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April 30, 2007

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Thinking and Feeling

The Boston Globe’s Ideas section rocks out with a great piece on emotional reasoning — with quite a bit of history of cognitive science thrown in:

Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at USC, has played a pivotal role in challenging the old assumptions and establishing emotions as an important scientific subject. When Damasio first published his results in the early 1990s, most cognitive scientists assumed that emotions interfered with rational thought. A person without any emotions should be a better thinker, since their cortical computer could process information without any distractions.

But Damasio sought out patients who had suffered brain injuries that prevented them from perceiving their own feelings, and put this idea to the test. The lives of these patients quickly fell apart, he found, because they could not make effective decisions. Some made terrible investments and ended up bankrupt; most just spent hours deliberating over irrelevant details, such as where to eat lunch. These results suggest that proper thinking requires feeling. Pure reason is a disease.

Somewhat similarly, I’ve heard claims that our embodiment — the fact that we have fingers and toes and torsos and a defined, physical ‘self’ — is crucial to our intelligence, and that the whole notion of an ephemeral intelligence (like, some Google A.I.) is untenable because of that. Hmm.

Posted April 30, 2007 at 6:40 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Braiiins, Briefly Noted


I don't know about you, but this author's bio caught my eye:

Jonah Lehrer is an editor at large at Seed magazine. His first book, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist," will be published in November.

That book could either be terrible or amazing.

interesting that it takes a neuroscientist advancing this view for it to become legit. feminist theorists have been on the tip for 30+ years...

Posted by: LPS on April 30, 2007 at 08:43 PM

Yeah, to be honest, I kind of had the same reaction as Laura. You people, the brain scientists, are finally getting around to looking at all the parts of the brain that can't be modeled using formal logic, and you're acting like it's some huge breakthrough, that you, singlehandedly, have taken down the dominance of reason since Plato.

Man, Nietzsche was onto you mugs years ago. And Montaigne before that. But if anyone outside the scientists talks this stuff up, we're a bunch of crazy, pot-smoking, bondage-sex-having irrationalists who shouldn't be meddling in serious people's business.

I also say, let's go past Steven Pinker and his nostalgia for Chomsky and co. -- the behaviorists and formalists of the first half of the twentieth century, that the cognitive-science people thought they had put to bed, were totally badass in their own right. And one of the things that is already happening, as the brain people move from grammar to feelings, is that we literary scholars and cultural historians will get more interested in the extreme positivism of people like Wittgenstein or Skinner, at what possessed them to push the limits to which thought, reason, language, the mind could be formalized, externalized, mechanized. The charm and the discipline of that utopian vision, that dark gnostic gospel of the soul will make our children's heads spin.

Turing machine, what!

I am all about due credit to the intuitive geniuses of earlier eras, but at the same time... we do have fMRI machines now. Without ceding everything to pure empiricism (because apparently if we did it would take us forever to decide where to eat lunch) I think it's fair to say a claim made with data has a leg up on the same claim made with Penetrating Insight.

(I literally just finished watching the crushing Bill Moyers report on Iraq so I am in a particularly fact-based mood.)

No time for proper reply, but: the reason it's considered groundbreaking to study these things in neuroscience is not that neuroscientists think they're the first to come up with the ideas. Rather it's because these experiments are harder to do than taking a more reductionist view. At least they used to be harder. It took groundbreaking science to be able to address these age old questions in a scientific fashion.

Both Robin's and Peter's reasons, above, make much more sense than the two notions, both advanced in the article, that 1) we've somehow been stuck in a logocentric frame since Plato, and 2) the early cognitive scientists concentrated on logic and grammar because they were nerdy, logocentric guys.

I mean, I believe both #s 1 and 2, but neither are visionary positions, and neither explain why cognitive science is changing.

Also, as for #1 -- I think it was as necessary to break our thousands-years-old preoccupations with religion, humanism, and universal morality as it is to break our thousands-years-old preoccupation with reason, and all of those were decisively tackled by the logicists/positivists/behaviorists. Of course they overshot their mark, that always happens. But now that they seem to be two generations back and thoroughly discredited, I think they can be intellectually sexy again. And remember, I'm a literature scholar -- I'm at least as interested in sexiness as facts.

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