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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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