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Scientists today think reason and emotion aren’t at odds like they’ve traditionally been presented, and even rely on each other to help us get through this thing called life.

Hosted by: Hank Green
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If you’re the kind of person who, like, feels all the feels, you’ve maybe found yourself wishing at some point or another that you could shut them down for a little while.

Like, take the emotion chip and dial it from an 8 to a 2. It’s a little tiring being the person who cries during the cell phone commercials or gets all riled up about the injustices in the world or can’t get over that broken heart.

So you might wish you could rely a little more on your head than your heart. But the more we study our brains, the more that kind of dichotomy between reason and emotion is disappearing. And though you might wish you could rein in your feelings, and sometimes you can—sometimes, you shouldn’t. [INTRO ♪].

We have a long history of thinking of reason and emotion as totally different things. Plato described them as two horses pulling us in opposite directions… and the idea hasn't really gone away since then. We even think about our brains in those terms.

Complex thought and reasoning is right there in the term we use for the brain region associated with it—the “cerebral cortex.” Structures like the amygdala, on the other hand, play key roles in emotion. And that’s not wrong. There is lots of evidence to support the idea that those separate brain regions are associated with those particular functions.

But it’s also not as simple as that— reason and emotion are also very intertwined. Lesion and imaging studies have shown that another part of your brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, plays a role in both. And while different sections of it process cognition and emotion, they do have an effect on each other.

Several meta analyses have shown that doing something cognitively demanding— like, say, your math homework— reduces activity in the emotional parts of the anterior cingulate cortex. It works the other way, too: strong emotion can suppress activity in the cognitive parts. And the studies and reviews arguing that our so-called “emotional” and “logical” brains are almost impossible to disentangle continue to pile up.

The fact that our feelings aren’t boxed off in a separate part of our brain explains why they affect our decision making. Fear and anger have been shown in particular to make people worse at negotiating for something, for example. And a 2014 study that showed upsetting negative feedback on a test made people do worse on subsequent logic problems.

But while we think of being quote-unquote “emotional” as something that makes us make bad choices or think irrationally, emotions can actually help us with judgment and decision making. Take the case of “Elliot”, a man who underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor from his frontal lobe. While his brain seemed totally normal afterwards… his life completely changed.

He got fired, he made a bunch of terrible financial decisions, and he got divorced and then remarried and then divorced again. The conclusion that the neuroscientist studying him came to was that his surgery had disrupted interactions between his amygdala and his frontal lobe. His intelligence was still intact, but he wasn’t really able to feel emotions.

And that made him completely incapable of making decisions. Since he couldn’t tell how his choices would make him feel later on, he couldn’t assign value to different options, so he endlessly deliberated every little thing. Studies in gamblers have also found that emotions helped them avoid making bad decisions.

Mistakes and failures feel lousy and the gamblers don’t want to feel that way again, so they learn to make better bets. And the idea that emotions can actually help you make better decisions makes a lot of evolutionary sense. Negative emotions teach you what not to do kind of like how physical pain teaches you not to put your hand on a hot stove.

And emotions shape other cognitive processes in helpful ways, too. They optimize which sensory information we pay attention to, guide our social interactions, and help us to remember the things that are most important. But all of this isn’t to say that you don’t have control over your emotions at all.

Emotional regulation is a well-studied process, and there are various points at which you can step in and tell your emotions to sit down. So yes, you can change how you feel, how intense that feeling is, and how long it lasts. But... not everyone is super great at that.

A 2015 study of 176 people actually found differences between the brains of “emotional” people and more “rational” ones. “Emotional” people that tend to cry a lot at sad movies or freak out during scary ones score higher on emotional empathy measures, which basically mean they tend to actually feel what others feel. And the researchers found that people with higher emotional empathy scores tended to have more gray matter density in the insula— a part of the cerebral cortex. While it’s unclear whether that made them more emotional or whether being more emotional changed their brains… it does really solidify the idea that there are individual differences in how we feel and deal with emotions.

And in general, studies have found older people control their feelings better than younger ones—perhaps because practice makes perfect. But the good news is, if you’re sometimes more emotional than you’d like to be, there are things you can do both to control your emotions and to use your emotional powers for good. For one, the timing of when you try to control an emotion is super important.

So rather than trying to suppress an emotion once you’re already in the midst of it, it’s much more effective to reframe the way you’re thinking about a situation while an emotion is forming. And this sounds weird, but… talking to ourselves in the third person can give us enough distance to think about things differently. So Hank, you should remember that next time you want to dial things back.

And, framing matters too. Corny as it sounds, looking for the silver lining, or at least seeing the situation as a challenge to overcome rather than an emotional blow, can help you bounce back faster. But ultimately, it’s not always a bad thing to feel those feels.

While some feelings suck, they’re kind of important. Listening to your feelings instead of fighting them can help you identify what’s really wrong, so you have a chance to change it. Because emotions are not the mortal enemy of logical thought.

They’re just trying to help ... sometimes they just do it a little too much. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and if you want to better understand your emotions, you might like our episode on what emotions actually are. [OUTRO ♪].