Emotions, Brain Chemistry, and Mental Disorders

Emotions, Brain Chemistry, and Mental Disorders

4 Mins
January 25, 2011

Question: My first question: is there a role for feelings in Objectivism , and a recognition that some feelings are, objectively, a result of genes which determine neurotransmitters and receptors in the brain?

My second question is, do you think someone with a severe mental disorder could practice objectiveness as a philosophy? If yes, then how would they overcome their obvious physiological interferences?

Answer: We are integrated beings of mind and body. Simply put, this means that one's mental functions are the product of an organ (which turns out to be, essentially, the brain).

Objectivism holds that emotions normally reflect conscious or sub-conscious value judgments. And since sub-conscious judgments are the product of past conclusions or habitual valuations, our emotions generally derive from conscious value judgments, past or present. Hence Objectivism holds that most emotional problems are probably best addressed as problems of habits of thought and action.

Because emotions reflect sub-conscious judgments, they can't be taken as objective, logical conclusions. This is the meaning of Ayn Rand 's dictum that emotions are not “tools of cognition.” You do not think with your emotions. Your emotions are a product of what you are or have been thinking. This is the source of the emphasis in Rand's fiction on not being led or controlled by emotion. And indeed, emotionalism (substituting emotion for reason) is generally a vice.

Is there a role for feelings in Objectivism ? Absolutely: emotions are instant (albeit non-objective) estimates of the value-significance of something. When you don't have time to reason out what to do, your subconscious judgments are essential to making adequate rough-and-ready choices. This is necessary for proper social interaction, for example. You don't have to reason out whether to shake the hand of a visitor to your house, normally. Emotions are a way in which we experience our assumptions about society and the world.

Emotions provide psychological motivation for living or for improving your life.

And because emotions are your affective experience of value, they provide psychological motivation for living or for improving your life. Hence Ayn Rand 's point that happiness is the moral purpose of life. (If you really want to dig into this topic, I recommend our Objectivist Studies monograph Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness?, which addresses the function of emotions more thoroughly and has a lively debate on Rand's theory of emotion.)

Now because mental functions have an organic basis, mental capacities, too, are affected by one’s genetic inheritance. And like any organ, the brain develops somewhat differently for different people, and it can mis-develop or malfunction. Just as mental aptitudes vary from person to person, so it appears some basic emotional capacities and moods vary as well. (Is one cheery or grumpy?—that sort of thing.) These properties of the mind may then be amenable to therapy of one kind or another, including neuro-chemical treatment. But within a range, all people share the same kind of basic emotional mechanism (as described above), just as they partake of conceptual consciousness regardless of their intelligence. So while we might find some of our emotional background feelings amenable to therapy, I am extremely skeptical that any chemical therapy could change finer grained emotional experience (e.g. change anger into joy) without doing profound damage to the brain functions that underlie both emotions and reason.

As to your final question, I would imagine that no one could use Objectivism more than someone with a mental disorder. For no one else would an ethic that centers on rationality and achieving a happy life appear more useful. Surely it is a huge and constant challenge for people with certain disorders to exercise good judgment, and it is something they need to apply strong conscious attention to doing. For example, I suppose a depressive needs to simply make a habit of keeping himself moving and valuing, despite what his mood tells him. Someone who hallucinates needs to develop a clear sense of the difference between real experiences and hallucinations, and needs to fight off the verisimilitude (and perhaps emotional immediacy) of the hallucinations.

But of course someone with an emotional disorder should not feel guilt or remorse over having discordant or irrational emotions. Indeed, no person should feel guilty of or alienated from his emotions. We need to recognize them and accept them, even when they don't accord with our rational judgment. And we need to make a practice of attempting to harmonize our judgments and our emotions, as much as possible. As you read The Fountainhead , you might notice that this is one description of what Dominique Francon is trying to do over the course of the novel, in a somewhat perverse and self-destructive way (Dominique thinks the social world is hellish, dedicated to the destruction of all that is noble, so she refuses to risk trying to be happy or productive in society).