In Descartes' Error by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, we learn about a patient named Elliot (not his real name), who was a successful businessman with a family, until he had a brain tumor removed from his frontal lobe. After, Elliot remained an intelligent, pleasant person, but his life was in shambles:
Any projects he did on the job were either left incomplete or had to be corrected, eventually leading to the loss of his job. He got involved in a moneymaking scheme with a “shady character” that ended up in bankruptcy. He got divorced, then married again to someone his family strongly disapproved of, and divorced again. By the time his referring doctors sent him to Damasio, he was living with a sibling, and, as a final blow, was denied disability assistance. The docs wanted to know if Elliot had a “real disease,” Damasio recounts, since “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work. Several professional had declared that his mental faculties were intact — meaning that at the very best Elliot was lazy, and at the worst a malingerer.”Without emotions, it becomes more difficult to know which tasks are more pressing, which organizational method is most preferable, or even when to buy or sell a stock. Those little emotional cues push us along. Whether we mean to or not, emotions come into play regularly. If they didn't, we would be like poor Elliot, forever analyzing organizational methods while blowing work deadlines or falling for scams that might sound legit if not for the little nagging doubt or fear in the back of our minds.
[Damasio] learned that when Elliot was at work, he might spend an entire afternoon trying to figure out how to categorize his documents: Should it be by date, pertinence to the case he’s working on, the size of the document, or some other metric? Yet his cognitive faculties were ace: He tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence; Elliot’s long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were all still present. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant. But he acted like he was both. He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. And it had led his life to ruin.
What was even more confounding is that Elliot could think up lots of options for a decision. When given assignments of assessing ethics (like whether or not to steal something for his family, Les Miserables–style), business (like whether to buy or sell a stock), or social goals (like making friends in a new neighborhood), he did great. But, even with all the idea generation, he could not choose effectively, or choose at all.
In fact, emotional reactions occur more quickly than cognitive reactions. We feel fear and begin to run before we consciously realize we've just seen a bear during our hike. One reason for this might be how our brain uses short-term memory (also known as working memory) versus long-term memory. Working memory is filled with information we want to have readily accessible, while long-term memory refers to the information and episodes (memories of our lives) in storage.
A recent study in Psychological Science delved into this very topic. Across four studies, they examined how emotional information stored in working memory impacted processing speed. On a computer, they showed participants faces, either neutral or negative (fearful or angry). They manipulated whether participants held this face in their working memory by telling them to remember the face for a task later on. They then flashed faces, which increased in contrast to become more clear across 5 seconds. Participants had to indicate whether they saw the face, and then indicate whether it was the same as the face they were shown initially. They found that people identified faces more quickly when presented with a fearful or angry face:
In sum, the present study extends previous findings by demonstrating that the content of WM can affect emotional processing in the absence of conscious awareness, and such WM modulation effects on nonconscious processing seem to be tuned to threat-related signals (e.g., fear and anger).Essentially, the faces put people on edge and made them react more quickly. In a computer-driven study, this might not seem very important but what if (for instance) you're out in a public place and you look around and see fear on people's faces? You now know there's something to be afraid of and you will hopefully react more quickly when you encounter whatever you should fear. If you didn't have emotions, faces would just be faces, and whatever emotion they're displaying would be as meaningless as organizing files by document size.