Emotions and Social Intelligence: Jane Braaten and Antonio Damasio

Kaaren Williamsen
Gustavus Adolphus College
March 1995

"Feelings offer us a glimpse of what goes on in our flesh" (Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error, 159.)

"Among the values with which I have been inscribed most thoroughly is the love of Israel, and I was brought up to love Israel in a variety of ways. I was brought up to love it by knowing its geography, topography, zoology, as well as history, and by appreciating its natural and archaeological beauty. But, most important, I was brought up to love it in a very material, physical way, through the work of the land, and through extensive travel throughout the country and especially rigorous hiking in its valleys and on its mountains, at its seashore, and in its desert. These have connected me to the country through my body. It is as if they grafted it onto my body so that I have a feel for the land and its seasonal changes that runs through my hands and my feet and vivid body-memories of adjusting myself to fit the curves of the land while asleep under the open sky just as one adjusts oneself to fit the curves of a lover's body." (Bat Ami Bar On, "Meditations on National Identity," 53)

Bat Ami Bar On describes her feelings, giving us a glimpse of what happens in her flesh as she acquires values and knowledge of Israel. Her description leaves no doubt that her body, through her feelings, is an essential part of her knowing Israel. But knowledge-making and intelligence have historically centered around the life of the mind, relegating the body to secondary status. If we listen to Plato, he would have us understand the body as something that is to "obey and serve" the soul, and Descartes would have us believe that the body is only a hindrance to the real life of the mind. These and other philosophers have set up the notion of a mind - body dualism, where the mind and the body are two separate entities. Feminist criticisms of intelligence often concentrate on the body - recognizing it as a gendered, raced entity that affects our "place" and "understanding" in and of society. In the essay, "Towards a Feminist Reassessment of Intellectual Virtue," Jane Braaten pushed the traditional limits of "intelligence" by arguing for a concept of social intelligence. Social intelligence entails the skills and abilities involved with creating and maintaining community. Certainly Braaten includes the body in her account by taking into consideration the race and gender of the body. But the body is more than a unique house of the mind. It is an active participant in our decision making process and is unquestionably involved in carrying out those decisions. Braaten has taken one step away from the traditional understanding of intelligence. But by not recognizing the emotional aspects of cognition (as Bat Ami Bar On so beautifully describes), Braaten fails to make a step away from dualism.

It is my intent in this essay to argue that Braaten's conceptualization of social intelligence is incomplete without an adequate discussion and inclusion of emotions and feelings. Neurologist and philosopher Antonio Damasio has much to offer this issue. Through his book Descartes' Error, he discusses recent neurological findings on emotions and feelings in relation to reason and decision making with special attention paid to social interactions. He offers an understanding of emotions and feelings as an intricate part of cognition: "Feelings have a say on how the rest of the brain and cognition go about their business. Their influence is immense" (160). Braaten can offer Damasio insight as well. As we will see, in Damasio's scenarios, the concept of social intelligence would have been very helpful.

In the essay, "Towards a Feminist Reassessment of Intellectual Virtue," Jane Braaten argues for the inclusion of "feminist" values in an understanding of intelligence as intellectual virtue. She employs the Aristotelian term "intellectual virtue" to emphasize those aspects of intelligence that we "value and encourage" (4). She argues that "'Intelligence' is inherently an evaluative term," with its content socially determined (4). Furthermore, the meaning of intelligence cross culturally varies. What one culture may value as intellectual, another may not value at all. For instance she highlights that in many West African languages our word intelligence translates into a word that "denotes social skills and in particular, social abilities that are strongly associated with power to contribute to society." (3) Reacting to US culture, she says, "A society decides what it is to be intelligent when it decides that high school students should turn out to be the sort of persons who can do calculus and creative writing rather that the sort of persons who can hunt game, tell stories or raise a child" (4). Intelligence is not value free, it is socially determined and culturally assessed.

She uses the term intellectual virtue to emphasize a teleological social ability, in other words a social ability that will help lead to certain ends. Her feminist critiques lead her to concentrate on the end of creating and maintaining a community in which "all members of the community have the opportunity to live well"(13). The building of community she says, "requires special intellectual competence"(5). This competence is social intelligence. Social intelligence involves six abilities:

1) The first is imaginative ability: the ability to represent alternative subjective points of view, not merely of a perceptual character, but also of an ideological character; 2) The second is an ability to reason hypothetically about the likely responses of other to given course of events, given their various subjective points of view; 3) The third is an abstract ability, namely the ability to recognize social norms and values as socially constructed, rather than as a priori truths. This ability is necessary for transforming existing social arrangements. 4) The fourth is the creative imaginative ability to postulate what the social world would be like if it were based upon alternative social norms; 5) The fifth is an inductive ability to hypothesize about the sources of discord and well-being both, in personal and interpersonal affairs. 6) The sixth which involves each of the above abilities, is the ability to rechart intellectual virtue itself.

These six abilities illustrate her break away from traditional boundaries of intelligence. She further argues that social intelligence has the potential when "unconstrained" to be "not only empowering, but deeply subversive towards coercive, racist and sexist social structures"(13). Social intelligence has the potential of re-forming what we mean by intelligence. If we value community building as much as the ability to do physics, we are creating new potentials for living better together. Her arguments are valuable and offer a strong beginning for advocating and re-valuing social intelligence. But her arguments do not reject dualism, and therefore are limited in their potential. To fully develop the six abilities she spells out, we need to understand how emotions are an integral part of our reaction and decision making processes. When we leave out emotions, we are disregarding a large part of how and why we react to people and situations.

Neurologist and philosopher Antonio Damasio offers convincing examples and arguments for a very deliberate attention to the body, in particular emotions, when reflecting on reasoning and decision making. He explains "that our most refined thoughts and best actions, our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, use the body as a yardstick" (xvi). We live our lives, and experience our environments with our body as an active participant. The body is the vehicle through which we live all sorts of experiences.

. . . love and hate and anguish, the qualities of kindness and cruelty, the planned solution of a scientific problem or the creation of a new artifact are all based on neural events within a brain, provided that brain has been and now is interacting with its body. The soul breathes through the body, and suffering, whether it starts in the skin or in a mental image, happens in the flesh (xvii).

Damasio came to this discussion through scientific explorations and findings. Damasio's work as a neurologist with patients suffering a myriad of disorders, including brain damage, and or problems with memory, language, and reason have led him to believe that mental activity needs participation from the brain and the body. There are two relevant cases, that of Phineas Gage and "Elliot". These cases have much to say on reason and emotion. Let us start with Phineas Gage.

In 1848 Gage, a 25 year old well-adjusted, well-respected member of the community, was at work in a construction crew when he suffered a freak accident. An iron rod, three feet seven inches long and one and a quarter inches in diameter, entered and exited the front of Gage's head. Amazingly he was able to function "normally," walking and talking immediately after the incident. But "normal" behavior as a part of the community was never to return to Gage. Even though "medically" he healed in less than two months, his personality changed radically. In terms of goals, dreams, hopes and daily interactions with people, Gage was a totally different person. Friends and others in the community did not recognize him, describing him as,

fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity which was not previously his custom, manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires . . . devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged that they are abandoned. . . . A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man (8).

Gage could not hold a job, eventually joined a circus, taking advantage of his accident to be part of the "freak show." After a series of epileptic seizures, he died at the age of 38.

What Damasio and others have interpreted from a re-examination of this case (including examination of his actual skull, and computer simulation of what his brain looked like) is that the section of the brain through which the rod traveled (the pre-frontal lobe region) was responsible for certain characteristics unique to humans, including the ability to predict situations, and act from that assessment of the situation, specifically those dealing with social reasoning and interactions. On a social and human relations level, Gage could not function. He was incapable of making good and effective decisions, although his memory, language and traditional notions of intelligence were untouched. If Damasio were familiar with Braaten's work, he could say that Gage was no longer socially intelligent.

A patient named Elliot was referred to Damasio after others were dumbfounded over his condition. Elliot had been diagnosed with brain tumor. As the tumor grew in his brain it put enormous pressure on both frontal lobes. The tumor (which was the size of a small orange) and some surrounding damaged tissues were removed. By the time Elliot reached Damasio, he had experienced a radical personality change, much like that experienced by Phineas Gage. He went from a successful business person, with a happy and stable family life to a person who could not hold a job and had to be in the custody of a sibling. Elliot was unable to live appropriately in a community because he now lacked social intelligence.

When Elliot returned from the hospital people did not recognize him. He could not follow a schedule, motivate himself enough to get dressed in the morning, and was incapable of making the most basic of decisions. For instance he would spend an entire afternoon at work deciding whether to classify a group of data by date or place. He lost his job and entered risky business ventures and eventually ended up bankrupt. His marriage ended in divorce, to which he quickly married and divorced again. He became dependent on his social security disability check to survive. Damasio describes his observations,

The machinery for his decision making was so flawed that he could no longer be an effective social being. In spite of being confronted with the disastrous results of his decisions, he did not learn from his mistakes. . . . In some respects Elliot was new Phineas Gage, fallen from social grace, unable to reason and decide in ways conducive to the maintenance and betterment of himself and his family, no longer capable of succeeding as an independent human being (38).

On "intelligence" and personality tests, Elliot seemed like a normal, well-adjusted person, but something was obviously not working. After observing Elliot tell his tragic story without feeling anything, Damasio started concentrating on Elliot's emotional well-being. Damasio began to take note that Elliot always seemed to be detached from his feelings. Everything Elliot did was on the same monotone level: "I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration with my incessant and repetitious questioning"(45). An experiment by Daniel Tranel showing Elliot disturbing pictures of injured people, natural disasters, and complete destruction of communities illicited no emotional reaction in Elliot. The most insightful part of this experience was Elliot's own realization that his feelings had changed. He noted that before the surgery he would have reacted differently, but now he felt nothing. Damasio explains how much this affects life,

Try to imagine it. Try to imagine not feeling pleasure when you contemplate a painting you love or hear a favorite piece of music. Try to imagine yourself forever robbed of that possibility and yet aware of the intellectual contents of the visual or musical stimulus, and also aware that once it did give you pleasure. We might summarize Elliot's predicament as to know but not to feel (45).

This is where Damasio starts thinking about emotion and feeling in decision making, asking whether there were connections with patients like Gage and Elliot who were emotionally neutral, and their inability to function in a community. He hypothesizes that, "reduction in emotion may constitute an equally important source of irrational behavior" (53). He comes to his conclusions and understandings through scientific inquiry. He does not propose that science can answer every question, but science can play a guidance role. Scientific explanation does not take the uniqueness away from human behavior and feelings. He explains, "understanding neurobiological mechanisms behind some aspects of cognition and behavior does not diminish the value, beauty, or dignity of that cognition or behavior" (176). He goes on to say that,

It is important to realize that defining emotion and feeling as concrete, cognitively and neurally, does not diminish their loveliness or horror, or their status in poetry or music. Understanding how we see or speak does not debase what is seen or spoken, what is painted or woven into a theatrical line. Understanding the biological mechanisms behind emotions and feelings is perfectly compatible with a romantic view of their value to human beings (164).

Damasio offers an understanding of emotions and feelings through what he calls the "somatic - marker hypothesis." This hypothesis and subsequent theory explain that effective social behavior is dependent on feelings and emotions just as much as on the objective ability to reason. In fact what we understand to be the process of decision making actually has a lot to do with emotions. Damasio argues that the "high reasoning," advocated by Plato, Descartes and Kant, which employs formal logic supposedly divorced from emotions, is flawed for two reasons. First, without emotions and feelings we have limited memory capacity, and second, humans are basically ignorant and defective when they try to sufficiently use probability theory and statistics. Pure reason is what Gage and Elliot were bound to, and as Damasio and others have discovered, their ability to reason was not enough for them to be effective or even neutral members of their communities. Damasio explains that, "the cool strategy advocated by Kant, among others, has far more to do with the way patients with prefrontal damage go about deciding than with how normals usually operate" (172).

"Normals" Damasio argues, use somatic markers in decision making. We make many decisions in a day. We decide to move away from a falling object, we "decide" to eat when our blood sugar drops, and we decide whom to befriend, whom to vote for, and whether to drive in bad weather (167). We also employ decision making and reasoning in other activities like writing, composing, designing a new bridge, or reviewing policies (173). Damasio argues that all of these "decision-making processes, contrary to popular belief, may have a common thread. The processes involved in our body telling us when to eat and our deciding who to vote for may be connected. The common thread is what he terms the somatic marker. It aids in selection, and final decision making. He explains,

Imagine that before you apply any kind of cost/benefit analysis to the premises, and before you reason toward the solution of the problem, something quite important happens: When the bad outcome connected with a given response option comes into mind, however fleetingly, you experience an unpleasant gut feeling. Because the feeling is about the body, I gave the phenomenon the technical term, somatic state ("soma" is Greek for body); and because it "marks" an image, I called it a marker. . . . In short, somatic markers are a special instance of feelings generated from secondary emotions. Those emotions and feelings have been connected, by learning, to predict future outcomes of certain scenarios. When a negative somatic marker is juxtaposed to a particular future outcome the combination functions as an alarm bell. When a positive somatic marker is juxtaposed instead, it becomes a beacon of incentive (173-174).

The somatic marker response comes before reasoning, and they help us with decision making by narrowing our alternatives. Certain scenarios are immediately rejected because of their negative somatic marker. Negative markers work as an alarm bell, signaling danger and pointing one in another direction, thereby aiding in efficiency so that one does not spend energy in a place that would not be advantageous. An example of this would be Elliot spending the whole work day deciding how to file documents.

Damasio suggests to us that we think of somatic markers as biasing devices, effecting our decisions in immeasurable ways. The phenomenon of what we term willpower, Damasio explains is a function of somatic markers. We are able to make decisions that may have immediate 'unpleasant" responses, but will have good long term outcomes. He comments, "How would one otherwise accept surgery, jogging, graduate school, and medical school." Somatic markers let us "keep in mind" the long term goal, and makes the transition period livable because of the feelings associated with the long term goal (i.e. satisfaction, and or health).

He makes the very important claim that adequate social theories and the somatic marker hypothesis work together. "The somatic-marker account is thus compatible with the notion that effective personal and social behavior requires individuals to form adequate theories of their own minds and of the minds of others. On the basis of those theories we can predict what theories others are forming about our own mind"(174). I propose that we can further his claim by postulating that adequate social theories require us to pay attention to emotion, and the role it plays in our social decisions. Our social theories too often assume the "cool headed strategy" when creating theories about social relations. As Damasio has claimed, this strategy is more characteristic of people with pre-frontal lobe damage. Gage and Elliot were not able to relate socially, and yet all our measurements of what is considered "intelligent" told us that they were normal. If we want to talk in terms of social intelligence and include all people, not just the Gages' and Elliots' of the world, then we had better have a working understanding of emotions and the real role they play in community building and maintenance.

One obvious question arises: how are markers created? Damasio explains that these somatic markers are created by an interplay of brain and culture, subsequently drawing the body into decision making processes.

Most of the somatic markers we use for rational decision-making probably were created in our brains during the process of education and socialization, by connecting specific classes of stimuli with specific classes of somatic state (177).

The markers are supposed to serve an adaptive role in our lives. But they can be mal-adaptive when either brain or culture is defective. In the case of Gage, he became ineffective when the neural machinery that functions with somatic markers became damaged. Damasio also touches briefly (too briefly) on the effects of a sick culture - pointing to examples such as Nazi Germany and Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime. He sees these as examples where "a sick culture prevailed upon a presumably normal machinery of reason with disastrous consequences" (179). Damasio's analysis complements Braaten's claim that intelligence is culturally created and assessed. In one culture some somatic markers may be created to associate negative or positive feelings with certain characteristics. Braaten can also assist Damasio here by offering a more clear understanding of what he is actually talking about. Gage and Elliot were no longer effective in the community, because they lost the skills and abilities associated with social intelligence. Damasio, in effect, argues that the capacity to be emotional is synonymous with being socially intelligent.

Somatic markers develop from "an internal preference system" and "an external set of circumstances that include not only entities and events with which the organism must interact, but also social conventions and ethical rules" (179). This reinforces Braaten's claim that intelligence is culturally determined, while adding another needed dimension. The six abilities of social intelligence depend on what Damasio asserts are our emotions and feelings working by means of somatic markers. Gage and Elliot would not have those six abilities, but they were not missing any traditional forms of 'intellectual" capacities. They were missing the ability to feel and use their somatic markers. So if what Braaten describes is social intelligence, it must be emotional. Let us recall Bat Ami Bar On's account of her relation to the land of Israel. She illustrates that her experiences with the land,

have connected me to the country through my body. It is as if they grafted it onto my body so that I have a feel for the land and its seasonal changes that runs through my hands and my feet and vivid body-memories of adjusting myself to fit the curves of the land while asleep under the open sky just as one adjusts oneself to fit the curves of a lover's body (Bar On, 53).

Damasio has a wonderful scientific description of what happens when we experience a landscape, such as the one Bar On describes.

. . . when we see, or hear, or touch, or taste or smell, body proper and brain participate in the interaction with the environment.

Think of viewing a favorite landscape. Far more that the retina and the brainUs visual cortices are involved. One might say that while the cornea is passive, the lens and the iris not only let light through but also adjust their size and shape in response to the scene before them. The eyeball is positioned by several muscles, so as to track objects effectively, and the head and neck move into optimal position. Unless these and other adjustments take place, you actually may not see much. All of these adjustments depend on signals going from brain to body and on related signals going from body to brain.

Subsequently, signals about the landscape are processed inside the brain. Subcortical structures such as the superior colliculi are activated; so are the early sensory cortices and the various stations of the association cortex and the limbic system interconnected with them. As knowledge pertinent to the landscape is activated internally from dispositional representations in those various brain areas, the rest of the body participates in the process. Sooner or later, the viscera are made to react to the images you are seeing, and to the images your memory is generating internally, relative to what you see. Eventually, when a memory of the seen landscape is formed, the memory will be a neural record of many of the organismic changes just described, some of which happen in the brain itself (the image constructed for the outside world, together with the images constituted from memory) and some of which happen in the body proper. (179)

In the previous paragraphs by Damasio, he describes scientifically what Bar On explains poetically. Bar On developed a neural memory of her many experiences with the land of Israel. She developed somatic markers that activate and influence her decisions regarding the land of Israel. But BraatenUs limited view of social intelligence does not recognize the centrality of emotions. For instance, if Bar On was asked to make a decision regarding the land of Israel, her emotions would certainly play a part, and could not be separated from her decision making process. As Damasio has explained, only if she had prefrontal lobe damage could she make a decision without her emotions. It is the somatic markers that graft the land to her body, and make her able to feel the seasons change even though she herself is thousands of miles away. If social intelligence entails our abilities associated with being an effective member of a community, we need to have an understanding of emotions and feelings, for as Damasio has said, "our mind is not blank at the start of the reasoning process" (170). Furthermore, presuming a blank mind can be a dangerous decision. In Israel we are talking about armed conflict because of somatic connection to the land. With her advocacy of social intelligence, Braaten has taken the first step towards a transformative understanding of intelligence. But she has failed to step away from the dualist hold, and in doing so leaves her theory incomplete.


Bar On, Bat Ami. "Meditations on National Identity." Hypatia, Spring 1994.

Braaten, Jane. "Towards a Feminist Reassessment of Intellectual Virtue." Hypatia, Fall 1990.

Damasio, Antontio. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994.

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