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An Emotion Is the Physical Registration of a Thought

Who knew?

When we think some thoughts, they don’t seem to matter particularly.

I can think “Steven Spielberg exists” and I feel exactly the same as I did the second before I had that thought.

If instead I think “My dean exists,” though, it’s a whole different ballgame. As a prof, the dean is like my boss's boss, and suffice to say that we have very different ideas about how the future of higher education should play out. All of which means I can feel a difference between thinking the dean thought and the Spielberg thoug

That difference is emotion.

When we think some thoughts, the ones our brain decides are important for various kinds of reasons, there are minute physical changes in our bodies. Our heart rate speeds up or slows down, our breathing changes, tiny chemical reactions cause feelings of heaviness or lightness, warmth or cold, sinking or rising, agitation or relaxation. Our body registers the thought as a complex web of sensations that we then evaluate as a specific emotion.

If I pay attention to my body with the dean thought, for example, I can feel that the difference is in my chest, a kind of jumpy, tight feeling. It's a little hum of agitation. Whereas if I switch to the Spielberg thought, that tightness fades away.

We often don’t perceive emotions as physical sensations so much as mind events, in part because of the way we are taught to think about emotion. But emotions only take on their event-like quality because of physical sensations. It’s the physical sensations that make the difference between just reading the sentence “I’m heartbroken” out loud from a book and saying that sentence yourself when you are heartbroken. This is why studies have actually shown that you can give people Tylenol for the pain of a breakup and it actually works. The pain is actually physical, even though we usually assume it’s not.

Neuroscientists are still debating exactly why this happens, but the theory I find most convincing is this: emotions are the way our brain tries to motivate us to take action based on thoughts. We think roughly 20,000 thoughts a day, apparently, and emotions are the way our brains flag some thoughts as more important than others. They’re like a notification system making sure some thoughts are attended to and not lost in the shuffle of the other 19,999.

Thinking about emotions in this way is useful because it helps us to see the connection between thinking differently and feeling different emotional responses. If I think “my dean exists” I feel agitated. But if I think “My dean exists and he's retiring soon,” I can feel the fluttering in my chest die down. When we see emotions as the physical registration of our thoughts, we can find where they come from and consider whether it’s a thought we want to keep thinking.

Once a negative emotion feels less like an alien visitation and more like thought with a notification flag attached, it becomes a lot less mysterious and frightening. Obviously, we can’t just reprogram our thoughts, because our brains don’t take commands.

But they do take suggestions. If we notice what thoughts our brains are flagging with emotional markers, we can start considering whether we really think those thoughts deserve so much attention. And we can start making different suggestions instead.


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