April 24, 2024
Science and Spirituality with Deepak Chopra

How Emotions Drive Our Decisions With Special Guest, Leonard Mlodinow.

Ever feel like your emotions hijack your logic? You’re not alone! This episode dives into the surprising science of emotions with guest Leonard Mlodinow, author of Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. We explore how emotions, far from being separate from reason, actually play a crucial role in guiding our thoughts and decisions. Learn how emotions evolved to keep us safe, how they influence what we pay attention to, and even if simple creatures like fruit flies use emotions too!

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How Emotions Drive Our Decisions With Special Guest, Leonard Mlodinow

A conversation with Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow about his book, Emotional – How Feelings Shape Our Thinking.

It’s a great delight for me today to have my dear friend, Leonard Mlodinow. He and I have argued, agreed, disagreed, and done some fun things together. Leonard is a prolific writer and his writings are based purely on very good scientific research and thinking. He has a new book, it’s called Emotional, How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. The book is very intriguing, very insightful, and very informative. I’m going to be asking Leonard a few questions about the book, and then we may go a little bit off-tangent and discuss other things, but we’ll see.

Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking

First of all, Leonard, thank you for joining me. I think we are at a place in science where more things are being revealed and more questions are being asked at the same time, which is the way science, I guess, progresses. The more we know, the more the unknown looms, and the more questions we have. I want to know why you wrote this book, Emotional, How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. First of all, welcome, and thank you for doing this.

Thanks, Deepak, thanks for inviting me. I’ve always loved talking to you and your show is great. All your interviews are always a pleasure. Happy to be here. A little before I met you about 15 years ago, I started getting interested in what you’re interested in, which is the mind. I know I’m a physicist and I have written some books on physics and cosmology and so forth, but a good friend of mine, Christof Koch, whom you also know, was at Caltech and invited me into his lab to observe and to learn.

For years I attended his research seminars, took classes, read hundreds of scientific articles, and learned about neuroscience and psychology of the mind alongside Christof, who I have to say I’m grateful to be a big help. I ended up writing a book, which at one point Christof and I were going to write together, but he pulled out called Subliminal, How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.

That was a great book, which was a great book. I read it.

Thank you. I learned a lot from it. I enjoyed it as I hope as much as the readers do and learned a lot about how some of the hidden forces behind your thoughts and your behavior. After that, I wrote another, I was still interested in that field. I wrote a book Elastic about where ideas, new ideas come from and creativity. I know it’s also a subject you’re interested in.

After that, I asked myself, “Is there anything else that’s going on in your mind that is really to understanding your own feelings, decisions, and desires?” I realized that was emotion. I started studying it and I talked to another friend of mine, Ralph Adolphs also at Caltech. It happens that he’s a leading researcher in emotion and his advice to me was, “Don’t do it.” “Don’t write about emotion. It’s too complicated. The field is just being revolutionized. It’s crazy. It’s wild. Find something else that’s more orderly.” And I said, “No. That’s exactly what I’d like to write about. It’ll be fun.”

I spent a few years learning all the details of that and he was very helpful and trying to synthesize a huge field, the field of emotion has been revolutionized and has exploded in the last 10 to 20 years in terms of the amount and the quality of the research. A lot of it is due to new experimental imaging techniques and other techniques like optogenetics and things like that.

It’s been amazing. The questions I wanted to answer in the book as the subtitle says, “How do emotions influence your thoughts and your feelings and your decisions?” Most of us, sometimes realize that it’s happening, but for the most part, we don’t appreciate the role that it plays and that it’s a positive role. It’s not that emotions get in the way of good decision-making, it’s that emotions in fact evolved for good decision-making.

We’re feeling emotions all the time, many times during the day. It’s not just when we lose our temper or get super angry that that’s an emotional experience that we don’t even realize in smaller ways we’re experiencing little experiences of emotion that guide us even when I decide, say, to get out of this chair and get something to eat or drink. That decision, that mental calculation took place with emotion involved.

The point is that every time you execute what you think is logical, rational information processing and thinking, it’s not in a vacuum and it is attached to an emotional experience that you’re feeling. The outcome of those mental processes depends on the emotion that’s involved and you can’t separate the two.

Of course, I started to read your book and last night I was reading the introduction where you talk about your mother and your father, who were both Holocaust victims. You very clearly describe the differences in their attitudes and emotional responses towards life in general. You also say in the introduction how that influenced your emotional makeup as you were growing up. Say a little bit about that.

My parents have gone through the Holocaust obviously had an amazing, large, huge effect on their emotional life and their thinking in general in the context with which they view the world. As you know in many of my books, including the book that you and I wrote together I tend to draw on their experiences. They’re often so vivid, and dramatic, and unfortunately, often they’re sad experiences. Sometimes they’re happy and I had a happy childhood where I felt very supported and loved by my parents but I was also exposed to certain emotional extremes, I would say.

My mother who lost her father and her dear sister and all her friends during the war reacted with a great deal of pessimism and anxiety. She went through life full of pessimism and anxiety, always in the background fearing that the worst could happen. It leads to some interesting funny stories, but they’re sad in a way. They are sad, but they show the way that she was thinking.

My father, on the other hand, lost his family also and siblings. He had a wife and a child. He ended up as a resistance fighter and then in a concentration camp. He had, in a way, the opposite reaction. I remember him as being an optimist, very active, and always thinking things would work out. He had a different point of view.

They had, of course, their experiences were nothing like identical because no two individuals have identical experiences, but they had the same general environment that left this horrible, you might call it PTSD on them. They reacted mostly in different ways and one of the things I wanted to understand in this book is how that works.

What are our emotions in the first place, why do different people react in different ways, and what are the different tendencies that people have toward one emotion or another? The role of nature versus nurture and all those interesting questions. A part of my interest in emotion came from my intense emotional experiences growing up.

The book is called Emotional, How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, by Leonard Mlodinow. There are very interesting chapters. I want to get into them, but let me ask you a couple of things before I get into the meat of the book, so to speak. A long time ago when I got interested in this field, I did read Charles Darwin’s take on emotions.

Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking


I was surprised that a lot of people were not familiar with Darwin’s contribution to why we have emotions. He said in his writings that emotions are there biologically for the same reason as anything else survival and adaptation. In his view, anger is the animal’s response to danger, to fight or flight, as is fear, the response to survive.

He then went on with other emotions. He said jealousy is the usurpation of reproductive rights. Nausea is the feeling that we get due to the contamination probably of foods that have a danger in them or are toxic. He was very convincing that every emotion has a biological function. We have about 43 facial muscles. They reflect over a hundred emotions.

Tweet: Every emotion has a biological function.

At least from what I’ve learned from evolutionary biology, our reptilian brain is 300 million years in evolutionary time, the emotional brain is a hundred million years, and the cortical brain, which is the so-called intellectual brain, is very young. Developed explosively after we learned the narrative language and started to tell stories.

If homo sapiens have been around only for 200,000 years and written language and oral language have only been around for a few thousand years, then the intellect or rationality has its correlates in the frontal cortex and the cortical brain. According to what I have read, all of us, including scientists, pretend to be creatures of rationality, but we bristle with emotion.

We also bristle with the very basic instinctive survival drives, like feeding, fighting, fleeing, and fornicating, if you will, because all those four Fs are just for survival. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Nobel laureate or you’re navigating the far reaches of the cosmos with your mind as your colleague Stephen Hawking was doing. Most of the time we are still ruled by our emotions. We are bristling with emotions and our decisions are emotional. Then we rationalize them through what we call reason. Would you agree with that?

Always Follow Your Emotion

I would agree with that. Let me go into a little more detail about how I see that or how the academic literature that I’ve digested treats that. I have a story in the book about Paul Dirac, who you know very well, one of the leaders of quantum theory, inventors of quantum theory in the 20th century, who was considered a genius and a very unemotional fellow who did amazingly creative work in influential work in physics in the 20th century.

When he was asked later in life what was the key to his brilliant success in analytical, theoretical, and mathematical advances, he said it was, “Always follow your emotions.” I tell that story because you mentioned in what you just said that we think of ourselves as doing these very rational calculations and even mental personal calculations even in sciences. Scientific reasoning is being very rational and it is. Still, it’s not separate from emotion, and here’s how emotion works.

We can talk about the evolution but I understand what you said. That’s the way it’s seen today, even the way Darwin viewed emotions for the most part been superseded, but this idea that it evolved for a reason is still there. Of course, as demanded by his theory of evolution, which has been studied and confirmed many times.

Why did they evolve? Emotions evolved to help animals react properly in a way that helps them survive in any given situation. For example, you mentioned the nausea, that’s the emotion of disgust. This means humans and animals in the wild have that emotion of disgust to protect them from eating things that are not good for them.

All animals and humans in the old times did not live in a world where you go to the grocery store and the FDA has approved whatever they’re selling their food and the drugs. There are recalls, God forbid, if something is contaminated and you don’t have to think about it in the wild. You didn’t have enough food. You wanted to eat anything you could. It was a very big problem if you ate the wrong thing that could give you a sickness or destroy your organs or whatever it is, whether it’s a bad mushroom or bad meat.

We had an emotion of disgust to pull us back from those things that evolved to react to those situations. As you said, fear and anger have evolved to deal with threats. How do they work? Here’s how they work. Think of your mind as an information-processing machine. Now, I’m not saying computer because it’s very unlike a computer.

A computer, at least in the way it’s traditionally programmed runs on a very linear path. The programmer puts in some data and has a bunch of rules, if A, then B, if B, then C, and so forth. The rules of logic are programmed into the computer. If A implies B and B implies C, then A implies C and other rules like that. In the end, the computer grinds through, takes the data, grinds through its marching orders, which are the program, and spits out an answer. We can follow exactly how that works.

The human brain is not like that. It has about 100 billion neurons and they’re all highly interconnected through thousands of connections with other neurons. These develop their behavior through learning. There are some preset programs and most of it is through learning and through experiences that you have starting with your infancy and through becoming an adult.

It’s a little bit like the way computer programmers over just the last few years have started programming with these so-called neural net programs and these deep learning techniques where the computer programmers, instead of telling the machine what to do and how to process the information, they set up the machine in a way with artificial neurons that they program in.

They set up a situation where the machine tries to achieve a goal and depending on whether the goal is achieved or not achieved, the program is so to speak rewarded or punished and it evolves its own way of solving the problem. That’s called neural net programming or deep learning. That is so much more powerful than the old way.

The computer is not really by its nature built to do that, but we found ways to make the computer do that. Your brain is built to do that and that’s how it works. Your brain is an information processor but highly what we call parallel, interconnected, and complex. It does processing with the same rules of logic that the computer has. If A implies B and B implies C, A implies C.

Tweet: Emotions are a mental state that determine what kind of logical processing happens in our brain at any given time.

Your brain knows all that and it can do rational logical processing, but what is it processing? What sets it going? What is the data that’s coming in? The data that’s coming into your mind is where emotions enter the system. Emotions are a mental state that determines what is fed into the logical processing. What are the inputs to your processing? There are your sensory inputs, what you hear, see, feel, and smell. There are also your memories of maybe situations that are similar to the one that you’re in now, your beliefs, your goals.

All these factors have to be set up before your so-called rational processing can start working. The point of emotion is the choice of which memories, beliefs, or senses, sensory input to pay attention to, how important to value those particular pieces of data, and what to be skeptical of. All that has to be done before your processing can happen. Your mental emotional state is what determines how that’s done.

Let me illustrate with an example because that was a bit abstract. I’m walking to say, to meet you at a restaurant in downtown LA. As I’m walking, I’m thinking about maybe I’m hungry. What I’m going to eat there? I want to talk to you, I don’t want to spend time studying the menu. I’m coming there trying to figure out what am I going to eat. I’ll figure that out before I get there.

I have to decide what path am I going to take. Do I turn on third street or do I turn on fourth street? How do I cut over to the next street and all these things? When I’m in that state, small noises and many sites do not register. Sensory things are happening, but they don’t register. There might be a car putting a screeching or something in the distance and it goes in one ear and out the other. I don’t even notice, I wouldn’t even remember it.

Like when you’re at a cocktail party, there’s such a noise of things around you, but your conscious mind doesn’t have the bandwidth to process it all. As it comes in, selections are being made on an unconscious level and your consciousness only is aware of some of it. If your name Deepak Chopra is mentioned, it pops out of the din and suddenly you do hear that whereas you hadn’t heard anything else that person had said. Your unconscious mind realizes that’s important and pops it in.

When you’re walking down the street and you’re relaxed and your hunger is your primary emotion, we call that a homeostatic emotion, an emotion that has to do with your survival directly with the bodily function, that is your state of mind. You’re noticing certain things. You might notice the smell as you walk by a different restaurant and that comes into your mind. When you’re trying to decide where to turn, you’re doing it based on, “How do I get there fastest so I’ll be on time?” and so forth.

Now suppose you hit a part of the street where something makes you fearful. Maybe you see something or you remember that this street is a high-crime street or something like that. Suddenly your emotional state changes to fear. You know what’s going to happen now? You’ll forget your hunger. You won’t even notice your hunger. That input is greatly diminished.

Suddenly your focus on sounds that are happening in sites, in your background is amplified. Even a breaking of a twig behind you that you wouldn’t have noticed, now you’re going to notice and put great importance on it. You might even turn and look and see what’s going on. You’re going to calculate your route to the restaurant differently because your goal now is to evade a possible predator, I’ll call it, but a possible danger in the bad neighborhood.

In other words, in the state of fear, your sensory input that gets to your consciousness has changed, what you think of when you make mental associations and the memories that you pull up have changed, your goals change, and your emphasis on different things change. Then the rational processor of your brain goes to work on that. You’ll make a completely different decision given the same circumstances when you’re in a fear state than when you’re in a hunger state.

Emotions And Decisions: You’ll make a completely different decision given the same circumstances when you’re in a fear state than a hunger state.


Now in the laboratory, we can distill this and we have some very interesting experiments just to illustrate again. Let’s think of the emotion of disgust. Disgust that we just talked about. It has to do more generally, not just with your reaction to discuss is not just a tendency to expel from your mouth, whatever you might have eaten, but it’s generally we find that a more generally disgusted mental state gives you a tendency to expel things.

In one experiment to test this, researchers put subjects in a disgusted state in different ways. One of them had someone farting and there was fart spray, and one of them showed them a disgusting scene from train spotting and whatnot. There are different ways they’ll put the subjects in a disgust state and then afterward, they’ll ask to buy something off of them.

For example, a pen that they had given them at the beginning of the experiment or a little gift box of something. Then they compare how much money people demand for this item in a control group that didn’t get disgusted versus a group that’s in a disgusted state. With the pens, for example, they found that the control group, if the researcher sent someone in to ask to buy that pen back from them, would demand about $4.50.

The group that was in a state of disgust only asked about $2.50. They’re both in a pure laboratory situation which has pros and cons, but you can see here how the mental processing answering the question, “How much is this pen worth to me?” is different. The same data is there, but it’s different when they’re in a disgust state versus when they’re not in a disgust state. That’s the way each of our emotions works. Each of our emotions is associated with a certain mental state, that a certain context in which your brain does its rational thinking.

Thoughts And Feelings

As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking that bodily sensations, sense perceptions, which are the five senses, feelings, emotions, images in the mind from imagination and memory, and thoughts are in a sense entangled. They work together with one purpose which is biological homeostasis at every level. It’s not just hunger, but everything.

Body temperature or stress or inflammation, sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts are entangled and function in a way through the brain to restore biological homeostasis for well-being in a sense and survival. As I’m reading now the chapters of your book, you say part one, what is emotion, thought versus feeling.

Let me comment on that. Thought is an idea. The idea could be what’s the weather like today? That’s the thought. Then I check out the weather channel. It says New York today, 22 degrees, and then I decide whether I’m going to go out to, buy a hamburger or whatever. Now I start thinking of hamburgers. I think of the temperature. I think of how cold it’s going to be. I think, “Do I want to do it?”

In a way, all my thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, and imagination are all working together coherently to help me make that decision. The difference then between the thought and the emotion of feeling is the thought is a purely mental event, but the feeling is also a sensation at the same time. Long ago, when I was looking at this myself, I started to define emotions as thoughts linked to sensations in the body. Would you say that’s a good distinction between thought and feeling?

Tweet: Emotion is one of the ways that your body communicates with your thinking.

Emotion is one of the ways that your body communicates with your thinking. Emotions have a physical component. When you’re feeling an emotion, for instance, fear, your heart might start to race, your sense of smell can be enhanced, and so forth. Your brain is constantly reading the state of your body and feeding that into the emotion you feel. In other words, if you’re too hot or too cold, that’s getting fed into your emotional state. Your emotions are very much a bridge between your body and your mind.

I think that’s very important for people to recognize this little distinction that thought can be a purely mental event, but emotion is a body-mind event at the same time. Now you say the purpose of emotion, the evolutionary objective of emotions, and how emotions differ in animals ranging from insects to humans.

Again, I’ve not kept up to date with this, but I thought emotions are only found in mammals, not in reptiles. The reptiles are purely instinctive and mammals who don’t lay eggs but make babies, nurse their babies, cuddle them, coo, kiss, touch, create family bonds, and even play, and sing. Mammals are emotional, but anything below that level of evolution is not.

You see a flock of geese or you see a line of geese walking and the mother has a lot of these chicks behind and a predator suddenly swoops and takes up one of the chicks. She looks back and then she continues walking. Whereas the mammal would protect the young because it’s emotionally bonded. You hearsay insects to humans, what do you mean?

Emotions Have Certain Properties

People used to think that it was only in the so-called higher animals, and there probably are some who still believe that way but in general, we found now that emotions, or at least a big movement in the emotional world are to realize that emotions are part of, if not all animals, well, animals are even as simple as fruit flies.

One of the things we have to do to understand or even ask that question in science is to define emotion in a very precise and almost quantitative way. I talk about one of those definitions, which is quite a good one, I think in the book, that certain emotions are a reaction that has certain qualities. To understand what that even means, you have to look at what is the alternative.

Let’s look at the simplest thing that animals do. That’s called reflexive behavior or in humans, we could call it scripted behavior or fixed action patterns, autopilot behavior. Let’s say, you, Deepak are walking to work in New York, or you’re walking to the ABC carpet and you know your route, you don’t even have to think about it.

You’re going to make your turns where you make your turns and suddenly you’re there. I may not even remember having turned left or right at different places. In fact, with me, it’s a problem when I was driving to my office at Caltech that if I was going somewhere else that had the same start, and then I would start thinking about something. My autopilot would take over and I would end up at Caltech, even though I meant to go to the cleaners. I found myself that I was following that. That’s reflexive thinking.

With a bird, for example, you see a goose sitting on a nest and an egg falls out of the goose, even though the mother might not appear that upset about one of its offspring being picked off, the mother will reach her neck out and put the egg back and it looks like a loving thing that the mother is doing. I don’t want to say that’s not true, we can’t get into the mother’s head, but let me just say that if we put a softball next to the nest or a volleyball or a pear or an apple, she’ll do the same thing.

Anything like that next to her nest, she will bring into the nest. That’s what we might mean by reflective behavior. It seems that there’s a specific trigger, something is next to the nest, and a response is you bring it in. We don’t believe there’s any thinking or emotion behind that. Those kinds of reflexive behavior, if you have a big encyclopedia of what to do in certain situations, you can live your life that way if you live a very simple life.

Though not the optimal way to survive. There are more sophisticated ways where you can have more nuanced subtle reactions such as humans have. That’s where emotions come in. Emotions are a level between the trigger and the response. If this was an emotional goose sitting on the nest, then the goose would notice that something was next to the nest and feel, let’s say, anxiety or love or fear that one of the offspring whom she feels attachment and love for is in harm’s way.

Tweet: Emotions are a level between the trigger and the response.

That feeling will come and then she will take her reasoning and that feeling working together and make a decision about whether to pull this thing back into the nest. It’s a more complex way of reacting and it has the ability then to go, “Something’s there that scares me.” “I’m worried.” “That worries me.” Then I looked at it and I saw that it was not an egg, it was a volleyball. Then my rational thinking says, “Don’t automatically bring it in, just leave it there.”

They can work together, that’s an extra layer. These kinds of emotions that we feel have certain properties. For instance, the emotion happens automatically. You don’t think about it before you feel it. You don’t will it. It happens. They have a certain persistence. If you have fear, I hear something and I keep walking.

Two minutes later, I have some remnants of that fear, even though that stimulus is gone now and nothing happened immediately, that fear stays and that has its own evolutionary purpose because if there was something possibly bad behind me, there could be something possibly bad in front of me and it’s good to keep my guard up.

One property of emotion is that it has a certain persistence. It has a valence, it’s either it’s positive or it’s negative, and so forth. Scientists have found 4, 5, or 6, depending on who you ask about the properties of emotion. Then they go and say, “Let’s look at fruit flies and other animals and see if their behavior seems to exhibit this.”

When they test fruit flies, they find that this happens. For example, fruit flies are very sensitive to a shadow passing through the visual field. They’re just sitting there, eating some sugar water. There’s a light above them and then you just go like that and make a shadow go. They’re going to jump away because, to them, a shadow is something coming after them. They come back eventually and they go back to eating.

You can see how far away they jump, how long they stay away, and so forth. You can find that there’s an effect of the prior scare on their future behavior. In other words, persistence. They’re in a more guarded state, the next they come back, it takes less to stimulate them to go because they’re in a more guarded state. This we call fear, whatever it is, is persisting in them, this state of processing.

The earlier event lingers in their behavior. Anyway, in different ways, they do experiments to test the different aspects of the behavior and they conclude that they’re reacting emotionally. One of my favorite experiments was, and this is something that is interesting for more than just its purely scientific sake. When you study fruit fly sexual behavior, the male walks up to the female and they each do certain things and then the female either accepts it or rejects it.

They found that fruit flies that have just been rejected sexually. If you give them a choice of whether to go in one direction or another, where one of the directions has some booze, some alcohol. After they’ve been rejected, more of them significantly will go toward alcohol than the other way, based on their having just been rejected sexually. In some ways I don’t want to read too much into that I’m not saying they’re trying to kill their pain, but it looks that way.

From what I’ve read, fruit flies and humans share about 70% of the same genes. It doesn’t surprise me. What, and mice share about 80% and primates share 98 points something, the same percentage, same genes as us. There’s this unity of life around the whole evolutionary ladder. It doesn’t surprise me what you said.

I want to remind my readers that I’m speaking to Leonard Mlodinow now. The book is Emotional, How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. We could talk about each of these things for a week. We don’t have the time. Let me read the chapter headings for our readers. They know that this book is going to be a treat if they read it and it’ll expand their mind on the role of emotions and the science behind them.

Here are the chapter headings. Part one, What is emotion? Thought versus feeling and the purpose of emotion. Three is the Mind-Body Connection. Part two is Pleasure, Motivation, Inspiration, and Determination. How emotions guide thought. Emotions as a mental state that influences our information processing.

Then, Where feelings come from, How the Brain Constructs Emotion. Motivation, Wanting versus Liking. Determination and then the last part, which I found very interesting is Your Emotional Profile. Assessing which emotions you are made, which emotions you’re more inclined to feel, and how you tend to react to potentially emotional situations, managing emotions, and how to regulate your emotions. Then there’s a nice epilogue.

The book is very exhaustive in its scientific examination of why and how we experience emotions. What their biological function is, and what their evolutionary origin is as well. Having introduced the readers to the main contents and encouraged them to read the book. In the last five minutes or so, or maybe a little more, I’d like to ask you some questions because you and I come from two different worlds.

You come from the world of science where everything needs to be measured, documented, verified, and classified. The whole works, the scientific method, experimentation, theory, observation, validation, or falsification. I see that even right now in my work and the research we’re doing at the Chopra Center and the Chopra Foundation, we are looking at neurotech and we are looking at brainwaves and we’re looking at how they can be modulated through technologies.

Such as ultrasound, cranial ultrasound, trans magnetic stimulation, and biofeedback. I’m very familiar with it and I see a great future with all of that but during COVID, especially and the last couple of years, we’ve been looking at our foundation, at data looking at who gets sick and who doesn’t get sick with even COVID or other chronic illnesses.

We’ve been looking at bagel stimulation, which counters sympathetic overdrive, et cetera. Two or three things that we’ve now are very sure hold true because they’re not coming from me, but from good, valid research and colleagues like Rudy Tanzi. Rudy has convinced me now that less than 5% of disease-related gene mutations are fully penetrant in that they guarantee the disease.

Say, 40 or 50 Alzheimer’s gene mutations, only three are fully penetrant. Of the hundreds of cancer mutations, only a few, less than 5%, are fully penetrant. If somebody has a BRCA gene for breast cancer, they’ll get it but the rest is related to our lifestyle, which includes, of course, emotional well-being, and emotional resilience. Other things also, sleep, exercise, and diet.

Diet suddenly is becoming very interesting because 80% of our serotonin comes from the gut, apparently, through the microbiome. Where our emotions are in the head and the gut. It’s getting pretty complicated but as part of that, what we did discover in our meta-analysis, looking at all the literature, is that almost every chronic illness except the fully penetrant genes was preceded, sometimes by decades, with either anxiety or some kind of stress or depression, some emotional threat.

Emotions And Decisions: Almost every chronic illness was preceded by either anxiety, stress, depression, or emotional threat.


You can say it could be sometimes even low-grade anxiety. People didn’t know they had it, but they had what they call free-floating anxiety, maybe fear of old age, death, or infirmity, or they had existential depression or they had depression for other reasons. They also had low-grade inflammation and they were predisposed to chronic illness for decades.

Along with this, we did other studies where we looked at the so-called life-affirming emotions like compassion, empathy, gratitude, joy, and equanimity. We discovered very interestingly that when people kept even something simple like a gratitude journal at night, we had a group of patients who had chronic heart failure. They were on drugs.

We had another group of patients, with chronic heart failure on drugs as well, digoxin, whatever, but they kept a gratitude journal at the same time, at night. They asked themselves, what am I grateful for today? They just wrote the answers and inflammatory markers went down. The patients with the gratitude journal did far better than the controls who only did the medication.

Now, we are thinking that in a way, it’s actually maybe irrelevant even to talk of emotions as either biological states or states in consciousness. It’s all one phenomenon, whether it’s emotions or thoughts, or biological responses. The subtler levels start with mental issues before they surface as an inflammatory marker or as sympathetic overdrive or whatever.

That’s where we are going. While we’re looking at these new technologies, neural stimulation, vagal stimulation, changing the microbiome, the whole idea of practicing mindfulness where you can be aware of an emotion without actually being affected by an emotion. The awareness of an emotion is not the emotion. The awareness of an emotion is intrinsically free of the emotion. Do you see a value in these techniques of mindfulness or just the fact that I’m able to observe my emissions, there’s something independent or free.

Now, in Eastern wisdom traditions, that something is not the mind, that something is not the emotions, that something is not sensations or perception, and that something is just simple awareness. Awareness, at least in humans, and how we’ve evolved, we can have an awareness of an experience, whether it’s an emotion or a perception without identifying with it. We find that that works actually in decreasing inflammation and the biological correlates of that. Any comments?

Everything Is Connected

You said a lot. Let me start by saying, yes. One of the themes of the book is that this is all interconnected. You were saying that the thoughts, your bodily feelings, your bodily state, your conscious mind, everything is interconnected and it isn’t right in a way to separate emotion from the other. That’s one of the points. In fact, we didn’t mention it, but I talked in the book about something called core affect.

I did read that, yes.

That’s a kind of proto-emotion that on a more fundamental level that’s not as differentiated at all as disgust because there’s some bad food or fear of a beer or something. It’s just a general feeling that comes from the inputs of your bodily inputs that may be positive or negative and tell you whether everything is okay or not.

If even the core effect is a conditioned mind, is there a totally independent awareness? Of course, in spiritual traditions, we call it your consciousness or the spirit.

I like when you said you don’t even have to be able to name it because that’s also one of the trends in modern emotion theory is that our names are taken with more of a grain of salt that you can’t separate. There’s not just one thing called fear. There are different fears of different things. Have different processes in your head and they’re different.

It’s not right to just call it fear as an emotion or to say that fear and anxiety have a sharp line between them. Today, when people think of them as useful categories to talk about but don’t take them that literally. I know that you’ve been advocating this for many years and now science is catching up with it because you’re talking about the use of mindfulness, meditation, and the gratitude exercise.

I do talk about that a little bit in the book, especially at the end when I talk about motion regulation, that is a very effective way of dealing with when you feel that your emotions are going out of control and you have an excess of some negative emotion. Those are very effective ways of dealing with it. We know that overall feeling an overabundance of negative emotions such as anxiety is correlated to a shorter lifespan.

In fact, having too little anxiety is also correlated by the way to a shorter lifespan because if you’re not the person who goes to the doctor when you see a mole because you just tra la la, then you can die of skin cancer. There’s some amount of anxiety that serves a purpose, but too much is not good and that’s just what you said. I think that’s all I always said, I tend to agree with what you just said.

The bottom line is always self-regulation and homeostasis. Yes, too much of a good thing is not good and too much of a bad thing is definitely bad. Too little of a bad thing is also not good. My very special guest has been Leonard Mlodinow, Emotional, How Feelings Shape Our Thinking. Leonard, in one sentence or one minute, what is your hope for readers who read this book? What will they benefit?

I hope that they’ll get a boost in their emotional intelligence, their understanding of their own decisions, feelings, thoughts, and how emotions play in. They also are more sensitive to other people and how emotions are affecting them. Studies have shown that people who do understand that better, tend to thrive. They do better in their work. They do better in their personal life. It’s a very important part of knowing yourself and optimizing your own actions is understanding how you think and the role of feelings in that.

Emotions And Decisions: Studies have shown that people who understand their decisions, feelings, thoughts, and emotions do better in their work and personal life.


Thank you, Leonard. I think emotional well-being is the key to everything, including health, but also the prevention of wars, terrorism, and all the havoc we’re seeing in the world right now. Very happy to have you and perhaps, we can follow up soon.

That’ll be fun. Yes, I hope we talk again soon and I look forward to intersecting in some city together now that we’re traveling again.

Thank you very much.


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