This post is the first I’ve published as a response to a comment by a blog reader. The reason I decided to create a post rather than reply as usual is that I have so much to say. When I write my posts, I do a lot of editing that I can’t do as easily when writing a reply. I often write down my thoughts, take a break and save what I’ve written, then come back and reread them. This type of revising is hard to do as a reply.
I will refer to DM’s comments throughout my response with the plan of making everything as clear as possible. In preparing to answer this post, I have learned a lot more about several of the terms DM uses and about Antonio Damasio’s research into the mind/self relationship. I hope what I have put together will stimulate more discussion. How rational and emotional reactions function in humans is a fascinating topic and, although it relates to the show, the study of emotions and how they affect our behavior is certainly applicable to us all. Should you decide you’d like to hear Damasio’s TED talk from 2011, here’s the link.
The way I interpret DM’s remarks is that they not only refer to the original topic of how emotions can be related to rational/logical decision making, but also to the topic of whether people can change (or even should change). When DM writes of the third component of the self or mind as being how one acts on one’s feelings or thoughts, he/she notes that this “underlies a great deal of one’s ability to learn and one’s capacity for change.” In the final paragraph of DM’s comments he/she states that ME made a bargain with himself while he was still young to become a great surgeon like others in his family (probably most like his grandfather who he admired), and that this may have been the only thing he ever wanted. To me that begs the question of who is Martin Ellingham and does he need to change to be able to want more for himself? Not only that, but when DM brings up the paradox of the Ship of Theseus, he/she is bringing into our discussion the concern that if ME (or anyone) makes changes of significance, he may not be the same person anymore. In the case of the ship, every part of the ship was replaced during restoration and Plutarch asked whether it remained the same ship. We could ask that question in many instances, and that has happened throughout history until today we have something called “Trigger’s Broom” which refers to a roadsweeper in the BBC sitcom “Only Fools and Horses” (1981-2003) where a broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles but is still considered the same broom. (Fun fact: the role of Trigger in that series was played by Roger Lloyd-Pack, who played the role of Phil Pratt in Doc Martin and recently died of pancreatic cancer.) Some people wonder if a person with a psychiatric disease, and who takes medicine or has therapy that makes them more stable, is still the same person? We could ask here if counseling will make ME a different person in a substantial way. He wants to change and believes he can change, but what does that mean? He can certainly manage his blood phobia with adequate therapy; however, would Louisa want Martin to be that different from how he is now? His emotional breakthroughs in S6 already demonstrate some change, and Louisa might appreciate a change in his willingness to express his feelings to her. On the other hand, too much change may not be desirable because he would not be the person with whom she fell in love. It’s a great question and hard to answer.
This issue also goes to the heart of DM’s comments in general and his reference to “thinkers from Aristotle to Descartes to Damasio.” In my opinion, Damasio’s theories about emotions are of particular import here because they are so current. Damasio studied people with damage to the part of the brain where emotions are generated, primarily the insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortices. (The insulae are believed to be involved in consciousness and play a role in diverse functions usually linked to emotion or the regulation of the body’s homeostasis. These functions include perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience. The anterior cingulate cortex is involved with rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy, impulse control, and emotion. And the medial prefrontal cortices have been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior.) Damasio learned that when these emotion producing locations are damaged, decision making ability was also compromised. All of this is to say that without emotions we have trouble making decisions; therefore, as I argued in my original post, when we make decisions, even rational or logical ones, we must be accessing our emotions.
DM agrees that ME exhibits emotions, especially anger, disgust, and fear. I would add sadness, relief, and tenderness. He displays tenderness towards James Henry regularly, has shown tenderness towards Louisa when he rubs her cheek or expresses concern for her, and shows some tenderness towards a few others as well. He is brought close to tears several times in connection to Louisa, and when she returns his love or he convinces her of his sincerity, he is relieved.
DM’s paragraph that stands out to me states:
Considering the conative-self of Martin Ellingham helps to explain, at least to me, some of the paradoxes he embodies: he is a driven and highly accomplished professional, yet he is perplexingly passive; he brooks no acceptance for the status quo in anyone else, yet generally resigns himself to little more than enduring his situations and his phobia; he desperately loves and desires Louisa, yet he is perplexingly ineffectual at pursuing what he so obviously wants.
What DM asserts is that ME is missing the concept of “wanting” as distinguished from the concept of “having a duty to” do something. Want and desire are typically equated, and there are many theories of desire. I think what we have in the case of ME is someone who has desires but, when it comes to certain circumstances, is totally at a loss to act on them. As DM says, ME wanted to be a surgeon and acted on that desire, taking the steps necessary to reach that goal. He also decided he did NOT want to be with Edith and acted on that. However, when he becomes infatuated with Louisa and wants to have her in his life, he does not know how to act. Here is where applying the psychological theories developed by observing typical behavior may fail us because this character doesn’t conform to these. ME has emotions, can act on them at times and be decisive, yet is paralyzed when dealing with this one person, Louisa. Perhaps, as DM believes, ME regards emotions as something he would like to remove because he would be safer without them. But I’m not sure how DM arrives at this suspicion. It may be based on how ME reacts to Louisa’s emotional outbursts. Emotions are painful for everyone. On the other hand, they are also pleasurable and we see this when ME takes Louisa’s hand and we see his feelings of satisfaction, or reads to JH or successfully operates on a variety of people. We watch as he appears proud of his handiwork and adjusts the cuffs of his shirt or admits he saved someone’s life. He is not anhedonic as an alexithymic person might be. Although he fits the definition of alexithymic insofar as an inability to have emotional awareness, social attachment and interpersonal relationships in addition to having difficulty distinguishing and appreciating emotions in others. He does not fit it in that he enjoys his clock hobby, sex, and socializing with his aunts. (DM is clear that in mentioning alexithymic behavior he is not making a diagnosis.)
I am not certain what DM means by saying that the bargain ME made with himself about becoming a surgeon may have formed the basis for his “haemophobia and may ultimately form the basis for his redemption.” Was the bargain one that limited his desire to one, and only one, acquisition in his life — the skill to operate well? Will the redemption come in the form of a reduction in his phobia or in the success of his marriage? Or both? Did it bring on his haemophobia by putting too much pressure on ME to perform as well as his grandfather? I’d like to have more of an explanation about this statement.
Like DM I am generally wary of some of the suppositions about how abuse as a child, or bad home or boarding school life may have impacted Martin. We are provided these possibly damaging influences without any specific evidence to support a judgement. The idea that DM expresses that there is still an “undeveloped” part of Martin is very intriguing because that could be what gives the writers freedom to explore all sorts of areas. Rather than trying to change him by trying to turn him into someone different, Louisa may find it possible to foster those traits that have languished and can be expanded now. In S6 they’ve given us signs of so much potential for growth in terms of his emotional status. In S7 we might be shown many ways for that to happen.
This discussion about the interaction of emotions with so much of what we do as humans has broad implications beyond this show and is another example of how this show brings up so many deeply philosophical and psychological ideas. I did not realize when I first noted the way the show counterbalances the rational with the emotional that it would lead to such a far-reaching discussion. I hope what I’ve said has been of value and that many of you will add your own thoughts. I also look forward to hearing more from DM.
Originally posted 2014-07-12 10:34:25.