This post relates to others that I’ve written involving mbti–and it will relate to ones that are still yet to be written.
It’s about thinking and feeling, about how they can be differentiated, and about what they actually mean.
Obviously–it seems pretty fundamental in our society that thinking and feeling are different things. This distinction shows up all the time in our culture–in literature, in movies, and in how people interact with each other.
But just what is the difference between thinking and feeling and what are the effects? Both of them happen in our brains–but they are experienced quite differently and they have radically different connotations and repercussions.
So let’s go back to origins–and as I’ve found so many times–some truly foundational understandings are built into our language that are so often lost as they are buried under the weight of time.
Clearly, we associate the term “feeling” with our emotional states of being. “How are you feeling today?” is a question that we ask to see what mood people are in–at least that’s what we are requesting if we’re not just making small talk.
But why should this be the case? I mean, the term “feeling” has an entirely different primary meaning in that it relates to our sense of touch. When we say, “Feel this!” I am not usually asking someone to take on an emotional state–but rather to touch something with their hands.
This second usage of the word “feeling” is, however, actually the original and primary meaning. “Feeling,” as a term, is attested to since the 12th century and meant “act of touching, sense of touch.” The meanings connected to emotion show up only later in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The noun “feeling” itself was derived from the verb, to feel, (felan in Old English) which itself is derived from the indo-european root *pal- meaning “to touch, feel, shake, strike softly,” and which shows up in the words Latin-based words “palpable” and “palpitations” (of the heart). As noted in the previous link–the meaning of “to have sympathy for” (to feel for) first showed up in the 1600’s, while the meaning “to want” (to feel like) is even younger and shows up first in 1829.
Thus, our feelings, were our collection of experiences involving touching things, and if you think about it, this shade of meaning still entirely permeates the whole experience of feeling something. On the one hand, for example, if something evokes a strong emotional response–we say it touches us. On the other hand, when we do have strong emotional responses to something–it quite often causes a signficant change in our physical being–especially in our skin–which may flush with blood, feel hot (in anger) or cold (despair or sadness). We also feel the world in our heartbeat–whether it is fast or slow–and thus its not surprising that we so often speak of our feelings coming from our hearts. (Note–we might also say we feel something in our guts–and it is striking that the places we associate with our feelings–the heart and our guts–are the only internal organs that we can actually sense with our sense of touch. You can feel your heart beat.. and you can feel your stomach gurgling. Your liver, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be closely connected to of our methaphorical center of feeling.
In any case, it is also true that emotions are often related to the experience of pain–a sensation involving our nervous system and its responses to the outside world–usually and initially involving our skin.
At its core, one can say that feeling–in all of its expressions–is deeply connected to the concrete process of interacting with the physical world around us. We feel the world through our skin and through the sense of touch–and this idea of the concrete impact of the world upon us–has been embedded in our brains in a fundamental way.
I might note that this linkage of emotions to interactions with the environment is not just mine–it’s been around in evolutionary psychology for a while in the sense that they say that emotions probably evolved as a kind of “short-cut” behavioral response to the environment around us. What’s important to me here, however is that the term we use for it–in at least English and German–is related to our sense of touch–rather than any of our other senses–and that connection seems important.
In contrast, the term “think” or “thought” has quite a different origin. According to its etymology, think comes from old English thencan, which meant “conceive in the mind, think, consider, intend,” but which also probably originally meant “to cause to appear to oneself,” as it was the causitive form of the Old English verb, thyncan, which meant “to seem, to appear.”
Now think about that. Does that thinking have anything to do with your skin? with your heart? with touching anything?
I’d wager it doesn’t. In fact, when you think about thoughts at all, the most common way to do so is to create pictures or imagery. This is done in quite literally in comics, where we have the ubiquitous thought bubbles.
However, this conception of thinking as a process of “appearance” –but also of “seeming” really gets to the heart of what thinking means–and that is that thinking and thoughts are a process of representation. Thinking is not a process of directly interacting with the outside environment in a direct and immediate way–like touching a spider–but instead, it is about taking the information that our senses–and most times I would argue overwhelming that this is visual information–and creating a representation of this information in our heads. These representations serve as models for us–and as such–they can be manipulated or changed or even discarded without consequences–something that is not true at all for most of our direct experiences with the external physical world.
Thus, at the origin of our expressions for these activities–thinking is very different from feeling. From its root meaning, thinking is a visualization of the world–while feeling involves touching the world.
Of course, we are complex enough beings that this abstraction–this THINKING about thinking and feeling–is an ideal case. In the mushy meat in our heads, we have no problems mixing such stuff together–connecting emotional feelings to our visualized representations (if I think about my wife, I feel warm and happy)–just as complex feelings–often an accumulation of different experiences–can lead to abstract thought processes about them..
Nevertheless–I think it is useful to be aware–in our mind’s eye (visualization anyone)–the difference in the metaphors that are embedded in our language for these human experiences and activities. Doing so can help explain some of the conflicts and miscommunications that happen between people.. and that’s something that I’ll get to in a subsequent post.