Getting Emotional

by Warwick Cairns

ScienistI want to start by telling you a story. It’s a very short and rather odd story, but it’s one that says a lot about quite a lot of things. One of these things is the power of your emotions. Another is the bizarre antics that postgraduate scientists get up to with their research grants, which – when it comes down to it – are paid for by people like you and me. Do you often have meetings with members of the opposite sex on bridges? No? But if you did, do you think you would spend time wondering whether the outcome of your meeting would be different if you’d chosen a different sort of bridge: a pedestrian suspension bridge, say, rather than a steel-box-girder one? No, me neither. But two psychologists, in Canada, in the 1970s, were concerned enough about the issue to set up a scientific experiment on the subject.

What they found was that when a range of young men met a young woman on various bridges in the Vancouver region, the kind of bridge that they met on made a difference to what happened. And the bridge that made the most difference of all was the Capillano Suspension Bridge, a rickety, Indiana-Jones-like structure suspended over a vertiginous 250- foot drop.

In creative writing exercises taken later in the day after meeting on that bridge, consistently more of the men used sexual language and imagery, and consistently more of them called the woman afterwards to ask her for a date. As experiments go, it sounds completely bonkers; but the implications, as it turns out, are actually quite sane, and actually quite important. The Capillano bridge is scary. Being scared makes you emotionally aroused.

Your sympathetic nervous system – which controls the pumping of the heart and the readiness for action of the organs and glands – is on a state of alert. So when these emotionally aroused men met the woman, their brains kicked in, and created a story that helped them ‘make sense’ of how they felt.

And in a significant number of cases, the brain got it ‘wrong’ and told them that they felt like they did because the woman was so attractive. That, in a nutshell, is how the mind works – we feel first, and think afterwards.

However much we like to think of ourselves as intelligent, rational beings, much of what we do when we think is to create stories that post-rationalise (more – or less – accurately) our gut instincts. We like to think we’re rational beings. We like to think we make decisions for sensible reasons. That’s what we tell other people. That’s what we tell ourselves, much of the time, and much of the time we believe it. But we’re wrong: utterly wrong. In evolutionary terms, we had emotion long before we had words or abstract thought.

Although our words and concepts differ by time and place and culture, our emotions are the same the world over.

Charles Darwin was one of the first people in modern times to come up with the idea of universal basic emotions, and universal facial expressions for them. Since that time, study after study has borne him out. All of the evidence points to the fact that there really are fundamental emotions – happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, disgust and fear and the like – and each one of them has an evolutionary function. You feel fear, you run or hide; you feel anger, you fight…

Each emotion we feel relates to our species’ basic animal needs and responses to problems in the environment. More than this, they’re not unique to human beings. In some form or other, these emotional states, and the behaviours that go with them, are universal.

The face you make when you smell or taste something disagreeable is similar to the face your dog pulls under the same circumstances.

Which gets you into all sorts of odd territories, like can an ant feel sad? The answer – as far as many evolutionary biologists are concerned – is yes… probably. But let’s not go there for now.

But if it is true that we were emotional beings before we were ever thinking ones, it’s also true that even today our brains reflect that. The things we see and hear are processed first by the amygdala – the seat of the emotions – before being passed on to the association cortex, where ‘thinking’ happens, and where we create the story that makes sense of what we feel. And when a story becomes established, and gains a hold on the mind, we begin to see things not as they are, raw and unfiltered, but as the story tells us they should be. We pick up on the things that confirm the story we hold, and filter out the ones that contradict it.

Because of the way emotion has evolved, and because of the way the brain is constructed, an idea that connects with us emotionally is far more powerful than one that is ‘intellectually correct’, even (and perhaps especially) for intelligent people. The psychologist C.G. Jung described how, on visiting Germany in the 1930s, he found himself so overcome by the emotional power and spectacle of the Nazi state, that he realised he was, for the duration of his visit, a ‘believer’ – even though he knew, when he sat down to think about it, that it was all nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that.

And the rise of Nazi Germany – and much of recent history – is really rather instructive in the question of which side tends to win if ever there is a conflict between emotion and reason. In no particular order: Mao’s Cultural Revolution; Princess Diana’s funeral; the threat of SARS, Bird Flu, salmonella in eggs and BSE (‘Mad Cow Disease’); the DotCom share boom; and the endless procession of ‘miracle diets’ that promise to make you slim and attractive without you actually having to eat any less food or do any more exercise.

I’d like to finish with a story – or rather, two stories, both of which come from the bizarre ‘what-on-earth-made-them-study-that?’ world of psychological research, both of which illustrate truths about the nature of emotion, but both of which I’ve included mainly because, of all the things I’ve read on the subject, these just happened to jump out and elicit in me the Darwinian fundamental emotion of surprise.

The first one is this: did your grandmother ever catch you making some particularly horrible grimace and tell you not to do it, because if the wind changes, you’ll stick like it. Well, it turns out she was right. Sort of.

In research carried out in the USA in 1987 a number of old people were photographed with what they imagined were ‘neutral’ expressions on their faces. The pictures were shown to students, who were asked to describe what emotions the photographs were depicting. The students descriptions of these emotions matched perfectly with what personality tests had shown to be the dominant emotion of the people in the photographs. Which is to say, if you spend all your time feeling miserable, or happy, you’ll end up looking like it.

The second one concerns a particular prejudice of mine, which was described by the 19th-century psychologist William James as The Gospel of Relaxation. The gist of it is this: if you are feeling unhappy, there is no point moping around or agonising over it: what you need to do is damn well go out and do something to make yourself feel happier. In England, we have a long tradition of cheering ourselves up through vigorous physical exertion; and – as A.A. Gill pointed out a while back in The Sunday Times – we are particularly fond of exertion that involves danger and/or violence; whether chasing foxes on horseback, engaging in fisticuffs with rival villages or football teams, or on the numerous battlefields with which our past is littered. This sort of exertion, as it turns out, is particularly stimulating to the sympathetic nervous system and very good at lifting one’s mood.

In 2005, researchers at the State Univbersity of  Novosibirsk, in Russia (where – Chekhov and Tolstoy notwithstanding – there is a similarly robust attitude to personal problems) reported a remarkable new treatment for depression and alcoholism. Rather than sit and listen to the patients go on and on about their problems, and how unhappy they are, the research team, led by Dr. Sergei Speransky, simply beat the living daylights out of them. Physically. On a regular basis. And, surprisingly, according to the study, it actually worked, and far better than the conventional alternatives. So where this is all leading to is this. We feel, emotionally, before we think, intellectually; and much of our conscious thought is simply a postrationalisation of the way we feel. And feeling is a physical thing at least as much as it is a mental one, and it shapes our very bodies and features, and it has its roots in the primitive evolutionary history we share with all other creatures. For good or ill, the things that succeed in this world, be they ideas or philosophies or personalities or whatever, are not the ones that are right – they’re the ones that feel right.

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