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Monday, February 28, 2011

Damasio the Neurodancer

When reading Damasio I feel guilty if I’m not interested or if I get distracted, especially when he’s giving examples about the way people with brain damage lose the ability to focus. But thinking about thinking itself is conducive to wandering thoughts.

In the first and second part of Descartes’ Error Damasio provides clarity to the oft nuanced and incomprehensible language of neuroscience, spelling out the ways that emotion “provide the bridge between rational and nonrational processes, between cortical and subcortical structures” (129). He dispels the once fictitious divide separating mind and body, thought and feeling through a rigorous analysis of the history of medical studies. Rather than emotion playing a subtle or secondary role in brain processes, “their influence is immense” (160). Thought itself must be reconceived as embodied in the fullest sense of the term. There is both an evolutionary and rational process that occurs in the connection between a representation or object of thought and the feeling it induces in a person. The example of superstition as a sort of “spurious alignment” is however especially interesting (162). 

If our emotions are caught up within extensively complex processes that interact on multiple levels and with various systems of the brain, than the implications of affective states might be larger than they first appeared. It’s intriguing Damasio uses the term ‘dispositions’ in describing the ways in which emotions work, which indicates that in long term processes of evolution as well as in more short-term social processes of becoming emotions can turn into attachments. There are associations which are both conscious and unconscious that can predetermine the way that we relate to an object of knowledge. For example, the current immigration debates are saturated within a frenzied pool of affective linkages and associations. Both sides of the aisle play on entrenched emotionally resonant images to justify their policy arguments more so than on rational policy deliberation. Xenophobia exerts a sort of stranglehold on policy debates that overdetermines the way people perceive the implications of a given policy. Nativists constantly link immigrants to various negative images such as job-loss, security, crime, disease through a metonymic process of association. Jenny Edbauer’s analysis in “The New New: Making the Case for Critical Affect Studies” is especially  illuminating in this context. She analyzes the ways in which affective investments possess a tangible residue that sticks to audiences beyond the given buzzwords of the day. On the other hand, those on the left evoke the sense of the American dream, and the historical story of the way this nation was founded by immigrants. Policymakers have learned that they cannot remain wonks in tanks, but that they must exert the full force of affective investments in order to push their agendas. Simply tweaking conceptual ideals alone seems to fail absent fighting affect with affect.
Since Damasio shows studies in which we can see the same functions of the brain occurring when different people are presented with the same image, it would be interesting to see some quantified studies of patients when presented with different figures yet described in the same way. For example the ways in which fear is evoked in relation to immigrants apropos the way fear is evoked in relation to terrorists. The national security issues typically revolve around the same questions and attempt to evoke the same emotion, I wonder what the actual neuroscience would like? Or if this is something that can be known, I know that Damasio gets hesitant at times to reach complete conclusions, this could be work that could be done to further explore the implications of his research. This seems to be the logical conclusion of his analysis of phobic behavior in which we overassociate objects with negative emotions. Is the only way to change the associations by providing equally extreme overassociations of the opposite sort? Or can we rationally unstick these figures that seem to be held together by some gravitational force?

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At March 1, 2011 at 9:52 AM , Blogger Sean G said...

The entire issue of physical brain damage changing personality and thought brings up the deliciously controversial idea of the "human robot". To what extent are we just computers reading off the data in our minds based on our growing experiences as we progress through life? Incredibly complicated machines of course, but... and I say this with the utmost relish of how incensed it tends to make people, but without free will. Are we just products of our experiences and physical brain composition? Are emotions just a way of reading our own output? The whole idea is too much to get into in a comment, but this whole debate seething in some of the implications of Damasio's work poses some interesting questions of just what a human is.


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