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on September 29, 2013
After reading Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, I wanted to give an overview of the book, and insight on how to go about reading it. First off, I would suggest this book to anyone who thinks that they are a logical thinker and decision maker that does not let emotion interfere with their decisions. Damasio uses case studies prolifically to support his hypotheses that the mind and body cannot be separated and are in fact an integrated unit.

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.
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on September 2, 2015
Everyone should read this book. What Damasio has to tell us about the role of emotion in our reasoning process is fascinating and profoundly important, especially in our culture that wrongly teaches us that the two are separate and that engaging emotions in the reasoning process is a fault of logic. Beautifully written for the layperson without dumbing down the message.
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on May 17, 2013
This is a very valuable book, which i read last year from the library and i decided recently to buy and keep, it is a very important book. The problem was that what I got was not the same and that was my fault. The one from the library was
big , thick and hard cover. It didn't matter cause the same subjects.I am not in a position to debate or question any of the subjects in the book. I don'tg have that education for and iwas happy to learn a lot. The reason i decided to keep a book like that at home, because i went through things in life and with meditation and some focusing about my life
and the life of others, i came up in 1986 with a belief that what i knew about Descart, in school and and when i was young , was not a correct sentence, to say the least. I did not have that kind of education to argue a man like him but my walk with God had taught me alot and i knew he was wrong, and i waited a long time to find a way to prove it.
W hen i saw that book (Descart's Error) in a bookstore, i was surprised and decided to read it . It is , no doubt , a book that should be kept at home and the four , not five stars is not because the book is not valuable enough
but because, in my opinion , though a scientist thinks , speaks and writes as a scientist , a true scientist , should leave a space, even one percent, to a potential reality that may still exist within the circle of impossibility. I am sorry for this lengthy opinion but the issue of( I think , therefore I am ) became the backbone of my own study and research and the book with all due respect to the author never discussed the phrase itself. I......Think........Therefore......I am. What is "I", what is thinking, what is Am, and where did Therefore come from and to be pushed in the middle.If you cannot tell me what "I" is ,what think is , what am is, then how can you tell me Therefore I am???! That is why four stars instead of five and thank you for reading this long (opinion!!!!).
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on September 13, 2015
One of the best books on neuroscience including high level and low level descriptions of the phenomena in the brain.
I would recommend it to read to those who are interested in most mysterious phenomena humankind met - the human brain and mind.
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on April 23, 2017
Just as described,!
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on October 2, 2010
Although this book is filled with lots of good information, the information is disjointed and organized in a counter intuitive manner. The changes in writing style across the book exacerbate the flow troubles.

I have mixed feelings about this book. The author went to great lengths to help the reader get up to speed with topics that will appear in the book. A surprising amount of information is covered, it seems as though every other page or so the reader is challenged with a new topic or historical perspective on the field of neuroscience. Much of this information is interesting of its own accord. However the author attempts to cover too many topics, many of which seem to have little impact on the direct topic of the book. Although the historical perspective on Phrenology, Neurite structure are interesting, they do not enhance the author's goal of showing that the mind is intimately tied to the body.

The second critique is the drastic change in writing style that occurs between the first quarter of the book and the rest of the book. The book opens with a lovely narrative style that draws the audience into the case study of Phineas Gage. This gentlemen is the classic example of changes in brain structure relating to personality changes. Mr. Gage was involved in a construction accident that propelled an iron bar through his head damaging a section of the prefrontal cortex. The damage resulted in drastic changes in his ability to assess consequences of actions and emotional importance of situations. It was a pleasure to have a description of the people and places involved in the case, changing a classic textbook example into something more real. However this style is quickly dropped in favor the more sterile scientific discourse. It was a shame to see this different approach to scientific discourse abandoned so quickly.

A Quick Summary of the Book:

The book opens with details of a couple of case studies; first the case study of Phineas Gage, then of an anonymous patient "Elliot." In both of these cases the author explores how changes to the Cortex can result in startling changes to personality and function. The author highlights the interesting discomfort many people have about this topic. Curiously people are "okay" with damage resulting in "common" changes such as stroke, loss of speech, motion or balance. In contrast the idea that something as fundamental to one's personality as prioritizing and morality could be impacted by brain damage is startling. This observation in both case studies is a direct challenge to the sense that the mind is independent of structure.

The next topic that the author approaches is the impact of emotions and feelings. Throughout this section the author seems to severely loose focus on their original goal of the intimate relationship between body and mind. The author tackles too many large topics that require lengthy explanations of topics in neuroscience. Oddly the formatting of the tangents detracts from the overall point of the section. Whenever the author broaches on a new topic a lengthy section is added at an unusual indentation and font size. Once again, although the information is interesting it is more like a report on the subtopic than related to the overall goal.

The author finally begins to draw all of the discussed idea in the book together in the final chapters. It was relieving to finally get to the authors development of ideas. In this final section a big picture is drawn and the author's charisma returns. A final statement is made about the indelible link between the body and the mind. Oddly this conclusion seems almost obviously intuitive at this point. During this section the author finally addresses the title of the book. In a subsection labeled similarly as the book itself the author presents Descartes statement "I think therefore I am," and questions its validity in light of the presented information. In light of the presented information it almost silly to consider the mind preceding the body, in fact considered causation of either is rather foolish. Both are intimately linked and communicate with and respond with each other.

It is amusing that the author questions even his bringing up the topic. On page 250 he notes "Now, some may ask, why quibble with Descartes rather than with Plato, whose views on body and mind were far more exasperating, as can be discovered in the Phaedo? Why bother with this particular error of Descartes?" Damasio quickly dismisses this question as it is almost obviously wrong by modern knowledge. But this seems to beg the question of why a philosopher of such antiquity is drawing such discussion when there are modern scientists that need an equal degree of correction. Curiously many ideas of neurology are being overturned, and yet has taken so long for some one to consider Descartes.

Although I found this book often interesting I would not suggest it to many. The book tackles too many topics that will scream by for the reader with a strong technical background, specifically in either psychology or neuroscience. This was actually frustrating for me. I've taken several college level biology courses and often found myself lost and feeling that a reference text would be useful. In short, if you are already familiar with the field and topics in the book it should be an enjoyable read that fills in some gaps. However if this is the first you've heard of Descartes, or neuroscience, you would be better served with The Idiot's Guide to Understanding the Brain.
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on August 13, 2016
Great read. I bought it as an assigned reading in my philosophy class, which ended up being very interesting. For anyone who is interested in Descartes' work, I would recommend reading this.
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on October 26, 2014
I wanted to know why I physically reacted when angry/in pain and felt lighter when happy. This book bridged why and how. Excellent read for PTSD and secondary trauma.
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on December 9, 2012
This is absolutely the book one should pick to start understanding the role of emotions in our lives. The one part that I got particularly fascinated with was regarding the differences between primary and secondary emotions from the perspective of hw they get processed in the brain. For a compete perspective makes sees to follow up with the book emotional brain by Joseph Ledoux.
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on November 21, 2016
A must read in today's culture - we need to get away from Facts not feelings.
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