Huffpost Science
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sir Ken Robinson Headshot

As Science Turns Its Attention to Feeling

Posted: Updated:

Science is now discovering what artists have long understood: that nurturing our feelings is vital to the quality of our lives and that intellect and feeling are intimately connected. For the past 300 years the dominant view in Western culture has been that intelligence is mainly to do with certain sorts of logic and reason. This view evolved through the European Enlightenment and established science and a particular sort of rationalism as the main sources of intellectual authority. The achievements of this worldview have been spectacular, including the explosive growth of technologies and unprecedented advances in medicine, in communications and in our understanding of the physical universe.

Science has transformed human life in what is, in geological time, the beating of a wing. There have been many benefits. There's also been a high price. Among them is the exile of feeling; within science itself, in our culture in general and especially in education. For proponents of pure reason and objectivity, feelings are messy and misleading. Feelings have even had a bad press in psychology and psychiatry, the scientific disciplines that focus on human behavior and motivation. Significantly, the histories of both are mainly about negative feelings, emotional disorders and mental illness.

There's no doubt that there's a plentiful supply of all of these. One of the reasons is the chasm between thinking and feeling our culture has opened up. The social and economic costs are incalculable. At one end of the spectrum there are the huge numbers of people who are chronically disengaged at work or in school because they find it all pointless and unfulfilling. At the other are the jaw-dropping numbers who are critically addicted to alcohol, tobacco or drugs as a way of stimulating or suppressing their feelings.

There is a shift taking place in the status of feeling, within science itself and in the broader culture. The movement in Positive Psychology, spearheaded by Martin Seligman, Dan Gilbert, Sonja Lyubomirsky and others, is an important part of it. George E. Vaillant is a psychoanalyst and research psychiatrist at Harvard University. In Spiritual Evolution, he sets out a sustained defense of emotions and their role in human well being. There is an important difference between negative and positive feelings. Negative feelings include shame, hate, anger, guilt, fear and contempt. Positive feelings include joy, love, compassion, hope, happiness, forgiveness, awe, gratitude and delight. Vaillant notes that modern science is coming to accept the importance of emotions, even though the tendency in some quarters is still to accentuate the negative. He notes that in 2004, the leading American text The Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, half a million lines in length, "devotes 100 to 600 lines each to shame, guilt, terrorism, anger, hate, and sin; thousands of lines to depression and anxiety, but only five lines to hope, one line to joy and not a single line to faith, compassion and forgiveness."

Vaillant argues that the negative emotions originate in the older parts of the human brain and are dedicated to individual survival. The positive emotions evolved later and are what bind us to each other: "The positive emotions are more expansive and help us to broaden and build. They widen our tolerance, expand our moral compass and enhance our creativity... Experiments document that while negative emotions narrow attention ... positive emotions, especially joy, make thought patterns far more flexible, creative, integrative and efficient." For thirty-five years, Vaillant directed the Harvard Study of Adult Development. "In the first 30 years leading the study," he says, "I learned that positive emotions were intimately connected to mental health."

One of the aims of Positive Psychology is to promote a greater sense of 'mindfulness': to go beyond the daily chatter of your mind and the endless agenda of tasks and anxieties that often drive it to a deeper sense of your own being and purpose. In Fully Present: the Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness, Susan Smalley and Diana Winston show that the benefits of practicing mindfulness include reducing stress, reducing chronic physical pain, boosting the body's immune system, coping with painful life events, dealing with negative emotions, enhancing positive emotions, improving concentration, improving relationships, reducing addictive behaviors, enhancing performance in work, sports and education, and stimulating creativity. This is a to do list that we could all do with.

Being mindful is not about improbable poses and relentless optimism. Learning to live mindfully, say Smalley and Winston, "does not mean living in a perfect world, but rather living a full and contented life in a world in which both joys and challenges are givens." Although mindfulness does not remove the ups and downs of life, they say, "it changes how experiences like losing a job, getting a divorce, struggling at home or at school, births, marriages, illnesses, death and dying influence you and how you influence the experience ... In other words, mindfulness changes your relationship to life."

Being mindful also revitalizes the relationship between thinking and feeling. One of corollaries on the rise of science has been a schism between the arts and sciences. The sciences are thought to be all about truth and objectivity: the arts about feelings and creativity. Neither stereotype holds up. There can be great objectivity in the arts and huge creativity in science: and deep truth and feelings in both. As science turns its attention to feeling, it may rediscover old common ground with the arts and with the humanities too. It's on that common ground that we could restore the balance in our lives and create new approaches to education and working life that will nourish and sustain it.