I read Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio when it was first published in the nineties. I still remember stumbling upon it on a shelf facing the back window of a Barnes and Noble Bookstore in California. I cannot say that I remember where and when I stumbled upon many other books, but this one has been that important to me.
As a young woman with a philosophy degree, and a growing interest in neuroscience, the title intrigued me. What was Descartes’ Error, I wondered. Was not reason and the ability to do so, objectively and without bias, the preeminent purpose of western thought? Was it not also what made us human, and in the view of many, what distinguished us from lessor creatures, or sadly, lessor cultures. Where the senses might deceive us, cold, objective thought, would not, or so I was taught.
According to Descartes, ‘I think therefore I am’ proved the reality of human existence, of the mind itself, and became the precept upon which the existence of much of western thought rested. What if he was wrong? What if we needed sense perception to be rational? What if there was an underlying neurobiology of emotions that was not only not distinct from our rational endeavoring but so intertwined with it such that, if we were injure or otherwise block those ’emotional’ pathways, the ensuing hyper-rationality, the rationality devoid of emotional biasing, would decimate our capacity for ‘rational’ decision-making? And if that were the case, if there were neurological evidence of such changes, would everything we thought, or at least everything we were taught about rationality be wrong? This is where Damasio begins his book – questioning the very precepts of western thought.
As a neurologist, Damasio is presented with patients, who because of certain injuries, lack the ability to make decisions. By all accounts, they appear to be normal, but they are not. They are hyper-rational and yet simultaneously and profoundly impulsive and unable to function in the most basic of circumstances. A lesser neurologist would see these patients as malingerers, and in fact many did, but Damasio dared to dig deeper, to devise testing to identify the regions of damage and their association with decision-making. What he found was quite simply mind-blowing and upends everything we think we know about rationality and brain sciences. He reconnected the brain to the body and bodily sense perception to rationality. He demonstrates how what we deem as rational decisions are only possible when predicated on the appropriate neurobiological cues; cues that come from a specific type of emotional biasing. In other words, how we ‘know’ what we think we know, has as much to do with functional neurobiology as it does with intellectual capacity and perhaps even more so.
The implications of this book are many. Among them, I cannot help but wonder how the rampant use of emotionally numbing psychotropic medications is not chemically impairing decision-making capacity.
Although Damasio and his colleagues focused on anatomical injuries to specific regions of the brain that removed emotion from the decision-making equation, one could easily surmise how perturbations in the chemistry within these tracts might also affect one’s biasing system, turning up or down the signals sent and received, up- and down- regulating the emotionality and the learning that comes from these emotional tags to situations. Similarly, it is also possible that chemistry changes within the body and in the tracts that manage and communicate these autonomic and body state signals, might fundamentally alter decision-making capacity. Considering the toxic chemical and chronic illness burden of modern man, it is fair to question whether our capacity to make decisions is not impaired, or at least fundamentally altered, in a manner similar, though perhaps not as drastically, to [Damasio’s patients].
For those who enjoy the upending of philosophical regimes with much neuroscience thrown in for good measure, I highly recommend this book. If you buy this book from the link below, we get a few dollars to support the website.
Since Descartes famously proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am,” science has often overlooked emotions as the source of a person’s true being. Even modern neuroscience has tended, until recently, to concentrate on the cognitive aspects of brain function, disregarding emotions. This attitude began to change with the publication of Descartes’ Error in 1995. Antonio Damasio—”one of the world’s leading neurologists” (The New York Times)—challenged traditional ideas about the connection between emotions and rationality. In this wondrously engaging book, Damasio takes the reader on a journey of scientific discovery through a series of case studies, demonstrating what many of us have long suspected: emotions are not a luxury, they are essential to rational thinking and to normal social behavior.
Last updated on December 14, 2023 at 6:30 pm – Image source: Amazon Affiliate Program. All statements without guarantee.
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