Freedom from the frontal lobe

I’m continuing with Antonio Damasio’s “Descartes’ Error” and have arrived at one of the meatier sections. To recap, Damasio’s basic claim in the book is that emotions — by which he really means sensations felt in the skin, viscera etc. — are critical to rational decision-making. So you don’t just think through a problem using cold Mr. Spock-ian logic; as you consider your options they get weighted via the reaction of your body state. Say, someone points a gun at you and says, “I’ll give you two options. You can either drink this refreshing cola beverage, or stick your testicles on this incredibly hot waffle iron.” You don’t just coldly and rationally think through the pluses and minuses of each option; when you consider the waffle iron scenario, your body revolts, sweat glands activate, perhaps you feel a chill down your spine.

Furthermore, Damasio postulates that this process of attaching emotional sensations to choices uses of a part of the brain near your forehead called the frontal cortex. He bases this on studies he’s done on people who have had damage to this area. In one study, he hooked up both normal people (“normals” as he calls them) and patients with this frontal cortex damage to what is essentially a lie detector — a device that detects the secretion of sweat in the skin. Then he shows them a series of banal pictures, occasionally interspersed with an image of horror — crime scenes, automobile accidents etc. As you might predict, normal people secrete more sweat, e.g. they get uncomfortable. But people with the frontal cortex damage do not. Furthermore…

During one of the very first debriefing interviews, one particular patient, spontaneously and with perfect insight, confirmed to us that more was missing than just the skin conductance response. He noted that after viewing all the pictures, in spite of realizing their content ought to be disturbing, he himself was not disturbed. Consider the importance of this revelation. Here was a human being cognizant of both the manifest meaning of these pictures and their implied emotional significance, but aware also that he did not “feel” as he knew he used to feel — and as he was perhaps “supposed” to feel? — relative to such implied meaning. The patient was telling us, quite plainly, that his flesh no longer responded to these themes as it once had. That somehow, to know does not necessarily mean to feel, even when you realize that what you know ought to make you feel in a specific way but fails to do so.

The core realization here is profound. We — human beings — are not bound to experience horror and guilt, it is built into our brains. If we can learn to bypass this functionality, we could live lives of guiltlessly screwing over those around us to our benefit.


Merry Christmas suckers!!!

1 Response to “Freedom from the frontal lobe”

  1. John Saleeby

    Today at work I overheard this gay Doctor talking with a couple of black Patients. He said “That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout!!” and I haven’t been able to eat since.