Another scientific reminder that we, as cognitively organized beings, are less in control than we think we are. David Brooks’ The Social Animal follows the lives of two wedded archetypes, Erica and Harold, and their complicated, synaptic lives together. Along the way, though, Brooks delves into the science that makes them function the way they do, casting a light on the power of the invisible (even spiritual) subconscious. The books seems to repeat the main thrust that “it didn’t feel like they had made a choice, but that a choice had made them…The heart, as Blaise Pascal observed, has reasons the head knows not of.” The book heavily favors the notion that reason, as we know it today, is insufficient and that the powers of emotion and love have more of an impact on the brains’ capacity for decision-making than we ever thought possible. To prove his point, he uses the study of Damasio’s subject Elliot–an accomplished man with damage done to the emotion-heavy quadrant of his brain.

[After his operation], he’d spend hours deciding where to have lunch, and still couldn’t settle on a place. He made foolish investments that cost him his life savings. He divorced his wife, married a woman his family disapproved of, and quickly divorced again. In short, he was incapable of making sensible choices.

A series of further tests showed that Elliot understood how to imagine different options when making a decision. He was unable to understand conflicts between two moral imperatives. In short, he could prepare himself to make a choice between a complex range of possibilities…What Elliot couldn’t do was actually make the choice. He was incapable of assigning value to different options. As Damasio put it, “His decision-making landscape was hopelessly flat.”

This behavior is a good example of the limits of pure reason,” Damasio writes in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. It’s an example of how lack of emotion leads to self-destructive and dangerous behavior. People who lack emotion don’t lead well-planned logical lives in the manner of coolly rational Mr. Spocks. They lead foolish lives. In the extreme cases, they become sociopaths, untroubled by barbarism and unable to feel other people’s pain.

…And yet amidst all this pyrotechnic chaos, different parts of the brain and body interact to form an Emotional Positioning System. Like the Global Positioning System that might be in your car, the EPS senses your current situation and compares it to the vast body of data it has store in its memory. It reaches certain judgments about whether the course you are on will produce good or bad outcomes, and then it coats each person, place, or circumstance with an emotion (fear or excitement, admiration or repugnance) and an implied reaction (“Smile” or “Don’t Smile”; “Approach” or “Get away”) that helps us navigate our days.

...This understanding of decision making leads to some essential truths. Reason and emotion are not separate and opposed. Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it. Emotion assigns values to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations. The human mind can be pragmatic because deep down it is romantic.