© Joe Pepler/Shutterstock

When Leonard Mlodinow was naughty as a child, his mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, would explode. “I wish I were dead,” she’d shout. “Why didn’t Hitler kill me?” As he grew older, he realised that the trauma she endured triggered reactions that were disproportionate. His peers’ parents would not tell their children to finish their chicken with a warning such as, “Someday you might wake up and find that your whole family was killed!” 

While her experiences were extreme he came to see that we all share similarities. “Deep within our brains,” he writes in Emotional, “our shadowy unconscious mind is continuously applying the lessons of our past experience to predict the consequences of our current circumstances.” 

As Mlodinow was growing up, scientists “believed that rational thought was the dominant influence on our behaviour and that when emotions played a role they were likely to be counterproductive”. Today things are very different. “We know that emotion is as important as reason in guiding our thoughts and decisions . . . While rational thought allows us to draw logical conclusions, emotion affects the importance we assign the goals and the weight we give to the data.”

The book is an attempt to understand the purpose of emotions and how they affect us — as well as what we can do to control them. The author is a physicist by training and co-authored two books with Stephen Hawking as well as a biography of the black hole researcher. But he has also written popular science books about the mind, including Elastic (about flexible thinking) and The Drunkard’s Walk (the impact of random events on our psyche). He is fluent at blending personal stories, with case studies on plane crashes and trading floors as well as psychological and neuroscientific research. While I marvel at the skill that enables him to crunch so much information in a compelling way, I do wonder if such books targeting the general reader have become rather formulaic.

Nonetheless, this exploration of the interplay of emotion and thought is fascinating. A psychopathic killer — far from being crazy — is guided by an internal logic but lacks any social emotion such as empathy, remorse and shame. Emotional looks at the way that hunger and fatigue affect emotions as well as thought, so impedes decision-making among doctors and bankers. It shows emotions allow a “delay between the event that triggers the emotion and the response that enables us to employ our rational thought to strategically temper our instinctive reaction”. And the ways that different nationalities label emotions calls into question objective criteria to describe emotions.

As Covid rates increased in London throughout December and social gatherings were cancelled, a palpable gloom descended across the city. Only a few weeks before I had been optimistic about the festive season, steaming a home-made Christmas pudding, buying presents for family from whom I’d been separated the year before.

In normal circumstances, I keep such feelings to myself and spiral, even though I know that is counterproductive. Yet, Mlodinow shows that emotions are contagious — and if someone else’s feelings can affect us then we can also control our own. One strategy is reappraisal. The best options traders, found one researcher, were those that understood the importance of emotions such as stress, rather than denied it, and were also able to look back at their performance to understand that one huge loss did not sink their career.

Another method is to express negative emotions, either in conversation or writing (such as in an unsent email to an annoying colleague that will remain forever in a draft folder). During lockdowns white-collar workers told me that one of the hardest parts of remote working had been ruminating over upsetting incidents that would have been dealt with in a minute in the office by chatting to a desk-mate.

The book even comes with a quiz section to analyse your emotional type. After confirming I was apt to worry, I was reassured by the author’s words: “There is no right and wrong . . . Everyone is different and those differences are part of who we are,” writes Mlodinow. “I have friends who are chronically anxious and proud of it; they claim it helps them be more cautious and avoid trouble. I know others who are profoundly joyful and optimistic, which often leads them to suboptimal decisions but is a happy state of being.”

Mlodinow examines the way that companies manipulate emotions to get us to eat processed foods, for example. It would be easy to throw up our hands as a consumer as we gorge ourselves on cake but understanding consumer groups’ methods can help us curb such impulses.

Determination is increased by aerobic exercise and mindfulness “which teaches attention control, emotion regulation and increased self-awareness”.

One area that Mlodinow could have investigated more was the historical characterisation — and dismissal — of women as governed by their emotions, and a greater understanding of the socialisation of emotions for boys and girls.

Nonetheless, Emotional shows that rather than being counterproductive, emotions enrich our lives and understanding them better equips us to realise “what it means to be humans”.

Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings by Leonard Mlodinow, Allen Lane, £20/Knopf, $28.95, 272 pages

Emma Jacobs is the FT’s work & careers columnist

More from FT books

Books of the year 2021

From politics and history to art and fiction — FT writers and critics pick their favourite reads in our annual round-up

Books to read in 2022

From Covid’s consequences to the House of Windsor, FT books editors pick their titles to look for in the coming year

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article