Modern neuroscience and psychology, in contrast, teach that the ancient dichotomy between “cold” logic and “hot” passion is as misleading as is the idea of a gender difference. Dirac obviously never lacked feelings, and men are guided by them just as much as are women. Nonmaterial, emotion-free minds are a figment of the imagination. “No body, never mind,” wrote the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. Since mind, brain and body are one, it’s impossible to disentangle our vaunted rationality from the emotions.
It is interesting to see this argument being developed by a writer who started his career as a theoretical physicist. Mlodinow has written previous books with and about his late friend Stephen Hawking, and others that explained how randomness permeates our lives. With “Emotional,” he dives into a field that is clearly not his own. The result is a rather intellectualized version of the emotions without all of their bodily manifestations and long evolutionary history. Charles Darwin is duly mentioned, but we don’t read about some of the greats, such as the psychologist Paul Ekman or the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who placed facial expressions and emotional brain circuitry in an evolutionary context. This isn’t Mlodinow’s focus.
Those interested in understanding how feelings unconsciously steer thought, however, are in for a stimulating read. Mlodinow handles this topic astutely with compelling examples and attention to the latest research, which is quite spectacular. He writes in a brisk, friendly style that easily draws you in and makes you reflect on both the recounted anecdotes and your own way of handling comparable situations. In this regard, I found it a plus that the author came to this field from the outside. He wastes little time on the academic controversies of the day, such as whether or not feelings are culturally constructed, and turns instead to the basics, such as motivation, determination and the ill-defined concept of “emotional intelligence.”
Since both of his parents survived German concentration camps during World War II, some of Mlodinow’s examples refer to this period of upheaval and horror. He relates, for example, how his emaciated father was liberated at Buchenwald by the U.S. Army, in 1945. The American soldiers generously handed out fresh water, cigarettes, chocolate and food to the starving prisoners. While his father’s friend Moshe couldn’t stop eating, and ended up consuming an entire salami, Mlodinow’s father managed to control himself. Within a couple of hours, Moshe suffered from intense intestinal distress. He died the next day. The author’s father survived thanks to his restraint.