C-Suite Advisory


Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker

As a business leader, have you ever had a strong “gut feel” about an issue or a decision you need to make? Something that created a subliminal pull in your stomach, a sensed intuition about a particular problem unfolding in real time? You may have pondered for a moment whether it meant anything or whether it was simply a random sensation, not grounded in any real-world evidence. 

This “emotional nudge” has been referred to as your “second brain” talking to you, providing information that, in mentally healthy individuals, should not be casually dismissed! In fact, it is precisely this kind of felt and sensed information that is now becoming widely recognized as vital in augmenting your ability to arrive at the best and most important decisions. 

In today’s business world, this internally sensed neurological and physiological asset is referred to as “emotional intelligence”, a term first coined by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Meyer In the 1990s. They defined emotional intelligence as the ability to:

  1. Monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, 
  2. Discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and
  3. Use emotion data to guide thinking and behavior.

To this, we would add a fourth category: to aid in sound decision-making

Emotions are the internal bodily representations that underlie feelings, the subconscious biochemical mind-body states emanating from our viscera and organ systems that inform our thoughts, behaviors and the meaning we make of life events. The sensory experience of emotions falls into two general categories. First, there are those basic bodily urges that have to do with homeostatic maintenance of our integrated mind-body system such as I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m too hot or too cold, I need to exercise and move my body, I’m exhausted and need to go to sleep. Second, there are emotions that are provoked by an event in the outside world such as joy, sadness, fear, contempt, empathy, compassion, admiration, jealousy, and envy. Both of these categories of emotions are experienced by us as feelings

In short, feelings are our conscious real-time interpretation of our embodied emotions, stemming from the particulars of the event itself and how previous business and life experiences have shaped our perspective on what the event means. To paraphrase and extend on this scientific truth, your feelings are the first conscious understanding and expression of your emotions, your first and earliest chance to make adaptive meaning of them so that you can employ our “Your Own Decision Advisor” (Y.O.D.A.) skills to act, rather than react! 

Knowing something about where emotions and feelings are located in the brain sheds light on the fundamental yet synergistic differences between these two data sources, and how they are indelibly interwoven into both your business and everyday decisions. Although there is some geographic overlap in the neural origins of emotions and feelings, the vast majority of these two inter-related and synergistic data sources emanate from and are processed in different parts of the brain! 

Emotions stem from our survival-oriented, evolutionarily old subcortical regions such as the hypothalamus which regulates the homeostatic balance (e.g. heart rate, body temperature, sleep cycles) in our system, as well as the primal amygdala, the brain’s “emotional smoke detector”, which regulates the fight, flight or freeze survival response. Feelings, on the other hand, are informed by our higher-order thought processing networks which, most importantly, provide the deliberations and meaning making so crucial in sound decision making. 

The neural machinery that gives rise to feelings is interwoven throughout the limbic system, prefrontal cortex, insula, nucleus accumbens, and other brain structures in both the executive control network (operating when we are focused on a task) and default mode network (operating during passive rest and when day dreaming) that develop and manifest into thoughts, actions and behavior. The integration of the neural networks required for emotion regulation, those needed for thoughtful multi-level processing, is a developmental work-in-process until our late 20’s or early 30’s. This is why the expression of feelings as a teenager are BIG, high-volume and present themselves in vibrant technicolor – the self-regulatory brake pedal is not yet fully operative!

To recap, emotions emanate from the viscera of our bodies and organs, which dispersed throughout our cellular infrastructure, and are part of our fundamental survival-oriented evolutionary wiring. Feelings, on the other hand, are shaped over time, sculpted by experience. As you live your life and build your career, all the while thinking and interpreting the relevance and meaning of particular situations, you instinctively begin labeling events as good, bad or indifferent. Recognizing, processing and expressing feelings can be complex, highly nuanced and, at times, contradictory and confusing. Human beings are complicated creatures, a timeless fact that plays out in all of our lives each and every day, whether we like it or not!

Paying attention to these “gut feelings” is an essential part of effective decision-making, whether deciding on a minor issue such as whether to return a phone call, or something significant that can change the trajectory of your business.  Your feelings can round out the power of your decision dataset by including nuanced, insightful, actionable information that will amplify your success in business and in life.

Written by Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker, co-author of WISE DECISIONS: A Science-Based Approach to Making Better Choices.
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Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker
Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker , co-author of WISE DECISIONS, is a behavioral geneticist. She is a Senior Scientist at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth at Tufts University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. A former professional tennis player, she earned a B.S. in Finance from the University of Colorado, Boulder, obtained a Chartered Financial Analyst designation, and held an investment career as a Portfolio Manager. She then earned a doctorate in Behavioral Genetics from the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London.

Dr. Sheila Ohlsson Walker is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. For more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.