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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mind is embodied and not just embrained, 28 May 2009
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This review is from: Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (Paperback)
Substance dualism is the idea that our bodies are made out of one kind of stuff and our minds out of another, and Antonio Damasio is having none of it. Cogito ergo sum - perhaps the most famous statement in philosophy - "illustrates precisely the opposite of what I believe to be true about the origins of mind and about the relation between mind and body." Damasio reminds us that we were beings long before we became thinking beings, and, throughout this marvellous book, he argues for the importance of our bodies (not just our brains) in creating our minds. Indeed, "the bedrock of the sense of being alive" comes from just those "evolving representations of the body" that reach consciousness.

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.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Aug 2013 09:58:56 BDT
Fantastic thoughtful review

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Aug 2013 15:04:19 BDT
Sphex says:
Thanks for the encouraging feedback!
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