How we conceptualize thought and emotion matters

I have finished Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal.  What a great read about animals’, including humans, emotions and feelings and about how we humans understand them.  I will guess that most people have thought that rationality and its epitome, logic, are ‘superior’ to emotions.   This assumption has been a bulwark of men presuming their superiority over women, western nations presuming their superiority over ‘less civilized’ nations, a logical argument wins over an emotional appeal, and humans are ‘superior’ to other animals because their minds are based upon emotions and we are ruled by rationality.  Over the course of history some few bright people have understood that our conceptualization here was out of balance and the brightest of those have understood that they are not separable—both rationality and emotionality depend upon the other, indeed flow one to another almost inseparably, to operate optimally.

One way to achieve ‘balance’ is to lower our notion of rationality’s importance and reliability.  One example here is the wonderful work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who demonstrated that even trained logicians fail to follow their logical rules and rely on heuristics the same as all the rest of us (see my post on 10/12/17). Another way to achieve balance is to show that our cognitions are dependent upon our emotions—that is the motivation behind Antonio Damasio’s last few books (see my post s on 5/13/19 & 12/9/18).  Yet another way is to study as did Jaak Panksepp the enormous neural complexity of emotions and affect, neural structures that we share with many animals and virtually all mammals (see post 8/19/17 for example).  Of course Susanne Langer understood that art conveys the ideas of feelings, i.e., we abstract our feelings to reveal the vital import of life experience.  Art, in other words, is a high level intellectual operation using feelings. (An aside:  I am reading a biography of Picasso who famously refused to say what his paintings meant—his art was his statement, all of it and complete. The author there, Patrick O’Brian, cites Isabella Duncan, famous modern dancer, saying, “If I could explain it with words, I wouldn’t have to dance it”.  Exactly).

Another way to right our conceptualization of thought and feeling is, as Frans de Waal does so very well, to show that we humans share the same emotional life as do all other mammals, especially primates, cetaceans, and elephants.  In Mama’s Last Hug he examines various aspects of emotions and feelings; he dedicates chapters to empathy, humor, shame, guilt, disgust, desire for power, emotional intelligence, etc., showing in each one that other animals are quite human-like.  This is important because this distinction of thought and feeling is critical in our culture. I see two major ways we denigrate the mentalities of other animals.  One is the ancient bias that humans are special, you know, at the top of the divine tree of life, and so our abilities are god-like.  That bias has been transformed by science ever since we discovered that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but it still exists in muted forms.  The other way is to see animals as unthinking organisms bent only on survival.  Humans are special evolutionarily because we are civilized (oops!  Go see Auschwitz, read about the Inquisition, review the increasing destructiveness of wars and weapons, study the entrenchment of racism, the destruction of our environment as we subjugate nature to our profit, etc.).  Here we treat other animals as engaged in battle for survival of the fittest and we see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ to justify our violent quest for power.

The important thing here is that both these views are essentially propaganda (see a final aside below) for certain religious and political schools of thought. Rigorous study of animals shows that, as de Waal writes, they (we) “struggle far more against their environment or against hunger and disease than against each other.”  De Waal cites a naturalist, Pyotr Kropotkin, who asked in 1902, “Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?” and decided it was the latter.  Kropotkin “was way ahead of his time.”

De Waal is especially astute when he explains the research showing that animals have a grounded sense of fairness, right and wrong, and even free will (as best we can know, but then do we have free will?  Consider his quotes:  Isaac Bashevis Singer “We have to believe in free will; we have no choice” and Roy Baumeister “Perhaps, ironically, free will is necessary to enable people to follow the rules”).

De Waal gives example after example of expert observations and experimental results that demonstrate the truth of his thesis.  A couple of favorites:  An American neuroscientist, Jim Coan, believes that emotions are interindividual so that testing a solitary individual does not reveal much.  When he studied an individual’s neural response to a signal announcing a mild electric shock, he saw areas of concern and worry (anxiety or fear) light up.  When, however, the individual was allowed to hold the hand of someone close, e.g., a spouse, the worry response dissipated—the upcoming shock was a minor stimulus.  Brilliant! Another:  When young elephants in southeast Asia are given a bell around the neck to help the humans keep up with them, the elephants stuff the bell with grasses so that they can wander undetected.

De Waal wants all of us, especially scientists, to understand the importance of emotions and feelings.  He cites Antonio Damasio as a fellow champion of emotions, as I have recently in a post on 5/13/19.  De Waal also gives a special mention of Jaak Panksepp and I very much appreciated this portion of the book.  As regular readers will know, I think Panksepp’s book is the best text I have ever read.  What? An astute and very intelligent reader wants to know why I think that.  Let me tell you why:

  • Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotionsis a textbook, not one written for the general reader. Look at the detail of research cited, etc.
  • Panksepp gives a comprehensive yet still detailed review of the research literature.
  • He has integrated this information so that he provides solid generalizations.
  • He is careful to distinguish between data based inferences and more speculative thinking.
  • He takes us on brief excursions into what might be true given this data, extending some ideas into the cultural realm.
  • He writes in marvelously clear prose, sometimes even inspired, about very complex issues.
  • His organization and perspective are enlightening. This is not stultified orthodox science but science pushing for greater understanding.

Enough said?  Now when I previously read his book, and re-read portions, I thought that Panksepp’s ideas were obvious and well accepted.  Oh, no, they were not, I learned from de Waal.

De Waal relates an exchange he had with Panksepp shortly before he passed away. Panksepp encouraged de Waal to be more specific and explicit about animals’ feelings and de Waal says he was right to do so.  Further, he says that Panksepp had to fight for his views all his life, resisting ‘establishment forces’ while placing “human and animal emotions on a continuum” and he was “the first to develop a neuroscience covering all of it” as he himself founded the field of affective neuroscience.  He was ridiculed and had trouble obtaining funding and still he managed to “make animal emotions a respectable topic.”  So Wow!  Now I cherish that book even more.

I could go on for a long while about how much I appreciated finding reinforcement for some of my ideas, e.g., the distinction between sentience and consciousness, the basic properties of all organisms, etc., but I want to move on to emphasize the cultural importance of all this.  We humans seek authority for our beliefs and especially our values. De Waal shows clearly that such authority can be found in our biological heritage.  (As does Michael Tomasello in his book, The Natural History of Human Morality).

My culture, western culture, has valued rationality and logic at the expense of a fuller understanding of the roles emotions and thought play in our intellectual operations.  Rationality and logic are not all that we thought they were and emotions and feelings are much more important than most give them credit for.  This constrains our science, our philosophy and our cultural worldview.  Consider, for example, how females are ignored because some (males?) think they are more emotional.  Ugh!

In my former life as a speech-language pathologist, I gave a popular parent workshop entitled “How to argue with your child”.  Catchy idea, huh?  I had found that much of the standard parenting advice was anemic and while parents might use these tips to help their children behave compliantly, they did little to foster a proper sense of discussion and sharing of ideas.  So I explained that parents should not argue over the inarguable, e.g., limits for safety and health, but should argue appropriately when the topic was arguable.  A good argument happens when both present thoughtful reasons and are passionate about their perspective.  We all need to learn how to argue based on reasons, beliefs and data, and how to maintain our composure when differences become divisive.  I even suggested having silly arguments about the color of the sky, for example, because children love and learn from silliness and they need to win an argument once in a while.  (Don’t we all?)  I still think this advice applies, though when I look at our political discourse, I know some powerful forces are working to derail ‘good arguments’.  My point is that our over-valuing logic and under-valuing emotions is counter-productive; both are needed and important.

Here is my final aside as mentioned above that is relevant in today’s world. Consider propaganda and pornography, both of which manipulate our feelings (and thoughts/behavior) but how? I do not think that they do so simply by virtue of their emotional appeal, but because their emotional appeal is based upon corrupted rationality, e.g. propaganda uses selected distorted and errant facts, pornography uses fictional accounts laundered of critical elements like intimacy or the feelings engendered in a relationship.  James Joyce considered any art pornographic that ended by moving the emotions because true and fine art is achieves stasis, an epiphany from the insight generated through artistic import.  And Hannah Arendt has shown us the pathogenic properties of propaganda and totalitarianism.  Some understand these distinctions and cherish the authenticity of fine art and real political discourse, but all too many have fallen down through the media hole to a world where curiosity focuses on sports and celebrity and the only perspective that matters is the one through personal tunnels. And the sequelae of poor art?—I don’t have the time to go there right now.  Ah, well, the world has gone a different direction, much to my dismay, and there is no way to go but forward.  Travel on and find a better path, one where the intellect based upon respect for both rationality and feelings is the grounded (and orthodox) assumption.  Better pack for a long journey and be sure to follow reliable guides such as de Waal, Damasio, Panksepp and Langer.  See you on the Way.

Statement of purpose

I want to convey and discuss how deeply biological I believe our humanity is and to start off this task, I think a narrative of exemplars from my life’s learning can provide important context.  This begins with reading the work of Susanne Langer in college and thereafter; her writings focused on symbolization and art, then moved on to the biology of mind in her three volume magnum opus, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.  From there I became interested in linguistics, especially psycholinguistics, so that I read Chomsky, the many who carried forth his ideas about grammar, and David McNeil, Lev Vygotsky and many others who extended this focus on child development.  This led to my gaining my M.S. in speech and language pathology and developing even further my interest in language and brain.  Thus, as I worked with children with language learning disorders, I read more linguistics and began a survey of the great brain scientists of the day, Luria, Pribram, Jackson, and many others, including Norman Geschwind.

I had the good fortune to attend a conference he organized and spoke at during this time.  Given the brain science of today, it seems eerie to remember that prior to Dr. Geschwind’s work in the late 60s/early 70s, many if not most neurologists believed that the two cerebral hemispheres were virtually identical.  Dr. Geschwind told us that he took a 6 inch rule down to the basement where brains were preserved for study and measured the plenum temporale (one nexus for language processing) in this sample and showed that the hemispheres were indeed quite different.  Of course we know today that lateralization differences appear throughout the different levels of the nervous system in humans and other animals.

I took something of a break from language and brain and pursued my Ph.D. in clinical psychology.  I had planned on specializing in neuropsychology but both my graduate program and clinical internship lost key faculty and resources in this area and I became interested in the more severe psychopathology evident in children and adolescents.  This led to learning more about attachment and trauma and this led me back to understanding brain development and the impact of experience during the sensitive maturational period and later on in adulthood.  Another myth fell by the way as I learned that contrary to what I had been taught over two episodes of graduate school, neurons continue to be created well into adulthood.

Finally I have had the pleasure most recently to delve back into aesthetics, the philosophy of mind and brain science with a renewed focus on the biological roots of humanity.  This means to me to learn about psychology not as a social science but as a biological one, to assess philosophical thinking in terms of its understanding of mind as organic rather than machine, and to muse at the incredible and not always beautiful variety of human thinking, action, and culture.  It also means taking stock of human religious or, better, spiritual experience and of the reductionistic materialism of some, even most, good science.  Both spiritual and scientific experience place a premium on our ignorance: of our poor understanding of the origins of life and mind, of our lack of knowledge about the universe, its origins, its inclusion of dark matter, and what a difference the scale of measurement makes, and finally, as William James endeavored over a century ago, what to make of the varieties of religious experience.  I have the good fortune to live during a time when such questions are meaningful and intellectual freedom permits such enquiries for the most part.

An important assumption here, as trivial as it may seem, is that humans are animals.  If you listen to how many others address this matter, you will frequently hear about “humans and animals,” even in scientific discourse about “studies in humans and animals.” The missing word “other” here is a logical necessity in my mind.  I do not think people say they are going to buy or to study “apples and fruit” in quite the same way.  Separating ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom seems a normal enough reaction to our symbolic capacity with its consequences for our consciousness, art, science and engineering.  Separating ourselves from the animal kingdom seems to me a religious error and the source of a rationalization used in justifying slavery, racism, sexism, cruelty and other inhumane acts.

However, kinship cannot be denied, especially today when genetic science shows how completely all of life on this planet is related.  Going further, consider the story recently about a scuba diver leading a group of underwater tourists to watch stingrays off the Hawaiian coast.  He noticed a dolphin swimming with difficulty around the humans.  When he went away from his group, the dolphin approached him and exposed his difficulty, fishing hooks and lines entangled tightly around his fins preventing normal locomotion.  The diver took out some diving tools (well prepared wasn’t he?) and began to cut the lines and try to extract the hooks.   The dolphin not only permitted this but cooperated with it, at one point swimming to the surface for a breath and then returning for the diver to finish the job.  A similar story is told of a whale who when freed from entangling net and ropes by divers swam around experiencing its regained freedom and then went and tapped each diver’s mask with its beak.

What is salient here is that the dolphin did not go to the stingrays seeking help and that he permitted a human with sharp tools and pliers to cut away at line and remove a hook.  The whale did not thank the divers’ hands but their faces.  Even more than the prosocial, as we term it today, behaviors and engagement of the animals involved, I am fascinated by the connection between them, most assuredly a mental one, an empathic communication and establishment of some level of trust.  Cetaceans have also evolved social and thinking brains and more will be said of this later, but consider this thought experiment.  Tuna fisherman used to use nets that also captured and killed dolphins.  Public outcry led to the development of different net designs and fishing practices to minimize this unwanted consequence.  Thinking about this, placing oneself in the dolphin’s ‘shoes’ so to speak, finding oneself captured in a net with a bunch of tuna, ‘dumb’ fish you eat, in their situation, you work your way through the panicked mass and find yourself trapped by the net.  The tuna struggle and exhaust themselves against the net to escape, but you, the dolphin can appraise the situation differently.  You can see their futility and you can see the blue depths beyond where your freedom lies.  Maybe you can seek the net opening to escape; more likely you will expire by drowning, understanding that freedom lies not in the struggle with the net but in the blue depths beyond.  This is an anthropomorphic projection, I know, but not that far really from what cetacean understanding must be.  Humanity depends upon such things.