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Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain Paperback – September 27, 2005
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From the Back Cover
"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.
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If you are interested in reading about topics dealing with the mind, and this is the first book that you are choosing to read it will more than likely be a challenging one. Damasio uses numerous of anatomical names for structures and disease names within his book. If you are not familiar with the brain you will be constantly going to Wikipedia or Google to figure out what exactly he is talking about. I would highly suggest starting off with a different book that simply goes over the brain in general before tackling this one. While Descartes' Error can be informative it is much more enlightening and enjoyable if you already know the jargon. That way you will not have to stop reading every other paragraph to go online and look up terms.
The book itself is divided up into three parts. The first part looks into older case studies where people suffered brain injuries and after "recovery" had a change in both their personality and decision making ability. The most notable one is of Phineas Gage who had an iron rod go through his head and damage his frontal cortex. From this injury he had the symptoms listed above for the rest of his life. The second part of the book looks into explanations for why injuries such as the ones listed in the first part effect both decision making and personality. The final part of the book delves into ways to test these explanations and Damasio ends the book by giving an explicit explanation as to what he believes Descartes' Error was in regards to the books topic of the mind and body. For those who do not know who Descartes you will probably know a very famous quote by him, "I think therefore I am". He was a famous philosopher and mathematician from France. It would be beneficial to read the Wikipedia page on him before starting this book as well.
As I have stated before this book can be very dense and labor intensive to read if you have never taken a neuroscience course or read any books on the brain before. Some sections will have to be read over a few times for the information to sink in and really make sense. Damasio includes asides throughout the book on various topics and ideas that he mentions in the main text. These blurbs while helpful are generally where you are going to feel the most confused. The topics that he discusses in these asides, like Phrenology, have whole books written on them, and Damasio only has a few paragraphs on the topic. He tries to get as much information in as possible, and you can feel like your in over your head because the it is just that dense.
All in all for books on the brain I would say that this is a must read. Damasio presents plausible hypotheses and does a good job supporting them. The thing that I like most is both at the beginning and end of the book he makes sure to mention that what he has stated are just hypotheses and that they are not facts. They are conjectures. The field of neurobiology does not have all the answers, so while his hypotheses seem to fit they are not the end all and be all.
Damasio brings to the lay reader who is willing to devote some energy to understanding recent developments in neurology and brain function some important tools to re-evaluate the issues of mind body dualism. (This is the error that Damasio believes that Descartes made, the separation of mind from body.) If you believe that science has no power to shed light on thorny philosophical questions, read this book. Damasio makes a compelling case that modern studies of the brain and brain damage clearly demonstrate that the "mind" depends on complex interaction between brain and body and that emotion and rationality cannot be separated, indeed can't exist separately
This book is not an easy read, but it is compelling in its argument. I found myself wanting to tell people about Damasio's arguments and examples. This is that occassional book that has the power to make the reader see mankind's place in the world in a new light.