“Emotions are the Foundations of Reason”

“Emotions are the foundations of reason,” says David Brooks in today’s TED talk, “because they tell us what to value.”

Mr. Brooks is one of my favorite columnists in the NYTimes. Articulate and smart, this TED talk shows that he is also very funny. It’s fascinating that he spent three years culling research about our need as humans to be social. He admits, that emotions are not something he is known for, but in his research has found that “reading and educating your emotions is one of the central activities of wisdom.”

He sums up what many colleagues have been saying for years – that EQ is just as important as IQ, if not more. We do, however, have to be reflective about our biases. By nature, humans need to be social, but according to Brook’s research, it’s the quality of the social connection that matters, not just the superficial connection.

I keep seeing these terms, ‘mindsight’; ‘theory of mind’; ‘sympathy’; ‘group IQ’ (although Brooks says it’s less about IQ than the quality of connections among the group) in most of the books I’ve read over the past couple of years. Learning how to empathize and using one’s emotions to drive one’s reasoning are extremely important skills to grow.

Early in his talk, Brooks mentions what many of my colleagues and I have said: we can build a fancy school building (and we did), but it’s the connections we make and the values we share with each other, the parents, and kids that make a great school. I’m lucky as we’ve got that too.

It’s been an exceptional year of TED talks and I highly recommend this one. Will you take the 18 minutes to watch it?


62 thoughts on ““Emotions are the Foundations of Reason”

  1. “Emotions are at the center of our thinking … they tell us what to value.”
    The attachment theory he discusses is interesting, and makes me thankful it can be relearned if not taught from infancy. We’re not hopeless in this area, for the most part.
    Thank you for sharing.

    • hi, (simple life of a country man’s wife)

      I encourage you to read more about the attachment theory from Bowen. I have taken workshops to learn and discuss it.
      I believe his children are now studying attachment and adults and if it is ‘weak’ from childhood whether or not some of it can be ‘relearned’ -as you say.

  2. As with any “new” educational reform, caution should be mentioned – so as not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Reminds me of a principal (inner city school) who had just returned from a conference and beamingly told the faculty the “research showed that secondary school kids couldn’t be expected to learn effectively because they were so a-washed with hormones and learning to navigate the social aspect of society – so we didn’t have to worry about teaching them – just needed to teach them to get along with each other and society.” All I could think was these kids are reading 3-4 grade levels below and if we do this, what will happen to them in 4 or 5 years…they will be expected to have a certain level of mastery of information, knowledge, and skills…not just place nicely. (this was in the 80’s) There has to be a happy medium…especially since so many kids have few role models – the economy has forced parents to struggle to pay the bills with little time left to teach their children what’s important….and some of the schools aren’t much better. It seems important lessons are relevant to students’ lives and something they can relate to on several layers. As usual, teachers try to do what they have always done: figure out where the kids are – and take them where they need to go.

  3. This makes total sense to me! I’ve always drew connections between emotional thinking, social behaviors and reasoned responses….thought you couldn’t have one without the other, and if you did…then you were short changing yourself.

    Nice post!

  4. “Learning how to empathize and using one’s emotions to drive one’s reasoning are extremely important skills to grow.”
    i feel like this quote needs to be a big banner over every single school in the world. thanks for writing it

  5. This was very interesting and gave me, a recent graduate of English and Sociology, greater insight. I have a son with ADHD, who was suspended after seven weeks at college, a young adult who has been the subject of bullying throughout middle school, high school, and into college, told to further develop his social skills before returning.

    As this young man is in-tuned to others, this increases his anxiety as he is judged or prejudged. Yet, try as he might to make friends on this campus, when visiting I found him, like the politician, greeting those he passed on campus all by name, gaining the prospect, after a mere seven weeks to create strong relationship. Cut short, by those who could not accept his differences, feared by his outward signs of anxiety and difficulty transitioning when other’s are ready to go from clowning around to study time, then further intimidated by authority, was given no chance to succeed.

    When will the sensitive, move emotional, be accepted and seen beyond their differences instead of being defined and limited as disabled? It has become even more clear that the limitation of society in general is what is disabled/disabling.

    • Yes! I so agree with what you’ve said here, Aligaeta, that I don’t have to add anything else but praise to the writer of this post for it and the link to the TED talk! Thanks to both of you!

    • I understand completely. I have ADD, as do 2 of my 3 kids. It is a difficult condition without anyadded stress. I find that what has helped most on this wild journey, is to reach out to others who are similar, and I do not necessarily mean experts. They tend to offer advise that only translates to “normal” , non ADDers of the world. There are many support groups out there. Believe me you are not alone.
      Happy to correspond! Hang in there. I sense a lot of wear with all in your voice. This thind called ADD toughens you up. Don’t give up. Tenacity is one of ADHD’s great gifts! Take care!
      Jenni in Philly

  6. As I’ve grown as a teacher, it has become more and more apparent that relationship is the foundation of learning, at least the deepest learning, the learning that lasts and changes people.

    Thanks so much for sharing this link! And congrats on being Freshly Pressed!


  7. Emotions are the foundation of reason? Hardly. Emotion has repeatedly been shown to be irrational and illogical. Taking emotion as the fundamental principle of wisdom is a path towards folly. This is simply a movement by the elite to continue the downward spiral of education among the masses. In essence, David Brooks is suggesting less focus on learning practical skills such as math, science and literacy and more focus on understanding our emotional responses and social connections. Soon we’ll be populated with people who can laugh and cry together but are incapable of building a house or working in a research lab.
    Using emotion to drive one’s reason is exactly what every serial killer and sadist use as an excuse for their actions. Dictators also use “emotion” to justify the terror inflicted on their people out of “love” for their country. Drug addicts could also be added to the list. They feel awful, useless and powerless unless they are on their drug of choice. Following their emotion to drive reason, it would be reasonable to stay on the drug to make oneself feel better. Logic and cold, rational thought would say getting off the drug and addressing the issues and circumstances which led to the drug addiction would be the better course of action over the long term regardless of the short-term pain, physical and emotional.

    • My friend you are missing the point here. First if anyone has problems communicating in any way, or any area in his or her life, how do you expect them to develop full potential of wisdom learned at all levels. All communications are based on all well you relate to all circumstances of your life. To build a house one has only to open the books, schematics, blueprints and learn, now when that house is built your family, or people you live with all have emotions, and it doesn’t come from a metal toolbox, so I would suggest learning communication skills, which might be on an emotional level, so that harmony reigns in that house at least most of time, if not…its just a house and not a home…

      • I love the house is not a home analogy to explain why the commentor above missed the boat. Book knowledge is a vital part of becoming a well rounded person, but it is only a small piece of the whole puzzle that makes for a whole human being. Each person comes into this world with a unique set of needs, though one is universal, emotional. You cannot meet one and ignore the other. Balance is key.
        It is proven fact that children who come to school well fed and emotionally nurtured tend to be far more sucessful in their educational careers. This fact can not be disputed.
        You got me started. Time for me to blog!
        Jenni in Philly

  8. Long have we lived with the misconception that we are primarily rationale beings who emote…we are emotional beings with the CAPACITY to behave rationally. A huge and important difference.

  9. With the reservation that I have not taken the time to watch the movie, I am sceptical to these claims. Firstly, it is not a given that emotions tells us what to value: It can also be the other way around—or there may be no connection at all. (Depending on the issue.) Secondly, what we value is on another plane than reason: The former can affect the premises of reasoning (e.g. that it is better to be poor and healthy than rich and sickly), but is (ideally) detached from the actual reasoning. (There is always some amount of contamination, but this is something negative.)

    The division into EQ and IQ, in turn, has little to do with values and reasoning.

    • I think if people have a framework or a path to use that emotion and reflect on their feelings, many good things rather than negative can occur. It is true though, that human emotion can lead to negative and dangerous outcomes. Thanks for sharing your comments.


  11. Education should extend the learning environment to support the child, this includes emotional support. It is imperative that we develop individuals with good EQ. Look at the rate of teen suicide and lack of social skills. Something must be done. I will be taking the 18 minutes to watch the TED talk. Thanks!

    • Thanks for your comment. I was fortunate enough to see David Brooks last week in Seattle promoting his new book, and he mentioned the dark side of humanity you talked about – that tribalism that we all possess. Nonetheless, if we create frameworks to transcend those dark instincts through careful reflection, we can all grow in positive ways. I’m an optimist because regardless the horrors or the struggles, humanity has done the right thing.

  12. If we do not allow our children to know, show and feel emotions, we can hinder their social and emotional development, making it difficult for them to interact with people, hence where they may unconsciously become narcissistic and or lack compassion and empathy.

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  14. Emotions the foundation for reason? That’s just another way of watering down the standard truth and making it a relative thing. If we ascribe to this notion, our courts of law, criminal justice, and our governments will be absolute chaos.

  15. I very muched enjoyed this talk. But some of us have always been this way, despite what society has tried to teach us to be for the sake of success. And how do you get those who have thought for years now that to be a logical thinker (mostly)–and I think this is basically what he is talking about, the difference between emotional thinking and logical thinking (albeit, maybe a little “clouded” with materialism and unrealistic ideals of perfectionism)– to make that change to a more “humanized” way of thinking? Especially, if what they have been doing all along has brought them so much “materialistic success?”

    I think it’s important to grow in both ways from an early age. At times, you may use one more than the other, finding the right balance for each situation needed. There are other things thrown into the mix such as access to money, geographical locations, economic status, etc. All of these determine what tools you have available to you, and you “use what you’ve got” sometimes.

    In the end, what I know is I would much rather deal with those that can empathize, sympathize and at least partially comprehend my feelings about any given situation than those that stand on the outside of my world of understanding and have no ability whatsoever to “feel” what I go through in certain situations because they lack the depth to even want to go there with me (even for the simple reason of wanting to understand), or have never had the social experiences I’ve had and fear them.

  16. Emotion is an effect that is used to refer to a broad class of behaviors that include facial and vocal expressions as well as neurological and physiological patterns. And it is subjective experience of emotion—which may last seconds or minutes—and the term mood involves feelings that last over a protracted period of time.

  17. Since EQ keeps popping up:

    o The concept of EQ (as proposed by e.g. Goleman) is almost tautologically good. The thought seems to have been “take everything that has a positive effect on success, except IQ, and put the label EQ on this collection”. With such definitions, EQ is automatically good, but also lacks informational value.

    o From another point of view, we can divide the aspects of various related concepts into three categories: Firstly, those that bring an objective value in general (e.g. being mature). Secondly, those that bring an objective value when dealing with humans (e.g. being able to understand unspoken needs). Thirdly, those that are only useful because humans are flawed (e.g. leaving a sympathetic impression, even when being a crook; a strong component of these is often merely being extroverted, without any actual skills involved). Now, in my experience, those who are considered “socially skilled”, “emotionally intelligent”, whatnot, tend to excel in the third, be semi-decent in the second, and be sub-average in the first.

    • Being “socially skilled” for selfish purposes or puposes of gaining employment in the world’s (increasingly) sales-oriented job forces, and being “emotionally intelligent” are two different things. One borrows from the other to achieve a shadowy goal. The other is the basis of being able to coexist peacefully with others in human society.

      • Being socially skilled, however, is not inherently something selfish: Guns don’t kill people—people kill people. Emotional intelligence, in turn, is something more than “just” being able to coexist peacefully. Further, as with social skills, it is a matter of ability—not use. Both can be used for good or evil purposes. Your description “One borrows from the other to achieve a shadowy goal.” is deeply flawed.

        The problem I indirectly address above is that that these two concepts (and several related) tend to be misunderstood or understood with a focus on just one single aspect—with the side-effect that many who are considered an asset due to ability with regard to that single aspect are being lauded despite weaknesses in related areas. (While those who are strong in these areas are often overlooked.)

    • I’m sorry to have misunderstood the point you were trying to make. The non-linear approach you took made it difficult for me to follow. The point I was trying to make in answer to you, was not as you restated it in your answer. I don’t think anything about emotional life is so simple. If I hadn’t been trying to further the discussion of your point, I would have said that one CAN borrow from the other. That is only one aspect of many on this subject..

  18. I am a nurse who practice pediatrics for 15 years of my career. Attachment theory is the basis of infancy development. “Emotions are at the center of our thinking..they tell us what to value” Dead on correct. But I can tell you that it took me 25 years to reach a level of maturity to appreciatie that, then had family, established a career and another 25 years later I am here appreciating that statement again. In summary, listen to your heart, it speaks the truth.

  19. For a long time i believed emotions are a waste of time. as a strong believer in Ayn Rand’s objectivism emotions with out rational reason are bound to disaster. May be as you said EQ also must be considered with the some how different perspective.

  20. Without wanting to judge sight unseen too much, I suspect Mr. Brooks would benefit from a more complete and systematic theory of the human psyche and of what intelligence is. I’ve had the privilege to be learning about one and I wish my teachers could get on TED and outline it. I’d be glad to fill in the gap if I had any formal standing worth mentioning.

    First, while our “sentiments” attach most strongly to our capacity for making personal and universal value judgments, that capacity and our “sentiments” or emotions aren’t one and the same thing. Rather, the emotions are a sign (though not an infallible one) that our capacity for value judgments is operating.

    Second, value judgments are the foundation of wisdom, not the foundation of reason. The capacity itself – what Jungians call Introverted Feeling, itself a somewhat misleading term to many – is but one of eight (by another measure, nine) cognitive processes, forms of consciousness of kinds of intelligence used in human reason, but simply having high “IQ or EQ” in this capacity does not guarantee wisdom. This is because Introverted Feeling has a personal and a universal element and we humans easily confuse the two. How easily and quickly we confuse what we personally want for what is really universally good for each of us!

    There is a reason why the Bible says “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all they who do His commandments”. There is a reason why Jesus said when facing his death, “Nevertheless not my will, but Your will, be done.” Being able to discern between personal and universal values may not be the foundation of reason per se, but it is the foundation of sound reason, and that distinction isn’t negligible.

  21. Pingback: “Emotions are the Foundations of Reason” (via Seconds) « uneducate

  22. Emotions are at the center of our thinking; no matter how much we deny it, our emotions have input into what decisions we make. As if our emotions weren’t involved this world would be pretty cold hearted. However as a general rule, we have to take into account the emotions we’re feeling when we’re making the decision.

    As one of these mornings someone could be gone…

  23. His point is fair and valid. He doesn’t name or blame Cartesian thinking, but it lies at the root of what he describes — I think, therefore I am. Not, I feel, therefore I am.

    I agree with many of his points and think they’re worth wider discussion. But this idea comes at a time when many people think because “I feel X” that X is therefore de facto valid and not simply a subjective read of any situation. The challenge is to blend rational thought and factual data with emotional truth to make wise decisions and choices, both individual and political, as Brooks says.

    As another commenter wisely says, if we focus solely on emotion, chaos ensues.

  24. Maybe there is a misunderstanding of concepts here – obviously, “good” emotions that propel someone to do “good”, empathizing or seeing deeper than what is on the surface is a good thing. But the subject line does not make these distinctions. The subject lines says that emotions are the foundation of reason. But when I think of “reason”, I think of the tool we as humans use to gather factual information. Emotions are subjective and highly conditioned by past experiences, good and bad and are hardly reliable to gather facts and truths. Gathering truth via your emotions may be “your” truth, but it may not be “my” truth. And that is the problem with the statement in the subject line – reason is based on nebulous ideas with no standard…and thereby we make facts and truth obsolete. When facts and truth become obsolete, chaos inevitably ensues.

  25. A lot of people will use the headline quote as an excuse to substitute a thought-out reasoned reaction with an emotional reaction.

    It’s worth pointing out that this is very much NOT what the speaker is suggesting. What he’s discussing is being actively aware of one’s emotional state and how it develops, and _integrating_ those emotional responses into how we process the world. Humans use heuristics rather than algorithms to process new situations and being aware of that is massively important in developing insight into our decision-making processes. Heuristics naturally use past experience (including emotional experiences) to process information and come up with reactions.

    It’s vital not to be frightened by these emotions, and not to be closed off to them. But they aren’t a substitute for reason. They _inform_ reason. In fact, we can make better reasoned arguments when being aware of, understanding, and using those emotions. That’s what he’s driving at with the phrase “foundation of reason”, and it’s a very sound principle to apply.

    It requires both insight and practice to develop these skills however.

    • Beyondanomi, that’s a fair explanation, but I still maintain (and without a predisposed fear of emotions) that the foundation of reason is made up of facts and truth. Emotions may complement how we apply and relay these truths and facts, but they do not in any way become a foundation of any kind for reason. EQ is an elegant vehicle by which facts and truths are applied and relayed.

      Take for instance the colour blue. We have a scientific standard by which to understand colour pigments and hues. Emotion will tell one person that blue is a beautiful colour, based on her memories of a bright blue sky in summer; while for another, blue might be the ugliest of colors, based on her memories of a blue painted room associated with negative memories. Emotions may affect a person view of a truth, but truth exists outside of their emotional judgements…and “reason” is the our ability to recognize facts and truths, in spite of emotional judgements.

      • I’m not convinced we differ in the essence of what we’re saying. Perhaps more so in the _application_ of what we saying. That sounds awfully obscure… what I mean is that it seems we both essentially agree that emotions color our perceptions, and this can be used to influence the judgements we make.

        However, you would seem to be arguing that the non-emotional components that we base our judgements on have a higher Truth (or Reality) than the emotional ones. This is what I take away from your paragraph re: defining blue.

        I would suggest there is no particular reason that a non-emotional description of blue is any more True (or Real) than the emotional one, especially when considering that the _effective_ impact of blue on our existence is far more driven by the emotional component.

        The wavelengths of blue light can be fairly easily objectively agreed upon, but the skillful use of blue in art and media to elicit emotional responses has arguably had more overall net impact than that fact.

        I’m not elevating emotion above reason; far from it. But reason is not purely logical; indeed, it’s extremely rare that we use logic alone to come to a decision. It would be intensely – impossibly – time-consuming to do so. Much more commonly, we take short-cuts in decision-making. Those heuristic short-cuts are a function of experience and pattern-recognition, and both of those are coloured heavily by emotional overlay. That’s why emotions are inevitably part of making human judgements.

        Now, I suppose there’s a valid semantic argument to be made as to whether judgement is technically the same as reason or not. If you define reason solely as logic, then I’d agree that emotion is no part of it. However, I would define human reason, at least in a practical sense, as being our skill at making judgements, and in that case, emotion is most definitely a key foundation. I rather think that’s the point the speaker is trying to make, too, though perhaps I’m reading too much into what he says. I would disagree with the use of the definite article by the speaker, and subsititute the indefinite, however.

      • Beyondanomie, it would appear that we agree on some level, but I think at the core of the argument, we really don’t. I guess what I’ve been trying to say is that reason gleans facts; and regardless of my value judgements, facts remain intact and unchanged. Facts stand on their own. I glean the facts through reason – reason dissects truth from fiction and leaves little room for emotions which are purely subjective.

  26. Yes it requires both insight and practice to develop emotional skills but not all people are born with healthy minds. Being aware of our emotions does not always give us the ability to recognize facts and truths.
    As pointed out by Renee Davies: “gathering truth via your emotions may be “your” truth, but it may not be “my” truth”

    Beyondanomie said it best; “being actively aware of one’s emotional state and how it develops, and integrating those emotional responses into how we process the world” is a fundamental truth.

  27. Perhaps we are merely lost in mid-sentence…

    I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, because I’m not myself you see.
    – Alice, “Alice in Wonderland”

    We are both the Author and the Protagonist.

    Although some would argue that our story is already written and that we are simply walking through our pre-determined roles, I’m not among them. That being said, when it comes to the choices we make — how/why/what we decide — I’ll concede a portion of the “Free Will is a Myth” argument. It’s impossible (foolish) to dismiss the impact and minimize the complexity of the genetic, biochemical, social, environmental and physical determinants that create circumstance and feed the decisions we make. I find myself in the uncomfortably comfortable camp of supporting a philosophy of limited free will and limited determinism. At this very moment, now, this mostly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen mass of neurons, protons and electrons called, “Michael” is the sum total of his (its) atomic experience. Okay, got it. What about the next moment? Is there a point in time where there is an “I” and “I” gets to call the shots? How about a moment where I get to take the stage for a solo performance while giving a tip of my hat or the back of my hand (depending upon the performance) to my supporting cast of ancestors, butterfly wings, travelers, dopamine surges and neuron receptors?

    In this cosmic story, am I (Michael) a word, a paragraph, a punctuation mark, an independent/dependant clause? Perhaps I’m merely a work in progress, a partially written sentence created by a multitude of causes put into play before this form of “I” arrived. That being the case, perhaps I am both an evolving and expanding causation particle in a collective universe as well as a solitary effect innocently stumbling in mid-sentence — pen in hand, tasked with completing the line — doing the best I can and trying not to get too lost along the journey.

    “So long as a man imagines that he cannot do this or that, so long as he is determined not to do it; and consequently so long as it is impossible to him that he should do it.”
    – Baruch Spinoza

  28. Nothing like having an argument with one’s self. Dualism fascinates me, I wonder how the murderer “Manson” would reply? Does everything change in the Power of Love? And what is Love, since we are on the subject of “Emotions”
    I feel, you feel we all feel, and for the ones who don’t, can you inspire us somehow? I’d like to have a conversation with a self-made person, and how we know them? I will take my chances in this emotional rat stew, because it makes me fee alive.

  29. Pingback: El Atractivo Físico en las ventas « David Navarro, el Experto en Imagen

  30. I always understood “reason” to be something that was unaffected by emotions. People are led by emotions, oftentimes erroneously. Isn’t reason or good reasoning something that exists outside of us, something we all need to strive for, but that certainly does not come just because I “feel” this way or that way. A wife’s emotions may tell her that her spouse ought to die for being unfaithful, she may be emotional enough to act on her emotions, but in a court of law, will she be able to defend herself because her emotions led her to reason in such a way? I don’t buy it. Reason is a precious commodity and too few people use it.

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