Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Plato’

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.

Read more

Exercising our Words: Stop Thinking Like Plato!

Words are remarkably flexible: You can press play, be in a play, play on a playground, draw up a play, play ball, and play a musical instrument; feathers are light, weights are as light as a feather, the sun is light, there are flashlights and lighters, and people say ‘let there be light,’ and ‘lights out.’ Yet, their malleability usually surprises us; we tend to think of them as having fixed definitions even though they are highly dispensable. 

For Plato, this was a big problem. He wanted to know how two different things could be referred to as the same thing – what philosophers call the problem of universals. For example, there are millions of different tables in the world, yet we all refer to them as the same thing – tables. How can this be? Plato’s answer is simple; all tables share an essence, a sort of blueprint of perfection that they derive their likeness from. Plato called this essence a Form, and there is one unique to everything – mountains, humans, green, love, etc.

We tend to think and speak like this. We say that a song is Beatles-esque, or the universe has a one-ness, or he looks fifty-ish to suggest that qualities are transcendent and objective i.e., the sound of Beatles music. But the theory of Forms has its far share of critics who reject the notion of ideals or essences. As the Diogenes of Sinope said, “I’ve seen Plato’s cups and tables, but not his cupness and tableness.” The video piggybacks off of this idea by showing that we define and understood things through their relationships and not through unique intrinsic “ness” qualities.

Let’s look at language closely to see if this is true. Consider, for example, all the ways the word “idea” is used.

  • It can be a building – your idea needs more support, that is a shaky idea, your idea has no foundation.
  • It can be food – what he said left a bad taste in my mouth, there are too many facts here for me to digest, that idea smells fishy.
  • It can be a person – the theory of relativity gave birth to an enormous amount of ideas in physics, he is the father of modern biology, those ideas died off in the Middle Ages.
  • It can be money – let me put in my two cent’s worth, he’s rich in ideas (Lakoff & Johnson, 1979).

The applicability of “idea,” combined with what the video illustrated, suggests that Plato was wrong to think that everything had a definitive intrinsic essence. The reality is that language is highly connected and defined by itself. In this light, I think Nietzsche was right on the mark when he asserted that truth was nothing more than a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.”

Contemporary linguistics has confirmed Nietzsche’s aphorism. In the seminal book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that, “our normal conceptual system is metaphorically structured; that is, most concepts are partially understood in terms of other concepts” (56). Take the Argument is War metaphor as an example.

  • Your claims are indefensible
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument
  • His criticisms were right on target
  • I demolished his argument
  • I’ver never won an argument with him
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out
  • He shot down all of my arguments

The key point here, and this is what Lakoff and Johnson really stress, is that we “don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war…. we can actually win or lose arguments” (3). This is what they mean when they say that we “live by” metaphors; more than just literary devices, they are mental mechanisms that help us understand other subjects and the world.

Why do we think and speaking so metaphorically? And why is language so connected? Here are two explanations, one from linguistics and the other from neuroscience, which may be helpful. The linguistic explanation comes from cognitive science Srini Narayanan, who argues that metaphoric language comes from physical interactions during the first several years of life. For example, have you even noticed your overwhelming tendency to equate warmth with affection. We say that:

  • She has a warm touch
  • He held me warmly
  • I received a warm greeting
  • They are warm people

This tendency comes from experiences when feeling physically warm (i.e., being held by your mother) correlated with feeling loved (i.e., your mother keeping you safe). Maybe this sounds obvious, but that’s the point. Warmth and affection are so connected that we forget that they were not wired in at birth, they were learned.

The second answer comes from neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, who suggests that language is so layered and connected because we all have mild forms of synesthesia (synesthesia is the “neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” Common conditions for synesthetes are “seeing” colors in numbers and letters, and perceiving days of the week as having personalities). Let’s test his theory out. Look at the two images below and ask yourself this question: Which is Bouba and which is Kiki?

If you are like 98% percent of people, you will say that Bouba is on the left and Kiki is on the right. Rama explains that this seems so obvious to us because “nonarbitrary correspondence between the visual shape of an object and the sound that might be its partner… may be hardwired” (172) This would explain why non-English speakers also “see” Bouba on the left and Kiki on the right. It also suggests, as Rama hypothesizes, that there is significant “cross-activation between brain maps for sights and sounds” (174).

Taking both Narayanan and Rama’s explanation together, it seems that the highly metaphoric and interconnect nature of language comes from both innate and learned mechanisms. As Narayanan pointed out, physical interaction during our early years led us to equate warmth and affection. But Rama reminds us that innate processes are necessary for us to abstractly apply words or phrases to objects or actions.

So we have a decent starting point, but a long way to go. We know that Plato was wrong to say that words have intrinsic definitions. But until we know more about language, we will still wonder why there is no egg in eggplant, ham in hamburger, apple nor pine in pineapple; why teachers taught but preachers don’t praught; and why your house can burn up as it burns down.

Read more

%d bloggers like this: