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Passion and Ease

To understand what matters to us and what does not, we need to understand some pretty basic things about our emotional life. Most of our emotional life is not consciously decided. Though it may obviously result from how we act and what we intend, mostly emotions are experienced as outside our direct control. This is fine, and it is almost always reasonable to say that what makes you responsible is not how you feel, but what you do about it. That I feel like punching someone in the face can be a very useful piece of information to me, but only if I can separate that feeling from actually punching him in the face. One of the most basic facts about our emotional life is that it operates at different speeds from our workaday thinking. I may feel the fear before I become aware that it is from a barking dog, so any action I take may require “engaging my brain” to realize that, despite my dog phobia, I am not at serious risk, and the dog is probably just guarding its perceived turf. But I also have to realize, though I may actually be in no danger, that my feeling of fear may take some time to dissipate. As might the feeling of anger, so even after I decide that I was mistaken, and that the perceived violation that made me feel like punching this person in the face did not occur, it may take that feeling time to dissipate

Many of the errors in our psychological lives have to do with these timing problems. Of feelings running ahead or lagging behind thought. If, to justify my feeling, I look for something else that might be making me angry, I might well find other things. Emotions don’t come labeled with their causes, and we regularly misattribute them. That doesn’t mean that the emotion is constituted by the attribution, as emotions do have physiological specificities that are quite relevant to their functions, and to our experience. But some awareness of the time course is often useful. I sometimes joke that when you get angry at a child, you have already lost, but that is only if your actions fail to take into account that, for example, you are likely to be more effective if you give yourself some time to think, or even just count to ten. And know this: Never shake a child. Think of what happens to a bowl of jello if you shake it. Not only might it break into pieces, but it can get all sorts of cracks and fissures in it even if it does not. That is what happens to a child’s brain when you shake the child. So please, don’t think you are doing your children any favors by shaking them, as a bruise or even a broken bone may produce less long-term damage. And as a rule of thumb, anger almost always hides a fear, and if you can identify and deal with that fear, you will go a long way toward dealing with the anger, both in yourself and in others.

One basic functional characteristic of the nervous system that is important to keep in mind is its “vertical” organization. Bottom-up effects, of almost any variety of stimulation, tend to accumulate, so the more that is going on, the more awake, alert and aroused you are likely to be. Introverts hit the point of discomfort with this arousal sooner than extroverts, so introverts prefer situations with less going on, and extroverts tend to both seek out and produce greater stimulation. Top-down effects, that is, effects from your higher cortical functions on the rest of what is going on, tend to be inhibitory. Reduce these, and you reduce inhibition. A male praying mantis whose head is bitten off by a female during mating will copulate more vigorously before he dies. Since emotions tend to be more similar at higher levels of arousal, this makes it easier to distinguish between them, and we can experience a wider array of emotional variation and nuance. Less thought, less inhibitio

Obviously, this can be nice. After a drink or two, you are less inhibited, less wrapped up in your thoughts, worries, and anticipations, and the freer you feel to act, try things, do things you otherwise wouldn’t do. Obviously this has a down-side: You will take more risks, and act more aroused and less differentiated in your actions. One of the standard problems produced by alcohol, or other central-nervous system depressants, is that you become cognitively myopic, “near-sighted” in the sense that you do not look ahead to the possible consequences of your actions. Cognitive myopia includes “beer goggles” and “drunk texting.”

The other basic characteristic is “horizontal,” the “opponent processes” we talked about in “Face Your Fears.” This is the central organizational aspect of the nervous system that produces passion and ease. These are the two “opponents” of the autonomic nervous system. Omnia Gallia est in tres partes divisa was the opening line of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which I read in my high school Latin class, but all of the peripheral nervous system (the part other than the central brain and spinal cord) is also divided into three parts. One is the voluntary nervous system, which controls most of our external musculature, the other more automatic one is the autonomic nervous system, which provides the accelerator and the brakes of our physiological arousal. This is a neural network from the spinal cord to the organs including the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, genitals, and the arterial system. It is divided into the sympathetic, usually cald the “flight or fight” system (two of the four “F”s of mammalian motivation), and the parasympathetic, “rest and digest.” The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (SNS and PNS, respectively) act in opposition to each other, but they are independent systems, and are organized a little differently. The sympathetic ganglia are organized in a linked chain, right next to the middle of the spinal cord, so they tend to operate in unison. The parasympathetic ganglia are separated and located near the end organs.

The sympathetic, fight/flight system does about what you would design a control system to do, to activate the body for a rapid, emergency response, say, if you were being attacked by a predator: Dilate pupils (for more information, better response in low light), speed and strengthen heartbeat (more fuel, faster), dilate bronchii, quicken breath (more oxygen), constrict blood to organs and periphery, strengthen its flow to muscles and brain, slow digestion (stop salivation, peristalsis, stomach enzymes, possibly vomit), more glucose from liver, break down fat, and increase metabolism. Bladder and bowels? Wouldn’t you want to dump ballast? Anyone who has seen runners at the end of a race, in final extremis, has probably seen someone wetting themselves, and the description of someone being “scared shitless” is literally true. I still have the boot knife that my grandfather gave my father, probably from some movie fantasy of trench warfare. My father only used it once, after the Battle of the Bulge, to cut off beshitted trousers, after mortar fire started hitting their trench. “There wasn’t a dry pair of pants in the trench.” As for sex, well, there is certainly a loss of libido under stress, and some genital shrinkage. Though I have seen textbooks that just don’t talk about the effects of the autonomic nervous system on the genitals, which would seem odd in a psychology text any time after Freud, they are usually illustrated with flaccid male organ as one of the body parts anatomically depicted. But I also used an