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Thinking and feeling: what’s the difference?

Professor Mark Solms is the lead educator on the University of Cape Town’s free online course What Is a Mind?. Here, he discusses the difference between thinking and feeling, and the role that instinct plays.

illustration of feelings: Greek tragedy and comedy masks.

The distinction between thinking and feeling (cognition and emotion) is obviously a fundamental one in relation to what the mind does. One of the themes that I’ll develop in What Is a Mind? is the notion that feelings present problems. That is, they represent needs; they represent demands upon the mind to perform work.

Feelings make us aware that something unexpected (or something unpredicted or something uncertain) is occurring. When I say that feelings represent demands upon the mind to perform work, what I mean is that they represent demands on thinking. The work of the mind is thinking.

Thoughts are ways of dealing with feelings

In the primary case, in the standard situation, feelings come first. Thoughts are ways of dealing with feelings – ways of, as it were, thinking our way out of feelings – ways of finding solutions that meets the needs that lie behind the feelings.

The feelings come first in both a hierarchical and a chronological sense. A little neonate (newborn mammal) has no thoughts to speak of, to begin with; it is a little bundle of feelings. Thinking derives from learning, that is, from experience.

The apparatus for thinking then works on the material we have internalised, from the solutions we’ve experienced, as to how our needs can be met in the world. These solutions are, of course, initially provided by caregivers. (That is why parenting is important.) On this basis, thinking gradually develops and teaches us how to manage our feelings – how to solve the problems that feelings represent.

Thinking can become very elaborate

Once that has happened, though, thinking can become very elaborate. To mention just the most obvious case, a thought, which has developed in relation to a particular feeling, can be re-thought.

If that thought is activated from thinking itself, it can, in turn, reactivate the feeling that goes with it, especially if it’s a thought (that is, a problem-solving process) that has not properly mastered the feeling in question. That will reactivate the feeling. So, later in development, thinking can make feelings come second. But that’s a derivative process, once a mature thinking apparatus exists.

Thoughts are internalized experiences

We must remember that thoughts are just an internalized version of our perceptual experiences of the world. All thoughts, as distinct from feelings, have a perceptual format that is derived from sensory images. (This applies also to thinking in words.) They are internalisations of our experience of the world; what Freud called the “reality principle”.

So when we are feeling our way through a problem using thoughts, we are, as it were, feeling our way through a virtual form of reality, feeling our way through representations of reality.

The function of thinking, in this sense, stands for reality. It’s a virtual space in which we can work out, in the safety of our minds, what to do in relation to reality, before we actually put solutions into effect. In short: thoughts are interposed between feelings and actions.

Thinking and doing overlap

There is also an important overlap between thinking and doing in the world. One consequence of this overlap is that we might, in our doings in the world, avoid certain situations and certain places – for example, dizzying heights – because they make us feel something untoward (in this case, fear): “I won’t go there because I know that if I go there, I’m going to feel scared.”

That’s what the thought is doing, that is the work it performs. It guides what you do and don’t do in relation to feelings that arise from virtual actions. That’s one of the ways in which someone might develop, for example, a phobia. There are all sorts of complicated mental gymnastics that we get up to on the basis of the processes I’ve just described.

Thinking is a refinement of instinct

This leads me to the topic of instincts. We do not have to work out our own solutions to all of life’s problems on the basis of experience. In addition to what we work out for ourselves, and what our parents teach us, we also have certain in-built solutions to problems of universal biological significance.

These solutions apply to things we cannot afford to learn from experience. For example: “I wonder what will happen if I jump off this cliff?” The answer to that question would be the very last thing you learn. Thank heavens for instincts!

But there are many, many problems that cannot be predicted by evolution (what happens if you poke your finger in an electric socket, for instance) and for these problems we need to learn from experience. The in-built solutions are too general and crude.

There are more problems in the world, by far, than there are instincts. So the instincts need to be extended and elaborated, to cope with real-life situations in all their complexity. For that reason, thinking not only interposes itself between feelings (in general) and actions, but also between instinctual feelings and the automatic responses they would release. Thinking generates more nuanced action options.

So – in general – thinking develops in order for us to manage feelings (and the needs they represent) in more flexible ways than our in-built instincts provide. Thinking is a refinement of instinct.

Feelings are not always bad things

What I have said might give the false impression that feelings are always bad things – but they aren’t. Thinking tells you what action will deliver maximal pleasure just as much as the opposite. On the course, we’ll delve more deeply into these workings of the mind, and how pleasure and unpleasure relate to thoughts and feelings.

I mustn’t try to cover everything before we have even begun…

Want to know more? Read Professor Solms’s previous post on the FutureLearn blog or join the free online course What is a Mind?

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