Emotions are a important factor in my work as an executive coach and Leadership Coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. At times emotions are the explicit subject of discussion, as in Stanford courses such as Interpersonal Dynamics (aka "Touchy Feely"), or with clients who are working with me to address sources of frustration or unhappiness in their careers or professional relationships. Even when that's not the case, emotions are always implicit in any issue that a student or client might raise with me, and they readily spring to the surface given the opportunity. (One of the simplest--and most useful--steps I can take as a coach is to say, "It seemed as through you felt a strong emotion just now," and then give the person some space to talk about what they're feeling.)
My work with my clients and students has made it clear to me that emotions play an essential role in helping us decide, both at the micro-level in any given situation and at the macro-level as we chart our course through life. Seeking a deeper understanding of this dynamic led me to the work of Antonio Damasio, a Portuguese neuroscientist who's been based in the US for the past 35 years, and whose 1994 book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain is a landmark in contemporary neuroscience. (I recommend the 2005 Penguin paperback; all of my quotes from and links to the book refer to that edition.)
Historically the elegant process of logical reasoning has been viewed as a function of our disembodied mind, an activity conducted in a highly evolved part of our brain that exists for this express purpose. It was assumed that the brain structure responsible for reasoning was distinct not only from the body itself but also from the "lower" regions of the brain that govern other aspects of biological function. But all of this, Damasio argues convincingly, is entirely wrong:
I propose that human reason depends on several brain systems, working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization, rather than on a single brain center. Both "high-level" and "low-level" brain regions...cooperate in the making of reason.
The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with the body functions necessary for an organism's survival. In turn, these lower levels maintain direct and mutual relationships with virtually every bodily organ, thus placing the body directly within the chain of operations that generate the highest reaches of reasoning, decision making, and, by extension, social behavior and creativity. Emotion, feeling and biological regulation all play a role in human reason. [p xvii]
Note that in Damasio's view emotion and feeling are not in opposition to reason but provide essential support to the reasoning process. The passage above also alludes to Damasio's second topic, the physiological roots of emotional expression:
[T]he essence of a feeling may not be an elusive mental quality attached to an object, but rather the direct perception of a specific landscape: that of the body...
I propose that the critical networks on which feelings rely include not only the traditionally acknowledged collection of brain structures known as the limbic system but also some of the brain's prefrontal cortices, and, most importantly, the brain sectors that map and integrate signals from the body.
I conceptualize the essence of feelings as something you and I can see through a window that opens directly onto a continuously updated image of the structure and state of our body... By and large, a feeling is the momentary "view" of a part of that body landscape. [pp xviii-xix]
Damasio restates these themes concisely later in the book:
The action of biological drives, body states and emotions may be an indispensable foundation for rationality. The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with global functions of the body proper such that the organism can survive. These lower levels maintain direct and mutual relationships with the body proper, thus placing the body within the chain of operations that permit the highest reaches of reason and creativity. Rationality is probably shaped and modulated by body signals, even as it performs the most sublime distinctions and acts accordingly. [p 200]
The research that led Damasio to these conclusions began at the University of Iowa in the 1970s and '80s, where he found himself perplexed by certain victims of accidents, tumors and other sources of brain trauma. In these unusual cases the victim's faculties remained generally intact despite their experiences, and yet their lives were falling apart. They performed well on any test measuring their intelligence and critical thinking abilities, and yet outside the lab they made one bad decision after another, or found themselves paralyzed and unable to make a decision at all.
On the basis of his research into these cases and a series of novel experiments comparing the victims of brain trauma with "normals," Damasio formulated the hypotheses he lays out in Descartes' Error and his research appears to have stood up over the past 17 years. In his 2005 preface he notes that, "today this idea [that emotion assists the reasoning process] does not cause any raised eyebrows..."
However, while this idea may not raise any eyebrows today among neuroscientists, I believe it's still a surprise to the general public. We're trained to regard emotions as irrational impulses that are likely to lead us astray. When we describe someone as "emotional," it's usually a criticism that suggests that they lack good judgment. And the most logical and intelligent figures in popular culture are those who exert the greatest control over their emotions--or who seem to feel no emotions at all.
Damasio's title refers to the separation of mind and body implied in Rene Descartes' assertion, "I think therefore I am," first articulated in Discourse on the Method (1637). Descartes elaborated on this concept in Principles of Philosophy (1644), in a passage quoted by Damasio:
[T]his "me," that is to say, the soul by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from body...and even if body were not, the soul would not cease to be what it is. [p 249]
Damasio writes in response:
This is Descartes' error: the abyssal separation between body and mind...the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism. [pp 249-50]
This concept of "Cartesian dualism" has had a profound effect on the Western worldview. One of its implications is that we tend to see emotion and reason not only as distinct spheres but also as forces working in opposition to each other. Further, we prize the reasoning that occurs in our disembodied minds while we often view our emotions and their many physiological manifestations as less important. Damasio writes:
[W]e usually conceive of emotion as a supernumerary mental faculty, an unsolicited nature-ordained accompaniment to our rational thinking. If emotion is pleasant, we enjoy it as a luxury; if it is painful, we suffer it as an unwelcome intrusion. In either case, the sage will advise us, we should experience emotion and feeling in only judicious amounts. We should be reasonable.
There is much wisdom in this widely held belief, and I will not deny that uncontrolled or misdirected emotion can be a major source of irrational behavior. Nor will I deny that seemingly normal reason can be disturbed by subtle biases rooted in emotion... Nonetheless, what the traditional account leaves out is [this]... Reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behavior. [emphasis original, pp 52-53]
The implications for the victims of brain trauma in the cases studied by Damasio are clear; physical damage to their brains resulted in a significant reduction in their ability to experience emotion, which profoundly diminished their capacity to reason and make decisions. The implications for the rest of us are not nearly as straightforward, but I suspect that the ability to experience our emotions more vividly and more rapidly allows us to make more effective use of them in the reasoning process.
And while emotions can certainly lead us astray, when they do it's not the inevitable by-product of their fundamental unreliability or irrationality, but a specific, localized error. (It's a bug, not a feature.) In certain situations of course we need to manage a given emotional response in order to minimize its counterproductive impact. But that approach should be taken on a case-by-case basis, not as a general principle. In this regard Damasio's research bolsters my empirical experience as a coach and leads me to conclude that dampening our emotional responses and distancing ourselves from them as a rule can only undermine the quality of our decision-making and result in worse choices.
In addition, Damasio's description of the physiological roots of emotions suggest that our ability to be in touch with our feelings bears some relation to our ability to, quite literally, feel. I suspect that being in touch with ourselves physically allows us to be in touch with ourselves emotionally. Some anecdotal but quite vivid evidence of this is the common experience I've had of working with people who were momentarily unable to describe their emotions. I would ask them to scan their bodies and conduct a mental inventory of what they literally "felt," both inside and out, and invariably the acknowledgment of physical "feelings" make it possible for the person to access and discuss their emotions.
To provide some context for these assertions, I'll ask and (try to) answer a series of questions based on my understanding of Damasio's work. (Note that you can find an extended series of quotes from Descartes' Error following my conclusion below if you'd like more specifics.)
Where do emotions come from?
Emotions are evoked by perceived or imagined stimuli that generate a wide range of physiological responses--body states, as Damasio calls them--that in turn generate sets of mental images associated with those body states. For example, if you're walking in the woods and come across a bear, your perception of the bear's large bulk, possibly moving quickly toward you, will result in a series of physiological changes. Your pulse and respiration will quicken, your blood pressure will rise, your pupils will dilate, and adrenaline and other neurotransmitters will be released. Your brain senses these physiological responses, generates a host of mental images associated with this collective body state, and you experience the feeling you know as "fear." Note the sequence--the unconscious physiological responses precede the conscious awareness of the feeling.
Damasio makes an important distinction between primary or early emotions, which are innate or "hard-wired" (and are thus essentially universal) and secondary or adult emotions, which derive from experience and acquired knowledge (and are thus highly individualized.) Encountering a bear in the woods and feeling fear is an example of a primary emotion. While Damasio points out that that we're probably not born with an innate "bear fear" per se, we are "wired to respond with an emotion, in preorganized fashion, when certain features of stimuli in the world or in our bodies are perceived," [p 131] and evolution has likely hard-wired us to fear large, fast-moving predators encountered in a dark space. We don't need to learn to fear the bear; we come with that emotional response "pre-programmed."
But we do learn the much more complex responses that Damasio calls secondary emotions. These responses are based on our experiences, particularly in childhood and adolescence, although the process of developing secondary emotions continues throughout our entire lives. We learn these emotions as we associate certain stimuli with positive or negative outcomes, although it's obvious that the process of making these associations is by no means foolproof. (We're particularly prone to biases rooted in statistical errors.)
As a devoted reader of William James, I find it noteworthy that Damasio's concept of primary emotions derives directly from James' work in the 19th century, and his concept of secondary emotions addresses a crucial shortcoming in James' theory. Damasio writes, "...I believe William James seized upon the mechanism essential to the understanding of emotion and feeling. Unfortunately, and uncharacteristically for him, the rest of his proposal [falls short]..." [p 129] James, Damasio continues, "gave little or no weight to the process of evaluating mentally the situation that causes the emotion. His account works well for the first emotions one experiences in life, but it does not do justice to" the much more complex emotions we experience subsequently. [p 130]
What purpose do emotions serve?
Emotions evolved to support our survival. The primary (or innate) emotions can be seen as a complex form of biological regulation, an extension of the instinctive drives and impulses that support survival at an even more fundamental level. But while those deeper forms of biological regulation operate automatically and typically beyond our conscious control, emotions allow us to make choices about how we'll express them and what we'll do in response.
What is reasoning?
Reasoning is the judicious consideration of a set of alternatives, the imagination of a series of possible outcomes, and the application of logic to determine which alternative will yield the best possible outcome. If we view these behaviors along a spectrum, from biological drives to primary emotions to secondary emotions to reasoning, we can see a decrease in automaticity and an increase in conscious choice.
What role does emotion play in reasoning?
Reasoning is an extremely taxing mental activity, consuming vast amounts of such finite resources as our attention and working memory. Even when we have these resources in abundance, reason is extremely time-consuming. The process described above of identifying alternatives, imagining outcomes, and determining which alternative is most likely to yield the best outcome can readily take more time than we have available to make even the simplest of decisions. And when we're under stress or when the stakes are high, the amounts of attention and working memory at our disposal may decrease, making it even more difficult to reach a decision.
Emotions serve as an automatic biasing mechanism that can have a substantial effect on the reasoning process--usually, but not always, helping us make better decisions more quickly. Secondary emotions involve a learned set of associations between the mental images evoked by certain stimuli and a corresponding set of positive or negative outcomes. When we experience a given set of mental images and the physiogical responses that comprise the emotion that we associate with those images, we "mark" the images in such a way that subsequent exposure to the same or similar images leads us to expect that a similar outcome is likely. So emotions are a form of prediction, telling us what positive or negative outcomes are likely to result from certain alternatives.
Obviously this form of prediction isn't perfectly accurate, but it need not be to serve a useful purpose. Emotions play a critical role in the reasoning process simply by allowing us to rule out many alternatives that would likely lead to a negative outcome and to focus on those that would likely lead to a positive outcome. With the range of theoretical alternatives reduced, we can employ our resource-intensive reasoning strategies on a much smaller set of options, thereby saving a tremendous amount of time.
Emotions also enhance our finite capacities of attention and working memory by heightening our perception and recollection of particularly good or bad options, rendering them more vivid and easier to recall in the mind.
Emotions can obviously mislead us and undermine the reasoning process, but that's likely due to defects in our individual experience of developing secondary emotions, the process by which we create associations between certain stimuli and positive or negative outcomes. This process continues throughout our lives, but our experiences in childhood and adolescence are key in forming our secondary emotions. It is likely that when our emotions interfere with reasoning rather than support it, this is due to inaccurate or irrational associations made during our formative years.
My reading of Descartes' Error leaves me more convinced than ever of the important role emotions play in helping us make good choices, in circumstances ranging from fleeting interactions to the most momentous life decisions. This is not to say that our emotions are always "right" or that we should mindlessly follow their lead. As Damasio writes,
Knowing about the relevance of feelings in the processes of reason does not suggest that reason is less important than feelings, that it should take a backseat to them or that it should be less cultivated. On the contrary, taking stock of the pervasive role of feelings may give us a chance of enhancing their positive effects and reducing their potential harm. [p 246]
But that said, it's clear to me that the ability to access, interpret, and act upon our emotions is essential if we are to make good choices that will allow us to be more fulfilled and effective. And I suspect the process of exploring our emotions more fully will allow us to better understand, compensate for and correct those times when inaccurate or irrational emotions lead us off course.
My sense of the importance of the body has also been greatly reinforced by Damasio's work. While personal experiences long ago led me to reject traditional mind/body dualism and to recognize the interplay between the two, I failed to appreciate the depth and the complexity of the relationships that unify our mental and physiological systems into a single, organic whole. I suspect that a heightened sense of body awareness and a greater sense of closeness with our physical selves can play an important role in the process of getting in touch with our emotions, and can thereby support our ability to make good choices.
Finally, I'm struck by the importance of attention (a concept that keeps reoccurring in my life, albeit in wildly different contexts). As Damasio notes, attention is a crucial element in the reasoning process, not only in the form of our ability to focus on something, but also in the corresponding ability to tune out everything else. As I wrote two years ago in a discussion of David Rock's thinking on neuroscience, coaching and leadership, "the ability to stop or minimize active conscious thinking and 'quiet our minds' is an important problem-solving skill." My experience with meditation over the past few months has reinforced my sense that our capacity for attention is highly dynamic and can be increased through conscious effort, just as we can enhance our ability to access and experience our emotions.
While I encourage you to read Descartes' Error in full, in the section below I've included a series of quotes from the book that discuss his hypotheses and the underlying neurological and physiological processes that they're based on in greater detail. While Joseph LeDoux's The Emotional Brain is next up on my reading list, Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens will follow shortly thereafter, and I'm eager to get to it.