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The Good Life –
Hugh McKay
The Brain That
Changes Itself –
Norman Doidge
Requiem for a
Species –
Clive Hamilton
Reasons to
Stay Alive –
Matt Haige
A short History
of Progress –
Ronald Wright
Emotional Intelligence:
why it can matter

more than IQ -
Daniel Goleman
The Idiot Brain -
Dean Burnett

Emotional Intelligence Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

Daniel Goleman Bloomsbury publishing – 2004


The book starts by quoting a challenge laid down by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics:

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy.

 From that challenge laid down over 2000 years ago Daniel Goleman has written an important book on the human psyche and how people can influence the path of their lives by attention to emotions. Goleman is a science writer who says he was dramatically influenced in 1990 by the work of two psychologists (John Mayer now at University of New Hampshire and Peter Salovey at Yale) who first formulated the concept they called “emotional intelligence”. Goleman set about a major study of research publications in psychology, neurology and childhood development. He published the first edition of Emotional Intelligence in 1996. It became a bestseller and has been reissued and revised several times.

 As quite a few studies in the past 20 years have now shown, the brain does not have the fixed architecture, previously assumed. New technologies for brain imaging have revealed how the brain’s intricate mass of cells enables us to think, feel, imagine and dream. We also know that while each brain has a certain structure at birth – a genetic inheritance – that structure can change drastically depending on all the inputs during life’s journey. Most of those inputs have a strong emotional component.

It is surprising that “feeling” has been left out of much of the scientific research on psychology, but is now being clearly recognised that there are significant physiological changes with rising emotions:

Anger – increase in blood flow to the hands, increased heart rate and an adrenaline rush.

Fear – blood to the large skeletal muscles, the face goes blank as blood drains away, there is a flood of hormones to establish flight or freeze.

Happiness – increased brain centre activity, the body goes into a general rest condition.

Love – general relaxed state of body and calm contentment.

Sadness – drop in energy and enthusiasm for life’s activities.

 From the earliest times the emotions have played an important part in the survival of mammals. The physiological changes that different emotions invoke, enabled animals to respond in an appropriate fashion to deal with situations that they faced. This continues in humans today, although the responses may be tempered by cultural background; for example in some African cultures the loss of a loved one might be marked by loud wailing, whereas Anglo-Saxons would tend to go into solitary silent grieving.

 Humans have developed by evolution over many millions of years in an ever-changing climate of dangers, hunger and deep uncertainty about the future. These factors have influenced the growth of the brain. The primitive brain of early animal species (and of some species today) is simply a stem surrounding the top of the spinal cord. This essentially acts as a control system keeping all the bodily functions running. It is not a thinking organ, but merely responds to emotional inputs – perhaps telling it of danger and the need to run to freeze.

As species evolved, the amygdala - that convoluted material of the brain (named, because of its structure, after Greek word for almond) grew on the primitive base element of the brain. The combined basic material and the amygdala is sometimes referred to as the limbic system. It is understood to be the fast response zone that can trigger action if one of the primary emotions, such as: anger, fear, happiness or others is encountered

 Continuing evolution showed the development of further brain material known as the neocortex.  This is the thinking zone – the seat of feelings about ideas, empathy, art, symbols, imagining, pleasure and other feelings. It also is the zone in which rational analysis of ideas or concepts can take place; the so-called cognitive functions of the brain

 Studies of early mammals indicate that there was a major development of the neocortex about 100 million years ago and as the human species developed from the early primates a much larger neocortex formed. This has been the source of the human talent for planning and the eventual establishment of civilisations.

 Since the neocortex sprouted from and extended the scope of the limbic system (centred on the amygdala) it is clearly to be expected that emotions can and will influence the centres of thought. Goleman points out that psychologists have been slow to recognise this. In the past many have considered intellectual thought processes and emotions as two distinct characteristics or influences on human behaviour. The evidence now shows that the two are actually intimately connected and we must accept Emotional Intelligence as a primary function of behaviour.

Neurologically our brain has been shaped over the past 50,000 generations. Evolution is very slow and although civilisation has risen rapidly, the structure of the human brain has been much slower to react. We have the neocortex with its relative slow, carefully thought out, reactions and the amygdala, with its emotional memory and empathy, ready to react at an instance notice.

 There are moments when impulsive feelings are triggered by some sensory input – a smell, a sight, a verbal remark – that overcomes rational thought and the amygdala sends  signals to all parts of the brain, which in turn mobilises bodily functions – face muscles, blood flows, etc. These sudden flare-ups often lead people to say “I don’t know what came over me!”

 The emotional brain stores memories for many years; even from days as a baby with no language ability. At birth the amygdala is nearly fully formed, whilst the hippocampus and the neocortex are only partly developed. The baby stores ‘wordless’ blueprints for emotional life; happy smiles, physical punishment or rude, brutal, words are stored as memories that may be triggered in later life by some sound, smell, touch or feeling.

 The baby has limited control over the responses to its feelings, however later in life the pre-frontal cortex (the parts of the neocortex just behind the forehead) develop and act as a ‘clamper’ switch overriding many of the emotional response signals sent out by the amygdala. Thus for animals a danger signal can be logically analysed to decide whether to fight, run or hide. The same applies to humans with additional sophisticated possibilities such as persuasion, placate an adversary, put on a facade, be contemptuous or some other action. We often say we ‘mull over’ a situation – an indication that the prefrontal cortex is busy!

The circuitry linking the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is the critical doorway between thought and emotion. People who have had this cut-off by surgery or have it degraded (as sometimes happens in dementia) lose the likes and dislikes of a lifetime. The stimulus for emotional response to a friend or a pet is lost. They have forgotten the meaning of love; in addition, their whole decision-making process is impaired.  All of life’s decisions are based on the interaction of the two parts of the brain – the rational and the emotion.

 In the 1940s intelligence tests were developed and the IQ was considered as a fixed marker of the genetically inherited intelligence of a person. Since then it has been recognised that IQ is only one form of intelligence. The ability to motivate oneself, to control impulses, to regulate one’s moods, to hope, to empathise and form social networks are other aspects of human intelligence necessary for a well lived life. These other elements are all related to the emotional function of the brain. Thus, to consciously use them effectively was called “Emotional Intelligence” by Peter Salovey and John D Mayer in their book Emotional Intelligence, Imagination, Cognition and Personality in 1990.

 Salovey considered five main domains of emotional intelligence:

 1.      Knowing one’s own emotions – recognising feelings as they happen.

2.      Managing emotions – capacity to sooth oneself; to shake off rampant anxiety, gloom, instability and the emotional consequences of failure.

3.      Motivating oneself – marshalling emotions in the service of a goal, emotional self-control.

4.      Recognising emotions in others – empathy which can lead to altruism.

5.      Handling relationships – social competence.

 All of us live with a mixture of IQ and Emotional Intelligence. If we are self-aware we are conscious of both our moods and our thoughts about our moods. This enables us to live in a contented, successful, manner and also to have a very positive influence on those around us. There are people who utterly lack self-awareness. This is often caused by decline in the prefrontal cortex resulting in dispassionate reasoning and difficulty in even the simplest decision-making. It has been said that ‘gut feeling’ is required in life’s decision-making – where to live, what to eat, who to marry, etc. etc.

 As Freud made clear, much of emotional life is unconscious. We may be in a bad mood from some past (possibly forgotten) slight, but until we examine it and become self-aware, it will continue to upset us.

 The goal in a good life should not be to slavishly follow a rational path, nor to simply indulge one’s passions, but a balance between the two. As Aristotle indicates in the quote at the beginning of the book, what is required is appropriate emotion – proportionate to the circumstances. If emotion is too suppressed one has a dull life; if too extreme life becomes pathologically immobilised.

 Anger can lead to disastrous situations. ‘Road rage’ can escalate to violence and even death. It has been claimed by some people that giving vent to anger and reviving old hurts can reduce anger. However this re-engaging with anger does little or nothing. It can actually pump up the emotional brain and trigger the physiological reactions throughout the body. It is often a major cause of continuing anxiety, reduced intellect and insomnia.

Marshalling feelings of enthusiasm, confidence and zeal stirs the prefrontal cortex and sets up the emotional drive leading to success in any endeavour. Sports people, actors, and indeed everybody can easily show that they perform better when they have feelings of hope and optimism. Indeed many books have been written on the power of positive thinking.

 Empathy is an emotion that builds on self-awareness. It depends on noting many clues from the other person, such as: tone of voice, shift in posture, facial expression and eloquence or silence. Infants show empathy almost right from birth – they respond to smiles and other facial expressions. The reading of emotions involves the amygdala–cortex circuitry and it requires enough calm to catch all the subtle signals communicated by another person.. Empathy is closely tied to moral judgements. We feel strong emotions when someone else is clearly unfairly treated and this often leads to sudden action.

In polite society there is a cultural reserve (which differs in different communities around the world) that restricts emotional leakage. This reduces empathy and it is part of the aim of Emotional Intelligence to manage that reserve, read people’s feelings and act in a positive sociological way.

 As school-aged children grow it is commonly observed that girls play in small intimate groups usually with minimal hostility, whilst boys play in larger groups emphasising competition. This leads to the general finding that girls are usually more adapt, than boys, at reading the emotions of others. Thus in later-life partnerships, it is frequently the case that a woman sees her role as an ‘emotional manager’ and may browbeat her partner into seeing himself as a victim. At the same time a man often fails to notice his partner’s feelings and does not acknowledge the love and respect that is a deep human need.

 Goleman refers to the many studies on the interaction between emotions and bodily health. He outlines the work which has identified the communication that takes place between the central nervous system and the immune system. The immune system depends on specific cells travelling to all parts of the body. These cells, the immune cells, are programmed to recognise foreign cells and to destroy these, whilst ignoring normal body cells. It has been shown that the hormones which may be released under extreme emotions, such as anger or grief, can surge through the body and inhibit the effectiveness of the immune cell function.

 There are examples of emotions affecting health, such as someone who is very scared about having an operation getting an increased blood flow and excessive post-operative bleeding. Some surgeons will delay an operation if a patient is excessively anxious. Long periods of sadness, anxiety and tension certainly lead to poor health. A link has been observed between anger and disease due to a rise in stress hormones. It has also been shown that people with stress in their lives have a higher probability of catching a common cold than others of a cheerful, optimistic, disposition. Depression can lead to loss of appetite and lethargy and other medical problems. Isolation is not good; the comforting feeling of another person to share private thoughts inhibits limbic activity, lowering the neurochemicals that trigger biological stress. Hope and optimism are good for health!

There are schools developing in USA where emotional intelligence is being taught, either as a separate standalone subject or as part of the curriculum and built into all subjects. For example in one New Haven School each child is asked first thing in the morning to say how they are feeling and all the other children are encouraged to try and cheer up those who are going through a sad or rough patch. In these schools they are taught to be assertive, rather than either angry or passive. They learn about cooperation, conflict resolution, negotiating compromise and how to read the emotions of other people on their faces or by other indicators.

 There is much more in this book that can’t be covered in a brief summary. It has a big list of references and further reading for each of the chapters. There are some people who might feel it places too much emphasis on mechanical aspects of brain and body. But the reader is left with a feeling of hope for improved cooperation on this earth as more people recognise the importance of emotional intelligence.

  R H Brown
26 January 2016

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