Rationality, Kindness, and Emotion
Several of my favorite books are ones that allow me to distance myself from emotional experiences — to view immersive experiences through a very particular, logical lens that helps me to understand them. I think that’s especially helpful to couple with the empathetic and reflective properties of fiction — mirror neurons firing when you read about characters undergoing certain conflicts or joys. (Part of why I’m not reading fiction right now: I feel like I could use a little less of that!)
It’s always tempting to feel as though there’s some grand secret to living well that you just haven’t found yet, and exploring various options through books is a nice way to discover it. I love to read about the brain in a misguided attempt to understand it, and here are some of the gems I’ve found lately.
Novel: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett | Goodreads
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, law enforcement, and our understanding of the human mind.
Emotions feel automatic, like uncontrollable reactions to things we think and experience. Scientists have long supported this assumption by claiming that emotions are hardwired in the body or the brain. Today, however, the science of emotion is in the midst of a revolution on par with the discovery of relativity in physics and natural selection in biology—ans this paradigm shift has far-reaching implications for us all.
Leading the charge is psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, whose theory of emotion is driving a deeper understanding of the mind and brain, and shedding new light on what it means to be human. Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions are housed in different parts of the brain and are universally expressed and recognized. Instead, she has shown that emotion is constructed in the moment, by core systems that interact across the whole brain, aided by a lifetime of learning. This new theory means that you play a much greater role in your emotional life than you ever thought. Its repercussions are already shaking the foundations not only of psychology but also of medicine, the legal system, child-rearing, meditation, and even airport security.
Why do emotions feel automatic? Does rational thought really control emotion? How does emotion affect disease? How can you make your children more emotionally intelligent? How Emotions Are Made answers these questions and many more, revealing the latest research and intriguing practical applications of the new science of emotion, mind, and brain.
How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain surprised me. I’d expected it to have a formula: this is how happiness works, this is how sadness works, etc,. Instead, it argued that emotions are subjective, specific, and arising from circumstances. Part of the reason we feel emotion is that we’re constantly predicting where our lives will go next. It sounds basic, but it’s not. How Emotions Are Made is more theoretical than breaking down the neuroscience of emotion, which isn’t exactly what the synopsis indicates, but an interesting perspective that’s well-written and gave me food for thought.
Novel: Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley | Goodreads
Release Date: February 11, 2014
You are a mind reader, born with an extraordinary ability to understand what others think, feel, believe, want, and know. It’s a sixth sense you use every day, in every personal and professional relationship you have. At its best, this ability allows you to achieve the most important goal in almost any life: connecting, deeply and intimately and honestly, to other human beings. At its worst, it is a source of misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict, leading to damaged relationships and broken dreams.
How good are you at knowing the minds of others? How well can you guess what others think of you, know who really likes you, or tell when someone is lying? How well do you really understand the minds of those closest to you, from your spouse to your kids to your best friends? Do you really know what your coworkers, employees, competitors, or clients want?
In this illuminating exploration of one of the great mysteries of the human mind, University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley introduces us to what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make. Why are we sometimes blind to the minds of others, treating them like objects or animals? Why do we sometimes talk to our cars, or the stars, as if there is a mind that can hear us? Why do we so routinely believe that others think, feel, and want what we do when, in fact, they do not? And why do we believe we understand our spouses, family, and friends so much better than we actually do? Mindwise will not turn other people into open books, but it will give you the wisdom to revolutionize how you think about them—and yourself.
Like many of the other books I’ve read this summer, Mindwise focuses on cognitive biases. All the flawed ways in which we think we know what’s really going on, but are just playing into the circumstances and (incomplete) cues around us. Similarly to How Emotions Are Made, Mindwise doesn’t so much attempt to break down the science so much as presenting a perspective that we’re so, so wrong when we assume we know what others think. The bottom line? You can’t, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. Mindwise focused on the addictiveness of the idea of knowing others without hearing their backstories, thoughts, and spending a lot of time with them. It talked about the unbalanced standards we use to judge others without applying the same to ourselves. And it talks about fostering empathy through genuine equivalency. It was a little hard to get through — plain at times — but an excellent check for when we assume we know others without taking the time to actually listen to them. (The bottom line, especially considering the misunderstanding associated with living our lives online, is to just ask others and to listen to what they tell you.)
Novel: On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor | Goodreads
Release Date: May 26, 2009
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Kindness is the foundation of the world’s great religions and most-enduring philosophies. Why, then, does being kind feel so dangerous? If we crave kindness with such intensity, why is it a pleasure we often deny ourselves? And why—despite our longing—are we often suspicious when we are on the receiving end of it?
In this brilliant book, the eminent psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor examine the pleasures and perils of kindness. Modern people have been taught to perceive ourselves as fundamentally antagonistic to one another, our motives self-seeking. Drawing on intellectual history, literature, psychoanalysis, and contemporary social theory, this book explains how and why we have chosen loneliness over connection. On Kindness argues that a life lived in instinctive, sympathetic identification with others is the one we should allow ourselves to live.
Bursting with often shocking insight, this brief and essential book will return to its readers what Marcus Aurelius declared was mankind’s “greatest delight”: the intense satisfactions of generosity and compassion.
I love to read about empathy and kindness -- a reminder to always try and be a better person than I am. Plus, the rewards system behind kindness (a very Franny and Zooey-induced question of, is it actually selfless if it makes me feel good?) has always intrigued me. Any rational study of emotion does. I link to this speech on my listening page, but George Saunders’s “Congratulations, by the way” speech is one of my favorite reminders. I don’t think the world has gotten less kind — as some theorists speculate — but I do think it’s a constant choice. Reading this philosophical POV was a unique perspective I hadn’t considered: about kindness as a survival-oriented, unconscious, and evolutionary mechanism. While Phillips got Freudian REALLY quickly, On Kindness was a thorough, digestible read I’m grateful to have added to my list.