I originally planned this study as a sort of companion piece to one of the best-selling books of the 1990s: Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence. For me this book resonated with some long-cherished principles - most especially with Blaise Pascal's celebrated pensee: "The heart has its reasons, which reason knows not of". Yet the further I ventured into my own study, the more I felt at odds with the very idea of "emotional intelligence" set apart from some other form of intelligence. I wanted an integrated concept of intelligence that did not entail some kind of radical separation of "an emotional mind" and "a rational mind". Neither did I want to set the "reasons of the heart" against any other sort of reasons. For me, more and more, there are only "good reasons" and "bad reasons" and even these are relative to the more basic issue of where do we want to go?
Intelligence: Trapped in the head!
So now I find myself at loggerheads with a widespread modern assumption: that "the head" and "the heart" are foreign countries to one another. This assumption seems to be supported by recent scientific discoveries, of specific brain circuits that mediate our primitive emotional responses. These supposed discoveries - though they may be valid in terms of surgeon's knives and differential metabolic pathways - reflect a major confusion of mind, and an indulgence of the modern passion to dissect. It is simply a mistake: to confuse a distinction founded in anatomy, or even in differential electrical or metabolic activity, with a separation of functions.
The brain is a holistic function -
not a machine
All the sub-systems in the brain operate in continuous circular feedback with the other parts of the brain they connect with. To think of them as functionally separate is a serious error, and it flouts the basic principles of human development and phylogeny. Our brain always operates as an integral unit, for better or for worse. It does so from the moment it differentiates itself from the embryonic neural tube. More than this, we need to recognize that our whole physiological system - which is the brain in its intimate relationship with its cellular and biochemical container - functions continuously as an integrated unit. It is only we, observers and dissectors, who create the separation between the parts.
But of course there are also geeks
There remains the cultural stereotype of the "intellectual person" who is somehow cut off from emotion, and does not altogether pick up on what is going on amongst the people around. There is a closely related stereotype of the "geek" - who has an unusual competence in some narrow technical area of life, but not so much savvy outside his chosen speciality. Some people live like this. However, we would be unwise to take them as models for "intelligence"; they represent a particular specialisation. It is a kind of fanatical intelligence, applied within a restricted field. We surely need a definition of "intelligence" for our present study, but it needs to relate to our much broader field of interest - the conduct of life in the many, varied aspects that matter to us.
Back to the web of fact and feeling
We shall return to our earlier, unifying metaphor: of the web
of fact, feeling and action. This gives us a much better approximation to the real integrated processes of thinking, feeling and perceiving that go on in us, than starting out with an arbitrary splitting off, of the "rational" from the "emotional" mind.
We shall look more closely at this weaving by tracing out the life of one single fact ("You are treading on my toe!")
as if it were relatively independent of the accompanying feelings. This means, in effect, that we are holding the feelings in suspense - as if they were no longer directly in play. In practice I am very likely to have feelings about most of the facts that present themselves to me, but they may not be easy for anyone to predict. I might, for instance, be very glad you are treading on my toe, just because it gives me my long awaited pretext to pick a fight with you.
Even a simple example like this can illustrate the complex interplay of fact and feeling implied - and the meaning that is generated - in an item of experience. Consider:-
- The feeling of pain is the primary datum that alerts me, and enables me to assert that you are treading on my toe.
- A whole range of higher-level feelings may be elaborated out of this datum, depending on my state of mind and the context in which the event takes place. If you and I were dancing together for the first time and I was in the first flush of falling in love with you I might barely register the pain, so flooded with endorphin and euphoria is my heart and mind. Or, in a different context, the sudden pain and annoyance may cause me to shout out. Depending on your response I may quickly feel placated, or I may continue think of you as a clumsy or thoughtless person whom I am not happy to be with.
- Any of the cascade of my feelings resulting from the initial impact becomes a fact in its own right, especially if I make it felt to you.
- In effect, you and I together move towards a convergence upon the meaning of this event (whether it is a trivial incident, a serious interruption of our previous flow, or perhaps an unresolved emotional breach just because you are always doing it, I feel aggrieved and you seem quite unconcerned to take account of it).
The automatic assemblage of meaning
This is an illustration of how meanings are automatically assembled
just below the level of conscious awareness. Individual facts and feelings emerge spontaneously, and already closely interlinked in that moment of emergence. And there is no "object" perceived in isolation from other things; we read everything as part of a larger pattern. A smile is reassuring, puzzling or sinister, depending upon who is smiling, and what we think they are smiling at. A mountain is an obstacle, a challenge, a natural boundary, a source of uranium ore, or a symbol of aloof majesty. An apple held out to me may be a welcome item of food, or a temptation to original sin; it depends upon the context in which the offer is made.
After the fact, we can go back and reflect on our spontaneous process of thought; this is a more deliberate mental activity, which tries to break down and question the meanings embedded in the earlier movement of consciousness. We can also question the sub-conscious logic that bound the structure together. In consequence of this, we may discover a different range of options for similar, future situations we may find ourselves in. Thus there is a right time for reflection, and a right time for the spontaneous flow.
Since facts and feelings have such tight relationships of mutual implication and inference, they are often interchangeable in practice. This means, in other words, that a feeling may play the part of a fact and a fact may play the part of a feeling. An example of the first would be, in a sensitive and attuned relationship, the sharp feeling of jealousy or insecurity which may often be the first sign for me that something is wrong(1)
; this could be, in effect, the first indication I have of my partner's loss of commitment(2)
. In this way, a feeling can stand in place of a fact.
Contrariwise, the fact that I notice certain irritating things about my partner: a certain inflection of the voice which conveys self-pity or blame, the unpleasant taste of tobacco on her breath, her sloppy habit of using her chewing gum in place of "Blu-Tak" - may be sure signs that I am falling out of love (- or less drastically, that I am falling out of sympathy) with her. Thus a series of facts plays the part normally taken by feelings.
This is how the pattern of meaning emerges: out of the facts and feelings that are playing between people in real time. The essential role that other human beings play in the actual unfolding of my own lived experience, will be a recurring theme in the present study. It is the reason why we shall, on the whole, not view a person as a single brain in a single body in its own individual environment. We live in open systems of multiple individuals interacting through time. Our models need to reflect this fact.
Intelligence is something we do
We are making progress here. We no longer have to think of "intelligence" as a quality that certain people have - nor do we have to worry about how to measure it, or consider whereabouts in a person's brain it may be located. Our interest has shifted to the network of interactions, to the quality of our performances: to the things we do, or make, or imagine; we are looking at what happens within the pattern of life. And a different kind of question now comes into focus: What is it - in some human (or plant, or animal) behaviour - which causes us to feel there is intelligence at work? Here is my provisional answer:-
- The element of surprise, or wonder. The creature has done something which confounds our normal(3) expectations.
- The sense that something has been achieved against the odds (- not like a stone rolling down a hill; more like a bird, winging its dizzying, delicate path amongst the chimney-pots and telephone wires.)
- Related to this, there is the feeling that the creature knows what it is doing.
These three factors together create in us a sense of companionship; we feel that someone or something "Out There" is available to respond to me - as I am responding to it. This is why - in so many traditional societies - people believe there is an active intelligence, in plants, in animals, in nature at large, or in the Creator God. And in all these cases we find that the relationship (real or imagined) can tip over into something altogether different: from benevolent companionship, towards the other creature's capacity to outwit, or out-guess me. Then I become an object in their own
plan of action, incorporated into their
pattern of life.
Then there is a close relationship between intelligence
, and the possibility of a conflict of interest, a contest of intelligence where each creature tries to wrest control of the action from the other(4)
. This comes about in all kinds of competitive relationships between us; it can also be the focus of our relationship with other animals. These other beings may take the role of predator towards me, or they may try to outrank me through bullying or intimidation (social animals like dogs or horses can be good at this - and these are precisely the animals we can befriend
, if we succeed in forging a mutual respect for one another).
As a general rule, the human being has an advantage of flexibility - related to our ability to consciously track the other creature's behaviour patterns and to learn how to predict its future actions. Thus most people have the potential to stand their ground with a horse, a dog or even a lion; some of us seem to do this by instinct; others need the right tuition from one who already knows how.
A higher order of intelligence
I have objected to the separation of emotional from rational intelligence on the grounds that it is arbitrary and - in practice - unhelpful. There are distinctions and separations that can help us, however. Simply to differentiate between things we have previously merged together in our awareness, can open powerful new perspectives up for us.
One such differentiation, I believe, is that between an intelligence that co-ordinates
the existing pattern of life , and an intelligence that can make changes
and evaluate their consequences. Here we are shifting our perspective from the actual performance, to the capacity to create
this - and other - performances. This can also be thought of as the ability to improvise(5)
We need a definition of "intelligence" which includes both these levels of intelligence - and recognizes the distinct contribution which each of them makes. This will encourage us to embrace and affirm the more primitive levels - as befits our relationship with something we are completely and utterly dependent upon. It also helps to restore our kinship with the rest of the plant and animal kingdoms - with whom we share the same helpless dependency upon the web of instinct.
By this decision to embrace our kinship with other life, we reaffirm and revalidate the timeless human pastime of sitting and observing other plants and animals in the intricacy of their own pattern of existence. We can restore our sense of wonder, at the creature's readiness to cope with life-threatening situations, the apparent foresight with which it interacts with objects in its surroundings, and its resourceful commitment to keeping its own life processes in balance.
We have also arrived at a place where we can look at what is special about the "human" kind of intelligence. We need to think of it as a fresh compilation - of a revolutionary set of ingredients - along similar lines to what I spoke about, in a different context, in my introductory chapter. I was speaking then of a future evolutionary step which I believe we are required to make in the immediately present era. I spoke of a set of ingredients which "... all come into play at the same time, bringing about a major shift in how we appreciate and work within the human sphere of existence." Our present context is about a different step: one that was taken in the distant past, which created us as the species we are now. What was the set of unusual things that the first man and woman began to do differently, and in so doing, transformed themselves into somebody like you and me?
The tale of the orang utan
The animal ethologist Konrad Lorenz had some interesting things to say about this question. As part of his enquiry he offered the following description of a film made by a fellow scientist. This was a record of what happened when an orang-utan was placed in the experimental situation where a box had been put in one corner of a room, and a banana suspended from the ceiling in another corner.
"To start with, the orang-utan looked helplessly up and down from the box standing in one corner to the banana hanging in the other; then, in a fit of bad temper, it tried to turn its back on the problem. But this it found itself unable to do, and it turned its mind to the task again. Then suddenly its eyes moved from the box to the point on the floor immediately underneath the banana, from the floor upwards to the banana itself, then down again and from that spot back to the box. In a flash, as one can clearly see from the orang's expressive face, it realizes the answer: turning head-over-heels with delight, it immediately goes over to the box, pushes it underneath the banana and claims its reward. Once it has found the solution the animal takes little more than a few seconds to do what is required. No one who has watched an ape solve that kind of problem can seriously doubt that at the moment it finds the solution, the animal has a flash of insight like that experienced by human beings in such situations - the "Aha experience" as Karl Bohler called it."
A very special kind of frustration, this, and one which we might have imagined was the exclusive preserve of humans. We find ourselves in a situation which puzzles us; it hooks us because it is almost a promise, and yet it lacks any defined route to satisfaction. In this condition, the orang-utan seems to suffer for a little while; but then she solves the puzzle, seemingly by exercising a spatial imagination. Lorenz(6)
has included this in a carefully selected set of capacities - found in a variety of animals - which, he claims, are gathered and combined in the human being. This gives rise to a different intelligence altogether, several dimensions greater than the sum of its parts. These are the essential members of the set:-
- the ability to move imaginary objects around in imaginary space in order to solve practical problems
- the faculty of language and abstract thought.
- the ability to accumulate supra-individual knowledge .
- the power to foresee the consequences of one's own actions, and hence the emergence of moral responsibility.
I am sure this account is a serious step in the right direction, though I feel it expresses a rather typical masculine avoidance of the emotional and relational aspects of our life. This is highlighted for me by the constipated expression: "supra-individual knowledge", but there is a more general issue: the emotional ingredients in this recipe are conspicuous by their extreme absence. We can be more charitable to Lorenz, perhaps, by saying he has merely fallen prey to the prevalent mid-century delusion: that a scientific account(7)
had to be purged of emotional elements in order to count as scientific. And still, we can read the untold story between Lorenz' lines. We simply have to ask ourselves: how does it come about, that we humans get to participate in "supra-individual knowledge"?
(our conscious appreciation of other worlds
and other minds)
It arises out of our habit of exchanging symbols
from person to person, but also in consequence of the action
of the symbol upon the one who receives it. A symbol works by evoking a whole perspective of experience in the receiver, a perspective which bears some determinate relationship with the perspective that exists in the world of the sender. You see water, or you think of it - or you want me to fetch you some water. You utter the word "water", combined with additional phrases or gestures so that I "get the idea"
of what it is you want.
This remarkable human capacity is the legacy of the cataclysmic change that took place in our recent evolutionary past - the invention of symbolic language
. This evolutionary milestone also recurs in every individual human lifetime, through an essential initiation process which each of us undergoes in our infancy. Helen Keller has given us a wonderful account of this event in her own life. Because her deaf-blindness had shielded her from the normal process of early learning, this shattering gift - the entry into the world of symbols - came to her all of a sudden, at the age of seven:
"Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word 'w-a-t-e-r', first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten - a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!"(8)
This is not a mechanical process. It depends upon a real hunger in us, to understand what the world is like for the other person. It is the hunger for love, and real emotional connection - but it also brings to us the revelation of the world, and the awakening of the soul which Helen Keller describes.
We have progressed from my early statement: that emotion is the primary language of relationship. Now it becomes clear that our shared emotional life is at the heart of our higher intelligence. I take it that the great mathematician John Nash was confirming this point, with the following words he is reported(9)
as saying at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:-
"I have made the most important discovery of my career. The most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found."
The biological underpinnings of intelligence
Having made this adjustment to the picture, I now want to return to Lorenz' consideration of the biological underpinnings of intelligence. One of the elementary cognitive skills he lists, is the ability to move imaginary objects around in imaginary space in order to solve practical problems. This is what we observe the orang-utan doing, in the example quoted earlier. Some of the skills are much more primitive, however, and are built in to the fabric and organisation of nervous tissue itself; these are abilities we hold in common with all members of the animal kingdom, at least down to the level of squids and sea cucumbers. For instance the complex of nerve-cells which makes up the retina (the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the vertebrate eye) is able to perform the precise logical(10)
operation of picking out the pattern common to a series of experiences.
We do not even need a brain to be able to do this. A functioning eye is able to capture the basic form of all sorts of objects regardless of the angle of vision, movement across the field of vision, and distance from the eye. The range of different profiles that can thus be coped with - so that the "same" object is recognised in all cases - is remarkable. Once we "know" what an elephant looks like, we can recognize it as the same elephant species regardless of whether the animal is standing right in front of us and taking up most of our field of view, or if it is a tiny elephant-shaped speck on the horizon. The logical neural circuits of the eye take care of this task of what biologists and behavioural psychologists call "object constancy".
of the object, is a separate issue. The act of classifying, if it is to be effective, needs to be one element
within a set, or system, of interwoven classifications. This generally requires the services of a brain. There is a classification system unique to every species - complete with ready-made portfolio of expected behaviours for each of the object-types which are recognized. We share this skill with all vertebrate animals, including the most simply constructed fish. The so-called "higher centres" of mammals are only called into play when there is a need to create new classifications for new kinds of object - or for making intelligent changes in our relationship with familiar objects.
A customised operating system for every species
There is a standard-issue operating system which comes with every newborn animal brain, embodying the wisdom of the species in a sophisticated array of customised thought patterns. In our higher-level intelligent functioning we draw upon these deeper levels for all our information, and for most of our powers of reasoning. The information appears simply to be "given" to us, and it is very easy to take it all for granted. Another example of this is the tide of hormones(11)
which move within us to help determine what we pay attention to, how we think about it, and what we will subsequently choose to do about it. This is our own biology, working deeply within us.
To understand our relationship with this biological "self"(12)
requires that we be able to recognize several layers of motivation working within us at the same time. This requires us to have a clear understanding of complex systems. The approach we shall be developing in the next two sections
will help us to navigate the complexity - whilst guarding against the danger that we may become submerged and confused by it. In a later section entitled "Single-Celled Intelligence"
I am presenting an important recent development in the biology of informed action, which will help us further clarify our place within the pattern of life as we are living it. In this way we shall continue to refine our concept of intelligence as we go along.
NOTES TO THIS SECTION
1. This pattern is well illustrated in Iris Murdoch's novel A Fairly Honourable Defeat, in which Hilda is instantly aware that something is wrong, as soon as her husband begins to lie to her, within the context of relaxed and open and honest intimate communication within a 30-year long marriage.
2. This is notwithstanding the opposite phenomenon - pathological jealousy - where a partner who is not accurately attuned at the emotional and intuitive level, makes the mistaken inference of the partner's infidelity from his own feelings of insecurity, suspicion or jealousy. In any case, the salient point for our present argument is that such inferences can be made, and they can be made correctly or incorrectly.
3. "Normal", of course, is in the eye of the operator of norms. We have the ability to take for granted, any behaviour which seems to us to be happening on a regular basis - and this is the basis of what we "normally" expect. We also have the capacity to re-focus on the immediately present situation as if with fresh eyes - hence we can be overwhelmed by the tumultuous presence and the wondrous complexity of the natural world, wherein everything feels richly powerful and having an intelligence all its own, in a situation where we saw only drab repetition only a moment before.
4. This was a major feature of J-P Sartres early psychological theory - where he saw all of human relationship in terms of an unending struggle over who is going to become the object of whom. Sartre in turn had been strongly influenced by Hegel's account of the dialectic between "the master" and "the slave". There is an ethics of mutual respect, inherent in the world's major religions, which had fallen into disrepair at the time when these men were writing their philosophy. See SARTRE(1943) and HEGEL(19@@@)
5. This usually happens on the back of older, established patterns. The substitution of new for old may, or may not, give rise to a loss of information. (The wise policy is always to keep an archive. Revolutionaries who burn books, we have found, are usually set to topple before very long.)
6. K. Lorenz, Behind the Mirror: a search for the natural history of human knowledge. Engl. translation Methuen, London 1977. This capacity to improvise, it is worth noticing, is precisely what is displayed by Konrad Lorenz' orang utan - as its performance will be described in the text that follows.
7. Even dear Sigmund talks as if our deepest inner life is all about bizarre collisions of body parts, instead of owning up to the intimacy of emotional connection which it is really about. See Ian Suttie (The Origins of Love and Hate) and Winnicott (The Child, the Family and the Outside World) for the best account of this major imbalance in the Freudian theory.
8. I am indebted to PERCY, W.(1975) for this account, and for the inter-personal theory of consciousness. It is set out in a series of essays entitled: "The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language is, and What One Has to Do with the Other". Dr Percy also used Helen Keller's autobiography as a pivotal illustration of his theory.
9. Regretfully, I have to own that this is actually a fictional quotation, for the purposes of A Beautiful Film. In reality John Nash was not asked to make a Nobel Acceptance Speech, and there is no reason to believe that he uttered the words quoted on any other occasion, either.
10. In this and the discussion which follows, it is essential to remain clear that words like "logical", "to pick out", "to recognize" and so forth are used by analogy for what are essentially similar mechanical sorting functions such as a computer is able to perform. They are not meant to imply a kind of human reflectiveness or judgment - which has no place in any discussion of biological functions at this rudimentary level.
11. The pituitary and adrenal glands, in particular, are intimately related to our state of mind at every moment, but there are all manner of chemical and electrical tides ebbing and flowing within the brain itself.
12. This is not a question of reducing our experience to a biological process, but of recognizing some of the deeper aspects of our own being. For instance, there are bouts of jealousy and insecurity which stem from being a social and status-driven mammal who is often temporarily defeated by circumstances. These are painful and embarrassing feelings, which we are often tempted to deny even to ourselves. It is, however, better to know how to recognize these inner states, and to have ways of rising above them, than to entrap ourselves in an elaborate set of self-deceptions in order to protect an unreal social identity. Once we have identified the relatively primitive mammalian reaction, we need a way to establish a sensitive and effective relationship between the higher "self" who compassionately searches for positive directions, and the lower-level "self" who is suffering the jealousy and insecurity. This is where the systems view can help us, since it shows how the different levels are articulated and inter-relate.
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004