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Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking – Leonard Mlodinow

by Venky

(Image Credit: http://www.anazon.com)

The ability to break down complicated topics to a degree of simplicity that succeeds in conveying their import but without diluting the underlying essence, is a rare trait. Leonard Mlodinow is greatly invested with this wonderful gift. A prolific author of Science, Mlodinow weaves his magic once again in the upcoming book, “Emotional”. More often than not we are used to being admonished for engaging in conduct driven by emotion. But are such rebukes warranted? Is precedence of sentiment over rationality such a bad thing after all? Mlodinow in his thought provoking book juxtaposes empirical analysis with psychological instincts to demonstrate how emotions play a leading role in our lives.

On the 26th of September 1983, at the peak of the Cold War, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was manning a graveyard shift whose mission was to constantly check for missile attacks emanating from the United States. While he was monitoring the machines, he suddenly noticed five ominous red dots surfacing on the screen. This meant that the United States had launched five Minuteman missiles at the Soviet Union. Petrov’s protocol under such circumstances dictated an immediate reporting to his superiors so that the Soviet Union could also launch its own nuclear warheads even though such an act would invariably lead to a Mutually Assured Destruction of two global superpowers. Petrov however hesitated, as his gut instincts told him there might have been a potential system malfunction. At the cost of being branded a traitor – if the missile attack was genuine, his country would be annihilated without having a chance to fight back due to a delay in responding – Petrov decided to wait for a heart stopping twenty minutes before informing his superiors of a probable false alarm. His assessment turned out to be bang on target: the warning system had failed due to some sort of extraneous interference. No missile was launched against USSR. Later, when queried on the reason for his reticence, Petrov famously remarked, “I refused to be guilty of starting World War III.”

Pioneering developments in the world of medicine have resulted in a paradigm shift in our understanding and evaluation of emotions. A whole new field of psychology called “affective neuroscience” threatens to upend entrenched dogmas that have informed us regarding the role played by emotions. A technique referred to as “connectome” for instance, allows scientists to trace various connections among neurons, creating a sort of circuit diagram for the brain. A connectome enables scientists to explore specific cells in different regions of the brain, and comprehend the electric signals that generate thoughts, feeling and behaviours. Thus there is a ‘determination switch’ that when turned on, complements the physiological resolve leading to ordinary human beings accomplishing extraordinary feats. When James Buster Douglas felled the seemingly invincible “Iron” Mike Tyson in what was, and is still, deemed to be the greatest upset in the history of boxing, he was channeling both his physical resilience as well as his psychological determination. The death of his mother a mere three weeks before the bout, instead of driving him to despair, drove him to levels of concentration which he unfortunately never regained after his historic victory.

The Darwinian notion of emotion was based on a ‘triune model’. This model contends that the human brain is made up of three successively more sophisticated layers. The deepest layer is responsible for basic survival instincts, the middle or the limbic layer takes care of the emotional aspects and the outermost or the neocortex layer is the repository of rational thoughts. However modern research in the domains of neuroscience have demonstrated that the layering is not as simple or elementary as it is made out to be. There is a complex interaction between the layers, the existence of which was not observed earlier.

Mlodinow also illustrates how emotions guide the process of thinking. The heart warming story of Quantum Physicist and Nobel Laureate Paul Dirac whose introverted and apparently stone hearted life was transformed by Margit, a divorcee and the sister of a fellow physicist Eugene Wigner (also a Nobel Laureate) is a heart warming story. The brilliant Dirac married Margit and they were together for fifty years before only death parted the couple

Mlodinow also in the latter half of the book provides his readers with an emotional questionnaire. The reader upon answering a set of questions can determine their scores based on various emotions such as anger, love, aggression, anxiety and grief. With a view to dovetail our emotions in setting us onto the right path, Mlodinow recommends a regimen of physical activity combined with the practice of mindfulness. He also draws on research done by Sonja Lyubomirsky, A Russian born American Professor of Psychology. According to Lyubomirsky, conscious acts such as optimistically pondering over one’s future, devoting time to family and friends, engaging regularly in acts of kindness towards others, striving to live life in the present moment, committing to lifelong goals etc would go a long way in making emotion a faithful and reliable ally.

Mlodinow also devotes some space in informing the viewers about his personal experience involving the application of emotions. Both his parents were Holocaust survivors. In fact his father owed his life and survival to an inexplicable moment of emotional reaction. Deciding at the last second not to get inside a truck that had a band of resistance friends, Mlodinow’ s father watched with stupefaction as a band of SS soldiers intercepted the truck and gunned down all its occupants. Mlodinow’ s mother who died at the ripe old age of ninety eight carried the emotional scars of a  concentration camp all through her life. The final Chapter in which Mlodinow described her passing, after contracting the COVID-19 virus, but not before putting up a grand fight, is both heart breaking as well as life affirming.

Next time anybody reprimands you for being too very emotional or acting without reason, please do not get bogged down. Instead use the three techniques alluded to by Mlodinow in assessing and reassessing your thought, word and deed. First develop a sense of stoic attitude. Learn to accept things that cannot be changed and instead plan on how acceptance can be turned to your advantage. Second, inculcate an attribute of reappraisal. When confronted with a difficult situation, try to discover an element  of optimism and then reappraise your odds. Finally, express your emotions. At the heat of the moment, put down every thought that assails you in writing. There is no need to share what you have written with anyone. Expressing your thoughts and feelings at the moment of occurrence and getting back to them later makes you feel and become more sanguine.

More than anything else, please get yourself a copy of “Emotional”!

(Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking by Leonard Mlodinow is published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and will be available for sale on the 11th of January 2022)

Thank You, Net Galley for the Advance Review Copy

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