What You Really Feel

By Neuroskeptic | July 19, 2010 1:50 pm

Arthur Schopenhauer is my favorite 19th century German philosopher. Not that this is enormous praise given my attitude to the others, but anyway, here’s one of his pearls of wisdom (source):

If you want to find out your real opinion of anyone, observe the impression made upon you by the first sight of a letter from him.

Does your heart leap, does it sink, do you get butterflies in your stomach, in the moment when you first see a message from that person? That’s how you really feel, and if you didn’t think you felt that way, you thought wrong.

Schopenhauer’s trick relies on the fact that emotion is faster than thought. A letter takes you by surprise: even if you’re expecting to hear from someone, you don’t know exactly when it will arrive. It arrives: in that first second your emotions have a chance to show through, before your thoughts have got into gear. It works with emails and phone calls as well, of course, but not with any encounter which is planned out in advance.

The point is that you do not enjoy direct and perfect knowledge of your own feelings. You can be wrong about them, just like you could misjudge anyone else’s feelings. Maybe you think that you like someone, when you really find them annoying. You believe that you like someone as a friend, but you really feel more than that.

In fact, it’s not clear that we have any special insight into our own emotions, beyond that which is available to others. We tend to assume that we do. For one thing, we say they’re our emotions: we own them. I’m the one who feels my emotions, and emotions are just feelings, so I must be the expert on them, right?

Yes, but feeling an emotion and understanding it are entirely separate. As I wrote previously, we all interpret our feelings in various ways, and like any act of interpretation, we can be either right or wrong. Suppose I love you and I think “I love you”. In that case I’m right. But I could love you and think I don’t (maybe I think it’s just lust), or then again I could not love you (it is just lust) but think that I do. Any combination of feelings and thoughts is possible.

The notion that our mind is a single monolithic thing, and that we know everything that’s in our own mind, is a stubborn one, but quite misleading. In fact we know very little about what goes on in our own heads; 100 billion cells are firing all the time, and we’re not aware of any of them. Sometimes we can achieve self-knowledge, but it is never guaranteed.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: philosophy, selfreport, you
  • reasonsformoving

    Doesn't this analysis presume that whatever happens first (in the brain) is correct and true (or true selves?) That seems like a big assumption to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10802370804762539167 DM


    Have you read Jonah Lehrer's “How We Decide”? You've hit upon one of his theses with this post–that the entirety of our mind is not entirely knowable; that it is fallacious to assume our conscious processing has precedent over the unconscious. How funny that I should jump right from a post on Lehrer's blog to a post on yours!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    reasonsformoving: Good point. It depends what you mean by “real opinion”. Arguably, if you don't like someone but act as if you do, your real opinion is that you like them, because objectively, to everyone else, you do. Your feelings matter to no-one except you.

    But they do matter to you, and this is why it's important to know what they really are.

  • Anonymous

    do you think if one day we find a way of measuring the activity of those 100billion neurons, we would be there?
    Don't you think these kinds of 'decoding' are literally impossible?

  • Anonymous

    At the risk of being berated by all of your posters, this is EXACTLY why Freud advocated free association in the psychoanalytic situation as a means of self discovery.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous: Free association was one of Freud's better ideas. Like Schopenhauer's suggestion it can be a very good way of finding out about your mind, although you have to be careful not to overinterpret associations and see “profound truths” around every corner, because a lot of associations are just random junk I think…

  • Anonymous

    This is true not only for feelings/emotions/affect. Our lack of knowledge about ourselves is shown in more 'cognitive' domains as well. One such example can be found in various metamemory paradigms, in which one usually cannot asses his memory in a precise manner. Only in a roughly accurate, and very manipulable, way.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you and I applaud your reference to Schopenhauer. There are limits to self-discovery, even with an observer processing your associations (like in a psychoanalysis). But the new wave neuroscienctists are claiming that self-discovery is but a SPECT away! Which is, of course, complete bullshit.

  • Paul Hutton

    Reasonsformoving is right on this.

    The equation of 'first feeling' with 'real opinion' is very controversial, particularly when we generally give more weight to considered opinions in other areas of life. When we meet people who find it difficult to stop blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, and we sit them down and encourage them to revise their views in the light of available evidence, and they change their minds, we do not then still believe that the things they blurted out are their 'real opinions'.

    Secondly, a mere feeling is just that, a feeling. At the point the person who has the feeling decides that that particular feeling is a 'real opinion' they are doing 'extra stuff' like interpreting what that feeling actually means – presumably bringing in stuff like knowledge and memory and so on. Accepting it as real means they are also probably choosing to identify with it in some way. People have all sorts of meaningless intrusive thoughts and feelings. Why allocate the first one special privilege simply because it's first – and why assume it's meaningful?

    Thirdly, neuroskeptic said:

    “Your feelings matter to no-one except you. But they do matter to you, and this is why it's important to know what they really are.”

    But if I don't know what they are, why would they then matter? If I have no knowledge of feeling X, then am I actually, by definition, having feeling X? I doubt it.

    Finally, imagine the following. A man is lying in bed when he is woken up by a shake by his wife (he's slept in, say). His immediate feeling is dread because in his half-sleeping state he believes someone is trying to kill him. Does he *really* dread his wife, or is this 'first feeling' simply an innacurate feeling informed by an inaccurate cognitive appraisal that later changes, once all the information has been gathered (i.e., that it's his wife)?

    It seems much more likely that immediate feelings which quickly change are an indication that we have simply recognised them as inaccurate. Granted, it could be that we are refusing to face what we actually think – but surely this should not be our assumption.

  • jld

    Paul Hutton: People have all sorts of meaningless intrusive thoughts and feelings.

    How do you sort out the “meaningful” from the “meaningless”?

  • Anonymous

    So do people who follow up on job offers always thrill me? Am I apprehensive of my mother if I have reason to fear she is ill? Do I find the people who happen to contact me in the middle of the night stressful? It seems that the situation and the expected content of the message influences one's emotions quite a lot, thus they cannot be held to reveal one's attitude towards others.

    And Schopenhauer was a despicable person with appalling views on human rights. Frankly, I'm surprised anyone could like him other than as a historical curiosity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Paul Hutton: Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    I think that's an excellent point that “At the point the person who has the feeling decides that that particular feeling is a 'real opinion' they are doing 'extra stuff' like interpreting what that feeling actually means” – paradoxically, using Schopenhauer method could just create more elaborations and interpretations rather than revealing some fundamental “real feelings”; see my post on interpreting feelings.

    But I still think Schopenhauer has a point. Maybe it would be wrong to automatically classify immediate gut feelings as “real opinions”. But there are times when our gut feelings conflict with what we think we feel, or ought to feel, about someone, and in those cases we do need to know about it. If nothing else, because such conflicts are a recipe for unhappiness at least unless they're consciously acknowledged. (I think Freud, at least early on, thought that the fundamental essence of psychotherapy was to bring such “conscious” vs “unconscious” – though in this case it's more “slow” vs “fast” – conflicts into the open so they can be resolved, or at least accepted.)

  • Paul Hutton


    I’m not going to go into trying to produce a definition of what it is for an internal event to be meaningful or not, as I was probably being a bit flippant!

    Perhaps ‘unimportant’ is better, although now I need to show why lots of thoughts and feelings are unimportant and I’m not sure I can without lapsing into tautology! Perhaps this is a personal decision that we all have to make. However we DO have an awful lot of thoughts and feelings, and not all of them can, by definition, be important. A paradigm example of unimportant internal events would be those thoughts and images that become recurrent because of particular cognitive strategies we use like thought suppression (e.g., see work by Wegner on this). For example, suppressing images of a pink rabbit causes them to rebound – not because we care about pink rabbits but because of the paradoxical way the mind works.

    People who treat every passing internal event as having great significance or try and identify themselves with every one of them will struggle to make sense of the world in a coherent way, not least because a lot of our thoughts and feelings are contradictory. Attributing significance to every cognitive event is likely to lead to distinct problems (OCD being a good example of this).

    Perhaps what I should have said is that we have lots of internal events which may or may not be meaningul but we shouldn’t, or can’t, treat all of them as important – if we want to be able to track reality in way that allows us to achieve longer term goals that are meaningful or important to us.

  • Paul Hutton


    And thank you for your thoughtful reply!

    “But there are times when our gut feelings conflict with what we think we feel, or ought to feel, about someone, and in those cases we do need to know about it.”

    You’re right of course – often there are times when our gut feelings conflict with what we think we actually feel. But this may be a problem in labelling or interpretation, not one of emotional conflict.

    If I have a racing heart and sweaty palms when I see a spider, it helps me communicate with others if label it as ‘fear’. Having a greater understanding of the accepted view as to the function of a particular emotion can also give clues as to the (in)accurate way we are making sense of things. This allows me to deduce that it’s not the spider transmitting some deadly unseen poison that’s causing my reaction, rather it’s my instinct, my learned responses and / or my catastrophic appraisals of spiders.

    ( I think there’s some research showing people who suffer from paranoia label their high levels of anxiety (perhaps because they have been worrying about something else) as a sign of imminent threat from others – they go with their gut, as it were, and often come to an innaccurate view.)

    There are also times when our initial feelings conflict with what we think we ought to feel. However I’m not entirely sure we are always able to feel certain things simply because we believe we ought to feel them. We can’t love, simply because we think we ought to! Perhaps the distinction here is between cognition (what I think I ought to feel) and emotion (what I actually feel). (However thinking about this some more, there are some emotions where we take into account the views of others and deduce we ought to feel ashamed, guilty or grateful – and subsequently do!)

    However none of that supports the view that when we experience a cascade of conflicting emotions we should take the first one to be the legitimate one, simply because it is first. Of course, paying attention to the entire cascade may be useful in trying to figure out how we are making sense of things. If I feel dread, followed by shame, followed by anger it certainly offers clues to our changing thoughts about the situation – but that still doesn’t mean what I ‘really’ or ‘genuinely’ feel is dread.

  • Paul Hutton


    Very much enjoyed the post you linked to and apols if I've just repeated much of what you said there!

    Your discussion of schizophrenia and bipolar at the end is interesting. I think the next few years will show just how important metacognition (the interpretation and labelling of particular internal events) is to understanding at least some of the distress people with these conditions experience.

  • jld

    Paul Hutton:

    if we want to be able to track reality in way that allows us to achieve longer term goals that are meaningful or important to us.

    I agree on the futility of many passing thoughts and emotions but that still does not elucidate the criteria we use to sort out meaningful or important things from futile ones.
    Kinda like the competence/performance distinction in linguistics.
    It could be very useful to know what's going on, or would this introduce yet another level of elaboration and confusion?

  • jld

    And Schopenhauer was a despicable person with appalling views on human rights.

    Yes, Schopenhauer wasn't politically correct but this is exactly why he is valuable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Schopenhauer had a bitter personal hatred of GWF Hegel though. And no-one with a bitter hatred of Hegel can be all bad. Hegel is one of my role models as a writer. I model my writing on the opposite of his…

  • http://hierosolyma.wordpress.com woman

    what if you're possessed? like a monkey spirit attaches to your heel? is it you or the mobile computational monkey reacting? but as a women i noticed the power lies in my menstral cycle.. blood.. maybe we're more carnal dependent than we buy.. truth be told in the bedroom.. cuffs, spanks or just plain missionary?



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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