Emotions: Feeeeeeeeelings are Not Facts

Well, now we’re getting to the section of The Straight-A Conspiracy that really gets Katie O and me excited. We get to talk about feeeeeeeelings. Oh yeah! So, let’s talk about them. And since you’re a Mixed Mental Artist you’re already familiar with a lot of the concepts needed to really lock this idea in and put it into practice.

Descartes’ Error. Check!

Thinking, Fast and Slow & The Rider and the Elephant. Check! Check!

Naive realism…oh, wait. Maybe that one’s a bit fuzzy. So, let’s break that sucker down.

Naive realism is what scientists call your brain’s tendency to make you feeeeeeel like you see the world as it really is. It’s what makes you feeeeeeel like your feelings are facts. This is a problem that humans have long known about. Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism called this phenomenon maya or illusion. Although you may or may not be in school, school is actually a really great place to demonstrate this. Just take a look at the following statements:

Math is scary.

English is hard.

I hate Shakespeare.

I fucking love Science!!!

My teacher is the worst!

School is a waste of time. When am I going to use this stuff anyway?

These are all students telling the people around them how they feeeeeeeeeeeel about the content. Really, math is just math. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people fear it. Some people find it fascinating. And those different emotional responses drive veeeeeeeery different choices with the material. Some put you on the path to mastery (love, curiosity) and some make you disengage and try and avoid it (hate, fear).

Learning is about acquiring habits. It’s about automating skills like math and reading. And what controls what you automate? Your attention. And what drives your attention either towards the subject or towards thinking about lunch?

Your feeeeeeeeeeelings!


But this is where Descartes’ Error becomes so important. Because often if you’re sitting in class your naive realism is so powerful that you don’t feeeeeeeel like you’re being emotional. But you are. Your thinking is ALWAYS being driven by your feelings. The only question is what feeeeeeeelings are driving your thinking. And often we never bother to ask that question for YEARS! It was only when I started tutoring and reading all this neuroscience that I started reflecting on my own feeeeeeeelings. Still, I have lots and lots of feeeeeeeelings to unpack from my own childhood. Stuff I blindly download through the emotion of awe that I’m only just finding out.

Your culture is like matryoshka or Russian Nesting Doll. There are layers within layers of emotional responses and cultural biases that you will uncover throughout your life. The goal is to unpack your own matryoshka as quickly as possible so you can have better responses to new knowledge and learn faster than anybody else.

What are all the ways that feelings are driving your choices and are your emotional reactions appropriate to the situation? Nowhere is that more obvious than fear and math. Retraining your emotions isn’t something that happens overnight. That’s why Jon Haidt compares the fast and slow thinking systems to a rider and an elephant. The elephant is powerful but you can nudge it.

In Haidt’s book, you’ll learn more about naive realism. And you’ll come to understand that feelings aren’t facts. Understanding and managing naive realism is about as important as it gets. Check out my favorite quote from The Happiness Hypothesis:

“If I could nominate one candidate for “biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony,” it would be naive realism because it is so easily ratcheted up from the individual to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are. Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest. Naive realism gives us a world full of good and evil, and this brings us to the most disturbing implication of the sages’ advice about hypocrisy: Good and evil do not exist outside of our beliefs about them.”


Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

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