Educating People How to Feel

27 July 2008 at 11:26 am Leave a comment

I just finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s new sci-fi novel The Stone Gods, a profound book in many ways, dense with meaning layered via allegory and allusion.  It is set in a post-apocalyptic world we have destroyed by nuclear war, consumerism, pollution, and it’s about the longing for a “place to land,” a new beginning after the shipwreck of our birth.  At one point, the main character, Billie Crusoe (alluding to the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe), is explaining to a Robo sapiens why World War III occurred.  It’s worth quoting at length:

The theory is that this latest war was a crisis of over-emotionalism.  Fanatics do not listen to reason, and that includes the religious Right. Since the Enlightenment we have been trying to get away from emotionalism….all those so-called gut feelings that allow us to blame our aggression and intolerance on what comes naturally.

Yet the evidence suggests that rational people are no better than irrational people at controlling their aggression–rather, they are more manipulative. Think of the cool, calm boss at work who has no care for how his workers might be feeling. Think of the political gurus who organize mass migration of people and jobs, home and lives on the basis of statistics and economic growth. Think of the politicians who calmly decide that it is better to spend six hundred and fifty billion dollars on war and a fraction of that on schools and hospitals, food and clean water.

These people are very aggressive, very controlling, but they hide it behind intellectualization and hard-headed thinking.

For my part, I think we need more emotion, not less. But I think, too, that we need to educate people in how to feel. Emotionalism is not the same as emotion. We cannot cut out emotion–in the economy of the human body, it is the limbic, not the neural, highway that takes precedence.  We are not robots…but we act as though all our problems would be solved if only we had no emotions to cloud our judgment. (141-42)

Winterson echoes the findings of recent neuroscience on the centrality of emotions in thinking (think Damasio, Minsky, LeDoux).  The point she makes about educating people how to think is simple but significant.  It reminds me of a previous post about “mind control,” about learning how to control our emotions, channeling the energy flow through our brain (“psychoenergonomics”).

A recent book by Thich Nhat Hanh, titled The Art of Power, has exercises in its appendix for learning how to control intense emotions.  Perhaps we should have classes in meditative practice in public school, as the Dalai Lama suggests in Destructive Emotions.


Entry filed under: books, education, neuroscience, psychoenergonomics, psychology. Tags: , , , , , .

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