Philosopher’s Corner: Emotion v. Rational Thinking

By Meera Modi, Pursuer of Wisdom

Originally published February 2009.

As the semester draws to a close for  many of us our rational self slowly starts  to give way to our inner emotional beings.  Through classes, grant writing and  endless lab work we struggle to  remain clear-headed, rational  and frankly, sane. As the pressure  piles on we are pushed  closer to the edge until we reach  the point where that one additional  bandless gel sends us off  into a fit of rage or a wave of  tears. Situations like these invite  reflection on which processes  are actually in control of our thoughts,  decisions and actions; is it our emotions  or our rationality?

Philosophers have long attempted to  address this question often recognizing  that under different circumstances different  processes may dominate. Plato believed  that the man’s soul was comprised  of three parts: reason, passion (akin to  emotion) and the will. Of these three, he  believed that ideally reason should dominate  over passion and will, such that reason  determined the path one should  take. David Hume presented the contradictory  view that “Reason is, and ought  to be, the slave of the passions and to try  to do nothing other than to be at their  services” Hume believed that emotions  defined purpose and motivation in life  and that rationality was merely a tool to  use to meet the needs of the emotions.

Meera Modi
Meera Modi

Modern neuroscientists like Antonio  Damasio and Antoine Bechara have  shown through their work with lesioned human patients that in actuality emotion  and reason work in conjunction with one  another in decision making processes,  though through independent but intersecting  systems. The ventromedial  prefrontal cortex (VMPC) is a brain  region that has been shown to be  necessary for the generation of  emotions, particularly social emotions.  The VMPC projects to the  basal forebrain and the brainstem  regions, which control the somatic  emotional response. Patients  with lesions of this region exhibit  diminished emotional responsivity  and show reduced social emotions, like  compoassion shame and guilt. Yet people  with these lesions are typically normal  in intelligence, logical reasoning and  declarative knowledge.

Classical deductive reasoning  on the other hand has typically  been associated with a network  including the left inferior frontal  and parietal as well as the bilateral  caudate nucleus. These brains interestingly,  differ from those used  in inductive reasoning, but both  methods of reason utilize systems distinct  from emotional processing. feb82009

It is thought that these systems can  run in parallel, processing information  with each of these systems making necessary  contributions to decision making.  For example a patient with a VMPC  lesion possesses the neural structure necessary  to compute rational decisions,  without the contribution of emotional information may be unable to rule out  options without analytical properties.  Imagine flipping through the channels  on your TV. These days we have  hundreds of options for what to watch,  most of fairly equal (albeit mediocre)  quality. Most of us will scan the channels  and in the absence of our favorite  program will simply and fairly randomly  pick the least offensive channel to rest  on. Now imagine trying to make that  decision without emotion. You analyze  each channel one by one, weighing the  pros and cons of its educational vs. entertainment  potential over and over, until  you have gone through a hundred channels  and can no longer remember the  score you assigned the first channel,  leaving you frustrated an unable to make  a quick emotional decision to  watch BRAVO. In the absence  of the emotional contribution,  decisions based on non-discrete  analytical qualities become  nearly impossible. Thus we are  dependent on both emotion and  reasoning systems to navigate our  world.

Scientists have done a good job at  describing how the processes underlying  rational and emotional decision-making  function, but it seems their empiricity has  prevented them from addressing the  questions philosophers pose. I know we  use both of these systems, but which of  these is the “right” process to use.? 


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