The dichotomy between mind and body is a false one — and so, it turns out, is the separation between emotion and cognition. In The Feeling Brain: The Biology and Psychology of Emotions, Elizabeth Johnston, a professor of psychology at Sarah Lawrence, and Leah Olson, a professor of biology at the same college, provide a marvelous and fascinating review of our feeling brain in a clear and understandable way.
The book grew out of a course the two authors co-taught and makes for a good resource for anyone interested in the neuroscience of emotions. And with its nuanced research, history, and case studies, it drew me in. As both a therapist and a taijiquan teacher, I found much in the book useful for my work, particularly when it comes to mindfulness and on the impact of stress on the brain.
But first: What is emotion, and do we really exist without it?
In popular science fiction, the separation between emotions and cognition is a common theme, presented in one of a few ways. When we become robotic and lose our emotions, some stories tell us, we lose our humanity. Think of the Borg from Star Trek: Individuals are assimilated and become part of a cold and calculating collective that seeks to further assimilate more individuals. Or, also from Star Trek, there is Spock, the logical Vulcan whose civilization gave up hot emotions for cold logic so that it would not destroy itself.
As for a real-life version of getting cut off from emotions, Johnston and Olson offer the story of Elliott, via neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. Elliott had a nonmalignant tumor in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the “region that is essential for learning that a previously fear-conditioned stimulus is now safe.” After the tumor was removed, Elliott’s prognosis was good. Yet after his successful surgery, his life took a different turn: divorce, a second divorce, the loss of his job, and bankruptcy. Why?
Elliott performed well on tests of cognitive ability as well as reasoning, moral judgment, and problem solving, Johnston and Olson write. What he had lost was the ability to feel, whether that feeling was stress, impatience, frustration, sadness, or anything else. He was “unflappable.” He no longer had emotional input into his decision-making, and so his decisions post-surgery caused him great loss.
Case studies like this help illustrate the research in the book, but I also liked the historical perspective that Johnston and Olson take as they review the evolution of our ideas about emotions, from the dualism of mind/body and thinking/feeling of Plato and Descarte to the union of mind/body in Eastern philosophy (with neuroscience supporting the latter). The authors reach back to William James and Charles Darwin, too. I think James would be pleased at the turns this field has taken.
And it was reassuring that Johnston and Olson acknowledge how difficult interpreting studies can be, in part because researchers don’t always map the brain identically — not to mention that just trying to define an emotion can be hard. What is the difference between a feeling and an emotion? Can you even experience an emotion without some kind of bodily feeling?
The authors discuss this, as well as many more subtopics: Emotions can solidify a memory, they explain, and content without an emotion attached may not even be internalized. Another big issue: At times it is difficult for us to know what it is we feel. And: Are there universal emotions that cut across culture?
Weather can affect our mood, the authors write. Our mood affects what we pay attention to, how we interpret what we perceive, and how we make decisions. Hot emotions and cold cognition are tied together in our brains from the bottom up and from the top down. And the list goes on. I took so many notes as I read and found so much valuable information in the book that I can hardly narrow it down.
The book also includes the work of Berridge and colleagues and the ways dopamine affects lab rats’ self-administration of cocaine: The rats kept giving themselves cocaine rather than eating, and eventually starved to death. Last year, Baarendse and colleagues looked at another aspect of addiction, and reported that isolation and a lack of social experience in early developmental stages increased the self-administration of cocaine in rats. Meaning, socialized rats, unlike more isolated ones, did not starve themselves to death. Our bodies and minds are one, our feelings and cognition are integrated, and we do not exist in isolation.
I have worked in the addiction field for a very long time, and I suggest that everyone who works in the field read this chapter, at least, if not the rest of Johnston and Olson’s fascinating book. The authors write that their book is not comprehensive, that it is a “tasting menu that introduces a variety of delicacies available in the vibrant and growing field of emotion research.” What a well-written and well-researched tasting menu it is.
There is one other false dichotomy in the West that I hope researchers will address more in the future — that of the supposed separation between the individual and the greater society. For now, as Johnston and Olson deftly show, neuroscience is putting one more myth of dichotomy behind us.
The Feeling Brain: The Biology and Psychology of Emotions
W. W. Norton & Company, May 2015
Hardcover, 416 pages