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158 of 165 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging an old idea, 6 Jun. 2005
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]
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 11 May 2009 00:14:15 BDT
Unfortunately most (if not all) of Damasio's research comes from a very, very small sample and there has not been much reseach carried out elsewhere that corroborates his findings. In academic circles there has been something of a reaction agaisnt Damasio, in particular the neccesity of his "Somatic Markers" to explain the functions he atributes to them. It seems that a number of researchers and academics who initially bought into Damasio's thesis have now become deeply sceptical and his work may not be the breakthrough it appeared when first presented.

Posted on 11 May 2009 00:15:12 BDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Jan 2010 10:40:37 GMT
Savitaa says:
If you are serious in your claim Mr Watson then providing a few references would have been helpful instead of posting the review twice.

Posted on 20 Apr 2011 22:02:37 BDT
[Deleted by Amazon on 21 Apr 2011 12:52:25 BDT]

Posted on 25 Aug 2013 17:03:33 BDT
First rate review
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Location: Ottawa, Ontario Canada

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