Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Thoughts and emotions

Ever since I read A new earth by Eckhart Tolle, I've been ruminating about the cause-and-effect relationship between thoughts and emotions. It's been an eye-opening journey.
Many years ago, when I first took the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) test and found that I was an INFP - which meant that I was a Feeler, not a Thinker - I felt smug. I now see a blind spot behind this smugness. What was that blind spot? The illusion that Thinkers were cold-blooded creatures, that only Feelers can be termed true humans.
Tolle put me in my place. He left me in no doubt that emotions are derivatives of thought. So I was a creature focused on the product, not the source. Now I know that, as a human, I have a choice to inspect either my thought or my emotion at any point in time. And irrespective of which entity I choose to inspect, I can gain an insight. When one eliminates biases, life becomes that simple.

Having reached this far, I asked myself another question: why do emotions exist at all? What value do they add to life as we humans understand it? After all, emotions keep getting in our way, causing us to stumble at every turn. For instance, in the throes of a pressing deadline, if your boss shouts at you, you might be left feeling angry, depressed and inadequate. Instead of refocusing on the task at hand, your brain might get busy churning and masticating these emotions. And while this is happening, the clock ticks away and the crisis worsens.
See my point? At a superficial level, emotions appear to be stumbling blocks. But they serve an important purpose. Chiefly because they have longer life spans than thoughts. Thoughts are fleeting. They can easily escape our scrutiny. On an average, our brain processes 60,000 thoughts a day. In the same duration, we might experience a few dozen moods at the most. And within each mood, we might experience a select few emotions.
Since emotions make a more lasting impression on us, they can potentially help us identify the thoughts that have bothered us. In the example given above, let me speculate that two thoughts bothered you. The first one was evident and you identified it right away. This thought said: "My boss is a syphilitic, impotent, #$@* baboon!" This thought can easily explain your anger. But what about your other emotions - depression and inadequacy? If you introspected further - either with the help of a therapist or on your own - you might discover that the second thought said: "I don't deserve good things in life." Hence the depression and inadequacy.
If you probed deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper... you might reach an ancient memory.

You are five years old, standing in the middle of a crowded fair, and your father is looking down sternly at you, saying, "After the way you behaved, you don't deserve this cotton candy."

There it is! The root cause. You now realize that you took a minor act of disciplining out of context and allowed this misinterpretation to define your personality. You didn't deserve that cotton candy, so how can you deserve this cushy job?
I ask you: would this journey of self-discovery have been possible in the absence of emotions? Perhaps. We will never know. But we do know that emotions, by the sheer act of arresting our attention, allow us to dig deep and emerge with an answer.

It is in this context that I present you with a quote:

"A thought is like the spark that ignites a firecracker. And emotions are like the ensuing glow. You might miss the spark, but the glow will reveal what was hidden in the darkness within you."

Do let me know your views on it. Cheers!

P.S: There is another purpose of emotions - they motivate and power you towards your goals. They help you keep your commitments. Perhaps we should examine this aspect in a different post?


  1. Very Interesting.
    Regarding the example... the emotion could be a result of another deeper thought- that you really have been incompetent in this case and you could have done a better job. Your mind does not allow you to accept this thought but looking a little deeper into your emotion will probably reveal this and hence allow you to grow out of that incompetence?
    By the way I am an INTP (all my scores were so close to the borderline, except T that I could be anything else as well!)- basically a very confused being or a very fluid one :)

    Am unable to see this video right now, but this is somewhat related so I thought I will share...


  2. True, Sujay. It would simply be a case of being incompetent, careless, perhaps not motivated enough to do a good job. A million possibilities exist in this scenario. That's why I said "Let me speculate..."

    Have you taken the MBTI recently? I think I'm more ENTP now.

    1. Yes, I took it about a couple of months back. I had taken it a few years ago and my type was the same (with slightly less borderline scoring). The proponents of MBTI say, your core type doesnt change- you may learn to live like a different type but the core doesnt change. I dont believe it, though, as these are based on "normal conditions" with the subjects not going through Fundamental changes!

  3. I am ENFJ-A..that test was interesting..
    That spillover effects of childhood trauma into adulthood is very well put...this is a fabulous article Eshwar, may be its time for the next article on another purpose of emotions...thanks in advance :)

    1. Thanks, Sowmya. Yes, I'm reading up on Positive Psychology and that may lead to a post on the impact of positive emotions. Also, another change is the fact that the MBTI test has now been widely challenged as a credible tool for personality classification. That puts a different spin on the discussion, doesn't it?

  4. I mostly wonder about the purpose behind any such classifications!?..that's mostly an open ended discussion...at the same time getting to be aware of multiple view makes it interesting for me...:) that's exiting to know about your study and your take on it will be awaited...
    :) thanks Eshwar...that's how this blog is kept evolving...