‘Descartes’ Error’: why facts and feelings are inseparable

In our era of scientism and objectivity, rational thought stands in a place of high authority. Factual, evidence-based claims are the gold standard of discourse, and emotions — those irrational, subterranean forces — are considered obstacles to a proper decision-making process.

We inherited this way of thinking from the philosopher René Descartes. He distinguished between the res cogitans, the thinking portion of our minds, and the res extensa, the purely-mechanical source of drives and emotion. This philosophy is known as Cartesian dualism, and it holds humans in special regard. Our souls are the stuff of res cogitans; animals, according to Descartes, are strictly automata.

But contemporary neuroscience may be weighing against this idea. In his book Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio takes the position that our neurobiology does not corroborate this distinction between reason and emotion. Instead, they are inseparably linked in a way that reflects our complexity as human beings.

vmPFC damage and irrational behavior

Damasio’s insights were prompted by a long clinical history treating patients who sustained damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a region in the brain located just behind your eyeballs. These patients appear completely normal under your typical psychological evaluation: their cognitive abilities are intact, they have no problems with affect, and they can even discern ethically right decisions from wrong ones.

And yet, these individuals often suffer remarkably poor life outcomes. In many cases it would appear that their personalities were permanently changed for the worse. This would usually owe to a propensity for impulsivity, poor decision making, and a diminished capacity for future planning. What could explain this discrepancy?

Damasio theorized that the vmPFC is a relay center between mental representations and secondary emotions. Whereas primary emotions are strong, pre-programmed drives — think of the intense disgust of smelling a rotten egg— secondary emotions are those which can be learned through experience. For example, we can learn to associate negative feelings with a future outcome before that specific event happens.

In patients with vmPFC damage, then, mental representations conjured up by rational deliberation are unable to incite their appropriate emotional contents. Decision making becomes dysfunctional throughout their lives because they are unable to ‘weigh their options’ with the usual influence of emotions. This explains why they could identify the right thing to do in a psychological evaluation, but couldn’t ‘apply’ this knowledge to their lives.

The somatic marker

What Damasio concludes is that there are so-called somatic markers that drive the process of deliberation. What do they mark? A specific mental representation. Why are they somatic? Because they involve an emotional response evoked by the soma, or body. Taken together, it is a secondary emotion which is ‘bundled’ with the content of an idea.

When mental representations are being compared, contrasted, selected, and singled out, it’s the somatic markers that reign. This allows us not only to make decisions in a more efficient way, but also have a ‘gut-level’ or intuitive notion for the right course of action. According to Damasio, it’s the ‘weight’ of somatic markers that drives us: not a commitment to ‘pure rationality’.

This has some surprising implications. It challenges the idea that perfect rationality — as it’s commonly understood—is even possible. Our train of thought may be pulled along a track of emotional salience completely unknown to us. Like the Romanticists believed, intuition may play a bigger role in our experience of the world than is commonly thought.

We can see now why Damasio is rejecting Cartesian dualism. Our conceived notion of a ‘pure cognitive’ substance, separated entirely from emotion, is not reflected in neuroscience or psychology. It appears that, like many of Descartes’ empirical claims, the relevant science has come to tell us a much different story.

Other findings in neuroscience corroborate this connection between facts and feelings, mental representation and affect. V. S. Ramachandran’s conducted a study on patients with Capgras syndrome — a rare and bizarre affliction whereby patients will report that their loved ones have been replaced by imposters — that tracked their emotional ‘glow’ when looking at a familiar face.

What he found was that, as the somatic marker theory would predict, this ‘glow’ is diminished with Capgras patients. Ramachandran concluded that DS’s ‘imposter syndrome’ is due to an inability to keep the same ‘file’ of his loved ones, due to the fact that they no longer evoke the right emotional response. The only reaction is to think they are someone different.

The somatic marker and philosophy

What is consciousness and how does it emerge? This question is the holy grail of cognitive science. But strict empiricism won’t be enough: we also need to understand what we mean by ‘consciousness’ in the first place. This is where philosophy enters the discussion.

David Chalmers, a cognitive scientist and philosopher, has proposed distinguishing between two kinds of consciousness. The first has to do with ‘raw feels’: subjective states like sensation and emotion. As far as we can tell, we share many of these experiences with other living creatures. The second is more cerebral, and has to do with our capacity for abstract thoughts and rational cognition. It’s an ability to create mental representations, and may be responsible for language and its ability to model ourselves (reflexive consciousness) and others (theory of mind).

Chalmers has proposed calling the first kind P-consciousness, for phenomenal consciousness, and the second A-consciousness, for access consciousness. This allows for clarity in cognitive science, which can now distinguish between previously-conflated ideas of consciousness.

But in light of ideas like the somatic marker, we should learn to move past the ‘intuitive’ appeal of this schema. It’s simply a neo-Cartesian invention: the latest iteration of a philosophical assumption that we ought to move away from.

Who is to say, for example, that our experience of A-consciousness is impossible without P-consciousness? In that case, rationality itself cannot subsist on anything but an emotional substrate. This would mean that, rather than being separate categories, what is commonly known as A-consciousness may simply be another aspect of P-consciousness.

What we need, it seems, is a way to understand consciousness that integrates fact and feeling without introducing an artificial division between them. This will require us to fully understand the effect of Cartesian dualism on our present-day philosophies.

The somatic marker and political discourse

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant always stressed the primacy of practical reason over theoretical reason. In this sense, ‘pure rationality’ could not be separated from ethical engagement. The somatic marker hypothesis echoes this idea. If our abstract thoughts are always ‘linked’ to secondary emotions, it seems like our subjectivity will inevitably get in the way of any attempts to be completely logically rigorous.

This supports a philosophical position known, oddly enough, as ‘anti-philosophy’. This is the notion that philosophical truths aren’t ‘pure abstractions’ in the sense of being objective: rather, they are predetermined by the person’s unique subjective engagement with the world.

Similarly, we should be suspicious that someone’s political views can be reduced to a self-containing, rational system. We might even question whether this expectation is realistic. It leads us to deny the role that our subjective experiences play in one’s political views.

Emotions, as the somatic marker hypothesis suggests, may be an irreducible part of our mental calculus. Our reaction to this reality cannot be to exclude emotions from political discourse, but rather, to ask its ideal relationship with rationality should be.

All this is to say that the link between intellect and affect is much more substantial than we normally think. Day to day, we might consider the function of pure reason and emotions to be distinct. Descartes’ Error invites us to think beyond this notion, and I think it has clear consequences for our current political climate.

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