Damasio's decision

In 1996 Antonio Damasio published Descartes Error, in part a detailed study of neural pathways required by good decision-making and follow-up action. It is particularly valuable because it describes areas of the right brain whose malfunction causes the kind of indecision and inactivity typical of progress traps. It is not difficult to see how overuse of Geschwind's left-side parietal area, coupled with failure of Damasio's `decision circuit' on the other side, could lead to the kind of high-tech, industrial stalemate we are studying.

Damasio focused on damage to the frontal cortex, and the awareness and decision-making deficiencies of affected patients, reporting that a right-brain area—the somatosensory circuit— was, in addition to the frontal areas, essential in decisions and their execution. His descriptions of this right brain activity are valuable in defining what is lacking in individuals and societies where activity of the left brain (logical, verbal, sequential) predominates:

    the somatosensory system is responsible for both the external senses of touch, temperature, pain and the internal senses of joint position, visceral state and pain…In this arrangement, signals concerning both left and right sides of the body find their most comprehensive meeting ground in the right hemisphere in the… somatosensory cortical sectors. Intriguingly the representation of extrapersonal space, as well as the processes of emotion, involve right hemisphere dominance.*

It is very likely that this area is stimulated when we "come to our senses." Damasio elaborated on his views in an environmental context in a later paper**.

Confirming this right hemisphere dominance, John Ratey states:

    Specialized cortical networks in the right hemisphere are responsible for secondary emotions and for modulating the more primal emotional responses of the amygdala and the limbic system.***

In Descartes Error, Damasio criticized the pioneering philosopher-mathematician and laments the exclusively rational tendencies of science. In a subsequent lecture on Emotion and reason in the future of human life, he applied the same thinking in the environmental context:

    It is difficult to conceive of any future for human life without an abundance of collective human wisdom and such wisdom depends upon a well-tempered machinery for decision-making within which emotion and reason are interwoven.**

Mindful of David Hume's statement that reason is the slave of passion he adds:

    My hope is that… the elucidation of some of the biological mechanisms of emotion and reason…may help others see emotion not as the evil twin of reason, but rather as a very natural and inextricable component of the nature of being rational, for better and for worse.

Damasio observes that evolution and nature have established ways of regulating both the inner and physical environments of an organism but that no globally sustainable culture has evolved yet:

    we may regard the chance of witnessing social and cultural evolution as a privilege. Or perhaps not, given that what we have to witness is often not pleasant and sometimes dangerous. Pleasant or not the opportunity is exciting especially when one realizes that…the result of that evolution is under our control, and that part of that control depends on the proper understanding of how human beings emote and reason, for better and for worse.**

There are many implications of these studies into how humans use, misuse or fail to use their brainpower, some of which give one pause. In advocating the incorporation of emotion into our thinking lives, there are probably aspects that may, as Damasio honestly concedes, be unpleasant or undesirable. In the workplace most employees are expected to be cool, calm and collected. If creativity and problem-solving demands some engagement of the emotions, the workplace may well become less tranquil. Everything has its price, but the price of mindlessly accentuating the positive while eliminating the negative is too high.

  *Damasio, Antonio. Descartes’ Error, Grosset/Putnam, New York, 1994
 **Damasio, Antonio “Emotion and Reason in the Future of Human Life,” Mind, brain, and the environment, Bryan Cartledge, ed., Oxford University Press, New York, 1998
***Ratey, John. A Users Guide to the Brain, Pantheon, New York, 2001


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"The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)