The Evolution of Feeling

About two hundred years ago a social movement was coming into its own. The movement touched art,literature, history, and the sciences and has left lasting impressions throughout our society today. The movement was in part a reaction to the industrial revolution and the accompanying rationalization of nature. Where the Age of Enlightenment had left many people hopeful that a rational reorganization of human life and society would lead to ever greener pastures, those in this alternative movement saw in these ideals a cold, calculating reason cut off from the ethics and values, not to mention the messy complexity, of real life. The movement was Romanticism which peaked sometime between 1800 and 1850.

Central to the Romantic Movement was a belief that the authenticity of feelings and emotions brought about the most intense aesthetic experiences and in them a truth deeper than reason alone was glimpsed. They were moved by the beauty of nature as opposed to the classical forms and sought freedom from the urban decay of the time through a return to more medieval norms. Highly valuing spontaneity, the romantics also came to value the hero and the heroic who through their deeper penetrations of intuition and emotion would lead society to a better place.

The Romantic Movement provides fodder for great stories full of heroics, dramatic emotional theatrics and lots of Hollywood glamor. The Romantic Movement, while not quite taking over our popular culture, has come close with its worship of youth, getting in touch with your feelings pop psychology and the exaltation of just do it spontaneity. If it recognizes a dark side of living from the emotions, well that is just the price for genius. The romantic ideals are understandable given the highly engineered, overdeveloped world that confronted humanity two hundred years ago. Even more so today when we worry about nature deficit disorder, the Dionysian ecstasies seem to offer a release from the statutes of our overly programmed and controlled lives. Rock & Roll started promising revolution and ended selling Cadillacs. Why?

The romantic notions are a backhanded compliment to the power of knowledge and the splendor of the knowing intellect above the feeling heart. The romantic is playing with the same guild of story elements, accepting all the same basic premises of the Faustian hero. It is simply a reversal of saviors as we find in Goethe’s great poem when love – the feeling heart – leads the magician out of his ignorant hubris that willingly make deals with the devil himself. Faust had thought that if only he could possess the right knowledge that it would give him the power to mold life to his hedonistic wishes. He was wrong. Knowledge without the heart, without conscience does not deliver what it seems to promise. Though in Goethe treatment Faust seems to save his soul easily enough in the end Marlowe’s may be closer to the truth. Why? Because, as our ancestors knew, the devil is not merciful to those he dupes.

The deals with the devil the industrialized world has been willing to make run the gamut from nuclear waste generating activities to genetically modified crops. Pushing science to find the knowledge that has practical applications is our society’s defining characteristic. Those of us interested in what more sane ways of living might arise after the collapse of industrial civilization and helping those who suffer as the slow collapse continues should understand the dominant story. Put simply, there are two approaches to acquiring knowledge and each has its place. In one, the Faustian, knowledge is power and it is sought to aid us in remaking the world as we wish or need it to be for our own survival. The other approach seeks knowledge of the world in itself, to know it more thoroughly so that we can adjust ourselves to its reality. They are the knowings of science and love. As the Francis Bacon metaphors reveal embarrassingly clearly the Faustian approach seeks to storm the castle, put nature on the rack and force her to give up her secrets. The other approach was championed by those who insist that the observation of living wholes in their environmental context, in a word systems thinking, is primary and the dissection of dead parts is secondary.

The contemplative learns storming the gates of heaven is ultimately less productive than waiting on the light, seducing the lord to come into your heart by patiently nurturing virtue. What the Romantics help us see more clearly is how the divisions we place between these forms of knowing are artificial, a construct of our cultural imagination. Those deals with the devil made using the cold hard reason – ‘it’s just business you know’ – we are now coming to understand include very large emotional elements as they eat up what remains of our viable-for-humans planetary systems.

The whole dichotomy between heart and head that the western intellectual traditions had been wrestling with is cast here on the level of social movements. In this view the dark, animal emotions are the chthonic roots of our bodily form while the intellect soars in a realm of Platonic purity. By these lights the human experience is one of struggle between these two contending forces. The mind and body are seen as worlds apart instead of an integrated whole. Descartes captured the essence of this point of view when he wrote, “even if body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is.” Neuroscientist Anthony Damasio has called this Descartes Error and in a book of the same name lays out the current understanding of the brain-body connection. The state of the art of neuroscience has been finding the feeling element is hardly cut off from our reasoning, quite the contrary in fact. The highest level goals in the brain are set by the emotions and proper reasoning is simply not possible without their aid.

The triune brain theory we discussed last week reproduced this whole heart and head dichotomy in a characteristically dark twentieth century way – the role of the heart is played by the reptile. The theory is basically saying the neocortex is where the moral ideals of justice and the powers of reason reside but sadly they are mixed up with the selfish and violent reptilian brain stem, our inescapable fallen nature. The hot, irrational impulses follow biology while the intellect brings us the gifts of civilization. Since the Romantic Movement it has become very common to assume the emotions and the intellect are in separate realms. Steven Pinker points out the dichotomy has also influenced scientific thought in “the id and the superego, biological drives and cultural norms, right and left hemispheres, limbic and cerebral cortex and the evolutionary baggage of our animal ancestors and the general intelligence that propelled us to civilization.”

This triune brain theory rests on a few hypotheses which have not turned out to be the case. First it appeals to the astonishingly conservative power evolution sometimes displays when it keeps fundamental life systems unchanged for billions of years. The features and functions of the brain stem are assumed to have been conserved. The theory assumes the brain stem and its accompanying emotions are hard to reprogram. No doubt there is some degree of conservation around the life support systems found in these regions of the brain but the bulk of these regions seem to have been evolved in step with the development of the neocortex. One example is that the hypothalamus, a member of the older layers, grew in step with the growth of the neocortex. It is also evident that the emotions are quite susceptible to changes and manipulations by evolutionary growth as witnessed in the different dispositions of Pit Bulls and Saint Bernards. Finally modern research indicates that the cerebral cortex has taken over many, if not most sensory and motor functions.

The second hypothesis the triune brain theory assumes is that the neocortex rides piggyback on the older brain regions. Modern investigations have shown that this is not the case, that circuits and signals run both directions. The almond shaped brain module known as the amygdala is well studied. It encompasses many of the circuits that influence the emotions. It receives signals from both the brain stem, as when the body perceives a loud noise and a simple time sensitive message needs to be sent and it receives signals from the cerebral cortex, where sometimes very complex signals are generated from our most refined abstractions. It is well known how thoughts can set off the emotions. Think, for example, of the Dear John letter. Additionally, the emotions help the cerebral cortex as it plots for courtship, escape, revenge and more.

The triune brain theory “promotes the belief that emotions are animal legacies” as Steven Pinker has it in How the Mind Works. The modern view is otherwise. Pinker explains it recognizes the emotions are well designed brain modules that work “in harmony with the intellect and are indispensable to the functioning of the whole mind. The problem with emotions is not that they are untamed natural forces or vestiges of our animal past; it is that they were designed to propagate copies of the genes that built them rather than to promote happiness, wisdom or moral values.”

So if the triune brain model is of limited usefulness what replaces it? There have been many alternatives proffered for why the human brain evolved as it did. Two of the ones on my shelves most impressed me. The first is The Mating Mind, How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature by Geoffrey Miller. He argues that our consciousness, creativity, art, and morality were sexual attractors, not just side effects of a larger brain. The other title is The Runaway Brain: The Evolution of Human Uniqueness by Christopher Wills.  He contends that there is a positive feedback loop between human culture and the genes that control the growth and evolution of the brain. Both books are well written and researched and together help overcome the temptation to latch onto a single theory as the be all and end all of the brain’s evolutionary story.

With these couple of recommendations for those who are interested in delving deeper into this subject our conversation is going to shift to what we can learn about our minds from the modern neurosciences. There has been a revolution in our tools for investigating this openly fantastic and complex bit of organic matter we call our brains and nervous systems. The field is enormous. In the coming weeks I hope to share some of what has struck me as the most relevant highlights of the findings for those of us with a propensity for contemplative practices and a heartfelt concern for the ecological health of our planet. There are a number of fertile collaborations between cognitive science and the neurosciences to guide us on our way. Remember the goal of our investigations is a more complete appreciation of the role of compassion in human affairs.

We have already taken our first step along these lines. In Descartes Error Damasio mentions the neurological facts that any theory of self and consciousness needs to be able to take into account. These are among them:

a) Consciousness and wakefulness as well as consciousness and low-level attention can be separated.
b) Consciousness and emotion are not separable.

Concerning point b) Damasio notes this is a “most revealing” fact. Indeed.

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