On Individual Differences of Cognitive Styles: Thought Vs. Feeling
13th Oct 2011Posted in: Blog 1
On Individual Differences of Cognitive Styles: Thought Vs. Feeling
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Anyone can pretty easily see that they are different from the person next to them. Look around and notice how the shape of your face is different from anyone else’s. Your eyes are also, unless you have an identical twin. The humanist in me respects those differences but chooses to focus on what makes us the same. What makes us the same seems to be inside of us somewhere. When you cry, i know what that feels like because i have cried. It does not seem to matter what you are crying about because it is the emotion and the experience of it that i am able to relate to. When you laugh, my empathy and attunement are often so great that i begin to laugh with you. It does not even matter what you are laughing about. In fact mere fact that you are laughing seems to be enough to provoke that same response in me much of the time. I don't have to know you or like you, i just have to be around you when you are doing it and the light in me seems to see the light in you. With anger, this illustration holds. Your anger could make me mad if you direct it at me or make me anxious if you express it next to me towards someone else, though anger is unique because it tends to provoke an autonomic fight or flight response which is not necessarily the case for laughter or crying behavior (unless you are laughing at me, in which case i may wish to fight with you or run

So far, what i am saying is that most of us have an innate ability to relate on an emotional level with each other. You and I can't do this now because each of us is sitting behind a computer screen and we are communicating on an intellectual level. You have no emotional cues to use in your relation to me, and i have none for you. Just words, ideas, thoughts on a screen. Still, let us assume we are relating. The most striking cases in which people do not seem to be able to relate on emotional levels seem to be found in people with asperger's or autism spectrum disorder and psychopaths. For a person to relate on an emotional level, the following seem to be essential:

1) The inherited neural structure for relating emotionally. This structure is the scaffolding inherited across millennia of human evolution. It is the raw parts upon which is built our ability to relate emotionally. These raw parts include the structures of the limbic system such as the Amygdala, Anterior Cingulate Cortex, Cerebellum and hypothalamus to name a few. In their raw form, these parts of the structure are not developed but the potential for learning based development exists within them.

2) The experience dependent neural networks for relating emotionally. These parts of the inherited neural structure develop through time, as learning occurs and depend upon experience of the environment. The difference between 1 (inherited) and 2 (experience dependent) listed here is analogous to the difference between the inherited brain areas for language (Wernicke's and Broca's) and the experience dependent development of neural networks which actually contain what and how language is used. You are born with Wernicke’s and Broca’s but the specific neural pathways you employ when using language are unique to you, developing over the course of a lifetime of practice. Whether we are talking about non-verbal emotion or verbal language, ability in each area is determined by a combination of inherited and experience dependent features.

When I comes to the experience dependant part of the equations, environmental factors such as climate, nutrition and geographical location are all relevant to the extent that where you are born determines your culture of origin and that culture of origin goes a long way to determining how you relate emotionally and how you use language. Thus, there may distinct temperaments associated with individuals depending on whether they come from dry-tropical or  Mediterranean climates. Come to think of it, I have heard someone refer to a : “latin temperament” and “southern hospitality”

Being able to relate emotionally is one of the main things which make us human. As anability, it is up there with the ability to use tools, metaphors, fire and ingredients in a thermally processed meal. It is not that animals don't related emotionally, in fact, perhaps that is all they do, but it is that humans seem to have a broader range of emotional nuance which is conveyed through a highly complex variety of signs and symbols. Some of those signs and symbols are actual spoken language but I believe that is only the tip of the iceberg. A person's face can convey a dozen different shades of amusement while a chimpanzee probably only has a couple of shades of those things such as either amused or not amused. This is probably why the areas of the brain involved in facial recognition (fusiform gyrus, aka. fusiform face area or FFA) in humans is so highly developed. I am delving in conjecture here so let me get back to some things i know with a bit more certainty...

For a very long time, say, going back to the first caveman, any psyche to speak of was dominated by needs based emotions. I need no proof to accept the premise that man did not start out as a rational being as the bible would have us believe. I am willing to accept this premise on faith, no pun intended. We see in children that needs based emotions are first to appear as well. These appear before any rational ability in a child, just as they appeared first over the course of the human evolution. Our emotional roots developed before our rational minds. By the way, this is why we continuously look back on the past with contempt and think that people were such barbaric fools. The original needs based emotions motivated the fashioning of tools, the fabrication of clothes and ultimately everything we can now see around us. Those things were created out of needs which triggered emotions, which triggered creations. My premise so far is that needs based emotions are at the root of everything we have built including religion. We made god because we felt lonely. We felt lonely because we needed a friend. We needed a friend because we were inherently uncomfortable in cold, dark and dangerous environments where food was scarce. We realized that hunger made us needy for food and that made us angry because it was hard to find. We also realized that satiation made us calm and cool headed so we made tools to hunt with and we learned to plant seeds. We realized that we were happier when we were warm so we made clothes and fire. We did everything we did to survive because our instincts revealed to us in emotions that we needed to do those things. When our emotions went left, we went left, if they went right, we followed. Our emotions are the interface, the operating system through which we come to know our instincts.

lover's chess. A game played with hearts and minds.

Obviously, the physical brain structures for rationality and intellectual processing were there to some degree from the beginning. The seeds were there and those seeds evolved because as we all know, you can’t get something from nothing. What an intelligent design! The ability to reason in a more objective way, abstracted from emotion had to have developed much later. This take on the chronological course of events is seems evident in the development of a newborn’s brain. The right side usually develops faster for the first year or so to such an extent that it is physically larger. Remember, the right side is usually dominant for processing everything a baby needs to survive such as the tone of his mother's voice, the odor of the nutrients being put in his mouth, the texture, temperature and pressure of his father's touch, the physical location of his mother's breast. Later on, that baby is still predominantly using the right brain to detect the emotional context in which he finds himself by analyzing the emotions being carried in the voices and on the faces around him. The left brain is developing from the beginning but at a slower rate and the fruits of that development don't really get expressed in the behaviours of the infant until about 2 years into the game when he starts using verbal communication with any effectiveness. Even then, his words are all needs based. For the first few years of language acquisition everything the baby says is related to what he wants. Anyone with a child can confirm that the first words usually include designations of emotionally salient objects such as important people, objects and food. It is likely that if you have a child, you noticed that the first attempts at a sentence are something like: “I want”. It is going to be a long, long time before the baby is talking about anything which is not directly related to it's own needs. This is called (by me) an extension of primary infantile narcissism. A few people learn to leave this state behind but most of us seem to do, make, say, think everything else on top of it as a building block.

Religion is one of the first major attempts to place rational thought upon the work of needs-based emotional thinking. It is the rational process of inference which allows for religion to hold as strong as it does. The higher order rational processes of deduction and verification were never applied by religious people to fully examine their doctrines. In fact none of the higher order, scientific rational processes were ever employed at any stage of religious thinking with any rigour. When scientific rational processes were used to examine religion, they were subverted and commandeered by emotional, needs based processes producing a sort of Frankenstein of information which confuses most of us and inevitably convinces many of us. I believe that the blind faith in science which currently exists is a result of needs-based emotions having dominated the human intellect for so long. Science is indeed exacting a just revenge on the emotional brain.

Let me finish this part of the post by summarizing that emotions evolved before reason and that rational thought culminated in what we now call science while emotional processes culminated in what we call Art or interpersonal communication, stopping of to create religion along the way. On one extremity, science is divorced (or wishes to be divorced) from emotion while on the other extremity, emotions defy reason and transcend our rational comprehension. I have also made the point that the evolution of the brain with regards to rational and emotional capabilities in human evolution finds a parallel in the development of those capabilities within one human being. What you can observe in the human mind over the course of humanity can to some parallel extent be observed within an individual over the course of their lifetime. When the changes in the brain occur over millennia for humanity we call it evolution and when the changes occur over the course of a lifetime we call it human development. Though I have not read it, I believe that in his book: “Descarte’s Error”, Damasio makes many of the arguments I am making in this post. It is on my list of books to read.


Wired For Language

So, where does all of this leave us? Ah yes, I began writing this post because I was reminded this week end that people think differently and that those differences are varied, nuanced and profound. At the same time, there are main lines or streams that people tend to belong to. Just as human sexuality is divided into primarily male and female types there may be a cognitive equivalent in primarily thinking and feeling types. Carl Jung wrote his entire theory of personality around the idea that people’s psyche’s exist along intersecting axes of thinking, feeling, sensing and intuiting modalities. I haven’t read much about how he came to devise this interesting perspective but perhaps his creative process and research involved some of the ideas posted here.

I was reminded that people live along rational and emotional lines because I was talking with someone who I feel to be more rational than I and I was finding it difficult to navigate the ocean between us. Since I started learning about brain development and differences in personality I have observed that these two basic types exist all around me. Many times I have spent hours trying to convey the emotional content of an experience to someone who simply cannot grasp it, while another person in the conversation understands it perfectly. Naturally, whether a listener understands the content of what you are saying or not depends upon your communication style and the content of your message but that is exactly my point: Some people are more receptive of emotional communication and others are more able to receive what I call schematic or data type of communication. We have historically held the stereotype that women belong to the first category of empathic listeners while men belong to the second category of data oriented communicators. Of course just about everyone is a combination of rational and emotional being but most of us tend one way or the other and I believe that aspergers, autism spectrum disorders and to a different degree sociopathic behavior all serve as examples where rational thought has little or no emotional-relatedness as counterweight to it. I am not saying that there is not emotion in those states of existence but that the ability to relate on an emotional level is diminished. Some people can be assessed as having low I.Q and I am suggesting that some people can be assessed as having low E.Q (emotion quotient). Perhaps autism is an overwhelming right hemisphere with no rationality to temper it. Whatever the case, the main distinguishing attribute of these 3 states of existence is the inability to relate emotionally. The individual with Asperger’s is relating in a distorted manner with little attunement, the individual with autism is relating in a confused and cahotic manner with little or no comprehension of the other’s emotions and the sociopath is relating with no regard for the emotion of the other. In the case of the sociopath, there is no actually relating because emotional relating requires empathy.

One might argue that humanitiy’s interest in the relationship between the mind and the heart goes back to the earliest beginnings of culture. Since the beginning of recorded use of symbols we may find some expression of the relationship between heart and mind. The Taoists have made it their life’s work to examine the relationship between thought, feeling and action. Shakespeare devoted his life’s work to the subject. The television series Star Trek based it’s main characters on opposite but complimentary sides of the equation with Spock being the voice of reason and Kirk the voice of emotion. References to our implicit knowledge that a rational mind and a feeling mind are different things can be found cross culturally throughout history. In the bible, the ten commandments might be interpreted as the rational mind’s overlay upon emotion. An academic critique might be perceived as revenge of the rational mind upon art. When science came out to challenge needs based emotional thinking, it was punished pretty severely. Galileo comes to mind here so I guess it is only fair that science return the favour now. Your thoughts?...

With advances in neuroscience spurred on by Penfield’s neuroanatomic discoveries and Roger Sperry’s split brain experiments we have come closer to seeing the mind and thought itself as a set of functions localized in the brain. Research into the functioning of implicit and explicit memory tell us that there is a process of encoding semantic, declarative memory for schematics and facts while there is a different process for the encoding episodic memories of emotionally rich, autobiographical experience. No, the information is encoded with a marker to so that sensory triggers can induce implicit memories (like a perfume reminding you about how you felt on vacation) and certain words can induce semantic memories (like when you are primed to think about “white” and “cold” when I say “snow”). Without going any further about function and localization here, let me say that the current scientific direction appears to be that by knowing the brain, you can know the mind. By taking it apart and rebuilding it you will know everything there is to know about it. While this may be completely true of a machine, the mind is not a machine. However, I believe the premise to be essentially true except that I reserve a portion of my faith for the belief that there is some part of human experience which is unknowable to science. Just as there is some part of being 80 which is unknowable to a toddler or some part of being a man which is unknowable to a woman etc... (I hear science laughing at me here…but only because science has no feelings!)

Betty Edwards wrote a book about Drawing on the right side of the brain in the late 70’s or early 80’s applying some of neurology’s discoveries into the practice of art education. A number of books and methods were produced to illustrate and in many cases oversimplify the concept of lateralization. Because research into the area of neurology has broad political implications, any information we get from studies should  treated with scrutiny. Before this period in neuroscientific investigation different brain types or personality types if you prefer were cause for much misunderstanding. Now that we know a lot about people’s brains, there is not much less misunderstanding unfortunately. In fact, the old feud between art and science persists, each thinking the other a fool. On the positive side though, I should say that there are signs of relief. Concordia recently inaugurated the arts and science building which houses engineering and fine art faculties in the same house in the hope that the two will fight no more. Also, art therapy emerges as proof that art and science can live together and accomplish great things. Leonardo Da Vinci proved this marriage was good first, but still, art therapy is happy to follow in his footsteps. Finally, art therapy emerges to walk the fine line between reason and emotion on the tightrope with heart on one end and mind on the other. I apologize for this shoddy and brief history about how art therapy came to be a player in the discussion but I only wanted to mention it. I will add that art therapy is the most current movement in the fields of art and science leading to a hybridized and highly sophisticated understanding of the relationship between rational linguistic thought and pre-rational, non-verbal emotion.

The Science Behind Paper Boats

Back to my motivation for writing this post again for a second. You know, now that I think of it, it’s funny. I set out to write a post because something triggers my interest on the path of my reflections. In the process of writing my post I go here and there and ultimately get far away from the origin of my motivation. Let me focus on it for a second here. I began to write this post because the gap between schematic and emotional thinkers has troubled me. Quite often I have seen differences between the two types lead to conflict, lack of respect and coldness. Many times I have found myself in conversations with data heads, trying to communicate some idea about the inner workings of the emotional mind and felt I would do better explaining it to a dog. Many times I have felt that a data head was exhibiting a non-verbal behavior and verbal language which was offensive or at least very boring. Many times, I have been talking to data heads and watching their heads role as I communicate in the area of what I believe to be the most important discussion we can have. So many times I have heard brutally conservative political views which seem to lack any kind of understanding of the deeper, emotional qualities of human experience. People who employ black and white type thinking to human relationships tend to be data heads. They count the numbers but don’t see the real human issues behind the numbers. They may become administrators but not very good ones. Anyone who is good at anything has balance and equilibrium between the two essential sides. They have what Jung called Integration. No knowledge exists in a vacuum. No specialist is anygood to anyone unless her knowledge is placed in context and counterbalanced by knowledge in another field. Ultimately, all types of knowledge and modes of thinking must come together if we are ever to get a complete picture. The faith in specialists should be treated with extreme prejudice in most cases and questioned at all times.

On another note, I have come to make peace with those who I believe to be data oriented, schematic thinkers. They are not bad people. They feel love in their way and they seek closeness with others in their way. We can all get along. Emotional players have their faults as I mentioned earlier and they need the scientific mind to help them contain and structure their feelings. Alas, it seems we are together for the long haul so we might as well try to close the gap between us or learn to live with our differences.

I think that is about the gist of it. Thanks for tagging along on this massive post!

One Response

  1. Andy Graf says:

    Great reading! Just what I needed.

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