Top critical review
9 people found this helpful
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.