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Trust Your Emotions

March 7, 2012

Here is a radically informative article written by Jonah Lehrer in Wired Magazine. Essentially, he claims that our brains are more accurate in recalling our past when we use our emotions  than when we use our logic/reason.

He has a much longer explanation in the article, but here is his capsulization:

Here’s where emotions come in handy. Every feeling is like a summary of data, a quick encapsulation of all the information processing that we don’t have access to. (As Pham puts it, emotions are like a “privileged window” into the subterranean mind.) When it comes to making predictions about complex events, this extra information is often essential. It represents the difference between an informed guess and random chance.

How might this work in everyday life? Let’s say, for example, that you’re given lots of information about how twenty different stocks have performed over a period of time. (The various share prices are displayed on a ticker tape at the bottom of a television screen, just as they appear on CNBC.) You’ll soon discover that you have difficulty remembering all the financial data. If somebody asks you which stocks performed the best, you’ll probably be unable to give a good answer. You can’t process all the information. However, if you’re asked which stocks trigger the best feelings – your emotions are now being quizzed – you will suddenly be able to identify the best stocks.

Those who have done any counseling with me and with my colleagues will realize the importance of this information. Whereas our rational mind continues to mature and change, our emotions do not. Fear feels the same to a four-year old as it does to a forty-year old. So, you might conclude that emotions are immature and should not be trusted.

But the reality is counter-intuitive to that. Because emotions do not change, they are more accurate measuring tool to analyze our past. If we really want to know how a memory impacted us, our logic and reason are not going to help. Every time we try to access a memory, we read our current state of logical understanding into it. But when we “feel” a memory instead of remember it, we instantly connect to it.

In addition, an emotion is a simpler marker for memory than logic. Logic (as the article points out) is a very small part of our brain and often bottlenecks when we try to remember too many things (every college student who ever crammed for an exam learned this). But remembering things through images, emotions and music are often more helpful than logic.

In life, we often have emotional moments when memories are triggered. A co-worker may criticize us and an unusual amount of anger is released. The anger that flows out does not match the current situation. (This is called a “Mis-Matched Emotion). If you allow yourself a moment of reflection, it does not take long to connect with the memory where the anger and the criticism are flowing from. As we walk through the memory, we can then determine the details of the memory much more quickly than if we tried to mentally recall factual data.

Now, some will say that emotions can be unstable and inaccurate. But what we don’t realize is that no one has an accurate memory of anything. We all lack the ability to see a scene from a 360 degree angle. We do not see the motivations and thoughts of the people around us. Often, the most inaccurate part of our memories is the data set we stored. The emotions are often the MOST accurate part of our memories. Regardless of what happened, we accurately can pin down how we felt: scared, angry, resentful, giddy, remorseful, etc.

How does this help us? If we look at our memories as an emotional landscape where we can trace our life’s development, we can get a better handle on why we react the way we do to things now.

How many times do we ask ourselves “why am I acting this way?” We often have inexplicable reactions to things that make no logical sense. If our logic and reason were that accurate and helpful, we would be able to trace why we do moronic things. But we often can’t. Our emotions, however, can trace the path to the motivations of the path really easily.

There are literally a thousand examples I can give…hundreds from my own life. Let me give a very straightforward one. During a season of mild depression sixteen years ago, I was at a loss to figure out why I felt that way. I felt angry and hopeless. I wanted to pull away from loved ones and friends. I did not know why. My life was going well. I had close friends and loving family members.

When a friend helped me to identify my emotions, the anger and the hopelessness led me to a conclusion: If I get too close to these people, they are going to let me down. That belief was tied directly to my depression.

When I followed that emotion to its source, a memory came into focus. I was 8 years old and leaving a soccer pitch after a game. My father, after promising for the umpteenth time to come to my game, was not there. As I recalled the emotion of that memory, it was that same anger and hopelessness. As I allowed the emotion to come over me again, I then remembered a promise I made to myself:

“I do not need him. I don’t need anyone.”

So, many years later, when I was feeling everyone in my life getting close to me, loving me, and spending time with me, the tension grew. When I finally saw this, God enabled me to let go of that belief, and when I did, the emotion subsided. It has never returned.

Emotions traced that path much more accurately than my logic could ever do.

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