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Hearts and minds

Hearts and minds

A look at the growing connection between what we feel and how we think.

A heart stabbed with an arrow – think of romantic love and weirdly this is the image that usually comes to mind. The belief that the heart is the source of emotions goes back to Egyptian times, but even today communicators often appeal to the head and the heart as if emotion and thought were quite separate functions. Centuries of poetic association between the human heart and emotions have reinforced this romantic but biologically inaccurate link.

Only a foolhardy rationalist would try to challenge a metaphor deeply embedded in art, literature and commercial marketing, but challenge it we must. We can be beguiled by the charm of an ancient belief while simultaneously acknowledging its irrationality. In fact, it’s the brain’s limbic system, which controls emotion, but body and brain work together very intensively.

We feel in the brain, but it’s the racing heart that communicates the message. Even more importantly, according to many contemporary brain/mind researchers, it’s emotion that underpins and shapes rational thought. Advances in neuroscience and brain imaging support this revolutionary idea.

Since the Age of Enlightenment and advances in scientific understanding, there has been a prioritising of rational thought over the development of emotional understanding. Objectivity was prized over subjectivity. While it’s absolutely essential that hard empirical evidence supports high- level arguments or theories, it’s also timely to acknowledge that emotion plays a far more significant role in the development of human intelligence than has been recognised to date. 

Antonio Damasio, a renowned neurologist, argues that emotions are essential to rational thinking. If thought is not underpinned by feeling it lacks colour, conviction and nuance. Damasio draws on his extensive medical work with brain-damaged patients and others to offer compelling evidence of the role and function of emotion in thinking development and its communication. We’re now in a new stage of understanding the complexities of human development and the news is good.

Managing emotions is as much hard work as engaging in intellectual pursuits… It’s time to challenge old beliefs that thought and feeling have little in common. They are artful collaborators.

What does this mean for us? It should encourage us to think that the complementarity between head and heart could enhance both kinds of responsiveness to the world of experience. If thought is developed and shaped under the influence of emotions, then intelligence might become more complex, more nuanced, more appealing and more fully human. Arguments delivered with both hard-evidence and deep conviction win the day.

Think about that for a moment. Have you ever listened to a lacklustre speaker whose arguments are water-tight and supported by logic and empirical evidence, but somehow you just don’t care about the message? It doesn’t connect with you so you tend to disengage and forget about it.

An astute, emotionally aware communicator engages empathically and delivers a message, which is both compelling and accurate. Thought and emotion have been harnessed to the cause. Once a connection is sparked in the limbic system, the mind becomes more alert, more engaged and more responsive. Now you’ll listen and even wonder about the significance of the speaker’s message. In which case, your thoughts and feelings are engaged in a complementary effort to understand and reflect on the message. Your convictions might change or even your behaviour. You’ll feel more alive. 

It’s easy to enjoy the positive emotions of wonder, excitement, joy and love and to have them underpin commitment and motivation. But even painful emotions like grief can be shaped by rational and reflective thought. The pain of grief can be soothed in part by the rational thought that grief and loss are a consequence of love, commitment and investment of self in a person or a cause or a pursuit.

Managing emotions is as much hard work as engaging in intellectual pursuits. Each requires the engagement of both head and heart. So it’s time to challenge old beliefs that thought and feeling have little in common. They are artful collaborators.

If you’re enthusiastic or curious about a pursuit, examine rationally what is holding you back and what’s driving you forward then make a decision. Give equal attention to your thoughts and your feelings. Whatever the outcome, the exercise in discernment may well have stimulated new brain-mind growth. You may even feel more in charge of your life and more vibrantly intelligent. There’s a world of experience to be explored and expanded within your brain, your body, your mind and your heart. If that thought excites you, thank your feelings and rationality for helping you to hear the message. 

Roslyn Arnold is an Honorary Professor in Education at the University of Sydney, an education consultant in private practice, a writer and poet. She is the author of Empathic Intelligence: Teaching, Learning, Relating.

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