Friday, April 08, 2005

The Rationality of Irrational Emotions

I had lunch with a friend today, and during the course of the conversation, I made her cry.

It wasn't that I was being mean or bullying (at least I wasn't intending to - maybe "insensitive" is a valid accusation. Another term I've heard is "acting like a man". Guilty.)

Anyway, I was asking about a prior boyfriend of hers, and the memories evoked caused her to feel sad. And she teared up. And silently cried.

Her tears, driven by some strong emotion in her, immediately evoked a cascade of emotions in me. Shock, disbelief, confusion, guilt, sympathy, a twisting in my gut, a compulsion to put my arms around her and provide whatever comfort I could. All of these, rising in a wave which causes the vision to narrow, a roaring in the ears, a hypersensitivity to any move - very much similar to a flight or fight response.

This "gut response" was strong, and in many ways irrational. Meaning there was no rational chain of logic that led me to think the thoughts I did - this was pure emotion, driven from the most basic part of the autonomic nervous system.

Later, disturbed by the aftershocks of this event still resonating around in my head, I got to wondering about this response. What was going on here? Why did this have such a strong impact on me? Why did my brain work this way?

So, in order to get my mind off it's disturbed spiral, I decided to research it.

What good are emotions?

There isn't much known about crying, really. Just about everything I could find is summed up in a little section at the end of this posting. So, like with so much in life, I tried to figure it out myself.

Clearly a response like this must have evolutionary advantages or it wouldn't be so strong and widespread after so many millions of years. (Even if it evolved early, as it appears it did, there is no reason it wouldn't have diffused randomly in the population to a wider spectrum of response unless it continued to confer some evolutionary advantage).

Being a strong rationalist, I believed that emotion was the bane of reason and rational decision making. I've prided myself on my unemotional "fact based decision making" for years.

Turns out I'm full of shit. (Surprise...)

It appears that emotion is in all likelihood necessary for rational decision making. Descartes' Error - Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Anotonio R. Damasio, a neurologist, makes the excellent case for the "somatic-marker hypothesis", which basically says that without gut responses, your brain cannot learn and remember what works out well and what doesn't.

In a nutshell, when you do something that has a bad result, the body suffers, which cascades in a series of emotions that ensures the connection is permanently seared into your brain. The converse is true as well (good results also generate somatic/body emotions which help cement the association of the action to the result).

Now, this is a gross simplification of some very well presented facts and conclusions based upon years of neurological research. But the bottom line is that people who are devoid of emotion (through some form of brain damage) do not behave rationally. The implication is because they do not think rationally - they need emotion to think rationally!

In fact, the lack of a somatic response is the hallmark of a psychopath. (This seems to be my week for thinking about psychopaths - see prior posting ).

So I suppose it's a good thing I'm still shaken up about it.

Now, if I only knew what to do about it...


Aside from a very few, unconfirmed reports in animals -- an Indian elephant here, an African gorilla there, humans are the only animals known to cry emotional tears of sadness and joy, though the vocal cries, whines, and whimpers of young mammals are similarly used to solicit aid from mothers.

We cry when we're sad, depressed, in despair - maudlin, happy, frustrated, angry, relieved, anxious or even having an aesthetic experience

The Biology of Crying

Neurotransmitters like VIP and ACH, which have other, well-documented roles as chemical messengers, clearly trigger tears, says physiologist Darlene Dartt, senior scientist at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston. University of Minnesota biochemist, William Frey, discovered the neurotransmitters leucine-enkephalin (an endorphin or natural opiate-like substance for pain relief) and prolactin (released from the pituitary in response to emotional stress) in emotional tears; the substances were not found in tears shed in response to sliced onions.

It's an ancient part of the brain

Babies born without brain structures above the amphibian midbrain (i.e., anencephalic infants) can still cry.
Crying is built into our Paleocircuits - A preconfigured pathway or network of nerve cells in the forebrain, brain stem, or spinal cord utilized in nonverbal communication.


About 85 percent of women and 73 percent of men say they feel better after crying, suggesting, says Frey, that ``tears help remove chemicals that build up during stress.''

Women cry five times more frequently than men (and average five crying spells a month).

"Do not be moved by women's tears, they have taught their eyes to weep," - Ovid


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