Think or Feel? Can’t We Do Both?
Thinking and feeling. Logic and emotion. These states of mind are thought to exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, a notion that a Case Western Reserve University scientist says is no accident.
A recent study by Anthony Jack, PhD, assistant professor of cognitive science, philosophy and psychology, found that our abilities to empathize and to analyze branch off the neural tree in two different directions. Put simply, when we fire up the empathetic portion of our brain, we automatically suppress the analytical side, and vice versa.
This dichotomy can have real effects on human health and well-being. Jack compares the phenomenon to a seesaw: If one side doesn’t go down when the other goes up, it could contribute to mental disorders including dementia and schizophrenia.
“Switching from one network to another is important to maintaining a healthy balance,” says Jack.
This challenge also is a matter of simple human interaction. For example, doctors are trained to think of their patients as complex biological machines that need fixing, which may cause their bedside manner to suffer.
“If you think about people as objects, it gets harder to relate to their experience,” Jack says. “It makes you suppress empathetic thinking.”
Jack’s study took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of college students presented with questions involving social issues or physics. These tasks caused the seesaw of mental activity to be pushed to different extremes, depending on the type of question.
“We showed that getting inside someone else’s head turned off the part of your brain that thinks about mechanical things,” Jack says.
While we cannot be fully empathetic and analytic at the same time, blended modes of thought borrow from each side, such as creative and Machiavellian thinking. Maintaining a balance also may be key to aging more successfully: Studies suggest that people who switch off the empathetic portions of their brains are more susceptible to dementia.
His findings have garnered attention outside academia. Jack discussed his research with executives from Google and global design company IDEO at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in February.