Does Modern Science Back Stoicism?

August 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

Last week I read How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. In this book Lehrer tells us that we should be aware of our thought processes when making decisions. He makes a case for listening to our internal conversations – our emotions – and tells us that in order to make the best decisions we should think about what we’re feeling.

When going through my notes of the book, I came by this passage that reminded me – and backed up scientifically – some of the stuff the Stoics were constantly emphasizing:

“How do we regulate our emotions? The answer is surpisingly simple: thinking about them. The prefrontal cortex allows each of us to contemplate his or her own mind, a talent psychologists call metacognition. We know when we are angry; every emotional state comes with self-awareness attached, so that an individual can try to figure out why he’s feeling what he’s feeling. If the particular feeling makes no sense – if the amygdala is simply responding to a loss frame, for example – then it can be discounted. The prefrontal cortex can deliberately choose to ignore the emotional brain.”

In this paragraph Lehrer essentially sums of the whole premise of the Stoics: that we should look at things as they really are – objectively. Marcus Aurelius in Meditations:

“Your ability to control your thoughts, treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions – false to your nature, and that of all rational beings.”

“To shrug it all off and wipe it clean – every annoyance and distraction – and reach utter stillness. Child’s play.”

“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.”

And as Lehrer uses anger as an example in the above passage, here’s Marcus’ thoughts on the particular feeling:

“And why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice!”


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