Posts Tagged ‘reason’

An Ambiguous State of Affairs

September 18, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section of a chapter in an insightful book by Antonio Damaisio titled “The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. The title of this chapter is “On the Human Condition Now.”

Damaisio writes, “This could be the best of times to be alive because we are awash in spectacular scientific discoveries and in technical brilliance that make life even more comfortable and convenient; because the amount of available knowledge and the ease of access to that knowledge are at an all-time high and so is human interconnectedness at a planetary scale, as measured by actual travel, electronic communication, and international agreements for all sorts of cooperation, in science, the arts, and trade; because the ability to diagnose, manage, and even cure diseases continues to expand and longevity continues to extend so remarkably that human beings born after the year 2000 are likely to live, hopefully well, to an average of at least a hundred. Soon we will be driven around by robotic cars, saving us effort and lives because, at some point, we should have few fatal accidents.”

Unfortunately for the past four or five decades, Damaisio notes that the general public of the most advanced societies has accepted with little or no resistance a gradually deformed treatment of news and public affairs designed to fit the entertainment model of commercial television and radio. Damaisio writes, “Although a viable society must care for the way its governance promotes the welfare of citizens, the notion that one should pass four some minutes of each day and make an effort to learn about the difficulties and successes of governments and citizenry is not just old-fashioned; it has nearly vanished. As for the notion that we should learn about such matters seriously and with respect, is by now an alien concept,. Radio and television transform every governance issue into “a story,” and it is the “form” and entertainment value of the story that count, more than its factual content.”

The internet provides a means that provides large amounts of information readily available to the public. It also provides means for deliberation and discussion. Unfortunately it also provides for the generation of false news, creates alternative realities, and builds conspiracy theories. This blog has repeatedly invoked Daniel Kahneman’s Two Process View of cognition to assist in understanding the problem.
System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1. Learning is associative and slow. For something to become a System 1 process requires much repetition and practice. Activities such as walking, driving, and conversation are primarily System 1 processes. They occur rapidly and with little apparent effort. We would not have survived if we could not do these types of processes rapidly. But this speed of processing is purchased at a cost, the possibility of errors, biases, and illusions.
System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through.

To achieve coherent understanding, System 2 processing is required. However, System 1 processing is common on the internet. The content is primarily emotional. Facts are irrelevant and the concept of objective truth is becoming irrelevant. The Russians were able to use the internet to enable their choice for US President, Trump, to win.

Due to System 2 processing being more effortful, no matter how smart and well informed one is, we naturally tend to resist changing our beliefs, in spite of the availability of contrary evidence. Research done at Damaisio’s institute shows the resistance to change is associated with a conflicting relationship of brain systems related to emotivity and reason. The resistance to change is associated with the engagement of systems responsible for producing anger. We construct some sort of natural refuge to defend ourselves against contradictory information.

Damaisio writes, “The new world of communication is a blessing for the citizens of the world trained to think critically and knowledgeable about history. But what about citizens who have been seduced by the world of life as entertainment and commerce? They have been educated, in good part, by a world in which negative emotional provocation is the rule rather than the exception and where the best solutions for a problem have to do primarily with short-term interests.”

Harmonizing Emotions and Thought

March 10, 2018

The title of this section is identical to the title of a section in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” The hub of the battles or cooperative treaties struck between head and heart, thought and feeling are the connections between the amygdala (and related limbic structures) and the neocortex. This circuitry explains why emotion is so crucial to effective thought, both with respect to thinking clearly and in making wise decisions.

Working memory is the memory we hold in conscious thought. The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for working memory. However, circuits from the limbic brain to the prefrontal lobes mean that the signals of strong emotion—anxiety, anger, and the like—can create neural static, sabotaging the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory. This is why we say we “can’t think straight” when we are emotionally upset. Continual emotional distress can create deficits in a child’s intellectual abilities, and cripple the capacity to learn.

If subtle, these deficits are not always tapped by IQ testing. However, they do show up through more targeted neuropsychological measures, as well as in the child’s continual agitation and impulsivity. In one study, primary school boys with above-average IQ scores we still doing poorly in school. Neuropsychological tests found that they had impaired frontal cortex functioning. They were impulsive and anxious, often disruptive and in trouble. This suggested faulty prefrontal control over their limbic urges. In spite of their intellectual potential, they were at highest risk for problems like academic failure, alcoholism, and criminality—not because their intellect is deficient, but because their control over their emotional life is impaired. The emotional brain controls rage and compassion alike. These emotional circuits are sculpted by experience throughout childhood. We leave those experience utterly to chance at our peril.

Dr. Antonia Damaiso, a neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, has made careful studies of just what is impaired in patients with damage to the prefrontal-amygdala circuit. Their decision-making ability is terribly flawed. Still they show no deterioration at all in IQ or in cognitive ability. In spite of their intact intelligence, they make disastrous choices in business and their personal lives. They can even obsess endlessly over a decision so simple as when to make an appointment.

Dr. Damaiso argues that their decisions are bad because they have lost access to their emotional learning. The prefrontal-amygdala circuit is a crucial doorway to the repository of the likes and dislikes we acquire over the course of a lifetime. Cut off from emotional memory in the amygdala, whatever the neocortex mulls over no longer triggers the emotional reactions that have been associated with it in the past. Be it a favorite pet or a detested acquaintance, the stimulus no longer triggers either attraction or aversion. These patients have “forgotten” all such emotional lessons because they no longer have access to where they are stored in the amygdala.

This research has lead Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction, where dry logic can then be of best use.

So it is a mistake to do away with emotion and put reason in its place, as Erasmus recommended. We need to find the intelligent balance between the two. The old paradigm held an ideal of reason freed from the pull of emotion. The new paradigm urges us to harmonize head and heart. And to do that well in our lives means we must first understand what it means to use emotion intelligently.