Star Trek’s Error: Spock’s lack of emotion would have made him irrational

May 4, 2006 | By | 21 Replies More

Rene Descartes held that the human mind was separate from bodily processes.  Dr. Antonio R. Damasio disagreed, as set forth in Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1994). In this book, Damasio introduced the cases of Phineas Gage (long dead) and “Elliot” (a living patient), who both suffered brain damage to the ventromedial prefrontal area of their brains. 

Gage’s brain damage occurred when a metal tamping rod was accidentally shot through his brain during a blasting operation (he recovered and lived many years).  Elliot’s damage occurred as a result of a brain tumor. They were both left with high level intellectual functioning but little ability to experience emotion. 

[Gage] seemed to be like a child, with no stable sense of what was important and what was not. He was fitful, intemperate, obscene. It was as if he didn’t care about one thing more than another. He seemed bizarrely detached from the reality of his conduct. So he could not make good choices, and he could not sustain good relationships . .

Elliot had been a good role model, husband and father before his tumor.  After the tumor, he was

weirdly cool, detached, and ironic, indifferent even to intrusive discussion of personal matters- as if such remarks were not really about him. He had not previously been this way; he had been an affectionate husband and father. He retained lots of cognitive functions: he could perform calculations, had a fine memory for dates and names, and the ability to discuss abstract topics and world affairs.” After surgery, “he was even less able to care about things or to rank priorities. He could stick obsessively to a task and perform it well; but on a whim he might shift attention and do something completely different. Intelligence testing showed him to be a superior intellect.  His emotions were askew, though.  He could no longer set priorities or make decisions. He had no sense of the relative importance of any situation. 

Elliot could think but he couldn’t judge value.  “[T]the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options, and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat.”

Gage and Elliot each became like “Spock.” Many people would think of this as a potentially good thing, because they believe that emotions inevitably lead to “irrational” behavior.  The conventional wisdom is that people lacking emotions would be more clear-headed and therefore capable. What happened, though, is that both Gage and Elliot suffered severe impairments of judgment. Though they both appeared intelligent, they were completely incapable of making sensible personal and business decisions in the absence of emotions.

Damasio also studied other patients and found that people with flat affect were incapable of making decisions.   He found that pure rationality is helpless to make decisions.  Rational thought, devoid of emotion, paralyzes us.  He found that emotions are a necessary condition to allow rational decisions to be made, even purely “logical” decisions.  “Rationality” describes the way brain-damaged people make decisions.   Even “our most refined thoughts . . . use the body as a yardstick.”  He was convinced that the traditional views on the nature of rationality were therefore incorrect:

I had been advised early in life that sounds 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, and when I thought of the brain behind that mind, I envisioned separate neural systems for reason and emotion … 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.

Damasio was convinced that reason was “not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were, that emotion and feelings may not be intruders in the bastion of reason at all: they may be enmeshed in its networks, for worse and for better.”  He found that a reduction in emotion correlates with irrational behavior.  This “counterintuitive connection between absent emotion and warped behavior may tell us something about the biological machinery of reason.” The bottom line: pure reason is not sufficient for meaningful decision-making.

It is not only the separation between the mind and brain that is mythical: the separation between mind and body is probably just as fictional. The mind is embodied, in the full sense of the term, not just embrained.

The mind is actually about the body: the neural processes that are experienced as the mind concern the representation of the body in the brain.  Our minds critically depend on our human bodily existences.

“Somatic markers” comprise the emotional learning that we have acquired throughout our lives and that we then use for our daily decisions.  These markers record emotional reactions to situations.  Somatic markers work as emotionally-weighted indicators, steering us away from or toward choices, based on past experience.  It’s not that we can necessarily recall the specific past experiences that formed our system of markers, but we feel them and they allow us evaluate some options over others.  These emotion-laden markers help us to rank our options.

The brain does not merely record advance in the world but “also records how the body explores the world and reacts to it.”  Even though these neurological processes may occur in various portions of the brain, people experience and act on them in a unified coherent: the records that bind together all these fragmented activities . . . are embodied in ensembles of neurons.”  Damasio refers to these zones as “convergence zones,” where

The axons of feedforward projecting neurons from one part of the brain converge and join with reciprocally divergent feedback projections from other regions.  When a reactivation within the convergence zones stimulates the feedback projections, many anatomically separate and widely distributed neuron ensembles fire simultaneously and reconstruct previous patterns of mental activity. 

“Brain and Language,” Scientific American, 89-91 (September 1992).

Far from being a limitation or distraction, then, emotion is an integral part of cognition.  Emotion constructs and maintains the somatic markers that allow us to evaluate the desirability of our actions.

Spock would have struggled for hours to decide simple matters, such as what to eat.  That’s what pure rationality really gets you.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (21)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Ah, but there is an important difference between Spock and the people who have lost their ability to feel emotion: Spock did not lose his emotions, he consciously supressed them. Indeed, more than one Star Trek story made clear that Spock's emotional landscape was anything but flat. In fact, he is repeatedly described as having very intense emotions, even more intense than those felt by humans. Accordingly, the analogy to people who feel no emotions at all would be invalid.

    Ironically, this actually supports your conclusion. Spock had little difficulty making decisions, and certainly nothing like the difficulties faced by people without emotions. Thus, the conclusion that emotion is an integral part of cognition would remain intact.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    It had slipped my mind that Spock's mother was human. Therefore, grumpypilgrim is on target.

  3. JV says:

    if you really wished to use a 'star trek' example, the android, Data, from The Next Generation, would have sufficed

  4. Erika Price says:

    I'd like introduce another real-life example that supports this point.

    Every year, NASA sponsors an artificial intelligence competition pitting the top engineers and technological innovators against eachother to complete one task: build a fully mobile, artificially intelligent robot that can make its own way against the Nevada desert. In the years of this competition, no robot has ever made it more than a few dozen yards, and not because of the terrain.

    The robots conk out and fail because they lose their tracking on the target. Lost without the certaint of the proper direction, the bots simply sit still, though fully functioning.

    Though perfectly logical, a purely rational mind CANNOT function on uncertainty. Humans thrive on making quick, value-based decisions that rely on our emotional state and subjective opinions of what seems "best". For now, this makes us better than AI or pure rationality.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Just discovered: a photo of Phineas Gage posing with the railroad spike that shot through his head.

  6. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    I don't think it's the lack of emotion that is the problem in the the robotics example Erika cited.

    I've worked with artificial intelligence software based on neural net simulation and fuzzy logic. AI techniques involve algorithms which effective allow the computer to make an educated guess. This educated guessing ability has a side effect. The computer can artificially make mistakes.

    The Ai is basically used to recognize complex patterns in the input data in order to determine which predefined response is most appropriate. The process is similar tio a jury deliberating a case, but with the jury you have 12 jurors trying to reach a unanimous decision on 1 of 2 possible assessments. the ai is attempting to reach a majority vote of dozens of process "nodes" on 1 of a dozen possible assessments. The problem is that sometimes the AI can't reach the necessary number of votes for a specific assessment the software get stuck

    Emotion actually enhances learning.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    After mulling this over a bit I think I should add something. Emotion adds motivation. Very rudimentary emotion can be simulated in AI by defining certain inputs as either reenforcing or adversive. The would be somewhat similar to pleasure and pain. IF the AI (assuming a robotic device) is programmed to categorize and store the unrecognizable patterns based on the pleasure/pain input, it will develop a fear like response to the "pain" type situations. It will also develop a preference for the response that it asociates with "pleasure".

    Emotion provides motivation.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus: I am not familiar enough with AI or robotics to really weigh in, but it seems that the trick would be to program the choices of an artificial life form (software or robot) choices of action to some numerically weigh-able priority–energy units would need to have a high priority, so that they dictate action much like hunger does for us. These priorities could function as emotions, even though they wouldn't be "felt." All actions of artificial beings should have connections to the robot-equivalent of what cognitive scientists refer to as the FOUR F's (Feeding, Fleeing, fighting and reproduction).

  8. Erich writes:—"It had slipped my mind that Spock’s mother was human. Therefore, grumpypilgrim is on target."

    No, that has nothing to do with it. Spock had particular problems with his emotions, but Vulcans as a race did not lack them—they were constantly working to control and suppress them. The Vulcans were very Japanese, who are also strikingly "controlled" people, but certainly to not lack emotion.

    It was the intellectual rigor of self control that represented the pinnacle for Vulcans. But they had plenty to control.

  9. Tony Coyle says:


    You might want to review your statement… last I looked DARPA's robotics challenge has succeeded in delivering vehicles capable of autonomously navigating hundreds of miles of desert, as well as the most recent urban challenge, where vehicles had to deal the typical challenges of an urban environment: multiple lanes, other motorists, traffic laws, and so on.

    It's still 'research' but closer than you might think!

    Check it out — lots of cool footage, of driverless cars succeeding where less than a decade failure was the norm.

  10. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erich, It seems you have a pretty good handle on the AI concept. Except the priorities are not pre-programmed. They are determined and assigned by the program as it runs. The result is a primitive form of behavioral self modification. The self modified behavior tends to imitate fear or lust.

  11. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    About Spock:

    My understanding of the Spock character was that the characters denied their emotional side, yet it would occasionally show through.

    The famous "Amok Time" episode where Spock had to return to Vulcan for his nuptials is the best indication of this. It portrayed the biological urge to merge and the associated high emotions as being shrouded in ritual and law.

  12. Blasphemers!!! All of you! If you think you've withstood the ire of religious fundamentalists by claiming that Jesus was misquoted and even worse…NOT GOD, you haven't seen anything like the wrath of Trekkies whose beloved icon you just TRASHED!

    Let me set the record straight. If any of you would have bothered to watch all 79 episodes of the original series at least 10 times each before spouting off your ignorance you'd have known that Mr. Spock certainly was NOT without emotion.

    First of all, the civilization of the planet Vulcan had long ago decided to CONTROL emotion, not merely suppress it, after nearly destroying themselves in a series of violent wars. Theirs is a rigorous discipline, not unlike Zen Buddhism here on Earth, wherein emotion is not allowed to unduly influence rationality. As a species they do experience love and anger but it is not expressed in a way that we would recognize.

    Further, Spock himself was half human and at some point in his life had to make the difficult decision whether to pursue his father's discipline of emotional control or allow his mother's side to blossom. Even infidels like yourselves know which path he took but there was always a struggle. Always the emotion was seething just below the surface and every so often, breaking out when Spock was under stress.

    Without emotion?? Hardly! At least…uhhh…that's what a friend — I mean some NERD told me right before I beat him up!! Yeah, that's it, I beat him up! Trek NERD! Not me, HIM!

  13. Tim Hogan says:

    Sorry Mike, your nerd quotient just went out the window, how else would it be that twice Spock declined to complete the Kohlinar Ceremony which would "purge himself of all emotion."

    The First time he wiped out was when he felt the presence of "Vyger" in the first Star Trek Movie, and the last just before he was to enter the Vulcan Science Academy and turned it down to go into Starfleet in the latest movie.

    Neiner, neiner,neiner!

    Oh and by the way the answers to the nerd questions posed to President Obama about "Dune" were:

    the name of the substance mad from the drowned sandworm: "Water of Life," and;

    the name of the tool used to call sandworms: "thumper," and;

    the Fremen name for the sandworms: "Shai hulud."

    YES, I am the biggest theist nerd on DI!

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