Are you Emotional? Good. No feeling, no thought

"The hand was leading the brain."

That's the startling conclusion drawn by 2008 IdeaFestival presenter Jonah Lehrer when describing a seminal game designed by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio to assess human response to risk. This is how it worked and the big idea to which it points.

Instructed to win as much play money as possible, most players realize after a series of random draws from four card decks that one deck of cards offered small but more certain rewards, while cards drawn from another deck, which came with a bigger payoff on average, were also punitive. Players might lose a substantial amount in a single overturned card. But

Damasio wasn’t interested in logic: he was interested in emotion and the body. When he devised this experiment in the early 90s, the gamblers played the card game while hooked up to a machine that measures the electrical conductance of their skin. In general, higher levels of conductance signal nervousness and anxiety. What the scientists found was that after drawing only ten cards, the hands of the experimental subjects got “nervous” whenever they reached for the negative decks. Although the subjects still had little inkling of which card piles were the most lucrative, their emotions had developed an accurate sense of fear. They knew which decks were dangerous. In other words, their feelings figured out the game first – the hand was leading the brain.

In just the past few decades we've come to understand that Enlightenment-era, emotion-free reasoning doesn't liberate our thoughts from unwanted contaminants. Rather, it diminishes our capacity to feel, to absorb, and, ultimately, to understand. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, thought consumed by feeling - no matter how justified - will eventually veer into self-righteousness, a self-absorbed inability to change or accept new information. Sadly, many emotion-fueled "stands on principle" often lose touch with the facts of the matter.

In ways that we don't fully understand, the mind needs a body to sense its world, to review experience, to plan, to reflect, to reach out, to extend grace where none may be merited. Roboticists, psychologists, biologists, philosophers and software developers - each, as Sir Ken Robinson has said so well, understand that the body is "not just a way to get our heads to meetings." It's crucial to the understanding we get, and one of the reasons why the performing arts, high school phys-ed and manual labor are as important to well being as the abstract pursuits of calculus and puzzing out the details in an absorbing murder mystery.

In other words, the carpenter's hands don't just suggest character in their rugged build, they, "leading the mind," contribute to its development.

Lehrer uses Damasio's cleverly designed game, the Iowa Gambling Task, to point out that the neuroscientist has been instrumental in developing the idea that intelligence and character come from a life in the garden, and that he is out with an ambitious new book on the physical basis of the conscious experience, "The Self Comes to Mind," in which the scientist suggests, writes Lehrer, new ways in which "flesh and feeling, emulsified together" bloom into first person news of the world.

Its been added to my reading list.


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