The term emotional intelligence (often referred to as ‘EQ’ – a play off of the traditional ‘IQ’) first gained popularity in the 1990’s through the work of psychologists like Daniel Goleman, John Mayer, and Peter Salovey. At the time, this was a fairly radical departure from the traditional understanding of intelligence as strictly academic and intellectual in nature. Since then, the term has become ubiquitous in workplaces, leadership trainings, and now schools through the rapidly expanding social & emotional learning (SEL) movement. 

Emotional intelligence was something of an extension of Howard Gardner’s earlier Multiple Intelligences Theory. Essentially, this was a recognition that humans possess a wide variety of intelligence types that cannot be measured strictly by IQ. These intelligences include things like musical-rhythmic intelligence, visual-spatial intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence (athleticism/movement) and more. In an educational culture that has long prioritized IQ alone as a measure of competency and learning, even this reminder that intelligence can take many forms is a useful one. As the science of emotions continues to grow, however, we are overdue for an update on what emotional intelligence actually means. 

The most commonly accepted definition of emotional intelligence usually reads something like:

“The ability to recognize, understand, and manage the emotions of our own self and others.”

If we limit emotional intelligence to a strictly cognitive perspective then this definition suffices. The inherent paradox, however, is that emotion is primarily a non-cognitive process.

To be fair, when I first heard the term non-cognitive process in relationship to SEL skills, I dismissed it outright as unscientific rubbish. How could anything related to human intelligence be explained except in relationship to the brain? 

The Thinking Bias

This belief – that all conscious and unconscious processes are a direct result of brain activity – is a reflection of a pervasive cultural bias that favors intellect over all else. 

René Descartes’ famous statement “I think therefore I am” became the foundation upon which a society of thinkers was built. Intelligence thus became narrowly defined (and celebrated) by IQ alone and an education system was born that favored academic achievement at the subjugation of other competencies. 

Neurologist Antonio Damasio actually wrote a book on this paradox titled Descartes’ Error, which is essentially an exploration of the biological facets of emotion that extend well beyond thought and reason. 

Further still, the recent publication of the book The Hidden Life of Trees sets a scientific precedent for the vast array of complex social processes that occur in nature without any central nervous system whatsoever. Trees, as detailed in the book,

“are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.” (Source:

A Neurobiological Approach to Emotions

So what do a French philosopher, a modern neurologist, and trees have to do with emotional intelligence?

First, that we must stop trying to understand and teach emotional intelligence through the lens of thought alone.  

Emotions, according to leading emotion researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett, are not what we think they are. Over 25 years of research indicate that emotions are nothing more and nothing less than concepts based on interpretations of bodily feelings, cultural norms, and predictions (read: guesses) based on past experiences of these feelings. 

From an evolutionary perspective, the nervous system was one of the earliest systems to evolve (long before thought and language). The primary purpose of the nervous system? Avoid threats, seek rewards, survive, and rest. Thus, the four primary states of universal and embodied feelings that evolved prior to language, culture, and thought-based interpretation were:

  1. Pleasantness
  2. Unpleasantness
  3. High or low arousal
  4. Calmness

These four feelings, according to Dr. Feldman Barrett, are the basis for every emotion we experience. Everything else – the full range of joy, grief, elation, despair, outrage, envy, love and the rest of the 2,000+ words we use to describe emotions – is a culturally, linguistically, and cognitively defined reaction to one of the four basic feelings. 

This definition of emotions can be a hard pill to swallow at first because it implies that we are actually responsible for our emotions. Instead of thinking of emotions as things that happen to us in response to an outside event, the evidence now clearly demonstrates that our brains actually construct our emotions based on past experiences. 

This also means that we cannot accurately recognize and express emotions in ourselves and in others in the way that we think we can. In many cultures, emotions that we take as common place do not even exist as a concept. As Dr. Feldman Barrett states, emotions “are not universally expressed and recognized. They are not hardwired brain reactions that are uncontrollable.” Even further still, there is no measurable emotional circuitry that can be found in the human brain. 

A New Model of Emotional Intelligence Sentience

Understanding emotions using thought alone is merely an extension of cognitive IQ. This is tantamount to trying to understand another culture without actually visiting that culture – some things must simply be experienced to be understood.

A classicaly ‘intelligent’ person can identify, label, rationalize and explain their emotions all day long. A true emotional genius, however, is someone with the ability to actually feel and fluidly move through the expression of emotions beyond the bounds of intellect, thought, or words. 

In other words: you cannot think your way through (or around) feelings – that is why they are called feelings. 

The advent of therapeutic techniques like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) and Somatic Experiencing that utilize a mind-body approach to therapy support this. These approaches encourage full contact with the physical feelings of emotion and limit cognitive processing – and the results in treating PTSD and depression using these modalities far outstrip traditional cognitive-behavioral approaches. 

What we are describing, then, is an entirely different approach to emotional intelligence. In fact, it may be that the very word intelligence is the issue here. We cannot, for instance, expect to describe trees as intelligent without a great deal of balking and criticism from the scientific community. Yet, the fact remains that trees do actually respond adaptively to their environment, communicate with each other, and demonstrate the abilities to learn and remember. 

Is this intelligence? It’s a debate that is still in contention. Perhaps a more agreeable word is sentience: the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively. There is little doubt that non-human forms of life possess sentience – without it, they would have no way of interacting with their environment. 

In the same way, we can think of the human nervous system as an autonomous sentient organism that is highly attuned to the states of pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calm in ourselves and in others. Navigating this terrain on the level of feeling is the essence of emotional intelligence (or emotional sentience).

Teaching Emotional Sentience

The fundamental challenge we are left with is teaching a non-cognitive skill through an educational system that is almost entirely cognitive in nature. How do we do this? 

The beauty lies in the simplicity. Rather than needing to figure out, manage, and understand emotions, we can facilitate the process of teaching and learning emotional sentience by encouraging the development of feeling processes.

Before you get ahead of yourself, this is quite literal. Simply teaching our students, and ourselves, to feel our emotions more fully without the need to do anything about them in any given moment is perhaps the most critical and useful skill they will ever learn. 

To appease the more intellectual among us, we can refer to this skill as interoception – the ability to perceive and feel the internal state of our body inclusive of both physiological and emotional states. As our awareness of our own internal state increases, so too does our ability to process, regulate, shift, and ultimately be with all aspects of our emotional experience. This is emotional sentience in action.


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