Bruce Lee Statue at Hong Kong Harbor

Bruce Lee, ahead of his time, enshrined many of his beliefs and principles in his movies. In the opening scenes of “Enter The Dragon” we see him provide a teaching moment to one of his students where he talks about the importance of emotional content in the context of fighting and intent.

To get a real feel for this here’s the clip.

There’s a temptation here to discount all this for the sort of metaphysical dressing that’s commonly associated with martial arts films a sort of meaningless prelude to the real action, but there’s more to this than at first meets the eye.

From a neuroscientific point of view emotions come first. Thoughts arise out of the way we feel. The feelings we have are the emotions we acknowledge and then experience consciously. So emotions are our truest form of expression.

When Bruce Lee demands the manifestation of emotional content in his student whom he has just commanded to attack him, he asks for an acknowledgement of how the student feels within the context of the moment. A sense of purpose that goes along with his learning from his teacher. Purpose is required to give meaning to the learning, otherwise the student and the learning become meaningless and lose their value.

I used this example in one of the chapters of Intentional to illustrate the importance of acknowledging the emotions that drive our actions so we can own them. Unacknowledged emotions will still drive us but our actions will be a response to causes we don’t understand and therefore cannot control.

Neuroscience shows that “Emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving.” and can enhance long term memory and therefore learning. Our actions are the result of the dynamic interplay between bottom-up influences (i.e. emotions) and top-down control (i.e. cognitive regulation and executive function).

We Are Cellular Automatons That Can Reprogram Themselves

From a certain perspective the emotions we feel that stem from the stimuli supplied by our environment make us cellular automatons. In a study of the effects of heavy weather on human behavior Lyall Watson examines how popular culture has recorded maxims about the ill-effects of high winds that are only now being taken seriously by science.

Wind has an ionizing effect in the atmosphere. The atmospheric air we breathe, in turn, finds its way into our lungs with the suspicion being that the air we breathe has the ability to imbalance our internal state of equilibrium, weaken our mental filters and allow the bottom-up stimulus we feel overtake any top-down commands of control and restraint that may be in place.

Indeed, analysis of ten years of data suggests that in hot weather (where the ionization of the atmosphere is also very likely to occur) criminality goes up across the board.

The suggestion here is that since our environment is the sole source of stimulus we directly experience and because we respond to emotions in order to make our decisions we are captive to the conditions of our environment. Our behavior is a reaction to the stimuli we experience. While all of that is true we are far from cellular automatons.

Our emotions are a bottom-up process that leads to specific actions but the neural pathways that activate us are also subject to our cognition, the thoughts, beliefs and values we actively subscribe to that draw the ‘red lines’ that define our boundaries. This is the executive function that regulates our emotions. This is a top-down control process.

We are a dynamic mix of the tension between out bottom-up and top-down processes. Which one asserts its dominance at any time depends on the level of awareness we have developed, and therefore possess, of our own internal processes. In turn, that level of awareness, is key to maintaining the mental filters we have in place that allow us to behave in a controlled, intentional way.

Intentional actions are marked by our own volition. They take into account specific goals with clearly defined outcomes. They are initiated with a fuller awareness of consequences and therefore start with a greater sense of responsibility. This leads to a deeper sense of commitment and a clearer understanding of what is important to us and why.

That is Bruce Lee’s reference to “emotional content”.


To better understand how to take control of your actions dive into Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully