Emotions Are More Important Than You Think


Have you ever experienced deja vu? The eerie feeling that you've been somewhere before?

You enter a room you've never been in, or step out of a car in a new town, or walk around a corner onto a street you've never seen, and suddenly -- out of nowhere -- it hits you.

"I've been here before!"

You know it can't be true. But something inside you keeps telling you that it is. Butterflies do a dance in your stomach. Your hands turn cold and clammy.

Shivers run up and down your spine. Sweat trickles down your armpits.

Try as you will, you can't shake the feeling. A place that you have never seen before feels as familiar to you as your own living room. It's eerie, alien, straight out of the Twilight Zone.

"It can't be!" you keep telling yourself. But the feeling just gets stronger.

What's wrong? What's going on?

Well, to begin with, one part of your brain is telling you one thing and another part is telling you another. The part that's telling you that you've been there before is the part ruled by emotion. And -- get this -- it's right! You feel as though you've been there before because you have been there before.

The word "feel" in that last sentence is very important. It has to do with emotions, and so does deja vu.

Up until very recently we more or less discounted emotions. We didn't think they were very important. We put a lot of value on brain power, of course, but emotions...?

Nice, but not necessary.

Scientists, philosophers and even science fiction writers who speculated on the future of humankind, and the "ideal" human of that future, portrayed our progeny as being as unemotional as clams, a gaggle of Brainiacs who outdid Mister Spock.

But they were wrong.

I've mentioned this before, but I'll do it again in case you missed it.

A young man in California had an accident in which part of his brain was damaged. Though otherwise normal, he would look at his parents and say, "These people look like my parents, and sound like my parents, but they aren't my parents."

Why? Because he felt no emotional tie to them, and it turns out that emotion is a central part of recognition, and not just recognition of Mom and Dad, either.

Emotional recognition has strong survival value and has therefore become a part of us.

How did that happen? Well, put yourself into these scenarios.

Fear can make you run like a bunny rabbit, can't it? Bill Cosby once said that the only time a human being is completely honest is when he's scared out of his wits. So, rewind the tape a few hundred thousand years. You and your brainy buddy Ogg look up. Here comes a hungry, charging lioness.

Fear chases you straight up a tree. The lioness feasts on Ogg, who stopped to think.

Emotions one; brains zero.

Disgust can have a powerful effect, too. Oola and her brainy brother, Igg, get a whiff of some stuff hissing out of a hole. Oola wrinkles up her nose and heads out as fast as her legs will carry her. Hydrogen sulfide, the rotten egg smell, a gas as deadly as cyanide, paralyzes the chest muscles of -- and kills -- Igg, who stopped to take a second sniff.

Emotions two, brains zero.

Love makes us do things, too: "Uh-h-h!" Ugg says, as he sees a raging mammoth headed down the trail toward the Ugg grandkids. He leaps in front of the mammoth, shoves the grandkids out of the way, and becomes a greasy spot on the trail.

Emotions, two; brains one?

Uh-uh! Emotions three; brains still zip.

Ugg dies, but his genes survive to ride again.

Though emotions can make problems at times, they have enough survival value to have become standard issue in each of us.

What's all this got to do with deja vu?

About 25 years ago, a friend of mine and I were driving up Interstate 17 to go hiking in Sedona, the first time for me. As we passed Dugas Road and I saw the high grasslands stretched out across the horizon, an overwhelming sense of being home came over me.

I couldn't shake the feeling. Something in my head kept telling me, "Hey, Tom, lookit! We're home! Ain't that grand?"

My brain, or I should say another part of my brain, kept saying, "Come on, idiot. It's just grass. Get real!"

Guess which part of my brain won? And still wins every time I drive through the same area? More than once I've told friends or relatives, "Don't ever stop here and let me out." I have the oddest feeling I'd just walk off and never come back.

It took me more than 15 years to track down that feeling, I finally remembered an unmowed grassy back yard behind a small rented house on Staten Island in New York. I don't remember my father dying, but I do remember an empty period in my life, a time when I felt angry, cheated, terribly alone.

I remember playing in that unmowed grass, all alone and broken-hearted. It was cold weather, and I used to hunker down in a shallow depression, out of the wind, sun-warmed, and hidden from a world that had betrayed me, a world I peered at angrily through waving yellow stalks.

That grassy nest became home to me, much more so than the cold, empty, clapboard house I could see through those stalks. I know now that the sense of being "home" there in that grass became so much a part of me that when I saw rolling grassland, the feeling that I was home was instantaneous. And correct -- emotional.

Deju vu is a mind-shattering event where you recognize, in a completely new place, some portion of a time or place from an emotional period of your life.

Subconsciously, you recognize the place, but consciously you don't, creating the eerie, and seemingly impossible, sensation that you've been there before.

Which, of course, you have.

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