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Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain

3.96 of 5 stars 3.96  ·  rating details  ·  4,137 ratings  ·  146 reviews
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—"o ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published September 27th 2005 by Penguin Books (first published 1994)
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Dwight Cates
Rene Descartes was a 17th French philosopher and scientist, often called the father of modern philosophy. Descartes argued that 'mind' is an essence that exists independent of 'brain' - this is known as 'Cartesian Dualism.' In 'Descartes' Error', Antonio Damasio argues persuasively that that mind is inextricably linked to brain - when you change the physical brain in specific, measurable ways, you induce specific and measurably changes in mind - personality and behavior.
Damasio illustrates this
Morgan Blackledge
OMG Damasio is a hand full. I think he's trying to kill me. The book starts out very readable (which is uncharacteristic of Damasio), then (about half way through) the book becomes nearly unreadable (which is typical of Damasio). I am an educated reader. I teach affective and developmental psychology. I am not a researcher or a specialist but I can say that none of the material in this book is unfamiliar to me. But I'm often lost as to the larger point Damasio is trying to make. I attribute this ...more
Having read and become involved with his later books, I have gone to the first in a series which explains the difference between emotion and feeling, which makes the mind and body one again, and which profoundly disturbs the comfortable idea of any but conventional separation of 'reason' and the passions.

Damasio is of the 'sufficient but not necessary' strand when it comes to looking at the relationship between brain and mind: you can't be human with the attributes of feelings, emotions, memory
I had an unusually ambivalent reaction to this book and alternated between being fascinated and being, well, slightly bored. I'd say that the book is good and the author has some excellent insights, but he gets a little long-winded at times and tends to meander. For the curious, Descarte's "error" was the separation of mind and body, and consequently, an artificial dichotomy between rationality and emotion. Damasio makes an excellent case on neurological grounds that rationality simply doesn't w ...more
Joshua Stein
Damasio's book is terrific, and works both as an introduction and a good guide for those studying neuroscience and cognitive science. The scientific case studies are easily accessible and thorough (it features, by far, the most thorough assessment of the Phineas Gage case that I've come across) as are the discussions of circuitry. Damasio does use some unqualified terms, but he does a reasonable job at keeping the very technical discussions brief or relatively well qualified by the context of th ...more
Jon Stout
Oct 21, 2008 Jon Stout rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: fatalists, masters of their destinies
Shelves: philosophy
Antonio Damasio has written a fascinating book, taking as his point of departure a nineteenth century case of a man named Gage who had an iron spike neatly blown through his brain in a mining accident. Gage seemed to retain all of his faculties, amazingly enough, but failed in his later life due to emotional problems. Damasio, a neurologist, uses the case to explore the relationship between emotions and the neurological structure of the brain.

A friend recommended this book to me because of our m
Tippy Jackson
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sean Mcguire
I read Descartes' Error as an undergraduate. In grad school, I learned that my advisor's wife (herself a neuroscientist of some renown) had a very poor opinion of Damasio's work. However, by that point, this book had already changed my life.

Damasio provides here a popular account of research in neuroscience that started with the famous case of Phinneas Gage, who, upon having a railroad spike shoved through his head by an explosion, changed from being an upstanding, reliable citizen into a scurri
After having read "The Feeling of What Happens" I thought I'd give this earlier work by the same author a read,as I have recently come across numerous references to it that elevate it to somewhat of a classic in its field.
The first one hundred pages read like a dream and I mistakenly thought that the author had saved his verbose and prolix style for his later works,but then I found I had been lulled into a false sense of security,by which time I was in too deep.The rest of the book took a consi
Ignore my bias of working in a body-centered cognitive neuroscience laboratory (whose nascence was likely inspired by researchers such as Demasio), but Demasio's theory resonates as a particularly well-informed "big-level" brain theory. I've read a number of others who attempt to explain away a lot of the mysteries of the brain by big-level theories, but Demasio turns out to build one of the more compelling set of explanations based mostly on evidence from his years of research in dissociation s ...more
Um bom livro para quem pretende perceber os mecanismos que determinam a nossa identidade enquanto indivíduo. Ao longo do livro o autor recorre a vários termos técnicos, mas que são previamente introduzidos e explicados no texto. Apesar do assunto parecer chato (emoções, razão e cérebro), já li livros com "acção" bastante mais chatos! Um clássico! A julgar pelo número de edições, um dos livros que mais facilmente se deve encontrar na estante dos Portugueses.
Jon Boorstin
Damasio takes advantage of some bizarre accidents to discover new things about the brain. Mainly, that decision making isn't rational, but involves a leap of faith. Very persuasive, and it jibes with William James's Will to Believe.
Sep 25, 2007 matt is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
A very intriguing book exploring the relationship between reason and emotion. Having grappled with how the two can complement each other for most of my life, I'm digging it. The author uses historical medical examples of bizarre cases of brain damage, such as the story of Phineas Gage, a construction foreman from the 1800s who survived a 3-foot metal rod passing through his head, suffering nothing but blindness in his left eye physically but a whole slew of mental and emotional problems due to t ...more
Greg Collver
Most of it was beyond my level of comprehension, but I'd like to read it again after I have learned more about the anatomy of the brain and about the somatosensory systems. I think his writing could be improved, but his thoughts are very important.

A paragraph in his postscript was of special interest:

[An] important target for biomedical efforts should be the alleviation of suffering in mental diseases. But how to deal with the suffering that arises from personal and social conflicts outside the
Laura Grabowski
I was captivated and fascinated by this book, start to finish. The book addresses the importance of emotion in cognition, thus pointing out Descartes' error in separating mind from body. In many ways, this book simply affirms things that I have "known" for many years, having spent 20+ years as a dancer/choreographer, but Damasio's perspective as a neuroscientist provides additional and compelling insights. I recommend this book to anyone interested in cognition, psychology, philosophy, arts, or ...more
Dec 27, 2008 Angela rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Angela by: Dr. Mark Johnson
Fascinating stuff. The cutting edge of neuroscience as applied to philosophy. Reintegrates the mind, body, emotions and reason through more than just philosophical musings. If you pick this up, it may be helpful to note that a) this is the first of three books in which he details his research findings, b) there is a lot of anatomical and neurological info - sometimes it may be necessary to skim those parts if that's not you're field of study and c) I think his concept of reason (here) can best b ...more
Mar 22, 2007 scott rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Non-believers
Dense psychology terminology, hides a beautiful argument that probably deserves more beautiful prose. This book is all about emotions and feelings, but unlike soft-core psych (read: Self-help books) it makes a substantive argument for why they are important, indeed inextricably linked to human decision making. Sure, that may seem self-evident, but the argument and the studies that back it up are amazing. Who would have thought to test whether spinal cord injury patients feel emotions to a lesser ...more
Dan Downing
I discovered Antonio Damasio with "Looking for Spinoza" in 2003. The book captivated, stimulated and entranced me. Since then I have read extensively in the realms visited by Damasio which were new to me: Spinoza himself was an old friend.
Somehow there was always something more enticing than "Descartes' Error", his first book. It has been on my list for over a decade, and practically every book in this general area mentions it, thus enticing me more. Recently Sam Kean's "Dueling Neurosurgeons" p
Kayson Fakhar
یه جوری هی تکرار میکنه آدم شک میکنه به خودش
Maria Pilar Gomez
A. Damasio argumente de façon scientifique à partir de cas concrets bien étudiés par la médecine que le cerveau qui réfléchit est le même que le cerveau qui ressent des émotions. Les émotions, donc, contribuent au processus de raisonnement et sont indispensables pour trouver l'adéquate solution à un problème donné. Selon Damasio, la croyance traditionnelle cartésienne selon laquelle les émotions systématiquement perturbent le processus de raisonnement est fausse. Au contrario, l'incapacité à res ...more
Jonathan Karmel
You need to rely on "gut feelings" to make good decisions. People who can't process emotions, such as people with very specific types of brain damage, can think and act logically, but on a personal level, they lack the necessary judgment to navigate all the choices that need to be made to live effectively.

I had read about this "somatic marker hypothesis" in other places (Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and the Social Animal by David Brooks), so I was interested in reading the book where it came from.
Oct 10, 2014 Bob rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Bob by: George Hornberger
Shelves: science
"Perceiving is as much about acting on the environment as it is about receiving signals from it" (p. 225)
Damasio argues that our rational, conscious 'self' depends as much on our bodies and emotions as upon purely mental or in-brain activity. For me, this offers ways to approach all sorts of everyday wonders: dreams, phobias, religious experiences, and the startling (and gratifying) altruism people sometimes exhibit in horrific situations.
The author is not always successful in defining neurol
Rosa Ramôa
Ciência cognitiva...Existe?
Damasio takes on Descartes: why you cannot separate emotion from reason, the body and brain from the mind, and how brain-damaged patients provide us with these insights.

More accessible if you're well-versed with brain anatomy. Damasio explains how body and brain constantly construct the image of our "self", changes in body states we perceive (feelings), and how reason and emotion use the same equipment. The book constantly warns against any sort of reductionism.

I wasn't well-versed with brain a
Jeremy Lent
I’ve been reading Damasio “backwards”. One of the first books I read three years ago to try to understand the neuroscientific view of consciousness was Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness published in 1999. That gave me a solid grounding in Damasio’s view of embodied consciousness, which has become a foundation of my thinking. Later, I came across Damasio’s paper on the somatic marker hypothesis, which powerfully rejects the idea that abstract t ...more
Michael Steger
An excellent book that is popular for good reason: Damasio's prose is lucid and engaging, and even occasionally literary, which is perhaps surprising in a book strictly about brain function. One of the biggest (and more controversial) ideas that Damasio puts forward here is his theory of somatic markers, which, in a nutshell states that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a 'convergence zone' that collects and stores information (manifested in the form of neuronal circuits or neuronal disposit ...more
I thought the book would be more about Descartes' error and the "body-mind problem" but it turned out to be different from what I expected. Mainly, because for Damasio there is no real problem: the mind *is* embodied for sure, it is not just a piece of software running on the brain, it cannot be in any way separated from the body states. Part 1 of the book is absorbing, the story of Phineas Gage reads like a novel. I am not sure I could follow all of the arguments in Part 2 (some of them I found ...more
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Susan Ferguson
This is fairly heavy going. I don't understand everything, but enough to have an idea of what is going on - more or less...

The author draws a connection between feelings and rationality. Just cold rationality without the involvement of feelings is defective. People with a specific braing injury retain their rationality, but it does not involve feelings, so they made some odd choices and have "rational" reactions without emotion. They also have trouble visualizing the future of choices. The brain
First of all, I'll admit it: it was a bit presumptuous of me to think I could pick up a book on neuroscience and think I could breeze my way through it. This was dense, intricate, and high-level enough in the science that I found myself consulting other sources just to make sure I was properly understanding it.

Second, some aspects of the key argument of this book have since been successfully contested through further research. That doesn't invalidate a lot of what Damasio has put forth, and is
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Damásio studied medicine at the University of Lisbon Medical School in Portugal, where he also did his medical residency rotation and completed his doctorate. Later, he moved to the United States as a research fellow at the Aphasia Research Center in Boston. His work there on behavioral neurology was done under the supervision of Norman Geschwind.

As a researcher, Dr. Damásio's main interest is the
More about Antonio R. Damasio...
The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain Neurobiology Of Decision Making (Research And Perspectives In Neurosciences)

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“The distinction between diseases of "brain" and "mind," between "neurological" problems and "psychological" or "psychiatric" ones, is an unfortunate cultural inheritance that permeates society and medicine. It reflects a basic ignorance of the relation between brain and mind. Diseases of the brain are seen as tragedies visited on people who cannot be blamed for their condition, while diseases of the mind, especially those that affect conduct and emotion, are seen as social inconveniences for which sufferers have much to answer. Individuals are to be blamed for their character flaws, defective emotional modulation, and so on; lack of willpower is supposed to be the primary problem.” 9 likes
“The neural basis for the self, as I see it, resides with the continuous reactivation of at least two sets of representations. One set concerns representations of key events in an individual's autobiography, on the basis of which a notion of identity can be reconstructed repeatedly, by partial activation in topologically organized sensory maps. ...
In brief, the endless reactivation of updated images about our identity (a combination of memories of the past and of the planned future) constitutes a sizable part of the state of self as I understand it.
The second set of representations underlying the neural self consists of the primordial representations of an individual's body ... Of necessity, this encompasses background body states and emotional states. The collective representation of the body constitute the basis for a "concept" of self, much as a collection of representations of shape, size, color, texture, and taste can constitute the basis for the concept of orange.”
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