top of page

Emotions vs Rationality

emotion vs rationality.jpg

This is the holy grail of decision-making, isn't it? Most of us believe that we each have a logical and emotional side. The logical side is analytical and brilliant, while the emotional side is an impulsive, needy mess. We want to develop ourselves so that our rational, logical side is able to suppress our emotions, ensuring that we make the best decisions and live the best lives and all end up as Albert Einsteins or Bill Gates.  

Of course, the truth is not so simple. 

There are 2 major assumptions with the chain of thought above:

1) is that cognition (or rationality) and emotion are separable - 2 different parts of our brain which can activate independently.

2) More specifically, the cognitive brain is the like an old wise man that can direct and manage the little kid that is the emotional brain. We make better decisions with rationality and cognition, and emotions are not useful. 


Let's examine both of these assumptions.

To begin, let us look at the region of our brain responsible for rationality - the pre-frontal cortex(PFC). This is the most newly-evolved, most brilliant, most analytical brain region. And it is true that the PFC is responsible for making sense and regulating our emotions, for delaying gratification, for long-term planning, and for strategy. 

But if we look just a little bit closer, we realise that this is not the full story.


In the 1960s, Walle Nauta of MIT provided us with a key insight. He studied neural networks formed involving the frontal cortex. Unsurprisingly, many neural networks led out from the frontal cortex onto other parts of our brains. But these also happened in reverse, many other regions projected onto the frontal cortex. In particular, one network was especially well-connected, very busy, and crucially, bi-directional. This network is between the PFC and the limbic system (the emotional brain). The rational and emotional parts of our brains are always talking, mutually influencing each other, and, as we shall soon see, not necessarily always in contradiction. 

This network was so well established Nauta proposed to name the PFC as an honorary member of the limbic system.
Ironically, for many years, brain scientists got all emotional in response to such supposed blasphemy. 

prefrontal cortex 2.jpg

A second important clue of the interaction between rational and emotional brains come in the structure of the PFC itself. There are 2 important regions in the PFC.  

The first is the dorsolateral (this simply means that it is located at the top edges) PFC or dlPFC for short. The dlPFC is the ultimate decider, the most rational, cognitive, unsentimental, and unemotional part of the PFC (and hence our brains). Say you are faced with a classic philosophical question: is it ok to kill one innocent person to save five people? The more the dlPFC activates, the more likely it is for the answer to be "yes". When the dLPFC is silenced (through a magnet) or damaged, we struggle with gratification postponement, persist with strategies that offer an immediate reward, and show poor executive control over their behaviour - we find it harder to control sexual or aggressive urges. Pretty much everything you would expect.


But there is a second important region in the PFC, the ventral region, in particular the ventromedial PFC (vmPFC). What does the vmPFC do? It is the part of the PFC that is specifically dedicated to interface with the limbic system. It assesses the impact of emotions on our decisions, and the impact of decisions on our emotions


What happens if your vmPFC is impaired or damaged? There are some things that are not affected, analytical intelligence, working memory, making estimates. But when decisions have an emotional or social element, a damaged vmPFC leads to poor or paralysed outcomes. Those with a damaged PFC can advise others what to do in a particular situation, but when they have to decide for themselves in the same situation, they don't know what to do. (interestngly, the amygdala, part of our emotional brain responsible for fear, anger, anxiety, and aggression, also plays a role in assessing the value of changing rewards)

How does this work? 

Another giant of the neuroscience, Antonio Damasio offers an explanation. What the vmPFC does is continually simulate different outcomes, and then ask, "How would I feel if this happens?". Why is this an important question? If we think back on our lives, we'd find that it is emotions that often give the biggest chunk of meaning to what we have done. Consider someone who is completely emotionless. What would climbing Mount Everest, or marrying the girl of his dreams, winning a tournament with a team, or overcoming major adversity really mean?

People with a damaged vmPFC damage also show poor judgment in choosing friends and partners and are unable to process and learn from negative feedback to improve behaviour - without the work of the vmPFC to interface logic and emotion, the negative feedback doesn't hit us hard enough to force us to change.

logic vs emotions 2.jpg

The 2 parts of the PFC gives us a hint as to how rationality and emotions work things out in our brain.

Certainly there are times when rationlity and emotions works exactly as our assumptions predict. The PFC examines if our emotions are justified, injects objectivity, and help us come to a better decision. For example, when we stood up to our fears - defined them, and produced a plan to overcome them. When we calmed ourselves down from  anger. When we resisted the immediate reward for a bigger one later. When we decided not to conform to what everyone is doing. When we choose to buy a bundle of stocks instead of just from our favourite company. 

Sometimes, your rational brain affirms what your emotional brain is saying. Your emotions are able to express something that isn't logical, but is still accurate. You feel nervous before an examination. You think about it, and  it is true - you're nervous because you're not well prepared. There's something that makes you really angry. You think through it and realise the anger occurred there are certain values and beliefs that you hold firm, and an incident had crossed those boundaries. Your emotions helps you define where that boundary lies, and how much it means to you. 

But for the most important and challenging questions in our lives, we find that both emotion and logic provide an important piece to the final answer. Should we leave the company where we established great relationships for another job that offers more money; should we pursue that dream we always hesitated on; who are the people that you can trust when times are down? 


Lending a Helping Hand

Further, when we examine behaviour to more complex situations on over a longer period of time as opposed to our decision/reactions to one incident or episode, emotions and rationality become even harder to tell apart. 

Consider empathising with someone in need, and taking action to help them.

- Empathy is an emotion, primarily triggered in a region called the anterior cingulate cortex. When we lack empathy for someone, or when we are overly rational, the tendency is for us to rationalise not helping - it doesn't seem so bad; he's just exaggerating; someone else will help him; I'm very busy myself. Without the triggering of emotion, we simply find it difficult to help anyone, even when they really need i. 

- But feeling too much causes problems too. Feeling someone's pain literally causes the pain centre in our brain (a region called the periaqueductal grey) to trigger as well. If we feel too strongly, sufficient distress is created in the pain centre, and we are actually less likely to help. Instead, our brains start to automate protecting ourselves - "this is just too painful, I can't be here any more; I can' bear to watch/listen to this, please don't tell me". As pain from empathy increases, our own pain becomes our primary concern. 

- At this point, it falls back onto our prefrontal cortex to regulate pain from empathy, to realise that we are not actually the ones suffering, that the real victim will suffer more if we don't lend a helping hand. It takes our PFC to shift our emphasis from ourselves to some tangible action to help others.  

Thus, without some emotional attachment, we don't help. Too much emotional attachment, we don't help. We need our emotions to help us feel for someone, but we need our PFC to help us not to feel too much. 


Another example: Lying

- It might be emotions that create the initial impulse to lie, to protect ourselves or to protect others. Ths impulse comes from emotion, which yells at our PFC, we need to lie to keep ourselves safe! At this point, the rational brain starts regulating - is it really the right thing to do, and will we really be able to get away with lying?

- Let's assume that your PFC agrees with the amygdala - you decide to lie. While your emotions was the trigger to lie, the PFC is the one that formulates how to best to do so, how to weave layer upon layer of deceit so that you won't get caught lying.

- But your PFC does more. Once you have decided to lie, not only does your PFC formulate the lie, it starts to formulate reasons to justify lying that you are doing the right thing, that you had no choice, that you thought it through. You lie not only to others, but you also tell a little lie to yourself.

- Ironically, it is another emotion, guilt, that might persuade you to come clean. You become so uncomfortable with lying that you feel an impulse to come clean (just like the initial impulse to lie)

Emotions act as an exaggerated trigger to direct us to do something or to stop doing something ASAP. Rationality prevents us from doing something rash, but equally can be the one that pulls us deeper and deeper into a hole which we then can't come out of. This happens when our rational brain justifies our decision and builds additional layers on top of the original impulse.

To complete the cycle of complexity, while it might be emotions that first convinced us to go down a hole, it might also be emotions that finally convince our rational brain we don't need to stay down the hole, there's another way out.

changing change minds.jpg

Our final and most important example - change. We often attribute our inability or resistance to change to emotions. It's fear of uncertainty, fear of losing what we are familiar with, fear of failure.

But it should be evident by now that it is not just emotions at work. Fear could be the initial impulse. But more significantly, somewhere along the line, our rational mind justified our fears. Our PFC manufactured reasons why our present beliefs are correct, why we do not need to change, and how we have in fact considered the options thoroughly and are making the smarter choice. 

|||  It is not just fear that makes us unwilling to change. It is that we believed and legitimised our fears. 

Along the way our logical PFC endorses the emotion. The emotional impulse is developed into a narrative, a story with reasons that we are right. A story that convinces us to continue with our present behaviour.  

This applies to other examples. The person who obstinately refuses to change his/her mind? The one who refuses to ever apologise for anything in life? That colleague that is always trying to protect herself at work, even at the cost of others? The person who never tries anything new in life. It is easy to just blame emotions for this. But it only when logic syncs with emotion that we develop a persistence.


This also applies for positive behaviour - when unhappiness with your present circumstances drives you to formulate a new plan for life. When you are so disappointed with what you did to someone you endeavour never to do so again. When you are so angry at a mistake you made that it forces you into a new pattern of thinking. You may also be interested in our fear-setting page - facing our biggest fears requires us not just to make sense of the emotion of fear, but to sharpen the narrative and reasoning that follows. 

heart plus brain.png

2 conclusions from this chapter:

1. We know for certain that there different brain regions each responsible for regulating a different behaviour. It is very natural whenever there is categorisation that we think each category is unique, dichotomous, and disparate, each brain region doing its own work. But we've seen that in reality there is constant interface between different regions. Region A might influence B, but in turn, B also influences A (as well as regions C and D and E).

The brain is less about regions, and more about circuits - the patterns of functional connectivity among these different regions.

2. Nowhere is this more obvious than rationality and emotions. Osensibly, these 2 regions are direct opposites. More often than not, we believe that if we can stay rational and remove emotions, we will all be Nobel Prize winners and billionaires. With rationality, we avoid mkaing hasty and inaccurate decisions that we come to regret.

But as the examples show, it really isn't so simple. To draw an analogy, baking a cake requires ingredients like flour and eggs. Flour and eggs are distinguishable by themselves. They are so different. But once we mix them together, they can no longer be differentiated in the baked cake, the final product. Rationality and emotions are like the flour and eggs. If we just look at them by themselves, they are so different and distinguishable . But life's challenges often resembles that baked cake - in the end, our decisions and behaviour contain both emotions and logic layered upon one another that are indistinguishable. 


Related Links:

- In our sections on
changing minds and changing behaviour, we see that pure rationality rarely works, even when it is blatantly obvious. What helps us change our minds and behaviour is often an unexpected mix of both logic and emotions.

- Check out our chapter on 2 types of intelligence, where we examine Max Planck and Dale Carnegie, 2 drastically different personalities.

- Read more about major parts of our brain:

The Amygdala

Prefrontal Cortex

Insular Cortex

- Examine how our brains are wired for survival, and how fear is our favourite tool to help us survive.

- Understand the world of pain and perceived pain


bottom of page