Descartes' Error Emotion Reason and the Human Brain

Descartes' Error Emotion Reason and the Human Brain If you're into stuff like this you can read the full reviewLife Is but a Dream Descartes' Error Emotion Reason and the Human Brain by António R DamásioOriginal Review 1994 11 17Dave Chalmers did a great job of making consciousness popular but his own view was 400 years out of date Descartes is the real rigorous physicist here he was after all one of the people who devised physics What he meant by the soul and God being 'spirit' is that they caused matter to move Matter for Descartes was just the inert occupancy of a space extension So physics consisted of the interaction of spirit and matter We now call spirit 'force' or 'energy' and Descartes was uite right because thinking is all about electromagnetic fluxes which in themselves do not occupy space or have mass His mistake was to think that there had to be one special spirit unit Leibniz sorted that out in 1714 I had an unusually ambivalent reaction to this book and alternated between being fascinated and being well slightly bored I'd say that the book is good and the author has some excellent insights but he gets a little long winded at times and tends to meander For the curious Descarte's error was the separation of mind and body and conseuently an artificial dichotomy between rationality and emotion Damasio makes an excellent case on neurological grounds that rationality simply doesn't work without emotion I read Descartes' Error as an undergraduate In grad school I learned that my advisor's wife herself a neuroscientist of some renown had a very poor opinion of Damasio's work However by that point this book had already changed my lifeDamasio provides here a popular account of research in neuroscience that started with the famous case of Phinneas Gage who upon having a railroad spike shoved through his head by an explosion changed from being an upstanding reliable citizen into a scurrilous bastard with a gambling problem From this as well as experimental work with other victims of brain damage Damasio draws the conclusion that reason as we typically think of it is not an abstract process but a fundamentally embodied one the brain and the body are in constant communication and the brain uses feedback from the body to evaluate prune and select for further exploration the branches of a decision tree that for even the most minor of problems when should we get together next? would be otherwise unmanageably largeMy interest in cognitive science and neuroscience were the natural outgrowths of my interest in computers and science fiction I grew up as did most people of my generation with the metaphor of the mind as a computer executing logical programs in a way that would have made Aristotle and Descartes proud I knew from studies of psychology how apparently irrational the human mind could be but until I read this book I always thought the mind was fundamentally a separate thing from the body This book convinced me they are at least as we implement them inseparable Rene Descartes was a 17th French philosopher and scientist often called the father of modern philosophy Descartes argued that 'mind' is an essence that exists independent of 'brain' this is known as 'Cartesian Dualism' In 'Descartes' Error' Antonio Damasio argues persuasively that that mind is inextricably linked to brain when you change the physical brain in specific measurable ways you induce specific and measurably changes in mind personality and behaviorDamasio illustrates this through numerous examples drawn from patients who've exerienced brain damage due to trauma or disease and emerged from the experience with a new personality and mental abilitiesGiven the evidence it's very difficult to argue that the 'mind' or 'soul' is a non material essence that exists independent of the physical structure of the brain I was captivated and fascinated by this book start to finish The book addresses the importance of emotion in cognition thus pointing out Descartes' error in separating mind from body In many ways this book simply affirms things that I have known for many years having spent 20 years as a dancerchoreographer but Damasio's perspective as a neuroscientist provides additional and compelling insights I recommend this book to anyone interested in cognition psychology philosophy arts or science basically to just about anyone Having read and become involved with his later books I have gone to the first in a series which explains the difference between emotion and feeling which makes the mind and body one again and which profoundly disturbs the comfortable idea of any but conventional separation of 'reason' and the passionsDamasio is of the 'sufficient but not necessary' strand when it comes to looking at the relationship between brain and mind you can't be human with the attributes of feelings emotions memory and so on without a brain but all of the attributes relate to things beyond the brain in particular the body I'm a little puzzled as to why he looks forward to a time when 'we' will understand such a thing as aesthetic response I am not sure for one that we are much further than Plato in beginning to understand aesthetics so finding even neural correlates with 'aesthetic states' seems conceptually doomed; importantly it feeds into the current neuromanic slop that assumes with the intellectual grasp of a five year old that a mood state a feeling something like an aesthetic adjective are simple labels to 'things' that exist with the solidity of a stone As I say Damasio is aware of the dangers but sometimes apart from inserted disclaimers his enthusiasm for his subject tends to imply that while he is very good on the brain he has less of a grasp on the psychology and of the immense conceptual complexities of enculturationFor all sorts of reasons though I'll give this five stars not least because it's enjoyable and a highly accessible primer to some of the basic anatomy and hypothesised functions of the brain and most importantly its embodiment we separate brain from body only for conventional convenience I find that Damasio's work fits for me with Lakoff and Johnson especially relating to the embodied mind Mark Turner The Literary Mind and Chambers Clark et al the extended mind Ignore my bias of working in a body centered cognitive neuroscience laboratory whose nascence was likely inspired by researchers such as Demasio but Demasio's theory resonates as a particularly well informed big level brain theory I've read a number of others who attempt to explain away a lot of the mysteries of the brain by big level theories but Demasio turns out to build one of the compelling set of explanations based mostly on evidence from his years of research in dissociation studies in neurology Where others fail by skirting the issues of how neural structures and organization can lead to self consciousness and the link between mind and body Demasio succeeds His message is simple we must not forget the entire biological organism when analyzing the brain The fallout from this main thesis is that proper cool headed reasoning decision making and logical thought is influenced by emotion and vice versa This symbiosis theme continues as we are taught to remember that the brain is part of the body and the body is part of the brain Forgetting the strong coupling between the two is denying the reality of the situation A brain in a vat is no brain at all Stylistically Demasio writes an engaging tale The book is meant for a general audience but I guess that most people unfamiliar with the brain structures competing theories and the general debate in philosophy of mind will find the content a bit heavy and must re read certain passages The book sags a bit in the middle editor please but Demasio's theories of self to be found in the closing chapters are well worth the waitI won't delve too much into the implications for neuroscience but Demasio's claim only makes our task to describe the brain all the difficult He sides with high level theorists pointing out that no matter how well we understand the constituent units of our neurological system it is not sufficient to describe behavior until we account for the whole picture This means that every high level experiment needs to understand that behavioral results can be not only task related but also influenced by background emotion something difficult to measure and control Bref He's successfully left me with some new ideas and has made a compelling thesis Congrats very bad the title takes on a literal meaning as this book is good for 1 a further explication but just largely a complete repetition of Descartes' philosophy under the guise of a 'correction'2 never pointing out any errors Descartes actually made and falling in to all of the same traps Descartes did most of which were pointed out in the 17th century Although I cannot tell for certain what sparked my interest in the neural underpinnings of reason I do know when I became convinced that the traditional views on the nature of rationality could not be correct Thus begins a book that takes the reader on a journey of discovery from the story of Phineas Gage the famous nineteenth century case of behavioral change that followed brain damage to the contemporary recreation of Gage's brain; and from the doubts of a young neurologist to a testable hypothesis concerning the emotions and their fundamental role in rational human behavior Drawing on his experiences with neurological patients affected by brain damage his laboratory is recognized worldwide as the foremost center for the study of such patients Antonio Damasio shows how the absence of emotion and feeling can break down rationality In the course of explaining how emotions and feelings contribute to reason and to adaptive social behavior Damasio also offers a novel perspective on what emotions and feelings actually are a direct sensing of our own body states a link between the body and its survival oriented regulations on the one hand and consciousness on the other Descartes' Error leads us to conclude that human organisms are endowed from the very beginning with a spirited passion for making choices which the social mind can use to build rational behavior Damasio's book is terrific and works both as an introduction and a good guide for those studying neuroscience and cognitive science The scientific case studies are easily accessible and thorough it features by far the most thorough assessment of the Phineas Gage case that I've come across as are the discussions of circuitry Damasio does use some unualified terms but he does a reasonable job at keeping the very technical discussions brief or relatively well ualified by the context of the case studiesThere are a lot of areas that Damasio glosses over but that is largely because he is attempting to cover a fairly massive scope in terms of science The text really is about the science and it is only towards the end that Damasio really begins to address the philosophical assessment at all There are some interesting methodological considerations for those who are approaching this book from the philosophy of mind bent as I am I strongly recommend paying attention to Damasio's relatively interchangeable use of functions usually seen as properties of mind and the the circuitry of the brain Damasio is a brilliant writer and there is a lot of thought put into that particular assessment of causal relationshipsThe assessments of evolutionary psychology are very interesting though I do have some skepticism with regard to some of Damasio's claims about genetics and the development of the brain as he is not entirely clear about the role of genetics in the emergence of structures in the brain There's a sort of weird micromacrostructure distinction that isn't entirely clear to me and I wish that portion of the text had been lucidThat is really nit picky though I think that overall this is one of the best books on the subject that I have come across I really like Damasio's writing style though the asides can be a little rough and feel a bit disjointed Overall this is a terrific overview of the science and the repercussions on philosophical theories both historical and contemporary Damasio doesn't present this as a screed against Descartes which would be gratuitous as writers like Dan Dennett have already beaten that horse well to deal at this point but instead allows his account of the brain to be taken in its proper philosophical context Definitely a terrific text

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