This Is Your Brain On Philosophy

The scene is the GooglePlex, headquarters of Google, in Mountain View California. Not content with inventing the fastest search engine in cyberspace, and also inventing and road-testing the pilot-less car, Google decided to teach its employees how to become emotionally intelligent, through a course called ‘Search Inside Yourself’, which one day it hopes to make available to the whole world.

The first talk on the SIY course is called the Neuroscience of Emotions, given by Phillippe Goldin, head of the clinically applied affective neuroscience group at the department of psychology at Stanford University. In the talk, Phillippe introduces the bright minds of Google to the latest in neuroscientific research, the latest findings from fMRI scans, PET scans, subdural electrode mapping, and so on.

These devices have enabled us, he says, to “probe the limbic system like never before” - to probe the parts of the brain which neuroscientists think dictate our emotional, automatic responses to the world, such as the amygdala and the hippocampus, and see how they react to external stimuli. We can now actually see the neural effect of, for example, telling someone ‘nobody likes you’, or playing them some sad music, or frowning at them, or giving them an electric shock. And you can also see the impact on their limbic systems if you say ‘everybody likes you’, or play happy music, or smile, or give them a hug.

So we can now see how our consciousness is affected by all these ‘bottom up’ messages from our limbic system, which are triggered automatically by external stimuli. But we can also see how our brains can regulate these emotional responses through top-down cognitive control.

Phillippe tells the Google boffins:

There’s this whole other part of the brain, this beautiful pre-frontal cortex, which is so fully developed in human animals, and which allows us to take different perspectives, to think, to analyse, to use language, all in the service of emotional regulation. It means we can think in a certain way, to change the meaning of something going on in our life or at this very moment, to change its intensity or duration, or even to shift our interpretation of it entirely.

He goes on:

This is not a new discovery. Almost two millennia ago, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said: ‘If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.’ That’s a profound, profound definition of emotional regulation. It gets to the root of our powers of emotional appraisal and re-appraisal - changing the meaning of our affective reaction to a stimulus. And this insight is the basis for CBT, which is the gold standard for treating anxiety disorders and other emotional disorders.

What the Stoics discovered, and what neuroscientists are now teaching the smart folk at Google, is that the way we feel depends to a large extent on how we see things. It depends on the perspective we take, on the frame through which we view things. And they also discovered that this frame is very often verbal. We create our emotions through our verbal descriptions of what is going on. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “Life itself is but what you deem it.”

This means that what we call ‘reality’ is really our own version of reality. A director’s cut, if you will. And the version of reality we have constructed, the frame through which we view it, can either be accurate, rational and wise, or it can be irrational, illogical and self-defeating, in which case we are always seeing the world wrong, like a cinematographer who can’t focus his camera.

Philosophy: the Art of Cognitive Reappraisal

The good news is that we can become aware of our habitual automatic perspective on life, and we can choose to see things differently. Cognitive neuroscientists call this ability to choose our perspective 'cognitive re-appraisal' - and trace the study of it back 2,000 years, to the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism.

The world expert in ‘cognitive re-appraisal’ is a colleague of Philippe Goldin’s at Stanford, called James J. Gross, director of the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory. Gross defines ‘re-appraisal’ in the Oxford Companion to the Affective Sciences as “altering the meaning of a situation so that the emotional response is changed”, adding that interest in re-appraisal “dates back thousands of years to philosophers such as the Stoics”.

Cognitive re-appraisal is not the same as suppressing an emotion - Gross has done several studies of emotional suppression, showing the damage it does to our memory and the pressure it puts on our cardio-vascular system. Nor is it the same as ruminating, or simply thinking something over and over from the same perspective. Re-appraisal means looking at a situation from a new perspective.

Gross and his colleagues, Rebecca Ray and Frank Wilhelm, showed the emotional effects of re-appraisal in a study in 2008 called All In The Mind’s Eye? Anger Rumination and Re-Appraisal.

They asked experiment participants to think of a recent event that made them very angry. They then asked one group to ruminate on the event, asking them to “turn it over and over in your mind. Focus on those things that initially made you feel and respond the way you did”. They asked the second group to re-appraise the event: “think about it from a different perspective from the one you used earlier. For example, you might try to see this event from the perspective of an impartial observer.”

The re-appraising group felt about 50% less angry after re-appraising, than the ruminating group did, who carried on feeling angry even when told they could stop. The results seem to confirm one of Epictetus’ comments: “Everything has two handles”. We always have a choice about how to grasp a situation - either according to our habitual perspective (ruminating), or by choosing a new perspective (re-appraising).

When we re-appraise, we use a different part of our brain to when we ruminate. In a study by MIT, fMRI scans of subjects before and after they re-appraised an emotion-laden situation showed increased activation of the pre-frontal cortex, and decreased activity in the amygdala - the part of the limbic system which dictates our emotional and automatic response to events. Stanford's psychology department has also done several studies showing the neural correlates of cognitive re-appraisal in, for example, patients with social anxiety.

A Clockwork Orange

A study in 2009 by the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge tested out the powers of re-appraisal to live stimuli, in a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology called Seeing the Bigger Picture.

Schartau, Dalgleish and Dunn took several volunteers and showed them footage designed to elicit “horror and trauma” in them - footage of war, shootings, violent accidents, and so on. One group of subjects were told simply to watch the footage and say how they felt. A second group was shown the video, but then given given four suggested re-appraisals of the material. The re-appraisals were all fairly Stoic: the subjects were told to consider ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, ‘look at the bigger picture’, ‘time heals’, and ‘shit happens’ (actually this last re-appraisal was called ‘bad things happen’, but I prefer my version).

The study found that these suggested re-appraisals helped to soften the emotional impact of the footage, and this effect increased with practice. “Systematic practice in perspective broadening leads to significant absolute and relative decreases in horror and distress”, the study concluded.

This study may sound like something out of A Clockwork Orange. Couldn’t an army use such techniques to train soldiers not to feel any distress when they kill someone? (The answer is - they do that already. In fact, a large part of Army training consists in re-appraising a person’s attitude to homicide.)

The point is a morally neutral one about mental and emotional training. You can alter how a person feels about things by altering their frame. You can dispose them see things more negatively, for example. Two other psychologists from the MRC Unit in Cambridge, Mathews and Mackintosh, found you could train subjects so that they consistently interpreted ambiguous situations in negative and depressive ways, and continued to do so for several days after the belief implant. Nice work guys!

You are the Director

Here’s the silver lining to these rather bleak experiments: the Stoics insisted that no one can ever force us to believe something we choose not to believe. We are the director. We choose where to point the camera. We choose what we believe, if we are sufficiently conscious.

There are all kinds of influences trying to make us frame the world in different ways - our genes, our habits, our family, our friends, the media, the advertizing industry, the government - but ultimately no one can make us see the world a certain way unless we give that interpretation our assent.

Our judgments are in our conscious control, if we choose to exercise this control. Epictetus insists: “It is your own judgment that compelled you.” We always have the power to ask if our habitual judgment of the world really makes sense. Marcus Aurelius wrote: “You are not compelled to form any opinion about this matter before you, nor to disturb your peace of mind at all. Things in themselves have no power to extort a verdict from you.”

We have the directorial power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the view of reality which our limbic system presents to us. And we can develop this power through practice, which cultivates the parts of the brain (probably the pre-frontal cortex) which practice cognitive re-appraisal. We can become more autonomous, conscious and flexible in how we see things.

We can train ourselves to resist the imperatives of our automatic limbic system and say to ourselves, is that definitely the right way to see this situation? That, in essence, is what philosophy trains us to do. So the latest research in neuroscience is showing that philosophy, far from being 'dead' as Stephen Hawking recently claimed, is actually at the heart of being human.