It took me a while to realize, even after I became a humorless atheist, that my thoughts and feelings come from somewhere.
Even if you don’t believe in a soul, or a consciousness separate from the biological processes of consciousness, you probably believe in some distinction between the “nobler” passions, like love and hope, and the “animal” passions, like hunger and fear and anger. The English language reminds us of this distinction all the time. We talk about “educated guesses” vs. “gut reactions.” We distinguish between “blind rage” and “righteous anger” (does anger ever feel unrighteous?).
Of course, emotions don’t always get the short straw: oftentimes we’re encouraged to “go with our heart” rather than calculating something out. Or we’re told to “stop thinking so much” and just “trust our feelings.” This isn’t always bad advice, of course. But it reinforces the same message: that there’s the stuff that happens in your skull, and the stuff that happens in your stomach, and they’re completely unrelated to each other.
If you believe in a soul that’s separate from the body, that makes sense.
For the rest of us, who’ve considered how little the human body is capable of when the brain’s shut off, that leaves a lot of assumptions to unpack. Example: the brain is the greediest organ in the human body, consuming 20 percent of all the energy human bodies burn. What happens if we don’t keep that fire alive? If our brain needs healthy food and plenty of rest to function, does that mean that we make different decisions when we’re hungry or tired than we would otherwise? If our brain is the terminal for all pain signals in the body, does that mean that physical pain can rearrange our decision-making priorities?
A week ago, I wrote a post hinting at my thoughts on the mind-body breakdown: a post that some folks liked, some folks didn’t get, and one person called “the stupidest blog post [they]‘ve ever read.” In that post, I presented a couple of similar scenarios with emotional responses and asked which was more “legitimate.” Having read other people’s responses, and having thought about it in the intervening week, I would contend that both responses are equally legitimate.
Getting mad at someone because you just barked your shin is no less legitimate than getting mad at someone for asking you something you consider trivial. Being happy because the sun is shining is no less “real” of a feeling than being happy because you got some exciting news. They’re both emotional states. They’re both reactions that you have to things. They’re both real.
It took me a while to become comfortable with this realization: that sometimes I grew impatient with people because I was hungry, or I got depressed because I was tired, or that I was more sociable after I had a drink or two. My religious background didn’t help. Nor did being an Ayn Rand-style atheist in high school. What really hammered the lesson home was getting out into the working world: getting a job and an apartment. When you become responsible for how much you eat, sleep and drink, you become a lot more responsible for your emotions.
I’m not suggesting that all human relations can be boiled down to the content of your last meal or how rested you are. But I am suggesting we don’t give those factors nearly enough credit.
Some people find the idea that our feelings arise from how comfortable we are unsettling or depressing. They don’t like the idea of being subject to the whims of biology. Not too long ago that idea would have scared me, too. But now I find it comforting. By acknowledging that hunger, fatigue and muscle tension can affect my emotional state, I can take greater control of my emotions. I’m taking on more responsibility for how I feel and react, not less.
At least, that’s how I feel now. Tap me on the shoulder five minutes before bedtime and see if my story’s changed.