Bad advice: Follow your heart
Following this cliched advice is far from harmless.
Posted June 28, 2010
Alice will be sorely missed, it seems. According to those mourning her passing, she was a fount of emotional support and timeless advice such as "Follow your heart." Who's Alice? A soap opera grandmother whose eulogy I recently overheard.
So, why is "follow your heart" bad advice? Cliched, sure. But how could this soap-opera-approved, conventional wisdom be problematic? It sounds so hopeful and harmless. Although following your heart (feelings) can be useful while information-gathering, following your heart in decision-making does disservice. .
While considering any situation in which "follow your heart" crosses our minds, three resources are available to us: feelings ("heart"), intellect ("head"), and intuition ("gut"). Gleaning available information from all three realms is essential to making good decisions. Note: Many who discuss feelings and emotions with clients differentiate the two. Feelings are one's private/internal, physical reactions to threat or opportunity. Emotions are one's public/outward expression of feelings.
Feelings/Emotions - following your "heart"
Feelings (experienced privately) are inevitable. They are also important sources of information. In every situation, positive or negative feelings are immediately experienced. We notice our feelings' intensity and we notice a sense of urgency to act on our feelings.
Spontaneously acting on positive feelings is often safe. But when it comes to negative feelings, spontaneously expressing emotions is rarely in our best interest. Intense does not mean urgent!
Good decisions result when we exercise restraint and continue gathering information, investigating what our intellect and intuition tell us about the situation. Note: Research findings inform us that negative feelings emanate from multiple brain areas, e.g., the limbic system and both the right and left hemispheres. Positive feelings, on the other hand, appear to be accessed primarily in the left hemisphere.
Intellect - using your "head"
An equally important resource for gathering information is our intellect, which provides the rational analysis, the weighing of pros and cons. "Thinking it through" happens in the frontal lobes and left hemisphere. Making the most of this resource also requires activation of areas of the brain that allow us to inhibit negative feelings/emotions and access positive feelings/emotions. (See previous post, How to Train Your Dragon)
Intuition - trusting your "gut"
Entire books have addressed intuition yet failed to elucidate the concept. We feel it viscerally. We believe that women have more of it. We tend to have opinions about whether or not to trust it. We have trouble putting words to it. Essentially, intuition provides strong yet largely inexplicable reactions of either discomfort or comfort. Even though we're sketchy on definitive details, those who have learned to distinguish "heart" from "gut" know the undeniable.value of intuition.
A full and satisfactory definition of intuition has eluded us, until recently. Now, we have neuroscience data that provide preliminary insights into those mysterious flashes of information. Finally, we have a theoretical definition that makes sense. The following summarizes what is now hypothesized:1,2,3
- Nonverbal information from the right hemisphere continuously streams toward the left hemisphere. Out of necessity, the left hemisphere blocks most of this information, much as one blocks a multitude of internal and external distractions in order to concentrate and read this post. Intuition, then, is hypothesized to be what we experience when right hemisphere images, memories, associations to similar experiences from the past slip by the left hemisphere blocks and contribute to the analysis of our current situation. Since we have not consciously called up this information, we do not immediately recognize its relevance.
After gathering information from all three sources, we are ready to act. At decision time, leave feelings out of it. Do not override intellect and intuition by following your heart. Following feelings leads to buying that seductively beautiful and budget-busting dress, avoiding anxiety-producing though potentially rewarding opportunities, and subjecting our spouses to tongue-lashings. When we let feelings dictate decisions, we act on primal urgings without benefit of higher cortical input.
Instead of following your heart, use your head and trust your gut.
1. Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy (NY: Norton, 2002), 115,130.
2. H. A. Nasrallah, "The unintegrated right cerebral hemispheric consciouness as alien intruder: A possible mechanism for Schneiderian delusions in schizophrenia." Comprehensive Psychiatry, 26, no.3 (1985): 273-282.
3. Antonio Damasio, Descartes' error (NY: Putnam, 1994).
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