Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thinking With Our Emotions - It's Vital

We use our reason to keep our emotions in check. That way we don't do stupid things. We become masters of our domain. Plato believed that. So did the Enlightenment philosophers. So did our Founding Fathers, as did Freud. It stands to reason, right?

Not so fast, says science writer Jonah Lehrer. In his eye-opening (and highly recommended) book, "How We Decide" (published last year), Lehrer cites no end of brain science studies that show that emotion is very much involved in not only making decisions, but in making the right decisions. Not only that, the pre-frontal cortices - those parts of the brain associated with higher reasoning - are very easily tricked into making bad choices.

Lehrer begins his book with the closing seconds of the 2002 Super Bowl (click on YouTube video above). The New England Patriots have the ball on their own 17 yard line, and the Rams defense is expecting quarterback Tom Brady to pass. As Lehrer tells us, "each pass is really a guess, a hypothesis launched into the air." The best quarterbacks make the best guesses.

In the split-seconds he has at his disposal, there is no time for Brady to make a considered decision. Instead, it is his feelings that guide him. Brady starts moving the ball downfield. Then it's now-or-never time. Lehrer picks up on the action:

The primary target, a tight end running a short crossing pattern, is tightly covered. As a result, when Brady glances at the tight end, he automatically feels a slight twinge of fear, the sure sign of a risky pass.

His secondary target is also covered. Again, a negative feeling. Brady needs to get rid of the ball in a hurry. Otherwise, bad things will happen. He proceeds to his third target ...

Troy Brown is sneaking across the center of the field, threading the seam between the linebackers and the cornerbacks. When Brady looks at the target, his usual fear is replaced by a subtle burst of positive emotion, the allure of a receiver without a nearby defender. He has found an open man. He lets the ball fly. ...

As Lehrer explains later in the book, a lot of our decision-making has to do with the dopamine system, most commonly associated with the emotions of pleasure and fear. But dopamine is also involved in the process of anticipation - a lot of it driven by past experience. Thus in a gambling game, if a player drew from a bad deck, the dopamine neurons immediately stopped firing. "The player experienced a negative emotion and learned not to draw from that deck again."

This is a crucial cognitive talent, Lehrer tells us. "Dopamine neurons automatically detect the subtle patterns that we would otherwise fail to notice; they assimilate all the data that we can't consciously comprehend. And then, once they come up with a set of refined predictions about how the world works, they translate these predictions into emotions."

Oddly enough, Lehrer says later on, psychopathic behavior appears to result from lack of emotion rather than a breakdown in reason. Psychopaths tend to have above average intelligence. The problem is they are not guided by their emotions. They never feel bad when others feel bad. As a result, they show no remorse. "This emotional void means psychopaths never learn from their adverse experiences. ... The absence of emotion makes the most basic moral concepts incomprehensible."

Yes, our emotions can lead us astray, but the skilled decision-maker knows when to pay attention:

Brady yells out a snap count, sends a man in motion, then the ball is in his hands. He drops back and notices three defensive linemen are rushing him. The fourth is trying to cut off the short pass. Brady looks to his right. The receiver is covered. He looks to his left. Nobody's open. He looks to the center of the field. Troy Brown, a Patriots wide receiver, is trying to find a plane of unoccupied space ...

Something feels right to Brady. He fires a bullet 14 yards downfield. Brown runs with the ball another nine yards, then steps out of bounds. One more quick pass, then the kicking unit comes onto the field. Adam Vinatieri sends the ball 48 yards through the uprights. Zero seconds on the clock. Game over.

Much more to come ...

Jonah Lehrer authors the outstanding brain science blog, The Frontal Cortex.

No comments: