Sarah Fordham unweaves the rainbow of our emotions, and argues that science cannot tell us what it means to be human What is it that most sets humans apart from all the other organic life forms on the planet? Convinced of our superiority, this is a question we like to ask over and over again. We're physically inferior in almost every single way. Problem-solving? Talk to the Caledonian crows and their tool-making. Self-awareness? Perhaps – but the line is fuzzy. Cats and dogs, for example, react to mirrors in ways that suggest they're self-aware, and chimpanzees have the same concept of mind as a 3 year old child. Emotions? Now you’re talking. It's the vast spectrum of our emotions that we like to ponder repeatedly in art, literature, and music. Yet science seems to be destroying this particular notion of our existence, by constantly trying to quantify such sublime experiences as jealousy, love, and even happiness.If we deconstruct the physiological and psychological aspects of jealousy, maybe we can acknowledge that technically it is just an adaptive response to aid the survival of the individual within a social group. But anyone who has ever felt full blown, pea-green envy – and I'm guessing that would be most of us – this explanation seems like an oversimplification of the worst kind. In reality, there's something almost transcendental about plotting the tragic accidents that that may befall those hated individuals with more looks, brains and charisma than oneself. There's no data-set that I know of to explain that warm glow that swells up from the pit of your stomach as they play through your mind.The same form of dissection is being applied to happiness. If we actually sit back and ask ourselves: 'what is happiness', we find that even after centuries of laborious analysis, some of the brightest minds in the world still don't know. For us mere mortals, the most accurate answer may as infinitely complex and wonderfully simple as ‘ice-cream’.Why then, have certain parties recently deemed it necessary to propose to several leading diagnostic manuals that happiness should be reclassified as a psychiatric disorder! The symptoms of said disorder include a statistically abnormal functioning of the nervous system, with discrete symptoms including cognitive anomalies. Thankfully – as far as the writer is concerned – this proposal was rejected. Because, to be honest, is there anything more belittling than the idea that most profound joy you ever experienced was nothing more a chemical imbalance? It's like taking all of our ideals and dipping them in pure ethanol.And I shan't begin to bore you with what the experts have to say on love, save that the so-called ‘greatest thing you’ll ever learn’ is no more than a trick of evolution to make us procreate. Well that puts Shakespeare and Donne in their places.Or does it? We may accuse the scientific perspective of being cold and sterile, but perhaps that is slightly too harsh. Some would say that there is a profound beauty in the knowledge that the rush you get at the sight of that special someone really is electricity – coursing through your Sympathetic nervous system at 7 mph – not just a poet's meagre metaphor.Dawkins' book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ examines this very conflict between rational and philosophical perceptions of life. The title of the book itself refers to John Keats' despair that Isaac Newton destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining the origin of its colours: the refraction of light. To some it may seem, and to Keats it most certainly did, that this Newton's theories robbed the rainbow of all its mystery, and in the process crushed the infinite potential for human imagination to come up with its own hypotheses. On the other hand, for those in our midst who are so inclined, the true explanation is nothing short of the very embodiment of elegance and grace. Richard Feynman, the physicist, had an argument with an artist friend. The friend claimed that he could find a flower infinitely more beautiful than Feynman could, because Feynman lacked an artistic mind. Feynman found this absurd. He argued that everyone can see the inherent beauty in things: seeing things from a scientific perspective can only add to beauty, not take away: if the petals make him wonder about their mathematical complexity, or the colours make him think about mechanisms of pollination, it can only add to the flower. So it can be argued that the more we know about how and why we feel the way we do, the more we add to our experience of being human, not detract.And yet, something in me revolts. So here’s my point: I can't deny that there's something to be said for asking why people go through such a kaleidoscope of sentiments everyday. But even so I think we can be justified in ignoring the science, just this once, and continue to embrace the idea – however fanciful – that there is some greater power or purpose to existence; that life isn’t just survival and reproduction. Is that asking too much?
What do you think? Has science's insights into the human psyche made our emotions nothing but so many chemical reactions, or has it led us on a new and more exciting journey of self-discovery?
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