Clever Joe and Emotional Intelligence

I was reminded recently of the story of Clever Joe. Clever Joe was a horse who became famous some hundred or so years ago, on account of his astounding intelligence (well, astounding that is for a horse!) His ability to follow simple instructions, such as ‘go to the lady in the hat’, and to apparently solve simple sums, stamping out the answer with his hoof, amazed people, all the more so because he was able to achieve these feats whether it was his owner or a stranger giving the instructions. However, when the person instructing him stood out of view behind a screen Clever Joe was no longer able to perform, and actually became rather agitated. His abilities, it seemed, were not due to his ability to understand human language or to do mathematics, but rather to his extraordinary talent for observing non-verbal cues from those around him. By observing the tiniest of signals, a twitch of the corner of the mouth, a flicker of tension in the shoulders, the horse could tell that this was the right person or number. Clever or not? Maybe not in the sense that it was first thought, but in another, Joe was more intelligent than most humans. He was, and many animals are, extremely emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognise and respond to emotion in ourselves and others. Since emotion is expressed physiologically, this means being aware of ourselves as physical beings, and of the subtle changes which happen, as the physical and chemical changes that constitute emotion occur in our bodies. Sometimes our emotional response to situations can seem to be at odds with our reasoning or thoughts about it, for example feelings of nervousness in a situation which we know rationally to be safe. In these situations emotional distress can occur because different parts of our intelligence seem to giving us different information. The famous psychiatrist Milton Erickson, regarded by many as the father of modern hypnosis, said that clients come into therapy when their conscious minds are in conflict with their unconscious minds. Uncomfortable emotions can often indicate to us that there is something we need to attend to or revise, perhaps a generalised rule, assumption, or response which was once helpful to us, but is now no longer so. The therapeutic space is one in which we can learn to recognise our emotions, and choose how we wish to respond to the feedback that they give. Thus we can start to utilise different parts of our intelligence in a complementary way, in moving towards our goals.