To Feel or Not to Feel? That is No Longer the Question7 min read

It is highly likely that most readers recall learning about Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who, in 1848, had the misfortune of having a 3.5 inch, 13+ lb. metal rod (with a diameter of 1 ¼ inches) impale him. The rod went through his open mouth, behind his left eye, and out of his skull. What was exceptional in all of this, was that it neither exited his skull completely nor did he die from this injury for 12 years! Considering the state of medical knowledge and technique, this was a rather incredible and improbable survival, and I would bet that is what most people remember about his story.

Yet, for a theorist and sociologist, there is much, much more to this anecdote than the sensational. His memory, for instance, was discernibly unaffected, but the injury, by accounts of both former employers and professional “trained” in the “psychology” of yore, had somehow peeled back the protective human layers of socialization. That is, he was described as vacillating between his “intellectual faculties” and “animal propensities”; his behavior and language could be “coarse,” “vulgar,” and offensive to any “decent” people he might encounter. In spite of this, he spent seven of the 12 years left of his life in Chile, working as a long-distance stagecoach driver; which, in 1852, would have demanded a lot of cognitive skills given the temporal and physical and social demands. He was clearly successful.

What can we learn from this case? On the surface, probably not much. A debate between contemporary neuroscientists centers on how much we can draw from MRIs of a skull with no direct empirical evidence. Gage’s former employers may have maligned his reputation to protect their financial interests; doctors of the day were rarely scientific in their orientation or beholden to a professional association backed by the force of legislation; and, psychology was barely in its infancy. Nonetheless, it is not incorrect to say that damaging the brain, in most cases, leads to changes in behavior and personality.

But, what does Gage have to do with sociology and cognition? His case and others that would follow in the early 20th century inspired a body of research examining brain lesions, particularly the prefontal lobe, which is responsible for rational decision-making. For instance, in one of many experiments, Bechara, Damasio, Damasio, and Anderson (1994) provided “normals” and patients with a $2000 loan, and provided them with four decks of cards and some basic instructions: don’t lose money, but make $$ if possible. Turning a card in pile A or B rewarded $100 while C and D only $50. The catch: some cards in A and B, unbeknownst to the player, demanded a sudden high payment (e.g., $1250), while C and D, on occasion, only asked for small, modest payments (e.g., $100). Normals began by sampling all the decks, showing preferences for A and B at first, but gradually learning that C and D are the best bets. Those with damaged brains, however, started the same way but did not switch to C and D, no matter how many times they bankrupted.

From a series of follow up experiments meant to tease out specific hypotheses about rewards and punishments, and his own clinical work with lesion patients, Antonio Damasio (1995) cogently posited—at the time—a revolutionary thesis: reasoning and rationality are inextricably entwined with emotions. The classic Cartesian model of brain v. soul that undergirds seemingly false (but commonly, often unconsciously, accepted) dichotomies like rationality v. irrationality, cognition v. emotion collapses under the weight of empirical evidence.

This seems eminently sensible. Marketers draw on psychology to appeal not only to our cool rationality, but to our feelings and sentiments. We choose Crest or Colgate, Ford or Toyota, and so forth based on emotions no matter how much “instrumentality” we employ in the decision-making process (see, for example, Camerer 2007). These, of course, are mundane, arbitrary decisions; imagine if we extend this thesis to much more complex decisions, like choosing a partner, a reciprocal gift, or to make amends. It seems true that we can only make big decisions when our brain’s neural systems are linked up and our emotion centers are communicating with various other aspects of our brain (LeDoux 2000).

So, for instance, as information enters the brain it is routed to the hippocampus where it is converted into memories and indexed as either semantic or episodic. The former are general “facts” about things, people, events, and so forth that escape temporality, whereas the latter are person-specific memories with time-stamps. Our self, then, is rooted in memories that are both generalized and specific. At the same time, this information is fed into the amygdala and tagged with a valence, or level of intensity, making them more or less relevant to one’s self—that is, more intensely tagged memories are easier and more likely to be recalled. And, if the most self-relevant information comes from interactions with significant others, then the most basic unit of social organization – the human relationship – is anchored in affective moorings (Lawler et al. 2008; Cozolino 2014).

In particular, knowledge about the social self (semantic autobiographical knowledge), formed in episodes, tagged with powerful affect, and confirmed or activated frequently in encounters, comes to be generalized too, but is differentiated from the other two types in that it activates normally distinct places in the brain they do—that is, it remains rooted in the emotion centers and is what makes our global sense of self perceived as stable and consistent over longer durations and, moreover, drenches appraisals of our own actions as well as others in affect (Turner 2007). This also means, using more familiar sociological terms, goal setting, strategizing, habit, decision-making, selfing and minding are saturated with emotions (Franks 2006).

Memory works because of emotions; our senses work because of emotions; the construction, maintenance, alteration, and destruction of self, depend on our brain’s emotional neuroarchitecture as much as on the social environment’s input. Thus, if we are to take cognitive science seriously, as sociologists, then we must also take seriously the role emotions play in action and organization.