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Mind/Body, Emotions and Decision-Making

BrainEthics covered the news that Antonio Damasio, M.D., former Professor of Neurology and head of the department of neurology at The University of Iowa College of Medicine, had left Iowa to join the USC Institute for the Study of the Brain and Creativity. There is still not too much information on this Institute, apart from a few incipient collaborations on Non-Verbal Communication Across Cultures with the USC Annenberg Center and on the mental link between actions and words.

Why is his work important?

At the Exercising Our Brains classes, such as the one last Monday, there are frequent questions on mind/body research and the interaction between cognition and emotions. Antonio Damasio wrote a seminal work on the role of emotions in decision-making, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, in 1994.

You can read an in-depth review at the Times Literary Supplement.

Some highlights, and direct quotes from the text:

– The brain, as instrument for survival, has evolved over millions of years. First, the main areas of focus were biological variables (such as breathing, eating). Then, once we had to live in and work with more complex groups, came stronger social and personal skills. Finally, we developed the capacity for abstract thought. All those brains areas interact among themselves and with the rest of our bodies, creating the emergent property of our minds. None is by definition more important than the others. To say “I think, therefore I am” neglects the interaction of these parts, some conscious, some not.

– Emotions are learned shortcuts for decision-making, mostly based on our experience.

-“If an emotion is a collection of changes in body state connected to particular mental images that have activated a specific brain system, the essence of feeling an emotion is the experience of such changes in juxtaposition to the mental images that initiated the cycle.

-“While biological drives and emotions may give rise to irrationality in some circumstances, they are indispensable in others. Biological drives and the automated somatic-marker mechanism that relies on them are essential for some rational behaviors, especially in the personal and social domains, although they can be pernicious to rational decision-making in certain circumstances by creating an overriding bias against objective factors or even by interfering with support mechanisms of decision-making such as working memory.

-“There is still room for using a cost/ benefit analysis and proper deductive competence, but only after the automated step drastically reduces the number of options. There are thus three supporting players in the process of reasoning over a vast landscape of scenarios generated from factual knowledge: automated somatic states, with their biasing mechanisms, attention and working memory.”

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