In the real world, Mr. Spock from Star Trek would be paralyzed without the guiding power of emotion. The countless moment-to-moment decisions we take for granted would be impossible for him to resolve. Paralysis would result.
This paper is concerned with emotion and its pervasive, but unappreciated influence on life, learning, and memory. Emotion is the second of three canvases upon which one can paint a full portrait of the psychological self. This mental trilogy has an ancient Greek heritage and its modern scientific interpretation can be conceived thusly:
- Cognition (thinking) allows us to focus on information and circumstances so that we can then decide among possible courses of action.
- Cognition creates and draws upon forms of memory that operate in the present moment and also on forms that are stored away in conscious and unconscious brain regions.
- Emotion is a mental process that assigns value to our perceptions. It influences our thinking and behavior far more than most people realize.
- Motivation concerns how we order the drives, goals, and incentives that propel us to engage in one activity and vigorously avoid another.
Without emotion we would be lost in a sea of conflicting values, bereft of any rational way to quickly decide on a course of action. Emotion, in this view, is the human trait that computes the value of incoming sensory information. Let the profundity of that deceivingly simple notion wash over you for a while. Emotion determines value.
In this view, emotion is constantly updating and influencing decision making processes. Modern theorists have become convinced that a character like Star Trek’s consistently logical Mr. Spock would be at a serious disadvantage in a universe based on physical action and decision making. Without emotion, Spock would be forced to rationally compute the factors that influence the probable outcome of every trivial undertaking. How would he ever decide on a plan of action regarding the most basic or the most serious decisions in life? Should I go out to dinner tonight? Is it wise to do business with Mr. Jones? Is a career with Starfleet something I should pursue? Only feeling can guide those decisions.
The permutations of possible futures is utterly non-computable because their number grows exponentially. Very quickly, there are more possibilities during a walk to McDonalds than there are atoms in the universe. Hence, emotion and the “gut instinct” of heuristic decisions guide many, if not most, of our decisions. The big ones, like a career choice, surely need cognitive processes brought to bear. Still, think of the people you know who followed a rational process into a career rather than letting their “heart” inform some of the selection process. Some very unhappy outcomes flow from putting exclusive weight on reason while ignoring emotion.