When Leonard Mlodinow was naughty as a child, his mother, a Holocaust survivor, would explode. “I wish I was dead,” she shouted. “Why did Hitler not kill me?” As he got older, he realized that the trauma she was going through had unleashed reactions that were out of proportion. His friends’ parents will not tell their children to finish their chicken with a warning such as: “One day you might wake up and find that your whole family has been killed!”
While her experiences were extreme, he realized that we all share similarities. “Deep inside our brains,” he writes Emotional, “our shadowy subconscious is constantly applying the lessons of our past experience to predict the consequences of our current circumstances.”
While Mlodinow grew up, scientists “believed that rational thinking was the predominant influence on our behavior and that when emotions play a role, they are likely to be counterproductive.” Today things are very different. “We know that emotion is just as important as reason to direct our thoughts and decisions. . . While rational thinking allows us to draw logical conclusions, emotion influences the importance we attach to the goals and the weight we give to the data. ”
The book is an attempt to understand the purpose of emotions and how they affect us – as well as what we can do to control them. The author is a physicist by training and co-authored two books with Stephen Hawking as well as a biography of the black-hole researcher. But he has also written popular science books on the mind, including Elastic (on flexible thinking) and The drunkard’s step (the impact of accidental events on our psyche). He is fluent in mixing personal stories, with case studies on plane crashes and commercial floors as well as psychological and neuroscientific research. While I marvel at the skill that enables him to grind so much information in a fascinating way, I wonder if such books that target the general reader have become quite formulaic.
Nevertheless, this exploration of the interplay of emotion and thought is fascinating. A psychopathic killer – far from crazy – is guided by an internal logic, but lacks any social emotion such as empathy, remorse and shame. Emotional look at the way hunger and fatigue affect emotions as well as thinking, thus hindering decision making among doctors and bankers. It shows emotions allow a “delay between the event that causes the emotion and the response that enables us to use our rational thinking to temper our instinctive response strategically”. And the ways in which different nationalities label emotions question objective criteria for describing emotions.
As Covid rates increased in London during December and social gatherings were canceled, a palpable gloom descended over the city. Only a few weeks before, I was optimistic about the festive season, steaming a homemade Christmas pudding, buying gifts for family from whom I was divorced the previous year.
Under normal circumstances, I keep such feelings to myself and spiral, even though I know it is counterproductive. Yet Mlodinow shows that emotions are contagious – and if someone else’s feelings can affect us, we can control ourselves. One strategy is revaluation. The best option traders, one researcher found, were those who understood the importance of emotions such as stress, rather than denying it, and were also able to look back on their performance to understand that one big loss did not sink their careers.
Another method is to express negative emotions, whether in conversation or writing (as in an unsent email to an annoying colleague who will stay in a draft directory forever). During restraints, white-collar workers told me that one of the hardest parts of telecommuting was to chew on disturbing incidents that would be dealt with in the office within a minute by talking to a desk mate.
The book even comes with a quiz section to analyze your emotional type. After confirming that I was prone to worry, I was reassured by the author’s words: “There is no right or wrong. . . Everyone is different and those differences are part of who we are, ”writes Mlodinow. “I have friends who are chronically anxious and proud of it; they claim it helps them to be more careful and avoid trouble. I know others who are deeply joyful and optimistic, who often lead them to suboptimal decisions, but are a happy state. ”
Mlodinow explores the way companies manipulate emotions to get us to eat processed foods, for example. It will be easy to raise our hands as a consumer while indulging ourselves in cake, but understanding consumer groups’ methods can help us curb such impulses.
Determination is enhanced by aerobic exercise and awareness “which teaches attention control, emotion regulation and increased self-awareness”.
One area that Mlodinow could explore more was the historical characterization – and dismissal – of women as controlled by their emotions, and a greater understanding of the socialization of emotions for boys and girls.
However, Emotional shows that emotions rather than counterproductive enrich our lives and to understand them better equip us to realize “what it means to be human”.
Emotional: The new way of thinking about feelings by Leonard Mlodinow, Allen Lane, £ 20 / Knopf, $ 28.95, 272 pages
Emma Jacobs is the FT’s job and career columnist
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