does this happen to you, too? once in a while you look at an obvious fact for the 1,285th time and all of a sudden, its profound truth hits you like a ton of bricks.

for the last few days, this profound truth was – well, let me say it this way:

humans are 60-70% water and 98-99% emotion.

as you can guess, this post is be mostly about emotion (i’ll leave the water to my good friend raul) although it is interesting to note that in some traditions, water is intimately connected with emotion – in most pagan traditions, for example, as well as in jungian thought.

freud spoke of the thin veneer of civilization, and boy, is it thin. even when we are rational (for example, in science). or maybe even then. how edgy we get when our thoughts/logic/rational arguments/fill-in-the-blanks are challenged! anger and fear arise, the stomach knots up, blood pressure rises, heartbeat increases and wham! we fight back. if we stay “rational”, our arguments will not be physically violent or replete with swearing; they will be well crafted and most likely laced with sarcasm, knowing we are right, an unwillingness (and inability) to hear the other and a frantic scrambling for hitting the other with more facts that prove our superiority.

the funny thing is that a truly rational response would be to reach out, to soften, to be curious. that is, assuming that one has in mind to have a true exchange between equals, which again would be a rational thing to do. we could define rational behaviour according to psychologist albert ellis as

acting, emoting and thinking in ways that are alternative-seeking, realistic, flexible and most importantly self- and social-helping and functional in helping humans in achieving their personal and social goals and desires

and somehow we find this incredibly difficult. currently i’m reading three books (you always have at least five books on the go, too, right?) that show just how deeply important emotion is to us. one is mark goulston’s just listen who keeps driving home the fact that in order to interact with people rationally, we need to make sure that they can actually hear us, without being prey to the “amygdala hijack”. the amygdala is part of our limbic brain (sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain) and initiates the fight or flight response. it compares incoming information (e.g. facial expressions, tone, body language, smells, etc.) with emotional memories. an amygdala hijack occurs when the amygdala decides that the information it has just processed threatens survival and hence any reaction needs to be fight, flight or freeze – and not be directed by the frontal cortex, which is the part that helps us act rationally (i.e. the amygdala “hijacks” decision making power from the frontal cortex). the amygdala will react similarly to the threat of being eaten threatened by the woolly mammoth and a perceived emotional attack.

the other book is daniel ariely’s predictably irrational. from the jacket cover:

not only do we make astonishingly simple mistakes every day but we make the same types of mistakes … we consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. we fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions on what we want, and we overvalue what we already own.

fortunately, ariely proposes that

these misguided behaviours are neither random nor senseless. they’re systematic and predictable.

that’s good. it has such a – rational sound to it.

finally, a book i have been gnawing on for months now is made to stick – why some ideas survive and others die, by dan and chip heath. i’m “gnawing” not because it is hard to read – it decidedly is a joy to read – but because there is so much useful information in it. the main idea of the book is that in order to get a message through to an audience – students, for example – the last thing we need to do is inundate them with facts (which is something our rational brain likes to do). ideas that stick are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, contain a story, and appeal to our emotions.

they give an example of an appeal to help starving children in malawi, africa. one appeal provided very informative statistical bullet point to show reasons for giving; the other told of a little girl, and what the money would do to help her educate and provide her with medical care. not only did the story-based appeal result in donations over twice as high but also when potential donors were presented with both the story and the statistics, they still gave significantly less.

as i said, many of the points i made are pretty obvious. but do we really act on them? often, way too often, it seems that some irrational part of our brain tells us to keep hitting people over the head with too much rationality.

does that happen to you? how do you deal with it?


  1. I’m still learning to tell stories.

    Hugh McKay, an Australian social researcher, has often made the point that once we accept that people are basically emotional not rational, life becomes much easier.

    I think Albert Ellis definition of rationality is a pretty loaded one. Lots of values in there (ones with which I wholeheartedly agree). This is far more than rationality as linear goal achievement though.
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..The Benefits of Modesty =-.

  2. Spot on. It’s so difficult to uncover the role of emotions in our decisions, especially when we think we are being “rational”. Maybe thats why someone said it’s like standing on your own shoulders.

    I read David Burn’s Feeling Good, helped me a lot with my depression. He says thoughts come first, then emotions. I find that’s true quite q few times, but not always. Sometimes, the emotions come so fast, almost lightening fast, that it is impossible to uncover the thought process behind them.
    .-= Raj´s last blog ..A tale of many cities =-.

  3. raj, i have to confess that much of what i’ve read about the difference between thoughts and emotions, at least when it comes to therapy, makes only marginal sense to me. i could never quite understand the need to separate the two. they are both forms of inner experiences.

    btw, when i say “thoughts”, i include all elements, “rational”, “irrational” and “nonrational”.

    or maybe i’m just saying that right now because i’m really tired (is that a thought or an emotion? :))

    as always, i happily offer to stand corrected and educated.

    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..the meta of twitter =-.

  4. Isabella,
    sometimes, I can identify some thought process that is leading to an emotion. For instance, if I am worried about an interview, it’s my negative expectations about it that are causing me to get anxious.
    But many times its not so straightforward. And then as you say, both thought and emotion feel like one and the same thing.
    btw, I am sure you have read much more on the subject and if anyone stands to be corrected, it would be me.
    .-= raj´s last blog ..A tale of many cities =-.

  5. I’ve just read all this, sat back, and for a good few minutes tried to rationalise emotions, before realising what the hell I was doing.

    Only last night I was thinking about how thought starves us of feelings. This ‘thought’ felt like an instinct and hit me hard – harder than it will hit you in this expression. Then I started to think/feel that thought is the way we deal with our feelings when they become too much. Likewise, when we think too much, eventually we will feel it. I know I do.

    Interesting subject. Can’t really think on it, but I felt I should write something.

  6. “amygdala hijack” – this is such a great way of putting it.

    i feel similarly, isabella, when trying to separate thought and emotion or put one previous to the other, or make causal relationships. it seems to me that the body does not think (sic) that way, and that when my body is grounded and i am able to avoid the “amygdala hijack” , i can be open to experience and don’t have to divide and conquer.
    i find the divisions quite painful, actually, and well know the feeling of being ‘hit over the head with too much rationality’.
    maybe emotions get all ’emotional’ because they get divided off?!

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