The Science News report, What do you see? verifies something I’ve suspected for years. Namely, our needs and fears (1) generally dictate what we see (2), even though our mind may believe otherwise. Our perception of reality is essentially a subjective reflection of our emotion, as this research shows.
However, the researchers see emotion a little differently than I do. For example, the article says:
Whereas emotions describe complex states of mind, such as anger or happiness, affect refers to something much more basic. Psychologists describe it as a bodily response that is experienced as pleasant or unpleasant, comfortable or uncomfortable, a feeling of being tired in the morning or wound up at night. These responses are the ingredients for emotions, but they also serve as less complex feelings that people experience even when they think they feel “nothing”.
They want to have it both ways. For example, the words above, “pleasant or unpleasant, comfortable or uncomfortable” refer to sensory experiences that at least any mammal feels. Others include anger, empathy, anticipation, fear, hunger, and need. Don’t these all fall under the category of emotion (3) in the broad sense of the word? Meaning, none of these sensations require a thinking “mind” to feel, as anyone who knows animals well enough can attest.
Note: Our penchant for splitting hairs is symptomatic of a deep human need to see ourselves unique and superior. Consequently, “happiness” must be a human feeling and requiring a “complex state of mind” to be felt. Lacking this “mind”, people wrongly conclude that dumb animals can’t possibly feel “happiness”. Is this merely ignorance or do we fear seeing animals our equal… a fear that spawns the need to stack the deck in our favor. While the human brain/mind innately needs a story, it doesn’t require one so utterly self-serving. Simply put, an insecure ego steers perception to create the story that can help it feel more comfortable and safe.
In the researcher’s view, “emotions describe complex states of mind, such as anger or happiness”. I’ve long thought of emotion as describing feeling as opposed to thinking. Feeling anger, fear, contentment, surprise, and need originate in the ancient midbrain (i.e., hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus). Conversely, the thinking mind (cognition), originates in the recent surface cortex, of which we humans are highly endowed.
Saying that “emotions describe a complex state of mind” is comparing apples and oranges. Sure, emotion and mind are both fruit of the brain, blending in our awareness and appearing to be similar. For example, thinking about earthquakes may arouse fear and stir up a need in me to live elsewhere. However, such lumping together of feeling and thinking complicates matters, which hinder self-understanding. On the other hand, regarding thinking and feeling as essentially separate issues helps put life in perspective. Just think of this as ‘dividing and conquering’ ignorance!
Emotion motivates life’s actions in humans, in dogs, in bats, etc., and perhaps even viruses and bacteria, if you loosen your definition of emotion. The so-called “complex states of mind” are more like shadows cast out from the firelight of emotion. “State of mind” is a result of emotions pushing and pulling thought this way and that. Consider awareness as a horse and cart. The cart is thought and the horse is emotion. The horse pulls the cart. It is noteworthy that a main goal in yoga (i.e., Bhagavad-Gita) is a quest to put a driver in that cart. That inspiring ideal has one hitch… The horse is a wild untamable beast and doesn’t heed drivers (4). Chapter 71’s advice, To know yet to think that one does not know is best is much more doable, yet even then…
Apparently psychologists use the term affect to differentiate the so-called “complex states” from the “bodily responses”, which is probably a holdover from the old “mind vs. body” way of seeing life. This distinction arises from our ignorance of underlying inter-connectivity. As chapter 56 says, This is known as mysterious sameness.
Much of our ignorance stems from a mental projection of how we need to see ourselves. The mind-body illusion allows us to believe we can do anything if we set our mind to it, mind over body — in a nutshell, free will. Ironically, the effect psychologists are attempting to explore is affecting their way of seeing that effect.
Feeling “pleasant or unpleasant, comfortable or uncomfortable” is integral to feeling fear, need, anger, contentment, etc. The idea that anger or happiness are complex states of mind and somehow separate from feeling “pleasant or unpleasant” is nonsense. Angry dogs, blue jays, or baseball fans are all feeling uncomfortable and unpleasant. Their homeostasis (i.e., the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent biological processes) is unbalanced. The anger response pushes animals (human included) to somehow resolve that tension. When it is resolved, stress is relieved and “happiness” returns. As chapter 46 notes, There is no disaster greater than not being content.
Simply realizing that perception is a reflection of need and fear rather than what is actually ‘out there’ is extremely helpful. This research (What do you see?) should be welcome to anyone wishing to embrace this point of view. Little by little research is heading toward what Buddhists and Taoists have always known: Emotions (desire, need, lust, fear, worry, insecurity, pleasure, pain, attraction, aversion) determine the reality we see. To fix reality one must return to the moment. As chapter 64 advises, Deal with a thing while it is still nothing. As always, the simple elegant solution is also the most elusive. Chapter 63 and 71 nails it…
(1) I’m using the terms need and fear to convey, in the broadest possible sense, the primal biological driving forces of life. Feeling need attracts us to what ostensibly facilitates survival; feeling fear repels us from what ostensibly impedes survival. Such need and fear are often subconscious and only evoke conscious thoughts once they pass some threshold.
(2) Broadly speaking, what we see also includes what we feel, hear, and think (i.e., the mind’s eye). These perceptions mirror the biological foundation from which they are experienced. One outcome of this is the naturally compelling illusion that the reality we perceive is objective, and not simply shadows in the mind of the beholder.
(3) I’m using the term emotion as broadly as possible to differentiate feeling from thinking. This includes all that indistinct and shadowy matter we perceive consciously or otherwise that lies outside our ability to adequately describe via words or names, or portray artistically via color, notes, taste, etc.
(4) Becoming one with the beast, rather than attempting to control it works. Resistance only stirs the pot of emotion. How does one become one with the beast? Chapter 65 offers a helpful hint: