Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking

Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking

by Leonard Mlodinow

How can you connect better with others? How can you improve your relationship with frustration, fear, and anxiety? What can you do to live a happier life? The answers lie in understanding emotions. Taking us on a journey from the labs of pioneering scientists to real-world scenarios that have flirted with disaster, Mlodinow shows us how our emotions help, why they sometimes hurt, and what we can do about them to make a difference. 

Summary Notes

Thought Versus Feeling

“[...] the way we process information: it is not just a “rational” exercise; it is deeply intertwined with emotion.”

Emotions affect thinking: our emotional state influences our mental calculations as much as the objective data or circumstances we are pondering.

For example, your brain becomes overactive in perceiving threats and tends to predict bad outcomes when faced with uncertainty. When an anxious brain processes ambiguous information, it tends to choose the more pessimistic option. 

Each of our emotions and the time they occur alter our thinking in a manner that fulfills some evolutionary purpose. Why do we get up three times a night to feed our kids? Why do we take pains to wipe up their poop? Evolution has provided a motivating emotion for all that work: parental love.

Emotions help us sort out the meaning of the circumstances we encounter in which we must make a quick decision. They act as internal guides that point us in the right direction. Emotion is not at war with rational thought but rather a tool of it. We could live without the ability to reason, but we would be completely dysfunctional if we couldn’t feel.

Actions to take

The Purpose of Emotion

“[Emotions] allow for a delay between the event that triggers the emotion and the response.”

When you ask someone—a stranger—to do you a favor, like giving her a place in line to you, she’d probably say no. But if you provide a reason like “I have an appointment and must finish here in 5 minutes,” that stranger would likely say, “sure, go ahead.”

Routine requests are more likely to be granted when the requester provides a reason, no matter how obvious or flimsy. The link from the stimulus to the response satisfies three criteria:

  • it must be triggered by a specific event or situation;
  • it must result in a specific behavior;
  • and it must happen virtually every time the stimulus is encountered.

Think about the knee-jerk reflex, which is triggered when your doctor taps your knee tendon while it is in a relaxed state.

A more complex mental reflex is the psychological “button,” the often intense reaction we may have to certain social encounters. Just as your knee jerks when your knee tendon is tapped, a psychological “button” can be pushed when a triggering experience draws you back into some unhealed issues from your past. Some common triggers are if someone ignores you, doesn’t follow the rules, lies to you, criticizes you, or uses phrases like“you never” or “you always.”

In determining your response to an emotion, your brain considers multiple factors, including your aversion to having to venture out in search of other circumstances. That’s where your rational mind comes in: once an emotion is triggered, our behavior results from a mental calculation based on facts, goals, and reason, as well as emotional factors. In complex situations, the combination of emotion and rationality provides a more efficient route to achieving a workable answer.

Emotions have five properties:

Valence and persistence: If you’re hiking and you hear a snake, your heart continues to pound for at least several minutes after you jump out of the way. Even a rodent rustling in the underbrush may cause you to jump during that time.

Generalizability: A whole variety of stimuli may lead to the same response, and, conversely, we may exhibit various responses to the same stimulus at different times.

Scalability: After the stimulus occurs, you exhibit a fixed response. Emotion states and the responses produced by them, on the other hand, can scale in intensity.

Finally, emotions are automatic: like reflexes, emotions arise without intention or effort on your part. However, unlike reflexes, emotions don’t cause an automatic response, although they arise automatically.

Actions to take

The Mind-Body Connection

“Our conscious experience is not formed from our brains alone; it depends also on how our bodies are doing and how we’re treating them.”

Core affect is a reflection of your physical viability, a kind of thermometer that reflects your general sense of well-being based on data about your bodily systems, external events, and your worldview. Like emotion, core affect is a mental state. It is more primitive than emotion, and it emerged much earlier in the evolutionary timeline. But it influences the development of your emotional experience, providing a connection between emotion and body state.

Positive core affect means your body seems to be doing well; negative core affect sounds the alarm, and if the arousal is high, that’s a loud, urgent alarm that is difficult to ignore.

For example, “There’s a rustling in the bushes. The last time I heard a rustling in the bushes, a bear stepped out and tried to devour me. Therefore I’d better run.” 

Core affect influences predictions and decisions, but it evolved when we lived far more primitive lives. Evolution works slowly, so what worked for the past 500,000 years is not necessarily the best approach for the past 500 or today. And so, the influence of core affect today is not always beneficial.

Because it reflects our bodily state, our core affect also grows more negative as we grow more tired and hungry. That affects our decision-making—we become more suspicious, critical, and pessimistic—and we usually don’t realize it.

Actions to take

How Emotions Guide Thought

“[...] positive emotion is strongly correlated with good health and a longer life expectancy.”

Each emotion represents a different mode of thinking and creates corresponding adjustments to your judgments and reasoning. For example, imagine you experience an unexpected lack of warmth or affection from a person in whom you have a romantic interest. Is it rejection, or is it due to a factor that has nothing to do with you, like a temporary preoccupation with the other person? 

How you think about such issues will be influenced differently by different emotional states. If you’re in an anxious emotional state, you are likely to choose the more upsetting interpretation and wonder what you’ve done wrong. 

Anxiety, like all emotions, can cause problems, allowing your worry to overpower reason. On the other hand, the benefit of it is that sometimes the more negative interpretation is correct, and you would have missed it had you not been in an anxious state that made you reflect.

States of positive emotion generally have the effect of encouraging a certain amount of risk. It gave our ancestors a survival advantage by keeping them moving forward to new and better places.

Happy people are more creative, open to new ideas, and flexible and efficient in their thinking. Happiness encourages you to push your limits and be open to whatever comes your way. It also creates the urge to think outside the box, explore and invent, and be playful.

Pride creates the urge to interact and share news of your achievement with others and strive for even greater achievements, enhancing your future prospects.

Interest produces the urge to explore and investigate to broaden your knowledge base and experience.

Awe, in contrast, is an emotion that often arises in the context of religion or nature. It focuses on two themes: the feeling of being in the presence of something greater than yourself and the motivation to be good to others.

Positive emotions might have evolved to give our ancient ancestors a survival advantage, but to experience them still enhances our lives today.

Sadness also seems to serve two key functions. First, it signals others that they need assistance, and because we are a social species, that assistance often comes. Second, it promotes changes in thinking that help one adapt. As a mental state, sadness motivates us to do the difficult mental work of rethinking beliefs and reprioritizing goals.

Actions to take

Where Feelings Come From

“Emotion is what lubricates our conversations and allows us to relate to each other and understand other people’s wants and needs.”

In the case of feelings, the direct data feeding the construction of your emotional experience are circumstances, environment, and your mental and bodily state—your core affect. All of this processing is a good thing because the indefiniteness of the link between triggering events and emotional responses allows us to intervene and consciously influence our emotions. 

Though it might seem that our feelings should be clear to us, we’ve probably all at times discovered that we had been ignorant of what we were really feeling or why. Emotions can be used for our benefit or prevented from working against us if we clearly understand them and their role in our lives. The goal is to use that self-knowledge to increase your emotional intelligence to attain a happier and more successful existence. 

Emotional intelligence is so important to our species that it appears in human babies by the age of two or earlier. When toddlers of this age see a family member in distress, they will react by trying to help them or crying themselves.

Actions to take

Motivation: Wanting Versus Liking

“The wanting system is more fundamental than the system for liking.”

Human motivation springs not directly from the neural networks that produce emotion but from a distinct neural system called the “reward system.”

The reward system provides a flexible mechanism that allows our minds to consider a wide variety of factors when deciding when to act and choose the most appropriate action. That’s the advantage of the reward system. We don’t react automatically; we weigh various factors before choosing our actions. After that, our brain decides on our goal and motivates us to act.

In our reward system, there is a distinction between liking something and the motivation to seek it, or “wanting.” Liking (pleasure) and wanting/desiring (motivation) are produced by two distinct but interconnected subsystems within our reward system. 

We have a “pleasure register” in our reward system, but we must be programmed to pursue what we like. So, we have a separate “wanting” circuitry in our reward system to determine whether we are motivated enough to pursue any particular instance of pleasure.

For example, the focus of advertising is to stimulate your desire to have it. A common cause of wanting/liking mismatches arises from the very struggles we go through to achieve what we want. When we run into barriers in a quest to attain something, we sometimes want it more while liking it less.

When our reward system is operating as evolution meant it to, liking and wanting act in a complex manner that allows us to distinguish between them. If we like sex or ice cream, we may be motivated to pursue it. But addictive substances and activities dramatically increase dopamine release, overstimulating the organism’s wanting circuits.

Addiction, or the purposeful overstimulation of wanting circuits, is rarely found in natural settings. It was not an issue in nomadic societies of hunters and gatherers, and rats and mice suffer from it only when exposed to human creations in a laboratory setting. Humans today suffer from addiction only as a by-product of “civilized” human society, in which we create thirty-ingredient cheesecakes, dangerous drugs, and other products that the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Nikolaas Tinbergen called “supernormal stimuli.”

Actions to take


“Take arms against your troubles.”

We run into many barriers on our way to achieving goals. Determination is a tool that can shatter those barriers. That is true in all life’s contexts.

A mental switch, the realization that the task can be done, can lead to the determination to keep pushing until accomplishment is achieved. 

Determination is a trait provided to us by evolution because it supports our prime directive. Like all mental phenomena, it has psychological and physical components. The two are deeply intertwined, so although determination arises from a process in your physical brain, it can be accessed through psychological events. Losing a loved one changes your brain. So does a pep talk. So does brain surgery. And so do exercise and meditation.

With the proper emotional determination, we can boost ourselves to become superhuman (where “human” means our old selves). We can, in fact, boost our resilience and determination.

Having proper sleep is crucial to maintaining this determination and, more generally, our emotional health. What happens if we don’t get enough sleep?

  • It will increase subjective reports of stress, anxiety, and anger in response to low-stress situations.
  • Increased aggression.
  • Emotional disturbance.
  • Exaggerated fear and anxiety.

Ultimately, our determination is what gives us the urge to act and the energy to see our actions through.

Actions to take

Managing Emotions

“The message of this book is that you should appreciate and cherish your emotion and [...] for once you are self-aware, you can manage your feelings so that they always work in your favor.”

The spread of emotion from person to person or within an organization or an entire society is an important subfield in the new science of emotion, generating a tenfold increase in the number of annual studies in recent years. Psychologists call the phenomenon “emotional contagion.”

Historically, human survival depended on the ability to function within a social context. We have to understand others and find ways of forming a connection. Synchronizing emotions help facilitate that connection. As a result, humans, like other primates, are natural mimics. Conversation partners tend to sync rhythms. When babies open their mouths, mothers tend to open theirs, too. People imitate smiles, expressions of pain, affection, embarrassment, discomfort, and disgust. Even laughter is contagious.

One of the effects of emotional contagion is that people’s degree of happiness reflects that of their friends, family, and neighbors. We are, in a sense, whom we hang out with.

However, we shouldn’t be psychologically enslaved to our emotions: don’t be manipulated by them, be actively in command instead. You can lessen emotional pain if you accept that the “worst” may happen and focus only on what you can do to respond positively. That allows emotion to motivate rather than sabotage.

Processing our emotions happens in your unconscious mind. But it also occurs on the conscious level, where you can intervene. If there are different ways of looking at something, which leads to different emotions, why not train yourself to think in the way that leads to the emotion you want?

For example, if you are late for something, you can rephrase the situation by saying: “This won’t bother anyone because they know I am usually on time.”

Altering the course of how your brain makes sense of things is a way of short-circuiting the cycle that leads to an unwanted emotion. Psychologists call that guided thinking “reappraisal.”

Talking about the situation is also another way to process your emotions. Sharing with trusted friends or a significant other is most useful, especially if those people have experienced similar issues. Exposing your feelings is important but can be scary, and things can go wrong if the person listening is distracted or doesn’t have time to hear you out.

Simply writing about upsetting experiences has been shown to lower high blood pressure, lessen chronic pain symptoms, and boost immune function.

Actions to take

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