Reasonably Emotional

il_340x270.624619398_77a9ToK students often view Reason and Emotion as being oppositional Ways of Knowing (we see titles such as “Is Reason or Emotion a stronger WoK when_________________“). Of course research by a number of Psychologists, including Damasio, show that Reason & Emotion are often mutually inclusive processes in both decision making, and in a wider sense of understanding our world.

Click here for a video of Damasio explaining his research, and here for a written explanation.

Most [apparently] rational decisions are just a set of perceived choices which are shaped by an emotionally experienced end point.

If emotion shapes reason (and vice versa) the possible consequences for decision making are significant, consider:

  • decision making in emergency situations such as natural or human disasters.
  • decision making in potentially risky contexts such as use of substances, or sexual behaviours.
  • decision making in policy setting contexts such as military intervention, or welfare spending.

What is emotion ?

To look at the relationship between emotion and reason it’s useful to be able to explain emotion both in structure, form and function. I really like the first few chapters of Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence for explaining why and how emotions developed, and how they are structured. Essentially Goleman argues that emotions predate the development of modern sensory systems as such they constitute our pre-sensorial understanding of the world. Goleman explains that the word emotion comes from the Latin word motus meaning to move. Before the development of modern senses the stimulation of the limbic system would have made the organism move, that is to move away from danger, towards food, towards protection, and towards the opportunity to reproduce.

brain-regions-areasAs such ToK students comparing Emotion as a WoK with other WoKs have a way of showing the inter-relationship between various Areas of Knowledge, and WoKs of knowing. If you take a neuro-evolutionary approach you can describe how the various lobes of the Cerebrum developed as a mutually inclusive process of the development of the various of organs of sensory perception (as a WoK). Roughly the Occipital Lobe developed as there was increased need to process data from the eyes, the Parietal lobe to deal process taste, and skin pressure, the Temporal Lobe for hearing, the Frontal lobe for speech and smell. The emphasis here is on the interpolation of the senses, and most importantly that Sensory Perception as a WoK is built upon Emotion as a WoK.

This realisation then leaves us open for a wonderfully interesting discussion about the relative strengths of Ways of Knowing in understanding and decision making. A rather cliched example that I pose my students is the decision about whom to date / marry: is this best made using reason or emotion as a WoK ? Of course the answer to that question is culturally specific, do we marry the person we love, or grow to love the person we marry ? (or not marry at all because it’s state sanctioning of something that state should have no part of …,) This can be easily seen as a reason vs emotion debate, but could be developed to a more sophisticated discussion around cultural influences on cognitively, and biologically based experiences. Which leads us to the issue of Neuroplasticity.

Recent findings on Neuroplasticity turn the whole emotion / reason / perception etc debate upside down and inside out. If you are yet to hear about, or understand, the process of neuroplasticity click here for a far better explanation than I can give.

hippocampus-highlightedLutz et al 2005 have shown that regular meditation causes structural changes to the brain of the meditator, improving functioning and increasing the number of Amygdala connections. Maguire et al 2006 found that London cab drivers had far more develop posterior hippocampi in comparison to London taxi drivers. both pieces of research used fMRI to investigate the brains of their subjects (the use of reason as a WoK…,). Both pieces of research found that the environment has a major influence on the structures which mediate emotion and reason. As such, the research would seem to suggest that rather than treating emotion and reason as separate WoKs we could look at them as being mutually integrated ways of knowing which are heavily influenced by the environment.

Let’s go back to the biological basis of emotion so oft described in the theories of emotion. Wedekind (1995) has shown that romantic attraction has a genetic basis in the major histocompatibility gene combination that a person carries (read more here). Again, the research shows an integration of emotion and reason as ways of knowing. However, in this case the ‘reason’ can be seen as an internal biological process of reasoning, akin to natural selection.

Further research from a range of researchers suggests that the hormone Oxytocin is the basis for bonding, attraction and love. If we can understand an emotional experience (such as love) as a biological process is it appropriate / correct to separate reason and emotion as ways of knowing, does not one subsume the other ? Which subsumes which now becomes the crucial question.

Whilst it could be argued that biological knowledge is based upon reason (ie establishing cause and effect, tested using experimental processes etc). It could also be argued that the motivation to establish this knowledge is in itself based upon emotion. The emotions in question here would be those associated with status, survival, self fulfilment. The more we look at ‘why humans seek to find things out’ the harder it becomes to dismiss the dominant role of human emotions.

For students who want to extend their depth of analysis this paper looks at the role of cognitive biases in disrupting emotions associated with motivation in patients who suffer depression and anxiety disorders. As such the paper shows a mutually integral relationship between emotion, reason and perception as ways of knowing. (The paper is particularly useful for those studying Psychology option Abnormal in Grp 3)

Base Paper

Abstract on decision making in risk behaviours


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