Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, is an essay on the evolutive and biological causes of contemporary societal problems, ranging from common bad manners to the alarming increment of violent crimes and depression, and, just as much, a guide to building up our capacity to comprehend our own emotional lives in a way that allows us to take and keep control over our courses of action in every-day life. The book’s ultimate goal is to effectively transform common understanding of public health and social dynamics for the better.
One of the book’s core ideas is that human’s immediate reaction to critical or unexpected situations was shaped by a time in history when survival often demanded sudden and strong responses that were closer to instinct than the kind of intelligence IQ tests were designed to measure.
In relation to this, Goldman refers specifically to the brain structures that compose the limbic system, the same that is in charge of regulating motivation, memory, learning, and emotion. Being presumably older than the larger neo-cortex that surrounds it, the limbic system is connected to human’s most primal nature, and responsible of the “fight-or-flight” reflex.
In contrast, the neocortex is newer and, in fact, more developed in humans than in other apes. Because it regulates higher-order brain functions like spatial reasoning and language, the neocortex would be more closely linked to what is most commonly perceived as intelligence. But, by pointing at, and insisting on, the practical reasons behind human emotions, to a certain degree, Goldman distances itself from the stark dichotomy that typically determines the body versus intellect debate, even among the classical thinkers he quotes, like Aristotle.
From the author’s informed perspective, emotions alert us about our own psychological condition and needs, at the same time that they send signals to the other members of the community. Ignoring our emotional response to what happens in the world, trying to assess life from a purely logical point of view, would be a mistake.
Though the author acknowledges the potentially tragic consequences of emotionally led actions through recorded examples of unaccounted for violence triggered by instinct, he manages to prove, just as well, that emotions imply a kind of useful and essential intelligence that psychologists had yet to recognize and explore by the time the book was written.
The bottom line is that emotions do not have to, and should not rule people’s life if they know how to identify them, identify what’s causing them and whether the consequences of acting on them would be desirable. Goleman says: “Our emotional mind will harness the rational mind to its purposes, for our feelings and reactions– rationalizations– justifying them in terms of the present moment, without realizing the influence of our emotional memory” (Goleman, 2005). Such skills represent the fundamentals of what Goldman labeled as “emotional intelligence.”
Later on, the book discusses the influence that genetics may have on an individual’s ability to develop a higher or lower emotional intelligence, together with their ability to do so beyond childhood. While the author admits that, indeed, genetics and age have a critical role in developing emotional intelligence —since genetic information cannot be changed and a child’s brain is by far more malleable than an adult’s— he defends that none of both factors disable anyone from learning to manage their emotions.
Finally, Goldman criticizes the general approach schools take when instructing kids in self-preservation. Goldman affirms that overlooking EI and instead instructing kids on noncontextual strategies to deal with danger, alienates them from their adaptative abilities, putting them at a higher personal risk, making them more vulnerable.
Emotional Intelligence is, overall, a coherent and relevant reading for audiences of all ages. It delivers an informed and comprehensible approach on a complex and much written about the matter. On the other hand, the strong behavioral perspective of the analysis may make of the debate about emotions one of the exclusively utilitarian goals, maybe over-simplifying the vast reality of humans’ emotional experiences.