Friday, May 18, 2007

Emotions: Survival Mechanisms

"Our conscious control over emotions is weak, and feelings often push out thinking, whereas thinking fights a mainly loosing battle to banish emotions."
Joseph LeDoux Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, New York University

When trying to understand reasons why some people have such rigid and irrational belief systems or world views, I often end up delving into neuroscience literature. Through all the complex tapestry of social and cultural influences as well as childhood indoctrinations, there is one constant. The brain.

By gaining insight into how this damningly complex organ is put together, there might be hope in grasping a better understanding of how and why people think what they think. There are so many beautifully rich and profound philosophies in our human world. An inescapable fact however, is that the origin of even the most sublime epiphanies lie within the little blobs of grey matter in our heads

Peeling away the complex layers of our cortical perceptions(what we think we think), the neurology of the brain reveals a labyrinth of communicatory pathways between basal limbic reactions and "higher" more rational cognitive areas that "bubble and percolate" together creating highly complex interactions. These fluxing electrical stimuli and chemical reactions combine into a sum total event that can be best described as a process.

The Bronze Dog eloquently described consciousness as a process analogous to fire. This process is something that can't quite be reduced or atomized in to a basic essence, and from a rational point of view, doesn't have to be in order to understand its meaning. There is no implicit magical "quantum portal" to a place outside of the observable universe,though many claim there is. In fact, there are many who hold this idea as a sacred truism with clenched teeth and the tightest of death grips.

Sometimes, staring into the fire too long will produce ghostly images and mirages that are not really there, but seem alive with movement and power. When considered from a distance, this hypnotic action between the senses, emotions, and perception boils down to very basic issues.

No matter how elaborately humans can mentally manipulate ideas and effortlessly convey thoughts through infinite language skills, we are children of evolution. Animals like all the rest, with a very singular and primordial need- survival. The urge to eat, defend ourselves, and procreate are foundational essentials from where all the rest of our incredibly complex and nuanced humanness comes. Our emotional reactions have roots in these very basic needs. In fact, these very basic emotional needs (i.e., anger, fear, disgust, love) mix and meld to create the whole complex of emotions and feelings we have.

Emotions have a powerful impact on how we react and think. Emotional responses have a large unconscious component to them and it can be difficult to overcome from a rational viewpoint. Though we may not be able to control emotional impulses directly, processing them in our higher brain centers (cortical pathways) allows us to modify and arrange our reactions.

Just because we can not get away from this loop of rational/emotional interactions does not mean we are inherently irrational. It does say, however, that this mix describes what it is to be inherently and uniquely human now. Being human 60,000 years ago, or to be human 100,000 years from now is probably not quite the same.

Coming to terms with the minds inner workings helps to better comprehend how the human mind constructs elaborate illusions, creating constructs such as religiosity and cultural behaviors. These constructs can have an exaggerated place in the "human" universe within a society that may not need them so desperately any more. By considering this face of humanity, archaic versions of reality can be better dealt with in discussion, perhaps influencing some towards a broader comprehension of a more sober view of the world.

Emotions have deep roots beyond our recent past, originating within the very core of life and what it means to survive in a hostile and indifferent world. That emotion forms such an intimate part of what it is to be human does not diminish who we are. It gives us an opportunity, in a uniquely human way, to observe and be inspired by a fantastic universe as it wondrously reveals itself to us.

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