Descartes’ Error – Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

Author: 
Damasio, Antonio, R.
Publisher: 
Avon Books
Date Published: 
1994
ISBN: 
0-380-72647-5

This book just jumped off the shelves at me while browsing in a new Barnes and Noble in our area. Damasio is a neurologist with lots of clinical experience as well as research work in understanding the role emotions play in our life experience. Descartes introduced the separation of mind and body as well as emotion from logical thinking. Damasio makes an excellent case for emotions and knowledge of the body and sensory experience from and of the body being an absolutely essential and integral part of mind. His conclusion was that Descartes was wrong is made very convincingly while at the same time educating the reader about many of the higher level, more complex, systems interactions that occur in the brain.

Early on he states, "I propose that the critical networks on which feelings rely include not only the traditionally acknowledged collection of brain structures known as the limbic system but also some of the brain’s prefrontal cortices, and most importantly, the brain sectors that map and integrate signals from the body." He continues, "… that the body, as represented in the brain, may constitute the indispensable frame of reference for the neural processes that we experience as the mind."

In an aside on neurochemical explanations (pp. 77-78) he gives us his insights into how confused many in the medical community get when looking for a simple explanation of a chemical imbalance in the brain explaining a condition. This section has great relevance in being ready to counter the simple explanations of how Ritalin works. He is talking about Serotonin and aggressiveness but his argument can easily be expanded to our areas of concern such as what is the neurochemical factor in dyslexia or ADD, etc.

The problem is that it is not the absence or low amount of Serotonin per se that "causes" a certain manifestation. Serotonin is part of an exceedingly complicated mechanism which operates at the level of molecules, synapses, local circuits, and systems, and in which sociocultural factors, past and present, also intervene powerfully. A satisfactory explanation can arise only from a more comprehensive view of the entire process, in which the relevant variables of a specific problem, such as depression or social adaptability, are analyzed in detail.

As I go back over this book I can see that few pages escaped the use of my highlighter. The following will give you a flavor.

(Page 90) My view the is that having a mind means that an organism forms neural representation which can become images, be manipulated in a process called thought, and eventually influence behavior by helping predict the future, plan accordingly, and choose the next action.

The overall function of the brain is to be well informed about what goes on in the rest of the body, the body proper; about what goes on in itself; and about the environment surrounding the organism, so that suitable, survivable accommodations can be achieved between organism and environment.

If body and brain interact with each other intensely, the organism they form interacts with its surroundings no less so. Their relations are mediated by the organisms’ movement and its sensory devices.

(Page 232) When you see, you do not just see: you feel you are seeing something with your eyes. Your brain processes signals about your organism’s being engaged at a specific place on the body reference map (such as the eyes and their controlling muscles), and about the visual specifics of whatever it is that excites your retinas.

It is appropriate to describe our visual perception as a "feeling of the body as we see," and we certainly "feel" we are seeing with our eyes rather than with our forehead.

(Page 256) Medicine has been slow to realize that how people feel about their medical condition is a major factor in the outcome of treatment.

This is definitely one of the books you should put on your "must read" list!