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Thinking Faster

Are the brain's emotional circuits hardwired for speed?

By Steven Johnson
May 29, 2004 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:16 AM
During a typically hectic day, Damasio, head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa and author of Looking for Spinoza, seeks sanctuary in an office filled with books, family pictures, and art.“This is the place where I make most of my decisions,” he says, “a place where I am very comfortable.” | Andrew Hetherington/Redux Pictures


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Try to look inside yourself right now.” Antonio Damasio and I are sitting in his office in Iowa City, rows upon rows of academic volumes lining the shelves behind him. He’s talking about the importance of the body in understanding consciousness, and somehow we’ve slipped into what might pass for an impromptu meditation session. I close my eyes. Damasio has a soft voice, almost soothing, which suits the subject matter. “Don’t think about words and ideas,” he says. “Try to concentrate on what you feel. People very often say, ‘I don’t feel my body. I only feel my body if I feel pain.’ But when you try to clear away thoughts about objects and ideas, what you have is this thing that’s always breathing and always has some kind of tone. Maybe you’re very relaxed, or you’re tense, but it’s always there. The only way you can say that you’re tense or feeling fine is because there’s a quality that you can sense.”

Then he smiles. “Otherwise, how would you know?”

Twenty years ago, talking to a neuroscientist about the body’s sense of itself would have seemed off the topic. Neuroscience was the study of the brain, not the body. But Damasio has helped change all that. Best known for his widely read books on the connection between the brain and the body—Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens, and his latest, Looking for Spinoza—Damasio heads the department of neurology at the University of Iowa, where he has worked with his wife, Hanna Damasio, a neuroanatomist, for nearly 30 years. The rise in Damasio’s fortunes during that time also marks the decline of the computational theory of the brain. Instead of thinking of our minds as glorified computers, his research places a new emphasis on the brain’s emotional architecture—particularly the way the body contributes to emotional experience.

On a number of fronts, Damasio’s career has been connective in nature. In writing books laced with philosophical ruminations and literary references, he has served as an emissary from the brain sciences to the cultural milieu. (The week after I visited him in Iowa City, Damasio was a keynote speaker at a conference with the poet Jorie Graham, a longtime friend from her days at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) His books have been translated into a dozen languages, and his lecture schedule is epic. He seems as much public intellectual as working scientist. In this sense, Damasio’s career mirrors the evolution of the brain sciences, which no longer focus exclusively on the microscopic tanglings of neurons and have made steady inroads into a number of fields like economics, sociology, literary theory, and political science. For some time now we’ve heard stories about the long arm of genetics and how our growing understanding of DNA and Darwin will transform a wide range of disciplines. But the real cross-disciplinary conquistadores turn out not to be the geneticists after all. It’s neuroscience that has traveled the most widely in the past few years, and it seems on the verge of more migrations.

Perhaps more than anyone, Damasio has dictated the terms of that itinerary, and of late he has a new destination on his mind—one that lies at the frontier of the brain and the body, in the accelerations of modern life. In a society that channels information into our heads at an increasingly rapid pace, can the brain keep up? And what would it mean to live in a society that moves at a faster pace than the brains that created it?

“I am very interested,” Damasio says, “in the notion of speed.”

We’re standing at a crosswalk, waiting for a light to change, just outside the University of Iowa Hospital where Damasio’s lab is located. He’s explaining to me how the normal faculty parking lot—100 feet closer to his office—is being renovated, thus forcing him to park in the visitor’s lot. He feigns outrage as we cross the street. “And so I have to face the indignity of parking . . . here.” He gestures dismissively toward the gates, eyes twinkling to let me in on the joke.

“With all the little people,” I say, shaking my head, playing along.

“Exactly. Can you imagine?”

It’s a typical Damasio moment, sending up his own vaunted image, and it suits his physical presence. He’s well dressed and handsome but also somewhat vertically challenged. The playfulness takes the edge off the legendary intellect, makes you feel comfortable in the room with him, makes you feel like you can poke fun without drawing blood.

A recognition of the importance of our intuitive responses to others, based on body language as much as what they say, lies at the very center of Damasio’s research into the brain. Humans make split-second emotional assessments of situations all the time, assessments that unfold so quickly that we’re usually not aware of the process. But much of Western culture and science since the days of René Descartes, the 17th-century French polymath regarded as the father of modern philosophy, is based on the assumption that when we’re being logical, we’re cutting our emotions out of the loop. This was Descartes’ fundamental error, says Damasio, who argues that emotions turn out to be essential to our rational decision-making processes. If we didn’t have those gut responses, we’d get caught in an endless cycle of analysis, drawing infinite pros-and-cons lists in our heads. For example, I don’t have to stop in the middle of the crosswalk and do a comprehensive survey to determine if Damasio is joking about parking with the commoners; I can instantly tell from his tone and physical carriage that he’s kidding.

Damasio first recognized the importance of emotion in decision making by interacting with patients whose emotional centers had been damaged by strokes, accidents, or tumors. He found that the damage would reliably include at least one of three crucial areas of the brain: a section of the frontal lobes called the ventromedial prefrontal cortices, which are central to both emotional processing and decision making; the somatosensory cortices in the right hemisphere, which interpret information coming from the body; and the amygdala, the almond-shaped area within the temporal lobes that plays a crucial role in emotional response.

“The pattern in all these cases was very similar,” says Damasio. “You had a person who had been doing very well in his or her life—someone who had relationships, friendships, marriage, and a successful career. And then because of a stroke or a tumor, everything changed. And the change took place in the realm of day-to-day decision making, not in the realm of knowledge and skills. They could speak perfectly well. They could deal with the logic of a problem. They could learn new things.” Nonetheless, the lives of these tumor or stroke victims fell apart. Their marriages dissolved, and their careers were reduced to a series of odd jobs and disability checks. Even though they scored in a normal range on all standard measures of intelligence, somehow they couldn’t navigate the branching decision trees of everyday life.

In Descartes’ Error, Damasio tells the story of asking one patient to pick one of two dates for his next appointment: “The behavior that ensued . . . was remarkable,” he writes. “For the better part of a half-hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates: previous engagements, proximity to other engagements, possible meteorological conditions, virtually anything that one could reasonably think about concerning a simple date. . . . He was walking us through a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless outlining and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences.” On the surface, this endless analysis sounds like a failure of reasoning, but Damasio suspected that there was a deeper cause.

“All these people shared one common trait: their emotions were compromised,” Damasio continues. “They were flattened, compared to the way they used to be, and compared to what we normally expect from people. Social emotions—shame, embarrassment—were specifically compromised.” Damasio’s colleague Dan Tranel did experiments in which people were shown a series of emotionally powerful images—towns destroyed by earthquakes, people drowning in floods—and monitored their body’s autonomic response, which is partially regulated by the amygdala. Patients with damaged emotional centers had consistently flat responses while normal subjects showed distinct spikes in response to the gruesome images.

The evaluation of these patients’ mental skills was one of those classic moments right before a scientific paradigm shifts, when the precision of the existing tools reveals a blind spot in the overarching model. Here were people clearly incapable of making decisions in a rational manner, but somehow they managed to pass all the tests of logical aptitude with flying colors. Either the tests were wrong, or pure logic wasn’t the only ingredient necessary for making rational decisions. Already familiar with the seminal case of Phineas Gage, the hardworking, entrepreneurial 19th-century construction foreman who became an antisocial itinerant after a pointed rod pierced his skull and damaged part of his brain’s emotional system, Damasio began to suspect that his patients’ inability to be emotional was getting in the way of their reasoning.

Damasio built his theory around the idea of somatic markers. Somatic refers to something related to the body, as distinguished from the psyche. Somatic markers are analogous to marked cards buried in a deck. The markers come in the form of bodily responses: your gut tightening in fear, your shoulders convulsing with warm laughter. Events that trigger those types of rich bodily reactions are encoded in positive or negative memories that are largely subliminal and affect your intuitive responses to everyday situations. When confronting a given decision, the emotional system flags specific options as particularly inviting or repellent based on information encoded—or “marked” in Damasio’s language—by past emotional experiences. For example, as you eye that last slice of cake at a dinner party, your emotional memories of past experiences—perhaps the guilt or shame you felt after behaving selfishly—flash in your head unconsciously, and you decide to offer the slice to your host. The somatic markers steer you toward a specific decision. Without those guides you would either devour the cake without any hint of embarrassment or spend 30 minutes running through all the potential consequences of eating or not eating it.

In Damasio’s view, such instinctual emotional responses result in behavior that seems more rational, not less so. “It’s not that I’m saying the emotions decide things for you,” Damasio says. “It’s that the emotions help you concentrate on the right decision.” You still have to do some of the work, but the emotions give you a head start.

The body is not always a perfect guide, of course. The brain-damaged patient who was crippled with confusion when trying to choose an appointment date confronted another telling situation while driving home one stormy winter night. The car ahead of him hit a patch of ice and skidded into a ditch. Faced with the same circumstances, most of us would most likely feel an overwhelming gut instinct to slam on the brakes, a reaction that would deposit us in the ditch as well. But Damasio’s patient made a purely rational decision and drove straight through the ice patch. In this exceptional situation, his lack of emotions was advantageous. Nonetheless, he was unable to hold a job and lead a normal life.

Impaired emotions tend to have a devastating impact on an individual’s ability to make rational decisions. The question that fascinates Damasio is whether our emotions can adapt to the increasing speed with which modern society confronts us with difficult choices.

Damasio considers his argument for the role of the body in higher forms of cognition the most controversial insight of his career. “Ten, 15 years ago, people whom I very much respect said, ‘You can’t be serious.’ Now they say, ‘You were absolutely right.’” Indeed, some critics these days dismiss Damasio’s once revolutionary ideas as old news—an updated version of William James, who famously argued in the late 1800s that emotions were simply a readout of the body’s physiological state. But on a number of fronts, Damasio’s ideas differ substantially from James’s. One specific departure from the Jamesian model laid the groundwork for Damasio’s interest in the speed of modern life. It involves a step away from the body, in the brain’s “as-if body loop,” as he calls it.

The brain, Damasio says, learns from the body’s response to external stimuli, but the brain is also a master simulator, capable of building mock versions of that emotional reaction. “You don’t always need to go to the body,” he says. “Because you’ve associated things over time, you’re going to associate a certain triggering point in the frontal lobe or the basal forebrain and tell certain regions of the brain stem to adopt a state of activity as if it were receiving signals from the body that were consonant with emotion x. But you bypass the body altogether. You just go straight to the result.”

When we feel emotions, we’re taking a survey of either our actual physiological state or an “as if” simulation. “People hear this and say: ‘Oh, it’s the body,’ but this is not James’s idea at all,” says Damasio. “Of course, he probably would have had that idea if he’d had the knowledge that we now have of the brain. But in 1880 he didn’t have all that.”

What’s the advantage of the as-if body loop? Speed. Triggering bodily changes throughout the organism is, relatively speaking, a sluggish process. Hormones have to find their way to muscle tissue, which then has to send feedback to the brain. That’s fine if you plan to be in that state for a while—running from a predator in the classic fight-or-flight example—but if you’re merely trying on the emotion in a moment of reflection (“Would I like to take her out?”), it’s too time-consuming to wait for the body to react. Life is filled with split-second judgments enhanced by the brain’s ability to simulate the body’s reactions. You call up a friend to ask for a small favor, but before you get around to it, he complains about how overloaded he is with work. In your head, a rapid-fire simulation runs: If I were him and someone asked me for a favor when I was in such an overtaxed state, how would that make me feel? The as-if loop serves up the answer: stressed, on edge, maxed out. And so you decide not to ask the favor after all. In that moment, your body doesn’t execute an entire stress response; there’s not a flood of the stress hormone cortisol in your bloodstream. Instead, you get a flash of what it would feel like if your body were in a state of stress, and the flash helps you make a more considerate—and considered—decision.

“The as-if body loop allows you to play fast and loose with emotional states in relation to ideas,” Damasio says. “And where you see that most of all is in reactions of empathy. When somebody tells you about something, and you feel a response—everything from real empathy to schadenfreude—it’s a simulation. That can happen at an incredibly high speed—100 milliseconds instead of the long route from the body, which might take more than a second.”

As fast as it is, the system requires a supply of somatic markers, past emotional experiences that serve as guides for the present decision. If your brain is incapable of drawing upon those emotional cues—as Damasio’s brain-damaged patients demonstrated—then all that speed is useless, because there’s nothing to ground the process, no memory of what shame or stress feels like. This is where the accelerated pace of modern life becomes interesting.

The trouble with forming somatic markers is that they take time—maybe too much time for an age of pure speed. “Events register faster and faster and more and more remotely, and you’re not even given time to let them sink in,” Damasio says. “For example, the lovers immortalized in the works of Jane Austen or George Eliot had a much longer experience of their feelings than we have today in a lot of circumstances. These days, by contrast, we have Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Your feelings for your wife—my feelings for my wife—those feelings that develop slowly are still very different; they’re an island of safety. But on the news, things are shown one after another. No matter how terrifying, images are shown so briefly that we have no time to sense emotionally the horror of a particular event.”

It’s not an accident that we’re talking about these issues while surveying one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. I’ve paid a visit to the Damasios at the pied-à-terre that they keep on the Upper East Side of Manhattan: a prewar apartment opened up with spare, loftlike furnishings and sliver views of Central Park. Riding the subway uptown, I’d thought how much faster the physical environment of the metropolis is, compared with the slower world of Iowa City, and so when I arrived I asked Damasio if he’d ever thought about the neurological effects of urban life. He nods as if the question was already on his mind. “The city was the beginning of acceleration. You think of the gentlemen farmers and their lives versus the speed of 19th- and 20th-century urbanization. Now, of course, you can get that acceleration anywhere because of the media. But the city was the beginning.”

On the face of it, the idea that the speed of modern life will lead to cognitive overload is a familiar complaint: Cultural critics like David Shenk and the late Neil Postman have warned of the dangers of an accelerated society. But Damasio has a twist. He’s not saying that the brain can’t keep up with it. He’s saying that part of the brain can’t keep up with it, while another part thus far has been game to go along for the ride.

“We really have two systems that are totally integrated and work perfectly well with each other but are very different in their time constants. One is the emotional system, which is the basic regulatory system that works very slowly, with timescales of a second or more. Then you have the cognitive system, which is much faster because of the way it’s wired and also because a lot of the fiber systems are totally myelinated, which means they work much faster. So you can do a lot of reasoning, a lot of recognition of objects, remembering names in just a few hundredths of a second. And in fact it has been suggested that we’re optimizing those times—we’re working faster and faster. Certainly people that are younger are now capable of working at faster rates.” You need only watch a teenager running 15 simultaneous instant messenger chats to see how certain brain functions can, with adequate training, reach astonishing velocities.

But other brain functions may have fixed ceilings. “There is no evidence whatsoever that the emotional system is going to speed up,” Damasio tells me. “In fact, I think it’s pretty clear that the emotional system, because it is a body regulatory system, is going to stay at those same slow time constants. There’s this constant limit, which is that the fibers are unmyelinated. So the conduction is very slow.” In a sense, this is an engineering problem. The system that builds somatic markers—the system that encodes the stream of consciousness with value—works more slowly than the system that feeds it data to encode. The result is not a danger that our cognitive machinery will short out. We can in fact process all that data, and perhaps more. The danger comes from the emotional system shorting out.

“The image of an event or a person can appear in a flash, but it takes seconds to make an emotional marking,” Damasio says. “So it stands to reason that we’re going to have fewer and fewer chances to have appropriate somatic markers, which means we’re going to have more and more events—particularly in our early years—that go by without the emotional grounding. Which means that you could potentially become ethically less grounded. You’d be in an emotionally neutral world.”

Emotional neutrality sounds like something from a daytime talk show, but for Damasio, these are strong words. He’s seen firsthand the damage done to a person’s life when those somatic markers can’t be formed. “The risk of emotional neutrality becomes greater and greater as the speed of cognition increases,” he explains. “There will be more and more people who will have to rely on the cognitive system entirely, without using their emotional memory, in order to decide what’s good and what’s evil.” The danger of our high-speed society in coming generations is not that they’ll be overloaded by the data; it’s that they’ll become like those patients Damasio started seeing back at Iowa years ago: brilliant on all the intelligence tests but ethically rudderless.

“They can be told about good and evil,” Damasio says with a wry smile, “but good and evil might not stick."

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