This NPR interview shows how we can’t help but shoot ourselves in the foot. Google: NPR Why We Care More About Losses Than Gains. When I look around, I see our aversion to loss influencing just about everything we do, albeit often in very subtle ways. The innate emotional aversion to loss, when reinforced by reason (thought) traps us even more. I’m going to dig into this deeper and tie up any lose ends that I see. My premise is the more aware we are, the less likely we are to misdirect our emotional fire. That is the idea behind Buddha’s Right Comprehension, which aims at giving us some ability to manage emotion.
I Feel Therefore I Think
I’ve probed Descartes’, “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum) philosophical proposition at various times. For example, see A How-To for Extinguishing Self. That has been mostly an exercise in beating around the Buddhist bush. This NPR interview about loss inspired me to beat around the scientific bush a little. Fortunately, biological science has been relentlessly picking away at what makes life tick. All the same, I don’t think one needs to fall back on biology very much. It works well to just observe what is naturally so.
First, we’ll need to stipulate the obvious: we are animals. Sure, we’re different, but then so is every species in its own way. The commonality we all share is ‘feeling’, i.e., sensitivity, sense, sensation, responsiveness. This ability defines sentient life all the way from the sensory perception of an amoeba that guides its movements, to a fighter pilot’s sensory perception that guides his. (1)
The essential point here is that sensory perceptions control everything we do in life. The only part of this sentient realm of which we are aware is merely the tip of this sensory iceberg. Below this self-awareness are millions of biochemical interactions that make sentient life possible. Emotions churning below the surface waters of our awareness guide the direction that our thoughts will take. It really is straightforward and obvious, yet it is something difficult to see and accept. Why?
‘We can’t see the forest for the trees’
Being in the midst of our experience, it is difficult to see anything outside that experience. The one and only gift of aging is an increasing ability to perceive outside the ‘illusion of self’ box. I suspect that experiencing the physical body’s decline, the death of loved ones, and a broader span of history in general, leaves each of us more humble as the years fly by. It is from that humility that clarity comes. As chapter 40 notes, Loss through death, of the way uses. I broached this feeling / thinking issue recently in Emotion Speaks… Literally. There you will find a few interesting links to scientific research that supports this ‘bottom up’ view of cognition.
Feeling is Real
Sense perception ‘feelings’ are real biochemical processes that all animals undergo. I’m referring to sentient life, so by that definition I must include ALL—yes all—living things. It can be extremely rudimentary as when a poppy flower opens up when it ‘feels’ the sunshine strike its sunlight-sensitive cells. It can be extremely sophisticated as in a rich women weeping over the loss of a favorite piece of jewelry. Both experiences—the ‘feelings’—are real. However, the flower’s sense results in positive survival responses. The rich woman’s sense… not so much. (2)
It is not that the rich woman’s feelings are invalid or skewed; it is that the thoughts these feelings evoke quickly lead to needless stress for the woman and those around her. Her mind’s thought connected the jewelry to her sense of self and well-being from the outset. The subsequent loss evoked negative emotion, which elicited further thought. This perpetuates itself in a vicious circle; a thought-> emotion -> thought -> emotion… feedback loop. This loss of jewelry becomes a virtual death-of-self spiral. It is easy to see why it will be difficult for her not to feel the thoughts as real as the emotions from which they arise. It is that linkage to which chapter 71 speaks. To ‘realize I don’t know’ means to realize that the thoughts that feel so real and true are not truly real — only the emotions are genuine.
Why aren’t thoughts as real and true as they feel?
Thoughts naturally assemble themselves in ways that verify how we feel(3). In a sense, we fabricate the evidence we need to prove our feelings reflect an objective reality. More simply put, survival instinct drives thought to safeguard the ego, or as Buddha put it, “to create and maintain the illusion of self”. The stories we cook up, like free will, get way out of proportion to reality, especially when it gets personal. We lack an impartial judge to mediate our internal deliberations. There is nothing to prevent our narrative of proof from feeding back and re-stimulating our emotions. Chapter 71 notes the result: not knowing this knowing is disease. On the other hand, we have no problem recognizing this delusionary process in other people, like the rich woman who lost her favorite bauble. Boo hoo, we say, yet fail to recognize this neurological amplification when it occurs in us, and so blindly make our personal ‘mountains out of molehills’.
Nature’s ‘Gifts’ Will Be Used
Evolution has endowed life with certain innate responses to a species’ environment. Two of the most powerful responses to stimuli are attraction and aversion. They play out in everything from amoeba to humans. In us, and other ‘higher forms’ of life, these express themselves as need and fear. There are other primal endowments as well: the immune system’s response to bacterial invasion, the physical skeletal muscular system that moves the body to carry out the work of living, to name two.
Human instincts evolved to enhance survival fitness in the wild, not in civilized circumstances where we seldom need to work as hard at living as we originally did in the wild. Indeed, the primary thrust of civilization, from the stone axe and fire to chainsaws and central heating, has been to maximize comfort and security and minimize the price (usually caloric) that we must pay for these advantages. However, we still do pay a price! These survival endowments didn’t just vacate our genome as we came to demand less of them.
The result of raising children in a super hygienic environment illustrates the issue. Researchers find that when the immune system is deprived of the chance to fulfill its mission, it turns in on itself, which increases incidence of allergy, for example. On the physical side, you might wonder why jogging and other forms of strenuous activity have grown in popularity. The reason, in part, may be that the body just knows it needs to do something more than current circumstances demand. If it doesn’t, there are adverse physical and emotional consequences that come with an overfed sedentary life style.
This same dynamic plays out in our core attraction and aversion emotions. In the wild, need (energy) aims toward acquiring the necessities of life — raw survival is in charge. The same holds true for fear (energy). It aims toward being on the lookout for predators or other threats to survival. The innate survival endowments of need and fear don’t disappear once they no longer aim solely at core survival; they simply shift focus.
Where does the focus of emotional energy shift?
Put simply; focus shifts toward realms that are more trivial… and we become neurotic! The energy shifts mostly inward, feeding back into our emotions and re-stimulating them! This keeps emotions alive long after the initial external stimuli passes. This enables us to dwell on issues and reignite the sparks that set off emotions in the first place. Now, this might not be so destructive if it played out in a balanced way, i.e., if both positive and negative emotions reinforced themselves equally. However, that is not the biology of it. Negative emotions carry more weight, and overpower positive ones. In other words, as the NPR segment described it, “We care more about losses than gains”.
One can do nothing to change this directly. We’re dealing with instinct after all. Conflicting needs are part of life, every living thing experiences this dynamic tension… a need to gain versus a fear to lose. The old adage says, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. Yet, venturing out makes loss increasingly probable. This sure keeps life’s pot stirred.
The silver lining here lies in how attending the school of life gradually brings us to see that life frequently turns out differently than we imagined. That sobers us to a humbler and often subconscious truth… something like, “I don’t really know, yet I feel what I feel”. This can help wiser insight to bubble up from below.
(1) Oddly enough, there are many who hold that thought is a prerequisite for awareness and consciousness, each of which are merely aspects of sentience. I’m not sure why they hold such a narrow and obviously egocentric view. Oh, wait … The ego feels a need to protect is superior status. That’s why!
(2) I just looked up the word “sense” and this was the first definition — Sense: any of the faculties by which a person or animal obtains information about the physical world, e.g. sight or taste. The other definitions are more weighted to human “sense”, e.g., intelligence, brains, intellect, logic, good judgment, wisdom, common sense, etc. That’s okay, as long as we recognize all life possesses some measure of this sense. Indeed, all poppies will use “good judgment” as they respond appropriately to the Sun. Ah, if only we were as consistent in using “good judgment”.
(3) A glaring example of how thought forms itself in ways that ‘verify’ how we feel is a belief in free will. We feel an innate need to control our life and so thought rationalizes the necessary ‘proof’ that we can and do. Our belief in free will becomes the ‘proof’. Faith, as with most things, is a double-edged blade. Fortunately, it is easy to determine the reliable and beneficial edge. To paraphrase chapter 1: