Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Emotion and the Big Picture

"We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion," writes David Brooks in his latest NYTimes column, based on his new book The Social Animal.

As always, Brooks is thoughtful, the kind of conservative who reads widely and has an open mind and, what's more, sees the big picture. He has become one of my favorite political writers, even if we sometimes disagree.

Anyway, his argument is not new: for years I have been reading about the over-emphasis on Cartesian logic and rational thought at the expense of feelings. Despite the influence of Aristotle (who valued the emotional life) on the formation of the European university, rational thought has always dominated academic discourse, with feelings being considered either irrelevant or weak, effeminate, unpredictable, and unrealiable. In other words, the clear and distinct ideas of Descartes et al. have dominated the world of learning and science to the detriment of the inner life, the source of our decision making.

But, as Brooks shows, science has finally caught on to what people of faith have known but dared not utter in intellectual circles: that the emotional and intuitive aspects of our lives are not separate but interwoven with and inseparable from the rational. Not to recognize this more unified view of human learning and behavior is simplistic and has serious implications for public policy, which is what Brooks is ultimately interested in.

Educational systems that are designed to cultivate the rational mind, like parents who put too much emphasis on test scores, are approaching the complexities of learning from the outside, ignoring the inner life. They overlook the way decisions are made in the real world, where people are made happy in ways that have nothing to do with reason or logic. The development of friendship, the way we choose a spouse, the way world leaders relate to one another--all these have a greater impact on the peace and happiness of life than education narrowly defined (e.g., learning material for a standardized test in statistics).

Neuroscientists and other social scientists whom Brooks has read are valuing the emotions and showing that feelings are not opposed to reason; "our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason," Brookes writes.

He does not take this a step further, into the spiritual or religious realm, at least not in his Times column. Yet the importance of the unconscious mind as it seeks transcendence, like the importance of the inner life of feelings, memories, and desires, is central to what interests me: the life of the soul.

If the conscious mind hungers for money, power, or fame, we are also led by our powerful unconscious selves into the realm of the spirit: this is worth noting on Ash Wednesday, as Christians look within and examine their consciences.

So I am grateful to David Brooks for looking beyond the surface level of public life into what current thinkers are saying about the big picture and for reminding us that science is pointing in a positive direction as it seeks to reveal more about human nature. The more we understand ourselves, the greater our appreciation of the mysteries that surround us.

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