“We are pilgrims in a social landscape.”

Revolutions in our understanding of ourselves begin in the oddest ways.  One of the breakthroughs that helped us understand the interplay between emotion and decision making began with a man named Elliot, whose story has become one of the most famous in the world of brain research.  Elliot had suffered damage to the frontal lobes of his brain as the result of a tumor.  Elliot was intelligent, well informed, and diplomatic.  He possessed an attractively wry view of the world.  But, after surgery, Elliot began to have trouble managing his day.  Whenever he tried to accomplish something, he’d ignore the most important parts of the task and get sidetracked by trivial distractions. At work he’d set out to file some reports, but then would just sit down and start reading them.  He’d spend an entire day trying to decide on a filing system.  He’d spend hours deciding where to have lunch, and still couldn’t settle on a place.  He made foolish investments that cost him his life savings.  He divorced his wife, married a woman his family disapproved of, and quickly divorced again.  In short, he was incapable of making sensible choices.

Elliot went to see a scientist named Antonio Damasio, who evaluated him with a battery of tests.  They showed that Elliot had a superior IQ.  He had an excellent memory for numbers and geometric designs and was proficient at making estimates based upon incomplete information.  But in the many hours of conversation Damasio had with Elliot, he noticed that the man never showed any emotion.  He could recount the tragedy that had befallen his life without the slightest tinge of sadness.

Damasio showed Elliot gory and traumatic images from earthquakes, fires, accidents, and flood.  Elliot understood how he was supposed to respond emotionally to these images.  he just didn’t actually feel anything.  Damasio began to investigate whether Elliot’s reduced emotions played a role in his decision-making failures.

A series of further tests showed that Elliot understood how to imagine different options when making a decision.  He was able to understand conflicts between two moral imperatives.  In short, he could prepare himself to make a choice between a complex range of possibilities.

What Elliot couldn’t do was actually make a choice.  He was incapable of assigning value to different options.  As Damasio put it, “His decision-making landscape [was] hopelessly flat.”

. . . “This behavior is a good example of the limits of pure reason,” Damasio writes in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.  It’s an example of how lack of emotion leads to self-destructive and dangerous behavior.  People who lack emotion don’t lead well-planned logical lives in the manner of coolly rational Mr. Spocks.  They lead foolish lives.  In the extreme cases, they become sociopaths, untroubled by barbarism and unable to feel other people’s pain.

. . . This understanding of decision making leads to some essential truths.  Reason and emotion are not separate and opposed.  Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it.  Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of these valuations.  The human mind can be pragmatic because deep down it is romantic.

. . . We are pilgrims in a social landscape.

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