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Emotional - Leonard Mlodinow ***

Leonard Mlodinow has a mixed pedigree as a science writer, responsible with Stephen Hawking for the infamously naive The Grand Design in which the authors told us that we don't need philosophy any more, because science now has all the answers. However, he feels on more comfortable ground in Emotional, which assesses the importance of emotions to us, and how they have long been underrated, or even considered an obstacle to rational thought.

This is a popular science book in the classic American narrative style, where each chapter begins with a story about real people to put the science into context (and there are often more stories through the chapter). This is obviously a great way to explore this very human science (and we learn that even fruit flies appear to have a kind of emotion), though sometimes there is too much storytelling and not enough of the science.

The underlying theme throughout is how important emotions are to everything from decision making to survival. We discover the differences between a reflex and an emotional response and how our rational abilities are helped by emotions, except when the emotions get out of control. Mlodinow also goes beyond the brain to bring in the relationship of the rest of the body and the mind - we don't talk about gut feelings, or a visceral emotion for nothing. Along the way we visit emotions from anxiety to joy, rage to lust via embarrassment, fear and pride. Although the market is totally overloaded with neuroscience books at the moment, there's plenty here that isn't commonly covered.

To begin with, I had thought this would be a four star review. The book opens well and is convincing about how we underestimate the importance of emotion. However, my initial enthusiasm did not continue at the same level. Mlodinow comes across as evangelical on emotions to the point of overplaying their role. There's something of the the law of the instrument about it - because he is so focussed on emotions, Mlodinow sees their influence everywhere, in ways that don't always seem convincing.

One broad concern is that despite referencing many social science studies, there is no mention of the replication crisis - it wasn't clear how many of these studies are sound. A couple of specific issues too. In illustrating valence and persistence, two of the 'five properties' of emotion states (valence, persistence, generalisability, scalability and being automatic), Mlodinow imagines an 'ancient ancestor' who gets in an emotional state on encountering a snake: the author ascribes to emotion that she will continue to keep an eye out for snakes afterwards, without explaining why this might not be simply a result of rationally thinking 'If I've seen one, I might see another.'

In another example, Mlodinow describes a circumstance during the Second World War where his father makes a last-minute decision not to get into a truck which was subsequently attacked with all in it killed. According to Mlodinow, his father's rational mind had told him to get in the truck, but his body's 'sensor system' had analysed 'additional information, subtle clues about his environment and bodily state' that enabled him to go beyond rational thought. Yet we are given no evidence that this was the case rather than a matter of random luck. In the past, I've not got on a plane because I had a last minute feeling it was going to crash. It didn't. It was just a useless random feeling, not some warning from my body - the kind of irrational response we get all the time. It's simply bad science to assume that Mlodinow's father's action was prompted by the near-magical abilities of what the author later describes as 'core affect'.

Some interesting material, then, but the way it is presented suffers from confirmation bias. Mlodinow wants emotions and core affect to be particularly important in how we do things and finds evidence that shows this, while rarely justifying it sufficiently to be acceptable. The science may be there, but we aren't presented with enough of it to be convinced.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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