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'Emotional': what happens when a physicist writes about psychology?
Leonard Mlodinow


‘Emotional’: what happens when a physicist writes about psychology?

Reviewing ‘Emotional: How Feelings Shape our Thinking’

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a physicist, a psychologist, and an alternative healer walked into a bar? Me neither, but the punchline is Emotional: How Feelings Shape our Thinking, by Leonard Mlodinow. Whether you loved, hated, or had absolutely no connection to this joke, you’re definitely in for some mixed feelings on this book. All at once. Like some cornucopia of intense, emotional chaos. If you’re coming from a scientifically minded perspective, you’re in for a wild ride.

Mlodinow is a well-respected physicist who’s worked with some brilliant minds and pioneered research in quantum physics. He’s written several books with generally positive reviews, as well as storylines for television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver. He even helped Steven Spielberg design a math computer game for Disney featuring Robin Williams. It might logically follow that he’d be aware of his own biases and how to avoid them, as well as what qualifies as science versus pseudoscience. That said, page one begins with his personal anecdotes, and it isn’t simply to familiarize yourself with the author.

“Ain’t gonna lie, you had me in the first half”

Emotional is centered around the idea that emotions and feelings are tightly linked to and essential for everything we do. In fact, we’d be paralyzed and unable to do anything at all if we couldn’t access our feelings. Though I don’t agree wholly with that sentiment — I personally know a few individuals with severe alexithymia who are successful at life — there are some really good points made about the benefits of both having emotions and being able to feel them.

In psychology there’s a staunch differentiation between emotions and feelings: emotions are a physiological experience that happen to us (i.e. internal processes like dilating pupils, racing heart, and sweaty palms when you’re near a love interest), while feelings are the subjective, conscious interpretations we have about those physical happenings (e.g. “I really like them and I hope they like me back!”). Mlodinow points out these differences, though he does fall back on using them interchangeably, and explores in detail what they mean for humans, animals, different cultures, and more. It’s unclear how solid some of the studies are, and I occasionally questioned his interpretations of events and stories.

Getting emotional, The Aquabats!

The Aquabats! Super Show!

The early pages of Emotional include a crash course on the history of the early studies of emotions, though it misses pretty much everything between Plato and Darwin, as well as anything leading up to/outside of Russell’s Circumplex Model of Affect. That’s followed by discussion on how all creatures are affected and driven by emotions. This leads to how they influence our own brains, the decisions we make, and where feelings come from.

In the process of all this, there’s an excessive amount of quasi-related chatter provided by Mlodinow. Every page has a story about something, often his own experiences and viewpoints. As you progress, the stories and studies seem more loosely or ambiguously tied to the subject, others are either misinterpreted, misrepresented, or perhaps knowingly skewed. The latter pages start to read like a philosophy book, and Mlodinow comes across as a man who’s overconfident that how he feels about feelings must be the proper way to feel, and you should most definitely feel that way, too. It starts getting weird as you draw toward Emotional’s halfway point, and it never stops.

A derailment

The second half of Emotional confirms those ominous indications with the introduction of blatant pseudoscience. We already know about the multitude of issues with Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and personality tests, but did you know you can now do emotional intelligence tests? Oh, you can, and Mlodinow has thoughtfully included seven of the most popular of them in Emotional, just for you to check out your “emotional profile.” These tests are similar to the MBTI in many ways, but Mlodinow doesn’t mention that. He instead assures us these are very scientific and researchers have success with them. In his mind, too many people are ignorant about their profiles, but you don’t have to be.

The issues with emotional intelligence tests are many, having the same shortcomings as the MTBI and then some. Your answers change with pretty much everything — your mood, your surroundings, your needs, your desires. All the things Mlodinow wrote about in previous chapters that had an effect on your feelings and emotions, he now tosses to the wind.

'Emotional': what happens when a physicist writes about psychology?


Beyond the questionnaire portion, the ending of Emotional is a guide for emotional regulation via cognitive behavior therapy methods. Reappraisal, acceptance, and expression are featured, but with all the fluff stories and anecdotes of previous chapters. Mlodinow is aware and pleased that, despite lacking a psychiatric degree, he’s penned a DIY guide for self-emotion regulation. Therein lies the problem: he demonstrates knowledge that not all people are the same – mentally, hormonally, genetically, physically — but never suggests seeking out professional help.

What he does say? “Mind over emotion,” of course. Meditate, like his dear friend Deepak Chopra does, and be introspective. Write out your feelings or talk them over (still doesn’t mention a therapist), that act alone is enough. Essentially, Mlodinow thinks that if you know your emotional profile, you can simply find another way to feel. Emotional ends as it began, with a personal story about his struggles, which kind of reads like, “I’m coping better emotionally since I’ve learned so much about the things I just said, and you can too!”

Is it good?

Meh. Sure, there’s good information to be found, but digging past all the muck is a lot. The most irritating fault of Emotional is that you want to trust Mlodinow — for crying out loud, he worked with frickin’ Stephen Hawking! — but you can’t, because he’s breaking the accepted “rules” that science-minded people tend to live and work by, basic stuff like check your bias, anecdotal evidence isn’t necessarily evidence, correlation doesn’t imply causation, etc. There’s no discussion about the quality of the studies he includes and no mention of any opposing views. He steps right through several logical fallacies (begging the question, non sequitur, hasty generalizations, etc.), and doesn’t seem to care.

'Emotional': what happens when a physicist writes about psychology?

Artist: KC Green

Affective neuroscience is relatively new, and our understanding of the field is still pretty limited, so it makes sense to retain our skepticism. But Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking is an extremely odd, pushy book that makes it seem like we know way more than we really do. There’s nothing here that you likely couldn’t find in other books, and I can’t recommend it based on the inclusion of pseudoscience and one heck of a bad faith argument.

I especially wouldn’t suggest it for those that with mental disorders and dysregulation — for them, I think this book could do a lot of damage. I don’t even need to know my emotional profile to understand why I have strong, mixed feelings about this.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

'Emotional': what happens when a physicist writes about psychology?
‘Emotional’: what happens when a physicist writes about psychology?
Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking
"Emotional: How Feelings Shape our Thinking" is a mash-up of real science, anecdotes, psychology, and alternative medicine. Half of the book is rooted in scientific study, while the other should be labeled as aself-help book. While it does have some quality information, it's stuffed deep within storytelling fluff pieces. There are a few egregious gaffes that range from hasty generalizations and faulty analogies to promoting pseudoscience and supporting confirmation bias.
Reader Rating0 Votes
Discussion of a few studies I hadn't heard of before
Some truly interesting ideas and information presented
Witty and expressive writing style, mostly fluid and easy to interpret
Provides unnecessary resources for some info, fails to cite several claims that really need evidence for clarity/believability
Several citations link to poorly done studies, or experiments which are either misinterpreted or cherry picked
Promotes pseudoscience/alternative healing and falls victim to many forms of logical fallacies
Consistent and pushy with cognitive bias; author seems overly confident in understanding an "unsettled science"
Many stories, some with ambiguous ties to subject matter, have too many irrelevant details, resulting in loss of engagement

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