The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

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These scouts coat things with emotional significance. They come across an old friend and send back a surge of affection. They descend into a dark cave and send back a surge of fear. Contact with a beautiful landscape produces a feeling of sublime elevation. Contact with a brilliant insight produces delight, while contact with unfairness produces righteous anger. Each perception has its own flavor, texture, and force, and reactions loop around the mind in a stream of sensations, impulses, judgments, and desires.

These signals don't control our lives, but they shape our interpretation of the world and they guide us, like a spiritual GPS, as we chart our courses. If the general thinks in data and speaks in prose, the scouts crystallize with emotion, and their work is best expressed in stories, poetry, music, image, prayer, and myth.

I am not a touchy-feely person, as my wife has been known to observe. There is a great, though apocryphal, tale about an experiment in which middle-aged men were hooked up to a brain-scanning device and asked to watch a horror movie. Then they were hooked up and asked to describe their feelings for their wives. The brain scans were the same -- sheer terror during both activities. I know how that feels. Nonetheless, if you ignore the surges of love and fear, loyalty and revulsion that course through us every second of every day, you are ignoring the most essential realm. You are ignoring the processes that determine what we want; how we perceive the world; what drives us forward; and what holds us back. And so I am going to tell you about these two happy people from the perspective of this enchanted inner life.

My Goals

I want to show you what this unconscious system looks like when it is flourishing, when the affections and aversions that guide us every day have been properly nurtured, the emotions properly educated. Through a thousand concrete examples, I am going to try to illustrate how the conscious and unconscious minds interact, how a wise general can train and listen to the scouts. To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan from another context, the central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.

I'm writing this story, first, because while researchers in a wide variety of fields have shone their flashlights into different parts of the cave of the unconscious, illuminating different corners and openings, much of their work is done in academic silos. I'm going to try to synthesize their findings into one narrative.

Second, I'm going to try to describe how this research influences the way we understand human nature. Brain research rarely creates new philosophies, but it does vindicate some old ones. The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self. If you want to put the philosophic implications in simple terms, the French Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, loses; the British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiments, wins.

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