Spoiler alert: they lie.
My Mum has this saying that’s pretty popular with her clients in therapy: emotion is not information.
Now, at first glance, that might seem flat-out wrong: of course, emotion offers vital information. Why actually, without emotions, humans would have serious trouble with their decision-making. You need to know how you feel about things in order to make critical decisions, like which career you’d like to dedicate your time and energy to, which person you’d like to date, which animal to fear when out in the woods hunting, which fellow monkey to throw your faeces at. Throughout the evolution of the entire human species, emotions have been a crucial part of our decision-making process.
Moreover, emotion is not only useful in our day to day choices, it’s vital. Without emotions, we’d be left literally incapable of deciding the simplest of shit, like what to order at the salad bar. Because, from a strictly rational, logical standpoint, multiple options make just as much sense. You have to feel something about a particular one of them, in order to be able to decide which one you want to eat.
In brain damage survivors where this emotion feedback loop has been compromised, people were left incapable of making said mundane decisions, known to linger for hours comparing labels and ingredients lists without being able to feel like they want either in particular — while faced with the impossibility of coming to a strictly rational conclusion in a 21st century world packed with a 21st century number of options, many of which are equally valid from a strictly rational standpoint.
(For more information on this fascinating topic, as well as a great number of heartbreakingly beautiful stories about trauma survivors throughout history, I enthusiastically recommend Sam Kean’s The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons)
In other words, in order to decide which particular brand of detergent to purchase when faced with the abundance of identical detergents in different packages, you need to be physically capable of falling in love, at least to some extent, with the marketing behind one in particular.
So, then, if emotions are vital in decision-making, why not embrace the entire thing? What does my mother mean when she says emotion is not information — considering it’s her I borrowed Sam Kean’s book from?
Information about the outside world vs. Clues about the inner world
‘The temperature in this room is 23 Celsius/73.4 Fahrenheit.’ — That’s information.
‘[I feel that] Being gay isn’t natural.’ — That’s not information. Because, in actuality, same-sex attraction and behaviour is pretty fucking common in nature. Around 2% of basically all species we’ve observed, from bed bugs to lions to dolphins to monkeys to humans, are, well, gay. Regardless of how you in particular may feel about it, gay is pretty natural, if by that we mean occurring naturally in nature. Therefore, the statement ‘Being gay isn’t natural.’ fails to offer any verifiable information about the outside world. What it does offer, is information about the speaker’s own inner world — while being rather irrelevant from an evolutionary and behavioural standpoint.
Undeniably, feelings offer vital clues about yourself — but yourself mostly. Feelings aren’t information about the outside world; they’re indicators about the inner world.
Back when life was simple and people lived in caves, emotional decision-making was all the rage, because it was efficient. There wasn’t much need, nor for that matter time, for debate. What there was, was a strong need for immediate, life-saving action: run, fight, play dead, fuck, eat, shit, sleep. That simple set of parameters won’t get you very far within 21st century society. A certain degree of logic need be applied in order to decide whom to vote for, whom to work for, or whether trans people should be treated like human beings. Simply flinging your faeces at the matter won’t work anymore — or at least not in my circles.
We need the distinction between information about me and information about the world, between emotion and reason, because feelings oftentimes lie.
Emotions are notorious fabricators. Some of us, learn that the hard way: we live with anxiety telling us we’re in imminent danger when none is present; we live with depression telling us we’re worthless and everything’s pointless; we live with mood disorders, feeding us contradictory reactions. We learn to take our emotional input with a grain of salt. Thanks, anxiety, I hear you, but no, I don’t believe we’re about to have a stroke just now, all signs point to no, so thank you for your contribution, bye now.
Some seven years back, when my anxiety attacks were at their worst, I would hallucinate that I was literally rotting alive. Learning not to trust my feelings was just as vital to my (ongoing) improvement as is the medication that corrects the underlying chemical imbalance. To put it more bluntly, simply popping a pill would not fix my anxiety, I have to constantly practice a healthy detachment from what my emotions are trying to tell me. I have to understand that just because I feel like I’m rotting alive, that isn’t really objectively happening.
In battling my depression, I also began to understand that just because I feel like I’m a worthless piece of shit, doesn’t mean that the objective value of my work is what my feelings are trying to tell me it is.
I have to actively work on shifting my focus.
From constantly belittling myself for my weak points; from prompting myself to produce a status update on my self-improvement whenever the opportunity for the enjoyment of a minor work victory presents itself — to admitting to my strong points.
From criticising myself for not being spontaneous enough in my work, too research-driven, and in need of longer-than-average such accommodations prior to putting in the work — to noticing that, once given reasonable time to research and adapt to my surroundings, I work faster than average, I do my best to never be the one others on the team are waiting on, and I’m surprisingly organised for a creative. From hating myself in a spiralling void of over-dramatic depression over the occasional typo, to noting I have an infinite love for the intricacies of langue and human emotion that translates into everything I do.
Throughout my ongoing mental illness journey, it’s been critical to accommodate for the fact that my feelings are lying to me.
I began to notice that, despite thankfully not dealing with full-blown mental illness, a lot of people deal with misleading emotions: staying in relationships they know aren’t good for them, succumbing to family expectations into careers they dread, falling victim to societal pressure to conform and leading miserable lives, purchasing that 23rd pair of shows they don’t need in an attempt to fill the emotional void, ordering that third glass of prosecco on a Tuesday, getting into yet another stillborn argument with their sexist uncle at Holiday dinner.
We may begin to wonder, then, what else this lying might apply to and what else my feelings may be hiding from me about the actual reality of the world. Could the gay agenda actually just be a minority looking to be regarded as equal human beings in society?
An interesting side-effect of this feelings-are-not-information situations is:
Feeling like you understand shit.
I.e., overestimating your ability to comprehend extremely complex shit and allowing your feelings to disguise as arguments.
Look, I love knowing shit. It’s fascinating. I read about the human brain, the human body, the universe, quantum physics, how ducks have sex, how vaccines work, or how ‘grabbing them by the pussy’ became adequate presidential social etiquette in the 21st century. Yet I know that, even though some theories make more sense than others, I, a mere content writer, could never really understand how the universe came into being or how the intricacies of biology and chemistry come together to provide me with adequate preventive measures against the crippling effects of polio.
Unless I dedicate the next 30+ years of my life to the pursuit of biochemistry, I have no real idea what’s going on. People working in the field are still sometimes biased and proven wrong, of course, but more of them agreeing on the same shit is pretty good credibility. What the fuck credentials do I have to go on when deciding to ‘read and trust my own judgement’ on whether vaccines are good? Shit that makes zero objective sense could quite easily be sold to me as something I may come to feel is ‘the truth’. I may feel like I get it. It clicks. It makes sense. I understand. But I’m just a copywriter — and this is the work of generations upon generations of people who’ve dedicated their lives to the pursuit of their fields. I’m sure I must be missing some aspects of the complexities at hand that are essential to reaching any valid conclusion.
It’s been implied (mostly by my father) that I can be a bit of an asshole about the ‘fringe science’. Stuff like there is an emotional cause to every illness, the ‘literature’ is abundant, look at all this ‘evidence’ or drinking olive oil ‘cures’ gallbladder stones.
They point me towards some obscure references, asking me to ignore the lack of peer review and the anecdotal nature of the arguments being made — and use my own logic to decide if it makes sense. To which I say: pffft; my logic is worth absolute bollocks on this matter.
I could be the world’s most brilliant fucking copywriter — and my logic on this matter would still be worth jack shit. Furthermore, I could be actively working in the field of biochemistry and, should my findings not prove replicable and fail peer review, they would still be worth exactly shit. Because feeling like it makes sense is not an argument about the actual outside world, it’s a personal belief. Which is to say, not information about the outside world, but a personal, inner spiritual journey.
Feelings don’t justify promoting absolute bollocks with zero experimental replicability, which may end up discouraging someone from seeking best-we-have-not-perfect-but-repeatedly-proven-to-do-something, potentially lifesaving treatment. It doesn’t justify fear mongering, conspiracy theorising, and general bullshit spewing, which ends up just confusing everyone and distracting them from what’s really, at present time, the best approximation we have of objective reality: the scientific consensus, a set of replicable findings, subject to constant peer review, scrutiny and updates.
In my modest opinion, a lot of people need to learn some fucking intellectual humbleness and admit that they don’t know enough about certain topics for their opinions to constitute anything noteworthy. I don’t know much about the world, but, to quote an obscenely over-quoted classic, I know that I don’t know shit. Okay, maybe I paraphrased that one, however the point stands. It’s in my own best interest that I go with the current recommended treatment protocols and acknowledge that climate change is a thing and just overall use the scientific consensus as my guideline when it comes to decisions concerning matters I cannot possibly fully comprehend.
Like, by all means, ask for a second opinion, because individual people can be wrong, but don’t discredit thousands upon thousands of scientists reaching the same conclusion because one guy said an <<impossible weird diet>> will ‘kill cancer’ or because one narcissist started a ‘vaccines cause autism’ conspiracy back in 1998. That shit is dangerous to promote and is oftentimes discouraging people from accessing proven, life-saving treatment.
Trusting your ‘feeling like it makes sense’ and promoting bullshit could literally lead to someone dying from preventable illness. It’s directly responsible for the 21st century revival of such classics as measles, a trend which we should’ve left buried in the 1960s, along with sexist ads and those painfully campy headbands.
If you promote bollocks, your ignorance could directly lead to someone’s decision to deny themselves lifesaving treatment, effectively leading to their death. It was their choice and all, but you could’ve, you know, refrained from spewing bullshit and influencing decisions where you’re not qualified to do so.
I’m all for respecting everyone’s opinions, tolerance in the face of differing views, freedom of speech, harmony, and overall conversational chill. I generally just lack the energy for confrontation and prefer to simply let things be. Until the ‘alternative facts’ start rolling in. Because you’re an average human mind just like me, and you should sit down and stop preaching baseless nonsense that’s worked wonders for you and your cousin and therefore you can’t not believe what you’ve ‘seen to be true’, which is just marketing speak for ‘having your opinions be dictated by your feelings and drawing emotionally convenient conclusions based on anecdotal evidence’.
I know ‘alternative facts’ are tempting, because they make you feel like the world makes more sense and feel that you have more control over it and feel that cancer can’t kill you or your loved ones because you’ve uncovered the Big Pharma conspiracy to keep us all sick and buying expensive treatment, and you just need an <<insert you preferred ‘alternative fact’ here>>. I know how tempting that shit is, because I’d rather believe that eating grapefruit is better than chemo, too. I’m scared, too. In fact, I have crippling health anxiety: I’m beyond fucking terrified. However, that comforting lie has no basis in experimentally replicable, peer-reviewed science. So, there’s no reason for me to let those feelings inform my decisions in the future.
I need to own up to the fact that it could happen to me, and, in the event that it does, it could kill me in a slow and dehumanizingly painful manner, and there isn’t really much else we know how to do about it at this time besides what we’re doing, but the scientific community is giving it their all and I’m rooting for them. I’ve had my thyroid removed and replaced with a lifelong prescription for artificial hormones, to prevent it getting imminent cancer; I’ve had my cervix scraped with the medical equivalent of a blowtorch for that same reason. I therefore credit the scientific consensus with my life, while being painfully aware of my privilege in accessing these lifesaving treatments.
You don’t see many poor people promoting Goop-level bullshit — and I find our fashionable disavowal of science to be an insult to those not as fortunate as to have the opportunity to enjoy its benefits for so long as to come to take them for granted.
Should three different doctors ever point me towards peer-reviewed articles published with respectable scientific journals and prescribe grapefruit to ward off any potential cancer, I will happily forego my yearly screenings and eat that damn thing until I shit it raw. Because, that’s going to be the best way we’ll have of dealing with it in that hypothetical future. For now, I’ll stick to the yearly recommended intake of probing and prodding — and hope for the best. I’m going to focus on what I know to be somewhat relevant in — philosophy and human behaviour — and let qualified people take the stage on the science front. Because, accuse me of intellectual snobbery as people sometimes may (mostly my father), I know my opinion on most subjects is worth jack shit. Which is something a surprising amount of my fellow average humans seem to be glossing over — and the ultimate source of my alleged intellectual snobbery.
The science is fascinating to read into, but ultimately not my field to dispense opinions about. I’ll instead keep promoting the efforts of those who’ve dedicated their lives to reaching conclusions that their peers then dispense their best efforts into trying to disprove, but maybe sometimes end-up confirming and adding to the lists of uncovered mysteries about the world. I’ll keep rooting for the scientific community at large — while remaining weary of individuals’ opinions, especially my own.
Thank you for joining in on this taboo-ish topic of debate. I would love to hear your thoughts, even (or especially) where you happen to disagree — there’s nothing more stimulating than eloquent disagreement.
And, as ever: stay safe, nerds.