World Thinkers’ Ideas – Panic and Icy Roads

Have you ever driven on icy roads and slammed the brakes? The best approach to icy roads is to avoid sudden braking, turning the wheel, or acceleration. Antonio Damasio interviewed a patient with brain damage who had driven to the hospital by applying the rules for driving on icy. Yet the man had difficulties deciding between two dates for his next appointment. The man spent half an hour listing advantages and disadvantages for each of the proposed dates. This is an illustration of the limitations of pure reason.

Hannah and Antonio Damasio are known for studying things like economics, education, and governance from a neurobiological perspective. The Damasios are pioneers that have introduced new perspectives and concepts.  Antonio Damasio’s research has had a major influence on our current understanding of the neural systems that underlie emotion, memory, language, decision-making, and consciousness. Hannah Damasio is famous for her brain-imaging work and she made the first brain atlas based on computerized imaging data.

Historically logical reasoning has been regarded as an activity that is conducted in a highly evolved part of our brain. Brain structures responsible for reasoning were regarded as distinct and separate from our body and certain regions in the brain. The lower regions of the brain were linked to biological functions. In the book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio argues that this is wrong. Admittedly, the role of emotions in thinking was recognised when the book was published among many scientists, but Damasio provided an integration of emotions into the mainstream explanatory schema of cognitive neuroscience.

Emotions and cognition are not opposites – emotions deliver cognitive information. Damasio suggested that reasoning without emotions is a damaging as reasoning with heightened emotions.  Reasoning without emotions may be the case in some neurological conditions where there have been brain injuries.

His theory is based upon a framework originally derived from work on the visual system – an object in our environment triggers patterns of activation of retinal receptive cells.  Damasio suggested that emotions are nerve activation patterns that correspond to our internal world. If we see something dangerous while we are walking home from the cinema, this image leads to an activation of our sympathetic nervous system. This activation affects the internal environment of the body – it changes hormone levels and smooth muscles. Emotions could be described as cognitive representations of body states. Thinking about a dangerous situation can also activate our sympathetic nervous system. Many of us like so read or watch thriller since it frightens us.

Emotions can be powerful experiences, sometimes they make us do things we later regret. The image that emotions lead us astray is prevalent. But Damasio and his colleagues showed that negative emotions could improve decisions. They designed a gambling task, involving risks. The participants were initially attracted to the risky decks because of their large positive payoffs.  But they soon retreated to the safer decks because they experienced negative emotions that accompany large losses. A cautious attitude is not always the best option and negative emotions can also hurt our decision-making.

Photo: “Panic Word” by Stuart Miles

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