Making Emotional Choices; It May Be the Only Way We Know How

January 1, 2013 at 5:42 PM
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Making Emotional Choices; It May Be the Only Way We Know How

by Raphael Spiro QC ‘12 & Golshan Aghanori QC ’13

Note from Jim Stellar: I have been working on this blog since February of 2009. This is the first time that two of my students (OK, RS graduated) have written a post together. Also, I just cannot figure what to say to add to what they have done, except to say that this work is related to experiential education. For example, consider the act of deciding if the field in which one is interning (e.g. law) is the field one wants to enter. Clearly that involves conscious and what the RS and GA call emotional decisions. Some of that process comes from interacting with folks at the internship site. Then there is the important issue of reflection on that experience during and after the experience. So, this stuff is important to Higher Education. Read on…

The desire to make sense of the world around us seems to be a fundamental aspect of the human condition. This need to break things down into their base components can be seen in the relentless effort among scientists to compartmentalize the various cognitive functions of the brain, a trend that can be traced as far back the search for the seat of human intelligence in Ancient Greece. The more we learn about the brain, however, the more it becomes clear that a divide and conquer approach simply won’t work. Believing that a brain area can have only one function severely underestimates the adaptability of the neuron. The insula provides an excellent example of the multiple capabilities present in a single brain area.

Researchers from several universities (including our very own Queens College) designed an experiment to explore the relationship between cognitive and emotional functioning. To get at the interaction between cognitive processing and emotional function, they looked at participant’s reaction times (RT) on tasks that varied in their emotional valence and cognitive load. By examining the difference in RT between emotional and unemotional tasks, the researchers were able to determine if the brain areas involved in the cognitive processing and emotional processing shared resources. Much like two roads that merge into a single highway, two mental processes that use the same brain areas or pathways take more time if they are happening at the same time than if they occur separately.

In the study, participants were situated in an fMRI scanner and asked to look at a series of pictures. While all the pictures were similar (to avoid introducing any “noise” into the fMRI results), they varied on three dimensions. Some pictures contained someone’s hand, while others contained a foot. Of those pictures, some showed a person’s right side and others showed a person’s left side. Further dividing the pictures, some depicted the person’s appendage in pain (stuck in a door or being stabbed by a knife) while others showed the appendage in innocuous situations (next to an open door or knife).

Participants were asked to perform two tasks. In one task, they were asked to look at a series of pictures (selected from each of the 8 different possible combinations of the above dimensions) and determine whether the picture was of someone’s hand or foot (TB). In the other task, they were asked to determine whether they were looking at someone’s right or left side (TL). Previous data showed that TL was more difficult than TB.

The results of the study showed that RTs were slower for TL when the stimulus was painful (i.e. an empathetic response was induced in the participants) than when the stimulus was non-painful. The presence of painful vs. non-painful stimulus had a significantly different effect on TL vs. TB. Additionally, fMRI data showed that the interaction between task type and stimulus type had significantly different effects on activation in the anterior insula was, whereas activation in the posterior insula was only significantly affected by the stimulus type. These findings suggest that the anterior insula plays a key role in the integration of cognitive and emotional processing.

This integration of “rational thinking” and emotional responses comes into play more frequently than one might assume. Ask an economist about how people make choices, and chances are they will say that humans make decisions in rational manner with a firm basis in any information they have. However, new methods of studying the brain (lesion studies, fMRI) have been useful in showing the crucial role of emotions in decision making. An analysis of several studies on decision making (Naqvi, Shiv & Bechara) shows some evidence that the somatic-marker hypothesis may provide an accurate model of how people make choices.

The somatic-marker hypothesis states that people choices are aimed at outcomes that maximize reward and minimize punishment. In an effort to achieve such outcomes, people judge a possible decision based on their emotional reaction to it (in the form of bodily states). In an effort to test the somatic-marker hypothesis, a task called the Iowa Gambling Task developed. This task has participants chose from four decks of cards. Two of the decks present the player with relatively good odds of winning play money (and eventually a net gain) while the other two decks will eventually lead to a net loss of money. Using skin-conductance response (SCR), researchers were able to measure a participant’s autonomic emotional arousal in response to the gambling task. When normally functioning people are administered the task, they explore the decks, but quickly learn which decks are advantageous and chose from them. Furthermore, they exhibited heightened SCR before choosing from a disadvantageous deck, even before the participants were explicitly aware of the deck’s rule. When administered to people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the Iowa Gambling Task presented a real challenge; these participants continued to choose from disadvantageous decks. Additionally, heightened reactions in anticipation of a poor decision were not exhibited by people with vmPFC lesions. They did, however, show normal SCR reactions to reward and punishment, suggesting that the vmPFC is responsible for anticipating results rather than reacting to them. With help from the amygdala, which allows a person to associate emotional responses with a behavior, the vmPFC helps a person re-experience the outcome a past decision.

Once a learned emotional response has been elicited in reaction to a posed decision, the brain must interpret the response. The somatic-marker hypothesis attributes this interpretation of visceral states to the insula. Activation of the insula was greater during high-risk decisions than during low-risk decisions. Additionally, activation levels in the insula were related to the probability that an individual would learn from a punishing decision and chose the safe choice in the future.

The importance of emotions, both past and present, in decision making may come as a shock to some. Upon closer thought, however, it begins to make sense. Just as physical pain lets the body know that an activity is detrimental, so too can emotional pain inform a person of a maladaptive behavior. For highly social creatures such as ourselves, this integration of emotions, via the insula, into decision making surely improves our ability to function in our society.

With the help of the somatic-marker hypothesis, we are now aware that the insula plays an important role in decision making. Researchers have been able to implicate addictive behavior to a number of brain systems, yet they have been unable to associate which brain area in particular is responsible for addiction to cigarette smoking. However, in a study based on patients who had brain lesions, we can see that damage to the insula disrupts addiction to cigarette smoking (Naqvi, Rudrauf, Damasio and Bechara). Patients who have had brain damage involving the insula were able to quit smoking immediately and without relapse. This study does not provide firm evidence that the insula is the only source for nicotine addiction and we should start cutting into our brains in order to quit smoking. The study only suggests a possible cure for the addiction so that perhaps with further studies we may be able to come up with medications that can target and control the insula that provides this “need” to smoke.

Knowing that the insula plays a great part in risky situations, it becomes rather simple to understand the relation between the insula and smoking. Observe any smoker and you can see they tend to smoke to release stress and anxiety, add a tad more of stress to any situation and the number of cigarette smoking rises. Stress and anxiety make the individual very uncomfortable and therefore the brain, mainly the insula learns that in order to relieve stress I have to smoke, or rather I “need” to smoke. Thus, when the lesions to the insula inactivate this factor that that makes us believe that we need that cigarette or else it is the end of the world, we are able to quit smoking immediately and without relapse.



· The Role of Emotion in Decision Making: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective

Naqvi, Shiv, and Beehara

· Functional Dissociation of the Frontoinsular and Anterior Cingulate Cortices in Empathy for Pain

Xiaosi Gu, Xun Liu, Kevin G. Guise, Thomas P. Naidich, Patrick R. Hof, and Jin Fan

· Damage to the Insula Disrupts Addiction to Cigarette Smoking

Nasir H. Naqvi, David Rudrauf, Hanna Damasio, and Antoine Bechara

From Montessori philosophy for elementary students to mentoring college students: The value of feelings in learning success

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