Science & Environment
12:07 pm
Mon February 10, 2014

Hitting Emotional Sweet Spot Leads to Better Decision-making

Credit J. J.

We tend to think of emotions as diametrically opposed to rational thought and intellectual activity. But that's not always the case.

When's the last time you were driven to distraction by new love? Or so angry you couldn’t see straight, let alone think straight? And we all know what stress can do to our bodies, not to mention brains.

Strong emotions can cloud our ability to think clearly and make smart decisions. But sometimes, it turns out, we actually need a shot of emotion - psychologists call it emotional arousal - in order for our brains to function optimally.

Much of what we know about the negative influence of emotions on our ability to complete challenging mental tasks comes from studies of those with mental disorders. By studying healthy brains' responses to emotional triggers, Dr. Aminda O'Hare, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is helping put together a more complete picture of the spectrum of interactions between emotion and cognition.

Here's the upshot:

  • Too little: Our emotions provide important cues about the world around us. Fear is a healthy response to danger. And positive emotional feedback can help reinforce desired behavior. Those whose emotional responses are dulled may engage in risky or harmful behavior. Sociopaths are a key example.
  • Too much: On the other hand, too much emotion can overwhelm us and leave us distracted, unable to focus on the most important information or tasks before us. Many mental health disorders, like depression or anxiety, fall into this category. Interestingly, O'Hare says that our high-speed, wired lifestyles, put many of us on the edge of the overloaded state.
  • Just right: The ideal is to exist in a relaxed emotional state most of the time. Then, when hit with stress or excitement, the brain is in a position to capitalize on that and respond to whatever triggered the emotion to the best of its ability. O'Hare is currently studying the benefits of mindfulness, meditation, and contemplative practices in helping us find that emotional sweet spot.
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