‘But what then am I ? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, affirms, desires, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.’
Rene Descartes, Meditations II (1641)
In this post, I want to explore how thinking and feeling are intricately linked; I will then move on into how these two faculties crucially interact in the therapeutic situation.
Can we ever disentangle thinking and feeling? They are so intricately linked, both from a psychological and a neuroscientific point of view. There are so many differing views of the way in which these two human faculties relate to each other.
For example, Ken Robinson, in his excellent book Out of Our Minds regards them as more than linked, to the extent of being merged, or one and the same. He regards feelings as actually ’forms of perception,’ so that, for example, feeling grief at someone’s death is actually an ‘evaluation,’ revealing something about the quality our relationship with the dead person.
Piero Scaruffi, who has written on Consciousness in Volume 4 of Thinking about Thought : The Structure of Life and the Meaning of Matter, sees the two faculties as less enmeshed, but nevertheless emphasises their crucial interdependence:
‘While the relationship between “feeling” and “thinking” is still unclear, it is generally agreed that all beings who think also feel. That makes feelings central to an understanding of thinking.’
Whilst it might be difficult at present to be more precise, what is known is that the interplay of these two functions is complex, an inextricably interwoven mass of finely-tuned connections, deep within areas of the brain and the psyche. The amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons deep within the brain, plays an important role in processing certain feelings, like fear and pleasure. The neocortex is involved in advanced level mental functions, such as consciousness and rational thought.
Daniel Goleman used the term Emotional Intelligence in his book of the same name to describe the combination of empathy and emotion with clear and rational thought. Emotion guides and informs the thinking and behavioural process:
‘the workings of the amygdala and its interplay with the neocortex are at the heart of emotional intelligence.’
Understanding our emotions helps us to control and manage them and to develop functional relationships with other people.
What of the term ‘cognition?’ The words ‘thinking’ and ‘cognition’ are often used interchangeably. However, cognition is more of an overall, inclusive term, representing general mental capacities, the tools and hardware of our mind, such as the ability to reason, to acquire language, to remember, judge – and to think. Scaruffi regards cognition as being ‘at the service of our primary inner life : thoughts and emotions.’
‘Emotions play the key role of being preconditions to cognition and therefore to thought. ‘
We need a harmonious blend of both thought and feeling to function in the world. Can we even contemplate being in a world without either of these crucial faculties?
Imagine for a moment: a lack of feeling would mean that we would be robotic, and relationships with others would be impossible. There would be no love, hatred, guilt, desire, sadness, anger. Stasis and immobility would be the result, for we would be unable to do anything at all.
Without feeling, there would be no conflict, no ambition or motivation. Emotions like discontent, envy, boredom, stimulate us to move forward; anger rouses us to action, desire makes us search, love makes us give, hatred makes us fight.
Charlotte Bronte said that is is ‘better to be without logic than without feeling.’ Yet what would happen if there were no thought, no logic ? Absence of thought would result in chaos; if we could not think, there would be no sense or meaning in anything, and we would all be like riderless horses, careering through life with no aims or intentions.
Patrick McGhee, in his book Thinking Psychologically, writes in a very enlightening way about the importance of developing our thinking capacities, as well as our feelings:
‘We would all, I think, consider ourselves substantially incomplete in some significant way if we did not develop our emotional maturity or achieve our full emotional potential (however defined). But is it not also the case with thinking? Should we not also reckon our time in life by the range of forms of thought we experience as well as the forms of feeling? And is not cognitive as well as emotional maturity a form of human potential worth developing?’
It is interesting that he mentions the phrase ‘forms of thought.’ A book that I have found very central to my work as a psychotherapist is the late Dr Robert Hobson’s Forms of Feeling. He describes the word ‘feeling’ in the book’s title as an integrated aspect of the human psyche:
‘When I speak of feeling, I do to mean a faculty of emotions plus a faculty of cognition. It is a kind of ‘emotional knowing…’’
He emphasises the importance of using different types of thinking in the therapeutic process and especially underlines the importance of imaginative thought:
‘A psychotherapist needs to observe scrupulously details of verbal and non-verbal interaction in the interview. At the same time he envisages, with feelings…..new possibilities, new forms, new patterns of meaning. He needs to use imagination, described by Coleridge as:
‘the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere and with it the depth and height the ideal world, around forms, incidents and situations of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dewdrops.’’
Psychotherapy is, in fact, ultimately about helping people to think, clearly and creatively. (I will highlight the words in the following paragraphs that all reference forms of thinking in order to illustrate how central is the thinking process to psychotherapy.)
Therapy helps patients to become acquainted with their inner and outer world, to find ways of thinking through their problems that could lead to greater knowledge of themselves and other people. As therapy progresses, there is encouragement to face what might have been forbidden to the conscious mind through fear and to decipher those uneasy murmurings from the depths of the unconscious.
It is, understandably, difficult to think clearly when one is beset by painful and disturbing feelings; clearing out the dead wood of a painful past can be a confusing, contradictory and labyrinthine process. Yet it is crucially important to work through these feelings in therapy, to recognise their links to the past and to begin to understand their power to affect the present. It is psychotherapy that aims to help the patient know feelings. It helps the patient to gain insight into themselves and the world around them.