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Haidt: The Promethean Script

From The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt.

The Promethean Script 

As mammals grew in size and diversified in behavior (after the dinosaurs became extinct), the remodeling [of the brain by evolution] continued. In the more social mammals, particularly among primates, a new layer of neural tissue developed and spread to surround the old limbic system. This neocortex (Latin for “new covering”) is the gray matter characteristic of human brains. The front portion of the neocortex is particularly interesting, for parts of it do not appear to be dedicated to specific tasks (such as moving a finger or processing sound). Instead, it is available to make new associations and to engage in thinking, planning, and decision making—mental processes that can free an organism from responding only to an immediate situation.

This growth of the frontal cortex seems like a promising explanation for the divisions we experience in our minds. Perhaps the frontal cortex is the seat of reason: It is Plato’s charioteer; it is St. Paul’s Spirit. And it has taken over control, though not perfectly, from the more primitive limbic system—Plato’s bad horse, St. Paul’s flesh. We can call this explanation the Promethean script of human evolution, after the character in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. In this script, our ancestors were mere animals governed by the primitive emotions and drives of the limbic system until they received the divine gift of reason, installed in the newly expanded neocortex.

The Promethean script is pleasing in that it neatly raises us above all other animals, justifying our superiority by our rationality. At the same time, it captures our sense that we are not yet gods—that the fire of rationality is somehow new to us, and we have not yet fully mastered it. The Promethean script also fits well with some important early findings about the roles of the limbic system and the frontal cortex. For example, when some regions of the hypothalamus are stimulated directly with a small electric current, rats, cats, and other mammals can be made gluttonous, ferocious, or hypersexual, suggesting that the limbic system underlies many of our basic animal instincts. 14 Conversely, when people suffer damage to the frontal cortex, they sometimes show an increase in sexual and aggressive behavior because the frontal cortex plays an important role in suppressing or inhibiting behavioral impulses.

There is, however, a flaw in the Promethean script: It assumes that reason was installed in the frontal cortex but that emotion stayed behind in the limbic system. In fact, the frontal cortex enabled a great expansion of emotionality in humans. The lower third of the prefrontal cortex is called the orbitofrontal cortex because it is the part of the brain just above the eyes (orbit is the Latin term for the eye socket). This region of the cortex has grown especially large in humans and other primates and is one of the most consistently active areas of the brain during emotional reactions. 16 The orbitofrontal cortex plays a central role when you size up the reward and punishment possibilities of a situation; the neurons in this part of the cortex fire wildly when there is an immediate possibility of pleasure or pain, loss or gain. 17 When you feel yourself drawn to a meal, a landscape, or an attractive person, or repelled by a dead animal, a bad song, or a blind date, your orbitofrontal cortex is working hard to give you an emotional feeling of wanting to approach or to get away. 18 The orbitofrontal cortex therefore appears to be a better candidate for the id, or for St. Paul’s flesh, than for the superego or the Spirit.

The importance of the orbitofrontal cortex for emotion has been further demonstrated by research on brain damage. The neurologist Antonio Damasio has studied people who, because of a stroke, tumor, or blow to the head, have lost various parts of their frontal cortex. In the 1990s, Damasio found that when certain parts of the orbitofrontal cortex are damaged, patients lose most of their emotional lives. They report that when they ought to feel emotion, they feel nothing, and studies of their autonomic reactions (such as those used in lie detector tests) confirm that they lack the normal flashes of bodily reaction that the rest of us experience when observing scenes of horror or beauty. Yet their reasoning and logical abilities are intact. They perform normally on tests of intelligence and knowledge of social rules and moral principles. 19

So what happens when these people go out into the world? Now that they are free of the distractions of emotion, do they become hyperlogical, able to see through the haze of feelings that blinds the rest of us to the path of perfect rationality? Just the opposite. They find themselves unable to make simple decisions or to set goals, and their lives fall apart. When they look out at the world and think, “What should I do now?” they see dozens of choices but lack immediate internal feelings of like or dislike. They must examine the pros and cons of every choice with their reasoning, but in the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other. When the rest of us look out at the world, our emotional brains have instantly and automatically appraised the possibilities. One possibility usually jumps out at us as the obvious best one. We need only use reason to weigh the pros and cons when two or three possibilities seem equally good.

Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains works so well that our reasoning can work at all. Plato’s image of reason as charioteer controlling the dumb beasts of passion may overstate not only the wisdom but also the power of the charioteer. The metaphor of a rider on an elephant fits Damasio’s findings more closely: Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work. When the neocortex came along, it made the rider possible, but it made the elephant much smarter, too.

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