Leonard Mlodinow, author of "Emotional," on how fear and disgust are your brain's friends

The author of "Emotional" talks about the complicated relationship between thinking and feeling

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 15, 2022 2:00PM (EST)

Balancing emojis (Getty Images/Huber & Starke)
Balancing emojis (Getty Images/Huber & Starke)

The adage that "Facts aren't feelings" is only true up to a point. Our emotional responses are intrinsic to our survival — and our happiness. They help us avoid danger; they steer us toward the people we trust. Yet emotion is often dismissed as the inferior sibling of rationality, the impulsive, chaotic troublemaker that it always has to bail out.

In "Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking," physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow lays out all the reasons why reason can't work alone. "Emotion is not at war with rational thought," he writes, "but rather a tool of it. In thinking and decision making, in endeavors ranging from boxing to physics to Wall Street, emotions are a crucial element of success." And as one of his most compelling and central examples of the life changing power of feeling, he draws upon the experiences of his Holocaust survivor parents.

Salon talked to Mlodinow recently via Zoom about what Darwin got wrong, and how disgust can be your best friend.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You start this book and end it in such a deeply personal way. Talk to me about how your family experience and your parents influence the work that you do in this book.

My parents were very influential in all things with me — my father through his heroic and very sad experiences in the war and my mother through her loss and her reaction to it, which was quite severe. My mother had a very strong imprint on her from what happened. It really, I feel, made her a bit pathological in some ways that she had to deal with her very intense grief throughout her life, and her innate pessimism that came from that.

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She was about 16 when the war started. I wrote about it also in "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior," and talked about how that set a context for everything. When you're experiencing the world and thinking about your experience about the world, your brain is trying to make sense of what's going on and create an understanding of your surroundings. That's not done in a purely logical manner. That's very much dependent on the mode of operation that you're in, your emotional state.

If you're fearful, you interpret things a certain way. If you're hungry, another way. If you're happy, another way. The way your brain makes sense of things around you is based on that emotional mode of thinking and on the context that's set from your experiences. If certain events happen, one woman might interpret that a certain way and my mother might do it completely differently. That's based on the way her brain was formed to work — not just genetically, but her early experiences. I used both my mother and my father a lot in the book, because of their experiences and their somewhat exaggerated emotional reactions to things.

You start the book out with a plane crash, and with this idea that emotion is creating fear and fear is creating bad outcomes. Yet you show that emotion can also be an incredibly positive force in our lives and on our decision making. Talk to me about some of the evidence for that, because we get very binary in how we see rational as good and emotional as not good or negative or dangerous.

The stories of emotion gone haywire, and I tell several of them myself, tend to dominate the discourse sometimes because they're dramatic and somewhat interesting. It's like when you talk about vision, people yawn, but when you talk about optical illusions, they go, "That's cool." That doesn't mean that vision isn't good, it just means that there are cases where it misleads you. The same thing is true of emotion. You don't need to look at a lot of studies. everywhere in your life, you can see how emotion helps you.

RELATED: Steven Pinker: "I'm trying to resolve how we can be so rational and irrational at the same time"

For example, a friend sent me one hundred oysters and I'm trying to eat them as fast as I can. I love oysters, but it's a lot, and they're very perishable. How do I know whether I can eat them or not? If they start to smell, you can't eat it. It stops you from eating. Nowadays, we know about bacteria and we also have experience far beyond our own. But when we were in the wild, in bands of twenty, thirty, forty people in nomadic life, that was the experience. You'd come across an oyster, let's say, and no one's ever seen or knows anything about an oyster. No one knows anything about bacteria or any context. You still wouldn't eat it if it started to smell because the smell would put you off. Disgust is a very important emotion.

So if you're walking down a dark street and maybe a bad neighborhood, you might be thinking, "I'm hungry. I can't wait to get home. I'm going to take a shortcut through that alley so I get home quicker to get my sandwich." Then you hear something, and you're in a state of fear because you know it's a bad neighborhood and people get mugged there. Suddenly, your hunger goes away. You don't even realize that you're hungry anymore and fear takes over. It's just a different mode of operation.

Not everything that your eyes detect or your ears detect makes it to your conscious mind. But when you're in a state of fear, you're amplifying that. There are things that you'll hear that you wouldn't hear otherwise.You'll take those into account about whether to turn here or there or cross the street or whatever you're going to do. Fear protects you. Disgust protects you. Anxiety protects you.

I tell some spectacular stories of crazy emotions, and those are really fun. I see it as saying, "This is an interesting case of where your emotion went wrong." It does illustrate a very important point that your emotion affects your logical thinking. But the second part of the point is that it's good for you. You don't realize it because those ways are very mundane things in all your life.

I have a couple chapters on motivation and determination, and your feelings play a big role in that too. As someone who used to program computers, I can imagine that if I was programming the program for a robot, what you'd have to put in there to get the robot to do what you want it to do. It could have reflexive reactions that if there's a fire, if you detect heat and detect smoke, then turn around and go for the nearest exit.

But the robot will not do anything unless there's a rule that is applying to that specific situation. The robot is not like you, who can go, "That guy is holding a match under the curtain that could cause a fire and that would be dangerous, so I'd better leave." The robot will just sit there because the programming says, "If there's a fire, leave." It's going to wait for the fire. It has no motivation and it has no drive to do anything. All of that comes from our feelings. Without feelings, we would just sit there, or we would run an automatic reflexive program like bacteria do, or very simple organisms, maybe a C. elegans roundworm, where they just have a list in their programming of how to react if something happens in the environment.

We live in such a reactive culture, and it feels like the primary motivation that we see depicted on the news, certainly on social media, is anger and fear. Yet you spend a lot of the time in the book talking about joy. It's nice to see. Joy is a real, non-negotiable part of our lives and our health and our humanity. It's a motivating factor and it is a driver of what we do. And it is good for us to be motivated by joy. It's primary to our existence.

It is. Until a couple decades ago, scientists or psychologists didn't like to study it. The reason for that is that people connect the negative emotions to problems that they want to solve and joy doesn't seem to be associated with any problems, so where's the money in figuring it out?

Barbara Fredrickson did pioneering work in understanding what the evolutionary purpose of joy is. It needs to get respected just like fear and sadness and disgust and other emotions because it's there for a reason. The reason for joy is to open you up to new experiences, to be more exploratory, more creative and more risk-taking. That's important in our society today, but it was vital in ancient times when we lived nomadic life, when we lived in the wild. In today's world being exploratory and creative can get you some monetary gain, or maybe a better job position. You might realize a way to rearrange the room that's more optimal than the way it was, or however you were applying your creativity. But when we lived in the wild, it was a life or death matter with regards to exploring and knowing the area you live in.

If where you get your water dries up or is no longer available and you don't know another place for water, then you could die of thirst. But if someone in your group is exploratory and you know that there's a water hole a kilometer away and there's another one there five kilometers away, then when this one dries up, you go to that one.

If you don't know about that one and just wait till this dries up, you're sunk. It's the same for whatever other resources there were, or inventing new ways of killing animals or new ways of eating them, like making tools to get the meat off the bone and so forth. The idea of trying to expand your current situation to other possibilities, that comes from joy. And just as important as running from the predators is the idea that you would explore your environment and be more creative.

Joy, exuberance, curiosity, resilience, all of these things are part of, as you say, not just what we're running away from, but what we're running toward. That is a big part of our emotional motivation. You talk about different kinds of emotional personalities, and you have part of the book where you can test yourself. Why is that such an important component of the book to understand that we all are guided by emotion, but may be guided in different ways, intrinsically?

It's very useful when you read those questionnaires to help you understand the kinds of questions that psychologists and scientists relate to emotions. By reading the questionnaires, you get an understanding of what is meant by that emotion.

They weren't just made up by the scientists. They were developed over years and tested in fronts of thousands of people. The statistics were gathered on correlations between emotional states. They're really pieces of scientific data more than they are just questions. But from the point of view of you answering them, I thought that to make the book come alive and feel more relevant for you, it's important to know how you feel emotions and what emotions you gravitate toward.

What do you think we get wrong about emotion? I feel there is also a gender and an age component of this — that emotion is seen as feminine, ergo, weak, or emotion is seen as young, ergo, weak.

Part of it has to do with stereotypes in our society, the female not being "logical" just because women may have a tendency to talk more about their emotions — which is good. I talk about in the book how that helps. People think that women have more feeling, and because people think emotions are bad, they think that women are off the deep end.

There's a little more truth with kids, because the cortex doesn't develop fully until you're 25. So you have less inhibitions and filters when you're younger, which makes you actually more creative and have a lot of advantages, but also maybe more impulsive and that could be interpreted as being emotional or maybe acting feelings sooner without censoring yourself.

However the different stereotypes feed into it, the bottom line is that this is all based on wrong thinking, which goes back to Darwin. Darwin studied emotions, wrote a book on emotions. He had this problem that he needed to explain in order for evolution to be correct — why we have emotions. What is the evolutionary purpose of emotion? At the time, society believed in a Platonic Christian view of emotion. I think Plato was smarter than what his view developed into. But the Christian view was that emotions are to be controlled, are to be suppressed. They lead you astray. They lead you to do unethical things to satisfy appetites that you should ignore.

Darwin was looking at emotions from an evolutionary point of view and he saw correctly that "lower" or non-human animals seemed to display emotion. He judged that by facial expressions, growling and other things that the animals do. He came up with reasons that it was useful for a fox or a wolf to bare its teeth to scare away other animals that might want to fight with it. Or to communicate that there's danger, one animal might make a noise and then the other members of the group would be aware and so forth.

Then he looked at humans and said, "We don't really do that because we have this rational mind that has developed." What the Christians really worshiped and was part of Platonic idea, but it wasn't really, was the charioteer of rationality. It's the boss, you could say. I'm not a Plato scholar, but I think it  wasn't so much the boss as someone to control the horses. But by the time we get to Darwin it was like, "The ideal evolved human is purely Mr. Spock or Data from 'Star Trek.'"

Well, the horses have become a car. We can't control the horses, but we can control a car.

That's a good analogy. The Christians turned it into thinking now we are in control. Darwin had to explain why we have emotions, and they were vestigial like the appendix. He said, "Humans have evolved to have the superior form of thinking and emotions are outmoded and something that we don't need and don't really want. I think the false notion that women experience more emotion, combined with the idea that emotion is bad in the first place, fits in very nicely for people who believe that.

But all that's not true. The point of the book is that not only are emotions useful, but that you can't separate emotion from rational thoughts. You have reason that you apply, but that is never separated from what you're feeling. You don't always realize the connection, but it's always there that your reasoning is not purely logical, rational, objective. It is always affected by the state of the mode that your brain is operating in. Whether it's hunger, fear, anxiety, or some combination, those things have the effect of changing the way your mind considers the data that it's working with.

Your mind may have logical structure that "If A leads to B and B leads to C, then A leads to C." But the way you judge A, B and C in terms of the probabilities of them occurring, the goodness or badness of them occurring, all this is inextricably affected by your emotional state. Your mental processing isn't just the act of those logical operations of A going to B going to C means A goes to C. It's also affected by the database of past experiences you have and what they mean, and by the way you value the data that's coming in through your senses. That all is working together, just like you can't take a computer and separate the memory and run the computer without any of the memory. The program itself is part of the memory, so you just can't separate things. They're all part of the same unit.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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