4/13/09 - decision-making

Editor's Note: The author's subsequent book "Imagine: How Creativity Works" was pulled from retailers following the disclosure that the author fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan and he resigned from the New Yorker in 2012.

In today's excerpt - decisions. It has long been held that the rational parts of our brains make the best decisions and better decisions are made when the emotional parts of our brains are suppressed in the decision-making process. It turns out that the opposite is true—we cannot make decisions without employing emotions:

"In 1982, a patient named Elliot walked into the office of neurologist Antonio Damasio. A few months earlier, a small tumor had been cut out of Elliot's cortex, near the frontal lobe of his brain. Before the surgery, Elliot had been a model father and husband. He'd held down an important management job in a large corporation and was active in his local church. But the operation changed everything. Although Elliot's IQ had stayed the same—he still tested in the 97th percentile—he now exhibited one psychological flaw: he was incapable of making a decision.

"This dysfunction made normal life impossible. Routine tasks that should have taken ten minutes now required several hours. Elliot endlessly deliberated over irrelevant details, like whether to use a blue or black pen, what radio station to listen to and where to park his car. ... His indecision was pathological. Before long, Elliot was fired from his job. That's when things really began to fall apart. He started a series of new businesses, but they all failed. He was taken in by a con man and was forced into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him. The IRS began an investigation. He moved back in with his parents. ...

"But why was Elliot suddenly incapable of making good decisions? What had happened to his brain? Damasio's first insight occurred while talking to Elliot about the tragic turn his life had taken. ... Damasio remembers, ... 'I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.' ... The results [of tests] were clear: Elliot felt nothing. He had the emotional life of a mannequin.

"This was a completely unexpected discovery. At the time, neuroscience assumed that human emotions were irrational. A person without any emotions—in other words someone like Elliot—should therefore make better decisions. ... [However] when we are cut off from our feelings, the most banal decisions became impossible. A brain that can't feel can't make up its mind. ... Other patients with similar patterns of brain damage ... all appeared intelligent and showed no deficits on any conventional cognitive tests. And yet they all suffered from the same profound flaw: because they didn't experience emotion, they had tremendous difficulty making any decisions. ... The crucial importance of our emotions—the fact that we can't make decisions without them—contradicts the conventional view of human nature, with its ancient philosophical roots. ...

"How does this emotional brain system work? The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the part of the brain that Elliot was missing, is responsible for integrating visceral emotions into the decision-making process. It connects the feelings generated by the 'primitive' brain—areas like the brain stem and the amygdala, which is in the limbic system—to the stream of conscious thought. When a person is drawn to a specific receiver, or a certain entree on the menu, or a particular romantic prospect, the mind is trying to tell him that he should choose that option. It has already assessed the alternatives—this analysis takes place outside of conscious awareness—and converted that assessment into a positive emotion. And when he sees a receiver who's tightly covered, or smells a food he doesn't like, or glimpses an ex-girlfriend, it is the OFC that makes him want to get away. ... The world is full of things and it is our feelings that help us choose among them.

"When this neural connection is severed—when our OFCs can't comprehend our own emotions—we lose access to the wealth of opinions that we normally rely on. All of a sudden, you no longer know what to think about the receiver running a short post pattern or whether it's a good idea to order the cheeseburger for lunch. The end result is that it's impossible to make decent decisions. This is why the OFC is one of the few cortical regions that are markedly larger in humans than they are in other primates. While Plato and Freud would have guessed that the job of the OFC was to protect us from our emotions, to fortify reason against feeling, its actual function is precisely the opposite. From the perspective of the human brain, [ma]n is the most emotional animal of all."


Jonah Lehrer


How We Decide


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing


Copyright 2009 by Jonah Lehrer


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