As the warm weather here continues, I naturally have thoughts of chilly places — cold storage for example. We put things in cold storage so that they will still be fresh when we retrieve them.
When you think about it, cold storage is the meaning of emotion.
Persistence of intention
Suppose you set off to drive to the office. On the way, there are various things to respond to in the moment.
Some of the things you respond to in the moment are external. For example, you pay attention to other vehicles and to traffic signs, and you take appropriate action.
Some of the things you respond to in the moment are internal. For example, you might plan what you are going to do when you get to the office, or you might think through some past events, and as a result you might make appropriate decisions about your future actions.
But as you drive along, with your moment-by-moment attention flickering between all these distractions, your intention to drive to the office persists continuously. There is a mechanism in your mind that allows an intention to remain in place even while it does not have your attention. Intention and attention are different.
Taking this idea further, suppose you have an intention that is interrupted for an extended period. What happens then?
For example, when you get to the office you have a meeting with a colleague from another department. This person disagrees with you about certain things. If you lose the argument your department will lose funding and you will lose status. Winning the argument is very important to you, and your intention to win it is very strong.
The meeting ends and there will not be another one until next month. What happens to your strong intention to win the argument? It goes into a kind of cold storage. There is a mechanism in your mind that allows an intention to remain in storage even while there is no activity in the here and now that advances the cause of the intention.
At next month’s meeting, you retrieve your stored intention. Your state of mind instantly goes back to the way it was at the end of the last meeting. You do not have to think it through all over again. You remember it — not just the facts, but the entire state of mind.
There is a word in ordinary language for a state of mind that has come from cold storage like this — the word is ’emotion’. You might describe your feelings about your colleague as anger, meaning that you stored a state of arousal in response to being threatened.
This conceptualization of emotion is related to authenticity. When you are being authentic, you are not consciously monitoring your behaviour in order to falsify it.
So when you respond authentically to a new situation, you do not describe your response as emotion (although other people might). Continuing the previous example, when you are in the middle of responding to your colleague’s threat for the first time, you are not aware of being angry.
Other people, seeing the way you are responding, might describe it as anger, but while you are actually being authentically angry you do not apply that description to yourself. It is only if you are being inauthentic that you might suppress your real anger and replace it with a falsified statement about anger, like, “Your proposals make me very angry.”
After the meeting, when your anger is stored, you can yourself describe it as anger. In English, at least, we do not apply the words we use for emotions to authentic states of mind. We only apply them to stored states of mind, to states of mind that we interpret in other people (based on our own stored states of mind), or to inauthentic states of mind that we deliberately falsify.
A couple of clear advantages arise from being able to place an intention and the associated state of mind in cold storage and retrieve it later.
The more obvious advantage is reaction time. Suppose you form an intention, but you cannot realize it immediately. The next time an opportunity to realize your intention presents itself, it is advantageous if you can retrieve your intention from memory fully-formed. Having to form the intention all over again would be much slower, and you might miss the opportunity.
The mechanism that we call emotion allows us to recover remembered intentions from cold storage quickly. That is why emotional responses happen so fast. Speed is the whole point. You want to be able to pick up where you left off last time, without having to work it out again.
The more subtle advantage is in relationships. When you see someone else behaving in a certain way, it is advantageous to you if you can predict the other person’s behaviour to some extent. To make other people’s behaviour more predictable, we form our own mental models of other people’s mental states.
For example, you are in a meeting when you observe someone speaking more and more loudly and quickly. His movements are becoming agitated. How can you interpret his behaviour?
The way you interpret it is by comparing it to your own mental states in cold storage. You match it to your own behaviour at times in the past when you felt threatened and had a strong intention to win an argument. The word you use for your interpretation is anger — you might mutter to someone next to you, “He’s getting angry!”
As an aside, if you take that process a step further and use your own mental model, based on some stored intention of your own, to respond directly to another person’s situation, that is what is termed empathy.
It is not empathic to say, “He’s getting angry!” And saying it to the person himself is no improvement — it is not empathic to say, “You’re getting angry!”
Empathy is when you use your own cold-stored emotion to respond to the situation he himself is responding to: “Your department could be downgraded!” Empathy is when you actually apply your mental model to someone else’s situation, and it often feels risky because to do it you have to retrieve and activate emotion of your own, allowing other people to form mental models about you. Empathy is revealing.
Emotional disorders arise when the cold-storage and retrieval mechanism goes wrong. The most common case is when an emotion is retrieved inappropriately. This is the case that formulated CBT is based on.
Some perception of the external world leads, by association, to a thought (an automatic thought). The thought retrieves a stored intention (an emotion), and you start pursuing that intention, picking up from where you left off at the time you put that mental state in cold storage. The whole thing happens very fast, because speed is one of the advantages of being emotional.
But the stored intention might not be appropriate to your present situation. In that case the mechanism has gone wrong. If this happens a lot, you have an emotional disorder, a mental illness.
For example, when you are a teenager your father is made redundant. Your family move to a smaller house in a new area where you have no friends. Your form the intention to put your life on hold while you readjust, make new friends, develop new interests. You do this successfully.
Years later your wife resigns as Chair of the local Women’s Institute. For some reason your mind retrieves the “put your life on hold” intention from long ago, but now it is completely inappropriate. You now have clinical depression.
A CBT therapist can work backwards to understand (formulate) what went wrong, and knowing this you can easily recover from the depression.
Some less successful therapies ignore the cold-storage mechanism that we call emotion, but such ignorance is not bliss. It leads to an inability to process ordinary language and human experience.
For example, you are with a group in a restaurant and everyone else orders the lobster. The next day, you are the only one who is not ill. You explain when asked:
I avoided it because I was anxious.
What those words mean is that you did not test the lobster to evaluate whether it was safe to eat. Instead, your mind retrieved a previous intention to be cautious about seafood. That intention came from your mind’s cold storage, so that you did not have to think long and hard about it — it was an emotional response.
In another example, you are waiting a queue in the post office when two men in stocking masks burst in. The man in front is carrying a shotgun. You punch him hard on the nose, and as he staggers backwards you grab the shotgun and swing it at the other man. They run off. Later, you explain to the press:
I hit him because I was angry.
What those words mean is that you hit him because of a stored intention. Something about the situation evoked a previous situation in which you formed the intention to respond to threat with violence. Your mind put that intention in cold storage, so that when you retrieved it, it was fresh and fast acting. You did not try to think though the pros and cons of hitting him, which would have been far too slow.
The language of emotion accurately describes the way our minds process stored intention, giving us fast responses to the situations we find ourselves in. But it also serves the secondary quality of emotion, in allowing us to model each other’s mental states so that we can be understanding and empathic towards each other.
To be in ignorance of how emotion works is to be in a very chilly place indeed.