Critical Feeling

Life is like a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue...

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the course of a good education, we learn to subject our beliefs and judgements to critical scrutiny. When reflexive, errant thoughts arise within our minds, we know how to combat them within ourselves and bring them in line with reality. We call this process, this collection of corrective metacognitive tools, “critical thinking”.

But when feelings arise within us, we have been given no such toolkit, no similar standard by which to judge whether these feelings are in need of correction in the first place. At best (or, perhaps, at worst), we can apply often vague, sometimes contradictory religious prescriptions of which emotions are good or bad, or perhaps evil. The precision with which we wield reason and logic may seem more taunting than inspiring, a nirvana beyond our reach.

There is a path to these elysian fields. When we recognize that our feelings are not in fact some representation of some "truer" self, but in fact are a kaleidoscope formed of naive, primal drives, we can tease apart each of these colors and, looking at them one by one, discern their purpose. Translated from flutters of the heart to context-specific goals, they become strategies no less amenable to inspection than any rational plan.

The Pieces of a Passion

Everyone knows what an emotion is, until asked to give a definition. Then, it seems, no one knows.

― Fehr & Russell, 1984

Emotions can be dissected into three parts. Each emotion has some trigger, some environmental stimulus which ignites it within our minds. From this ignition, we experience some felt sense of the emotion within our bodies. This feeling then impels us towards some pattern of actions, modifying our behavior in some way.

Imagine walking to fetch a glass of water at night, when along your way you stub your toe on a table. You shout out in pain and reflexively strike out at the table, hurting yourself even more. Your blood pumping fast and running hot, you still yourself for a moment, feeling your throbbing toe and your throbbing hand at the same time.

In this example, "being hurt" is a trigger for anger. When you are hurt, there is a rush of energy, as your body readies you for immediate action. You quickly orient yourself towards some nearby plausible cause of your harm (accuracy is here less important than immediacy), and you hurt it, before it hurts you more. This is the formula that accompanies all anger: a trigger of being hurt, a felt sense of activation, and an action pattern of defensive aggression.

If, in thinking about emotions, we can focus on these formulas, we can think through our feelings before we even feel them, granting ourselves the gift of objectivity which we more often reserve for our thoughts. It is nonsensical to call the felt sense of an emotion valid or invalid; that is simply data, internally sensed, and as valid or invalid as the colors perceived by your eyes. But with these formulas, we are given far more useful handles from which to operate. a

Feeling Alive

Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

― Baruch Spinoza

Why do these emotions arise? Before we can think about correcting them, we must understand their deep purpose. The efficiency of evolution would not have left us with anger, and fear, and hunger to overrule our better judgement if these feelings did not have some stronger benefit than the loss of our reason which they overrule.

For each emotion, we can see from their trigger and their primed action pattern some archetypal story of survival:

Imagine being a hunter in a forest, stalking some prey, when suddenly something lashes out and strikes you. Without thinking, perhaps without even looking, you strike back. If it is in fact a threat, then striking as soon as possible is the safest path forward. Before you can be hurt more, before the complex, dynamic equilibrium of your body can be disrupted, you aim to disrupt whatever is hurting you, so that you can continue to walk the delicate tightrope of living homeostasis. And if there is no threat, then all you’ve lost is a little time and energy.

From this proto-story, and from the proto-story of every emotion, we can see how our emotions were made to keep us alive. Emotions are negative ― they are triggered by some departure from homeostasis, a departure from what we have been evolved to feel is our “normal functioning”, and they are meant to provide us a path back towards homeostasis.1 Their corrective aim explains their force; the more important the departure from “normal functioning”, the stronger we are gripped by the emotion pushing us towards what it “thinks” are safer pastures.

Forward Motion

"Trust your feelings!" ― But feelings are nothing final or original; behind the feelings there stand judgments and evaluations. ... The inspiration born of feeling is the grandchild of a judgment—and often a false judgment! And in any event not a child of your own! To trust one’s feelings means to give more obedience to one’s grandfather and grandmother and their grandparents than to the gods which are in us: our reason and our experience. ― Nietzsche

With these keys, with the formulas for each emotion and with the understanding of the strategy which each emotion is implicitly clamoring for, we can begin to handle our emotional tides. Through mindfulness we can slow the firing of these primal primed actions, as few situations in our anthropocene require as immediate reaction as the situations we’ve been evolved for. When multiple emotions rise at once, we can make an informed choice between them, reinforcing the fruitful and quieting the spurious. And when reality happens at us, when a situation presents itself which is open to a host of interpretations, we can choose the interpretation which engenders those emotions most harmonious to ourselves and to others.

  1. Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience, 2004.