Descartes' error : emotion, reason, and the human brain

by Antonio R. Damasio

Hardcover, 1994




New York : G.P. Putnam, c1994.


In the centuries since Descartes famously proclaimed, 'I think, therefore I am,' science has often overlooked emotions as the source of a person's true being. Even modern neuroscience has tended until recently to concentrate on the cognitive aspects of brain function, disregarding emotions. This attitude began to change with the publication of DESCARTES' ERROR. Antonio Damasio challenged traditional ideas about the connection between emotions and rationality. In this wonderfully engaging book, Damasio takes the reader on a journey of scientific discovery through a series of case studies, demonstrating what many of us have long suspected- emotions are not a luxury, they are essential to rational thinking and to normal social behaviour.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jeremylent
I’ve been reading Damasio “backwards”. One of the first books I read three years ago to try to understand the neuroscientific view of consciousness was Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness published in 1999. That gave me a solid grounding in Damasio’s view of embodied consciousness, which has become a foundation of my thinking. Later, I came across Damasio’s paper on the somatic marker hypothesis, which powerfully rejects the idea that abstract thinking can take place without a direct connection to the body’s bio-regulatory processes.

With this context, when I finally read Descartes’ Error, (probably Damasio’s most cited book), it had some of the characteristics of a quaint, historical document, making the case for embodied cognition as though it were a radical new idea: “Surprising as it may sound, the mind exists in and for an integrated organism.” I guess that shows the enormous impact Damasio himself (and others such as Edelman, LeDoux, etc.) have had in changing perceptions about consciousness in a mere fifteen years. Thanks to these ground-breaking neuroscientists, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”

I can only agree with the array of distinguished names that cite Descartes’ Error as a key book for understanding human consciousness. Through Damasio, Phineas Gage has become a household name (in certain households!) – the emblematic tragic figure whose prefrontal cortex was severely damaged in 1848, and whose consequent experiences paved the way for the neurological understanding of the prefrontal importance in regulation of emotion, complex decision-making and general executive functioning.

I think there are two fundamental take-aways from Damasio’s classic: (1) the mind is embodied and without this foundation, no approaches to higher cognitive functions or theories of consciousness have much validity, and (2) the prefrontal cortex (pfc) is the crucial mediator between our “innate regulatory circuits” and our self-aware consciousness, with its attributes of reason, willpower, symbolization, abstraction, etc.

Damasio’s work is a significant resource for my research project. However, an initial impression of my thesis of “the tyranny of the pfc” might be that it’s incompatible with Damasio. After all, if the pfc is the key bridge between bodily regulation and self-awareness, how can there be a “tyranny” of the pfc? And what sense does my distinction of conceptual and animate consciousness make if conceptual consciousness is fundamentally connected with animate consciousness? In fact, though, my approach is not only consistent with Damasio, it relies squarely on the work of Damasio and others for its evidence.

My argument is not that an individual’s prefrontal cortex is, by itself, a “tyrant” of our consciousness, but that our Western cultural milieu, imposed on an infant’s perceptions before s/he has even learned to speak, shapes the individual brain in such a way that our sense of identity and values give an inappropriate priority to pfc-mediated attributes (such as planning, reason, abstraction, logic, etc.) at the expense of a balanced self-identity emphasizing such attributes as integrated mind/body experience or full awareness of the present moment.

Here’s a key passage from the book which relates to my notion of a split between animate and conceptual consciousness:

From an evolutionary perspective, the oldest decision-making device pertains to basic biological regulation; the next, to the personal and social realm; and the most recent, to a collection of abstract-symbolic operations under which we can find artistic and scientific reasoning, utilitarian-engineering reasoning, and the developments of language and mathematics. But although ages of evolution and dedicated neural systems may confer some independence to each of these reasoning/decision-making ‘modules,’ I suspect they are all interdependent.

What Damasio describes as the “collection of abstract-symbolic operations” is essentially the same as my idea of “conceptual consciousness.” As he pointedly emphasizes, they are “interdependent.” But Plato, St. Augustine, Descartes and the whole momentum of Western civilization have idealized the conceptual consciousness as “the soul,” as the proof of our very existence, and as the foundation for science and civilization. It’s only when we begin to re-balance our values to give equal import to our bodily existence that we can begin to move towards a ‘democracy of consciousness.’

So thanks, Antonio Damasio, for your ground-breaking classic. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in gaining a serious understanding of human consciousness.
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LibraryThing member TurtleBoy
This book poses a wonderful hypothesis, in opposition to the views espoused by purists of reason in ages past (Plato and Descartes among them): that not only are emotion and feelings quite inextricably interlaced with reason and rationality, they are also essential to reason's proper functioning.

Damasio introduces the reader to the issue at hand by providing case histories like that of Phineas Gage, the famous 19th century railroad worker whose personality underwent profound change on account of a horrific accident in which an iron rod was driven through his skull, resulting in the destruction of a portion of his brain somehow responsible for making sense of critical events arising in the social and personal spheres of his life. Damasio compares Gage with a modern counterpart, a man named "Elliot" who is able "to know but not to feel" (p. 45). Elliot, like Gage, made disastrous decisions, and his life, like that of his 19th century counterpart, spiraled out of control.

What is it that causes such subjects to lose control of their lives? How is it that one can retain one's knowledge, memory, intellect, and power to reason, yet find one's decision-making ability in ruins? How is it that the destruction of neural substance more concerned with "emotional" matters can so profoundly affect "intellectual" ones?

Damasio's central thesis deals with "somatic markers": as neural images of scenarios resulting from potential decisions on our part arise in our minds, unconscious feelings ("background feelings") accompany those images, disposing us to positively or negatively consider the images and the scenarios they represent (see p. 173). The resulting marking narrows our list of potential scenarios by allowing us to discount various options outright, or by strongly encouraging us to pursue various others.

Much of Damasio's book comprises the development of the neural machinery to support this hypothesis, the testing of the hypothesis through experiments performed on Elliot and others with brain damage like his, and the erecting of defenses against possible attacks on the hypothesis.

I've not found this book as engaging as the one that led me to it (Stanislas Dehaene's "The number sense"), but it's been an interesting read nonetheless.

On a personal note, I'm saddened that I most likely won't make it through many more books before Spring Break is over!
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LibraryThing member sharder
Antonio Damasio presents a very central thesis in modern philosophy of mind: the interdependence of mind and body, with an extremely solid argumentation from neurology. Along the way he gives a brilliant introduction to neurology (especially the parts relevant for his argumentation and especially his own work).

I can recommend this book both to people interested in neurology ("and please not to much philosophical waffling") and philosophy of mind, as well as the general reader, as it is a very well-written book that will make anybody a little wiser on what it is to be human.… (more)
LibraryThing member neurodrew
30 November 1999
I know Tony Damasio slightly from the NINDS Advisory Council; he is always well-dressed and coiffured. His argument in this popular work is that the ability of the brain to judge emotional states and motivations of other individuals is the work of the prefrontal cortex. The lack of this ability contributes to the problems that frontal lobe injured patients have in making decisions. He argues that the mechanisms of reasoning must include a reference to, or integration of, information in the brain on the body states that represent the emotional and physiological responses to various decisions. In this way the brain can establish a hierarchy of significance of actions before taking appropriate decisions. Damasio proposes that this integration of emotional body states and logical decision trees is done in the prefrontal cortex. The argument seems, often, self-evident, and his data are largely anecdotal, but this is a very interesting book.… (more)
LibraryThing member elenchus
1 - Somatic-marker hypothesis posits that emotions/feelings are integral to reasoning, not an obstacle or impedence to it.

2 - Hints that the self, broadly understood, is predicated upon emotions/feelings as defined by Damasio

3 - Emotions defined as body-states (somatic states, e.g. heart rate, skin temperature) that broadly indicate danger or health to the organism

4 - Feelings are conscious monitoring of emotions; draw correlations between emotions and external circumstances

Does not cite Julian Jaynes but would be curious of such a comparison.
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LibraryThing member gbsallery
A fascinating tour through some now sadly slightly dated research into brain function. This was the book which popularised the story of Phineas Gage, and it tells the story very well; much of the subsequent sections of the book advance Damasio's own "somatic marker hypothesis", which now seems somewhat laboured in light of its current general acceptance. Still, a useful book to read if you're trying to understand the background to much current neurological research.… (more)
LibraryThing member browner56
Can we really “free” our reasoning minds from emotional contexts in our thought processes? Writing in the 17th century, the French philosopher Rene Descartes thought so (or at least I think he thought so, based on the bits and pieces of Meditations I vaguely remember reading). However, as the title of this book implies, Damasio believes otherwise. The product of a cognitive neurologist, Descartes’ Error offers a relatively non-technical description of how our brains work, as well as when and why they do not.

Some of the material the author develops proved to be a lot more than I wanted to know and a few of the concepts are apparently a little dated. Still, he makes an effective case for the proposition that rationality has no context without emotion; this in turn suggests that psychological factors can and must matter in our understanding economic activity and decision-making. At the very least, if you read this book you will know why the pain of Phineas P. Gage’s—the railroad worker who survived a spike being driven through his skull—turns out to be our gain.
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LibraryThing member DarkWater
Damasio revisits the still widely held Cartesian beliefs about the relationship between mind, brain, and body with the help of modern neuroscience.
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
It's a brilliant book based on interesting research, and as I understand it, quite revolutionary in its scope and theories. Damasio says that there is no dualism between the mind and the body. Our mind and consciousness stem from the brain and the body likewise since there are millions signals, both conscious and unconscious sent from the body to the mind and vice versa every second. Even such critical `mind' operations as rational decision making can be tied to the cooperation of the mind, body and feelings. In fact, feelings and emotions are critical to decision making, and have a special job providing a bridge between the rational and non-rational processes. They also help us learn, and we supposedly learn more through suffering than through avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.… (more)
LibraryThing member AliceAnna
Very dry, very difficult reading. The "error" of the book has to do with the statement, "I think, therefore I am." Damasio says that because we are, we think -- that it evolved. Frankly, I think they're both wrong and Popeye is right. "I am what I am and that's all what I am! Hyuck! Hyuck! Hyuck! Hyuck! Hyuck!"
LibraryThing member FlavioPereira
Have read for school and still remember some parts, a basic book to understand António Damasio and dont not so easy to understand as scientific (but it makes part of the science to be not so easy to understand). A case very well explained and have to publically rated it because why not
LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
Since Descartes famously proclaimed, "I think, therefore I am," science has often overlooked emotions as the source of a person’s true being. Even modern neuroscience has tended, until recently, to concentrate on the cognitive aspects of brain function, disregarding emotions. This attitude began to change with the publication of Descartes’ Error in 1995. Antonio Damasio—"one of the world’s leading neurologists" (The New York Times)—challenged traditional ideas about the connection between emotions and rationality. In this wondrously engaging book, Damasio takes the reader on a journey of scientific discovery through a series of case studies, demonstrating what many of us have long suspected: emotions are not a luxury, they are essential to rational thinking and to normal social behavior.… (more)



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