Lost to emotion; does the way we feel control the way we think?

‘My thoughts change like the weather. When the sun is shining, I feel excited, optimistic. I can see a way through. We will work things out and it will be fine. Then a cloud passes across the face of the sun, a shadow of doubt and I begin to see difficulties and I am a lot more cautious. Then when the sky turns dark and it starts to rain, I feel desolate. It’s hopeless. Nothing will ever work and I might as well kill myself.’

Alan is suffering another crisis in his relationship with Julie and doesn’t know what to think. He has been turned inside out.

We are all familiar with how mood and thought are linked. Our brain thinks in memory and meaning. Our thoughts represent the meaning of the things that have happened to us and these are all coloured by emotion. Rekindle the memory and the mood comes flooding in. We know how a tragic film, a poignant story, any association that triggers the memory of a tragic event in our lives can make us sad. We understand how suspicious thoughts of betrayal can make us angry, and how negative ruminations can make us feel desolate and ill. We appreciate the benefit of positive thinking. Freud was one of the first to explain how many otherwise unexplained illnesses were in effect bodily effects of fear, anger, sadness, guilt and shame, diseases of reminiscence or diseases at the level of the idea. Decode the idea and work it through and there is every chance that the illness will resolve.

So thoughts and memories undoubtedly affect our mood, but does the converse apply? Does the way that we feel affect the way we think? Research suggests that it does. Students learn much better when the subject matter connects emotionally with them. But not only that, there is evidence that different moods affect thinking but in different ways.

If, for example, we feel content, then we are optimistic and creative, decisions come easily, we can trust our intuition, thoughts turn readily to action and risk, confident in the conviction that all will work out well. We feel sociable, outward going. Everybody is our friend. We perceive our world through rose tinted spectacles

If, on the other hand we feel sad, then we put on darker glasses, shading our eyes from the sun. We are worthless and life is pointless. Decisions are hindered by self doubt; plans interrupted by pessimism, risk avoided. We are self conscious, self centred, preoccupied by a morbid and destructive narcissism. We are critical, judgemental, over-analytical. We focus inwards on a narrowing existence, avoiding company, but at the same time sending out signals that we feel powerless like a child and need looking after.

Anxiety makes us insecure. We see threat everywhere. We cannot trust anybody, least of all ourselves, and regard the things that happen with caution and suspicion. We worry constantly about every banal detail of our daily life and try desperately to keep our thoughts in control, because without enormous effort, it seems, our life will slide into unthinkable chaos. Worry domesticates a much more fundamental, existential insecurity.

Doris wanders round and round her flat all day trying to find ‘things’, but she can’t remember what she’s lost. The truth is that she has lost ‘it’. She has Alzheimer’s Disease and the cruel insight is quite devastating.

Anger polarises our thought. It causes us to perceive our world in absolute terms; all or nothing, good or bad. If somebody is not our friend, they must be our enemy. Threat lurks under every psychotic bush. We have to be armed and on guard for immediate retaliation. Innocuous events are interpreted with paranoid significance. We are in mortal danger and have to protect ourselves. And often the best form of defence is a pre-emptive strike.

Thought and mood amplify each the other, spiralling up until they seize control of the personality and either spill over into action or collapse through exhaustion. Once the cycle is established, it can be difficult to distinguish the two and isolate the effect of mood on thinking. But there are some natural experiments. Exercise, for example, calms mood and makes thinking more creative. Sleep also has the effect of clarifying thought. Eating a meal relaxes us and makes us more sociable. Alcohol reduces the cognitive inhibition on our thought and behaviour. Recreational drugs can strip away the last vestige of cognitive reality, causing some people to behave as if they are immortal like Icarus, jumping off roofs and trying to fly. An injection of adrenaline can cause panic. Adjusting the mix of chemicals in the brain with antidepressants can make people think much more clearly.

So is the effect of mood on thought just a chemical interaction? It is tempting to think that during our different moods, our brains are awash with different chemicals, serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, GABA and many, many more and this chemical mix can have a profound effect on the way we think – but it’s probably not as simple as that. It never is.

Mood crucially influences the executive function of the brain. Creativity requires self belief, risk taking and a suspension of the critical faculties of the brain. Technical or analytical work needs quite the opposite; the critical faculties need to be recruited.

But it is in decision making where mood has its most obvious and far reaching influence. It is never possible to make objective decisions. Emotion is always in play, influencing what we pay attention to and what memories we rely on. You should never decide anything when you are angry; this can lead to dramatic, polarised solutions which can cause a lot of trouble. People who are angry tend to pass the anger on. It’s how wars start.

Equally, it is important not to make a decision when you are too happy or euphoric because this encourages a dangerous admixture of risk taking and over-confidence. We might even say that you should never ask someone to marry you or accept when you have just tumbled from the duvet of desire or if you are fearful they might leave you.

Important decisions are probably best made under conditions of quiet confidence; calm with perhaps just a hint of analytical melancholy, but it is nevertheless not always useful to suppress the emotions because we lose that intuition and focus that can assist us in coming to the right decision. You decide!

But it is a mistake to think that we are all at the mercy of our emotions. We are not. Some have been fortunate enough to have the kind of life experience that has given them the inner confidence to tame and utilize their moods as an intuitive lodestone, guiding them into action that is wise to context and society, or creative in the face of danger.

Fire officer Haines had been called out with his team to tackle a fire raging through a canyon outside Sedona. The winds were tricky and the fire had taken hold. No sooner had they reached the bottom of the canyon than the wind changed direction and a wall of flame, 60 foot high advanced on them driven by 30mph winds. They tried to outrun it but the fire was gaining. Haines then did something extraordinary. He stopped running, faced the flames, took out his lighter and set fire to the grass around him. He then stood in the centre of the burnt patch of grass and awaited the advance of the fire. It passed on either side and he emerged unscathed.

This was the first time that anybody had thought of creating a fire break to halt or divert a conflagration. It is now standard practice. Haines survived because he knew how to harness his incipient panic and use the added adrenaline to guide his thinking into making creative associations. Such is the quality of leadership. Harness your own emotions with a quiet resolute confidence and others will draw confidence in your decisions. Barack Obama seems such a man.

But what of Alan? Tossed this way and that in the turbulent sea of thrill, romance and despair, called darling, he flounders at the mercy of moods that change with alarming rapidity. He is shipping water and will soon drown unless he retrieves the emotional rudder he tossed away with such reckless abandon. His only hope of salvation is to steer a course away from his stormy relationship with Julie into calmer waters where he can find the peace to repair his battered vessel and regain emotional control.