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 This part of the outdated concept is correct.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.