The wisdom of our emotions
By now, many of you have seen the new Pixar movie “Inside Out.” If you haven’t, let me say that it’s worth all 94 minutes of it (in fact, stay for the “outtakes”), no matter what age you are.
The Philippines has consistently ranked among the world’s top five most emotional countries, according to an annual Gallup poll. The others are all from Latin America. Being fortunate to be friends with a good number of Hispanics, both from the Iberian peninsula and Central and South America, I am astounded by how much more Latino than Asian we are as a people. We may talk like Americans, but the Spaniards etched something deeper into our identity—an intense passion for life.
This passion translates into a roller-coaster of strong emotions. Unfortunately, most of us identify with our emotions: They become us. When I did my practice-teach of the Search Inside Yourself program with United Nations colleagues, a colleague from Spain commented that when Latinos (Spanish and Portuguese speakers) talked of emotions—and this was seconded by a colleague from Brazil—they used the verb “estoy” as opposed to “soy” (e.g., “I am angry” = “Estoy enojado”), which makes the experience of emotions always understood in their culture as a temporary state and never existential.
Not in our language, though—Filipino or English. One lesson we can take from “Inside Out” is the fact that emotions are not an existential experience but an experiential or physiological one—something that happens inside our body: from “I am angry” to “I experience anger in my body.” That subtle shift in our relationship with our emotions can be life-changing, because this recognition means that we can have mastery over our emotions. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who wrote the brilliant book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” says: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
We have been taught that allowing emotions to influence our thinking and decision-making is not a good idea. Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman, American psychologists who acted as scientific consultants for “Inside Out,” disagree. Their research shows that emotions organize, rather than disrupt, rational thinking. Contrary to received wisdom that they are enemies of rationality, emotions “guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong.”
Emotions also organize our social lives. Anger, for instance, ended slavery and gave rise to the civil rights movement in the United States, as well as People Power and Edsa 1 and 2 here at home. “Inside Out” demonstrates this function of emotions when it portrays Sadness as the surprise hero of the movie—that one of its important functions is in bringing people together and allowing them to experience, at a deeper level, compassion for each other.
This I can attest as true from personal experience. I was in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. I saw with my own eyes the crumbling of the second tower and the mushroom cloud it produced, from a conference room on the 30th floor of my office building. My friends and I went downtown almost every night the week after Sept. 11, and the solidarity showed by every New Yorker during those days was remarkable. Along with hundreds of other lawyers, we volunteered our services to the victims’ families. From tragedy, everyone’s humanity shone through.
Daniel Goleman, psychologist and New York Times science journalist, writes about the wisdom of emotions in his groundbreaking book “Emotional Intelligence.” He explains that all the decisions we make have an emotional component. He talks of a high-flying corporate lawyer who had a brain tumor and had to undergo surgery. The operation was successful except that the connection between the lawyer’s prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) and his amygdala (emotional brain) was inadvertently cut. After the surgery, his life crumbled; he lost his wife and even his job. He was given a battery of cognitive tests, and he scored well in all of them: Memory, IQ and other mental abilities were intact. However, when the scientist asked when they should meet next, the lawyer presented the pros and cons of each time and date but could not decide which one was best. It made the scientist realize that the lawyer had lost the ability to valence his decisions using his emotions.
Goleman explains that below the limbic system (of which the amygdala is part) lies the basal ganglia, a primitive part of the brain that stores decision rules we extract from our life experiences: When I do things this way, this is usually what happens; when I say things this way, this is how they are interpreted; when I act that way, people react this way, etc. As we age, more and more of this life wisdom is stored in the reptilian brain. But when we are faced with a decision, a totally different part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) is activated. “While the basal ganglia may have some connection to the verbal areas, it turns out to have very rich connections to our gastrointestinal tract—the gut. So in making [a] decision, a gut sense of it being right or wrong is important information, too,” Goleman writes.
In order to better access that life wisdom in our gut and make more optimal decisions, Goleman emphasizes the importance of developing self-awareness, which he identifies as the foundational competency for emotional intelligence. How does one develop self-awareness? By giving our insula—the brain’s monitoring station for everything that happens in our body below the neck—a workout through regular mindfulness practice.
A recent study out of Harvard shows that the insula is thicker in long-time meditators than in novices, suggesting that mindfulness practices can strengthen it and make us more attuned to the wisdom of our emotions.
Joel Villaseca ([email protected]) is a lawyer working at the United Nations in New York City. He is training as a teacher with siyli.org.
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