Authors like Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling have recently written big books full of charts that show how much better the world is now than just a couple of generations ago. It all seems to say, “C’mon, cheer up! All things considered, we’re doing pretty well!”
But this scientific approach, with its charts and bar graphs, has one big flaw: it speaks to our Thinking Brain, where logic and reason rules, not to our Feeling Brain, where our emotions reside. And if we want to make better decisions and understand the problem with hope, we have to appeal to both sides.
There’s a common misconception that we’d all have a better grip on life and be more productive if we could only get our emotions out of the way and put our logical minds in control. It turns out this isn’t the case, though.
Consider the case of Elliot, who had a baseball-sized tumor removed from the frontal lobe of his brain. As it turned out, the removal of the tumor also took away Elliot’s capacity for emotion. But he didn’t become a cold-blooded efficiency machine – quite the opposite, in fact. He skipped an important work meeting to go buy a better stapler, he skipped his kid’s baseball game to watch TV – he basically stopped giving a fuck about anyone or anything.
This cost Elliot his job and his family, but doctors couldn’t explain what was going on until they checked his emotional responses. When Elliot was shown horrifying war photos of dead children, even he acknowledged that he should’ve had an emotional reaction – yet he didn’t.
The mysterious case of Elliot shows how we really need harmonious communication between our Thinking and Emotional Brains if we’re going to stop falling prey to the same hope-related problems.
Let’s say you hope to stop eating junk food. The logical, objective Thinking Brain knows that these things are bad for your health – it’s good with facts and data. But the subjective Feeling Brain is the part that takes the facts and data and uses them to decide what’s “good” and “bad”. So making the right decision takes some real negotiation, because it’s all too easy for the Feeling Brain to take over and decide that eating junk food is actually a good idea.
In the next blink, we’ll take a closer look at how your emotions can undermine you.