Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Descartes' Error

Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
by António R. Damásio
Penguin (Non-Classics), 2005 (first published 1994)

The book starts with neuroscience's cause celebre - a man whose head was pierced by a metal stake that passed through his neck and out of the top of his head. The fact that he survived is astonishing, and is where many neuroscientists in the past have stopped, having proven some point or another about neuroanatomical structure. Damasio not only provides us with gorgeous detail about the tragic accident that resulted in Phineas Gage's custom-made tamping rod exploding through his skull, he also follows Gage after his initial recovery into a tragic story of the downfall of a once-proud man. As well as Gage, Damasio offers many more intriguing stories of brain damage and other ailments that affect the way that we operate in our social environments and in doing so he makes a very strong case for the reintegration into science of emotion. Damasio complains that emotion has been ignored for too long - perhaps because of the over-riding desire to be logical and "scientific".

Even if (as Descartes would have us believe) it is possible to think and act logically, that does not mean that we cannot logically study the emotions. On the contrary, it is the passion, insight, intuition and inspiration that has produced the greatest advances in science - great innovators just knew they were right even when nobody else believed it. More specifically, Damasio argues that it is precisely when people lose their ability to evaluate emotionally that they become paralysed by logical thought. Certain syndromes result in people being unable to choose the right option, even when one may involve losing a job or a friendship. Damasio's answer is to propose a model of thought that gives the emotions a key part in cognitive processes, and demanding that the Dualism so popular in science that follows Descartes is consigned to the history books.

If you are not entirely convinced that emotion plays a part in our most logical thought processes, consider these 2 points:
1. Descartes reasoned that the only truth any of us can be sure of is that "I think therefore I am". One error he made was that he did not take his logical analysis 1 step further. How do we know we think? We feel we know. Without the feeling that we know we would not be so sure that we think. This is not how Descarte's error is explained in the book, but it is what I have learned from it.
2. Our primary sense is not vision. It may be the one we are most aware of using, but vision depends on another sense: Touch. Not touch at the end of the fingertips, but touch as our whole skin. We touch our environment by taking a position within it, and only when we know where we are and how we are situated in our environment can we start using our other senses as comparative measures. We feel who we are and where we are. Without touch we have no awareness, and without awareness we have no thought.

You guessed it... another Goodreads review

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