Emotional Control Through Rational Thought (Learning How to be a Robot)

Contrary to what may be inferred by the title of this post, I do not think an individual can immediately decide to feel a certain way about such and such in opposition to an initial feeling. Even if it is possible, I do not think it is something easily accomplished. I do think, however, that an individual can condition oneself to react emotionally in one way or another over time.

One way to think about this is to examine Aristotle’s view, in which he divides the soul into three categories. The first amounts to what plants are capable of, basic nourishment and reproduction. The second level is that of animals who have the power of locomotion and perception. The third is the human level, which introduces the intellect (reason, rationality, or what have you). He uses this context in order to explain how one should live a eudiamonic (or the best kind of) life. His belief is that it is virtuous to utilize one’s rational capabilities to the fullest, and at the same time, one must exhibit self-control when dealing with the lower-level functions of life like appetite and emotion.

This may not be the most detailed or accurate way to categorize life considering our modern-day understanding, but there are a few reasoned observations that suggest that Aristotle is on to something: 1) The human capacity for rational thought, or something similar, is probably the essential characteristic that makes humans different from other life-forms on this planet. 2) The use of logic through our rational thought allows us to come to accurate conclusions about the world around us. 3) Rational conclusions can be overturned by emotional desires and vice versa. 4) Humans have the capability to change how rational thought and emotion are involved in their thought processes.

IF all this is pretty much true; and IF humankind is the most advanced form of life in existence; and IF there is an aristotelian “eudiamonic” life to be had, then MAYBE we should all aspire to become robots. These are some big “if’s” of course, hence the use of all caps… but no, I don’t actually advocate that we all aspire to become robots (right now anyway). Why? Human functioning is actually way more complex than what any robot can do. It is complex enough that we cannot yet replicate it by artificial means. I would advocate that people spend more time on “logic-based thought” than “emotional thought,” however. Why? Because I think it does more good for the world.

Whatever degree of utility that emotion plays in human thought processes, there is no denying that it takes relatively little time for most people to have emotional thoughts. Emotions are reactionary by nature. They are an automatic response that our bodies have to certain stimuli. We typically have very little control over these reactions, as they are hard-wired into our brains. Often they are explained as evolutionary survival mechanisms and thought to rise primarily from the limbic system. They explicitly fall into the category of non-rational functioning.

Rationality, on the other hand, is characterized by conscious and deliberate thought processes. To reason about something is considered an exercise in human agency. We are doing it on purpose, and we have control. Its function is essentially to discover truth by logically analyzing our observations. Processes in this category like differentiation and determining causal relations occur in the frontal lobe. I am of the impression that an individual can use rational processes like these to alter emotional processes.

Because emotions are closely tied to memory via the limbic system, I think the first step toward effective emotional control is to recognize the causal patterns of behavior. It would be prudent to analyze the typical triggers that cause associated emotional memories to fire. The goal should be to pinpoint the exact underlying causes that elicit the feeling. Sometimes it can be difficult when they are suppressed, but this is what your frontal lobe is there for. Taking the time to consciously face some of these issues might also require courage, but I don’t know how to help people with courage. Just don’t be a weenie I guess.

The second step would be to learn how to counteract the emotional reaction brought on by the trigger. There are many ways to do this, but I strongly advise against ignoring the emotion if your goal is long-term control. The objective of this step is to create emotional memories that override and replace the current ones. This can be done through introspection, external exposure, or a combination of the two. For example, suppose that I fear speaking in public. One thing I can do is to expose myself to situations in which there is more pressure to speak, like taking a speech class. Perhaps I can create a parallel scenario in which I am speaking in front of friends as if I were speaking in public. These are very common remedies to a common problem.

One uncommon method, though, is to use introspection. A solution can be found through creating a new perspective for oneself by thinking about the different possible outcomes. The practice could involve imagining worst case scenarios — those which would be most feared — and reconstructing the feeling in one’s mind. Doing this regularly may “wear the feeling out,” and the individual can better accept the emotion, making its effect negligible. Another option is to contrast the trigger situations with other situations that are far worse, creating a logical connection that will eliminate the reaction. Eventually it is possible for the subject to adopt the perspective of the indifferent observer: “So what?”

There isn’t really a third step.

If there were though, it would probably be to practice doing this until you become a really well-adjusted person.

…Or if your dream is to become a robot, then have at it.

Optimus Prime

Optimus Prime (Photo credit: Devin.M.Hunt)

2 thoughts on “Emotional Control Through Rational Thought (Learning How to be a Robot)

    • Hi Tim. The concept of “living life as a robot” was primarily used as an attempt at humor—an overemphasis of the actually very modest points I was trying to make about self-discipline.

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