Thoughts and Feelings

As usual, my hands had gone into their Raynaud’s syndrome spasm in the cold and were white to the second joints of the fingers.

Wallace Stegner Spectator Bird

Are our thoughts about future events closely associated with the feelings we have once we experience them? A personal illustration: Like Joe Ashton in Stegner’s Spectator Bird, I have what is known as Raynaud’s Syndrome. It is a condition that is strictly associated with cold weather in an almost one to one relationship. You don’t see one of those too often.

When the weather is cold, my hands turn black and blue and then sometimes white and red. My feet probably do so, as well, but I don’t see them and I don’t need to type with them. The episodes come and go throughout a cold day. It is very colorful but it can be somewhat painful too. While there is a name for the phenomenon, there is very little known about it and almost no cure. The only certain way to overcome Raynaud’s is to get on the plane and fly to the tropics as fast as you can.

After being in Hawaii last year, my wife and I decided to return to Oregon. However, I had forgotten about what the winter is really like there, how cold, wet and dreary it usually is. After living there for forty years, I can say all this, read about what the winter weather is like, but I cannot feel it. I cannot recapture the reality of what it is like for me to live under those conditions while I’m in the tropics

When we moved to Honolulu, I told myself over and over not to forget the winter. I wrote about it all to often. And yet, I returned to Portland. Once the winter began, I was truly miserable, at least in the way I feel miserable when it is cold, regardless of how warm it is inside.

There is the word, the thought and there is the feeling--the gap is enormous and that is the problem. My thoughts about the winter were totally dissociated from the way I felt when it was cold. Why is this the case?

It is not an error in predicting future emotional responses, what is now called affective forecasting. I knew what it would be like, but I could not feel it as a sensory event.

It is not a failure of memory. I recall the winter, all the winters I have spent in Portland and the increasing difficulty I have in dealing with them. Why, then, did I not bring that to bear on the decision to return? Alas, memories are not feelings.

Nor is it matter of language. I have many words to describe the effects of the weather on my body and mind. They are common words. It isn’t like trying to describe an unusual pain or emotional experience. Rather I can tell you exactly what happens to my hands, and the sense of being cold all the time, and the troubles I have going out. Yes, these are little woes, but they do have their way with me.

There is also nothing new about this. Long ago in his Treatise of Human Nature Hume pointed out that ideas are but “faint images” of our “sensation, passions and emotions.”

In a recent study of the relationship between various thoughts (anger, anxiety, depression, etc) and their corresponding affective state, La Pointe and Harrell confirm Hume’s conjecture in the language of their discipline. They report “…very few significant relationships were found between specific cognitions and affective states.”

But what they or anyone else as far as I can tell, don’t report is how to overcome this discrepancy, how to bring one’s thoughts or memories into a closer relationship with their feelings. The problem is similar to the relationship between thoughts and actions. In both cases, the discrepancies are often quite large, poorly understood, and difficult to narrow.