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

Emovements are as messy as they are fascinating, not only personal, but scientific. While we’re sure we know them when we feel them, it’s hard to even say what counts as an emotion. Anger, sadness and disgust, yes. But determination? lust? Awe?

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 schemes. I do is a term that the Ifaluk of Micronesia use to describe a mixture of love, sadness, pity and an urge to nurture someone. And how about ambivalence or gloating?

Key to Mlodinow’s understanding of emotions are our basic bodily sensations, what he calls “core affect,” as anyone diagnosed with a “hangy” partner will recognize. Probation officers are more likely to refuse parole the closer they get to lunchtime, and gut feelings really seem to be connected to your gut. But both classical and more recent studies show that people interpret these sensations in different ways. In one experiment, one group received an adrenaline rush that made them vaguely aroused, and another received a placebo. Then everyone sat down next to an ally who acted either happy or angry. The placebo group did not report any emotion, but the other group reported happiness or anger, depending on their social context.

Emotions play an important role in triggering actions. If cool reason allows us to judge what will happen if we do something, it often takes a heated emotion to get us to actually do it. As Mlodinow describes, emotions also often seem to act as a kind of quick summary of complex unconscious calculations about what to do. In artificial intelligence, they talk about the framing problem: Like Hamlet, an AI can get caught up in an endless loop of mulling over what to do — and the philosopher Ronald de Sousa has suggested that emotions are evolution’s way of solving that problem. But at the same time, emotions, especially in humans, are social signals. Crying when you’re sad won’t make you feel better — it may actually make you feel worse. But it does make other people want to protect you and take care of you.

Yet another undeniable characteristic of emotions is that you are aware of them, and indeed feel them more alive than other mental states such as thoughts, or beliefs or even goals and desires. Many approaches to consciousness focus on advanced cognitive states such as a 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, proposes that consciousness may have first emerged during the Cambrian explosion. Suddenly, creatures developed new ways to perceive prey or predators, such as eyes and feelers, and new ways to respond to them, such as pincers and claws and paws. The basic feelings associated with those simple actions, pain or hunger, this is good, this is bad, seem much closer to emotions than to thoughts.

Mlodinow describes many of the disparate neural, evolutionary, social, cultural, cognitive, and phenomenological aspects of emotion within what has become something of the received form for 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 investigations are usually interesting and clearly described, and the stories, especially those about his parents who survived the Holocaust, are well told and moving. The advice, as it generally does, boils down to: exercise, meditate, stay away from junk food and, as Sydney Smith wrote in 1820 in a letter of advice that remains the best self-help list ever, “Make no secret or dejected to your friends, but talk about them freely – they are always worse for dignified concealment.’ (Smith’s “Take a Brief Look at Human Life – No Beyond Dinner or Tea” is even more helpful.)

What is missing from the book, and the standard popular science form in general, are theories and explanations — the heart of science. This may be as much a reflection of the subject as what Mlodinow says about it. There is often an inverse relationship between how much psychological phenomena lend themselves to stories — how compelling they are — and how much they lend themselves to scientific explanations. There are elegant theories of visual perception and fine motor skills that combine experimentation, computation, neuroscience, and evolutionary theory, but unlike emotions, vision and motor control do not lend themselves to personal narratives or propulsive narratives and—not to say it too finely—they can be quite boring. I think most writers trying to get science across to a wider audience struggle with this tension between the enviable qualities of a story—the way a good story grabs and directs the reader’s attention, and the fact that the story just isn’t the right medium for scientific 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 series of disparate bits and pieces, studies and stories collected over the years. His main theoretical point is that emotions are important and adaptive, not just distractions and stumbling blocks to reason. That is not a terribly new idea or one that relies on scientific studies – David Hume’s famous saying is that reason is and should be the slave of passions, and even Plato thought that the horses of reason and passion had to be ridden in tandem. But it is certainly true.

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

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