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Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

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Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Avon Books, 1994

Commentary by Paul Grobstein. Paul is a member of the Biology Department at Bryn Mawr College and co-founder of Serendip. This page was created in 1996 and includes links to comments on the book by students in a senior seminar in Neural and Behavioral Sciences.

From the Introduction:

"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. I had been advised early in life that sounds decisions came from a cool head ... I had grown up accustomed to thinking that the mechanisms of reason existed in a separate province of the mind, where emotion should not be allowed to intrude, and when I thought of the brain behind that mind, I envisioned separate neural systems for reason and emotion ... But now I had before my eyes the coolest, least emotional, intelligent human being one might imagine, and yet his practical reason was so impaired that it produced, in the wanderings of daily life, a succession of mistakes, a perpetual violcation of what would be considered socially appropriate and personally advantageous.

I began writing this book to propose that reason may not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were, that emotion and feelings may not be intruders in the bastion of reason at all: they may be enmeshed in its networks, for worse and for better.

I wrote this book as my side of a conversation with a curious, intelligent, and wise imaginary friend, who knew little about neuroscience but much about life ... My friend was to learn about the brain and about those mysterious things mental, and I was to gain insights as I struggled to explain my idea of what body, brain, and mind are about."

Damasio, Professor of Neurology at the University of Iowa School of Medicine, has very much written the book he wanted to write. His principle theme, that reason and emotion are closely linked, is clearly and compellingly argued from a solid base in neuroscientific research, much of it the work of Damasio himself and of Hanna Damasio, to whom he is married. That theme, and a more general consideration of the relation between mind/brain and body, is significant for and accessible to anyone curious about such matters, including educators. The book is, in addition, a superb base for conversations about the emerging understanding of the centrality of the brain in appreciating behavior in all its forms, and was used as such in a senior course at Bryn Mawr College. Excerpts from reviews of the book by the students in that course are provided below. Clicking on an excerpt will give the complete review. Or you can read all the reviews.



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Dion Fortune

Paul, I think you might enjoy the older book by Dion Fortune called "The Machinery of the Mind." It's quite old and likely in the public domain, but provides one of the best synthesis of psychological structure that I have read. I have found it incredibly useful when thinking about the underlying neurological structures of consciousness. - Joshua Gulick