The Rational v. The Emotional

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about rational decision making versus emotional decision making and how those two approaches have been offset in DM. After reading several philosophical views on this subject, I have decided to first look at the way we would typically divide these two strategies and then inject some variations on those.

What we would usually think of as the difference between acting rationally and acting emotionally revolves around whether we react quickly without giving ourselves enough time to weigh the pros and cons of a decision or whether we reflect and refrain from reacting at all until we’ve given ourselves time to think things through. The rational decision results from containing our emotions and trying to remove them from any choices we make; the emotional decision generally stems from allowing ourselves to respond without much thought. Either one can end in positive or negative consequences.

In my post on Aunt Ruth, I noted that this show asks us to weigh the rational with the emotional. I see AR as the rational aunt as compared to Joan who is more emotional and emotive. From the moment Ruth arrives for the funeral she exhibits an affectless approach to events around her. She expresses condolences in a required sort of manner and, when Louisa introduces herself, she notes that Louisa is “the schoolteacher Joan kept on about.” Her demeanor is not offensive, merely sober and unsentimental. Whereas Joan might have given Martin a hug and possibly even done so with Louisa, Ruth shakes her hand and shows no signs of grief. (Later we find out that she can’t produce tears because she has Sjogren’s, but she shows no evidence of wanting to cry here.)

The two women have taken very different paths in life. Joan has been married and had at least two lovers we know of; Ruth has never been married and has had no attachments as far as we know. Joan has been happy living on a farm in a small village while Ruth loves London. It’s the often used contrast between the city and the country where the city represents order and regimen, the country represents tumult and commotion. Joan’s life has always seemed a bit tumultuous. She tends to her animals and vegetables, neglects her finances and allows her insurance to lapse, occasionally cooks for others, starts a B & B to earn money, involves herself in many neighbors’ lives and does her best to help out Louisa during her pregnancy. She manages to get things done although she lets herself get out of control with Theo Wenn. Joan shows signs of being capable of rational decision making, e.g. she points out to Martin that people can function with phobias and still do their jobs well, she tells Martin to leave when he blurts out some angry comments to Louisa, etc.

Joan’s death has brought Ruth to the country and her inheritance of the farm has led her to stay there. She imposes order on her surroundings by hiring Al and setting out to write a book. Many events interrupt her routine, but she always stays calm and composed and handles each event without so much as a break in her stride. She eventually moves into the village after Robert Campbell gives her quite a scare, and where the living arrangements are closer to what she prefers. She completes the book and continues to consult on cases. She misses life in the city, although she appears to have made her peace with that and will be content to make excursions to London now and then. We see her express strong emotion only once – when Martin tells her she has Sjogren’s instead of Lupus.

At first glance, we might think of Martin Ellingham as an entirely rational adult. He is science oriented and evidence based. His overall approach seems to be to do his best to eliminate emotions from his decisions, both professional and personal. Over and over he suppresses his emotions by engaging his medical knowledge. His strongest emotional outbursts are directed at patients who frustrate him with their ignorance and lack of compliance. He has a close relationship with Joan and can be tender with her, but even in her case he often reacts clinically, e.g. when he accidentally shoots her in the leg with the Colonel’s gun and then tells her it’s just a superficial wound. His decision to move to Portwenn has been made under a cloud, although still with rational forethought. It’s certainly not where he’d rather be. Even his hemophobia is handled in a way that keeps it from being emotional — he throws up and carries on or draws blood while looking away. He’s managed to reconcile himself to it (at least until S6) and accommodate it. He’s offset by Louisa who has an emotional attachment to the village and its residents. She’s always happy to return while he’s always looking for a way to leave. Martin’s facial expressions rarely change from consternation and seriousness; Louisa’s are a smorgasbord of emotions. He stands stick straight and never dresses comfortably; she has many poses and has no hesitation in wearing jeans or other relaxed clothing. She gets obviously exasperated with many people in her life, including her mother, her father, some friends, and Martin. She has highs and lows along with some even keel times. She applies her professional expertise when necessary, but finds it hard not to get personally involved.

Beyond these characters, we have a number of others who are emblematic of this dichotomy. Bert and Al certainly work in opposition to each other. Bert has no interest in properly balancing the books or in doing the necessary research before jumping into a new venture. Al is computer oriented, thus used to sequential thinking and planning for expected outcomes. Bert takes short cuts in general, while Al tries to do each job to the best of his ability.

But now that I’ve been trying to more deeply think about this dichotomy, I’ve realized it’s not so clear-cut. Nothing ever is. When we apply this distinction to the characters in DM, we get a confusion of outcomes, especially since I have read more about how to define rationality and emotionality and found that they are less distinct from each other than I originally thought. Emotion is a huge topic in philosophy and almost all of the great philosophers have tried to devise a theory of emotion (Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Hobbs, etc.) Then there was a period in the 20th century during which philosophers and psychologists stopped trying to develop a theory because it was such a broad topic. Recently there has once again been a lot of interest in a multidisciplinary approach to what emotion is. Rational thought is also a topic of much theorizing.

In an article published in Psychology Today on June 18, 2010 by Joachim I. Krueger, Ph.D. titled “One Among Many,” (“Reason and emotion: A note on Plato, Darwin, and Damasio. If reason and emotion affect decision-making, which matters more?”) Krueger states: one of the clear functions of emotions is “to guide us towards pleasure and away from pain. To succeed in gaining what is good and avoiding what is bad is difficult in an uncertain environment. We often make decisions that resemble gambles. When we invest in a company, buy a new house, or get married, there is a chance that things won’t work out as hoped. It’s critical that we’re able to judge what risks are worth taking – and emotions can help us make those judgments…Considered in isolation, emotions are rather arational (neither rational nor irrational)…By transforming goals and desires in the heat of the moment, emotions can lead us to make choices that hurt our long-term interests…Things get a bit murky, though, when we try to apply calculated reasoning to social decision-making. Many social situations involve costs and benefits that are difficult to assess and compare.”

When I relate this to ME, I can’t help wondering whether his effort to be rational actually masks an emotional substructure. In other posts we’ve been writing about the times when Martin exhibits emotion. We know his emotions can break through his defenses and clearly affect him. They can distract him from his job, make him act impulsively (like running to talk to Louisa or Ruth in the middle of seeing patients), and keep him up at night. What the show may be telling us is that even though Martin (or anyone) represses his emotions on a frequent basis in an attempt to apply rational thinking to his life, his life (our lives) is, in point of fact, governed by emotion. When it comes to social choices, we cannot separate our emotions from our decision making. M’s attraction to Louisa stems from a deeply emotional wellspring that doesn’t conform to rational arguments, and that does not make it wrong; it makes it normal.

Furthermore, Krueger notes: “Darwin would argue that the influence of emotions on decision-making has survived the rigors of natural selection…We see three reasons why this may be so. One reason…is that emotions give useful guidance whenever the environment fails to provide all the information needed for thoughtful analysis… It may be the case, however, the type of context in which emotions help is more common in our world than the type of context in which they hurt. The final reason not to discard emotions remains the fact that they make us act quickly and decisively.” Despite Martin’s or Ruth’s rational outer demeanor, we see how emotions cause them to react quickly and decisively many times, and it’s when they react quickly and decisively that the outcome is often positive. For Martin these moments include when he asks Louisa to marry him, when he can’t wait outside while she’s in labor and bursts through the door to tell her he was wrong about her and the baby, when he races after her to get her off the plane, and certainly when he runs to help patients in need or to find Ruth to ask for her help. For Ruth there are fewer moments but they would include telling the desk clerk at the hotel to stop wasting time and grow a backbone, when she tells Al she will go into business with him, and when she tells Robert Campbell she loves him as he’s about to stab Martin. I would have to say that these examples contain a confluence of rational and emotional qualities, but incline toward the emotional superseding the rational. When Ruth tells Robert she loves him, it’s an immediate reaction due to anxiety; however, she is also reaching into her grab-bag of psychiatric tricks to deal with psychopathic behavior. Similarly when Martin rushes to the airport, he is acting out of a rational desire to take care of Louisa medically, but it’s also because he is extremely worried about her and has already decided to follow her because he’s desperate to salvage their marriage.

Ultimately what I have come to appreciate is that it’s a very rare person who can dissociate his/her emotions from any decision. Trying to contrast the rational from the emotional is a fallacious mission. Although the writers of DM may have wanted to draw a distinction between two positions that seem to be in conflict with each other, they couldn’t because emotions are actually at the root of all behavior and cannot be extricated from the rational.

Originally posted 2014-07-03 17:49:35.

25 thoughts on “The Rational v. The Emotional

  1. Mary F.

    Great analysis and so true; the emotional vs the rational is exactly what makes the characters so interesting….the constant play of emotions across ME’s face while he makes one mighty attempt after another to remain stoic and rational over almost every important decision he makes. While it is sometimes necessary to keep emotions at bay as in medical emergencies, it becomes ludicrous (and often exasperating to the viewer) when he drums up a medical diagnosis after Louisa kisses him in a vain attempt to keep his emotions under control or when she tells him she loves him. To deny or hide our emotions is what makes humans different from all other animals and it is this constant (and often hilarious) struggle between and within all of these great characters which draws us show after show.

  2. Linda

    Truly, he is a study in contrast to most other people! He needs to be in control which is why his feelings and reactions to Louisa are such a funny conundrum. He knows he loves her. There is no question about that. He just has no idea what to do with those feelings of course, and it often leads him into trouble with her. There is no point in being “rational” in the game of love but he doesn’t understand “emotional”. Every time she tries to have a romantic moment, he gets a little too rational, with diastrous consequences. She, on the other hand, does know emotion, which makes it all the worse when he tries to rationalize their interaction because he doesn’t know what to do or say.

    Most of their “mini rows” are to do with the conflict between his “rational” andher “emotion”. He commands great power over his patients and doesn’t buy into emotions except in a very few cases. For example, he was really understanding with the girl who wanted to grow breasts, and even gave her a placebo that totally changed her view of her situation. I loved the episode where Louisa brought Allison Lane to apologize to Martin and then had an exchange with him about her worries about her life. He totally understood what she was saying and didn’t try to rationalize her fears in any way. He has had some nice moments with Roger Fenn, whom he seems to have a kinship and an understanding of the emotions that the otherwise cynical Roger, might experience.

  3. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Good examples, Linda. He’s used placebo pills twice, I believe. He gave Stewart Mark’s “vitamins” to make him think he was getting something for his anxiety and then with the underdeveloped girl, as you say. That is a sign of sensitivity. He also spent time listening to Trish, the OCD sufferer, and tended to the cat lady with a caring attitude. When Louisa speaks to him in that scene following Allison’s apology, I’m not certain he totally understands, but I think he was certainly listening and not brushing her off. Of course, he is generally different around Louisa. In this case he appears to have tried hard not to think about the future, and her question once again elicits a literal response – I’ll work on a clock. Her query “and then what?” stumps him.

    Roger was a good male character and might have become Martin’s only friend in Portwenn had he continued to be in the cast. Too bad that didn’t happen.

  4. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    I am always concerned about keeping in mind that when they initially decided to give him the personality and the social difficulties he has, they intended it to be funny. I definitely laugh at most of those moments. Emotions are very human qualities and distinguish humans from other creatures, although some animals exhibit emotions at times. I know that dogs and elephants can show grief/sadness, for example. Still, you are right that we associate emotions with humans for the most part.

  5. Santa Traugott

    I am having a little trouble thinking about this. I guess this comes from two things: the modest amount of training I have had in psychology, particularly ego psychology which has a heavy emphasis on defense mechanisms, and in recent reading I’ve been doing about “motivated reasoning”. This is an argument, baldly stated, that emotional reactions virtually always come first and that much related cognition is in the service of justifying these emotional reactions. (On a side note, I highly, highly recommend a book by Jonathan Haidt called The Righteous Mind, on this topic).
    There is much less distinction between cognition and emotion than we usually think, is my view.
    (It’s also my view, Karen, that we are finding out more and more about “emotions” in animals and everything we find suggests that they do have at least some emotional capacity — and that the distinction between the human animal and others on emotion is merely on some kind of continuum that we can’t specify very well yet.)
    So when you say: “When I relate this to ME, I can’t help wondering whether his effort to be rational actually masks an emotional substructure” I say, absolutely that is the case (to me, anyhow) and what passes for rationality here is very often defense mechanisms designed to keep him from really feeling what he is feeling. Intellectualization is one he uses a lot, and in a way it is “rational” because it serves the purpose of avoiding the anxiety he would feel if he admitted to strong feelings for Louisa. He certainly uses denial, if not outright repression, some forms of compensation, and possibly also projection (when he continues to insist that Louisa doesn’t want him involved with the baby when he fact he is deeply ambivalent for some time). None of these are really “rational.” What I think we see playing out is an emphasis on owning your feelings, dealing with anxieties instead of defending, even of accepting reality and living in a complicated, messy world instead of walling yourself off and attempting to live with surgical precision and neatness in all areas of your life, including interpersonal relations.

    Louisa is essential to Martin, because in order to sustain a relationship with her, he has to learn to deal both with his own strong emotions, and hers (which are sometimes under-managed, as opposed to Martin), and ultimately, accomplishing this will make him much healthier, emotionally.

    I think that we are at the same place here, although perhaps coming at it slightly differently?

  6. Maria

    As stoic as Martin tries to be, we see little breakthroughs in which he feels empathy with people whose experience he can identify with. In the scene with the underdeveloped girl, he is not particularly engaged at first because in his view, she does not have a real “medical issue”. But at the moment she says hat her friends tease her about it, his reaction changes. He immediately looks up, and sees her as a person, not just a set of symptoms. Having been teased himself, he knows what it feels like, and with the placebo, he responds to her emotional distress in an effective way without having to display emotion himself. (A more typical response would probably have been “That’s ok, don’t worry; you’ll get there” which would have been sympathetic. But of course that would be completely out of character for Martin, and more to the point, not actually empathic and in the end, not helpful). That scene is very sweet and has some funny moments, for instance when the girl is thrilled to be part of a “clinical trial” because the “drug” has not been approved yet. It’s also interesting – I think someone else mentioned this – that OCD has come up several times. Whether Martin has actual diagnosable OCD tendencies or not, he is certainly very controlled and thus sympathetic to how that trait can become troublesome. For Mike, the nanny (and presumably for Tricia, although we don’t see this), he has a concrete solution. In these situations, he is truly treating the whole person.

  7. Carol

    I would add to this discussion my take on Martin’s emotions. He has been taught not to express or trust his emotions – remember Ruth saying he was sensitive at 4 and almost shut-down by 6 – and therefore he almost HAS to suppress them because he can’t trust them. He wasn’t really “allowed” to feel them and therefore has learned not to recognize them very well. From what we know, he was a young child who was probably very emotional (I hear sensitive children described this way all the time) and this was continually pushed down and pushed down, mostly by parents, but also by the bullies at school. Sooner or later most of us who have this happen enough put up a high wall that keeps us from recognizing or trusting how we feel.

    One of the most helpful things in overcoming this, for me, has been to pay attention to the physical signals my body is giving. Of course with Martin he has to have it pointed out to him by Ruth that the signals are trying to tell him something about his emotions. I look forward to seeing him in counseling and hope so much that the counselor helps him to learn to pay attention to his body. Believe it or not, sometimes that is the only way I know what I am feeling. When I pay attention, which is hard to do in a busy day, I can realize when I am upset or angry or sad, something that most people take for granted.

    And I hope he can learn to help James Henry learn that emotions are good. They are there to help us. We just need to learn to manage them. At one point he says to Louisa that sometimes babies just cry and I hope that means that he learned a little bit at least in medical school about proper expectations toward children. They are not little adults and should never be expected to act that way.

    Thanks for this post – another great one by the way.

  8. waxwings

    I agree with Santa who writes:

    “So when you say: ‘When I relate this to ME, I can’t help wondering whether his effort to be rational actually masks an emotional substructure’ I say, absolutely that is the case (to me, anyhow) and what passes for rationality here is very often defense mechanisms designed to keep him from really feeling what he is feeling. Intellectualization is one he uses a lot, and in a way it is “rational” because it serves the purpose of avoiding the anxiety he would feel if he admitted to strong feelings for Louisa.”

    Please forgive my arm chair psychoanalysis for what follows, I have no professional knowledge in this, but I think using just personal experience, we can all enter this rational vs emotional discussion.

    In my view, a child’s natural way of “being” in the world is through emotion. There is no expression available for us except through crying, laughing, reacting emotionally to whatever we feel for our first few years.

    If you are punished from an early age for having and expressing emotion (wanting love, exhibiting affection, expressing needs) you quickly learn, as soon as you can, to suppress those emotions. We know from Aunt Ruth (series 6) that Martin’s history is that his parents were distant and cold and put him in boarding school by age 6. She also reveals that though he was originally affectionate and sensitive (as a four year old child) it took only a few short years for him to turn into a repressed and distant little boy. In Series 2 E6, his mother reveals her loathing of her son, blames him for her own loss of love, and admits that she banished him from her affections, if she even ever expressed any.

    So from an early age, Martin quickly learned to protect himself and repress emotion and to substitute stoicism, self-control, and later, intellectual responses to anything that evoked emotional feelings within him. And when he learned that skill, he had to bury those “emotions” only to have them appear as bed wetting, blood phobia and of course intellectual acumen that gave him at least some “affection” if only from his medical peers and patients. The bed wetting and blood phobia were involuntary, the latter was cultivated, and an extension of the emotional repressions.

    When Martin collides with Louisa (opposite in style from Edith and a type of woman he’s rarely encountered), he feels the emotional longings that attraction and love engender. But he is terrified and confused by how to handle it because he has no experience of “being” in the world emotionally, and is constantly finding himself moving laterally to his comfort zone of “rational” medical diagnosis, always inappropriate and causing Louisa to flee.

    We see it over and over — in S1 E6, after the kiss in the taxi cab (you have bad breath), in S3E5, after the kiss under the tree (you have raging hormones), and most significantly in S2E8, after their night of drunkenness (in which he expresses his love for her). This particular scene is perhaps the most painful example of Martin’s defense mechanism at work in the service of warding off emotion. It is also the most painful to watch. The morning after the night of drinking, Louisa meets him on the surgery patio to express her love for him, and he immediately reacts by asserting an ugly diagnosis of young-woman-older-man-of-higher-status infatuation and romantic attachment.. He labels her love for him a “delusional, irrational case of erotomania.” She ends up slapping him (we only hear the slap as the camera zooms out from above).

    How does a relationship recover from that?? Definitely, it was designed to push her away and not threaten his emotionally repressed way of being in the world. His memories are that emotional longing brings pain and suffering. And yet, he keeps trying because he recognizes to be with her is to be potentially happy and fulfilled. But it also means to be vulnerable, exposed and open to be hurt. But he does persist in S3E5, after the breakup from the kiss under the tree, and asks her to marry him. It’s as though he leaps off a cliff in desperation to be with her, though he cannot ultimately keep himself from sabotaging his own happiness. I so agree with the following from Santa:

    Santa writes: “What I think we see playing out is an emphasis on owning your feelings, dealing with anxieties instead of defending, even of accepting reality and living in a complicated, messy world instead of walling yourself off and attempting to live with surgical precision and neatness in all areas of your life, including interpersonal relations….Louisa is essential to Martin, because in order to sustain a relationship with her, he has to learn to deal both with his own strong emotions, and hers…”

    Thanks again to all for their great comments.

  9. waxwings

    Linda, when the Doc proscribes these placebos to both Stewart and the young girl who wanted breasts, I always thought of those as astute medical responses that were harmless, but which treated his patients in a more or less effective way. Knowing that the placebos might help, we might even call what he did acts of kindness. (Yes, he could relate to being teased). But when we think of our Doc and his struggle with his “emotions,” these placebo proscriptions really didn’t “cost” him much in terms of personal pain or risk emotional entrapment. It was really painless, whereas with emotions that involve his deepest feelings concerning love and affection, then we are on another level. So I’m just making a distinction of “degree” here. Always enjoy reading your posts.

  10. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    Thank you and everyone for the comments. I very much agree with your analysis of how his emotions ended up being repressed. I also agree with Santa that Louisa forces Martin to deal with his emotions in a way that he hasn’t done before. But we still see him reacting clinically to his hemophobia throughout S6 and denying that his home life was so bad while talking to Ruth in the last episode. He has more breakthroughs of emotion as that episode continues so we are seeing much more emotion from him, and I expect to see even more in S7. I have to guess that they have decided that emotion does overcome our rational mind, or that it is arational, as Krueger argues.

  11. Mary F.

    Great commentary all….I would also like to add that, from my own experience, that dogs are generally very comfortable showing their emotions, so it is quite amusing how they follow this resolutely stoic being around the way they do. This is of course, because they sense a sensitive and kind heart, which all animals are drawn to. You never see a dog follow a mean person around (unless you are Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, and even then the dog is very fearful of his master).

  12. waxwings

    Good one Mary! What a keen insight. Yes, the dogs sense things quite well. Karen, have we ever done a post on Doc and the Dogs?

  13. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    No posts on the dogs so far. I’m not sure I’d have that much to say about that subject. What are your thoughts?

  14. Linda

    Thanks Waxwings! I enjoy reading your thoughts too. Yes, you are right here that his placebo prescriptions cost him less emotion that his more difficult issues. That is a very good point!. It is quite unusual for him to go with the placebos I think but as you say, there is not much at stake for him. Thanks for that observation!

  15. Linda

    True, we did find his social and emotional inadequacies funny at first. As later series went by, I felt much more concern for him and recognized why he had the reactions and interactions that he had with others. Suddenly, it was not funny but sad. Once they went in that direction, those funny actions really didn’t fit as well as before. I think that may be why they have made buffoons of some of the other characters – we understand too much about Martin now to think he is or should be funny as often.

  16. waxwings

    Another great insight Linda:
    “…we understand too much about Martin now to think he is or should be funny as often.”

    And so does this not presage an ending? That’s what it signaled to me. A real turn in the drama. You can do comic Martin for only so long—so long as you don’t understand the depth of his paralysis, repression and very sad life story. He actually is a magnificently functioning person at a certain level. But the baggage he is carrying is very heavy.

    It will indeed be very interesting to see what they produce for Series 7!

  17. waxwings

    Karen, and Linda:

    It’s been my experience that whenever the DM show comes up in a random conversation, the first response from someone is usually “Oh yeah, that’s the guy who hates dogs!” How ironic! And so not true of MC.

    I do have several thoughts, off the top of my head, to briefly “interpret” the Doc and the Dogs issue (having had many dogs in my life and currently living with several in my household). And I think what I’m going to say does go to our present topic: rational vs. emotional.

    1) Dogs are empathetic and more sensitive to human emotion than other species. They actually can feel emotion as energy radiating from our bodies. Experts say that the dog knows if you are sad, nervous, stressed, happy, calm, strong-minded, confident, passive, anxious, hyper, meek, etc. Plus, canines (over thousands of years of domestication) have also been rewarded greatly for approaching and being attracted to distressed humans, and this attraction may somehow be hardwired into today’s dogs! The latest research shows that they actually go to the person MOST in distress, and that person doesn’t even have to be someone the dog knows!….Could our chows on the DM show sense Martin’s serious, but masked over “inner” distress? IMHO, definitely yes! I can believe that, having watched and experienced years of my own dogs relating to my various distresses, even when not verbalized, or even represented by my actions. (Shetland sheep dogs and border collies in my case, but there are so many other very sensitive canines out there.)

    2) Another view is this: the dogs we encounter on the DM show were mostly “abandoned” by their former owners (Joan and the previous GP), and they need to find somewhere and someone to belong to. They are pack creatures, and especially need to be with the “leader “of their pack. If Martin has replaced the space where the old Doc used to be, and/or Joan is gone and Martin shows up, then the dog will attach himself to a replacement. A happy dog is a dog that knows with complete confidence and security what their role in life is and where they stand. So they need a pecking order, and that would be Martin, occupying the space of top dog. (Certainly his commanding presence would indicate that to humans, and so too with the dogs). Dogs need this belonging and pecking order so much that they are willing to persevere in the face of Martin’s rejection, which is another way top dogs put lower ranked ones in their place, thus confirming (ironically) that they ARE in a pack and they DO belong.

    3) The third idea is that the dogs on the show sense Martin’s kindness, and want to be with him (the opposite of what I’ve said in #2 above, but bear with me). Intuitively, I feel this is true (as Linda wrote) that the Doc is kind. We do see an extremely caring and generous person underneath the Doc’s harsh exterior facade. I think this is what Louisa sees most of all in Martin–and wants to connect with it. She doesn’t know how. And if we and she can see this about the Doc, why not the dogs? Especially the dogs!! The real Doc is all buried up inside, but it takes a special sentient being to see it and know it. Louisa does, and I think the dogs do too.

  18. Mary F.

    Waxwings, as usual your analysis is spot on! (no pun intended…lol! ) Dog owners can learn a lot about themselves and their pets if they are good, patient observers. It would be lovely to see the Doc actually petting a dog by the end of the series. I’m hoping it will come up in a therapy session; what better way to comfort oneself than by petting an animal who loves you?

  19. DM

    A very interesting topic! I’ve enjoyed recently discovering and reading your blog and have also been intrigued by this very same premise and how it’s been used throughout Doc Martin.

    Interestingly, it has long been recognised that there are in fact three parts to the mind, or in modern terms what could be called the ‘self’: the familiar affective (i.e. emotional) and cognitive (i.e. the rational thinking) parts, as well as the third part known as the conative. Conation is sometimes inadequately defined as the ‘volitional’ or ‘motivation’ aspect, but is better explained as the source for ‘wanting’, ‘intentionality’, or simply the complementary ‘doing’ part (i.e. how one acts on the ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’ parts). It underlies a great deal of one’s ability to learn and one’s capacity for change. The role of the conative domain has been rather neglected in modern psychology in deference to behaviour or its being subsumed in the study of emotion and cognition (despite its usefulness for studying dissonance amongst the various aspects).

    Of course the clash portrayed between rational thought and emotional facilities, without even considering this third conative aspect, makes for interesting character interactions and storylines within Doc Martin. Viewers seem to drawn into the dramatic and comedic effects of the interactions of the two main characters when they frustratingly talk past one another whilst Martin largely exhibits his staid rational thought process and Louisa frequently exhibits an uncertain emotionality. Its funny to us how Martin almost regards emotions as part of some vestigial organ, like the appendix, which given the chance he would as soon surgically remove- just to be on the safe side.

    The internal conflict between the rational and emotional parts of Martin Ellingham’s self, is perhaps of greater fascination. As you note, the character appears to be extremely rational, and nearly unemotional, almost where he could be regarded as alexithymic (throwing out a non-diagnostic observation). Although on closer inspection, we begin to see a real-feeling individual peeking back from inside the character. The writers take advantage of that and his bombastic tendencies in many situations and to play on common misconceptions about stoicism (it’s not about the absence or denial of emotion). Besides, we recognise that behind his unemotional facade that he gets on perfectly well with at least some emotions: anger, disgust, and fear. But of course, he’s a highly intelligent doctor that knows full well that emotion lives in our head just as much as rational thinking does. He’s surely up to date on the latest thinking in neuroscience (including by Damasio which your reference cites), and how and why emotion is there to serve us to make decisions about ourselves and the world we inhabit.

    Considering the conative-self of Martin Ellingham helps to explain, at least to me, some of the paradoxes he embodies: he is a driven and highly accomplished professional, yet he is perplexingly passive; he brooks no acceptance for the status quo in anyone else, yet generally resigns himself to little more than enduring his situations and his phobia; he desperately loves and desires Louisa, yet he is perplexingly ineffectual at pursuing what he so obviously wants.

    That simple four-letter word ‘want’, is what is so glaringly absent in Martin Ellingham’s composition and is what constitutes the essence of conation. The very word, ‘want’ is so elided in his interactions with Louisa that I think we’re meant to mistake it for another four-letter word that men are supposed to be wont to avoid in popular tropes. Instead he ‘needs’ or ‘can’t bear to be without’ her. He doesn’t attribute it to himself and can’t so much as utter the word about himself and generally mischaracterises it in others. This is never better illustrated than throughout Louisa’s pregnancy when, I believe, it would have made all the difference had he ever told Louisa, “I want to help” (she, I believe, longs to hear it whilst being rightfully wary of evoking his thoroughly reliable, yet appallingly ersatz, sense of duty).

    Perhaps the contention that Martin Ellingham self’s undeveloped sense of ‘want’ were derived from an impaired conative-self may sounds like a bit of a stretch (by which I of course mean how the writers and actors have crafted this complex character). After all, any one of us who has ever known a two to four-year old child, finds that their ‘wants’ seem to dominate as the most singularly developed part of these little persons, in deference to the other parts. On the other hand, we all know people that can’t make decisions about what they want when they’re confronted by too many choices.

    I can’t say whether it complicates your premise or possibly simplifies it, but conation, or ‘conatus’ in Latin, has been broadly viewed by thinkers from Aristotle to Descartes to Damasio as a means to mediate between emotion and cognition. Although there is little direct research on conation and how it develops within individuals, in psychology it has been related to the development of emotional self-regulation. Taken with a neuroscientific view, this can relate to an individual’s sense of self or even the mysterious process for the emergence of self.

    I’m fascinated by your commenters thoughtful analysis of the Martin Ellingham character and the possible origins of how he may have come to be the way he is. The writers have clearly done a brilliant job writing an enigmatic yet cohesive character which suggests they have attributed to him a comprehensive backstory. Some analysis makes suppositions using terms of damage or abuse or diagnoses which seem unsatisfactory to me, not so much because they’re subject to becoming labels, but they don’t explain who he now is. And they don’t explain what attracts Louisa to him as he now is. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m intrigued with the idea that instead there’s this still undeveloped thing in him, perhaps his conative-self, that’s awaiting development. That perhaps is what so confoundedly attracts Louisa to him too, her subconscious anticipation of who he really is but she must exasperatingly await its emergence (and deftly disregards any prerequisite of change and the paradox of the Ship of Theseus).

    Finally, for an undeveloped conative-self and an impaired ability to want is to help understand the Martin Ellingham character, it would have to hold up to the larger story arcs as well. That, of course, means that Martin Ellingham surely once wanted nothing more, perhaps literally nothing more, than to become a great surgeon. And for that he made a bargain with himself, likely at an early age already given his family’s lineage of surgeons, which formed the basis for his haemophobia many years later, and may ultimately form the basis for his redemption to come.

    Thank you for the energy and insight you’ve devoted to this blog. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  20. Linda

    DM. What a fascinating commentary! I really enjoyed it and read it several times. I have to admit, some was way over my head, but upon re-reading, it made a lot of sense to me. I think you are really correct in saying that he decided to be a surgeon because he came from a line of great surgeons and probably never considered anything else for a career. He likely thought that he would win favor with his father and grandfather if he to became a surgeon. He single mindedly worked to achieve this lofty goal and, as you say, likely did not even consider that his life could include more – such as a wife and children. He states to Louisa, in the ambulance with Peter Cronk, that surgery was the only thing he was ever good at. That is quite telling isn’t it? I suspect that it was the realization that he was operating on real people with real families and real lives that most troubled him. Obviously, the thought of failure in surgery, would have triggered thoughts that he now was not good at anything. With that thought in mind, the pressure to perform well as a surgeon triggered his phobia and left him feeling he was a failure. His father’s comments to him in latr episodes seem to bear this idea out. Interestingly, the people of Portwenn begin to realize how skilled he is and they put up with his lack of bedside manner because they trust him. He does not seem to realize that the people in Portwenn are just as much in need of good medical care, if not more. They can’t run out to any of hundreds of physicians like someone in London could and have often been subject to substandard care because they had no choice. He probably helps more people in a day than many big city physicians do in a month. But he doesn’t equate the importance of that with the importance of surgery. Since he has never known love, acceptance, and caring from family, he doesn’t see it from anyone. Louisa tries so hard to understand this but he has built up such a wall, that he doesn’t feel deserving of these things. He justifies pushing her away by saying he doesn’t want to worry her which is a convenient way to avoid sharing with her. He doesn’t know what to do with feelings he has for her and for James even though his life has changed a great deal just by being with them. It is a lot to deal with so it is easier to stuff it down and not talk about it or just experience emotions he clearly feels, especially when he is with Louisa, James and Ruth. You just have to feel sorry for the guy and hope he finally “gets it” before it is too late.

  21. kjacobson@mindspring.com Post author

    DM, your comments are extremely thought provoking and I have been spending a lot of time thinking about how I want to reply. I have a lot to say and have decided the best way for me to reply is to publish another post because that allows me to write and edit before publishing. I very much appreciate everything you wrote and the amount of information included. Your post deserves a thorough response and I will try to do it justice. Thank you for your insights. I am putting together my response now and will publish it before the end of the weekend, so stay tuned!!

  22. egwrd

    Martin doesn’t get stumped when Louisa asks “And then what?” He replies, “Perhaps it’ll be time for something new?” and Louisa says “I hope so” and Martin says “Good.” That scene is the prelude to budding relationship. I agree it’s too bad that the Roger Fenn character wasn’t in many episodes, as they clearly had affection for one another. Anyone recognize him in an episode of “William and Mary?” He played a transvestite (S2, E5).

  23. waxwings

    DM: Your addition to this subject—that there is a third part of the mind—conation—that helps a person mediate between emotion and cognition (rationality)—was a new and provocative idea for me. It helped explain a lot of things about our Doc that have always stymied me.

    I have thought a lot about your post, but wanted our blog leader Karen to write a response to your thoughtful and challenging entry before sharing my own reactions. She has done so now in a separate entry to you, to which I responded earlier.

    If, as you say, this third part of self is “conation,” and it is the source of wanting (both in doing and in how one acts on the feeling and thinking parts of ourselves), and if it underlies our ability to learn, (and especially in the Doc’s case) our capacity for change, then the Doc indeed has a very under-developed third aspect of himself. All this time, I’ve suspected it might have been some missing/repressed part in him, some non-existent resource, or worse, some damaged-almost-beyond-repair element. (My default position). You have raised another, more hopeful possibility.

    And it may mean what you say: therein lies the hope for our Doc in becoming a more healthy, fully realized human being who can love and overcome his blood phobia.

    I have always wondered why why why the Doc holds back on what he wants? Why is he so passive in the personal areas of his life? For example, why doesn’t the Doc go for Louisa when Danny is on the march, as Aunt Joan urges? Why can’t he make his real feelings known after repeated efforts by Louisa to bring them out? Why does he always sabotage getting what he wants—as Aunt Ruth suggests? How very frustrated we have been again and again over the Doc’s inability to express his “wants”—whether in his original pursuit of Louisa (in the first two or three seasons) to his absolute paralysis to stop her from leaving him (in the last season of the show)? You have provided a clinical explanation for why…and it is different from what Aunt Ruth tells him and us in Series 6…

    Aunt Ruth explains to Martin that this “lack of want”—or his sabotaging the object of his want—is because he thinks he is not worthy of, or does not deserve, happiness due to his damage and abuse as a child. She quizzes him and says he doesn’t believe he deserves Louisa, or even of being a surgeon again without his hemaphobia, (which he resists or procrastinates trying to cure with deep therapy that would probe his life).

    But you, DM, have injected a new and counter idea into this conversation and suggest that these terms (damage, abuse, etc) are “unsatisfactory suppositions” (risking labels, a la Aspergers) because they don’t explain who our Doc is now, what he has become, and what attracts Louisa (even subconsciously) to him now. This is a big leap and a very complex thought to grasp (and a great insight if it is true). You offer:

    “…instead there’s this still undeveloped thing in him, perhaps his conative-self, that’s awaiting development. That perhaps is what so confoundedly attracts Louisa to him too, her subconscious anticipation of who he really is but she must exasperatingly await its emergence (and deftly disregards any prerequisite of change and the paradox of the Ship of Theseus).“

    Yes, if anyone could sense things, it’s Louisa…and yes, even though the Ship of Theseus had or may have most of its planks replaced, it is still itself, which is the huge paradox one can savor in the analogy to our Doc. It’s the undeveloped, underlying, impaired ability to “want” that would reveal his fuller, healthier self. He must work on that (replace, substitute or use the buried planks he already has which are there to use) and Louisa must allow Martin to do so. (O Plutarch, please!)

    But why is this ability (to want) so undeveloped and/or impaired? And how is it that Louisa sees that this other part of Martin is there? Subconsciously or otherwise?

    If in fact our Doc never allowed himself to want anything more than to be a surgeon, and he has suddenly been confronted with a new and equally powerful “want” in Louisa, but has no skills or experience to embrace that want, then he is indeed in big trouble (which we know is clearly the case now in Series 6), and must learn how to change in order to have it, and not sabotage it (anticipated in Series 7).

    But why does he lack skills? Why is he so unable to act upon desire? What is the source of the passivity? If it is not from these “unsatisfactory suppositions” of damage and abuse, then where does it come from??

    The post you wrote is quite a challenge—for a lay person—not used to psychological terms and analysis. Many of us can miss a lot of what is possible in an un-nuanced reading of the Doc and this show. Karen gives us this nuanced complexity and I think it is why we like this blog site so much. We do aspire to understand! The Doc is such a complex character one can feel ill-prepared to appreciate him, except in an intuitive, mostly sympathetic way.

    So thank you for your thoughtful post. It has given me a great deal to think about and it has raised questions for me, which I hope you can answer. (Is the ship Theseus sailing soon?)

  24. Amy Cohen

    I think this is so true. As we learned more about Martin, we sympathized and maybe even empathized with him. Who hasn’t at one time or another felt like an outsider? Had trouble telling someone how they felt? Martin just has had so much pain—how can we laugh at him any more? We just want him to be happy.

    And yet if that had not happened, we all likely would have grown bored with the character and his outbursts. He would have become just a two dimensional caricature.

    I guess it’s a dilemma for any comedy writer. Odd characters can either be three-dimensional and then became less funny or they can be two dimensional and become boring.

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