Thursday, March 11, 2010

William James and the bear you might want to know about

Yes, I know, I didn't do a great job on empathy in my last post.  I was, in my defense (not that you care), trying to stitch together a somewhat motley bunch of thoughts in one post.  In the process, I failed to mention one persistent thought that has kept me company much of this week. (I never was much good at sewing).

It's to do with that remarkable philosopher/psychologist, William James. As I was delving deeper and deeper into the subject of empathy, I felt I needed to revisit the subject of emotions and this revisit took me happily back to one of my favorite thinkers, William James, of course.

The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (Phoenix Book) 

Given my deep and ongoing interest in the psychology of beliefs, it was only natural that I would want to refresh my memory of James' many and illuminating insights.  And here is one of them, and yes,  I am finally getting to the bear...

It's to do with what we believe about our emotions.  Most of us believe that our emotions drive our thoughts and actions.  Well, James claimed quite the reverse.  And here's the bear bit.

He explained that, if you saw a bear, you'd run and because you ran, you'd be afraid.  Yeah, swallow that slowly. 

Never, no way, no waaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyy, you say.  Yeah, it does seem counter-intuitive.  Surely it's because we fear the damn thing that we run!

Well, interestingly, and not entirely beyond our means to personally observe, there are a whole range of physiological responses that happen upon our perception of something that we (eventually) find terrifying.  Responses such as accelerated heart rate, sweaty palms and pupil dilation.  According to James, our sense of this whole bundle of responses is what constitutes an emotion, which, in this case, is fear.

So, how do we test/observe this claim?  Well, we could draw on our experiences or create fresh ones.  For instance, you know that when you get tickled, you laugh and generally feel happy.  (You don't?  Thems the pity!).  And when you think or imagine getting tickled, you laugh too, or at least smile, feeling happy.  

Why?  Because there are a number of physiological changes happening within you when you get tickled (or when you think about being tickled) and your sense of these changes results in the emotional state of happiness. 

Or take exercise as another example.  We assume we feel happy when we've exercised.  We assume that we're happy because we've done something good for ourselves.  But as we now know, and as Science shows us, there are many physiological and neurochemical changes happening in our bodies when we exercise, including the release of endorphins.  What we call a happy feeling, or a state of happiness, is a sense of these changes.

It's not fear or anxiety that causes that tightness or sinking feeling in your stomach.  According to James, it's the tightness/sinking feeling in response to your environment, both external and internal, that causes the experience of fear or anxiety.

And why should any of this be important to you?  Well, it needn't.  But, if you want to stay ahead of your emotions and ensure that they don't rule you, then it helps to pay attention to what's happening within you and the changes that are taking place.
There's a form of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana which focuses on observing changes happening within your body.  It's often described as 'choiceless awareness' because you make no attempt to change what's happening, only to be aware of what's happening.  

As you learn to be more observant, you begin to notice how changes in your body predict the emotions that you eventually feel.  

I've often noticed, for example,  how I might feel a sudden heat rising through my body, especially through my spine and it's not entirely pleasant.  It may happen while I'm watching television or reading a book or working on my laptop.  It's then that I realize that I'm not enjoying whatever it is I happen to be doing.  

Sometimes, what I happen to be doing is thinking about a certain thing (even while I am physically preoccupied with something quite unrelated).  It's often something, which, in the past, has had unpleasant associations.  I then make use of this information to either do something different or think a different thought.  

When we lash out physically or verbally at someone, its not because we're angry.  It's because we lash out that we are angry. According to James.  

I think the key thing here to remember is that our minds and bodies are always responding to changes in our environment, most of which we are unaware of.  And it's these changes that give rise to our reactions. It's our feeling of these changes and reactions that constitute the emotion.

Much as I admire and appreciate James' contribution to our understanding of what and how we are as humans, I have to say that, while he's not wrong, I don't think he's entirely right either.  I do think that there's a complex interplay of events - physiological, neurological, biochemical, sensorial and cognutive, to name a few - that give rise to our emotions and which can both be dictated by them as well as dictate them.  The Perceptual Theory of emotions may provide a better explanation :)

Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion (Philosophy of Mind)

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