Jim's Reviews > Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
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Oct 04, 10

bookshelves: neuroscience-cognition-behavior, favorites

This visionary book by Daniel Goleman is one of the most important in my collection. I see it as a seminal contribution to understanding the human condition, and a roadmap of practical steps for living better, both within ourselves and with those around us.

I begin by recommending the excellent review by Lars - a clear, well-written summary of the major points in the book.

Here I will focus on 3 topics from the book: 1) the evolution of brain mechanisms for emotional and rational behavior; 2) how these mechanisms can be hijacked in modern life, both accidentally and intentionally; and 3) the critical need for properly balancing emotion and rational thought in ourselves and our society. The latter challenge has given rise to extremely important research and training endeavors, and I believe these will become even more important in the foreseeable future. I see these endeavors as promising and significant career paths for those who pursue them.

For more information on the brain systems discussed below, McGill University has an excellent web site, with helpful graphics, background and discussion at three levels of complexity, starting with the basics. The links below are to this site.

Brain evolution
To understand Goleman’s message, it is important to consider the human brain as an evolutionary sequence. We can think of it as a layer cake, assembled one layer at a time. The important point is that each layer in the sequence was originally the 'executive' in a functioning brain, with no obvious need for a higher layer. We can think about this sequence by considering a frog, a ‘primitive’ mammal such as a mouse, and a human.

The most obvious difference among these three brains is the relative amount of cerebral (neo)cortex. The frog has essentially none - just a small bulge called ‘cerebrum’. The major portion of this ‘reptilian brain’ closely resembles the brainstem in humans, where vital body functions such as heart rate and respiration are controlled, plus a cerebellum for fine motor control. The mouse has a relatively well-developed limbic system (discussed below) and a respectable neocortex. But the human brain is completely dominated by the massively overgrown neocortex, which must be intricately lobed and folded to fit within the skull.

So what does all that neocortex do in humans? Put simply, it thinks. It makes associations, provides context, and makes decisions to guide behavior in a complex world. Most other parts of the brain carry out simple sensory processing or stereotyped motor programs, or convey information from periphery to cortex or vice versa. Cortex takes crudely processed inputs (mostly from the thalamus) and identifies salient features (speech, faces, odors). By analyzing these features, it provides a rich context for making informed decisions and choosing appropriate actions.

Well, don’t frogs need a lot of cortex to process information and make adaptive decisions? Actually, they don’t. They have gotten along just fine without it for many millions of years. The tradeoff is that they can only perform a limited analysis of sensory inputs, and produce a limited and stereotyped array of behaviors. Mice, with a significant amount of cortex, can perform more sophisticated processing and behaviors, and can show some behavioral adaptation (learning).

Now here is the really important part. Humans did not lose or replace the amphibian or ‘primitive’ mammalian brain. Basically, they just added really elaborate processing layers (neocortex) on top of them. All of that cortical hardware has to work through lower centers that are, for the most part, quite similar to those found in other vertebrates.

A neurologist colleague elegantly summarized this concept for the medical students I was teaching, in a review session for our neuroanatomy lab exam. He pointed to a structure in the human brainstem that assists in fine-tuning motor control (inferior olive). He said, “this structure evolved to help a frog catch a fly by jumping accurately toward the target. We have to use it to do things like play piano and tap-dance. It takes a lot of cortical machinery to get that kind of performance from those cells.”

It isn’t quite that simple (of course), but the analogy is a very good one. And this key concept is at the core of Goleman’s magnificent book.

Good amygdala, bad amygdala
With this evolutionary framework in place, we can consider the relative role of the limbic system (‘emotional brain’), which first emerged in early mammals. One of its key components, the amygdala, is a sort of emotional activation zone for the brain. One of its critical functions is to serve as an early-warning system for danger, such as approaching predators, and trigger very rapid fight-or-flight (sympathetic) responses. It gets direct, but crude visual and auditory inputs and processes them more quickly than neocortex. In effect, a portion of the amygdala sits and asks, ‘should I panic? should I panic?’, like an endless loop in software. These responses are, of course, extremely useful when there is real danger.

The difficulty is that, in the ‘civilized’ and complex world of humans, the amygdala can generate many false alarms. Even worse, in extreme situations it can take preemptive control of behavior, and trigger blind rage, panic, or other destructive responses. In those cases, the overgrown neocortex that underlies unique human behavior is left out of the loop. And this is where the trouble starts.

By analogy, neocortex is the executive who normally runs the company, but the workers can rebel and take over the production line. Examples from everyday life: I blew up; I don’t know what came over me; I just lost my head. Actually, your amygdala came over you and shut down your neocortex.

Truth or consequences
Being emotionally intelligent, in Dan Goleman’s brilliant synthesis, means that you understand the destructive potential of emotions, and actively find ways to minimize or eliminate the destruction. To do this, you must put a neocortical wisdom about emotions at the front end of your own thought process – an executive in the chain of command. The job of this executive is to find constructive ways to channel and control both your emotions and those of others. This idea is consistent with the notions of mindful meditation and the best of religious thought. In other words, it is a prescription for a long-term, sustainable vision of human existence. To me, this is the most profound element of Dan Goleman’s vision.

Sounds pretty simple, right? So why is it so difficult for so many people? One big reason is that a great deal of money can be made by encouraging precisely the opposite response. Firing up the limbic system to spew out fear, outrage and hate is good for business. Movie and TV producers (and writers) may not know the difference between the limbic system and limbo, but they are experts at fueling emotional responses for profit.

In stark contrast, calm, rational appeals to the better angels of our nature face a steep, uphill climb. Fear and loathing are much easier to induce, and much more marketable. Those with emotional wisdom understand that, except in the most extreme cases, fire cannot be fought with fire. But they must also understand that it is easier to start a fire and fan the flames than to put it out.

Moving forward
To me, a central challenge of our times is to find an adaptive balance between rational and emotional responses in our lives and culture. To do this, we must put the reasoning cortex in charge of our thoughts and decisions – guided but not overwhelmed by emotions. Fail to find this balance, and disaster will follow. This point is stressed by the following quote from the book:

“Each day’s news comes to us rife with reports of the disintegration of civility and safety, an onslaught of mean-spirited impulse running amok. But the news simply reflects back to us on a larger scale a creeping sense of emotions out of control in our own lives and in those of the people around us. No one is insulated from this erratic tide of outburst and regret; it reaches into all of our lives in one way or another.”

How can these stark realities be reconciled with the urgent need for rational policy decisions, in a world that hovers on the edge of economic and environmental disaster? Another quote:

“This book is a guide to making sense of the senselessness… I have been struck by two opposing trends, one portraying a growing calamity in our shared emotional life, the other offering some hopeful remedies.”

Only by building on those hopeful remedies can we take positive steps with a definite plan. This is big, important work, and visionary thinkers like Daniel Goleman are pointing the way to constructive steps that can be taken, both now and in the future.

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Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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Lars Guthrie Great essay, Jim, and thanks for the nod to me. Took me back into the book, and then farther out into what it means and how we can use that.

message 2: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Lars wrote: "Great essay, Jim, and thanks for the nod to me. Took me back into the book, and then farther out into what it means and how we can use that."

Thanks a lot, Lars - Much appreciated.

message 3: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks, Riku. There are newer and more accessible books that cover some of the same ground. But I think this one is still hugely important, and it provides a solid framework for understanding some of the others.

message 4: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Your reviews are so clear and informative, and I love that you place links for those who are interested/have time for more detailed reading.

message 5: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thank you so much, Traveller. I am really enjoying your careful and scholarly (and fun!) reviews as well!

message 6: by Stephanie (new) - added it

Stephanie Well done. I believe this book is on my shelf somewhere, I shall unearth it. Fascinating.

message 7: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thank you so much, Stephanie! For me, this book is a cornerstone for understanding 1) what drives us to do a lot of the crazy things we do, and 2) how easily we can be manipulated into doing things we really don't (or shouldn't) want to do.

Goleman saw so much, at a time when so few were really talking about it - how emotions can drive behavior, and how we can begin to put ourselves back in charge.

message 8: by Stephanie (new) - added it

Stephanie Jim wrote: "Thank you so much, Stephanie! For me, this book is a cornerstone for understanding 1) what drives us to do a lot of the crazy things we do, and 2) how easily we can be manipulated into doing things..."

Emotions get us into trouble. Spock was right.

message 9: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim He was! That Spock was one sharp dude, and not just in the ears.

Emotions do get us into trouble, but we can't function in rational ways without them. That theme is extremely well developed in How We Decide, another of my favorite 'brain books' (unfortunately, I have not followed through with a real review - yet). I strongly recommend it if you have an interest - a great followup to this book.

The basic idea is that our 'reward systems' (dopamine, basal ganglia) build a model of the world, and sound an emotional alarm when something happens that doesn't match the model. Not the clanging alarm like that from the amygdala, which Goleman discussed here. More of an 'uneasy gut feeling'.

message 10: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks so much for the likes - Catie, Leanne, Stephen and Nataliya (and anyone I missed)!

message 11: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks, Richard!

Understanding these great 'brain books' is much easier than digesting a lot of the classics that you have mastered. Just saying...

Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Jim wrote: "Thanks, Richard!

Understanding these great 'brain books' is much easier than digesting a lot of the classics that you have mastered. Just saying..."


Write one little snarkfest and look what a rep a guy gets...

message 13: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Richard wrote: "*snort*

Write one little snarkfest and look what a rep a guy gets... "

Well, if you are sure the shoe doesn't fit...

And maybe you question my claim that science can be fun, fun, fun!!!

Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways I watch BBC documentaries on YouTube when I can't sleep, almost always about physics or brain research or summat li' rhat. Loves me some science!

message 15: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Well there you go! I can learn more from one of those documentaries than from the same amount of time in a science book - they really are superb.

message 16: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks, Emma!

message 17: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks, Wendy!

message 18: by Dyuti (new)

Dyuti Interesting review Jim. More so as you are from the same field and thus could subtly lay an insight into the matter discussed.

message 19: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Dyuti wrote: "Interesting review Jim. More so as you are from the same field and thus could subtly lay an insight into the matter discussed."

Thanks so much for the kind words, Dyuti! I think there is much to be learned from this book, and many including me have been strongly influenced by it.

message 20: by Amber J. (new)

Amber J. It's been a while since I've read one of your reviews, but this one is excellent and very informative as always.

I like to remind myself that the difference between me and a mouse is just a few nucleotide sequences when I start to feel disconnected from the world around me. But your explanation of the neurological similarities and differences between mice and men (and Kermit lol) is much more interesting. And normally, I would be afraid to tackle a book like this, but as usual you find a way to make the subject matter easily digestible.

I'm also wondering if your layer cake analogy is the way I should view Freud's id, ego, and superego psychoanalysis? (It's hard to let go of Psych 101 lol)

message 21: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Amber J. wrote: "It's been a while since I've read one of your reviews, but this one is excellent and very informative as always..."

Thanks so much, Amber, and great to hear from you as always! Your comments are much appreciated, and I am glad to hear that my explanations made sense.

As for Freud's psychoanalysis, I am afraid I would have a hard time fitting his framework into a nice neuroscience shell, where it would make sense to me. I always tried hard to avoid his stuff when I was taking Psych courses, though I do still remember the coverage from 101.:)

I will send you a PM soon on more personal matters - I have been thinking about you while on GR hiatus since my mother passed away in December. I will share a few thoughts with you soon, and a book idea that might interest you.

In the meantime, thanks again for the kind words! I hope you are doing well and moving forward, and you are in my thoughts.

message 22: by Siddharth (new)

Siddharth Trikha Very nicely explained jim

message 23: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thank you very much, Siddharth!

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