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150 of 156 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging an old idea,
This review is from: Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Paperback)A "negative" title such as this carries unfortunate implications. The "error" must be identified, then explained and refuted. For newcomers to cognitive studies, Descartes "error" might seem an obscurity . Yet it has been the basic tenet of education and social thinking in the Western world for three centuries. "Cogito ergo sum" was translated into the belief that the mind and the remainder of the body were separate entities. Behaviour was controlled by the mind, while the body went about its own business. Damasio demolishes that long-standing mistake for good in this superbly written groundbreaking study.
The first indication of the relationship of the mind and body was the bizarre penetration of a railway worker's skull in 1848. The worker lived, but the damage to his brain left him with severe personality changes. The case opened the door to research leading to mapping areas of the brain that reflected various personality traits. Damasio recounts the incident, matching it with numerous clinical studies of his own. Additional work, some of it strongly innovative led Damasio and his colleagues to a reformulation of how the mind and body interact.
He reminds us that the brain is much more than a collection of electrically interacting cells. The body is sending information to the brain almost continuously, with the brain replying or initiating communication. These signals are both electrical and chemical. More importantly, Damasio reflects on the evolutionary origins of these conditions. For him, it is inevitable that the mind and body interact intimately. His proposed appellation for Emotions aren't separated from our reasoning processes, but are an integral part of them. The attempts by parents and educators to "train out" emotions in children are thus doomed to fail.
Damasio's thesis hinges on what he calls "somatic markers." The markers are areas of the brain which continuously interact with the body, particularly those areas we associate with emotions. If confronted with emotionally charged choices, the stomach "knots," the face may "flush" warmly, and perspiration may increase markedly. These body/brain functions begin developing early in the embryo. Indeed, they have a long evolutionary history, which firmly establishes their roots. In humans, the brain not only controls/reacts with the body in addressing stressful circumstances, but retains some level of memory of the events causing the reactions. Hence, even thinking about such circumstances can lead to bodily reactions associated with them. You need not be confronting an emotional situation to be able to express the feelings associated with it. This, of course, is most notably seen in actors or other performers. Damasio offers the excellent example of orchestra conductor Herbert von Karajan, whose pulse rate was higher while conducting than when confronted with an emergency situation in an airplane. To Damasio, "Descartes' error" was that he placed all these controls in a central location of the "mind" where, in fact, they are scattered over much of the brain.
The implications from this book will be far reaching. Besides impacting academic courses on behaviour, there will be changes in how we parent, how we deal with education, and even in the realm of law. Binding reason and emotion will revise uncountable long-standing ideas about how the mind deals with our surroundings. It is a work addressing fundamental questions about what make us human. Read it with care, aware that many preconceptions are likely to be challenged. The rewards for this effort will be great in years to come. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellently written and well-presented thesis,
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Organismic Feedback Loop Theory,
The first one hundred pages read like a dream and I mistakenly thought that the author had saved his verbose and prolix style for his later works,but then I found I had been lulled into a false sense of security,by which time I was in too deep.The rest of the book took a considerable effort to finish,as to understand a great deal of it requires one to read then re-read a sentence,then deliberate on it until its meaning becomes apparent in your own linguistic terms.This method is taxing to say the least and a vast amount of concentration was required for reading anymore than 10 pages at a time,but due to the interesting nature of the material one remains motivated to proceed further,and by the end of the book you are in no doubt as to the information that has been imparted.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mind is embodied and not just embrained,
Perhaps it's not surprising that a philosopher elevated thinking, and awareness of thinking, to such prominence, but modern science is beginning to tell a far more interesting story about the "real substrates of being". The neat separation between the physical body - subject to its animal passions - and the higher rational soul - imagined as a divine endowment - is a fiction, albeit a powerful one. Damasio shows the many ways in which the "lowly orders of our organism are in the loop of high reason" and how emotion, feeling and biological regulation "all play a role in human reason".
Those who lament health and safety regulations would do well to read the salutary tale of Phineas P. Gage, a railroad worker whose momentary lapse of concentration in 1848 provided material for both a front page tabloid sensation and countless neuroscience textbooks. An iron bar through the brain would be enough to kill most people, but Gage not only survived he was not even knocked unconscious. I cannot help using his name and the pronoun that implies continuity of personhood, but, after such a serious brain injury, we should ask, who has survived? Which parts of the old personality? In Gage's case, "his likes and dislikes, his dreams and aspirations" all changed. There was a new spirit animating his body. Gage was no longer Gage.
Mid nineteenth century, the brain was being revealed as "the foundation for language, perception, and motor function". The importance of Gage's story was that it hinted at "systems in the human brain dedicated more to reasoning than anything else". While Gage could still move and speak normally, he had lost "something uniquely human, the ability to plan his future as a social being". Had a piece of his soul been blown out along with his brains, ending up a hundred metres away, on a sticky iron bar covered in dust?
Damasio brings us up to date with one of his own patients, Elliot, "an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man" who "had undergone a radical change of personality" and whose behaviour resembled Gage's. The cause was a brain tumour, which was successfully removed. However, while still capable of attending to detailed tasks, "Elliot had become irrational concerning the larger frame" of his life and, unable to plan hours let alone days ahead, was no longer "an effective social being". Damasio and his team observed in Elliot and other similar patients that such impaired decision making invariably came with "flat emotion and feeling". Could it be that a reduction in emotion was an important source of irrational behaviour?
Everyone from Plato to Oprah has talked about emotions and feelings - their own and other people's, whether they should be held in check or freely expressed. Damasio brings some much needed clarity to these often fluffy concepts. For a start, they are not interchangeable terms: while "all emotions generate feelings if you are awake and alert", background feelings originate in body rather than emotional states and contribute importantly to our "sense of being". Feelings of all kinds "form the base for what humans have described for millennia as the human soul or spirit." Taking the long view, the "beauty of how emotion has functioned throughout evolution" is that it enables living beings to act smartly without having to think smartly. The emotional feeling of disgust upon seeing some rotting meat, for example, discourages us from eating it. There is no reasoning involved: we are relying on innate knowledge - "based on dispositional representations in hypothalamus, brain stem, and limbic system" - acquired over millions of years.
Key to Damasio's neurobiology and his understanding of when a brain can be said to have a mind is not just that neuron circuits are modified by changes in our bodies and the external world in reliable ways, but that such neural representations become images. Once the brain is able to "display images internally and to order those images in a process called thought" then we can not only think about the world as it is but we can begin to imagine the world as other than it is: we can "predict the future, plan accordingly, and choose the next action."
This is one of those books it is worth working hard as a lay reader to get through. While I'm sure some of the science has already been revised, there is much to learn, and the fact that answers to some very big questions are being put forward is incredibly exciting. When do brains develop minds? What is the source of intuition? What are thoughts? How are emotions an indispensable foundation for rationality? Antonio Damasio reconnects body and mind and undoes much of the damage done by Descartes' error: "the body contributes more than life support and modulatory effects to the brain." It is a content provider "that is part and parcel of the workings of the normal mind." Don't worry about unweaving this particular rainbow: "Understanding the biological mechanisms behind emotions and feelings is perfectly compatible with a romantic view of their value to human beings." And why pick on this particular error? After all, Descartes was wrong about many things. It matters because Descartes' error is our error: from early childhood we are all intuitive dualists.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A shame about the tortuous writing style,
The laboured writing style really does interfere with what appears to be valuable messages - it is hard to track the underlying message when copious detail about experimental method and excess detail about relating brain parts, with their awkward names obscures the path.
But the messages are, in spite of these shortcomings, profound and enlightening.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emotions and Decisions.,
He outlines research from lesion studies and neurological defecit patients - linking to a theory of reason and emotion.
This book opened my eyes to a very modern set of theories and to many understandings of neurology and neuropsychology previously undiscovered by myself.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I am therefore I think...,
Perhaps the most important take-away of the book is the confirmed link made between mind and body when it comes to health. Western medicine treats mind and body as separate systems; D'Amasio refutes this and also says that the mind cannot think when disembodied; it requires constant feedback from the body (as well as nurturing by the body).
For years, I have looked for an explanation of how instinct is inherited when memory is not - this book helps answer that without mysticism. It confirms that the complexity of the brain exceeds the programming ability of our genetic code, but that the ability to think in certain patterns can be inherited.
'Descartes Error' also emphasises the importance of learning to a pre-school child as they build up their synaptic map (with personality and cultural biases) when the paths through their brain are fired up and prioritised.
It is a bit heavy to read, but well worth the effort to learn how we achieve our consciousness. On the way, there is tacit acknowledgement that other mammals have most of the same abilities and may even share self-awareness.
Business blogger Seth Godin frequently refers to the 'Lizard Brain' inside our mind which inhibits action through excessive caution. D'Amasio confirms this mechanism is real, primitive and useful as it allows us to sidestep nasty options by following well-known choices again and again and again...without thought. It is this endless and sometimes unproductive loop that Dr de Bono seeks to exit with lateral thinking techniques.
A well written book and a nicely presented roundup of the subject accessible to a lay reader. Reading it prompted more questions however - why is autism rising; what does the endless audiovisual stimulation of TV do to our brains; is there any impact on our thinking from the radio frequency swamp we now inhabit; is subliminal messaging possible via Internet streaming; how does hypnotism work; why do humans crave risk through gambling, bungey jumping, etc. We need answers to these questions also and I hope there will be a sequel soon...
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing!,
By A Customer
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shorten the sentences. Make your points more succinctly.,
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating!,
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Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio