Spitting distance

Which comes first the thought or the emotion? Listening to more of ‘Why Buddhism is true’ by Robert Wright – it seems emotions shape more of context than the average rational actor might like to admit.

In essence the argument from ‘evolutionary psychology’ is that we have a number of ‘mental modules’ which operate just below our consciousness. They are sometimes collaborating – but often competing – for our attention. These modules pull our behaviour towards and away from things.

One example Wright gives, is how attracted experimental subjects are to the promise of a ‘busy museum’ or an ‘exclusive private one’ depending on whether they are shown a clip of ‘The Shining’ or a clip of a ‘Rom-Com’.

Study participants who had been exposed to ‘The Shining’ preferred the idea of a busy museum – safety in numbers. Only those who had seen the ‘Rom Com’ clip fancied the more intimate experience…

The argument is that these modules or algorithms are constantly running – and it is our emotional response to stimuli which selects which module comes to the fore. And what is the conscious mind doing while all this is happening? Running slightly behind post-hoc rationalising it all.

There are fascinating experiments which show how readily the ‘inner voice’ co-opts and instantly creates explanations for what we are doing – first to build our sense of infallibility and second so we can explain ourselves to others.

Both of these are highly ‘adaptive’ in evolutionary terms – a strong sense of self-competence gave us the confidence to keep hunting and gathering; and a strong narrative of our own competence meant other hunters and gatherers wanted us on the team. After all, who wants someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or why, as a partner in life, love, homemaking, the hunt, battle or active warfare?

And indeed these different roles we play are thought to have different ‘mental modules’ which put us in the right frame of mind for the actions required. There is a proposed ‘mate attraction’ module which makes us take more risks, a ‘social status’ module we use to assess and promote ourselves; clearly there are ‘fight or flight’ modules which prepare us to ‘punch and run’ – and there are many more which served their evolutionary purpose in keeping us alive and reproducing.

Some psychologists and philosophers are a bit sceptical of all this of course – and so they should be; that’s any scientist or philosopher’s job. There is a suggestion that these sorts of untestable evolutionary ‘fairy tales’ are a bit far fetched. Indeed the whole ‘genealogy’ approach of seeing behaviour and action as highly determined by social context and norms after Nietzsche and Foucault has been unfashionable in British and American Philosophy. More’s the pity as it’s clearly worth a closer look…


…And so to spitting. An article I alighted on while looking for more on ‘mental modules’ pulls together genealogy, emotions, culture, behaviour; and one of the most powerful emotions of the lot – disgust.

In the paper by Shaun Nichols he posits that cultural norms which connect with naturally strong emotional responses ( those driven by evolutionary selection processes) will tend to survive – whilst cultural norms which are just cultural norms will come and go. As he puts it:

I maintain that emotional responses will affect the cultural viability of norms as well as other cultural items. In particular, norms prohibiting actions that elicit negative [emotions] will, I argue, be more likely to survive than [emotionally] neutral norms.

And to illustrate his point he uses spitting down the ages… In the Middle Ages spitting norms were getting a bit more strict, for example:

“Do not spit across the table in the manner of hunters.”


“Do not spit into the basin when you wash your hands, but beside it.”

By 1530, apparently, Erasmus’ etiquette book, ‘On Good Manners for Boys’ gives a “slightly more refined set of admonitions”:

“Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls on the ground, it should be trodden upon, lest it nauseate someone.”

But by the 1600s it’s no longer enough to put your foot on it…

“Formerly . . . it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank, and was sufficient to put one’s foot on the sputum. Today that is an indecency”

By 1729 a handkerchief is expected:

“When you are with well-born people, and when you are in places that are kept clean, it is polite to spit into your handkerchief while turning slightly aside”

And by the Victorian era spitting is quite simply off limits.

“Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. I need say nothing more than—never indulge in it”

On the one hand norms have evolved – and tightened – but the argument is that compared to other norms which have come and gone over 500 years, spitting norms are more durable because they connect to and easily elicit a ‘core emotion’.

It’s likely that a crucial feature here is that the disgust mechanism is at least predisposed to find saliva and mucus objectionable. That is, we come prepared to be disgusted by certain things and not others (cf. Seligman 1971; Garcia 1990).

…Disgust is a basic emotion (Ekman 1994; Rozin et al. 2000), and by common consensus, body products are at the core of the eliciting conditions for disgust (Rozin et al. 2000).

Indeed, Haidt and colleagues maintain that it’s useful to distinguish “core disgust” which is elicited by body products, food, and animals (especially animals associated with body products or spoiled food) (Haidt et al. 1994).

Similarly, Rozin and colleagues write that “Body products are usually a focus of disgust. . . . There is widespread historical and cultural evidence for aversion to virtually all body products, including feces, vomit, urine, and blood” (Rozin et al. 2000).

It seems to me we can all readily relate to that one!

So emotions – and the approach/avoid – response are always working in the background to bring the evolutionarily correct ‘mental modules’ to the mental foreground. We think we’re thinking – but we’re not; we’re largely reacting and post hoc rationalising.

And that’s good to know. Because once you recognise you’re a ragtag bag of evolutionarily conditioned emotional triggers – for modules which give us proven survival advantage – you can relax a bit. There’s no point trying to ‘control’ emotions; they control us. The point is to trust them a bit more. And be distracted by the ‘inner voice’ a little less.

The inner voice is perhaps more like a sports commentator than the illusory inner Chief Executive (which Richard Wright very much draws into question). The inner voice is all too often completely wrapped up in the ‘game’; excited and involved, telling us ten-to-the-dozen what’s happening now, not entirely wanting to predict the final result but unable to resist a bit of speculation and hyperbole… All rising voices, factoids and oohs and ahs!

…but in fact, it’s the emotions (as throughout evolutionary history) that are the star players.

The fear of fear itself

From multiple sources and stimuli this week, a penny has dropped… as Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said one of the biggest things we fear is fear itself;

There’s a name and a proper medical definition for it: phobophobia. But there’s also a bit of chicken and egg about all this: which comes first – the feeling or the thought?

As a person who spends a lot of time in my own head, I’d concluded it was often the ‘thought’ that comes first. I’d assumed for a lot of things it’s thoughts which gets the fear cycle going; thinking of something going wrong or that could be painful, embarrassing, poverty-inducing or lethal for example. But now I’m not so sure…

A combo of a bit of mindfulness, and some very helpful prompting from someone posing the question – “Where do thoughts come from?” has had me pondering.

On one level it seems easy; thanks to our old friend Descartes. With ‘I think therefore I am’, Descartes has firmly planted in our minds that it’s the thinking that defines us; so it’s easy to assume it’s the thinking that comes first. But is it?

Lots of great thinkers suggest otherwise. Aristotle and Aquinas had us down as composites of flesh and blood and mind – and far closer to animals than pure ‘spirit’.

Mineral, Vegetable, Animal, Human, and Divine

So back to the question I’ve been asked: “Where are the thoughts coming from?”

The short answer is I’m not entirely sure; but what is increasingly clear is they are not all coming from my Cartesian ‘conscious’ mind. Lots of them come unbidden. They ‘well up’ from the subconscious. And today I caught one ‘popping up’ from a place of pure feelings…

You have to be soooo fast to catch the mind. It’s like running a precision scientific experiment, it’s all in the milliseconds… But, while cheffing up a beetroot curry this lunchtime – from nowhere I had a vague generalised sense of anxiety – and a millisecond later a thought popped up to help me explain it. And immediately the two become one and the thought becomes the ‘source’ of the anxiety.

But it wasn’t. I simply concentrated on the feeling – and both went away. There is no reason to believe the specific ‘thought’ I had was anything to do with the general feeling of anxiety. I was ‘feeling’ anxious that my precious Sunday was half over – but the ‘thought’ was about a specific work-related problem I’ll be back to facing on Monday. Related but independent. Correlated but not causally connected…

What if the arrow of causation is the other way around… what if most or all of my thoughts are triggered by feelings… two books I’m reading suggest there’s something in this.

The first, ‘Why Buddhism is true’ by Robert Wright, points out that our emotions and perceptions were shaped by natural selection – not to be accurate, but to spread our genes.

All emotions and feelings, Wright points out, basically come from the same thing an amoeba has – a primordial urge to ‘approach’ or ‘avoid’. Our fancy mental apparatus can post-hoc rationalise it all, and give them more subtle and sophisticated names; but they are just differently packaged composites of approach/avoid.

The second ingredient comes from The Power of Negative Emotion by Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd Kashdan.

Their argument is we need negative emotions not least to spur us into action.

Richard Wright’s point is that natural selection deliberately keeps us anxious; Biswas-Diener and Kashdan advise us to embrace and use that.

So today I slightly changed a mantra I have in one of my many lists of ‘things to remember’. It was:

Avoid fear as a motivator

And now I’ve changed it to:

Accept fear is a motivator

And why? Simply because it is; fear is a motivator, and avoiding it means avoiding pretty much everything.

The limbic system is way more powerful than conscious thought as a motivator – it has been keeping ‘all creatures great and small’ safe for hundreds of millions of years.

There’s no point trying to avoid fear, you just have to feel it; and then do something about it.

Distracted? There’s an App for that…

Eric Barker writes a great blog; I’ve told three people about the thesis in this post, in the last week or so.

Neuroscience increasingly suggests we’re all more a bunch of impulsive Apps than a well designed rational operating system.

Makes a lot of sense to me; and has reminded me to actually make a bit of time for mindfulness for a week or two – as opposed to reading about it, avoiding it and constantly distracting myself by doing other things. Let’s see how I get on…

“The human brain wasn’t built top to bottom as a single project like Apple builds a computer. It evolved over millions of years in a very messy fashion. Various systems (or “modules”) came about to drive you to accomplish different tasks like seeking food, fighting, reproduction, etc. But here’s the problem…

They were never integrated. So these systems compete to steer the ship that is your brain. Your mind is less like a single computer operating system and more like a collection of smartphone apps where only one can be open and running at a time.

Here’s noted science author Robert Wright:

In this view, your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules—modules for sizing up situations and reacting to them—and it’s the interplay among these modules that shapes your behavior. And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part. The modular model of the mind, though still young and not fully fleshed out, holds a lot of promise. For starters, it makes sense in terms of evolution: the mind got built bit by bit, chunk by chunk, and as our species encountered new challenges, new chunks would have been added. As we’ll see, this model also helps make sense of some of life’s great internal conflicts, such as whether to cheat on your spouse, whether to take addictive drugs, and whether to eat another powdered-sugar doughnut.

Now modules aren’t physical structures in the brain, just like apps aren’t hardware in your phone. They’re software; the human nature algorithms that Mother Nature coded over thousands of generations of evolution.

So you want to diet but you see donuts and your brain’s hunger module (like the “Grubhub” app) hjacks control and says, “Food! Eat it. Now.” Or you want to be nice but your mind’s anger app (“Angry Birds”) takes charge and you’re saying things another app is really going to regret tomorrow. You’re like a walking live performance of Pixar’s “Inside Out.”

So how do we prevent hijacking by the wrong module at the wrong time and make better decisions? First we need to learn how those inappropriate modules get hold of your steering wheel…

Feelings. Nothing More Than Feelings.

Whichever module has the most emotional kick attached to it at any point wins the competition to be “you.”

Under this lens, many of the confusing and frustrating things about human behavior start to make a lot of sense:

  • Of course people are hypocritical. They’re made up of competing “selves” with very different goals and different information. Uncle Al is the most reasonable guy in the world — unless his “politics module” takes charge.

  • Are people good or bad? They’re both. The metaphorical angel on one shoulder and devil on the other are just different modules in the brain with different motivations.

  • Why do you lack self-control? Because now the word doesn’t make any sense. It’s actually “selves-control.” Your behavior isn’t inconsistent; the “you” in charge is inconsistent.

Here’s University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Robert Kurzban:

Some modules are designed to gather benefits, others are designed to deliver benefits, and they exist in the same head, sometimes in conflict. In the same way, this analysis does away with the question of whether individual acts are “really” self-interested. Different kinds of acts advance the goals that some, but not other, modules are designed to bring about. So, both meanings of “self-interest” seem to be a problem because different modules have different designs, and are therefore built to bring about different outcomes.

Here’s Robert Wright:

The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings… via the natural, reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural, reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you.

How To Prevent Brain Hijack

Buddhism recognized this problem over 1000 years ago. And it also came up with a solution: mindfulness meditation.

And neuroscience gives it a big thumbs up. Studies show meditation trains your brain to be less reactive to emotional swings and can prevent the wrong module from hijacking control of your brain.

Truisms iii) Dry stonewalling

Here are seven of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms I increasingly agree with:

Fake or real indifference is a powerful personal weapon

Expressing anger is necessary

Emotional responses are as valuable as intellectual responses

Giving free rein to your emotions is an honest way to live

Hiding your emotions is despicable

Humor is a release

Playing it safe can cause a lot of damage in the long run

For much of the last decade ‘stonewalling’ was a personal favourite of mine on the home and work front. I now see it was a form of emotional distancing I used to manage my reaction to people and situations. 

At one level it worked, but it drained my energy and at times frustrated people. Sometimes people would get cross with me. This was a quick route to me completely shutting down and quietly brooding, or more rarely reacting with excessively sharp-tongued vitriol. 

I’m learning that staying in touch with your feelings – although it feels risky sometimes – is important. Following my feelings can make me feel a bit ‘unbounded’, impulsive, eclectic, even a bit inappropriate sometimes. But often ‘in the moment’ I now do what needs doing or say what needs saying. And I have more laughs, with people I don’t know, as well as those I do. 

Constantly controlling my emotions was tiring, it drained my batteries and potentially prepared me to be hurt or hurtful. Better to be in tune and ready to speak up and speak out, flash a smile or crack up laughing. Life’s too short not to feel it.