Emotional review by Leonard Mlodinow – the new thinking about feelings | science and nature books

Ethe movements are as messy as they are fascinating, not only personally but also scientifically. Although we are sure to know them when we feel them, it is even difficult to tell what counts as emotion. Anger, sadness and disgust, of course. But determination? Lust? Admiration?

As Leonard Mlodinow shows in his new book, emotions are evolutionarily old, rooted in genes and brain structures we share with insects. And at the same time, they are embedded in complex and sophisticated cultural scripts and patterns. I do is a term that the Ifaluk of Micronesia use to describe a mixture of love, sadness, pity and the desire to feed someone. And what about ambivalence or schadenfreude?

Key to Mlodinow’s understanding of emotions are our basic bodily sensations, what he calls “basic affect,” as anyone who has diagnosed a “hungry” spouse will recognize. Parole officers are more likely to deny parole closer to lunchtime, and gut instinct really seems to be tied to your instincts. But classic and newer studies show that people interpret these sensations in different ways. In one experiment, one group received a dose of adrenaline that made them vaguely excited, and another received a placebo. Then everyone sat next to an accomplice who acted either happy or angry. The placebo group reported no emotion, but the other group reported joy or anger depending on their social background.

Emotions play an important role in provoking actions. While cool reason allows us to gauge what will happen if we do something, it often takes a burning emotion to get us to actually do it. As Mlodinow describes, emotions also often seem to act as a sort of quick summary of complex unconscious calculations about what to do. In artificial intelligence, they speak of the frame problem: like Hamlet, an AI can be caught in an endless loop of rumination over what to do – and philosopher Ronald de Sousa has suggested that emotions are the means of setting it. evolution to solve this problem. But at the same time, emotions, especially in humans, are social signals. Crying when you’re sad doesn’t make you feel better – it may even make you feel worse. But it makes others want to protect you and take care of you.

Another unmistakable characteristic of emotions is that you are aware of them and indeed feel them more vividly than other mental states such as thoughts, beliefs, or even goals and desires. Many approaches to consciousness focus on sophisticated cognitive states like the sense of self or the ability to manipulate thoughts in working memory. But recent work in evolutionary biology, nicely summarized in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s book Metazoa, argues that consciousness may have emerged first in the Cambrian Explosion. Suddenly, creatures evolved new ways of perceiving prey or predators, like eyes and antennae, and new ways of acting on them, like pincers, claws, and legs. The basic feelings that accompany these simple actions, pain or hunger, it’s good, it’s bad, seem much closer to emotions than to thoughts.

Mlodinow chronicles many disparate neural, evolutionary, social, cultural, cognitive, and phenomenological aspects of emotion in what has become something like the received form of popular science books—the equivalent of the sonnet rhyme scheme. Instead of A, B, C and D, Mlodinow alternates between study summaries, illustrative stories and self-help tips. The studies are mostly interesting and clearly described, and the stories, especially those about her Holocaust survivor parents, are well told and moving. The advice, as it usually does, boils down to: exercise, meditate, stay away from junk food and, as Sydney Smith wrote in 1820 in a letter of advice which is still the best ALL-TIME HELP LIST: Moody to your friends, but talk about it freely – they’re always worse for a dignified cover-up. (Smith’s “Take short views of human life – not more than dinner or tea” is even more helpful.)

What is missing in the book, and in the standard form of popular science in general, are theories and explanations – the heart of science. It may reflect the subject matter as much as Mlodinow’s narrative. There is often an inverse relationship between how well psychological phenomena lend themselves to stories—how convincing they are—and how well they lend themselves to scientific explanations. There are elegant theories of visual perception and fine motor control that combine experiments, calculations, neuroscience and evolutionary theory but, unlike emotions, vision and motor control do not lend themselves to personal stories. or propelling narratives and – not to elaborate too much on this – they can be a bit boring. I think most writers trying to convey science to a wide audience struggle with this tension between the enviable properties of storytelling – the way a good story naturally captures and guides a reader’s attention, and the fact that storytelling is just not the right medium for science. theories.

Although Mlodinow introduces the book by saying that there has been a revolution in our understanding of emotion, what emerges is not so much a clear new theory as a collection of disparate pieces, studies and stories collected over the past few years. His main theoretical point is that emotions are important and adaptive, not simply distractions and obstacles to reason. This is not a terribly new idea or dependent on scientific study – David Hume said that reason is and should only be the slave of the passions, and even Plato believed that the horses of reason and passion had to be mounted in tandem. But it is surely true.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy of Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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