The Quarterback in the Pocket - How We Decide - Jonah Lehrer

How We Decide - Jonah Lehrer (2009)

Chapter 1. The Quarterback in the Pocket

There is a minute and twenty-one seconds left on the clock in the 2002 Super Bowl, and the score is tied. The New England Patriots have the ball on their own 17-yard line. They are playing against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams. They have no time-outs left. Everyone assumes that the Patriots will kneel down and take the game into overtime. That, after all, is the prudent thing to do. "You don't want to have a turnover," says John Madden, one of the television broadcast's commentators. "They should just let time expire."

The game was never supposed to be this close. The Rams had been favored by fourteen points over the Patriots, which made this the most lopsided Super Bowl ever played. The potent Rams offense—nicknamed the "Greatest Show on Turf"—led the league in eighteen different statistical categories and outscored their opponents 503 to 273 during the regular season. Quarterback Kurt Warner was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player, and running back Marshall Faulk had won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award. The Patriots, meanwhile, had been hamstrung by injuries, losing both Drew Bledsoe, their star quarterback, and Terry Glenn, their leading wide receiver. Everyone was expecting a rout.

But now, with just a minute remaining, Tom Brady—the second-string quarterback for the Patriots—has a chance to win the game. Over on the Patriots' sidelines, he huddles in conversation with Bill Belichick, the Patriots' head coach, and Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator. "It was a ten-second conversation," Weis remembered later. "What we said is we would start the drive, and, if anything bad happened, we'd just run out the clock." The coaches were confident that their young quarterback wouldn't make a mistake.

Brady jogs back to his teammates on the field. You can see through his facemask that he's smiling, and it's not a nervous smile. It's a confident smile. There are seventy thousand spectators inside the Superdome, and most of them are rooting for the Rams, but Brady doesn't seem to notice. After a short huddle, the Patriots clap their hands in unison and saunter toward the line of scrimmage.

Tom Brady wasn't supposed to be here. He was the 199th pick in the 2000 draft. Although Brady had broken passing records at the University of Michigan, most team scouts thought he was too fragile to play with the big boys. The predraft report on Brady by Pro Football Weekly summarized the conventional wisdom: "Poor build. Very skinny and narrow. Ended the '99 season weighing 195 pounds, and still looks like a rail at 211. Lacks great physical stature and strength. Can get pushed down more easily than you'd like." The report devoted only a few words to Brady's positive attribute: "decision-making."

Belichick was one of the few coaches who had grasped Brady's potential. "Our vision wasn't that Tom was our franchise quarterback," Belichick said later, "but that Tom had been in situations—both in playing-time and game-management situations, tight games against good competition—and he'd handled all of them pretty well." Brady, in other words, had poise. He didn't choke under pressure. When the game was on the line, he found the open man.

Now Brady is in the spotlight, standing all by himself in the shotgun formation. His decision-making skills are about to be put to the test. He yells an audible to his tight end, then turns and yells at his wide receivers. The ball is snapped. Brady drops back, looks upfield, and understands instantly that the Rams have fallen into a tight zone coverage. They know the Patriots are going to pass; the cornerbacks are looking for an interception. Brady's primary target is covered, so he looks to his next target; he's also covered. Brady avoids the outstretched arm of a Ram defensive lineman, steps forward, and makes a short pass to his third target, the running back J. R. Redmond. It's a gain of five.

The next two plays unfold in the same way. Brady reads the Ram defense and calls out a series of coded commands: "White twenty! Ninety-six is the Mike! Omaha go!" These instructions tell the offensive linemen which linebackers to block and also serve as guides for the wide receivers, whose pass routes depend on the formation of the defense. After the play begins, Brady settles into the pocket, checks off his targets, and wisely settles for the safest option, which is a short pass in the flat. He doesn't force the ball into tight coverage. He's taking what the defense is giving him. The chains are moved, but the Patriots are running out of time.

It's now first and ten on the New England 41-yard line. Twenty-nine seconds remain in the game. Brady knows that he's got two, maybe three plays left. He has to move the ball another thirty yards just to get into field-goal range. The commentators sound like they're preparing for overtime, but the Patriots still think they can score. Brady settles into the shotgun. His eyes pan across the defense. He sees the linebackers edging a little closer to the line of scrimmage. Brady yells out the snap count, sends a man in motion, and then the ball is in his hands. He drops back and notices that only three defensive linemen are rushing him. The fourth is trying to cut off the short pass. Brady looks to his right. The receiver is covered. He looks to his left. Nobody's open. He looks at the center of the field. Troy Brown, a Patriots' wide receiver, is trying to find a plane of unoccupied space, a gap between the linebackers and the cornerbacks. Brady watches him clear the defenders and then fires a bullet fourteen yards down-field. Brown catches the ball in stride and runs for another nine yards before being pushed out-of-bounds. The ball is now thirty-six yards from the end zone, which is just within field-goal range. The Rams fans have gone silent.

With twelve seconds remaining, the Patriots' special-teams unit is brought onto the field. Adam Vinatieri steps into the forty-eight-yard kick. The ball sails straight between the pylons. The clock says triple zero. The Patriots have just won the Super Bowl. It's the greatest upset in NFL history.


The quick decisions made by a quarterback on a football field provide a window into the inner workings of the brain. In the space of a few frenetic seconds, before a linebacker crushes him into the ground, an NFL quarterback has to make a series of hard choices. The pocket is collapsing around him—the pocket begins to collapse before it exists—but he can't flinch or wince. His eyes must stay focused downfield, looking for some meaningful sign amid the action, an open man on a crowded field. Throwing the ball is the easy part.

These passing decisions happen so fast they don't even seem like decisions. We are used to seeing football on television, captured by the cameras far above the grassy stage. From this distant perspective, the players appear to be moving in some sort of violent ballet; the sport looks exquisitely choreographed. You can see the receivers spread the zone and watch the pocket slowly disintegrate. It's easy to detect the weak spots of the defense and find the target with man-on-man coverage. You can tell which linebackers bought the play-action fake and see the cornerback racing in on the blitz. When you watch the game from this omniscient angle—coaches call it "the eye in the sky"—it appears as if the quarterback is simply following orders, as if he knows where he is going to throw the ball before the play begins.

But this view of the game is deeply misleading. After the ball is snapped, the ordered sequence of neat X's and O's that fill the spiral-bound playbook degenerates into a street brawl. There's a symphony of grunts and groans and the meaty echoes of fat men hitting hard ground. Receivers get pushed off their routes, passing angles get cut off, and inside blitzes derail the best intentions. The offensive line is an unpredictable wrestling match. Before the quarterback can make an effective decision, he needs to assimilate all of this new information and be aware of the approximate location of every player on the field.

The savage chaos of the game, the way every play is a mixture of careful planning and risky improvisation, is what makes the job of an NFL quarterback so difficult. Even while he's immersed in the violence—the defensive line clawing at his body—the quarterback has to stand still and concentrate. He needs to look past the mayhem and make sense of all the moving bodies. Where is his receiver going? Will the safety break toward the ball? Is the linebacker going to drop back into coverage? Did his tight end pick up the blitz? Before a pass can be thrown—before the open man can be found—all of these questions need to be answered. Each pass is really a guess, a hypothesis launched into the air, but the best quarterbacks find ways to make better guesses. What separates Tom Brady and Joe Montana and Peyton Manning and John Elway and the other great quarterbacks of the modern NFL era from the rest is their ability to find the right receiver at the right time. (The Patriots like to pass out of a five-wide formation, which means that Brady often checks off five different receivers before he decides where to throw the ball.) No other team sport is so dependent on the judgment of a single player.

NFL scouts take the decision-making skills of quarterbacks very seriously. The league requires that every player in the draft take the Wonderlic intelligence test, which is essentially a shorter version of the standard IQ test. The test is twelve minutes long and consists of fifty questions that get progressively harder as the test goes along. Here's an example of an easy Wonderlic question:

"Paper sells for 21 cents per pad. What will four pads cost?"

And here's a hard Wonderlic question:

"Three individuals form a partnership and agree to divide the profits equally. X invests $9,000, Y invests $7,000, Z invests $4,000. If the profits are $4,800, how much less does X receive than if the profits were divided in proportion to the amount invested?"

The underlying thesis of the Wonderlic test is that players who are better at math and logic problems will make better decisions in the pocket. At first glance, this seems like a reasonable assumption. No other position in sports requires such extreme cognitive talents. Successful quarterbacks need to memorize hundreds of offensive plays and dozens of different defensive formations. They need to spend hours studying game tape of their opponents and be able to put that knowledge to use on the field. In many instances, quarterbacks are even responsible for changing plays at the line of scrimmage. They are like coaches with shoulder pads.

As a result, an NFL team starts to get nervous when a quarterback's score on the Wonderlic test is too far below the average for the position. For quarterbacks, the average is 25. (In comparison, the average score for computer programmers is 28. Janitors, on average, score 15, as do running backs.) Vince Young, the star quarterback from the University of Texas, reportedly scored a 6 on the test, which led many teams to publicly question his ability to succeed in the NFL.

But Young ended up excelling in the pros. And he isn't the only quarterback who achieved success despite a poor Wonderlic score. Dan Marino scored 14. Brett Favre's Wonderlic score was 22, and Randall Cunningham and Terry Bradshaw both scored 15. All of these quarterbacks have been or will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. (In recent years, Favre has surpassed many of the passing records once held by Marino, such as most passing yards and touchdowns in a career.) Furthermore, several quarterbacks with unusually high Wonderlic scores—players like Alex Smith and Matt Leinart, who both scored above 35 on the test and were top-ten picks in the 2005 NFL draft—have struggled in the NFL, largely because they make poor decisions on the field.

The reason there is virtually no correlation between the results of the Wonderlic and the success of quarterbacks in the NFL is that finding the open man involves a very different set of decision-making skills than solving an algebra problem. While quarterbacks need to grapple with complexity—the typical offensive playbook is several inches thick—they don't make sense of the football field the way they make sense of questions on a multiple-choice exam. The Wonderlic measures a specific kind of thought process, but the best quarterbacks don't think in the pocket. There isn't time.

Take that pass to Troy Brown. Brady's decision depended on a long list of variables. He needed to know that the linebacker wouldn't fall back into coverage and that there were no cornerbacks in the area waiting for an interception. After that, he had to calculate the ideal place to hit Brown with the ball so that Brown would have plenty of room to run after the catch. Then he needed to figure out how to make a throw without hitting the defensive lineman blocking his passing lane. If Brady were forced to consciously analyze this decision—if he treated it like a question on the Wonderlic test—then every pass would require a lot of complicated trigonometry as he computed his passing angles on the plane of the football field. But how can you contemplate the math when five angry linemen are running straight at you? The answer is simple: you can't. If a quarterback hesitates for even a split second, he is going to get sacked.

So how does a quarterback do it? How does he make a decision? It's like asking a baseball player why he decided to swing the bat at a particular pitch: the velocity of the game makes thought impossible. Brady can afford to give each receiver only a split second of attention before he has to move on to the next. As soon as he glances at a body in motion, he must immediately decide if that body will be open a few seconds in the future. As a result, a quarterback is forced to evaluate each of his passing alternatives without knowing how he's evaluating them. Brady chooses a target without understanding why exactly he's settled on that target. Did he pass to Troy Brown with twenty-nine seconds remaining in the Super Bowl because the middle linebacker had ceded too much space, or because the cornerbacks were following the other receivers downfield and leaving a small gap in the center of the field? Or did Brady settle on Brown because all the other passing options were tightly covered, and he knew that he needed a long completion? The quarterback can't answer these questions. It's as if his mind is making decisions without him. Even quarterbacks are mystified by their talents. "I don't know how I know where to pass," Brady says. "There are no firm rules. You just feel like you're going to the right place ... And that's where I throw it."


The mystery of how we make decisions—how Tom Brady chooses where to throw the ball—is one of the oldest mysteries of the mind. Even though we are defined by our decisions, we are often completely unaware of what's happening inside our heads during the decision-making process. You can't explain why you bought the box of Honey Nut Cheerios, or stopped at the yellow traffic light, or threw the football to Troy Brown. On the evaluation sheets of NFL scouts, decision-making is listed in the category Intangibles. It's one of the most important qualities in a quarterback, and yet nobody knows what it is.

The opaque nature of this mental process has led to a surfeit of theorizing. The most popular theory frames decision-making in epic terms, as a pitched battle between reason and emotion, with reason often triumphing. According to this classic script, what separates us from animals is the godly gift of rationality. When we are deciding what to do, we are able to ignore our feelings and carefully think through the problem. A quarterback, for instance, is supposed to choose a receiver by calmly contemplating all of the information on the field, translating the helter-skelter of the pass play into a series of discrete math problems. A more rational quarterback, with a higher Wonderlic score, should be a better quarterback. This ability to analyze the facts—to transcend our feelings, instincts, and impulses—is often seen as the defining element of human nature.

Plato, as usual, was there first. He liked to imagine the mind as a chariot pulled by two horses. The rational brain, he said, is the charioteer; it holds the reins and decides where the horses run. If the horses get out of control, the charioteer just needs to take out his whip and reassert authority. One of the horses is well bred and well behaved, but even the best charioteer has difficulty controlling the other horse. "He is of an ignoble breed," Plato wrote. "He has a short bull-neck, a pug nose, black skin, and bloodshot white eyes; companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears—deaf as a post—and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined." According to Plato, this obstinate horse represents negative, destructive emotions. The job of the charioteer is to keep the dark horse from running wild and to keep both horses moving forward.

With that single metaphor, Plato divided the mind into two separate spheres. The soul was seen as conflicted, torn between reason and emotion. When the driver and horses wanted different things, Plato said, it was essential to listen to the driver. "If the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail," he wrote, "then we can lead a life here in happiness and harmony, masters of ourselves." The alternative, he warned, was a life governed by impulsive emotions. If we follow the horses, we will be led like a "fool into the world below."

This division of the mind is one of Plato's most enduring themes, an idea enshrined in Western culture. On the one hand, humans are part animal, primitive beasts stuffed full of primitive desires. And yet, humans are also capable of reason and foresight, blessed with the divine gift of rationality. The Roman poet Ovid, writing in Metamorphoses a few centuries after Plato, captured this psychology in a few short sentences. Medea has fallen in love with Jason—she was literally struck by Eros's arrow—but this love conflicts with her duty to her father. "I am dragged along by a strange new force," she laments. "Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong."

René Descartes, the most influential philosopher of the Enlightenment, agreed with this ancient critique of feeling. Descartes divided our being into two distinct substances: a holy soul capable of reason, and a fleshy body full of "mechanical passions." What Descartes wanted to do was purge the human intellect of its falsehoods, to get beyond the illogical beliefs of the past. In his seminal work, the awkwardly titled Discourse on the Method for Properly Conducting Reason and Searching for Truth, Descartes tried to provide an example of rationality in pure form. His goal was to lead humanity out of the cave, to reveal the "clear and distinct" principles that our emotions and intuitions obscure.

The Cartesian faith in reason became a founding principle of modern philosophy. Rationality was like a scalpel, able to dissect reality into its necessary parts. Emotions, on the other hand, were crude and primitive. Over time, a variety of influential thinkers tried to translate this binary psychology into practical terms. Francis Bacon and Auguste Comte wanted to reorganize society so that it reflected "rational science"; Thomas Jefferson hoped that the "American experiment would prove that men can be governed by reason and reason alone"; Immanuel Kant came up with the concept of the categorical imperative so that morality was rationality. At the height of the French Revolution, a group of radicals founded the Cult of Reason and turned several Parisian cathedrals into temples of rationality. There were no temples dedicated to emotion.

The twentieth-century version of the Platonic metaphor was put forth by Sigmund Freud. Although Freud liked to say that he spent his life destroying illusions, his basic view of the mind differed little from Plato's. In his "speculative science," Freud imagined the human mind as divided into a series of conflicting parts. (Conflict was important to Freud, since it helped explain neuroses.) At the center of the mind was the id, a factory of crude desires. Above that was the ego, which represented the conscious self and the rational brain. It was the job of the ego to restrain the id, channeling its animal emotions in socially acceptable ways. "One might compare the relations of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse," Freud wrote in a direct allusion to Plato. "The horse provides the locomotive energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it."

The purpose of Freudian psychoanalysis was to fortify the ego, to build up the strength needed to control the impulses of the id. In other words, Freud tried to teach his patients how to hold back their horses. He believed that most mental disorders, from hysteria to narcissism, were due to the effects of unrestrained feelings. In later years, Freud would turn this Platonic vision into a theory of everything. He saw civilization, or kultur, as the individual mind writ large. "The events of human history," Freud wrote, "are only the reflections of the dynamic conflicts among the id and ego, which psychoanalysis studies in the individual—the same events on a wider stage." According to Freud, the survival of modern society depended on people sacrificing the emotional desires of their ids—what he termed the pleasure principle—for the sake of the greater good. The possibility of human reason was the only thing that kept civilization from descending into barbarism. As Goya put it, "The sleep of reason produces monsters."

Over time, Freudian psychology lost its scientific credibility. Discussions of the id, ego, and Oedipus complex were replaced by references to specific areas in the brain; Viennese theory gave way to increasingly exact anatomical maps of the cortex. The metaphor of the Platonic chariot seemed woefully obsolete.

But modern science soon hit on a new metaphor: the mind was a computer. According to cognitive psychology, each of us was a set of software programs running on three pounds of neural hardware. While this computer metaphor helped stimulate some important scientific breakthroughs—it led to the birth of artificial intelligence, among other things—it was also misleading, at least in one crucial respect. The problem with seeing the mind as a computer is that computers don't have feelings. Because emotions couldn't be reduced to bits of information or the logical structures of programming language, scientists tended to ignore them. "Cognitive psychologists subscribed to this false ideal of rational, logical thought, and so we diminished the importance of everything else," says Marvin Minsky, a professor at MIT and a pioneer of artificial intelligence. When cognitive psychologists did think about emotion, they tended to reinforce the Platonic divide: feelings interfered with cognition. They were the antagonists of rationality, and they messed up the machine. That was the version of the mind put forth by modern science.

The simple idea connecting Plato's philosophy to cognitive psychology is the privileging of reason over emotion. It's easy to understand why this vision has endured for so long. It raises Homo sapiens above every other animal: the human mind is a rational computer, a peerless processor of information. Yet it also helps explain away our flaws: because each of us is still part animal, the faculty of reason is forced to compete with primitive emotions. The charioteer must control those wild horses.

This theory of human nature comes with a corollary: if our feelings keep us from making rational decisions, then surely we'd be better off without any feelings at all. Plato, for example, couldn't help but imagine a utopia in which reason determined everything. Such a mythical society—a republic of pure reason—has been dreamed of by philosophers ever since.

But this classical theory is founded upon a crucial mistake. For too long, people have disparaged the emotional brain, blaming our feelings for all of our mistakes. The truth is far more interesting. What we discover when we look at the brain is that the horses and the charioteer depend upon each other. If it weren't for our emotions, reason wouldn't exist at all.


In 1982, a patient named Elliot walked into the office of neurologist Antonio Damasio. A few months earlier, a small tumor had been cut out of Elliot's cortex, near the frontal lobe of his brain. Before the surgery, Elliot had been a model father and husband. He'd held down an important management job in a large corporation and was active in his local church. But the operation changed everything. Although Elliot's IQ had stayed the same—he still tested in the 97th percentile—he now exhibited one psychological flaw: he was incapable of making a decision.

This dysfunction made normal life impossible. Routine tasks that should have taken ten minutes now required several hours. Elliot endlessly deliberated over irrelevant details, like whether to use a blue or black pen, what radio station to listen to, and where to park his car. When he chose where to eat lunch, Elliot carefully considered each restaurant's menu, seating plan, and lighting scheme, and then drove to each place to see how busy it was. But all this analysis was for naught: Elliot still couldn't decide where to eat. His indecision was pathological.

Before long, Elliot was fired from his job. That's when things really began to fall apart. He started a series of new businesses, but they all failed. He was taken in by a con man and was forced into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him. The IRS began an investigation. He moved back in with his parents. As Damasio put it, "Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social matters."

But why was Elliot suddenly incapable of making good decisions? What had happened to his brain? Damasio's first insight occurred while talking to Elliot about the tragic turn his life had taken. "He was always controlled," Damasio remembers, "always describing scenes as a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator. Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the protagonist ... I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration." Elliot's friends and family confirmed Damasio's observations: ever since his surgery, he'd seemed strangely devoid of emotion, numb to the tragic turn his own life had taken.

To test this diagnosis, Damasio hooked Elliot to a machine that measured the activity of the sweat glands in his palms. (When a person experiences strong emotions, the skin is literally aroused and the hands start to perspire. Lie detectors operate on the basis of this principle.) Damasio then showed Elliot various photographs that normally triggered an immediate emotional response: a severed foot, a naked woman, a house on fire, a handgun. The results were clear: Elliot felt nothing. No matter how grotesque or aggressive the picture, his palms never got sweaty. He had the emotional life of a mannequin.

This was a completely unexpected discovery. At the time, neuroscience assumed that human emotions were irrational. A person without any emotions—in other words, someone like Elliot—should therefore make better decisions. His cognition should be uncorrupted. The charioteer should have complete control.

What, then, had happened to Elliot? Why couldn't he lead a normal life? To Damasio, Elliot's pathology suggested that emotions are a crucial part of the decision-making process. When we are cut off from our feelings, the most banal decisions became impossible. A brain that can't feel can't make up its mind.

AFTER INTERVIEWING ELLIOT, Damasio began studying other patients with similar patterns of brain damage. These patients all appeared intelligent and showed no deficits on any conventional cognitive tests. And yet they all suffered from the same profound flaw: because they didn't experience emotion, they had tremendous difficulty making any decisions. In Descartes' Error, Damasio described what it was like trying to set up an appointment with one of these emotionless patients:

I suggested two alternative dates, both in the coming month and just a few days apart from each other. The patient pulled out his appointment book and began consulting the calendar. The behavior that ensued, which was witnessed by several investigators, was remarkable. For the better part of a half hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates: previous engagements, proximity to other engagements, possible meteorological conditions, virtually anything that one could reasonably think about concerning a simple date.... He was now walking us through a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless outlining and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences. It took enormous discipline to listen to all of this without pounding on the table and telling him to stop.

Based on these patients, Damasio began compiling a map of feeling, locating the specific brain regions responsible for generating emotions. Although many different cortical areas contribute to this process, one part of the brain seemed particularly important: a small circuit of tissue called the orbitofrontal cortex, which sits just behind the eyes, in the underbelly of the frontal lobe. (Orbit is Latin for "eye socket.") If this fragile fold of cells is damaged by a malignant tumor or a hemorrhaging artery, the tragic result is always the same. At first, everything seems normal, and after the tumor is removed or the bleeding is stopped, the patient is sent home. A full recovery is forecast. But then little things start to go awry. The patient begins to seem remote, cold, distant. This previously responsible person suddenly starts doing irresponsible things. The mundane choices of everyday life become excruciatingly difficult. It's as if his very personality—the collection of wants and desires that defined him as an individual—had been systematically erased. His loved ones say it's like living with a stranger, only this stranger has no scruples.

The crucial importance of our emotions—the fact that we can't make decisions without them—contradicts the conventional view of human nature, with its ancient philosophical roots. For most of the twentieth century, the ideal of rationality was supported by scientific descriptions of human anatomy. The brain was envisioned as consisting of four separate layers, stacked in ascending order of complexity. (The cortex was like an archaeological site: the deeper you dug, the farther back in time you traveled.) Scientists explained the anatomy of the human brain in this manner: At its bottom was the brain stem, which governed the most basic bodily functions. It controlled heartbeat, breathing, and body temperature. Above that was the diencephalon, which regulated hunger pangs and sleep cycles. Then came the limbic region, which generated animal emotions. It was the source of lust, violence, and impulsive behavior. (Human beings shared these three brain layers with every other mammal.) Finally, there was the magnificent frontal cortex—the masterpiece of evolution—which was responsible for reason, intelligence, and morality. These convolutions of gray matter allowed each of us to resist urges and suppress emotions. In other words, the rational fourth layer of the brain allowed us to ignore the first three layers. We were the only species able to rebel against primitive feelings and make decisions that were dispassionate and deliberate.

But this anatomical narrative is false. The expansion of the frontal cortex during human evolution did not turn us into purely rational creatures, able to ignore our impulses. In fact, neuroscience now knows that the opposite is true: a significant part of our frontal cortex is involved with emotion. David Hume, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher who delighted in heretical ideas, was right when he declared that reason was "the slave of the passions."

How does this emotional brain system work? The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), the part of the brain that Elliot was missing, is responsible for integrating visceral emotions into the decision-making process. It connects the feelings generated by the "primitive" brain—areas like the brain stem and the amygdala, which is in the limbic system—to the stream of conscious thought. When a person is drawn to a specific receiver, or a certain entrée on the menu, or a particular romantic prospect, the mind is trying to tell him that he should choose that option. It has already assessed the alternatives—this analysis takes place outside of conscious awareness—and converted that assessment into a positive emotion. And when he sees a receiver who's tightly covered, or smells a food he doesn't like, or glimpses an ex-girlfriend, it is the OFC that makes him want to get away. (Emotion and motivation share the same Latin root, movere, which means "to move.") The world is full of things, and it is our feelings that help us choose among them.

When this neural connection is severed—when our OFCs can't comprehend our own emotions—we lose access to the wealth of opinions that we normally rely on. All of a sudden, you no longer know what to think about the receiver running a short post pattern or whether it's a good idea to order the cheeseburger for lunch. The end result is that it's impossible to make decent decisions. This is why the OFC is one of the few cortical regions that are markedly larger in humans than they are in other primates. While Plato and Freud would have guessed that the job of the OFC was to protect us from our emotions, to fortify reason against feeling, its actual function is precisely the opposite. From the perspective of the human brain, Homo sapiens is the most emotional animal of all.


It's not easy making a daytime soap opera. The demands of the form are grueling: a new episode has to be filmed nearly every single day. No other type of popular entertainment churns out so much material in so short a time. New plot twists have to be dreamed up, new scripts have to be written, actors need to rehearse, and every scene must be meticulously mapped out. Only then, once all that preparation is complete, are the cameras turned on. For most daytime soaps, it takes about twelve hours to film twenty-two minutes of television. This cycle is repeated five days a week.

Herb Stein has been directing Days of Our Lives, a soap opera on NBC, for twenty-five years. He's shot more than fifty thousand scenes and has cast hundreds of different actors. He's been nominated for eight daytime Emmys. Over the course of his long career, Stein has witnessed more scenes of melodrama—rapes, weddings, births, murders, confessions—than just about any other human being alive. He is, one might say, an expert on melodrama: how to write it, block it, film it, edit it, and produce it.

For Stein, the long road to daytime television began when he was a student at UCLA and read The Oresteia, the trilogy of classic Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus. It was the utter timelessness of the plays—their ability to speak to enduring human themes—that made him want to study theater. When Stein talks about drama—and it doesn't matter if he's talking about Aeschylus or General Hospital—he tends to sound like a literature professor. (He also looks like one, with his rumpled shirts and a few days' worth of salt-and-pepper stubble.) Stein talks in long, digressive monologues and finds grand ideas in the most unlikely plot lines. "Many of these classic plays have elements of the ridiculous," he says. "The plots are often completely implausible. That whole Oedipus thing? Totally absurd. And yet, when these stories are told well, you don't notice the absurdity. You're too busy paying attention to what's happening."

Soap operas work the same way. The key to being a successful soap opera director—and Stein is one of the most successful in the business—is telling the story so that people don't notice you're telling them a story. Everything has to feel sincere, even when what's happening onscreen is completely outlandish. This is much harder than it might seem. Let's say you're shooting a scene in which a woman is giving birth to fraternal twins fathered by two different men, both of whom are at the bedside with her. One of the fathers is the villain of the show: he impregnated the woman by raping her. The other father is the good guy, and the woman is deeply in love with him. However, if she doesn't marry her rapist, then members of her family will be killed. (This is an actual plot line from a recent Days of Our Lives episode.) The scene has several pages of intense dialogue, a few tears, and plenty of subtext. Stein has about an hour to shoot it, which forces him to make some crucial decisions on the fly. He has to figure out where each character should stand, how they all should move, what emotions they should convey, and how each of the four cameras should capture the action. Should they zoom in close, or get a reaction shot over the shoulder? How should the villain deliver his lines? These directorial decisions will determine whether or not the scene works. "You've really got to know how to milk the drama," Stein says. "Otherwise, it's just a bunch of people standing in a room, saying stupid stuff."

Although the scene has been mapped out in advance, Stein still needs to make many of these decisions in the midst of filming, while the actors are delivering their lines. Most of the fake rooms on the Burbank sound stage have only two flimsy walls, with one camera positioned on each side. An additional camera records the center of the scene. As soon as the assistant director yells out, "Action!" there is a frenzy of activity offstage as the cameras pivot and Stein snaps his fingers, pointing to indicate which camera he wants to capture the action for each specific part of the scene. (This makes it easier for the editor to assemble a working cut later.) During complicated scenes, such as that birth scene with the two fathers, Stein looks like an orchestra conductor: his arms are never still. He is constantly pointing at different cameras, crafting the scene in real time.

How does Stein make these directorial decisions? After all, he doesn't have the luxury of filming twenty different takes from twenty different angles. "Given the schedule [of a daytime soap opera]," Stein says, "there isn't time to be fiddling around with all the stuff that directors normally fiddle around with. You need to make the right decision the first time around." If a soap director makes a mistake while shooting, the scene can't be re-shot another day. When you're creating daytime television, you have only one day.

This relentless time pressure means that Stein can't afford to carefully think through all of his camera choices. He doesn't have time to be rational; he needs to react to the drama as it's unfolding. In that sense, he is like a quarterback in the pocket. "When you shoot as many scenes as I have," Stein says, "you just know how things should go. I can watch an actor say a single line and know immediately that we need to try it again. When we're filming a scene, it's all very instinctual. Even when we go in with a plan on how to shoot it, that plan will often change in the moment, depending on how it feels."

The reliance on instinct and "feel" is also a crucial part of the casting process. Soaps are continually bringing on new actors, in part because the longer actors are on the show, the higher their salaries are. (That's why established characters on Days of Our Lives are constantly being killed off. As Stein quips, "This isn't show art. It's show business.") For a soap opera, there are few decisions as crucial as casting. The size of the audience oscillates with the appeal of the actors, and a particularly appealing actor can create a spike in the ratings. "You are always looking for that person that people want to look at," Stein says. "And I don't just mean attractiveness. They've got to have it, and by it, I mean everything that you can't really put into words."

The question, of course, is how you identify it. When Stein first started directing television, he was overwhelmed by all the different variables involved in casting. First, he'd try to make sure that the person looked right for the part and could act in the soap style. Then Stein needed to consider how this actor would fit in with the rest of the cast. ("A lack of chemistry has ruined many a soap scene," he says.) Only after that was Stein able to think about whether or not the actor actually had talent. Would he deliver his lines with sincerity? Could he cry on demand? How many takes would he require before he got the scene right? "Given all of these factors," Stein says, "there can be a tendency to really outthink yourself, to talk yourself into choosing the wrong actor."

After directing daytime television for decades, however, Stein has learned how to trust his instincts, even if he can't always explain them. "It only takes me three to five seconds before I know if the person is right," he says. "A few words, a single gesture. That's all I need. And I've learned to always listen to that." Recently, the show put out a casting call for a male lead. The character was going to be the new villain on the show. Stein was up in his office, blocking a script, watching the auditions out of the corner of his eye. After a few hours of seeing dozens of different actors recite the exact same lines, Stein was getting bored and discouraged. "But that's when this one guy stood up," he says. "The actor didn't even know his lines because he had gotten the script late. I just saw him say a few words, and then I knew. He was unbelievably great. I couldn't explain why, but for me he completely stood out. What they say is true: you just get a feeling."

The mental process Stein is describing depends on his emotional brain. Those twinges of feeling that help him select the right camera and find the best actor are a distillation of all those details that he doesn't consciously perceive. "The conscious brain may get all the attention," says Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at NYU. "But consciousness is a small part of what the brain does, and it's a slave to everything that works beneath it." According to LeDoux, much of what we "think" is really driven by our emotions. In this sense, every feeling is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can't be accessed directly. While Stein's conscious brain was blocking the script, his unconscious supercomputer was processing all sorts of data. It then translated that data into vivid emotional signals that were detected by the OFC, allowing Stein to act upon these subliminal calculations. If Stein were missing his feelings—if he were like one of Damasio's patients—then he would be forced to carefully analyze every alternative, and that would take forever. His episodes would be constantly delayed and he would cast the wrong actors. Stein's insight is that his feelings are often an accurate shortcut, a concise expression of his decades' worth of experience. They already know how to shoot the scene.

WHY ARE OUR emotions so essential? How did they get so good at finding the open man and directing soap operas? The answer is rooted in evolution. It takes a long time to design a brain. The first clumps of networked neurons appeared more than five hundred million years ago. This was the first nervous system, although at that point it was really just a set of automatic reflexes. Over time, however, primitive brains grew increasingly complex. They expanded from a few thousand neurons in earthworms to a hundred billion connected cells in Old World primates. When Homo sapiens first appeared, about two hundred thousand years ago, the planet was already full of creatures with highly specialized brains. There were fish that could migrate across the ocean using magnetic fields, and birds that navigated by starlight, and insects that could smell food from a mile away. These cognitive feats were all byproducts of instincts that had been engineered by natural selection to perform specific tasks. What these animals couldn't do, however, was reflect on their own decisions. They couldn't plan out their days or use language to express their inner states. They weren't able to analyze complex phenomena or invent new tools. What couldn't be done automatically couldn't be done at all. The charioteer had yet to appear.

The evolution of the human brain changed everything. For the first time, there was an animal that could think about how it thought. We humans could contemplate our emotions and use words to dissect the world, parsing reality into neat chains of causation. We could accumulate knowledge and logically analyze problems. We could tell elaborate lies and make plans for the future. Sometimes, we could even follow our plans.

These new talents were incredibly useful. But they were also incredibly new. As a result, the parts of the human brain that make them possible—the ones that the driver of the chariot controls—suffer from the same problem that afflicts any new technology: they have lots of design flaws and software bugs. (The human brain is like a computer operating system that was rushed to market.) This is why a cheap calculator can do arithmetic better than a professional mathematician, why a mainframe computer can beat a grand master at chess, and why we so often confuse causation and correlation. When it comes to the new parts of the brain, evolution just hasn't had time to work out the kinks.

The emotional brain, however, has been exquisitely refined by evolution over the last several hundred million years. Its software code has been subjected to endless tests, so it can make fast decisions based on very little information. Look, for instance, at the mental process involved in hitting a baseball. The numbers make the task look impossible. A typical major-league pitch takes about 0.35 seconds to travel from the hand of the pitcher to home plate. (This is the average interval between human heartbeats.) Unfortunately for the batter, it takes about 0.25 seconds for his muscles to initiate a swing, leaving his brain a paltry one-tenth of a second to make up its mind on whether or not to do so. But even this estimate is too generous. It takes a few milliseconds for the visual information to travel from the retina to the visual cortex, so the batter really has fewer than five milliseconds to perceive the pitch and decide if he should swing. But people can't think this quickly; even under perfect conditions, it takes the brain about twenty milliseconds to respond to a sensory stimulus.

So how does a major-league baseball player manage to hit a fastball? The answer is that the brain begins collecting information about the pitch long before the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. As soon as the pitcher begins his wind-up, the batter automatically starts to pick up on "anticipatory clues" that help him winnow down the list of possibilities. A torqued wrist suggests a curveball, while an elbow fixed at a right angle means that a fastball is coming, straight over the plate. Two fingers on the seam might indicate a slider, and a ball gripped with the knuckles is a sure sign that a wavering knuckleball is on its way. The batters, of course, aren't consciously studying these signs; they can't tell you why they decided to swing at certain pitches. And yet, they are able to act based on this information. For instance, a study of expert cricket batters demonstrated that the players could accurately predict the speed and location of the ball based solely on a one-second video of the pitcher's wind-up. The well-trained brain knew exactly what details to look for. And then, once it perceived these details, it seamlessly converted them into an accurate set of feelings. For a hitter in the major leagues, a hanging curveball over the center of the plate just feels like a better pitch than a slider, low and away.

We take these automatic talents for granted precisely because they work so well. There's no robot that can hit a baseball or throw a football or ride a bicycle. No computer program can figure out which actor should play a villain or instantly recognize a familiar face. This is why when evolution was building the brain, it didn't bother to replace all of those emotional processes with new operations under explicit, conscious control. If something isn't broken, then natural selection isn't going to fix it. The mind is made out of used parts, engineered by a blind watchmaker. The result is that the uniquely human areas of the mind depend on the primitive mind underneath. The process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can't directly comprehend. Reason without emotion is impotent.

One of the first scientists to defend this view of decision-making was William James, the great American psychologist. In his seminal 1890 textbook The Principles of Psychology, James launched into a critique of the standard "rationalist" account of the human mind. "The facts of the case are really tolerably plain," James wrote. "Man has a far greater variety of impulses than any other lower animal." In other words, the Platonic view of decision-making, which idealized man as a purely rational animal defined "by the almost total absence of instincts," was utterly mistaken. James's real insight, however, was that these impulses weren't necessarily bad influences. In fact, he believed that "the preponderance of habits, instincts and emotions" in the human brain was an essential part of what made the brain so effective. According to James, the mind contained two distinct thinking systems, one that was rational and deliberate and another that was quick, effortless, and emotional. The key to making decisions, James said, was knowing when to rely on which system.

Just look at Tom Brady. It's his feelings that allow him to make quick passing decisions in the pocket. For Brady, the process probably works something like this: After the ball is snapped, he drops back and tries to make sense of the field. He begins going through his checklist of receivers. The primary target, a tight end running a short crossing pattern, is tightly covered. As a result, when Brady glances at the tight end, he automatically feels a slight twinge of fear, the sure sign of a risky pass. The presence of the linebacker has been translated into a negative emotion. Brady then proceeds to his secondary target, a wide receiver running a deep out. Unfortunately, this target is double-teamed by a cornerback and a safety. Once again, Brady experiences a negative feeling, an instant distillation of what's happening on the football field. A few seconds have now elapsed, and Brady can feel the pressure of the defensive line. His left tackle is being pushed backward; Brady knows that he's got to get rid of the ball soon or the game is going to end with a sack. He proceeds to his third target. Troy Brown is streaking across the center of the field, threading the seam between the linebackers and the cornerbacks. When Brady looks at this target, his usual fear is replaced by a subtle burst of positive emotion, the allure of a receiver without a nearby defender. He has found the open man. He lets the ball fly.