what happens when a physicist writes about psychology?
Have you ever wondered what would happen if a physicist, psychologist, and alternative healer walked into a bar? Me neither, but the punchline is Emotional: how feelings shape our thinking, by Leonard Mlodinow. Whether you love it, hate it, or have absolutely no connection with this joke, you’re sure to have mixed feelings about this book. Everything at once. Like a cornucopia of intense emotional chaos. If you’re coming from a scientific perspective, you’re in for a wild ride.
Mlodinow is a highly respected physicist who has worked with brilliant minds and pioneered research in quantum physics. He has written several books with generally positive reviews, as well as storylines for television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver. He even helped Steven Spielberg design a mathematical computer game for Disney starring Robin Williams. It could logically follow that he would be aware of his own biases and how to avoid them, as well as what qualifies as science versus pseudoscience. That said, the first page begins with his personal anecdotes, and it’s not just to get to know the author.
“I’m not going to lie, you got me in the first half”
emotional is centered on the idea that emotions and feelings are intertwined and essential to everything we do. In fact, we would be paralyzed and unable to do anything if we couldn’t access our feelings. Although I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment – I personally know a few people with severe alexithymia who are successful in life – there are some very good points about the benefits of both having emotions and being able to feel them.
In psychology, there is a clear differentiation between emotions and feelings: emotions are a physiological experience that happens to us (i.e. internal processes like pupil dilation, racing heart and hands sweaty when you’re near a love interest), while feelings are subjective, the conscious interpretations we have of these physical events (e.g. “I really love them and hope they like me back !”). Mlodinow points out these differences, though he comes back to using them interchangeably, and explores in detail what they mean to humans, animals, different cultures, etc. It’s unclear how strong some studies are, and I’ve sometimes questioned his interpretations of events and stories.
The first pages of emotional include a crash course in the history of early emotion studies, though pretty much everything between Plato and Darwin is missing, as well as anything leading up to/out of Russell Circumplex model of affect. This is followed by a discussion of how all creatures are affected and driven by emotions. This leads to how they influence our own brain, the decisions we make, and where feelings originate.
In the process of all this, there is an excessive amount of quasi-related chatter provided by Mlodinow. Each page has a story about something, often its own experiences and views. As you progress, stories and studies seem more loosely or ambiguously tied to the topic, others are either misinterpreted, distorted, or perhaps knowingly biased. The final pages start to read like a book of philosophy, and Mlodinow comes across as an overconfident man that how he feels about feelings has to be the right way to feel, and you should definitely feel it too. . It starts to get weird as you head towards Emotional halfway, and it never stops.
The second half of emotional confirms these disturbing indications with the introduction of blatant pseudoscience. We already know the multitude of problems with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and personality tests, but did you know that you can now take emotional intelligence tests? Oh you can, and Mlodinow has carefully included seven of the most popular of them in emotional, just so you can check your “emotional profile”. These tests are similar to the MBTI in many ways, but Mlodinow does not mention it. Rather, he assures us that they are very scientific and that researchers have had success with them. In his mind, too many people ignore their profiles, but you don’t have to be.
The problems with emotional intelligence the tests are numerous, having the same faults as the MTBI and more. Your responses change with just about everything – your mood, your environment, your needs, your wants. All the things that Mlodinow talked about in the previous chapters that had an effect on your feelings and emotions, he now throws to the wind.
Beyond the questionnaire part, the end of emotional is a guide to emotional regulation through cognitive behavioral therapy methods. Re-evaluation, acceptance, and expression are presented, but with all the fluff stories and anecdotes from previous chapters. Mlodinow is aware and happy that, despite lacking a degree in psychiatry, he has written a do-it-yourself guide to self-emotion regulation. Therein lies the problem: He demonstrates that he knows that not all people are the same – mentally, hormonally, genetically, physically – but never suggests seeking professional help.
What is he saying ? “Spirit over emotion”, of course. Meditate, as his dear friend Deepak Chopra does, and be introspective. Write down your feelings or talk about them (still don’t mention a therapist), this act alone is enough. Essentially, Mlodinow thinks that if you know your emotional profile, you can just find another way to feel. emotional ends as it began, with a personal story about his struggles, which reads something like, “I’ve been doing better emotionally since I’ve learned so much about the things I just said, and you can too!”
Is it good?
Meh. Sure, there’s good information to be found, but digging past all the mud is many. The most irritating defect of emotional it’s you want to trust Mlodinow – for crying out loud he worked with fucking Stephen Hawking! – but you can’t, because it breaks accepted “rules” that scientists tend to live by and follow, basic stuff like checking your bias, anecdotal evidence isn’t necessarily evidence, correlation isn’t does not imply causation, etc. There is no discussion of the quality of the studies it includes and no mention of opposing viewpoints. It goes through several logical errors (begging the question, non-sequential, hasty generalizations, etc.), and doesn’t seem to care.
Affective neuroscience is relatively new and our understanding of the field is still quite limited, so it makes sense to retain our skepticism. Corn Emotional: How Feelings Shape How We Think is an extremely strange and insistent book that makes it seem like we know a lot more than we actually know. There’s nothing here that you probably couldn’t find in other books, and I can’t recommend it based on the inclusion of pseudoscience and one hell of a bad faith argument.
I would especially not suggest it to those who suffer from mental disorders and deregulation — for them, I think this book could do a lot of damage. I don’t even need to know my emotional profile to understand why I have strong and mixed feelings about it.
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“Emotional”: what happens when a physicist writes about psychology?
Emotional: How Feelings Shape How We Think
“Emotional: How Feelings Shape our Thinking” is a mix of real science, anecdotes, psychology and alternative medicine. Half of the book is rooted in scientific study, while the other half should be labeled as a self-help book. Although it contains quality information, it is deeply rooted in bits of storytelling. There are some glaring blunders that range from sweeping generalizations and faulty analogies to promoting pseudoscience and supporting confirmation bias.
Discussion of a few studies I hadn’t heard of before
Some really interesting ideas and information presented
Witty and expressive writing style, fluid and easy to interpret
Provides unnecessary resources for some information, fails to cite several claims that really need evidence for clarity/credibility
Several quotes refer to poorly done studies or experiments that are either misinterpreted or carefully chosen
Promotes pseudoscience/alternative healing and falls victim to many forms of logical fallacy
Consistent and insistent with cognitive biases; the author seems too confident in understanding an “unstable science”
Many stories, some of which have ambiguous connections to the topic, contain too many irrelevant details, leading to loss of engagement
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