Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it.
— Damasio, Antonio (1994) Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Putnam Publishing. New York.
  Phineas Gage's skull and life mask,  Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard. Photo: Graham Gordon Ramsay

Phineas Gage's skull and life mask, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard. Photo: Graham Gordon Ramsay

In 1848 Phinaeas Gage was a upright citizen and foreman in a rock blasting crew working to prepare the Vermont railroad. Whilst adjusting explosive in a drilled hole with an iron tamping rod, a spark caused a freak explosion which propelled the rod through his eye socket and the frontal lobes of his brain. Gage survived the accident but lost all his social inhibitions. He became unrecognizably profane and irresponsible. He eventually eked out a living in a circus sideshow.

 Phineas Gage: Daguerrotype, historic engraving and MRI. Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard.

Phineas Gage: Daguerrotype, historic engraving and MRI. Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard.


Neuroscience professor António Damásio has spent much of his career working with patients who had been rendered entirely emotionless due to frontal lobe brain damage. He found that these patients were incapable of making even the simplest rational decisions. According to Damásio:

I had been advised early in life that sound decisions came from a cool head... I had grown up accustomed to thinking that the mechanisms of reason existed in a separate province of the mind, where emotion should not be allowed to intrude… But now I had before my eyes the coolest, least emotional, intelligent human being one might imagine, and yet his practical reason was so impaired that it produced, in the wanderings of daily life, a succession of mistakes, a perpetual violation of what would be considered socially appropriate and personally advantageous.

17th century Dutch philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza recognized that “[e]ach thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.” Damásio with the benefit of cutting edge neuroscience (2003: 36) updates Spinoza:

the goal of the homeostasis endeavor is to provide a better than neutral life state, what we as thinking and affluent creatures identify as wellness and well-being.

Damásio makes a distinction (2003: 6-7 and 28) between the emotions which are “public”―“as actions or movements visible to others as they occur in the face, in the voice, in specific behaviors”―and the subjective feelings manifest by emotions which are “private.”

Damásio certainly puts to rest pre-scientific notions of the mind/body divide. He champions the notion of embodiment and, in particular, the critical importance of the emotions in cognition. Similar ideas were popularized by Daniel Goleman, who championed Emotional Intelligence and EQ (Emotional Quotient).
The original purpose for which our brains evolved was to manage our physiology, to optimize our survival, and to allow us to flourish. When one considers that this purpose inherently involves monitoring and altering the state of the body and mind in increasingly complex ways, one can appreciate that emotions, which play out in the body and mind, are profoundly intertwined with thought.

António Damásio (2003) Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Harcourt. Orlando, FL. 


1. What evidence does Damásio provide to support his proposal that our emotions are entirely necessary for rational thinking and decision-making? What does this imply with regard to the role of emotion as a Way of Knowing?

2. Many people alter their emotional states by “self-medicating” with alcohol or other drugs. Provide three examples of other habitual actions that people use to consciously or unconsciously modify their emotional states.

3. Do you agree Damásio’s distinction between feeling and emotion? Does this align with everyday usage (denotation and connotation) of these words?

4. Provide at least two personal examples of how your own emotional state has affected, positively or negatively, your own learning in a specific subject?

5. How does the social acceptability of expressing, or hiding, certain emotions vary across cultures? Provide at least three examples to justify your response.


Printable pdf of text and questions

  Francisco de Goya (c. 1797)   The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters   (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos )   Plate 43 of the 80 in the  Los Caprichos  series. Etching aquatint, drypoint and burin.

Francisco de Goya (c. 1797) The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos) Plate 43 of the 80 in the Los Caprichos series. Etching aquatint, drypoint and burin.