We Aren’t Robots

The extraordinary work of the neurobiologist Antonio Damasio shows that wisdom is inextricable from emotion

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, sometime in 1996

Phineas Gage was the most famous of those who have damaged their ventromedial prefrontal cortices. A construction foreman on a railroad project, he was tamping down dynamite when a 13-pound iron bar was accidentally blasted through his cheek and up through the top of his head. It landed 100 feet away, covered in blood and brains. Astonishingly, Gage seemed, at first, not to have been affected at all. Within a few minutes, he was walking and talking again. His memory, language, knowledge and attention span were all intact. Gradually, however, his friends began to notice that the Phineas Gage who emerged from the accident was a wholly different creature to the Phineas Gage they had known.

Gage had been a shrewd and resourceful man, whose decisions could seldom be faulted. He emerged capricious, obstinate, rude and incapable of making sensible plans for his future. He was sacked from his job and fell in with bad company.

Others, who have lost the same region of the brain through less dramatic means – such as tumours or strokes – can display even more striking contradictions. While they may remain polite, alert, witty and coherent, they suffer from two pronounced deficiencies – a lack of feelings or emotions and a complete inability to make good or timely decisions. They can spend hours trying to decide which of two doors they should enter. Whatever mistakes they make, they seem never to be able to learn from them.

Antonio Damasio, a professor of neurobiology whose extraordinary Oxford lecture I attended a fortnight ago, argues that the two capacities – reason and emotion – are inextricably entwined. There are so many options inherent in every decision that we need some means of short-circuiting them if we’re to do anything but sit in stupefied irresolution. Emotion and feeling are the tools we use. Experience – either rooted in childhood or more recent – associates the available options with either positive or negative emotions. At least in the early stages of making a decision, we are drawn towards one possibility as more attractive than its rivals through warmth of feeling.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is one of the places in the brain in which reason and emotion could be said to intersect. The poor souls who have lost theirs are left without an emotional involvement in decision making, and are lumbered with working everything out by means of what Descartes would have described as reason – the isolated workings of a coldly calculating brain. They might take an age to make what we would recognize as an obvious choice or they might never get there at all, as they become enmeshed in the labyrinth of their analysis. They seem, moreover, to have lost the ability to learn from past mistakes.

The brain, it appears, is constantly asking the body what it thinks. By reading the responses of our hearts, lungs, muscles and guts to a particular situation, it gets a rough idea of whether we like it or not. Having eliminated most of the options in this way, it can then finish off the decision by what we know as logical means.

The brain’s association with the body should not be altogether surprising. In our evolutionary past, decisions (such as whether to fight or to flee) were made not by means of cost-benefit analysis, but through the biological response to stimuli. Reason, coming later, built on these foundations. Yet the presumed separation of mind and substance – Descartes’s res cogitans and res extensa – still dominates our assessment of ourselves.

What Damasio seems to have demonstrated is that human beings are irreducible. Our minds – or selves or souls – inhabit not an isolated part of us, but emerge from the interaction of brain, body and experience.

So what does this work imply? First, that those poor dupes who have had their heads frozen in the expectation that they will emerge unscathed when magically resuscitated have been taken for a ride. Secondly, and delightfully, that computers will never be able to think like human beings. In the Sunday Telegraph two weeks ago, a software engineer was boasting that we will soon create thinking computers which would have no emotions, “only wisdom and knowledge.” If Damasio is right, wisdom is inextricable from emotion.

Most importantly, Damasio’s work appears to demonstrate that when humans try to behave like daleks they are reducing, not extending, their capacities. This does not, of course, excuse slack or deliberately irrational decision making, but it should teach us both to be both more humble about our own reasoning and more wary of our representatives’ decisions. We must heed those whose reason seems to be mediated by compassion and sympathy, rather than hatred and fear. Our hearts should tell us that any other course would be illogical.