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Making the case
Q: Doesn't emotion just get in the way of rational thinking?
Phineas Gage (the man whose brain was damaged by a tamping iron driven through his skull, described in Unit 1) may well have provided an early example of the connection between emotion and cognition. However, for over a hundred and fifty years since his accident, conventional wisdom has doggedly insisted that reasoning plays the critical role in governing behavior and that emotions are a largely female distraction that need to be banished to the edge of the settlement to ensure that order is maintained. Then, in the 1980s, Dr. Antonio Damasio, current director of University of Southern California's Brain and Creativity Institute, and others began looking at patients who had sustained damage to emotion-related brain areas and discovered that they could not explain the resulting irrational behavior through cognitive deficits alone.
Like Gage, these patients became oblivious to the consequences of their actions. Although their apparent understanding of social conventions and rules remained intact, their behavior nevertheless violated these norms and reflected no sensitivity to the feelings of others; they also lost the ability to learn from their mistakes. For example, although a formerly able business executive still understood and could explain the risks of an impending deal, he made one disastrous decision after another and eventually destroyed his company. At home, this once affectionate husband no longer offered sympathy to his wife, who had always been able to rely on his support, and his marriage fell apart. Eventually, researchers' attention focused on one particular group of patients whose ventromedial prefrontal cortex had been compromised.
These patients seemed to retain their ability to reason and to recall social rules, even to explain the sort of conventional behavior that might be expected in various social situations. Their knowledge base was intact. They could speak intelligently about future planning or business decisions. However, their ability to make good decisions or to apply the rules of conventional behavior was clearly impaired. It soon became apparent that they could no longer use emotional understanding from past experiences to guide their decisions and behavior in the present. (top)
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As we live our lives, we make decisions and act, and the results teach us about the wisdom or folly of our actions. In effect, we "tag" the consequences of our behavior and store them as emotional knowledge to guide us when we find ourselves in similar situations, faced with the need to make decisions about what we will do this time. Knowing that drinking and driving are not a good combination is one thing; slamming a car into a house at 40 mph after a night of beer and shots adds an emotional dimension to the rule and makes it more likely that our next decision about drinking and driving will be more "reasonable." This is not to say that experience is the only teacher, for we also learn from emotions that result from imagining the consequences of our behavior.
Patients with ventromedial damage lose the ability to behave rationally because they have lost their emotional rudder. It turns out that reason without emotion is every bit as terrifying and useless as we have always claimed that emotion without reason is. Not only are these patients unable to use emotional tags from past experiences to make good decisions, they are unable to learn from and tag new experiences, so they continue to make one bad decision after another. They have lost the essential connection between emotion and cognition that results in meaningful rationality. When emotions are disconnected from rational thinking, the abilities to think, make decisions, and learn are impaired. It seems that for the village to function, emotions and thinking must live together in the same hut and work together to make sense of the world and to function intelligently in it.