Intellectual Scalpels and Emotional Hammers

I have been reading An Alchemy of Mind by Diane Ackerman, a book that explores recent discoveries about the human brain. In a chapter titled “The Emotional Climate,” I came upon some sentences that provided insight into a question that has troubled me for some time. The question is: Why, amid the great prosperity of the modern Western world, are so many people angry and unhappy? The sentences are:

The discrepancy between the actual world and what we choose to know about it is so vast that we often mistake, overreact, fill in some of the spaces with superstition. Our ideas may behave, but our emotions are still Pleistocene, and they snarl for attention.

Not only does our brain do much of its developing outside the womb, we found a way to evolve outside our body, by creating technologies that extend our natural senses. Unfortunately, our brain hasn’t caught up with that lurch forward. It doesn’t do delicate, subtle emotions graded for each situation. It can worry equally hard about missing a bus, aging, making money, losing a friend. Not in the same way about each thing, but with equal strength. There’s not much of a dimmer switch on our emotions…. In many ways we must apply our crude brains to a sophisticated world, and we tend to use emotional hammers when what we need are surgical tools.

The particular insight that the sentences from Ackerman brought home to me was the lack of proportion between our emotional response and that which elicits the emotion. As she says “[we] can worry equally hard about missing a bus, aging, making money, losing a friend.” 

An obvious example of the disconnect between what we have accomplished with technology and our failure to adjust our emotional response to these accomplishments is provided by our eating habits. Our biology tells us that fats and sugars are good; in the environments where humans evolved, where periods of severe food shortage were not uncommon, these kinds of foods provided a store of energy. In the modern consumer world, where food is abundant and businesses have an incentive to get you to consume as much of their product as possible, this same penchant for fats and sugar simply leads to obesity and the variety of problems associated with it.

This disconnect between intellect and emotion causes us even greater trouble these days because of another phenomena of modern life. This is the omnipresence of the media, and particularly the media’s biased presentation of news and opinions. Here, I am not talking about political bias, though there is plenty of that, but just a bias intrinsic to the media. The medias presentation of news often focuses on the sensational and unusual, on emotionally charged events. World news tends to focus on war and natural disasters, local news on crime and violence.

When we consider these two factors together, the disconnect between our ability to process information and our emotional response to it along with the omnipresence of media in our environment, it’s not hard to see why there is so much craziness in the world.

As a society, we have been reluctant to acknowledge that we are first and foremost biological beings and that as biological beings we are generally motivated by our biological desires. These desires express themselves as appetites and emotions, and when such desires are frustrated, we respond to that frustration with anger. 

One thing most, if not all, people desire is a sense of security. There are actual things we sometimes experience in our daily life that threaten that security; that threat is only exacerbated by the media’s endless barrage of news about fearful things. Together these contribute to the sense of general fear and anxiety that many experience. 

This deprivation of the sense of security we desire can lead to anger. Thus the feeling of anger that is so prevalent in our world. And do I have to add that the presence of so many angry people (many possessing weapons) is another thing to feel insecure about?

So to my question: “Why, amid the great prosperity of the modern Western world, are so many people so angry and unhappy?” I think a very important part of the answer is due to the brain’s relative primitiveness in dealing with the emotionally charged events that we experience in the world, whether in person or through the media’s presentations.

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The problem created by the disconnect between our intellectual sophistication and emotional primitiveness, I believe,  goes rather deeper. It creates a blockage to our more progressive aspirations. 

Change causes insecurity for many, and the progressive agenda requires change. In times of prosperity, people seem more open to change, more adventurous. But in threatening times, people tend (metaphorically speaking) to circle the wagons. They fall back into a desire for simpler times. This often includes a mass return to the simple verities of religion.

A simpler world would certainly be nice, but what the notion of a simpler world often ignores is that those times may have been good for the more privileged members of the society, but for other segments, those times may be remembered very differently. And at its worst, this desire for a simpler world can drive people to commit atrocities, such as are currently happening in Afghanistan and several other nations, and in the last century characterized the fascist movements in a swath of Europe.

I don’t know how humanity can overcome the problems created by the disconnect between intellect and emotions, but I do think recognizing and acknowledging the problem is a good start. And as individuals, each of us has the ability to work on our own emotional intelligence. In many ways, such work is an important aspect of spirituality, or at least it should be. But along the way, many spiritual traditions, I think, have gotten this wrong. 

All forms of spirituality deal in some way with the problems caused by powerful emotions and their often irrational nature. Some have developed “dissociative strategies,” to use the term Eric Steinhart provides in his recent article discussing this failing of such forms of spirituality (see, “Naturalism and Suffering Bodies”).

A few have developed mindfulness techniques that explore and become more aware of how emotions work. They then put this knowledge to work in the cultivation of the soul (the word “soul” referring to the nonverbal, the emotional and imaginative part of our being). Through this cultivation they bring about a more healthy and holistic integration of intelligence, imagination, emotion, and appetite. At their best, they make our inner being a peaceful and joyful place to live within. 

Spiritual naturalism, I think, is in a unique position to promote such healthier forms of spirituality and also to explore ways to bring the most pertinent understandings of neuroscience together with spiritual understandings to develop more accessible practices that can help people solve the problem created by the disconnect that I’ve been writing about here. It is an interesting challenge.

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