Emotion Management



Emotion Management


It is striking how much of human life is devoted to emotion management. Among the more obvious manifestations of this are psychiatry, psychotherapy, drug taking, shopping, hot baths, and taking a brisk walk. We are forever trying to calm ourselves down, recover from an emotion-laden incident, cope with a crisis, contain our anger, improve our mood, and steady our nerves. We are a highly emotional species, well aware of the negative effects of affect. We are prone to depression, emotional breakdowns, and PTSD. This is quite strange: why would we be built this way—why would the genes engineer us to feel too much? The answer, presumably, is that emotions are fast-reaction unreflective propensities that exist to enable organisms to survive in a threatening world—or at least a demanding world. As I have argued, predator avoidance looms large in this brutal economy: we need to feel fear and feel it quick if we are to escape the clutches of homicidal predators lurking around every corner.[1] If this means that we are prone to pathologies of fear, then so be it—it’s a small price to pay for not ending up in the stomach of a ravenous tiger. Emotions are not fine-tuned and they are anarchic forces, but they get the job done. In any case, emotions clearly need to be managed, soothed, civilized, and kept under control; they can’t just be left to their own devices. Maybe there was a time when humans had not evolved any strategies of emotional regulation and life was miserable, chaotic, and short-tempered; then emotion management succeeded in calming the storm to some degree (civilized society was coeval with the pacification of unruly affect).

            It is a question how much of human life is related to this goal of mitigating the ill effects of primordial emotion. We are familiar with philosophies that address themselves to the management of emotion: Stoicism, Buddhism, Hedonism, etc. Philosophers have long been aware that there is a problem here, and they have made recommendations about living with the emotions that nature has bequeathed to us. But it is surely clear that other human institutions are also in the emotion management business, with greater or lesser success: music, art, literature, sport, motorcycling, dancing, singing, playing cards, swimming, going for a run, taking a nap, and boozing. All these help with the serious task of managing our emotions: they enable us to take the sting out of our emotions, or at least supplant them momentarily with something else. They don’t solve the problem of emotion, but they make it a bit less onerous, a bit less impossible. Even positive emotions like love have their disturbing underbelly (well explored by Shakespeare in Midsummer Night’s Dream and elsewhere). We have yet to develop a drug that can quell the undesirable aspects of emotions while keeping the sufferer reasonably compos mentis (no doubt the pharmaceutical companies are working on what they laughingly call “the Spock drug”). The genes have devised a rough and ready way to get themselves into the next generation, but they have given us precious little with which to combat the fallout (a comparison with the atomic bomb is not inapt).[2]

            Except dreaming–that is, according to one theory (mine). Dreams are not a chosen method of emotion management, something we have invented in our quest to govern our emotional lives; they are products of nature—of the very genes that gave us the problem to start with. Dreaming is an adaptation for mitigating the ill effects of emotional inflation (hegemony, possession): it evolved in order to provide a way of regulating our emotional lives.[3] Presumably it pre-dates the other methods I listed and is shared by our fellow-sufferers the animals. In particular, dreams are devices for coping with fear, probably the most loathed of all emotions. We and other animals live with fear all the time: fear is remarkably protean and remarkably gripping. Maybe it performs a useful biological function, but it is extremely hard to handle. Anything that can soothe its psychic impact is welcome, and dreams (according to the theory) can do that to some degree. We can appreciate that fear management is a pressing need of the human species, finding many expressions in human life; well, dreams were the first (and probably the best) method of regulating fear.[4] It is rather mysterious how they do this, but we have good evidence that they do: interrupting a person’s dream life has a deleterious effect on his or her emotional wellbeing. Similarly, depriving someone of psychotherapy or art or a motorcycle could have a bad effect on his or her emotional state. Imagine what would happen if all these methods of emotion management were suddenly removed: we would all become shrieking maniacs or sniveling shut-ins. Oh, we would not be happy! The point I am making is that the emotion management theory of dreams should be seen in the context of a more general range of human characteristics dedicated to dealing with our emotional overload. Maybe some even derive from the dreaming method, notably narrative forms. Telling stories around the campfire recapitulates the stories our mind tells us while we are asleep—stories invariably revolving around emotions (particularly fear). People started to report their dreams and before long some genius is making up similar stories without having already dreamt them: emotions can then be processed in a way similar to dream processing but while the subject is wide awake. Mysteriously, the level of hysteria goes down a notch, as the narrative form works on people’s seething emotions. Eventually these spoken stories turn into books and people are reading novels in order to have their emotions regulated (and no doubt for other reasons too). If there were no dreams, humans might never have hit upon the idea of fiction; dreams provide the cognitive-affective foundation of the art of narrative form. It might be so.

            But there is another narrative form that cries out for inclusion in this picture: film. Watching films is clearly a method of emotion management for many people—an escape, as they say. Arguably, movies have had a larger impact on the psyche of ordinary people (and extraordinary people) than any other cultural form, including popular music and pornography. People live their emotional lives (partly) via the Big Screen: fear, love, grief, exhilaration, compassion, etc. They don’t sit there in the dark in an affect-free zone; they emote to their heart’s content. Look at the face of average moviegoer! Horror films have been remarkably durable and popular, as well as other fear-based genres. The ancient dread of predators is being processed via the moving image (there is a movie called “Predator”). But now we can make a theoretical link: for movies are a dreamlike medium.[5] So the palliative effect of movies mirrors that of dreams, and maybe even improves on them: the psychological mechanisms that govern dreaming are recruited while watching movies. Movies tap into the same set of psychological capacities: imagination, narrative understanding, visualized affect, and emotional re-enactment. So we can predict that movies will bring the same sort of relief that dreams bring (whatever exactly that is): they will render our emotions easier to live with. They won’t solve the problem of emotion, but they may ease it; they afford some sort of amelioration (as psychotherapy does, also somewhat mysteriously). And they are closer to nature’s own psychotherapist—the dream creator—than other means of emotion regulation. I venture to suggest that movies have done more to modify human emotion than any other art form, at least in societies that have them, precisely because they recapitulate dreams. Practitioners have long realized that dreams are central to psychotherapy; film experience could be likewise revealing (better than Rorschach tests). Both are sites of affective enactment—that mysterious process in which emotions assume a different character by linking up with imagination. Dreams, films, songs, games, physical activities, philosophies, books, etc.—all these work to regulate emotions. The emotions originally arose as devices for coping with a demanding and dangerous world, without much regard for their disruptive and unpleasant side effects, many millions of years ago (what must the emotional life of dinosaurs have been like?); these modern developments are aids that enable us to deal with the fallout. Dreams are the most ancient and primitive, but they seep into other forms too, particularly film. We accordingly live at the intersection of wild emotion and relatively feeble attempts at containing it. Other animals have fewer ameliorative resources, but then again their emotions don’t seem quite as unmanageable as ours (though the life of an elephant, say, may be much more emotionally fraught than we imagine). At any rate, we have a lot to thank dreams for. Things could have been worse.

[1] See my “Dreams and Emotion”.

[2] It’s not as if emotions have a switch-off threshold: they don’t simply turn themselves off when they get too intense. We might venture the Law of Emotional Amplification, which asserts that emotions will keep amplifying indefinitely. You thought you were pretty angry about X and then you encounter Y, which produces an even stronger anger reaction—and then you are presented with Z, which exceeds anything you might have imagined. There seems to be no upper limit to the intensity of an emotion.  

[3] We don’t feel the need to regulate our perceptual and cognitive lives: it’s not as if our perceptions and thoughts have a tendency to get out of control to our detriment (unless driven by emotion). We don’t live our lives trying to mitigate their ill effects (though they can of course malfunction). But our emotions have an inbuilt tendency to go rogue, to run amok, to trample the chickens—so we need to find a way to corral them, tame them, keep them away from the chickens. Our thoughts and perceptions are not our enemies, but our emotions are always one step away from that status. That’s why Aristotle counseled moderation and the Buddha inner calm (meditation being a tool of emotion management).

[4] Theorists have used words like “repress” and “release” to characterize the way emotion can be regulated. These are dubiously hydraulic terms and should not be taken to define the range of operations the mind might employ. I use the word “regulate” to be as neutral as possible as to how the mind might act on emotions in the overall economy of the psyche. I don’t think we have any clear ideas about how such regulation works, though that does not imply that there is no such phenomenon. One part of the mind can modify another part to produce such and such an effect—that’s about all we know.

[5] See my The Power of Movies (2005).

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