Ecologies of emotion: The importance of feeling for science

As scientists, we are often told that our methods and studies are sharply separated from the wobbly world of emotion. But what if these funny feelings we try to run from are central to our scientific endeavours?

Our emotions may be central to our scientific lives. Photo by Adi Constantin on Unsplash.

Rationality over emotionality

Historically, science has privileged the rational over the emotional. Over and over again, rationality is emphasised as central to scientific and philosophical thought, pushing aside our messier, mushier friend. But our emotions are still important in so many ways.

The rational and emotional have typically been viewed as two distinct and separate realms. But they may, in fact, be more closely intertwined than we typically think.

Passion and purpose

Anthropologist Kay Milton points out that those who care for the environment relate to it in both scientific and religious ways – not the ‘god worshipping’ type of religion, but one that centralises meaning and purpose. This mixed way of relating may be understood by anyone who has felt the insatiable pull toward their scientific field. Feelings and emotions about the issues that science addresses are central in the enthusiastic passion of self-confessed science nerds.

Perhaps you are a neuroscientist who has a passion for enhancing the lives of those with restricted mobility. Maybe an ecologist who loves our animal friends and wants to support the maintenance of their habitats. Or an agricultural scientist eager to create food security. Whatever your discipline, it’s likely emotion plays a role in your scientific journey.

Attention to the ways that our emotions influence our scientific directions can help us to move toward a more transparent science that truly betters humanity. As philosopher Mary Midgley states, our emotion-laden visions are “expressed less directly in all our thoughts and actions, including scientific ones, where they often pass unnoticed and uncriticised.”

Understanding our emotion can support a more transparent science. Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash.

Understanding others

Understanding the importance of emotion is also vital for successful science communication. Traditionally, science communicators have used a deficit model for communication with citizens. Basically, this means science communicators have been thinking, “There are gaps in the scientific knowledge of citizens. If we tell them some science stuff in a simple way, these gaps will be filled!”

But science communication theorists now understand that communicating scientific facts in a digestible way is not enough. If we want non-scientists to understand complex information and trust scientists, we must understand the meaning science has in their own lives — this means understanding their emotions.

Geographies of emotion

But what other relevance does this have for the real world, I hear you ask! Well, scholars are starting to undertake work addressing this very question. The study of emotional geographies looks at the role that emotion plays in issues such as resource use and understandings of landscape.

This field of study can even help us to understand the place of emotion in research — something that many scientists are engaged in at some point in their lives. One feeling that most researchers can probably (unfortunately) understand is anxiety. But these studies show that the emotional life of researchers goes much further. Their emotions are vast and rich, and this can contribute to creativity. Want to do groundbreaking research? Get ready to feel some things!

Emotional geographies reveal the role of emotion in our landscapes. Photo by pine watt on Unsplash.

In her 1997 song entitled Joga, musician Björk sings:

Emotional landscapes, they puzzle me, then the riddle gets solved, and you push me up to this state of emergency, how beautiful to be.”

I’d like to think that our own states of emergency allow us to figure out which science, to us, holds the most meaning. And our emotional landscapes? Perhaps they help our riddles get solved.

To find out more:

Scientists and their emotions: the highs…and the lows

Sorry Mr Spock: science and emotion are not only compatible, they’re inseparable

Awesome awe: The emotion that gives us superpowers


2 Responses to “Ecologies of emotion: The importance of feeling for science”

  1. Jasmine Rhodes says:

    Thanks so much, Gary. I’m really glad you liked it and could relate.

  2. Gary Yang says:

    This is a great piece of writing, and I think it’s relatable for a lot of us. It’s great that you are putting the focus on emotion, something that is often overlooked in science.