Thoughts Or Feelings? Which Comes First?

Which comes first?  Which has the greater punch?

Our feelings began in our reptilian brain, millions of years ago.  The thinking functions of the brain, as we know them today came millions of years later in the frontal lobes, called the “executive functions” of the brain.

Feeling is just the emotions we “feel.”  Our inner world of “affect” is expressed in feelings and emotions, some of which never get to the surface of our reasoning, but propel us nonetheless.  We hear that good feels good and bad feels bad, but that’s just not true.  Ask any sadist or masochist (and there is a little of each in all of us) and they proclaim that’s not true.  There are, for all of us, those times when bad feels good and when good feels bad.  Don’t delude yourself until you have become mindful enough at practicing positive emotion that it will lead and guide your perception.  If you are not mindful of what you are feeling and tuned into yourself, everyday you do some thing that doesn’t feel good that you didn’t really want to do.  We are often oblivious to how it is that basic feelings states “own” how we think (or don’t) as we operate on “automatic pilot.”

The sensate system of the reptilian brain, where the center of emotions is controlled, picks up enormous amounts of data that have you feeling before you even know you’re being affected.  Take the sense of smell, for example.  You can smell a fragrance, feel a feeling and be taken in an instant to a memory with which it is associated, sometimes just engulfing you and completely by-passing thought.  Sounds, like sirens, create emotions long before they create thoughts.

Sensory data, always affecting us, causes almost automatic reacting.  Something associated with the past can by-pass the brain’s executive functions almost entirely as we find ourselves exploding or sweating in dread, before we know where it’s even coming from.

In a simple metaphor, if a thought and a feeling are travelling on the same neuropathway, it is the feeling that has the preemptive right of way. You can think differently than you’re feeling, but you have to argue and establish the cohesive reasoning that will take the air out of the balloon of a feeling and diffuse it.

Thoughts are things. Feelings are bigger things. Thoughts are things, but moods trump them all.  Every cell in your body is bathed in the feelings and moods you choose, whether they be bitterness or joy.

If we can think the thoughts that we want to think, it is even more important to feel the feelings we choose to feel.  You cannot feel love and think hate.  But you can think love and still feel hate.

Cognitive thoughts may some day be a stronger ruler of feelings, but evolution has not yet come to that, if it ever will.  We like to believe that we are so very rational that thinking a thing will make it happen. Not if your mood or feeling state are not cooperating as the foundation for the thought.

Feelings come from our gut, from our skin, from our nose, from our ears, and from our eyes.  The eyes by-pass the thinking functions of the forebrain all of the time and register in the occipital lobe in the back of the brain.  Only then does the thinking brain react, but feelings begin from the moment of visual impact.

Most often our thinking and reasoning are habitually informed by what feelings and emotions report, like tattle-tales. Our feelings, which we think just “happen” to us, are often creating, “Watch out,” “be careful,” “don’t go there,” “don’t ask any questions,” be “anxious,” “dread a little.” Just “watch out,” especially for what is new and novel.  At  the very least, “be cautious.”

But aren’t there pleasant emotions that report in?  Yes, they try, but at the first indication of warning, feelings felt less often retreat in favor of the feelings that have established major neuropathways. Negative feelings have, in most of us, established far greater and stronger pathways than positive ones. You would think that we were still cave dwellers running from lions. Just consider the capacity of the world around you to create “drama” or the sense that something is wrong or at least looming. Most positive conversation is quick, trite, and superficial.  “How are you today?”  “I’m fine and you?”  “Oh, I guess I’m doing ok.”  Do you really think that’s enough “positive” in your day that your negative feelings can’t have a field day?  Most negative conversations dig deeper, listen more, and stick because they leave an issue undone. They rarely, if ever, fix anything and they are remembered longer because they are unfinished.

Emotions are visceral. They are hard wired to motor memory, our deepest memory, and the last one we lose.  That means they are very, very practiced.

So what’s the alternative?  Start today. Start immediately teaching yourself to feel love, peace, gratitude, joy and hope for absolutely no reason at all. Start to be a total Pollyanna and look for a good or benefit in every situation. Turn of the news for 90 days. Change every needless negative comment (choke on it if you have to) into something that, if not positive, is neutral. No one wants to hear your complaining or your whining. It gets in the way of their own.

Here is the magic formula for altering evolution in human history. It is the 3:1 ratio. In your life, to stay in an UpSpiral of health and well-being, you need a ratio of 3 positives to every negative. Every time there is a negative, pulse “peace” “peace.”  Learn or relearn the Emotional Gym. Because, even though “thoughts are things,” feeling and the moods they create are boulders. You will flourish if you work your day so you subjectively feel 3 positives for every 1 negative.

If your feelings do support what you want, if you cannot feel your way there and have not done so, what you want is only a thought and thoughts are subject to feelings. You can imagine and dream and visualize all you want, but you had better take your feelings on the trip or they will later undo even the most elaborate plan and fill you with the feelings that create these thoughts: “How can you do that?  Are you crazy?  You are such a sad dreamer!  How, how, how are you ever going to do that????”

Here’s the deal.  Decide what you want to feel and practice it. ALL DAY LONG.  Even if you just feel a tiny bit of it, feel it at .0001%. Tell your brain long enough where you want it to go and what you want it to feel and it will go there. You are not your brain. You are your Mind, if you will let it be so.

People tell us, “Think, think, think. Why don’t you think?”  And I tell you “Feel, feel, feel, by your choice, and the thinking will follow.”

Continuing Education for Coaches

1. How are you learning the importance of positive emotion?

2. How do you keep your practice of the Emotional Gym alive? What are your best cues and how do they work?

3. How consistent are you and how do you measure your place in your UpSpiral?

4. What is the scientific evidence of the importance of positive emotion and who is the researcher most credited for researching it?

5. How do you make the Losada ratio work in your life?  What is your ratio 1:1, 2:1, 3:1? How have you achieved it? How have you increased it?

6. Cite an example of a time when you have intensified a positive feeling on purpose and gotten yourself to a higher and higher experience of joy or gratitude.

7. How effective do you think a coach would be who has not daily mastered the Emotional Gym and remained consistent? Why?

For Our Larger Blog Community

1) In your life right now, which has the “right of way” –thoughts or feelings? Describe an experience which illustrates your opinion.

2) The blog suggests that “thoughts are things, feelings are bigger things.” Is this true for you? Tell us your story.

3) What can you do right now to weigh the 3:1 ratio described in this blog more to the positive? To more heavily weigh the positive in your everyday experience?




About the author

Dr. William K. Larkin
  • johnnybe

    good article– thinking creates feeling — and feeling creates thinking– have to– if i hit you on the head with a hammer– the first thing you do is feel– it then turns into thinking– what makes anyone think/feel– hurtful things — create feelings- then thoughts– so they go together like arms and legs– seems logical to me– im feeling it and thinking it 🙂 When we think we look to feel– when we feel we look to think, because they actually go together- never one without the other–very rare. Even as i write this– im trying to feel- and think. so a mix of thoughts and feelings- in unison– together- arm in leg- both as important and as relevant as each other. Is sadness a thought or a feeling? its gotta be both.In fact it cant be just one on its own.

    • Natalirae Escalera

      Sad is a feeling. I think then feel. Now if some one physically touches you then of course you feel first but if you believe, Our thoughts create our reality then..I guess everyone is right.

    • Natalirae Escalera

      I can physically feel first before a though but in order for me to emotionally feel before a thought I need to think about something.

  • Selim Muhammad

    once I said in a conference that life is called ” feeling/realization” . Nice article

  • Life Coach John Moore

    It’s interesting. I’ve long thought that cognitive bahavioral therapy for things like depression is a backwards approach from a neuroscience perspective. Depression is a mood disorder which causes feeling, and results sometimes in distorted thinking. While I’m sure “correcting” the thinking can influence feelings and moods – it seems like the wrong route neurologically.

  • DN

    It would be useful to reference the research that supports the inference that emotions come before thoughts. How does this research correlate to recent research suggesting that the awareness of thought happens several seconds before the thought impulse itself? Some research suggests the process can also be Belief-Thought-Emotion. Can you link the research that supports your beliefs please?

    • Larry D. Horricks

      indeed i am not an academic nor have studied any of this…Im just a guy you see on the street everyday. I have always believed that our nature nurture (in whatever combination and form) shape our beliefs…it designs the flippers and bumpers and traps…the layout of our internal pinball machine>Our beliefs shape our thoughts and in turn shape our decisions and actions>decisions and actions shape lives>our feelings come out of how that all is or isnt working for us on a day to day or even moment to moment basis. I dont know maybe im crazy.

    • Natalirae Escalera

      A belief is a thought

    • Natalirae Escalera

      Situation,thoughts,feelings,action,result. In my experience

  • ministerpope

    this article spiraled out of control. you went benjamin button on the thing. the premises are true and sound, but your solution is complete gibberish, and classic quasi-science. there is no evidence-based practice connecting CAPS LOCK DETERMINATION with actual well-being, but there is a pretty substantial body of research pointing to psychological air-brushing as a dangerous coping-mechanism.

    acceptance however, is intuitive and easy. you might continue feeling like shit, due to your amygdala’s proness to over-activity, but you may eventually teach yourself to ignore these action tendencies instead of acting on them. It wont make you automatically feel better, but mastering feelings is a powerful experience, and may help grow self-confidence.


  • Graham Yates-Osteopath

    I feel you missed the chance to introduce interoception and it is this bubbling of feelings from our body that guides thoughts.Also like many there was confusion between feelings and emotions. Damasio states that emotions are exteroceptively formed whilst feelings are interoceptive. Feldman-Barratt also shows that our feelings are guided by prediction (using the Free Energy Principle) about what is about to happen which helps us prepare for the changes required in our neuro,humeral and endocrine systems.Feelings and emotions give us a snapshot of what is happening in and out there and guides our reactions to our environment.
    Whilst we can never change the fact that we are geared to think negatively and indeed this has been adaptive, we can in meditation, understand the machinations of our mind and learn to accept it with compassion.

Copyright © 2015 The Applied Neuroscience Institute