Conventional wisdom over the centuries and across cultures has been to downgrade emotion as a “weakness” vis a vis the human ability to reason. Negative attributes most commonly associated with emotion: it is primitive, bestial, destructive, unmanly, childish, effeminate, inappropriate, unpredictable, undependable — in all cases warranting control by reason. The metaphor of a charioteer steering a wild horse, originated by Plato (Phaedrus) still determines much of the common sense views of emotion (wild horse) and reason (the charioteer).
The underlying supposition here is that emotion and reason are conflicting and antagonistic aspects of the mind; emotion is seen as inferior and needing the control of the superior “rational ” functions of the mind for clarity of thought and action.
While intellectuals, like David Hume, have from time to time challenged this so-called “superiority” of reason in his declaration: “reason is and ought to be the slave of passion,’ the reason-emotion distinction continues to be widely accepted today.
In the past few decades however, philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists have started to question this idea of dichotomy between emotion and reason. New research has uncovered for instance that reason and emotion are supportive or complementary forces rather than antagonistic and conflicting, as widely conceived. Even though emotions are typically not the result of deliberate intellectual calculations, they are not necessarily irrational or non-rational.
Human emotions, it is maintained, serve as evaluative and responsive patterns, providing appraisal about whether what is happening is harmful, threatening, or beneficial to our well-being. In many cases, emotions may well be as integral as, or even more so than, rational and deliberate intellectual calculations for normal functioning.
Take the instance of patients with neurological damage in specific sites of their brain. They were found to be unable to make good decisions because their emotions were impaired, but their abstract reasoning and logical skills were otherwise unaffected.
Scientists have concluded that such evidence suggests that emotions may have a central role of assisting reason: “well-tuned and deployed emotion …is necessary for the edifice of reason to operate properly. “
Let us back up a bit, and examine the origin of the term “emotion” as well as the neurobiological dimensions of “emotion” that science has uncovered.
The original word for emotion was “passion.” It comes from the Greek “pathos” and the Latin “pati” which means “passive” and “patient.” Like diseases, emotions have been commonly considered as things that happen to us – out of control and involuntary.
Emotions have typically been viewed as primitive and instinctive responses to external stimuli that are not associated with complex intellectual or cognitive functions. Neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio have more recently demonstrated that emotions play a central role in social cognition and decision-making. Further, emotions are believed to be life-regulating processes of almost all living creatures.
Note for instance, the regulating significance of emotions of anger, fear, pleasure, sadness, and disgust. Anger and fear commonly promote avoidance or defensive behavior, whereas pleasure may facilitate ingestive, exploratory, sexual, or novel-seeking behavior. Thus emotions serve to achieve homeostasis or to facilitate adaptive behavior and equilibrium.
It is further maintained that consciousness – whether the primitive core consciousness of animals or the “extended” self-conception of humans, requiring autobiographical memory, emerges from emotions and feelings.
As the arguments goes: the brain of primates and humans has a striking capacity to learn and remember the emotional significance of diverse stimuli and events. Furthermore, our cognitive capacity allows us to assign emotional valence to stimuli and to change the value that was previously assigned to a stimulus. We may be initially fearful of swimming for instance, but through positive experiences we may eventually enjoy the activity.
Another example: Imagine, for instance, a nasty break-up in a relationship. The person who used to evoke positive emotions of desire and happiness now elicits emotions of anxiety, tension and anger. The sensory or perceptual analysis of the person may be the same: i.e., this is John. The physical expression of emotion may also be the same (i.e., the racing heart, flushed sensation, increased breathing rate). But the emotional reaction to the stimulus (the person) in conjunction with the past experiences determines the feelings or the conscious expression of joy or anger. Studies of brain function reveal that neural pathways exist for these important cognitive emotional interactions.
Brain structure analysis provides further insights about the cognitive-emotional connection.
Scientists today reject the notion of structural or functional independence of any single aspect of the mind. More simply, the mind is seen as an interlinked computational network; its major divisions — the central (CNS) and peripheral (PNS) nervous systems and subdivisions in essence, talk to each other. This very interplay is believed to bring clarity to the mind’s perception, interpretation, and responses to the environment in which we live.
To explain further, there are massive connections between the cortical regions of the brain, particularly from the frontal and temporal lobes to the subcortical limbic connections. The implication of these connections is that complex sensory information processing occurring in the cortex can directly influence the limbic system. Conversely, the limbic processing can strongly influence higher-level cognitive integration occurring in the cortex.
Disconnection in the transmission of information between the cortical and subcortical limbic structures can have dire consequences. For example, patients with frontal lobe lesions have shown inappropriate emotional and social behavior (laughing or crying inappropriately or using profanity) in the absence of intellectual deficits.
For most of us (without structural/functional impairments), scientists suggest that in the process of regulating our lives we seem to connect emotion and feelings with intellectual processes in such a way that we create a whole new world around us.
Let us review in particular, how this theory comes into play among artists, particularly dancers.
Audiences rarely realize that in performance the dancer’s concentration is not on steps, on technique, or on all those corrections from rehearsal. Steps do contribute to the dancing, but technique is not performance.
As Mihail Baryshnikov said; “dancing is what happens between the steps.” What the dancer strives for is quality. Unfortunately, technique is easier to analyze than the qualities that pushes a performance beyond good into great.
Quality has to do with security, ease, confidence, and bravura — elements that allow the dancer to present dancing as seemingly effortless and performing as fun. It also has to do with emotional and artistic sensibility, to the nuances conveyed by the music.
Music to the dancer is thus not just a purely rhythmic reaction; it is the dancers’ ability to hear subtle qualities and structure within the music and then communicate them to the audience through their dancing.
This overall aesthetic quality in dancing distinguishes the artist from the technical acrobat. Indeed, to call a performer a ‘technical dancer’ is not flattery, since the essence of any art is to conceal technique.
The essential quality is grace; that is phrasing, fluidity, harmony, and the making of a series of movements into an emotionally expressive, poetic whole.