What Feelings Are For: The Dawn of a New Era
So far, this summer, I've been delving into books like nobody's business. My recent favorites are The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac and Why We Feel by Victor S. Johnston. Those who know me well will tell you that I am constantly connecting dots in my head; this blog post exemplifies my most recent connection.
In Johnston's book, he demonstrates the complexity of the human brain. Using modern understandings in cognitive science, he argues in favor of something he calls the grand illusion. In short, the illusion is that we see the world as something that is bursting with colors and tastes and smells and things that excite our senses; if nature did not endow us with consciousness, it would appear black and silent.
Johnston explains that we have our evolved neural processes to thank for unraveling the external. Natural selection gave us these brains in order to better our chances to survive and reproduce. The faculties of mind, like emotions, are properties of our biology; their nature depends on the nature of the evolved human brain, and not on the nature of the events in the world that activate them.
But just because we are able to survive and reproduce with these processes, it does not mean that they benefit us in every way. An example of this is David’s story, with which Johnston begins his discussion of the power of the human mind to adapt to its environment. David was a young, schizophrenic boy with whom Johnston had the chance to observe in a psychotherapists office. He told his therapist that monsters lurked in his office, waiting until David was alone to interact with him. The purpose of the story was to show just how different the mind can make reality for each person.
Regardless of our label of good or bad, the feelings that one experiences add meaning and color to our lives. It follows that our feelings are adaptive hints to help us navigate in our environments and make decisions that keep us alive. Johnston argues that natural selection favors those who's feelings have guided them to make decisions that better their chances of survival in their environment. Those feelings, especially the lingering ones that have unconsciously alerted us since childhood, dictate our lives.
The human mind has evolved to become a highly refined adaptive filter that is excellent at distinguishing; imagine how much chaos our mind has to put aside before it allows us to see what we see? Nowadays, our main tool is working in unison with an environment abundant with information and a large population. Our minds unconsciously choose between what is relevant and what is not relevant, and I agree with Johnston that this has created the subjective lens from which we view reality. It is true that each person sees the world from the perspective of their own individual platform that nature endowed him with. Understanding this relationship without judging it right or wrong is crucial to understanding the nature of differences between fellow human beings. Universally-felt feelings provide the value system that underlies the decisions we make.
Buddhism, an Eastern philosophy, came to a similar understanding about the human mind. Buddhists view feelings as faculties of the mind that are fleeting. Feelings, as well as thoughts, are activated in response to our environment; we misunderstand them when we attach ourselves to them and let them control us. Buddhists believe that this is one of the primary causes of suffering. In Chinese philosophy, too (specifically Daoism), "xin" refers to one's feelings or overall disposition. It is represented as the connection between the heart and mind, from which stems our motivations and intentions, which give rise to happiness if cultivated during one's life. Eastern philosophy seems to understand that emotions are an essential part of one's nature, and should be regulated and not neglected.
Johnston argues that the dawn of a new era is upon us as our "feeling mind" now seeks to understand itself, and human beings begin to realize that we are not what our minds make us. We are something more -- something that is endowed with the potential to cause changes in itself and the world around it. Consciously equipped with reason, we are backed with nature’s trust in us.
In sum, the brain did not become the way it is in order to accurately represent the world around us. It has evolved to better help us survive, just like our ancestors needed to, in rapidly changing conditions. It is our feelings that help us to better navigate our environments. Not only that, but they are fleeting reactions to our environment that make up our overall disposition.