Emotions and Reason: Together at Last

The emotion-reason connection has now bled through to popular media, as evidenced in this Boston Globe article:

Ever since Plato, scholars have drawn a clear distinction between thinking and feeling. Cognitive psychology tended to reinforce this divide: emotions were seen as interfering with cognition; they were the antagonists of reason. Now, building on more than a decade of mounting work, researchers have discovered that it is impossible to understand how we think without understanding how we feel.


Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at USC, has played a pivotal role in challenging the old assumptions and establishing emotions as an important scientific subject. When Damasio first published his results in the early 1990s, most cognitive scientists assumed that emotions interfered with rational thought. A person without any emotions should be a better thinker, since their cortical computer could process information without any distractions.

But Damasio sought out patients who had suffered brain injuries that prevented them from perceiving their own feelings, and put this idea to the test. The lives of these patients quickly fell apart, he found, because they could not make effective decisions. Some made terrible investments and ended up bankrupt; most just spent hours deliberating over irrelevant details, such as where to eat lunch. These results suggest that proper thinking requires feeling. Pure reason is a disease.

Besides Damasio (whose Looking for Spinoza is a must read!), the article makes reference to other theorists who I've been in the habit of reading, Jon Haidt and Josh Greene.

Spinoza, of course, goes unmentioned, but again we find that he was centuries ahead of his time.

(Tangential Remarks: Recently, I've been toying with some unusual interpretations of Spinoza, not so far from Damasio's neuroscience-infused account of the mind-body relationship. For instance, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics would be consistent with Spinoza's claim that everything that is possible exists.

Now I'm not so brash as to claim that Spinoza anticipated modern physics, anymore than he anticipated evolution with his outstanding refutation of intelligent design in Ethics I Appendix. Rather, like Damasio has argued with respect to the brain, Spinoza provides a framework for thinking about the sciences that is far preferable to other paradigms, like the Cartesian.

In a similar vein, Spinoza also seems to have a notion of identity as continuing proportion which meshes nicely with current ideas about identity as patterns of information--which has now led me to believe that mind uploading is possible [particularly if the upload is gradual, but perhaps even in the case of instantaneous transfer or the activation of a "backup" copy--imagine being able to "save" your life story!--it's something I've wanted to do for as long as I've been playing RPGs].

These recent ideas, which are extremely exciting, have spawned from my recent reading of Hans Moravec's brilliant 1988 work Mind Children. Moravec's solution to the problem of consciousness copying strikes me as brilliant, if extremely counterintuitive.

I hope to write more on this work at some other point, because it's been extremely fruitful for my thinking: so much so, that I think the more appropriate title would be Mind Fuck [which would be a natural predecessor to Mind Children, anyway.] The first 100 pages can be a bit boring, especially since he dabbles in what's state of the art for 1988 [i.e., even before the Internet], but beginning with the fourth chapter's discussion of the Robotic Bush [not the George variety, but the branching kind] things take a turn for the surreal-yet-plausible.)


Vedanta Visharad said...

The Rationality of Emotions

Emotions are expressions of thought. When you smile or cry it comes from a feeling of happiness or sorrow. And what are feelings but emotions which come from rational thought. Every action has a logical base as the human brain tries to project its interpretation of reality. You may not follow the line of thought but you will definitively enjoy the end result. Of course you have to see through my minds eye to see the rationality of my thoughts. No artificial system created till now can simulate this reasoning process.

How can you tell somebody with no taste buds, the sweetness of sugar? But for you the sweetness comes from a very logical physiological process. This sweetness may remind you the taste of your lover’s lips. This is emotion. This is an expression of a perfectly logical process of reasoning.

Emotions come from the totality of experiences. We cannot even try to put a basic mathematical formula for it. Our experiences are so vast and the computational power of our brains is so extensive that we cannot hope to simulate it in the near future. Even an infant brain has so many powers that it cannot be copied in a machine. To compound the problem, each person is unique and hence has a different set of experiences, from which to project his interpretation of reality.

So to analyze emotions, the best method is to analyze the thought behind the emotions. If a person shouts at you in a crowd, ask him the reason for his outburst of anger / anguish. The answer you get will be that you stepped on his toes!

If you think that rationality stops where one can get a mathematical / historical / cultural interpretation, then you are wrong. Because we still do not have a definition of rationality as our science has not advanced to a stage where we can map the entire activity of the human brain. Our history is not that advanced nor is it a single entity. Same is the case with human culture. At this stage we cannot say that somebody is irrational, we can only say that by comparison with the norm, a person is irrational. The norm differs from people to people. It is normal to be a cannibal amongst some south American tribes!

specter_of_spinoza said...

It is interesting how what seems rational, that is what feels rational, can differ so greatly between people. If nothing else the title of my blog should demonstrate my recognition of the affective character of reason.

Nevertheless, what you have written seems hugely irrational to me. But, unlike you, I am not content to conclude from that that it's anything goes, that there aren't differences of degree in quality, even if we can't exactly demarcate them. In fact, I will try to examine and explain its irrationality, instead of just giving up because everything just seems so complex! I am not that easily frustrated.

Sure, there is something--many things--ineffable in every experience, but there's also so much that's effable. ;-) This is the stuff we can talk about, we can measure, we can control and manipulate, we can enhance and improve.

Don't take my word for it. Look at the world around you and what human beings are doing in it and to it.

We can induce feelings in people by stimulating certain parts of their brains. When asked why they felt sad or afraid or whatever, do you know what they do? They rationalize, they make something up. They don't believe it's made up, but that's just because this is one of those capacities are brains are so well-equipped for. This does not mean that their explanation for their feeling is just as good, just as reasonable, as that of the scientist performing the experiment.

Thus, don't tell me that experience and thought are immeasurable and unsimulatable. (How do you even know we aren't in a simulation now, hot shot?) Has it occurred to you that the potential of the human mind might be so vast that it can create something which can understand it better than it can understand itself? (You're not the only one who can say profound-sounding things...)

Stop denying the reality of what goes on in laboratories and hospitals all over the world. We are constantly measuring and predicting and controlling thought and its contents. You may not wish to face this fact, but you're not the only one on this planet and, fortunately enough, others do to the extent that your willful blindness doesn't really matter.

It's amazing to me sometimes to see all of these people who call themselves open-minded and enlightened but are so narrow and arrogant as to think they can come up with an understanding of the world better than that of huge organizations of men and women who devote themselves to studying experience and our shared universe systematically. The system isn't perfect, but any scientist will tell you that. It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to work.

History and art and science may not describe the world wholly adequately, but if you actually go about studying them, you find that they do a much better job than you can unaided. Now, you may not follow my reasoning here but, I assure you, you would delight in the results!