The Two Different Ways We Navigate In The World

The Two Different Ways We Navigate In The World

Last week, I wrote about how language has allowed us to understand and control the world like no other species.

But before using language to navigate in the world, we relied on emotions from the limbic system and instincts from the reptilian brain. These were quite adequate for survival; the proof is that hominids were able to exist with this level of understanding, otherwise they would have just died out. These methods still exist, and we experience them as intuitions and feelings, rather than as words.

Our emotions have two grand purposes. Imagine you’re a microscopic organism back in the depths of time. There are things you need and gravitate toward like food and sunlight, and dangerous things you move away from like predators, acidity, and extreme temperatures. These aspects of survival–attraction and avoidance–are the two principal drivers behind all individual behavior. These forces are still active today, working at the emotional level. (The technical term is valence). They are well described by calling them love and fear.

There are many other emotions controlling the complex species that we have become, but these are the two great drivers of behavior. We are drawn to that which we love, and avoid that which we fear.

Our emotions have been field-tested for millions of years, and by taking a very cautious attitude, they have helped us survive. Seeing something lying across the path, it was a better choice to be scared by a stick than bitten by a snake. Our feelings are still essential for navigating the world, especially in how we interact with other people: “I should have listened to my gut instead of lending him money.”

It is not just with people; emotions are closely involved in all decision-making. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people with damage to the amygdala that made them unable to feel emotions. Peculiarly, this also removed their ability to make decisions, and even their choice of what to eat was difficult — should it be the chicken or the turkey? With no emotional input, these test subjects were unable to arrive at a decision.

The development of language has provided an alternative way to assess risks and understand the world, a way that sometimes contradicts our senses or our feelings. Most people believe that when the sun goes across the sky, it is actually because the earth is rotating, not because the sun is moving.

These two ways of responding to the world are not independent, but interact with each other. Children eventually outgrow temper tantrums by learning emotional regulation. Having these two ways of interpreting the world – the modern neocortex and the ancient animal brain – sometimes makes choosing an action extremely difficult. We are prone to make choices based on feelings more than reason, and then come up with reasons that justify those feelings. We don’t know when to trust our emotional eye and when to believe our rational eye. There are many pairs of words for this dichotomy: thinking and feeling, heart and mind, body and soul, head and heart, mental and physical, system one and system two.

Much of our distress as humans is because we are receiving contradictory messages about the world. It is like listening to two radio stations at once.

This problem of different senses generating disparate information has arisen numerous times in evolution. It was a challenge every time a new sense developed. For instance, when vision arose, how did it relate to the sense of touch? Species have resolved this problem of sensory integration multiple times. When you see and hear John approaching you and feel him shaking your hand, your different senses all agree that this is John.

Humans are a transitional species that has not yet integrated the new way of understanding the world through ideas with our sensory and emotional responses.

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