Oprah.com says:

It turns out, though, that for most people there is no such thing as a purely rational self. Decision making is intrinsically linked to our emotions, so much so that when a person suffers damage to her orbitofrontal cortex—a part of the brain just behind the eyes that's strongly involved in processing emotions—she can lose her decision-making ability entirely. (We're talking any decision, like which day to schedule a doctor's appointment or whether to use a blue or black pen.) "If it weren't for our emotions," says science writer Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, "reason wouldn't exist at all."

Is this really so? Lab experiments on humans on this would certainly be unethical, so I suspect Lehrer might be talking about some nature-did-the-experiment-for-us case (Phineas Gage style). Is anyone familiar with the details, e.g. from Lehrer's book or elsewhere?

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    $\begingroup$ The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is defined as the part of the prefrontal cortex that receives projections from the magnocellular, medial nucleus of the mediodorsal thalamus, and is thought to represent emotion and reward in decision making. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbitofrontal_cortex $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2018 at 8:38

1 Answer 1


Phineas Gage style indeed (is that a precursor to Gangnam style?) - ironically (referring to one large iron rod), Phineas Gage's accident is believed to have entirely removed his OFC, as well as parts of his PFC. Though Gage likely suffered some mental changes, his recovery was a far cry from any sweeping "lose his decision-making ability entirely" diagnosis, even with injuries more extensive than just the OFC, so I think we can safely rule out the statement above without resorting to unethical experimentation.

This misconception may have originated with Antonio Damasio:

Antonio Damasio, in support of his somatic marker hypothesis (relating decision-making to emotions and their biological underpinnings), draws parallels between behaviors he ascribes to Gage and those of modern patients with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala. But Damasio's depiction of Gage has been severely criticized ...

In neuroscience, this type of error is called a "reverse inference". For example, if we find that a particular region of the brain is active when subjects experience an "emotion", we can't then conclude that it always means subjects are experiencing that "emotion" when it is active. That brain region may have other functions besides that emotion, many other brain regions may be involved in experiencing that emotion, and different regions may be involved in different contexts.

Furthermore, in modern emotion traditions, the distinction between emotion and cognition in general tends to be blurry, to the extent that some popular emotion models argue that the two cannot feasibly be separated. In other words, depending on your preferred model, "emotion" may refer to all cognition (the entire brain), so the answer to your question would be ... yes?

Note: I don't know anything about Jonah Lehrer's book, but Wikipedia says:

On March 1, 2013, following revelations that Lehrer has been caught in numerous falsifications in his œuvre of writings, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced the book was taken "off sale" after an internal review.

  • $\begingroup$ Never hurts to check Wikipedia... to my embarrassment, in this case. $\endgroup$ Jun 6, 2018 at 7:53
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    $\begingroup$ No embarrassment needed. You, like many people, checked Oprah. Of those who are skeptical there will now be a direct answer available to them on the internet. Win! $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Jun 6, 2018 at 8:23

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