May 28, 2010

emotion trumps reason

     I had this list of topics that I found fascinating during lectures but somewhere along the way, I just never got around to exploring them.  Time to rectify that.  The first one is about the amygdala.  A bit of basic background before watching the movie below.  When we learn information, there are two components to how that information is processed.  The one most people would guess first is just the simple "What" pathway.  It is concerned with determining factual memories.  The apple is green.  Like the classic Dragnet, just the facts ma'am. 
     The other is the associative pathway.  That is the primal part of our brain that takes facts and associates them with feelings and emotions.  It's really our "gut feeling" that kept our ancestors alive.  You see, when Grog the caveman happened upon a lion, his brain doesn't really have time to go through the cognition of my eyes see a lion.  Lions are dangerous.  I should probably hide.  That takes too long.  So the brain short circuits the higher thinking and develops emotive visceral responses that cause us to act instantly.  It's the part of the brain that can also take logical facts and turn them on their head.  For example, when I was a kid, I loved canned pears.  One day, I ate a whole can and then jumped on my parent's bed a little too exuberantly.  Those pears along with every bit of my stomach contents decided to seek residence in a bucket, in the toilet, on the bed, everywhere.  To this day due to simple Pavlovian conditioning, I cannot possibly eat or even smell canned pears.  Logic has nothing to do with it.  Visceral emotion trumps reason.

As I said, emotion trumps reason nearly every time.  For better or worse.  When we get married, most people don't make a logical assessment of their potential partner.  We react emotionally and the amygdala is part of that process.  As I see my brother become viscerally ill at even the thought of MDACC and chemo, I can see how strong that association really is.  And I wonder, how does a physician help that then?  Yes, there are anti-emetics and there are cognitive therapies but those are pretty ineffective when it comes to these associations.  There is a pretty strong evolutionary drive to make that neurological wiring work well.  Without it, our ancestor wouldn't survive too many encounters with dangerous plants and animals.

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