Emotions or our rational mind, which one is better? Our rational mind usually gets the good press, but emotions are as important.
In the battle between emotions and rationality, which one ultimately shapes our destiny?
This is a false dichotomy.
We need both emotions and our rational minds to function well, but pitting them against each other is fashionable. In this fight between the two, rationality usually comes on top, at least in today’s modern way of looking at things.
We need to control our emotions, not be dominated by them. We even need to hide or disguise them. “Don’t be emotional!” we tell each other as if that were a bad thing.
I don’t want to pit emotions against our rational minds. It doesn’t need to be one OR the other. It can and should be one AND the other.
They complement each other, and they are both critical.
The importance of emotions
Emotions are an essential part of human (and animal) life.
We can’t live a normal life without emotions. That’s how important they are.
Evolutionarily speaking, emotions were part of our behavioural toolkit well before the rational mind even existed. Many animal species feel emotions such as fear or anger or get attached to other members of their species with something akin to love.
Emotions helped our ancestors survive and thrive before they were humans. They still help us survive and thrive today.
As I explained in the post We Need to Talk about Emotions, all emotions serve a function, so at least in that sense, they are all positive.
Contrary to popular belief and indications from some management and self-help gurus, there are no positive or negative emotions. They are all helpful and useful.
Some emotions are more pleasant than others, but that’s all.
Our rational mind
Human beings are rational beings, or so we like to think.
We are the most rational of all animals. Our capacity to think rationally and logically distinguishes us from all other beings. We are capable of looking at different options and deciding the best course of action.
But is this really the case?
Some thinkers, like the famous podcaster, philosopher, meditator and neuroscientist Sam Harris, believe that human beings don’t have free will and that free will is a mere illusion. Faced with the same choice under exactly the same circumstances, a hundred times out of a hundred, we will make the same decision.
With the same inputs, we will always have the same outputs. So then, where is our free will? The world seems to be a fully deterministic place for Harris and other thinkers.
The neurologist Benjamin Libet carried out some now-famous experiments in the early 80s that were seen as supporting this view. In these experiments, Libet and his team discovered that the subjects initiated some moves a few hundred milliseconds before their conscious mind was aware of the movement. Our brain asks our body parts to move before we are made aware of the action.
Simler and Hanson argued in their book The Elephant in the Brain that the rational mind seems to behave like a PR agent or press secretary of the brain. Our conscious mind doesn’t make decisions; it justifies and defends the decisions made by the unconscious mind to the outside world.
Following these views, the rational mind is good at creating narratives and reasoning why we behave the way we do, but not necessarily helping us make decisions.
We believe we are the chief decision-makers thanks to our rational mind, but more often than not, our emotions, intuition and unconscious mind make the decisions for us, and our rational mind finds the reasons to justify our course of action.
We may not be as rational as we think we are.
Emotions and rationality are part of the same team
I don’t necessarily agree with Sam Harris about free will being an illusion.
It doesn’t matter whether we are entirely conscious or not while making decisions; our brains, that is, we, are the ones making them.
Who are we but our brains and minds? The brain might get the same output every time based on the same inputs, and it may make the decisions before we realise it, but it is still our brain making the decisions, nobody else’s. My friend John’s and my brain would make different decisions even facing the same problem because we are different.
Our brains make the decisions that they think are best for us, and they do that using both our emotions and rational decision-making.
Emotions and rationality are part of the same team.
They are both part of our neurological system. Their mission is to help us make the right decisions for our survival, procreation, fulfilment and happiness. Emotions do that through bodily sensations and feelings, our rational mind via logical and causal thinking.
We need them both, but emotions are often forgotten or subjugated to rationality. The problem is that emotions are the most ancient of the two, and in many situations, they prevail over our rational minds, even if the latter makes us believe our logical brain is always in control.
That is rarely the case. That’s why it is essential to be in tune with your emotions, listen to them and understand what they tell you.
Don’t silence your emotions; use them wisely and make the best of them.
Emotional intelligence, what’s all the fuss about?
Emotions are essential; that’s why Emotional Intelligence (EI or EQ) has been one of the most talked-about topics in leadership, management and self-help literature since Daniel Goleman popularised it in the 90s.
Emotional intelligence deals with much more than emotions, though. It is the part of our intelligence that deals with our emotions but also with self-awareness, empathy and our social interactions with others. EI includes emotions, but it goes beyond them.
You should work on your emotional intelligence, empathy and all the other traits Goleman explored in his works, by all means. Still, for me, the first step should be to become emotionally literate. That means understanding your own emotions, naming and labelling them when they are present, knowing what they mean to you, and understanding why they are arising.
Once you understand your emotions well and are well-versed in them, you can start understanding the interplay between your emotions and those of others.
When you combine a good understanding and use of your emotional mind with a rational one, you will use your total mind capacity. You will get closer to your true potential.
The point is not to debate which of the two is better; they are both essential.
You can utilise them both to help you achieve your goals, be happy and be the best version of yourself.
For that, you need both the emotional and rational minds working well together.