Uncertainty is Your Friend, Part II: Testing the Illusion of Certainty about Emotions

Would you rather be certain or right?

Posted Feb 16, 2009

There's a famous story about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein watching a sunset with a student and marveling about how anyone could have believed that the sun revolved around the earth. "But Professor," the student said, "It seemed as if the sun revolved around the earth." Wittgenstein replied, "How would it have seemed if it seemed as if the earth revolved around the sun?"

We cannot make inferences about what seems to be true and then use what seems to be true as evidence to support the inferences. Yet that's what we do all the time with our emotions - we buy into the illusion of certainty, discussed in Part I of this topic. The goal of this post is to become more scientific about our emotions.

To be sure, there is still a lot about emotions and their role in central nervous system function that science does not illuminate. But we can make probabilistic inferences based on evidence from multiple sources. The important thing for readers is not that you take my word for how emotions work or that you review volumes of recent research to draw your own conclusions. (Unless you're a psychotherapist, in which case you should do the latter.) The crucial skill we all need to develop is the ability to test how things seem with some kind of objective evidence.

The Biology of Emotions
Emotions are biological processes with distinct, measurable properties. They function primarily to prepare animals to do something (broadly: approach, avoid, attack), by sending chemical signals to the muscles and organs of the body.

The trend of evidence about the causes of emotional activation is moving toward an understanding that they are predominantly biological rather than psychological and influenced more by the body than the mind. Routine variations in your day-by-day feelings and motivations are influenced most profoundly by how well you sleep, eat, drink, and exercise, by fluctuations in room and outdoor temperature, and by how your body metabolizes chemicals like cortisol, elevated levels of which have many causes, ranging from general stress to loud noises to abrupt environmental changes. Emotional experience is also heavily influenced by general immune system functioning, tissue inflammation, and hormonal activity.

Of course, science does not indicate that emotions are all biology, at least not yet. But biological factors should always be ruled out first. Below are examples with irritability and anger.

Biological Explanation: "I'm irritable because I stayed up too late or drank too much or haven't exercised, etc."

Test: Make the behavior change and see if the irritability persists.

Biological Explanation: "I got furious at my wife for criticizing my driving, because I blamed her for the enormous spike in adrenalin and cortisol in my blood stream, which I experienced when that other car abruptly cut into my cone of perception, stimulating a threat-response."

Test: Don't blame her for the discomfort caused by a natural reaction to an abrupt change in the environment that had life-threatening potential. (Blame perpetuates the sense of threat and keeps the adrenalin and cortisol flowing.) Without blame, you should return to your normal self in a couple of minutes. Then you might notice that her startle was involuntary, and recognition of her fear will invoke your natural compassion.

The Psychology of Emotional Disorders
Much of the psychological contribution to emotional disorders comes from giving biological processes psychological meanings they do not have.

Psychological Explanation: "I'm irritable because my wife didn't look at me when I asked her a question, and my mother did the same thing when I was young."

Test: Notice that even when your wife looks at you, your irritability persists and that you will find something else to blame it on, especially if you attribute its cause to the past.

Psychological Explanation: "I got furious at my wife when she criticized my driving, because my mother criticized the way I colored when I was an innocent child."

Test: Many who were criticized as children do not infer criticism from their wife's startle and many who were not unusually criticized as children do.

Of course there are valid and testable psychological explanations for emotions, but they are more useful in regard to the tacit assumptions the brain makes as precursor to emotions rather than explaining the emotions themselves. That will be the subject of a future post, with more guides to help you understand your emotions by testing your assumptions and explanations about them with evidence.