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Why The Future of Neuroscience Will Be Emotionless

In Phaedrus, Plato likens the mind to a charioteer who commands two horses, one that is irrational and crazed and another that is noble and of good stock. The job of the charioteer is to control the horses to proceed towards Enlightenment and the truth.

Plato’s allegory sparked an idea that perpetuated throughout the next several millennia in western thought: emotion gets in the way of reason. This makes sense to us. When people act out-of-order, they’re irrational. No one was ever accused of being too reasonable. Around the 17th and 18th centuries, however, thinkers began to challenge this idea. David Hume turned the tables on Plato: reason, Hume said, was the slave of the passions. Psychological research of the last few decades not only confirms this view, some of it suggests that emotion is better at deciding.

We know a lot more about how the brain works compared to the ancient Greeks, but a decade into the 21st century researchers are still debating which of Plato’s horses is in control, and which one we should listen to.

A couple of recent studies are shedding new light on this age-old discourse. The first comes from Michael Pham and his team at Columbia Business School. The researchers asked participants to make predictions about eight different outcomes ranging from American Idol finalists, to the winners of the 2008 Democratic primary, to the winner of the BCS championship game. They also forecasted the Dow Jones average.

Pham created two groups. He told the first group to go with their guts and the second to think it through. The results were telling. In the American Idol results, for example, the first group correctly predicted the winner 41 percent of the time whereas the second group was only correct 24 percent of the time. The high-trust-in-feeling subjects even predicted the stock market better.

Pham and his team conclude the following:

Results from eight studies show that individuals who had higher trust in their feelings were better able to predict the outcome of a wide variety of future events than individuals who had lower trust in their feelings…. The fact that this phenomenon was observed in eight different studies and with a variety of prediction contexts suggests that this emotional oracle effect is a reliable and generalizable phenomenon. In addition, the fact that the phenomenon was observed both when people were experimentally induced to trust or not trust their feelings and when their chronic tendency to trust or not trust their feelings was simply measured suggests that the findings are not due to any peculiarity of the main manipulation.

Does this mean we should always trust our intuition? It depends. A recent study by Maarten Bos and his team identified an important nuance when it comes to trusting our feelings. They asked one hundred and fifty-six students to abstain from eating or drinking (sans water) for three hours before the study. When they arrived Bos divided his participants into two groups: one that consumed a sugary can of 7-Up and another that drank a sugar-free drink.

After waiting a few minutes to let the sugar reach the brain the students assessed four cars and four jobs, each with 12 key aspects that made them more or less appealing (Bos designed the study so an optimal choice was clear so he could measure of how well they decided). Next, half of the subjects in each group spent four minutes either thinking about the jobs and cars (the conscious thought condition) or watching a wildlife film (to prevent them from consciously thinking about the jobs and cars).

Here’s the BPS Research Digest on the results:

For the participants with low sugar, their ratings were more astute if they were in the unconscious thought condition, distracted by the second nature film. By contrast, the participants who’d had the benefit of the sugar hit showed more astute ratings if they were in the conscious thought condition and had had the chance to think deliberately for four minutes. ‘We found that when we have enough energy, conscious deliberation enables us to make good decisions,’ the researchers said. ‘The unconscious on the other hand seems to operate fine with low energy.’

So go with your gut if your energy is low. Otherwise, listen to your rational horse.

Here’s where things get difficult. By now the debate over the role reason and emotion play in decision-making is well documented. Psychologists have written thousands of papers on the subject. It shows in the popular literature as well. From Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, the lay audience knows about both the power of thinking without thinking and their predictable irrationalities.

But what exactly is being debated? What do psychologists mean when they talk about emotion and reason? Joseph LeDoux, author of popular neuroscience books including The Emotional Brain and The Synaptic Self, recently published a paper in the journal Neuron that flips the whole debate on its head. “There is little consensus about what emotion is and how it differs from other aspects of mind and behavior, in spite of discussion and debate that dates back to the earliest days in modern biology and psychology.” Yes, what we call emotion roughly correlates with certain parts of the brain, it is usually associated with activity in the amygdala and other systems. But we might be playing a language game, and neuroscientists are reaching a point where an understanding of the brain requires more sophisticated language.

As LeDoux sees it, “If we don’t have an agreed-upon definition of emotion that allows us to say what emotion is… how can we study emotion in animals or humans, and how can we make comparisons between species?” The short answer, according to the NYU professor, is “we fake it.”

With this in mind LeDoux introduces a new term to replace emotion: survival circuits. Here’s how he explains it:

The survival circuit concept provides a conceptualization of an important set of phenomena that are often studied under the rubric of emotion—those phenomena that reflect circuits and functions that are conserved across mammals. Included are circuits responsible for defense, energy/nutrition management, fluid balance, thermoregulation, and procreation, among others. With this approach, key phenomena relevant to the topic of emotion can be accounted for without assuming that the phenomena in question are fundamentally the same or even similar to the phenomena people refer to when they use emotion words to characterize subjective emotional feelings (like feeling afraid, angry, or sad). This approach shifts the focus away from questions about whether emotions that humans consciously experience (feel) are also present in other mammals, and toward questions about the extent to which circuits and corresponding functions that are relevant to the field of emotion and that are present in other mammals are also present in humans. And by reassembling ideas about emotion, motivation, reinforcement, and arousal in the context of survival circuits, hypotheses emerge about how organisms negotiate behavioral interactions with the environment in process of dealing with challenges and opportunities in daily life.

Needless to say, LeDoux’s paper changes things. Because emotion is an unworkable term for science, neuroscientists and psychologists will have to understand the brain on new terms. And when it comes to the reason-emotion debate – which of Plato’s horses we should trust – they will have to rethink certain assumptions and claims. The difficult part is that we humans, by our very nature, cannot help but resort to folk psychology to explain the brain. We deploy terms like soul, intellect, reason, intuition and emotion but these words describe very little. Can we understand the brain even though our words may never suffice? The future of cognitive science might depend on it.

Bos, M., Dijksterhuis, A., & van Baaren, R. (2012). Food for Thought? Trust Your Unconscious When Energy Is Low. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics DOI: 10.1037/a0027388

33 Comments Post a comment
  1. Maybe I’m missing something here, but are “survival circuits” just a new way to talk about ordinary old behaviorism?

    March 5, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Ummmmmmmm, not really. But I see what you mean.

      March 7, 2012
  2. makemeadiva #

    This is the second time I’ve read a treatment of the LeDoux paper, but the link made to Plato’s charioteer allegory has put in a context I could engage with better this time around! So, thank you for that.

    I believe LeDoux is on the right track, we are in a new language game as we try to classify the most ancient of human experience. I am not sure that ‘survival circuits’ has quite the right resonance to it for the wider public, but it reinforces my understanding of those which have been termed universal emotions are physiological reactions that attempt to ensure our survival in the world. The breadth and range of feelings beyond that are manipulated by being in the world with others and are often social and cultural constructs.

    I would like to reblog this as it sits in my area of interest and I don’t want it to get lost!

    March 6, 2012
    • sammcnerney #


      Survival circuits definitely don’t resonant with the wide public, at least not yet. And please, reblog!

      Thanks for the comment, sorry for responding late.

      March 7, 2012
  3. makemeadiva #

    Reblogged this on On wishes and horses and commented:
    About this time last year I scribbled badly on various sheets of flipchart paper depicting anatomically dodgy diagrams of a person and their brain, plus other people milling about. I was exploring the language of emotion and how it materially affects our experience of being the world with others. Through a lot of reading I became aware of the linguistic variations globally to describe these emotions and/or feelings and also the commonalities of experience shared amongst all of us, and the differences.

    During this process it became evident that we were in a bit of dead-end; trying to describe phenomena that are not contained within a clearly defined experience.

    The post below takes a wider view of the relationship of reason and feelings. I am reblogging this post because it is an excellent read, strongly related to my own preoccupation of classification of emotion, and because it refers to one of my *favourite allegories: Plato’s charioteer who, representing Reason, struggles to control both the black and white horses of human desire and spirit.

    *The other is Plato’s cave – where prisoners watch shadows on the wall and believe they are real…

    Plato was good on allegory. Alongside the charioteer, his allegory of the cave is also one that

    March 6, 2012
  4. HowBow #

    An example of a survival circuit is what happens when we meet a stranger.
    Our ancestors depended upon their ability to quickly determine: friend or foe? fight or flee?
    Cognative dissonance is painful and so despite new information
    we cling to our first impression and act as if we’re being completely rational.

    To change your mind is to overcome the circuity.

    March 6, 2012
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      February 9, 2013
    • My Dear Srijan,The quota debate goes on, thuogh, the decision has been taken by the Govt. I must congratulate you about the Govt’s decision, thuogh, i am disappointed, not that i cld hope for the outcome to be otherwise.Somehow, your blog and a few responses to it have deeply agitated me. Maybe, the reason for this is the fact that you are my friend and what you think matters more to me than what some faceless journalists say and think.I donot want to get into any debate on this as your views are firm and no amount of debating is going to change them. I just want to share a few of my experiences and maybe, you would realise that some or maybe a lot more people from the so called privileged classes have similar life stories.My grandparents and parents were no privileged people. The women of the family worked on the fields and cut grass for the cattle they owned.The men worked on the fields and if they were lucky enough they worked outside the village and sent money home.My father used to walk miles, how many I donot remember, but suffice it to say that he had to leave home for school while it was yet not dawn. He had no shoes, no money. He completed his matriculation in this manner. Despite being a bright student, the lack of funds and the image of his father’s bent back while working in the field and carrying grass, forced him to take up a job. All his life he worked hard as a clerk. I remember him as a very respected member of society just because he was kind hearted, hard working, principled,disciplined, religious and the most upright person I have ever known. He worked for a company which alloted quarters to its employees and fortunately for us each quarter had some land which could be used as a garden. I don’t remember the castes of my neighbours as we were never caste conscious nor caste was ever a topic at home.(I earnestly request you to please send me a list of the castes that come under OBCs so that I may be enlightened at this late stage in my life.) But this much I do know that very few (almost none)had the usual castes associated with brahmins like Sharma , Pande, Tiwari, Tripathi etc. My father made use of that little piece of the garden to the hilt.Every morning he would work at it for hours and grew lots of vegetables. He was an artist with that little patch of land. He planned beautifully and we had almost all possible fruit trees at the periphery. None of whichever caste that lived there with similar patch of land ever bothered to work so hard at it. We almost completely depended on it for our fruits and vegetable needs.My mother,the privileged lady, had studied upto class 2. After which she too had worked in the fields and cut grass till dad brought her to his workplace. But I am proud to say that she knows more about Hindi literature than most Hindi post graduates.How? Even when we could not afford new clothes we always had newspaper and magazines( Saptahik Hindustan,Dharmyug, Chandamama, Kalyan) subscribed. Mother even subscribed to Ghareloo Library Yojana which took away a princely sum or Rs 7 so that we could read about all the freedom fighters etc. Well these were our luxuries! Now that my mother lives in Maharshtra she has taught herself marathi and reads a marathi newspaper. Till my father’s death she wore a mangalsutra which was a few black beads strung on a thread. I have seen the less privileged people wearing gold.We were five children. I never remember my mother in any fancy saries. I remember my father’s darned clothes. Yes darning was another art perfected by my father and mother.We studied in a school which was like any any govt school, except that it was run by the factory where dad worked.It was vernacular. we sat on the floor along with all the kids of clerks, workers, plumbers, electricians, sweepers and all those who worked there. I don’t remember that I ever thuoght whose kid was sitting next to me. A lot of my class fellows work as drivers /cleaners on trucks that ply there and the rest as workers, plumbers and electricians etc in the same factory even today. I know of atleast one who became an engineer.This school was upto 8th. After that we went to the nearby city.I never remember having more than one uniform. The only difference between us and the rest was that the 1st thing that I did on reching home was to wash it.The 1st thing that I did on waking up was to iron it.I never remember eating a thing, drinking a cup of tea in college canteen.Later when after retirement we were living in the city, I always walked it to college,never even took a bus even in the hot afternoon sun.If we managed to not get spoilt inspite of our privileged background, it was thanks to my parents. The 1st and last time my brother used abusive language, my mom fasted and read the whole Ramayana as penance. If my brother had to take tutions to survive in his prestigious college and its hostel , that too was his privilege. Now u ppl are so kind as to see to it that we and those of our kind do not have to go through such painful experiences. We can go back to tending our cattle. That would be our just deserts too as in some previous birth we harmed some OBCs or DEFs or whoever.The trouble is I don’t know who they are.Anyway, actually, that would never happen.Do what you and people of Lalu’s ilk do, we would still come through. If not as doctors and engineers then as BPO employees.Those who work hard and intelligently enough would be successfull even reprocessing the garbage. So i have no fear. By the way, what caste do people of mixed marriages fall into? Do not tell me the father’s. I am a bit of a feminist. My children have no caste. I have, but I have never cared much about it.Frankly speaking, I do not know why am saying all this to you.But anyway, now I have unburdened myself a bit, so will send this to u.One in the opposing camp,Pragya.PS: Srijan,this was supposed to be a private letter,but I am ready to share it with others who may understand(in case they have the capability to do so)my view point.Pragya.

      August 31, 2013
    • I am sorry but i donot agree with you. You could conveniently blame my bnnlogieg to the evil caste for this. I donot believe in caste and religion but when my caste is so evil I think I need to happily stick by the this evil caste.My one suggestion to u Srijan is that you must go by your beliefs. Next time when you need medical attention please go by the caste and not the skill and knowledge of the doctor. When you build your house, go by caste and not the skill. When you send your child to school go by the caste of teachers.When you read a book, please go by the caste of the author not by his/her writing skills. The list may go on. Yes, try and get your vehicle repaired by some one of the right caste.If u follow my suggestions, I would pray for your safety and happiness.With regrets,Your friend from the evil caste ,Pragya.

      October 25, 2013
  5. I’ve consulted my gut, my rational horse, and my survival circuits and my take is neuroscience will continue to fake comprehension when it comes to emotions.

    “Survival circuits” itself is a term demonstrating breathtaking paucity of vision. Compute, much?

    March 7, 2012
    • Here’s another reason why neuroscience — or at least the neuroimaging aspect — will take a long, long time to produce anything of value: Daniel Bor on The dilemma of weak neuroimaging papers

      Essentially, much of the published research is garbage, not unlike the recent history of biopsychiatry.

      March 8, 2012
  6. Wouldn’t it be useful to think of these survival circuits as habitual (i.e., energy-minimizing) structures, into which the brain settles after numerous encounters with the relevant situations (defence, thermoregulation, etc.)? As in all cases like that, the trick is to recognize the habit case and try to break out of it.

    March 8, 2012
  7. To say that emotion is an unworkable term for science is equivalent to saying that acceleration is an unworkable term for Newtonian mechanics.

    Details can be found here:

    Cognition, Affect, and Learning

    March 8, 2012
    • makemeadiva #

      I work with affect and cognition in learning and have worked with the language of emotion, which is subjective, in order to maximise learning, so I do not dispute that the human experience of emotion is highly nuanced.

      However, stumbling around in taxonomies does not always support learning – it can help planning – but in a group of individuals there will always be someone who has a different reaction to that which one intended, or anticipated.

      Therefore it does help to identify when the learning opportunity, or the learning environment presents a threat to the learner’s self. This is when they can enter a reactive state quickly and unexpectedly, a reaction which is entirely consistent with survival circuitry, if we are to use that term. Once the reaction is identified the learner can than describe their subjective experience of that threat, in emotional terms, to ameliorate the effects as per the labelling of emotion research (Lieberman et al.).

      Trying to start with the subjective experience is a whole can of worms. I think it is far better for the teacher to understand that the learner and teacher are dealing with something far more fundamental than that. This is not however to deny the necessity of acknowledging the subjective emotional life of the individual. You need both.

      March 9, 2012
      • The problem of subjectivity is being addressed in the emerging field of Affective Computing, which includes substantial work to measure and record real-time emotion signals from a variety of sources.

        In education, good teachers are adept at reading such ephemeral cues and adapting to them so as to optimize engagement, attention, and learning. Scientific models of the interplay of emotions and learning help establish best practices for employing the metacognitive tools required to diagnose and correct problematic gaps and misconceptions that arise from time to time in the course of learning.

        In group learning, enthusiasm is contagious. Having a teacher or peer who is enthusiastic about a subject of inquiry helps to sustain the interest and attention of others in the peer group. Conversely, it is a folk theorem that children don’t learn from teachers they don’t like.

        March 9, 2012
        • makemeadiva #

          I am going to have to find out more about Affective computing obviously! Perhaps you could point me in the right direction?

          In the meantime, I hope that I model the points you make about good teaching in my own practice. However, anecdotally I can say that in the classroom a swift emotion-based reaction that arises is something that you can recognise in a heartbeat, silent ones included. I can see it, the learner can feel it and whatever descriptive term the learner uses to label subsequently it might, just might, be helpful to think of it as a brain reaction which is then expressed as an emotion. Which emotional label is then applied will perhaps depend on the learners’ culture, beliefs, values, the environment they are in, even which side of the bed they got of – will affective computing measure all that?

          As much as I love language and my specialism is literacy, I can’t help but wonder if sometimes we just get lost in the name game.

          March 9, 2012
          • Affective Computing is undertaken at a number of locations now. This field of research got started in Rosalind Picard’s Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Media Lab —

            Commercialization of the technology for measuring emotion signals is also underway. See, for example, Affectiva —

            At the University of Memphis, the group there, under the direction of Art Graesser, calls it Emotive Computing —

            There are now international conferences on the subject, drawing researchers from around the world.

            March 9, 2012
            • makemeadiva #

              Thank you – very valuable work as educators try to adapt to the new challenges of delivering curricula through blended and e-learning methods to learners.

              March 9, 2012
  8. ‘because emotion is an unworkable term for science, neuroscientists and psychologists will have to understand the brain on new terms’….er, what?

    Maybe science needs to take a step back and accept that it might have to change. Where’s the science that science has all the answers?

    March 8, 2012
    • I’ve been building theoretical models of the interplay of emotions and learning for over a quarter of century, long before we had the technology to measure emotion signals objectively.

      Now, with the advent of Affective Computing, the science moving from theory to practical applications.

      March 9, 2012
  9. This might be a semi-useful way of looking at things. Three issues provide pause for me:

    Isn’t the idea of survival circuits contingent on the individual and culture? (ie different individuals place a different emphasis on survival than others. Some may be more driven by altruism).

    Also isn’t it more a gradient than a survival circuits versus non-survival circuits distinction. Perhaps he’s able to make the distinctions better than I can tell from your summary. But everyone seems to have a different definition or perspective on what is motivated by survival.

    What does he contrast with survival circuits?

    April 5, 2012
  10. Nature made humans, humans created gods and machines, one thousand years ago we were soul, whith Descartes we are machines. That`s sad. 😦

    April 13, 2012
  11. ashish raja #

    this interpretation of emotions i think is a lot objective if at all we think emotion in the context of survival circuits it wont elucidate certain facts. 1.wht kind of circuit is it coz it greatly determines the coupling of outputs -to elobrate a)what stimulus is gonna activate which circuit priorly b)which output izz gonna have a domineering effect c)if at all outputs are coupled whts the mannerism in which it is done – are they superimposed or one izz held back and other is embodied or both are intermittently ostended ……….

    June 16, 2012
  12. ashish raja #

    and moreover response to a circuit/system is overally definitive but reponse of “survival circuit is by and large indefinitive so typecasting emotions as a “circuit” definitely doesnt easily get down the throat!!!!

    June 16, 2012
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