Monday, June 12, 2006


Solarblogger asks of my last post:

So what do people in your circles, or what do you, think of Antonio D'Amasio's thesis in Descartes' Error? That emotion is the underpinning of rationality, especially in practical decision making?

This is a very interesting applied psychology question at present. The current "gold standard" treatment for depression (among other disorders) is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which teaches people how to interrupt "negative self-talk" or thoughts that you characteristically repeat to yourself which give rise to negative emotions. We have known for a while now, however, that emotion happens more quickly than do thoughts from a processing standpoint. So:

See a bear -> feel fear -> think "oh crap"

This is simply a function of how the brain is wired. It just takes longer for information to get to the frontal lobe to be processed more completely. I have a good example from real life. I was driving down a hill at dusk and a white bird flew perpendicular to the road, about horizon level. Because I was driving down a hill and the becuase the bird was flying very fast, my brain interpreted the object as something MASSIVE and I experienced startle/fear/panic. Then my consciousness caught up and I figured out what it was - just as I was stepping on the brake. Most psychological problems are not this simple though, unless we are talking about a phobia (fear of spiders). Most psychological problems are a complex amalgam of emotions, cognitions and memories.
I have not read D'Amasio's book, but my instict is that he oversimplifies to make the case that emotions 'underpin' cognition. I think that there is definitely a synthesis of emotion and cognition that drive behavior. For example, there are people who lack emotional intelligence (the ability to use emotional information) sometimes make mistakes that don't seem to have anything to do with emotions. It seems that our "gut" feeling is at times related to deep processing that we can't exactly put our finger on rationally, but that is instructive. People who have deficits in emotional processing can have very poor judgement while possessing remarkably high intelligence. However, our emotions can also lead us astray - as evidenced in this paper which shows that emotions can lead us to disadvantageous behavior in certain situations, such as investing (link is full text PDF).
All this is to say that emotions and cognitions are both very valuable in processing information. This is an important caveat for those who pride themselves on their rationality and say that feelings should be eschewed when making decisions: unless you are brain damaged, your 'rational' decisions will always be flavored with emotion. Psychology claims that complete objectivity is an illusion. You must do things to check this if you are to make a truly rational decision - you ought to actively seek alternatives, you ought to state beliefs such that they are able to be falsified, you ought to use statistics to make decisions, etc. On the other hand, it would be foolish to try to rely solely on emotions, as they don't provide enough information and are easily manipulated (through music for example). Reason is only the devil's whore in relation to our salvation, after all.

I invite my colleague, Theophilia to offer her thoughts on this topic as well.


Anonymous Theophilia said...

I could write pages about emotions in therapy. Instead I’ll comment on CBT. CBT has been critiqued for not having long-lasting results and it has been suggested that focusing on underlying, implicit emotional meanings might improved its effectiveness (Samoilov & Goldfried, 2000). In Cognitive Therapy, the recommendation is that the therapist seek to work with affect-laden thoughts as these are the most important to helping the client (Beck, 1995). The role of emotions in treatment was explored via a comparative study of transcripts from a randomly controlled NIMH study (Coombs, Coleman & Jones, 2002). When clients were experiencing strong feelings, CBT therapists would temporarily shift their usual agenda or stance and empathize with the feeling state and then shift back to emphasize cognitive themes. A therapist’s stance of encouraging emotional expression and exploration of patient feelings as central to the therapy process was associated with lower levels of depression for subjects in either the IPT or CBT groups. When I use CBT with clients following Ellis’ approach I almost invariably find that the clients understand that their thoughts are irrational and can come up with good disputations of them. But when I have them follow an affect bridge to a key childhood event that evoked those same feelings and use an experiential technique to dispute those irrational thoughts, I find that usually lasting and relatively effortless change in that particular irrational thought follows. My two favorite techniques to use are two-chair dialogs and prayer. With prayer I ask that the Holy Spirit bring God’s perspective to the client’s mind in whatever way He chooses (gut sense, reminder of a particular passage from the Bible, etc.). I mentally compare the new perspective the client then describes against the Bible for sound theology, of course. When I use these kind of experiential (and very emotional) techniques, often tears are shed – changing from those of pain to those of joy or relief. But it’s not as if every session incorporates this and I don’t go through a box of Kleenex every week! There is one important side effect to this... the client often grows spiritually as well as psychologically.

Beck, J. S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York: Guilford Press.
Coombs, M., Coleman, D. & Jones, E. E. (2002). Working with feelings: the importance of emotion in the NIMH Treatment of Depression Collaborative Research Program. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 39(3), 233-244.
Samoilov, A., Goldfried, M. R. (2000). Role of emotion in Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 7(4), 373-385.

6:45 PM  
Anonymous Theophilia said...

Ooops... the previous comment should read REBT not CBT for Ellis' approach. Also, when clients refute their irrational thoughts without engaging their emotions, they make little headway and expresss their frustration with it. (Hence the E in REBT.)

6:49 PM  
Blogger solarblogger said...

Both of the links you provided were based upon D'Amazio's research, the paper from the second link being co-authored by him. I think this shows that his Somatic Marker Hypothesis is accepted as being a fruitful research project. Now people are trying to decide how advantageous normal decision making is compared to the cooler decision-making of damaged patients.

Thanks for the links. It's nice to see what's happened since the first book came out.

11:44 PM  
Blogger solarblogger said...

btw - There is a nice abridged audiobook of Descartes' Error read by the author himself. I've listened to it many times.

4:13 PM  

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