Think before you act: Why emotions determine how we behave
Updated: Nov 1, 2018
A light breeze blows in his face. The green of the forest fades into the dark of the night, while the silence deafens its surroundings. He sneaks; slowly; quietly; eyes focused on the boar. "Now!" his instincts scream as he leaps forward with a firm grip on his spear. In the split second before, the boar spots the danger in the corner of her eye. She squeals while she immediately attempts a quick getaway, but it's too late. The spear pierces through her skin during the scurry. Blood stops rushing to her legs as she falls to her accepted fate. On the other end of the altercation, the man is intoxicated by the promise of his feast tonight. Suddenly out of nowhere, a wild jaguar appears in front of him. The man's heart instantly beats against his chest, his muscles tighten and his fingers firmly clench his spear. He accelerates towards the jaguar, springs in its direction and penetrates his spear through the jaguar's side in one motion. The jaguar roars in pain and rapidly fleas the scene. Panting vigorously, the man knows he's safe now.
Fast forward 3000 years. 9 year old Michael has spent all weekend making his new Lego spaceship and he brings it outside to play. His little brother, Tim is playing football next to him and while keeping his eye on a loopy pass from the wall, he bumps into Michael and knocks him over. Michael tumbles over and his spaceship hits the ground with impact, smashing into hundreds of little pieces. On the ground, Michael's heart breaks as he sees his masterpiece collapse in front of him. His heart thumps against his chest as his fists clench and his jaw begins to tighten. He instantaneously rises and begins furiously hitting his brother, shouting "Why did you do that! You did it on purpose! you're such an idiot! I hate you!". Tim puts his arms in front of himself to protect his head and once the attack is over, his eyes fill with tears as he starts crying and runs inside. Michael stands alone, still furious at the situation.
These are two very different situations but despite 3000 years in the difference, the internal mechanisms are very similar. For the ancestral man, he spots the jaguar and his brain and body prepares to protect himself. In this case, he does not have time to think. If he was to weigh up his options, the jaguar would be chewing on his neck by the time a decision was made. Therefore, our brains needed to produce a way that we could have a jerk reaction to certain situations. In the case of protecting ourselves, it produced an activation of brain cells, known as anger (fight) or an activation of brain cells known as fear (flight), which allowed us to respond immediately to a situation. Some, like the man, will fight, while others, like the boar, will run. This activation of brain cells, better known as emotions, is then accompanied by changes in our body to prepare us to act. Therefore, the man spots the jaguar, the brain tells us that we need to fight by activating anger, we experience bodily changes and we then act. The result is safety. There is no thinking involved.
Now let's compare Michael's situation. Tim has threatened him in the form of breaking something that was important to him. Because of his ancestors, his brain responds in the same way by preparing him to fight. Thus, it activates the brain cells that we understand as anger. Michael's heart then begins beating faster and his muscles tighten, just like our ancestral man. However, the big difference now is that Michael's brother is not a jaguar that is trying to kill him and we now have a process between the emotion and the action: thought. Thought allows us to consciously plan before we act and it gives us a choice about how we act. However, we sometimes ignore our thoughts and immediately act on the impulse of our emotions, without thinking, just like our ancestor. Because the world is a different place now, immediately acting on our emotions usually results in negative consequences. Michael's brother is not a dangerous jaguar, so he does not need to behave in the way he does. Consequently, his actions result in negative emotions and his anger is still present.
The only way to prevent this from happening is to make people aware of this process. Because of our ancestors' genes, we cannot control an emotion happening. When we are threatened, our brain will release the emotion of anger. This is hardwired into our brains and this is natural. However, we can control how we think about that emotion, and how we act. Our actions then influence the emotions we feel afterwards, which means that we have responsibility over how we feel. If we don't teach kids how to take responsibility, the results can be detrimental.
Emotions are simply the brain telling us something. For example, Michael's brain expressing anger is telling Michael that Tim has done something wrong so he needs a sense of justice. Because we now have the ability to think before we act, this means that we can choose how we act to ensure that we have positive emotions afterwards. For example, Michael can hit Tim ferociously and then feel guilty, or he can explain what he has done wrong, receive an apology and feel better afterwards. Therefore, thinking before we act gives us the ability to manage our emotions. This, ladies and gentlemen is emotional intelligence. If we can understand what emotions we experience, and then think and act in a way that manages these emotions successfully, then we are emotionally intelligent.
When we have negative thought patterns, we choose incorrect behaviors, like Michael hitting his brother, and this results in negative emotions, such as continued anger and guilt. If we continue to have negative emotions, we develop poor mental health, and this domino effect continues down a dark, dark path, which can unfortunately result in children taking their own lives. But this is still not important enough to teach at schools? The assumption that this is common sense or something that is taught at home is ridiculously absurd, and it is something that we need to address, sooner rather than later. We need to teach kids how to think before they act, rather than just saying it. We are angry at the situation but like the examples above, we are not acting on our emotions and immediately criticising others. Instead, we are listening to our anger and we are using it to motivate us to make positive change in the world. We need to educate our future generations on how to be emotionally intelligent. We need to prevent mental health problems before they happen. And most importantly, we need to think about the consequences of ignoring emotional education before we act. Yours Sincerely, Motus.