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Which One Comes First, Thoughts or Emotions?

One of the toughest things that I realised while trying to decipher the human mind was how tough it was for us to effectively identify causation and effect. While most people seem to believe that thoughts come before emotions — I had people who told me “because I think the guy is a jerk, therefore I felt unsafe around him” — I had discovered that thoughts tend to be an explanation, rationalisation or expansion for emotions rather than the source or cause of emotions.

Physical Reason

From neurological research, the sensory input always goes through the emotional centres of the brain before it reaches the frontal cortex — the place for our rational thought. With that understanding, one must realise it is actually physically impossible for thought to come before emotions.

Our subconscious mind would often take our sensory input and sends it to the unconscious, where the unconscious will match it with similar previous memories to pull up the emotions associated with the input. Like how certain scents remind you of your mother/wife/girlfriend etc, or a photo triggers a memory of an event, these are all pulled out from your memories. Psychologists call these emotion-linked memories flashbulb memories.

Emotions are the memory system’s way of organising information. When memories get solidified and saved into our unconscious, it is stored with the memories and patterns that we observed from those experiences. That is why it is easier to remember associated events when we feel a particular emotion.

What Are Emotions?

We’ve been talking about emotions for a while and actually haven’t defined it, which would further confuse you if we don’t address it now. Allow me to define emotions as a group of reactions that our unconscious mind creates and uses to try to communicate with the rest of the mind about what it notices. These could come in the form of an activation of your happiness, love, fear or anger neurological pathways. Emotions could come in the form of a physical feeling in your body, it could come in the form of a visualisation or audiation of what you can foresee.

Our commonplace definition of emotions is often that of “feelings” which we would portray physically or verbally. However, if we redefine unconscious reactions as “instinct”, of which “feelings” are a subset, it’ll open up a lot more aspects of emotions. Emotions are often paired with instinctive reactions. For example, if a ball were to fly right at you, your emotional reaction of fear would make you dodge or run away, while an emotional reaction of excitement would help you predict the flight path of the ball so that you could catch it.

Of course, these are overly simple ways of looking at it, but your unconscious, which creates these emotions, is simply trying to communicate with the subconscious and conscious to warn, predict and deal with whatever it deems to be happening.

Emotions vs Thought

When we talk about “gut instinct”, “business acumen” or “artistic vision”, these are all messages from our unconscious that should be labeled “emotions”. On the highest level, we call these messages “vision”, because they really function as predictions and perspectives that enable us to deal with the situation with our available skillsets. It is borne out of experiences we have of different scenarios.

Rational thought, on the other hand, is something that uses biases of the emotions to put words to an experience. I had a friend that once asked me why he had different thoughts about himself when he was feeling down, as opposed to when he’s feeling happy. The thoughts went from “you are useless” to “you are amazing”, even though it’s the same person in the mirror.

When he felt trashy, his thoughts were an extension of how his unconscious assessed the situation; his unconscious pulled out memories of failure, judgement and disgust towards himself, informing the rest of his mind how he should believe he would fail in life. While he was feeling bad, his unconscious pulled out memories of success, achievement, value and meaning. Naturally the deduction by the conscious part of the mind — the portion in charge of rational thoughts and putting words to them — would drastically change his opinion about himself.

This is also why when a person is in the midst of an argument, everything sounds bad and things escalate no matter how small the issue is. Wait for them to calm down, and they invariably have a completely different set of responses.

Rational Thought To Change Emotions

There is a different side of this as well. When we deal with situations we feel fearful about, we can actually change the way we feel by using rational thought to help create new memories for a different future reaction. For example, when we see a person with tattoos that seems scary to us, we might think the person is probably a thug or a gangster and worth avoiding. If we continue to allow the emotion to take place and avoid him, we would continue to believe that such people are worth fearing. However, by going up to the person and asking him about the tattoo and probably even understanding the story behind it, we might gain new insights on people with tattoos, and therefore create a new unconscious reaction to people with tattoos using the new information gained from this experience.

When people say they support or hate Trump and refuse to listen to reason, it’s because the unconscious is at play, and only through creating new positive memories and experiences of the other side can they be more open to actually look at the situation rationally. People can also train themselves to instinctively look for the opposite viewpoint to challenge one’s negative emotional reaction to other people’s opinions or situations. So, as much as thoughts do not necessarily change current emotions, they definitely have power to change future emotions, if we channel them in the right direction.


This is why practice in life is so essential — it trains the unconscious to run on its own to assess each situation in the manner you deem fit; with love, positivity and understanding. This allows one to be truly rational and accepting towards reality, and is the most important reason why one has to recognise that emotions come before thoughts.

Originally published at Undelusional.



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Ethan Seow

Ethan Seow

Trainer, Speaker, Author, Musician, Ex-Medical Student. Ethan is a mental health maverick focused on helping people gain clarity about their thoughts