Why You Should Be Glad You're Not a Vulcan

In science fiction androids and Vulcans and the like are portrayed as kind of badass, with no emotions to trip them up or slow them down. They might be a little socially awkward, but they are scrupulously honest, fair, brave and logical. But what would we actually be like if we banished emotion?

Emotional reactions are often looked down upon in society. Emotions whip people up into a destructive frenzy. They cause people to make decisions against their own best interests. Sure, everyone knows that emotions like love and fear are necessary to keep people from eating their young or becoming recluses or trying to hug a grizzly bear, but morals could help us raise kids, strong social customs could keep us interacting, and a logical appraisal of our odds of survival would keep us from hugging bears. Is there anything emotions can do that can't be replaced with logic and values, which would naturally be flawless when assessing other conditions?

Recognizing Emotion In Others

Why You Should Be Glad You're Not a Vulcan

To begin with, if you are emotionless in a society, you had better not be the only one. Vulcans and androids would not just find human being's emotions 'curious,' they'd fail to understand that they had them at all. There have been quite a few case studies of victims of brain damage, whose emotions were either dampened or wiped out. One man simply drifted away from his family, preferring to be by himself. Another, more troubling case, began when a woman complained that her husband didn't show her any emotion whatsoever. Since the brain-injuring accident, he'd seemed to be constantly indifferent. The problem? He wasn't the victim of the accident. She was. Doctors noted how much her husband was doing to care for her, and how plainly he showed his emotions. She simply couldn't see it.

Brain injuries that take out emotions often have this effect. Many doctors report that patients no longer understand what's going on in horror movies, and are unable to even feign an 'angry face' in the mirror. They have to retrain patients to understand emotion by, seriously, asking them to think about how a person at their own husband's funeral might be feeling. We recognize emotion, reaction, and even appropriate behavior not because we store it up in a memory bank and deploy it in proper settings. We recognize it because we feel it in ourselves. There is no logical replacement for appropriate behavior.

The Unconscious Mind and Emotion

Why You Should Be Glad You're Not a Vulcan

Often one of the best attributes of the emotionless fictional character is their fearlessness. They bravely face what makes other people shrink away. But sometimes fear is a physical necessity. In dangerous situations, the body treats us to a potent cocktail of chemicals. We feel less pain. We're able to focus better. We're alert and and engaged.

A famous example of this is an experiment in which a female researcher met male hikers in two places, a scarily high suspension bridge and a regular non-scary bridge. She asked them to fill out a survey and gave them her number to call her if they had any questions. The male hikers who she met on the scary bridge were more likely to call her, often with something other than the experiment on their minds.

There's a reason people get on roller coasters. Being thrilled has an element that's physically pleasant. One way to counteract is being emotionally brought down. We might think that people who don't feel fear are cooler than others in touchy situations. But maybe they're just reckless jerks, looking for a fight.

Or maybe they don't even realize they're in danger. A woman whose amygdala - emotional brain - was damaged in a way that kept her from feeling fear repeatedly got herself into bad situations without reacting to them appropriately. Mice who can't feel fear don't learn to react to things — like a certain sound — even after they've been conditioned to understand it will hurt them. Even someone with no memory will learn, if they can feel fear. Édouard Claparède, a psychologist in the early 1900s, had a female patient who couldn't make new memories. She would always introduce herself to him, while shaking his hand, whenever she saw him. Taking advantage of the lax standards of the early 1900s, Claparède decided one day that he'd shake her hand while there was a tack in his hand. The next time around, she refused to shake hands, even though she didn't know why. People can't learn, or react appropriately, with logic alone.

Breaking Down Entirely

In the end, doing anything, even irrationally, is better than doing nothing. One of the most troubling aspects of people without any emotions is their inability to chose anything. One scientist recalled calling a patient in to participate in a study. As a thank you for participation, the patient was given the choice between a wallet and a pen. The patient studied them for a time and chose the pen. Then the wallet. Then they left, came back, and chose the pen. That afternoon they called, told the researchers they were coming in the next day, and asked if they could still choose the wallet. If his brain didn't tell him that he was satisfied with his choice, he couldn't stop trying to choose.

How do we evaluate if an economic, social, or scientific plan is good? Isn't it the thing that most satisfies people? Let's say we're starting a space program. Why would we bother, if we don't feel a sense of accomplishment? One could argue that we'd do it out of a sense of pure intellectual curiosity. But when we speak even of something as rarefied as intellectual curiosity, we talk of 'satisfying' it.

There's no doubt that decisions are influenced, sometimes to a person's detriment, by emotion. For example, when people are given money in an experiment and told them that if they choose not to gamble it on a game they will get to keep forty percent of it, they overwhelmingly choose not to gamble. If they're told that if they don't gamble they will lose sixty percent of it, they'll overwhelmingly roll the dice. Manipulation of fear of loss or sense of satisfaction can be done. But just because the basic function of decision-making can be hacked doesn't mean it is unnecessary or we'd be better off without it.

In the end, we need emotions as a way of dealing with the world. We can't just be creatures of logic. What we feel is as irreplaceable as what we think. Without it, we'd lose something necessary to our survival as a species.

Top Image: GGG

Emotion Image: Wiki Commons

Roller Coaster Image: Boris23

Via USA Today, Medical News, NYU, The Most Human Human, and APA.