For nearly as long as humans have been thinking about thinking, one of the most intriguing issues has been the interplay of reason and emotion. For the greatest thinkers throughout recorded history, reason has reigned supreme. The traditional paradigm has been one of a dichotomy where refined and uniquely human REASON pitches an ongoing battle for control over animalistic and lustful EMOTIONS. It has been argued by the likes of Plato, Descartes, Kant and and even Thomas Jefferson that reason is the means to enlightenment and that emotion is the sure road to human suffering (Lehrer, 2009).
This Platonic dichotomy remains a pillar of Western thought (Lehrer, 2009). Suppressing your urges is a matter of will – recall the mantras “Just say no!” or “Just do it!” My guess is that most people today continue to think of the brain in these terms. Until recently even the cognitive sciences reinforced this notion. Only through very recent advances in the tools used to study the brain (e.g., fMRI) and other ingenious studies (e.g., Damasio’s IGT) has any evidence been generated to place this traditional paradigm in doubt. As it turns out, emotion plays a very crucial role in decision making. Without it, our ability to reason effectively is seriously compromised. I have long believed that feelings and emotions should be under the control of our evolutionary gift – the frontal cortex. Reason, after all, is what sets us apart from the other animals. Instead it is important to understand that we have learned that these forces are NOT foes but essentially collaborative and completely interdependent forces.
The implications of this recent knowledge certainly do not suggest that it is fruitless to employ our reason and critical thinking capabilities as we venture through life. Reason is crucial and it does set us apart from other life forms that lack such fully developed frontal cortices. This part of the outdated concept is correct. However, we are wrong to suppose that emotion with regard to decision making lacks value or that it is a villainous force.
Jonah Lehrer, in his book, How We Decide discusses this very issue and notes that: “The crucial importance of our emotions – the fact that we can’t make decisions without them – contradicts the conventional view of human nature, with its ancient philosophical roots.” He further notes:
“The expansion of the frontal cortex during human evolution did not turn us into purely rational creatures, able to ignore our impulses. In fact, neuroscience now knows that the opposite is true: a significant part of our frontal cortex is involved with emotion. David Hume, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who delighted in heretical ideas, was right when he declared that reason was the “the slave of the passions.”
So how does this work? How do emotion and critical thinking join forces? Neuroscientists now know that the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is the brain center where this interplay takes place. Located in the lower frontal cortex (the area just above and behind your eyes), your OFC integrates a multitude of information from various brain regions along with visceral emotions in an attempt to facilitate adaptive decision making. Current neuroimaging evidence suggests that the OFC is involved in monitoring, learning, as well as the memorization of the potency of both reinforcers and punishers. It operates within your adaptive unconscious – analyzing the available options, and communicating its decisions by creating emotions that are supposed to help you make decisions.
Next time you are faced with a decision, and you experience an associated emotion – it is the result of your OFC’s attempt to tell you what to do. Such feelings actually guide most of our decisions.
Most animals lack an OFC and in our primate cousins, this cortical area is much smaller. As a result, these other organisms lack the capacity to use emotions to guide their decisions. Lehrer notes: “From the perspective of the human brain, Homo sapiens is the most emotional animal of all.”
I am struck by the reality that natural selection has hit upon this opaque approach to guide behavior. This just reinforces the notion that evolution is not goal directed. Had evolution been goal directed or had we been intelligently designed don’t you suppose a more direct or more obviously rational process would have been devised? The reality of the OFC even draws into question the notion of free will – which is a topic all its own.
This largely adaptive brain system of course has draw backs and limitations – many of which I have previously discussed (e.g., implicit associations, cognitive conservatism, attribution error, cognitive biases, essentialism, pareidolia). This is true, in part, because these newer and “higher” brain functions are relatively recent evolutionary developments and the kinks have yet to be worked out (Lehrer, 2009). I also believe that perhaps the complexities and diversions of modernity exceed our neural specifications. Perhaps in time, natural selection will take us in a different direction, but none of us will ever see this. Regardless, by learning about how our brains work, we certainly can take an active role in shaping how we think. How do you think?
Gladwell, M. (2005). ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.’ Little, Brown and Company:New York.
Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.
Posted by Gerald Guild
Categories: Adaptive Unconscious
, Erroneous Thinking
, Rational Thought
| Tagged: Attribution Error
, Cognitive Biases
, Cognitive Conservatism
, Confirmation Bias
, Erroneous Thinking
, Fundamental Attribution Error
, Intuitive Thinking
, Iowa Gambling Task
, Rational Thought
The capabilities of our adaptive unconscious are really quite amazing. In an earlier post, entitled Intuitive Thought, I covered the general relative strengths of this silent supercomputer running outside of our awareness. It has long been believed that rational thought, the application of logic and reason, over intuition, is the key to a successful life. One wonders, given the recent revelations about the importance of emotion and intuition, how reasoning capabilities would fair in a head to head (pun intended) competition with emotion?
Believe it or not, a research team from the University of Iowa devised a rather ingenious way of holding such a competition. In 1994 neuroscientists Antonio Damasio, Antoine Bechara, Daniel Tranel, and Steven Anderson developed the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) to facilitate the identification of decision-making errors in individuals with prefrontal cortex damage. Both Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide) highlight this study in their powerful books on how we think. The IGT website describes the IGT as “a computerized experiment that is carried out in real time and resembles real-world contingencies. The task allows participants to select cards from four decks displayed on-screen. Participants are instructed that the selection of each card will result in winning or losing money. The objective is to attempt to win as much money as possible.” Sounds straight forward – although there is a catch. The participants are not aware that the decks are rigged in such a way that two decks consistently offer modest cash advances ($50) and rare penalties. These are the “good decks.” The two other decks, the “bad decks,” provide bigger advances ($100) but also devastating penalties ($1250). Playing the good decks is a slow but sure road to substantial winnings. The bad decks lead to disaster.
As participants began selecting cards, they tended to draw from all four decks (in a random fashion). However, as card selection proceeded and the consequences of their choices were realized, on average it took the typical participant about 50 cards before they started exclusively drawing from the “good decks.” After drawing 50 cards, most participants developed a hunch that there were deck specific patterns in rewards and penalties and they began responding to those patterns. But It took on average about 80 cards before the typical subject could explain why they favored the good decks. That is 80 draws before most people concluded, rationally and logically, that there were good and bad decks.
In their original study, Damasio and his colleagues were interested in the emotional responses the subjects had to the task. Participants were hooked up to a machine that specifically monitored their stress response (nervousness and anxiety) associated with each and every card selection. What they discovered was that their subjects responded emotionally to the bad decks long before they changed their behavior or developed any rational understanding of the card distribution. On average most subjects exhibited a stress response to the bad decks after ten draws, a full 40 draws before their behavior changed and 70 draws before they could identify the reason for avoidance of the bad decks. Lehrer noted that “Although the subject still had little inkling of which card piles were the most lucrative, his emotions had developed an accurate sense of fear. The emotions knew which decks were dangerous. The subject’s feelings figured out the game first.”
On the IGT, neurotypical individuals almost always came out well ahead financially. Ultimately the emotions they experienced associated with draws from the various decks clued them into the correct responding pattern. However, individuals who were incapable of experiencing any emotional response – typically due to damaged orbito-frontal cotices – proved incapable of identifying the patterns and often went bankrupt. As it turns out, our emotional responses serve a very crucial role in good decision making – much more so than reason and logic. Again from Lehrer: “When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win.” The adaptive unconscious and the associated underlying emotional capacity of the brain serve an essential role in the decision making process. “Even when we think we know nothing, our brains know something. That’s what our feelings are trying to tell us.” (Lehrer, 2009).
It really is quite amazing that we strive for, and so greatly value, rational thought as a savior of sorts; yet it is our intuition and emotions that really serve as our most effective advisers. The acceptance of the inferiority of rationality is literally and figuratively counter-intuitive. Of course this does not mean we should devalue rationality and go with all our impulses. There are limits and dangers associated with such thinking, and our emotions are kept in balance by our reasoning capabilities. It is crucial that we understand the capacity and strengths of both reason and intuition, as well as their downfalls. I am devoted to this pursuit with growing passion and will continue to share my insights.
Gladwell, M. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York
Lehrer, J. 2009. How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.