Sensations, Thoughts, and Emotions

Understanding our emotions is a necessary step forward in our evolution.

Cognition and emotion are today understood as interrelated phenomena, and their integrated action is necessary for normal adaptive functioning.”
Goran Šimić, et al. (2021)

Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

As humans, we have distinguished ourselves through the use of our hands and brains—in particular, our intellect. The intellect has become the source of our greatest strength and weakness. We are manipulators, but we are far from experts. We are poorly aware of our role in the world.

Much as medicine sees differences as abnormal, humans see the world through a lens of opportunity. If we better understood our spirits and emotions, we would be in greater touch with the consequences of our actions.

Before modern times, when we were more involved in the natural world, our intellects were more integrated with our emotions. Our knowledge was limited, but we were more deeply informed of those subjects in which we were involved. Our modern success and the global scale of our manipulations have given predominance to our impersonal, separate, and mechanistic inclinations.

We have developed the intellectual ability to fail and correct ourselves, but we have lost emotional stability and spiritual perception. Our isolation as individuals has led to our being emotionally out of touch with the social and environmental consequences of our actions. Our emotions have been buried beneath the intellectual demands of our modern world.


We think with our bodies, emotions, and intellects. These three layers underlie our perception and cognition. Sensations are our most overlooked mode of thought, which we demote to the level of insensate perception, but senses have thoughts. They are our most fundamental level of awareness and ability.

Our primary sensation is sight, with sound and touch subordinate to it. In addition to perceptions from outside, a host of sensations come from within our bodies. Inner sensations include awareness of comfort, metabolism, health, and fitness. We’re vaguely aware of many internal signals we cannot accurately resolve.

I see people through the lenses of sensations, thoughts, and emotions, and I work to regain a balance between these aspects of experience. Like all three-part structures—and unlike structures with more legs—three-legged structures can rest their feet on unlevel ground. I extend this metaphor to self-awareness: if we see ourselves as having three parts, then we can develop ourselves so that each part is grounded and stable.

Ten years ago I went on a dark, psychedelic trip with the help of a small plant in the mint family called Salvia divinorum. The world that unfolded was short-lived—it only lasted 10 minutes—but it was the darkest of possible worlds.

The experience was based on what I could sense of myself and what was around me, and it gave me first-hand knowledge of the desire to kill oneself. I was thinking clearly, but my sensations created a lifeless world. This proved to me that sensations can create reality.

Because our bodies take care of themselves, we believe our organs perceive the world without judgment. Besides attending to our needs, our bodies know how we understand and react. We may think our intellects are making all the decisions, but our bodies determine what we see and play a role in what we recognize.

The human intellect is both our crowning achievement and a tool for self-destruction. We can barely behave morally as individuals, and we’re wholly unable to do so as a species. Ethical behavior must become innate through an integration of our neural structures. This is far beyond our current state.

This is sad because it ignores truth, which is rooted in feeling, and it’s pathetic because, rather than being secondary, emotions rule the intellect. Our motivation to do anything is rooted in emotions of self, purpose, and survival. Yet we believe our intellects are fully informed and in complete control.

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Black/White, by Robert MacPherson


When we reflect, we are predominantly intellectual. In the project of gaining control of one’s thoughts, it’s critical to understand how narrowly we think, how little we recognize, and how easily we’re misled. Thoughts exist in a reality that is neither fixed nor free. They grow like vines on pre-existing structures we rarely think about.

I’m often reminded of a presentation I made on the topic of how we think. I created it for and announced it to a professional group of fifty practicing psychotherapists, of which I was a member. Only one person attended: a 13-year-old boy who was brought by his mother.

This was no accident. Thinking is a creative act. The more you know, the less likely you are to think. Most of what we do is data retrieval, and data retrievers are not creative.

I encourage you to doubt everything. Much of what I’ve been taught in physics, brain training, and psychology is provisionally true at best. In physics, the boundaries of what’s plausible are sometimes evident but rarely respected. In brain training, little is known for certain, and psychology amounts to a bunch of stories. I’ve concluded that I only know what I can do myself.

Recognize that your greater limitations are not what you know, but what you can know within your current framework. The best thing you can do to further your personal evolution is to discard most of what you know and start again. This will destabilize your personality and require emotional strength. Metamorphosis seems chaotic even when it isn’t.

Most of what we want lies beyond what we’re able to understand. Being fixed in how we think creates an inflexible reality, but being flexible makes us vulnerable. So it is that some of the most capable thinkers are inflexible and frustrated. These people tend toward institutions, and institutions happily reward them. What such people need is a richer world of chaos that lies beyond what makes sense. This leads to mid-life crises, but any time is a good time for a crisis.

Creativity is the putting together of things that don’t seem to fit. This can be funny or tragic; comedy and tragedy have always been connected. “Here there be dragons,” and also there be gold. You can’t get to a new understanding from the understanding you have. You will not see further standing on the shoulders of giants. You’re looking for something others can’t see.

New thinking always starts chaotically. It is not found along the well-ordered paths we’ve been advised to follow. We are taught to think without creativity because that makes us more docile and socially productive. We’re taught to work on other people’s projects. This insect-like trend toward mediocrity builds a stronger collective at the expense of individual growth.

There are two definitions of sanity: following consensus and gaining insight. Following consensus is medically, scientifically, and institutionally endorsed, but it will never satisfy you. Gaining insight is the path of personal and species evolution. Insight easily leads to things too big for us to contain. Consensus is collegial. Insights can destroy anything and everything.

If you’re insightful, you’ll be discouraged until you convince others that your ideas will benefit them. That’s not a healthy objective because what most people crave is not good for anyone. You’ll do better if you learn to live with discouragement.

To get beyond the hive-mentality, you must embrace uncertainty, errors, chaos, and doubt. “You make it up as you go along,” as Jerry Lettvin, my psychiatrist and neurophysiologist mentor, said. The more correct you are for your own purposes, the more you’ll deviate from the models taught to you, and the more people will contradict you.

The key to establishing a healthy reality is maintaining a healthy environment, and that particularly applies to the people around you. If you want to grow, don’t fraternize with uncreative people.

thinking thoughts awareness therapy coaching counseling psychology growth performance integration healing lincoln stoller


Emotions are an often ignored counterpoint in our decision-making process. When properly applied, emotions are the energy of wisdom. But emotions are huge, spanning the gamut from instinct to insight. Like gasoline, emotions are a fuel that comes from the earth. But more than that, emotions contain elements of wisdom. Emotions make us wise.

Your desire to punch someone in the face, and your desire to live a life service to humanity, are both emotional. The first is narrow and immediate; the second is broad and forward thinking. There is an emotion for every inclination, and they need to be handled differently. All are useful, and without them you would be inactive and indifferent.

Emotions are feelings that arise from within us. We manage them with empathy and honesty, not with intellect. It’s not intellectual truth that’s important, as that’s fabricated on whatever evidence we choose or trade.

Emotional honesty is less rooted in truth and more rooted in commitment. It’s the truth you believe in and the things that are important to you. Small-T truths form the landscapes of lives we build as children. Big-T truths are the accomplishments of which we’re proud; they are our emperor’s new clothes. Beware of big truths.

It turns out that I’m empathic, which surprises me. I thought I was analytical. Being empathetic means that I get sucked into the lives of the people I work with. I’m not sure if this is something one can learn or unlearn.

I need to be careful to set boundaries because everyone seems to rock my boat, but I find each person to be a curious mystery. I’m tempted to lose myself in every maze—I love getting lost in the woods—and the most unpleasant people are often the most curious. Like emotions, empathy is a power that can be used for good or ill. I work to contain it.

Any situation that’s meaningful to us, good or bad, must have some resonance in us, otherwise it would be foreign, unrecognizable, and irrelevant. I resonate with all of my clients, and sometimes I anti-resonate with them.

To better understand our emotions is a necessary step forward in our evolution. As contradictory as it may sound, we need a better intellectual understanding of our emotions. At least, we need greater integration.


Šimić, G., Tkalčić, M., Vukić, V., Mulc, D., Španić, E., Šagud, M., Olucha-Bordonau, F. E, Vukšić, M., & Phof, P. R., (2021 Jun). Understanding emotions: Origins and roles of the amygdala, Biomolecules, 11 (6): 823. Retrieved from:

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