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Descartes' Error: Antonio Damasio, Somatic Markers, As-If Loops, & Moral Decision-Making

,: Antonio Damasio, Somatic Markers, As-If Loops, & Moral Decision-Making

In my 12 March 2004 article, Evolutionary Psychology & Moral Dilemmas, 12 March 2004 I discussed the relationship of morality to emotions. I presented evidence of evolutionary psychology and brain research, which suggest that morality is often based on what feels good rather than on what is right. Moral judgements tend to be emotional rather than rational. I cited Eighteenth Century Scotsman, David Hume, who said people call an act good if it makes them feel good, not necessarily because it is rationally good. In that article I explained the findings with Magnetic Resonance Imaging of brains, which indicate that people turn away from difficult moral issues, and turn to moral choices that they are emotionally hard wired to handle. For example, when surfing TV channels, they might see an African child, belly swollen, and starving from hunger. They change stations rather than consider the moral implications of the scene, which might arouse troubling emotions and guilt if dwelt upon.

The disjuncture between morality and emotions has been studied by Antonio Damasio, a University of Iowa neuroscientist. Taking a different approach, he has examined the relationship of emotion to reasoning. He puts the lie to Rene Descartes' famous axiom, I think therefore I am (Cogito ergo sum) and demonstrates that logic is not independent of emotion, contrary to how Descartes would have it. Instead, in Descartes' Error, The Feeling of What Happens, Damasio asserts that rational decision-making cannot be done without emotions.

He cites instances of people who have dysfunctional emotional response. These are people who experience a stroke, or brain tumor that somehow affects emotion-processing brain areas such as the amygdala, involved in emotional response. They speak well, and score high on logical problem-solving, but have trouble choosing. In Descartes' Error he describes a patient who tried to select one of two dates for the next appointment--"For the better part of a half-hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates . . . . He was walking us through a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless outlining and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences."

Because such patients scored well on logical aptitude tests, only two conclusions were possible. Either the tests were wrong, or something more than pure logic is needed for rational decisions.

Enter: somatic markers. This is Damasio's term for bodily responses that arise unbidden. They emerge in forms such as tears, smiles, or a knot in the stomach because of fear. These markers help people make decisions. Without them, decisions are difficult, if not impossible.

Damasio developed the concept of as-if body loops, which he posits as helping speed up the processing of somatic markers. Because the body's response can be slow, these loops allow quicker action by residing largely in the frontal lobe or basal forebrain. They provide associations based on past body experience. The brain responds to them as if it were receiving emotional signals from the body, and more quickly. As an example, as-if loops omit the need for hormones to find their way to muscle tissue. They also allow us to sample possible decisions. A man can "try out" the feeling of asking a woman for a date without actually doing it, and thereby summon, then weigh, somatic-marker associations with previous embarrassment or success.

Modern life has created problems for somatic markers. The brain registers events and emotions, but emotions take much longer, sometimes more than a second. Meaning, especially moral meaning, depends on both event perception and emotion.

Somatic markers provide it, as they involve past emotional experiences that serve to explain current cognition. The problem is that although parts of the brain can keep pace with observations, the emotional part cannot. As-if loops build up though emotional responses from the body, but if events happen too quickly then they disappear before emotions can be associated with them.

As an example, think again of TV images of the starving African child, or, consider a Marine wounded in combat in Iraq. The nature of modern media (and of general information overload) is such that, no matter how awful, images are so brief that we have no time to react emotionally to them. Damasio puts it this way: "The image of an event or a person can appear in a flash, but it takes seconds to make an emotional marking so it stands to reason that we're going to have fewer and fewer chances to have appropriate somatic markers. . . ."

This has important consequences for children, who risk becoming deprived of somatic markers that promote both moral intelligence and general decision-making. As Damasio puts it, this means that "we're going to have more and more events--particularly in our early years--that go by without emotional grounding. Which means that you could potentially become ethically less grounded. You'd be in an emotionally neutral world."

Some years ago, Alvin Toffler wrote a book, Future Shock, in which he described human societies as affected by increasingly rapid rates of technology change. Information and concepts have exploded so that many experts can no longer communicate with others in different areas of their field. As recently as two hundred years ago, some highly intelligent individuals took all knowledge as their province and set out to learn it, which they did. Today, achievement of this ambition is impossible.

Apart from knowledge, though, the real issue lies with humanity's ability to emotionally cope with the rate of change. Damasio fears that acceleration will produce people who have responses similar to the brain damaged individuals he has studied. Like those with brain damage, they would have diminished ability to make moral or ethical decisions. The only difference would be that such a situation involves no neurological dysfunction, but instead becomes part of a new normalcy. People would cognize the difference between good and evil, but without somatic markers or the as-if loops that depend on the markers. Only time will tell the moral distance between these people and current or past generations who munched popcorn while watching movies such as Natural Born Killers.

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