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on 6 June 2005
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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on 28 May 2009
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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on 26 January 2010
Whatever the final outcome of all the research into the mind/body problem (if there can be one) Damasio's ideas are serious and challenging. A comment on one of these five star reviews suggests that academics are moving against Damasio's views rather than supporting him. However, the comment gives no references so it is hard to take it seriously as yet. I am currently reading Jerry Fodor's LOT2 and the absence of any reference at all to Damasio is striking but so is the mechanistic view of memory that Fodor supports and which Damasio shows to be unfounded. Memory is not a filing cabinet as Fodor and probably many others suppose. The degradation of data that we all experience shows this. Damasio's view is, as I said, challenging. It tells us that only the present moment is real for us and when we "remember" what we actually do is create a new experience from old patterns. We don't, as Fodor states, go to the file marked X and pull out the data. To be fair to Fodor, this may be true of basic simple tokens but certainly not of complex structures like memories. It may not even be true of the basics either. I feel sad if Damasio is not being taken seriously as I think it is because academics are so entrenched in their computer mentality that any theory that suggests that major aspects of our minds don't work in that way is not acceptable. John Searle's severe critique of AI theory has still not been satisfactorily refuted but there are many who do their best to ignore it. I think the same kind of thing is happening with Damasio. I suggest you read this book and other books on Philosophy of Mind and decide for yourself. One thing is clear, we are a long way away from understanding how the mind works and if we don't keep a truly open mind for all the possibilities then we are not going to get anywhere.
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on 6 June 2012
Damasio sets out to establish the importance of the prefrontal cortices (anterior part of frontal lobes) implicated in the executive function of categorising contingencies. Since these are directly connected to every avenue of motor and chemical response available in the brain, they therefore form "the basis for the production of rich scenarios of future outcome required in making predictions and planning".

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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on 28 August 2010
I read this book as after BLINK when discussing Dr de Bono's view of how thinking 'works' - or does not work - in the human brain. Several other books (BUY-OLOGY, THE UNDERCOVER ECONOMIST, FOOLED BY RANDOMNESS) confirm the same message based on different sources - humans are fundamentally irrational and most decisions are strongly influenced by our subconscious memories. This is ironic given our governance systems assume that people are reasonable and may be persuaded by logic. Actually emotions determine decisions and D'Amasio explains where emotions come from...

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...
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on 8 March 2012
After having read "The Feeling of What Happens" I thought I'd give this earlier work by the same author a read,as I have recently come across numerous references to it that elevate it to somewhat of a classic in its field.
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.
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on 18 June 2011
I was almost tempted at one point to write a précis of a part of this book to show how much it could be condensed without losing the message.

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.
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on 8 April 2017
I wanted this book for a long time, just didn't have time to spare to order and read it. What a treat!
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on 16 March 2017
This edition is in cheap small print with some images of brain scans simply an unrecognizable black smudge...
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on 20 July 2017
a great book, very interesting read.
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