Emotions need us to provide the words

I went to a nonprofit training the other day, and in the course of talking about how to define the “why” of your organization, the speaker talked about the limbic area of the brain.

You know my ears perked right up. (THE HUMAN BRAIN IS AWESOME.)

The limbic system is the seat of our emotions, and emotions drive and influence everything we do and think. (Hume said so, so it must be true!)

Look at this face. This face GETS. IT. Trust this face. (Seriously, though, I love Hume.)

Unfortunately for us humans, the limbic system has no capacity for language. That means that the primary source of our decisions, the foundation for everything we do and say, in fact the source for almost everything we are, begins in a place and in a way that will always be somewhat of a mystery to us. There is an unbridgeable gap between the way we describe and understand ourselves through language, and who we really are.

In other words, we can only interpret ourselves, to ourselves and to others, after the fact rather than being able to explain ourselves directly.

That. Is. Wild.

This hit me hard, in a good way! As I’ve talked about before, I’m a deep feeler. I tick almost all the boxes on the Highly Sensitive Person test (minus the “I avoid violent movies and TV shows” and “Changes in my life shake me up” boxes), and learning how to deal with and understand the intense and sometimes overwhelming presence of emotions in nearly every aspect of my life has been a significant part of my adulthood and growth.

I am also a deep thinker. I love mulling over questions, thinking through complex ideas, and finding new (to me) truths about life. I cherish and seek out intellectual quiet time that allows me to think about things. I love running because it creates that space for me (the extra calories I get to stuff into my face after a long run is a nice bonus). My love for deep thinking is why I read and why I’m in a graduate philosophy program that has absolutely no connection to my job or career.

Because of the way I feel and think, learning that the limbic/emotional brain has no capacity for language made me really excited. It makes me excited as a reader and as a writer. Because our emotions don’t emerge understood or explained, there is rich opportunity to explore emotional experiences and talk about them in new, different, illuminating ways. No one explanation or exploration of a human experience will ever be “definitive.” The idea of an explanation being “definitive” relies on linguistic accuracy, and if our emotions don’t emerge with language, then there simply is no definitive linguistic representation that completely and perfectly encapsulates what an emotion is. All explorations are slightly metaphorical or analogical. There’s no place for “definitive” in metaphor, analogy, fiction, or philosophy, and that’s why I read so many books, so varied a selection, so enthusiastically.

I also decided that the language gap within ourselves is the reason I love, and find it to satisfying, to write. There is near unlimited opportunity to talk about our emotions (and thus our rationality, our ideas, our relationships, and ourselves) in new, different, and illuminating ways. How exciting to put into new words what is always somewhat beyond words, to try to capture something true about a large truth we can only ever see through a glass darkly. Every writing is new and has the potential to be a beautiful contribution to a deepening understanding of our own humanity. I just love the idea of writing as putting new true words to deep, wordless brain realities.

I think it’s time to update my blog tagline…


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