Epictetus vs. the Brain

Somehow or another I had stumbled across an interesting, philosophy-oriented blog, in which a writer (her name, as well as the blog, are lost to me now) was teeing up an interesting critique of Epictetus. The gist, so far as I was able to get it in the short time that I had, was that the core Stoic idea of emotional control was deeply flawed, in that it rested on an essentially inaccurate idea of the mind. In a nutshell, the Stoics argued in various ways that our rational minds can, and indeed should, be trained to take mastery over our passions. The Stoics valued (as many since have valued) the ideal of a dispassionate, rational mind, holding emotional reactions at bay in the service of virtue. The woman I was reading was setting out to argue that this model rested on a false premise, namely the idea that the rational mind operates independently of emotion, when in fact the two are entwined in a highly interactive way. Our deliberate process of thought can be used to affect our emotional reactions, but the opposite is equally true: our emotions are just as apt to shape what passes for reason in our higher, cortical brains.

I was into all this, and settled down to read, but a child suddenly had a desperate need to show me something newly created in Minecraft, which simply couldn’t wait. Also he was hungry, which was odd because a piece of bread had appeared in the middle of the carpet, waiting to be stepped on, which made me somewhat urgently concerned to understand what might or might not have been spread on its downward-facing side, prior to whatever unhappy accident had brought it there. Meanwhile, something in the kitchen had begun to beep ominously, and just then the other child came running through, inexplicably naked. From somewhere in the house, a crash…

And just like that, though I never finished the article, the author’s argument was proven true, as my reason surrendered to my emotional brain without even putting up a fight.

I really did lose track of the article, this to my shame because I’d love to cite it here. But I’ve been enjoying this whole line of thinking. As I’ve written about before and elsewhere, a key tenet of my basic, philosophical pessimism is the recognition that our own processes of thought are far less coherent, linear and rational that we like to imagine. Nor is any of this speculative – the brain science has been in for decades. Now I’m not a neurobiologist, and am thus dependent for all this on people who are, but as I think I’ve mentioned before the work of Professor Robert Sapolsky at Stanford is a fantastic resource. Though caveats abound, as with any field of human knowledge, we have a pretty good picture of what different parts of the brain do, and how those parts of the brain interact. It’s not a complete picture – that’s not how science works and there’s always more to learn. But we pretty much know what parts of the brain are activated when we’re working through a logical process of thought, and we pretty much know how those parts of the brain interact with the bits responsible for emotion, fear, memory, and so on. The punch line is that they interact a lot. None of us are ever really capable of a making a purely rational decision. We operate within a complex structure of biases, mental shortcuts, flawed interpretations, and emotive responses, all skewed further by whatever happens to be going on with us at the time. We do the best we can, but it’s rarely all that good.

Which is all okay, provided that it’s something we recognize. The interesting thing is that generally speaking, it isn’t.

Nowhere is this more true than in the business world where I spend most of my time. The pervasive mythology (I participate in it) is that we’re rational men and women, always striving to make good decisions based on solid data. Now usually, this isn’t even true at the level of superficial appearances. Your average corporate conference room is exactly the pheromonal stew of testosterone, ego, and the subtler aromas of human fear that you’ve probably always imagined it would be. The rationality is usually grafted on after decisions have been made, not before, by clever people skilled in rationalizing a process that more often than not was far more deeply rooted in some senior executive’s troubled relationship with his father. I should know – as a consultant I’ve made good money doing this, for some very heavy senior teams. It’s not always easy. You need a certain intellectual nimbleness with just the right dash of mercenary amorality.

The whole thing takes on a little more pathos when the team at hand is actually trying to make a good decision. The sad part here is that not much changes, except that all the cognitive dissonance has to be worked through in real time. What you want to be able to do is say is something like, “Hey guys, it’s going to be hard to make a decision here, because there’s a certain amount of emotion around this. We don’t need to put that aside, but let’s acknowledge that it’s there as we work this through.”

Yeah, right. That’s not what we do. But before we just chalk this behavior up to another case of masculine corporate malfeasance (and it is that, at least in part), I would argue that this isn’t generally what any of us do. Tracing all the complex connections between our emotional lives and daily decision making is hard. It’s not even possible in any comprehensive sense. In the most literal, axonal, synaptic way, it isn’t what we’re wired for.

When I talk about the virtue of pessimism, much of what I’m arguing boils down to the virtues of an emotional life rooted in low expectations. The pessimist, as I’ve said many times before, has the luxury of being pleasantly surprised. I don’t think much of my own ability to act rationally. That doesn’t let me off the hook for trying, but nor do I need to consider my own acts of crazy to be wild, worrying aberrations (at least, not up to a point). A lot of that is just what my weird, non-optimal, evolutionary layer cake of a brain is going to do, because it isn’t built to do anything else. It’s a wonder that I can handle as much as I can. There are some positives here. Take the bread on the carpet, for example: just bread, as it turned out, no peanut butter. That’s a win, provided you’re ready to take what you can get.

Side note: is Epictetus really pronounced, “epic-teat-us?” That seems to be the consensus but I think it takes something away from the philosophical dignity of the whole thing. Oh well.

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