(About a 5 minute read)
Like most sensible people, I am firmly convinced that around 2,400 years ago in Athens, Greece, Plato invented Mr. Spock.
Of course, I do not believe that Plato invented all the details of Mr. Spock right down to his curiously arched eyebrows and pointy ears. So far as I know, those details were worked out by Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and their band. But the essential notion that a hyper-rational person would have few or no emotions — that was Plato.
In Plato’s view, emotions and thought were clearly distinct, and the only connection between the two was that emotions could mess with thought. That is, while emotions could cause us to reason poorly, they had little or no positive impact on reasoning. Apparently, Plato was the first to come up with those ideas — ideas which went on to become commonplace assumptions of Western thought. And Roddenberry, etc seized on those assumptions to create Mr. Spock.
Of course, there are some rather obvious ways in which Plato was right. Most likely everyone has had some experience with their emotions overwhelming their capacity for reason. Every child is cautioned not to act in anger or other strong emotional state, least they do something irrational. And many of us — perhaps even most of us — know that we tend to be more gullible when listening to someone present their views with a great deal of passion than when listening to someone present their views coldly. “I don’t think Snerkleson is quite right in his views, but he’s so passionate about them that he must honestly see some merit to them. Maybe there’s at least some truth to what he says about dog turds replacing petroleum as the fuel of the future.” There are clearly ways emotions can interfere with thought, as Plato knew.
As it happens, though, the notion that emotions only have a negative impact on thought is not borne out by the evidence.
In the early 1990s, a man — who has come to be known as “Elliot” — was referred to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, by his doctors. Elliot had applied for disability assistance despite the fact that, “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work”. His doctors wanted Damasio to find out if Elliot had a “real disease”.
Damasio found that Elliot tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence. His long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were unquestionably sound. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant. Yet, when Damasio started digging into Elliot’s past job performance, he found that Elliot had often behaved as if he was indeed stupid and ignorant.
For instance, Elliot had at least once spent half a day trying to figure out how to categorize his documents. Should he categorize them by size, date, subject, or some other rule? Elliot couldn’t decide. Moreover, he had been fired for leaving work incomplete or in need of correction. And when Damasio studied what had happened to Elliot after his job loss, he found the same pattern of poor decision-making and incompetence. Elliot had gotten divorced, then entered into a second marriage that quickly ended in another divorce. He had then made some highly questionable investments that brought about his bankruptcy. He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. Unable to live on his own, he was staying with a sibling. His life was in ruin.
When Damasio looked at Elliot’s medical history, he found that the turning point for Elliot had come about when he developed a brain tumor. Before the tumor, Elliot had been highly successful in his business field. He was even a role model for the junior executives. And he had had a strong, thriving marriage. Although the brain tumor had been successfully removed, Elliot had suffered damage to some of the frontal lobe tissues of his brain having to do with the processing of emotions.
Damasio began testing Elliot for his emotional responses to things. In test after test, Elliot showed little or no emotional response to anything. He was, Damasio concluded, cognitively unaware of his own emotions. Then Damasio had a revelation. “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio wrote.
Damasio went on from Elliot to look at other case studies of people who had suffered brain injuries preventing them from being cognitively aware of their emotional states. He found the same pattern over and over: When emotions were impaired, so was decision-making.
The findings of Damasio and other scientists have largely revolutionized how scientists view the relationship between emotion and thought. It now seems that emotions are, among other things, the means by which we sort out information: The relevant from the irrelevant, the high-priority from the low-priority, the valuable from the worthless.
And Mr. Spock? Well, a real life Mr. Spock might spend hours trying to figure out whether to set his phaser to stun or kill. Without emotions, decision-making becomes extraordinarily problematic.