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Damasio's book will be somewhat tough sledding for the non-specialist, but it's still a good book and worth sticking with to the end. Using Descartes's famous dictum as a departure point, and through a discussion of current theory and detailed case studies, he demonstrates the intimate relationship between the brain, mind, and body. The case studies of sensory agnosia were very interesting, especially the one where the patient had apparently lost the functioning of the part of his brain that stored the awareness of one side of the patient's body, to the point where the patient had no awareness or perception of that half at all, and even denied that he even had a problem with it. There can be no clearer demonstration of the fact that our consciousness and awareness depends entirely on that 3-pound, convoluted mass of nerve cells we call the brain.
As someone with a pretty fair background in the area myself (I did a master's and almost completed a Ph.D. in psychobiology) I can vouch for Damasio's command of the scientific and technical issues and details (notwithstanding that fact that Damasio is both an M.D. and a Ph.D.) so he has a good command of the medical issues also. The book is very well written, although not easy, but Damasio does a fine job of explaining the more difficult ideas. One further comment, I read one review that was critical of Damasio for supposedly misinterpreting Descartes's dictum, "I think, therefore I am," and then spent the whole review discussing Descartes instead of Damasio's book. The reviewer also stated that because of this Damasio lacks scientific objectivity. Since his comment is itself a good starting point for discussing the most important aspect of Damasio's book, I thought I'd write a little more on it here.Read more ›
Other reviewers have surely summarized and analyzed this modern classic far better than I could, so here are some hints that may help you productively enjoy it:
1.) scan sections of the book before and after you read them. The author's simple expositions are terrific but the book's organization and data blending can be confusing, and the pace often slows uncomfortably. 2.) Consider using a good neuroanatomy text or atlas, like Barr or Hanaway. The author's maps are surprisingly skimpy and I strongly hope he includes a few pages of neuroanatomical diagrams in any future editions. 3.) You may want to underline selected terms and definitions, and note the reference at the back of the book -- the book has no glossary and the index is annoyingly weak. 4.) I thought the most valuable sections were on the Somatic Marker Hypothesis, the Body-Minded Brain, and the Postscriptum -- consider scanning these sections as you begin the book. Good luck and enjoy. The author's credentials are superb, his perspective complements other authors such as Edelmann, William James, and LeDoux, and he brings the unique and empathetic perspective of a neurologist who has specialized in analyzing the changes associated wtih discrete neuropathological conditions. The ideas you may receive from this wonderful book should be well worth the effort, and you should gain some insight into the miracle of how we think/feel/are.
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Damasio brings some some fascinating cases to bear on one of the oldest problems in philosophy and psychology. It's a good read and an important subject. It would be a mistake, however, to think that "Descartes' error" was just now being pointed out. In fact, practically no contemporary philosopher worth his or her salt subscribes to the Cartesian two-substance theory of body and mind. In his 1949 masterpiece, The Concept of Mind, Gilbert Ryle argued that Descartes' view was fatally flawed (and he wasn't really the first to point this out, either), and called it the "ghost in the machine" view of the body/mind relationship. If you get right down to it, Descartes himself would agree with Damasio that the emotions are not radically different kinds of things from the reasoning faculties, since he believed that experiencing an emotion was simply another mode of thought, just as drawing an inference is a mode of thought. But Descartes must be used to being a whipping boy by now, 350 years after his death; and the historical perspective aside, Damasio's book is an excellent contribution to scholarship on the effects of emotion on rationality.
This book is already a classic of its kind. Yes, the hypotheses are not new, and yes, there is some speculation. So what?!
Damasio takes the abstruse and technically demanding field of neuroscience and turns it into a novel. The book is not dumbed down, nor is it patronizing.
Damasio's main contention is that logic and reason are impossible without emotion. That is why intuitions are called gut feelings. He goes over many case studies, experiments, and introspection, to drive this point home.
Our body is where the action takes place. Only after (or sometimes concurrent with) the body makes up its mind, does the mind follow. For a quick example, suppose you are sitting down in a college classroom. There is an open seat next to you. Suddenly, you spot a voluptuously delightful young lady walking toward you. What happens to you? Your heart starts to beat faster, your palms sweat a little, your body tenses up; and neurotransmitters release a cascade of chemicals into your blood stream which modulate your body's internal viscera. You focus your attention on this women. Do you invite her to sit next to you? Or, are you to nervous to do so? If you are too nervous, think about what is going on. Is it because your brain is telling you that you are? No. Your body is sending signals to your brain and vice versa in a feedback loop. Your brain then 'reads' the signals comming from your body as nervousness. Without a body, you could 'feel' nothing. There would be no emotion. Thus, to a large degree, your decision was made prior to conscious awareness, and you could not control it.
This way of thinking seems anathema to Westerners who love to believe that rationality means pure logic without emotion.Read more ›
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