How to be sustainable? How to stop climate change, deforestation or nitrogen-caused eutrophication? Some people postpone the urgency of protecting the planet and building a fairer society based on the idea that we need more knowledge. Here’s why we might actually need to face our feelings rather than constantly search for new information.

Reductionist Science Under Pressure and Holistic Science

There is a crisis in academic publishing, says Hans de Wit, Professor and Director of the ‘Center for International Higher Education’ (CIHE) at Boston College, USA. He believes the is too much pressure coming from every direction.

“Too much pressure on top journals, too many books of marginal quality, the rise of predatory journals, and publishers that publish low or marginal quality research”, says de Wit. At the same time, there is tremendous pressure on academics worldwide to publish, and there are even a couple of scientists publishing over 70 papers a year.

Daniel Christian Wahl, the author of Designing Regenerative Cultures, criticizes considering only valid and informative the conclusions from “reductionist, analytical, quantity focussed science and even mechanistic explanatory frameworks“. Despite acknowledging reductionist science as a useful approach with frameworks that have their place and that have been serving societal developments, Wahl calls for the need to make shifts and focus on more holistic and systemic interpretations of the complex problems we are facing.

Shifting from focusing on “quantities and measurement to focusing on qualities of interactions and direct experience. Shifting “away from the myth of the independent, detached, objective observer towards understanding science as a participatory activity based on inter-subjective consensus building.” And acknowledging the important role that imagination and creativity play in science to complement the analytical approach are some of Wahl’s suggestions.

Knowledge Is Worthless If Ignored or Kept Inside a Box

There’s a huge gap between knowing something and doing it. And today’s society is full of evidence of this phenomenon, as we have exposed in our piece: “Normal” Is Not Where We Want to Return to After Coronavirus.

For instance, there are countless studies showing exercise has multiple health and well-being positive effects – this is not a controversial issue. However, in the U.S., only 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 high school students meet the recommended physical activity guidelines. More than half of Europeans do not do any vigorous physical activity and around half do not engage in moderate physical activity.

We could go on and on with examples in which knowledge is not put into use. From smoking and screen addiction to climate inaction or the overconsumption of foods that lead to obesity and cause cardiovascular diseases, which have been increasing worldwide.

This raises a bunch of relevant questions: why isn’t this knowledge applied? Aren’t people aware or do they simply ignore the facts? Are irrelevant stories the ones most shared by the media? Is reality just too complex and interconnected that we fail do see the bigger picture? How useful is knowledge if it is not applied? What factors help explain why humans ignore the knowledge scientists strive so hard to find? If by human evolution and progress we mean new discoveries and more knowledge, and if we don’t put it to use, what is it for then?

Rational VS Emotional Decision Making

According to Yale researcher Dan Kahan, people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce beliefs that have already been shaped by their worldview, and that give them a sense of belonging. When this sense of belonging is under threat, science, which appears to our rational brain, can even be left behind while local values and local opinions get overrated, Dr. Marcia McNutt, former Editor in Chief at Science suggests.

McNutt says our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers as we have a need to fit in. This line of thought is compatible with Kahan’s claims that it may not be totally “irrational” to reject established climate science: because people are also arguing about who they are and who their crowd is – it is also personal. For instance, doubting excessive carbon emissions are harmful and should be reduced could mean not being part of fossil fuel extraction tribe anymore.

Dr. António Damásio is a Portuguese neurologist whose book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain is a landmark in contemporary neuroscience. He has shown emotions influence and even completely control the outcome of a large number of decisions people make. Does this mean at people’s emotions can change the decisions they make?

Reacting to Stimuli with Emotions and Feelings

Though they are often used interchangeably, emotions and feelings aren’t the same. Damásio, whose main discovery was that feelings are “mental experiences of body states,” differentiates them in this way:

“We are afraid of something, our hearts begin to race, our mouths become dry, our skin turns pale and our muscles contract. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. Feelings occur after our brains becomes aware of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of fear.

António Damásio, Neurologist

Damásio points ou we are probably wired to respond with an emotion when certain features of stimuli in the world or in our bodies are perceived. For instance, we don’t learn to fear a big shade making a big noise in the middle of the woods. Rather, we have this emotional response – fear – pre-programmed and wired in us.

However, we do learn more complex responses Damasio calls secondary emotions: responses which derive from experience – particularly in childhood and adolescence, extending throughout our whole lives – and acquired knowledge. We discover these emotions as we associate certain stimuli with positive or negative outcomes. The process of making these associations is by no means foolproof though, especially when it comes to statistical biases.

Human Reasoning: Emotions, Feelings, and Biological Regulation

Damásio proposes human reason depends “high-level” and “low-level” brain regions collaborate in the making of reason. The lower levels regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with the body functions needed for survival. These include heart rate regulation, endocrine functions, adjustment of smooth muscle contraction, regulation of immunity, among others.

These lower levels put the body directly within the chain of command that makes the highest reaches of reasoning, decision making, and, by extension, social behavior, and creativity. Hence, emotion, feeling, and biological regulation all play a role in human reasoning, i.e., in the identification of alternatives, the prediction of outcomes, and the determination of the alternative most likely to yield the best outcome.

Human reasoning is a very demanding mental activity that requires a lot from our attention and memory and is extremely time-consuming. Emotions are a very useful automatic biasing mechanism that helps fasten decision making by ruling out predicted negative outcomes. With a smaller range of alternatives, we then use resource-intensive reasoning strategies on a much smaller set of options.

Biases in Thinking and Decision Making

Emotions enhance our finite capacities of attention and working memory by heightening our perception and recollecting good or bad options, rendering them more vivid and easier to recall in the mind. However, since they are biased, they can also mislead decision making and undermine the reasoning process.

These mistakes are likely a result of errors in our individual experience of developing secondary emotions, the process by which we create associations between certain stimuli and positive or negative outcomes. We link secondary emotions with stimuli during all our lives, but childhood and adolescence experiences are key to forming our secondary emotions.

In this way, according to Damasio, inaccurate or irrational associations (such as traumas) made during our formative years help explain why sometimes emotions interfere with reasoning rather than support it. At the same time, on what concerns reasoning, when we’re under stress or when the stakes are high, attention and memory levels at our disposal may decline, making it harder to make the best a decision.

Inside Out: a Greater Emotional Intelligence in Decision Making

Wise, informed speculation has been allowing humanity to expand its knowledge throughout the times, reducing what is unknown. At the same time, science is always provisional and susceptible to being overturned by future experiments. This helps explain why proclaiming absolute truth or certainty in the name of science is incorrect – uncertainty is inevitable at the limits of knowledge.

Reductionist science and the unuse of the precautionary principle had been leading humanity towards a pre-coronavirus related that is both bad for most of society and that is destroying the ecosystem functions that allow Life, including ours, to flourish.

In this way, as Wahl puts it, a shift from science that tries to maximize our ability to predict and control nature towards a new understanding that aims for appropriate participation in the processes that support all life on Earth may well be a wise direction to follow for the greater good to humanity in the long term.

Such “new understanding” might just as well require a greater ability to access, interpret, and act upon our emotions so we can make better, more holistic decisions. Exploring our emotions will likely help us understand and compensate when inaccurate or irrational emotions lead us to wrong decisions.

There are numerous scientific papers showing the benefits effects of quiet or active meditations or spending more time outdoors in nature in activities such as forest bathing. There are many therapeutical techniques that challenge us to go back to our growing up time and face our traumas – therefore stopping them from limiting our decision-making due to irrational fears and fallacious emotional associational.

Perhaps the suggestions above should be part of the curricula of those running for office? What impact could it have on large business leaders and owners? There are so many revolutionary ideas, there is so much knowledge available that is forgotten. What if what a better world needs is not more knowledge, but rather more emotionally-conscious ways of making decisions?

[Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash]