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In classical philosophy, emotions were viewed as separate from and opposite to rational thought. The latest view, informed by extensive brain studies, holds that emotions are different from but intimately connected with what we call deliberate thought in the form of decision-making and rational choice. “While rational thought allows us to draw logical conclusions based on our goals and relevant data,” Mlodinow writes, “emotion operates at a more abstract level—it affects the importance we assign to the goals and the weight we give to the data.” Sometimes it operates by tapping into more ancestral areas of the brain, touching on fight-or-flight instincts: If we hear a rustling in the bushes as we walk by them, is it the wind or a fierce predator? All mammals and many species of insects, Mlodinow writes, experience emotion as a feature of our shared “evolutionary heritage,” and the triggers are much the same. We feel our way around our environment, drawing on prior experience and using it as a guide, how we felt then conditioning how we feel now. This is not always healthy, however. Our fearful responses may not apply to every situation, but fear leads us to “assign higher than normal probabilities to alarming possibilities” that we may rationally know not to be so. As the author shows, our emotions are not uniform; some people are “quick to become anxious, while in others anxiety builds slowly,” and levels of happiness and sorrow are contingent on many factors. Whatever the instance, Mlodinow encourages readers to take time to better understand their own emotional makeup by developing an “emotional profile” that can lead to heightened self-awareness and, perhaps, even to greater peace of mind.

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