Our feelings are worthy of scientific scrutiny
Plato was wrong, and so was my doctor
The story of my son’s birth (like all birth stories) is one of big emotions. After over 24 hours of contractions, fetal heart rate decelerations, spiking a fever, and well into the second hour of pushing, I had reached my limit.
I cried. I was exhausted and frustrated and worried about needing a c-section or other unexpected interventions. My husband, holding my head, applauded and comforted me. My doula reassured me that the baby was making progress towards entering the world. The medical intern at some point called me “one tough cookie.” As soon as I stopped crying, the doctor, who had been an inconsistent presence until I started pushing, once again broached the topic of other interventions. Specifically, he said:
“We can’t let emotions rule our decision-making. We have to be rational here.”
Emotions get a bad rap, scientifically speaking. They’re messy and subjective and, hey, aren’t scientists supposed to idealize cold rationality above all else? Remember Plato’s charioteer of reason that keeps the horses of passion in line? Or Freud’s theory that we need our rational ego to keep our libidinous id controlled? Isn’t that how our brains work, too?
I don’t have the space in this one newsletter to detail all the ways that this is bullshit, or, to be more generous, an incredibly simplified notion of the complexity of our brains and experiences.1 The dichotomy between emotion and rationality is a false one. Yes, there are some parts of our brain that appear to be more active when we’re enjoying a beautiful sunset, while other parts of our brain are more active when we are deciding whether to turn left or right at our next intersection. But there is no “emotion center” or “rationality center” of our brain. There are more neuronal connections in our brains than stars in our galaxy - to think that our brains have evolved in such an inefficient fashion is ludicrous, just like the notion that we only use 10% of our brains at any given moment.
More importantly, we need emotions. They help tell us what’s important in life and what isn’t. They’re integral for deciding what to eat for lunch as much as they are for helping us figure out whether to quit our job. Emotions are features, not bugs, of these seemingly “rationality-based” experiences. They color everything in our lives. Tell me a time in your life when you haven’t felt an emotion. Tell me about a decision you made that was completely devoid of any feeling. You can’t. The idea that we, as flawed human beings, can ever be completely objective has probably caused more damage to this world (and to one another) than if we just admitted (and built systems around) our inherent partiality. Judges give more harsh sentences when they’re hungry than when they’re not. How we feel affects what we see. Stress can kill us. Love can heal us. It’s time we all take that seriously.
Luckily, there are scientists out there who are taking our feelings seriously. Affective science is just that - the science of feelings. Neuroscientists, psychologists, physicians, economists, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, public health experts… professionals doing the important, serious work of better understanding our emotions. Even when things get messy, there are entire analytic approaches devoted to taking our unique, unquantifiable experiences and understanding them in a systematic fashion.
But back to those who devalue all things related to feelings. Why? I have always believed that sexism plays a large role in this denigration. Who have, until relatively recently (historically speaking), been the ones who got to decide what’s worthy of taking seriously and what isn’t? Women are so emotional, while men are stoic and rational, right? Professions that are perceived as more feminine - caregiver, educator, nurse - are consistently undervalued and perceived to lack prestige. As are those professions associated with feelings. Psychiatry, therapy, social work… mental health is all about feelings.
To be clear, this devaluation hurts all of us. It’s part of the reason why there’s so much stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment. It’s why we ghettoize mental health treatment as separate than physical health (yet another false dichotomy). It’s why mental health concerns are consistently ranked as one of the top causes of disability, yet there’s only an estimated one mental health provider for every 10,000 global citizens. It’s also partially why the United States is one of only two countries to report an increase in maternal mortality rates since 2000: Mental health concerns remain one of the leading causes of maternal mortality after the initial postpartum period, second only to heart muscle disease.
Being a mother is right at the intersection of all of this bullshit. It’s why I wanted to start this newsletter in the first place.
Which brings me back to the doctor. As soon as he tried to talk to me about “being rational,” wiping the still-fresh tears from my face, my sadness quickly turned to anger. A newfound resolve developed. I silently assured my yet-to-be-born child that we could do this. I was determined to deliver my baby with no other interventions, if only to spite this sexist asshat of a doctor. After three total hours of pushing, my son was born. No other interventions.
I will always be grateful for this doctor for bringing my first child safely into this world. But, also, fuck him. For a brief moment he made me feel stupid and small for having a (normative, REASONABLE) emotional reaction. He made me question whether my emotions were valid. He tried to sell me the lie that emotions and rationality are in war with one another, with a clear hero and a clear villain. I knew better. In that moment, my baby and I became an unstoppable team. I am grateful that the feeling that helped bring my son into this world was total and unfailing belief in myself.
So, in this new year of 2022, I wanted to wish you the same unfailing belief in yourself (without the aforementioned rage). Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your feelings are valid. They are serious business, worthy of scientific scrutiny. So is your mental health. It is so easy to feel invisible as a parent, particularly now. You’re not.
There’s a whole book that can do that! How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett.