  7. farmboy

    Seems a mostly useless analysis when it doesn’t distinguish between intuition, instinct, intellect, emotion, feelings, and insight. Useful in that it shows how most of the aforementioned are enculturated, not fully witnessed. Pigeonholing all of this is only useful if it’s reassembled ad hoc. So picking out the environment to do your soul searching will certainly bring about different reassemblies. Tools are required to be successful at any useful end result. Or maybe you just want to see how much fun you can have with it, maybe it’s its’ own reward. In any case most of this kind of writing is dilettante, too intellectualized, no poetry, no music. This lack of understanding leads to using emotional life as a dumping ground for everything that is wrong, wrong with individuals, wrong with society, culture, politics, history.

    1. ChiGal

      It is a bit odd that recent advances in neuroscience don’t seem to figure in this discussion at all, in particular the discovery of neuroception.

      Neuroception is observable in all living species with a nervous system. It precedes the evolution of the cortex. Evolutionary speaking, it lies in our primitive past, the reason autonomic nervous systems responses are more readily identified in animals – less muddied by awareness and perceptions. Dr Stephen Porges explains this is “why a baby coos at a familiar caregiver but cries at the approach of a stranger”, despite the immaturity of the spinal cord and brain[1]. The autonomic nervous system responds through brain structures outside the realm of cognitive awareness, functionally recognizing features of safety or threat before we think.

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