Saturday, March 29, 2008

Introductory Thoughts (continued)

Just realized that I missed one key component: epistemology.

Rand held that our senses can be trusted to accurately perceive reality and that we can form concepts tied to reality. Truth describes the relationship of our knowledge to reality. While I agree in broad terms with this there are still some thorny questions.

Here is one. Given that the emotional mechanism of our brain, the limbic system, predates the development of the neo-cortex, considered the seat of rational thinking, how do we ensure that our emotions do not adversely affect our objectivity?

I know Rand named her philosophy on the idea that the universe exists independently of our hopes, fears and wishes. I think the term “objectivism” should also apply to our frame of mind: that it behooves us to strive to be objective when coming to conclusions. As Daniel Goleman explains in Emotional Intelligence, our rational faculty developed only recently compared to the emotional centers of our brain with their roots stretching back to the beginning of our evolutionary development. Reason, the newcomer, tries to bridle an ancient, powerful emotional mechanism. “There was an emotional brain long before there was a rational one.” Most of the time, reason and emotion can successfully work together. Occasionally, however, our emotions can “hijack’ our nervous system.

The prime culprit in these hijackings is the amygdala, a center in the limbic system. The amygdala occupies a unique position: it receives the same sensory signals as the neocortex but does so before the neocortex. In addition, the amygdala constantly scans incoming data for threats. If it senses a threat, “the amygdala reacts instantaneously, like a neural tripwire, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain.” The amygdala leaps into action before the neocortex can analyze and assess the situation, making it difficult to corral the emotions.

Unfortunately, some people have amygdalas wired with a hair trigger. Furthermore, traumatic events can indelibly imprint the amygdala so deeply that years later it can be triggered by sensory input bearing just a passing resemblance to the original event. These people have to contend with this imprinting for the rest of their lives.

The basic conclusion is that being objective is much tougher and involves more work than we might realize.

1 comment:

Lewis said...

if you have interest in Daniel Goleman's thinking, you might also be interested in his 'Wired to Connect' dialogue series, in which he speaks to leading thinkers about the applications of emotional intelligence. Samples of all the so far published dialogues are available at