Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain Paperback – 6 Jul 2006
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"A thought-provoking account" (New Scientist)
"Rich in provocative concepts about intelligence, memory, creativity and passion" (Los Angeles Times)
"idiosyncratic and engaging" (The Times)
"Damasio is a profound thinker and an elegant writer...Descartes' Error is a fascinating exploration of the biology of reason and its inseparable dependence on emotion" (Oliver Sacks)
"Crucial reading" (New York Times Book Review)
Professor Antonio Damasio reassesses a history of philosophy and science that has long valued rationality over emotionSee all Product description
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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.
Whereas Descarte's error was to crudely separate mind and body or thought and emotion - with emotion residing in the body - Damasio explores visceral information in the cognitive process and makes a case for the mind and body coming together harmoniously in the prefrontal cortices.
Crudely speaking 'Descarte's Error' is very much written from the perspective of the western medical model but with a heavy philosophical slant and, as might be expected from an erudite clinician, the style can be overly long-winded and surgically disengaging at times which makes for ponderous reading if your background is not neuroscience. The axis of what is to many in the arts and humanities a basic conclusion takes such a long time to reach that some readers could be underwhelmed to discover (possibly due to the book's age) that the mind and body are entwined, though it must be said in the best scientific tradition that Damsasio only ever offers working hypotheses.
That said, though the medical school terminology and cold hearted approach abounds, Damasio does not ignore the human dimension and more than understands that western medicine has concentrated for far too long on the physiology and pathology of the body, rather than the "human heart in conflict with itself", i.e. with a mind of its own as a function of the organism. The overthrowing of Cartesian dualism and its set of sub-specialisations is recognised in that only a part of the circuitry in our brains can ever be determined by genes as the human organism operates in collectives of like beings. Brain circuitries are unique at any given moment and are shaped by cultural and social context, especially in their regulation of pain and pleasure.
The 'somatic marker hypothesis' put forward is that emotions play a critical role in our ability to make fast, rational decisions in complex and uncertain situations, which might explain the rather old-fashioned trait of stubborn dominance guiding alpha types in making key gut decision when faced with complex and conflicting choices - and many an addiction to the boardroom scenes in the BBC's version of The Apprentice! Those with frontal lobe damage do not have easy access to visceral feedback and are incapable of flying by the seat of their pants in making the fine adjustments to their social situations. These individual are still however able to make logical 'as if' decisions, or response images that can be stored in long term memory and provide the ammo for high scores in a battery of cognitive tests. There therefore might be a neuroscientific explanation for the much overused mantra that high intelligence does not always exhibit common sense!
Such a fascinating finding was measured in two unequivocal experiments. The first one showed that those with prefrontal lobe damage were incapable of generating skin conductance to a series of projected slides with randomly screened disturbing images. The second experiment was carried out with a a more life-like game of cards paying rewards and penalties. Its findings consistently revealed that those with prefrontal lobe damage bypassed their emotional hunches that would tell them something about the stimulus that they had encountered over time, so that they exhibited a myopia for making future predictions in their miscalculation of 'goodness' and 'badness' in gambling different decks. According to Damasio this is a crucial factor in constructing personal decisions about one's welfare and guidance, a fate that misfell the infamous Phineas Gage.
I could not help but make the link with the ultimate Buddhist somatic marker of 'life as suffering' which Damasio would conclude puts us on notice as the best possible protection for survival: it becomes a motivator for our drives, instincts and decision making strategies. If patients with prefrontal damage have altered pain responses how does this affect their connection with cosmic events, if this is their belief? Such a conclusion also led me to consider Damasio's findings in its application to management practice in that those in ivory towers should suffer to give them a rounded decision matrix. Thus one must be more than a little bit wary of people who cannot feel, especially bosses...
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