Think it, feel it: Consider the role of emotion in cognition

Published in the Daily Illini September 12th, 2011

Here on campus, we are constantly making intuitive decisions regarding the diversity of our student body. These casual divisions often tend to define students within two general categories: those who study people and those who study things.

We perceive our fellow engineers, chemistry majors, computer scientists, etc., to be more rational and logical, not only as students, but also as people. On the other side of the spectrum we generally associate people who study human life, those playwrights, sociologists, artists, etc., as being more emotional and sentimental.

Writers since Plato have divided emotion and reason into two separate brands of mental activity. But this is a fallacy being debunked by modern cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Instead of separating rational and emotional strategies of thinking, researchers are coming to the conclusion that they are actually two interwoven adapted strategies that function ideally by working together.

Consider what we would describe as a robust debate: It got “heated,” “passions flew,” “the air was tense.” Okay, maybe this is how I would describe my freshman year political discussions with one of my best friends, who is an engineer. But the point is that while we were trying to construct argumentative patterns based on principles of coherent logic, our emotions kicked in as an attempt to bolster our claims, as young and inexperienced as they may have been.

Western rationalists since the Age of Enlightenment have prized understanding the world solely through logic. This thinking puts emotion into the back seat arguing that it is irrational and a mental obstruction to knowledge; our debate would have been criticized as having steered away from an objective analysis.

The “cognitive revolution” of psychology that took hold in the 1950s, led by a 27-year-old linguist named Noam Chomsky, saw the mind as a computer whose processes could be traced down to bits of information. They helped spawn a new age of artificial intelligence by breaking down the logical algorithms of thought.

But therein lay a fundamental problem to their achievements with the computational theory of mind: Machines can’t feel. To understand how the mind works, we mustn’t exclude the emotions as the cognitive scientists did.

We need to have an “emotional revolution” in the way we think about the functionality of a healthy brain. Encouragingly, this appears to be happening. Renowned Portuguese neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has been doing important work as the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, regarding the emotions as vital components in decision-making processes and social cognition.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, pioneers of the blossoming field of evolutionary psychology, view emotions as adaptive responses in our brains that evolution has molded to either encourage or discourage future actions. For example, the feeling of guilt was constructed to deter an act that could have negative long-term consequences, such as having an affair with your friend’s lover or eating a bucket of ice cream in one sitting (the consequences being that you hurt your friend or hurt your body). Guilt evolved as a deterrent to certain actions to avoid specific imagined consequences.

Seen under this microscope, our emotions have purposes. They are rational. They perform specific functions that solved adaptive problems in our ancestral past. Not only can they help us make informed decisions, but they are also a profound source of creative energy, an important trait to have regardless of academic discipline.

Problem solving is an intrinsically creative act that we all engage in everyday. Understanding how and why our emotions work can help connect our minds and bodies with nuanced and sophisticated strategies to maximize the potential of our academic lives. As the adage affirms, hard won success is only won through “blood, sweat and tears.”