Human thinking follows feeling

If you grew up in a western culture, you likely believe that emotion and reason are separate. You were taught that good decision-making involved removing emotion from the process and relying purely on your rational sense. While it may feel like a wonderful skill to be purely rational, it’s just not possible.

Our body is constantly reacting to inside and outside stimuli. We feel pleasant or unpleasant. We feel calm or agitated. Take a moment now: how do you feel? Tense? Fatigued? Alert? Relaxed? Scientists call the information coming from our bodies affect. We can just call it feelings.

While we may not be aware of it, there is a torrent of information coming from our bodies. Our brains are summarizing all of this data and reacting in a way that evolution has determined will keep us alive. This is happening every second of our lives and it changes how we perceive the world.

When we experience feeling without knowing the cause, we are more likely to interpret how we feel as information about the world, rather than our individual experience of the world.

Let’s say that again: we are more likely to experience supposed facts about the world as bad when we feel bad. For example, we’re more likely to think someone is untrustworthy if we’re bad-tempered because we’re hungry.

That means we may decide not to hire someone because we didn’t have time for lunch. We might not have noticed it, but that hunger created an emotion that made it harder to make a good decision.

This is all by design, if you will. Emotion is a highly efficient way to generalize a successful reaction. Making a decision based on fatigue helps you stay alive. Making a decision based on intense fear helps you stay alive. The problem is that evolution hasn’t yet had time to respond to the intense stimuli of the modern, digital age.

It appears, in fact, that emotions are necessary for decision-making. Without feelings we can’t decide between multiple options and act in the best interest of our future selves. Professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, Antonio Damasio, conducted a study in which he evaluated the “coolest, least emotional, intelligent human being one might imagine.” This individual had an entirely healthy mind until a neurological disease destroyed a specific sector of his brain that changed his ability to experience feelings. Damasio found that this profoundly affected his ability to make decisions. Although he could evaluate the information, he couldn’t make a choice based on the information.

It makes sense that emotions aren’t the problem as much as they help us solve problems. Many decisions that animals have to make in order to survive are binary—fight or flight. The decision requires a prediction—what is the better escape from danger—but isn't complex. Human decision making is more complex and more contextual. Even in a fight or flight scenario, the choice might be influenced by a human’s conscious assessment of their strength, position, social situation and the like. Emotions are how we navigate nuance.

Rather than trying to ignore our feelings, Damasio tells us that emotion is thinking because how we come to feel emotion is indispensable for rationality. “At their best, feelings point us in the proper direction, take us to the appropriate place in a decision-space, where we may put the instruments of logic to good use.”

Emotions don’t have a special “place” in the brain. They are not a separate part that can be removed from the decision-making process. In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that emotions are generated in the brain in response to a concept and are therefore integral to decision-making. We need concepts in order to categorize and analyze. Concepts come complete with emotions. Emotions aren’t just important for wisdom, they are woven into every decision we make.

Great Human Strength: Feelings provide us with important information and can guide our actions. When it comes to managing our emotions, awareness trumps suppression.

Great Human Weakness: If we only act on feelings we can be impulsive and easily manipulated.

Machine Opportunity: Designs that make us more aware of the link between how we feel and what we think.

Machine Threat: Designs that prompt us to act on feelings without thinking.