A Case for Positive Emotions

I cherish and love the scattered moments of joy in my life. Joy comes to me primarily when I’m helping someone in a unique way, as long as I’m not ruining the quality of my life at the same time. I did this for 26 years as a surgical pathologist and cytopathologist. It was a typical “success” trap where a good income is your jail cell. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

I’ve learned several useful things over the years from a broad spectrum of professors, writing gurus, and my own wall of anxiety (arising from a genetic SNP, a single-nucleotide polymorphism in my DNA that codes for my type 2 dopamine receptors).

I’m hoping to eventually work as a team with a few spiritually enclined writers who are warm-hearted, open-minded and want to make a difference in the world. Write to me here (cytopathology@gmail.com) if you think you might be interested in co-authoring something with me — fiction or nonfiction.

Here are the high points of several things I want to help you explore with me…

If you’ve read, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, you know why it’s almost magical to isolate the most fundamental parts of any complex skill you want to master. The myelination of relevant axons and dendrites extending from the neurons of the cerebral cortex is the fundamental target of world-class mastery. To develop any extremely valuable skill, you have to break it down into its simplest components, things that can be practiced in a precisely repetitive way. This exact repetition is the holy grail formula because “neurons that fire together wire together.” That is to say that myelin, which can increase nerve conductivity speed by 300 percent and is produced by the oligodendroglia, is wrapped around pairs and groups of neural extensions when they fire at the same time in response to mental and/or physical activity.

If you want to master shooting a basketball, for instance, you stand close to the basket in one unchanging spot, hold your feet, knees and legs still, keep your head and shoulders stationary, grip the ball exactly the same way each time and shoot at least a hundred baskets per day using only your arms and hands. The isolation of arms and hands means there are no extraneous neurons firing and being wrapped with myelin. You’re developing a pure shooting bundle without extraneous fibers that would take away from the accuracy of the shot.

Decades ago I did a few hundred shots this way every day for several months. It transformed my terrible shooting. Later I practiced the isolated shot from various distances and had a few 3 on 3 games where I was a holy terror. I still sucked on defense, though. Some great basketball players, like Michael Jordan, practiced more complex shots this same way, bringing in the legs in a fade-away jump shot, for instance.

Believe it or not, the same principle applies to a person’s ability to feel positive emotions in daily life.

Anxiety and depression are epidemic today, at least in the US. This is partly because we believe that positive emotions come to us passively as the result of favorable life circumstances such as having plenty of money, living in the right place, having trustworthy close friends, exercising our bodies, avoiding certain addictions, and finding a higher spiritual purpose in life that leads to altruism and belonging.

All these worthy goals and several others have been studied and shown to have a statistical correlation with happiness. To various degrees, the correlations appear to be causal. For those who manage to build these wonderful circumstances into their lives (through years of intelligent effort and work), there’s an increased probability of finding happiness (or the positive emotions that define it).

But there’s another path to positive emotions. This stems from the fact that emotions are, in a very real way, like a skill that can be broken down into simple repeatable components, practiced and mastered.

When the neurons of your semi-limbic prefrontal cortex (in the left cerebral hemisphere) develop a heavily myelinated superhighway as a result of your dedicated, disciplined, daily repetitive practice of conjuring up specific good feelings, positive emotions start to flow more freely in your daily life.

With the human body, brain, and mind (because of the diversity of the underlying DNA code) once size never fits all. Iron pills, for instance, are medicine to a person with iron deficiency anemia but will become toxic to a person with hereditary hemochromatosis. I lost a wonderful friend and mentor to this disease not long ago.

So everyone will have to discover a way of practicing positive emotions that works for them.

In my efforts to increase my neuronal capacity for feeling positive emotions, I use slow breathing which shunts blood to the prefrontal cortex. At the same time, I visualize a few carefully selected positive visual images of past moments when I felt a specific positive emotion. The very last time I surfed at Rincon in Ventura, four dolphins catching a wave came close to me. They seemed to be a family of four, one of them quite small. I’ve always felt like this was God’s Universe saying goodbye to me as a surfer. I’ve never caught a wave since then, though I tried once. I picture those dolphins sometimes when I’m breathing slowly and saying the word, “love” to myself. I felt the love of those marine mammals coming my way. I can still feel it to this day.

With other mental images, I try to isolate and practice feelings of joy, love, excitement, purpose, hope, courage, compassion, thankfulness, awe, faith, trust, bliss, contentment, the sense of mastery, and the feelings of humor or hilarity.

The thing is, this principle applies to writing, too. You just have to figure out how to break things down into the simplest, most precisely repeatable components.

In Archer and Jockers book, The Bestseller Code, their computer program has discovered that best-selling novels contain scenes with powerful emotional highs that are regularly interspersed among the emotional lows of the main characters, caused by problems that we know from The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne, create narrative drive by progressing in complexity, intensity and scope while staying relevant to the main thrust of the story.

The upward waves of Archer and Jockers’ bestseller graphs help me understand the remarkable success of the late Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat, a screenwriting method that seems to dominate Hollywood movies now, despite being too formulaic for many if not most novel writers. Among Blake Snyder’s highly specific recommendations is the “fun-and-games” section of the story where things must go remarkably well for the protagonist in the early scenes of a movie. Creating this rule of thumb that ensures an early emotional high in a story allows a more dramatic emotional fall for the main character and the audience or readers when things go south as they must in any story.

My insight on this point is that if you want to master popular novel-writing, you should isolate, practice and develop a special skill for creating moments of positive emotion involving a spectrum of good feelings. Then you can place positive feelings throughout your novel at evenly spaced intervals, as Archer and Jockers’ computer highly recommends.

I would suggest that you also ask your beta readers to grade each page or paragraph with regard to the subjective pull they feel while they’re reading your story. If you want to get mega-nerdy, graph the Beta Readers’ data and see how it correlates with a graph of the main characters’ emotional ups and downs.

You’ll probably find that your readers score your paragraphs highest (for page-turning pull) when your characters are involved in a conflict. Like it or not, it’s a fact that no one can take their eyes off a train wreck or a street fight. We’re human.

Which brings me to the most important message I have for you as a writer.

Human minds seem to be designed to learn from stories. Western culture swims in stories from cradle to grave. Among writers, the competition to create commercially viable stories has led us to overload stories and society with the negative emotions and actions of conflict. Incidentally, our popular music does this, too.

In essence, we are practicing to become the world’s gurus of quick anger, hatred, fear, resentment, revenge (especially PC-moral-outrage revenge that justifies “winning” at all costs), and an empathy-free sense of heroism built on top of despair, loneliness, abandonment, heartbreak and an endless parade of new categories of victimhood, one for each of us to embrace.

Despite the fact that most of us live in “developed” Western countries with relatively super-rich lifestyles where, at least in the US, the real danger to our lives comes from carbohydrates, bad air (including cigarettes), and automobile accidents, we are suffering an epidemic of debilitating anxiety and depression, at least in the US and Europe. In Europe, depression among woman has doubled since the 1970’s.

As an aside, I think it may be time to stop watching and reading the so-called “news.” It’s owned and controlled by five companies with a single agenda that has nothing to do with their pseudo-war over politics where the “left versus right” versions of truth bear no resemblance to one another.

Instead, the real agenda of “the news” seems to have everything to do with transforming the citizens of powerful democracies into easily manipulable pawns who are emotionally possessed by political outrage, hatred, and fear. If this isn’t obvious to you yet, please ponder it in the back of your mind and force yourself to watch or read some of the “fake” news coming from sources that appear to support the politics you oppose. It makes no difference which side of the aisle you’re on, if you make a small effort, I think you’ll see that there are not two opposing political sides at the level of the few elites who own and control the news.

But I digress.

As fiction writers, we have the opportunity to make a deliberate effort to write stories that help humanity myelinate a more balanced set of neuronal pathways. We can do this by learning to create scenes where the positive emotions of our characters equal or outweigh the negative emotions.

Fortunately, we have good evidence now from Archer and Jockers’ computer analysis that creating emotionally balanced stories increases our odds of coming up with a bestseller.

Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD

By the way, if you’re looking for a co-author, I may be interested in teaming up with you. Send me an email (cytopathology@gmail.com) about yourself and what you’re thinking of writing — fiction or nonfiction. I’ll give it my thoughtful consideration and let you know if I can do the project with you.

As you may know, I’m one of 19 certified Story Grid editors in the world, so I do a little SG style developmental editing (on short stories only for now). You can read about that over here: https://www.storyscopemd.com/.


8 thoughts on “A Case for Positive Emotions

  1. I will be coming from a direction that you don’t seem to see or don’t see the value of, but there’s another way of creating art. It’s to wait for inspiration to come and not come up with the idea with your surface mind and then hash it out between your heart and mind. It’s to let your soul tell the story, write the poem, pic the shot, visualize the painting, etc., and that way it’s authentic and what the world needs, even if it doesn’t notice it, since soul ground is where the connection is in the collective field of consciousness. I’ve yet to hear you speak of the inner life much, as much as you speak of consciousness. The thinking mind is only a surface film of that life, and even dream is not much deeper, although it’s a doorway into the inner, one of others. While things like Silent Mind or overhead experience is rare as of yet in humanity, you have probably awoken or fallen asleep a time or two having a weird kind of thought, one that has just come to you as though a foreign visitor, complete with a wardrobe of words or you’ve seen pass before you eyes unbidden a quick vision flash of something odd but interesting, most have. That’s inner vision, and when you develop it, it becomes a source of inspiration, not the source itself but more direct than inspiration raining on our intellect as raw idea that we clothe with the mind, often murdering it. It takes many years for this to flower however, and we are eager to tell our story now. For a story you’re writing, it would be what gave you the idea, gives you the title and guides you along the routes of the story, suggesting this or that, giving whole sentence here and there, commenting on it through out. For a poem, its more native tongue, it gives the whole poem one or two lines at a time, although it’s a process much more involved than simply being a scribe for your inspiration. For a painting you’d see the painting in vision and then paint it as best as you can remember, and I suppose it’ll aide you along the way, but I only see paintings don’t paint them. For a song it’ll write the whole thing and help you render it to waking consciousness. For photographs it’ll show them to you, and then you go and make the shot, and I can continue. The poem I posted as a comment came the way I’m describing. I read the article and my inner vision sent the poem after some time, as I left whether to comment or not up to my soul.

    You might wonder if this isn’t the way the divine speaks to us, in inner vision, but of course not only the divine.

    Here in this comment, I’m responding to your goodwill, and it seems appropriate to do so.

    • Thanks for the interesting comment, Donny Duke. I do actually appreciate the language of the soul and have experienced, in my own limited way, a sense of connection to, and subtle guidance from, the Transcendent. Much of the nonfiction I write in this blog comes to me in nearly complete form just after I wake up, while I’m slowing my breathing, trying to clear my mind and half hoping to go back to sleep. My father told me that when he was at Harvard (in the 1920’s) he solved tough physics problems in this netherworld of consciousness that happens just after a person wakes up in the morning. When I was writing the first draft of “Hapa Gril DNA” (still posted on this blog), I waited patiently for inspiration between chapters. It took me something like two years to finish the first draft because I didn’t write unless I felt inspired. That’s not to suggest that the draft either works as a story or would seem artful to a well-read person. Neither of those is the case. But it was a deeply spiritual experience for me. So much so that I have sort of adopted (in real-life) the explanation of the Universe that the main character heard from God in her near-death experience. It’s not that I think that view is true or accurate. That’s unlikely. It’s just that it resonates with me and answered a few of the tough questions that I’ve had about what we’re all doing here in this perfectly imperfect Universe.

  2. Anonymous

    Hello Talmage, I am happy to have found and read this post, a sound argumentation in favour of weaving more positiveness into the stories we write; you are so right, authors are usually being told to use mostly conflict, but fact is, readers may be overly saturated with conflict in everyday life and in fiction, so time may be right to shift towards positive, enriching, inspiring or humorous stories. Good to follow.

    • Hi, Someone! 🙂

      If I were younger and worried about my masculinity, I wouldn’t admit this, but lately I’ve sat in on my wife’s latest TV series, “Call The Midwife.”

      Here it is: http://www.pbs.org/call-the-midwife/home/

      From inside my office with the door closed this program sounds like women screaming in childbirth. Nothing more.

      But when I sat down and watched it a few times, it was the most heartwarming thing I’d seen in a long time. So many good characters, such a paucity of sociopaths and criminals! And the amazing thing, it was entirely captivating. Riveting even.

      I think part of the alure was the emotional novelty. How different it felt to have nature bringing the troubles while the cast of flawed, round, diverse but beautifully warm-hearted characters worked together to solve problems and heal emotional wounds.

      I sense a coming wave of this sort of thing. There’s only so many cold-blooded murders, crimes against women, and alien wars that a reader can take in before the novelty of hate and violence starts gathering dust.

  3. Hmmm. Adrift from writing and emotion, I detour…

    When you mention the creation of success by repetition of the components of a skill, it brings to mind the discussion I’ve been having with my teacher child regarding the new educational formatting. I know it is supposed to enhance critical thinking skills by approaching problems from multiple solution angles; at least, that’s the creator’s explanation and he seems like a nice and mathematically brilliant guy. So I’m wondering how tackling say, math problems, from multiple angles compares with the ‘old-time’ approach of ‘rote repetition’ (say, multiplication tables) in strengthening myelination when faced with math problems? It would seem on first glance that multi-pronged approaches wouldn’t create that neuronal strengthing referenced above. Just what popped into my mind after reading this 🙂 (speaking of myelination, why DO we smile in person when we type a smiley?)

    As always, a great read.

    • Thank you, Sheketechad. You bring up an interesting point about math. I’m guessing that a modern perspective of math educators might center around the fact that simple calculators and computers can crunch the numbers for the generations to come – therefore they don’t need to learn to do simple math problems efficiently and flawlessly. I used to think the same sort of thing about spelling back in 1983 when I bought my first computer, an Apple II+. At that time there were no spell-check programs, but anyone could see that they would come soon. I had been “taught” spelling by an enlightened group of educators in the 1960’s who thought that spelling wasn’t important. So I never had to learn to spell words after the fifth grade! In sixth grade we had to write stories using all the spelling words, but there were no spelling tests so we never had to learn to spell. From 7th grade on, there were no spelling classes. To this day I’m embarrassed to text live with anyone I don’t know well, because my spelling of simple words is entirely terrible. I don’t know if a similar situation will ever arise for today’s children who aren’t grilled on simple math, but it seems possible. Or maybe it won’t be about “embarrassment” for them, but simply a job interview trend where they must do actual calculations without a calculator. I’ve heard rumors that google has incorporated a difficult math/geometry problem in their job interviews now.

      Thanks for the real smile. Here’s one right back at you. 🙂

  4. A beautiful post. It makes you think a lot about why you write, and how. I love the idea of plotting the emotional scenes. Did someone do that for famous books already? About the media, “Ignorance is bliss”, I will say. I check them but I don’t waste my time as much as before, and I now I feel better…

    • Thank you, bitsanddragons. I’ve also felt an emotional lift from avoiding the angry outrage on the “news.” I think it’s a “bogus nightmare.”

      If it’s possible to let go of the idea that one political side has the truth and the other has the lies (a basic assumption that’s difficult for anyone to question but is really the crux of the matter) then it seems to me that focusing elsewhere would add to a person’s knowledge while focusing on the “news” would foster ignorance.

      But it’s bliss to avoid the “news,” no matter what a person thinks of the larger picture here on planet Earth. 🙂

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