Edward's Reviews > Descartes' Error

Descartes' Error by Antonio R. Damasio
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's review
Jan 17, 09

Read in January, 2009

I am not an emotional person. This is about how important emotions are to reasoning. It reminds me of The Paradox of Choice, in that it argues a certain philophical position which being strongly rooted in amazing research (in that case microeconomics, in this case nuerology). this guy realy geeks out when he gets into hardcore neurology and he's tough to follow (and as a lay reader, I didn't really feel the need to try and follow at this point anyway) and as with The Paradox, the editor could have done a better job in trimming this up (book contracts are for a certain number of pages, right?). Also there is an amazing photo of the author that is real gay.

He does a nice job of summarizing his theses in the introduction: 1. "Emotions and feelings may not be the intruders in the bastion of reason at all: they may be enmeshed in its networks, for worse _and_ for better". 2. "The essence of a feeling may not be an elusive mental quality attached to an object, but rather the direct perception of a specific landscape: that of the body". 3. The body, as represented in the brain, may constitute the indispensible frame of reference for the neural processes that we experience as the mind".

I actually don't really understand this, but you get the jist. Some other highlights:
- Phineus Gage had a big spike go through his brain, and this changed his personality big time and he really wasn't able to function well afterwards (though he looked normal in a lot of ways).
- "Elliot" was a more recent example of Gage, a man who's emotions were all screwy due to brain problems, and though he tested normal on a lot of tests, he lacked any real emotions and this made him be able to see various consequences, compare pros and cons very well yet "After all this I still wouldn't know what to do!"
- emotion _can_ screw up reasoning, as when patients (and doctors!) would pick a treatment which had a 90% success rate, rather than one in which 10% resulted in failure.
- people with "anosognosia" have "the inability to acknowledge disease in oneself" for example saying that their paralysis was normal, or that they "used to have" leg problems.
- all thie involves prefrontal damage and (therefore) flat affect
- some of this relates to "blindsight", in which people are able to point to light that process not to be able to see. also in "phantom limb", where people "feel" a limb that is missing (incl warmth and pain)
- "if you are achromatopsic, you can no longer _imagine_ color in your mind" (101)
- a stroke in one part of the brain, allows a person to fake a smile, yet not have a real smile when they laugh, yet a stroke in another part of the brain has the opposite effect (real smile, but can't fake)
- thought phobias might be an overgeneralization of negative emotions with objects, overgeneralizaio of positive emotions with objects is also not good (Pollyanna-ish)
- emotions can immediately "mark" certain options, narrowing options thus making decisions easier [like Gadwell's _Blink_?:]
- sociopaths and psychopaths: cool-headed and rational, yet unemotional
- Modifying Pascal: "The organism has some reasons, that reason must utilize" (200).
- lie detectors measures current from electrodes going through skin, and as person is stressed (from a "lie") a slight amount of sweat is produced that changes skin conductance from baseline (when banal "true" statments are asked); this is a measurable physiological counterpart of regular observations of emotion
- even comparing skin response in people that had _non_frontal damage (rather other part of brain) with frontally damaged, showed the former having response but the latter did not when shown disturbing vs banal slide
- gamblers that were conervative had different beheavior than self-professed "risk" ones, but frontally damaged showed no difference; Elliot did do bad in this because, like life, "It is full of uncertainty, and the only way to minimize that uncertainty is to generate hunches, estimates of probability, by whatever means possible, since precise calculation is not possible" (215).
- they showed, like addicts, "myopia for the future" (being too short-sighted)
- "The reason that people die from burns is not because they lose the sense of touch, but because the skin is an indispensable viscus" (231). [not infection?:]
- "The present is never here. We are hopelessly late for consciousness" (240).
- Descartes' chosen inscription, from Ovid, for his tombstone: "he who hid well, lived well" (249).
- Augustine's precurser to Descartes: "I am decieved, therefore I am".
- the error: the mind is not only in the brain, it is in the body; not Cartesian dualism.
- placebo effect not well understood: who does (not) get placebo effect, or can we all? how far can it go in mimicing the real thing? how to enhance it? what is its degree of error in double-blind
- "The immune system, the hypothalumus, the ventromedial frontal cortices, and the bill of rights have the same root cause" (262).
- people wth congenital absense of pain are always giggly, aquire body damage and cannot function even though they can feel pleasure (need pleasure and pain; former is not enough [is it most important?:]
- trigimenal nueralgial: excrutiating pain from small patches of especially sensitive skin; after operation: "Oh the pains are the same, but I feel fine now. Thank you" (266). Was no longer always doubled over in pain, now playing cards


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