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Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  7,237 ratings  ·  311 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 Ltd (first published 1994)
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Justin Yes and no. I would suggest skipping whatever seems boring or overly technical without guilt, and focusing on the amazing case studies and anecdotes. …moreYes and no. I would suggest skipping whatever seems boring or overly technical without guilt, and focusing on the amazing case studies and anecdotes. Eventually the brain science will become clear. If you feel too bored, move on until you find something interesting (very probable given the book).(less)

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Morgan Blackledge
Feb 27, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Manuel Antão
Dec 22, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 1994
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

Life Is but a Dream: "Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain" by António R. Damásio

(Original Review, 1994-11-17)

Dave Chalmers did a great job of making consciousness popular but his own view was 400 years out of date. Descartes is the real rigorous physicist here - he was after all one of the people who devised physics. What he meant by the soul and God being 'spirit' is that they caused matter to move. Matter for Descar
Nov 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Dwight Cates
Jan 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: psychology
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
Ade Bailey
Feb 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Laura Grabowski
Aug 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 07, 2016 rated it did not like it
very bad. the title takes on a literal meaning as this book is good for:

1. a further explication but just largely a complete repetition of Descartes' philosophy under the guise of a 'correction'
2. never pointing out any errors Descartes actually made, and falling in to all of the same traps Descartes did, most of which were pointed out in the 17th century.
Joshua Stein
May 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: mind, science
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 rated it really liked it
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
Jeremy Lent
Nov 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Tippy Jackson
Dec 06, 2009 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 25, 2007 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
Jon Boorstin
Mar 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
Jan 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a 25 year old book. Despite that, its insights about the necessity of emotions to function as a human being, and further more to act in a rational manner is still relevant and illuminating. I enjoyed it!
Dec 31, 2014 rated it liked it
The book started off as easily accessible in terms of wording and concepts, but then got too academic and abstract near the end.
Feb 28, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: age-23, stem
Two words: Very Dry.

Book is not suited for layman readers. If you have not taken a university-levelled neurobiology course, you will be lost. You must be familiar with neuroanatomy before diving into this book, it makes for a smoother read (but still very taxing).

Damasio's research a nutshell: emotions are just as equally important as reason in decision making. Patients with neocortical damage in prefrontal cortex of brain are unique cases of "functional beings without any affects" -- they maint
Jan 17, 2020 rated it liked it
I give it a 3.5
In the beginning of the book, Damásio states that he wants to write as if he was giving a lecture to someone who knows nothing about neuroscience, although it seemed to me that it was not accomplished.
This book is not suited for those people.
The only reason why I didn't feel completely lost at the most technical parts of the book, was because I previously had an introductory neuroscience class at college. I wouldn't be able to understand most of it if it wasn't for that particul
Embodied cognition, the notion of emotion as a sort of primitive rationality... I think these are ideas that were a bit more controversial in the '90s when Descartes' Error was published, and while I would still not quite call them fully accepted, it was interesting to read a clarion call for a more nuanced approach to cognitive science than is often presented to those of us in the general public. To be honest, I don't know enough about the details of the neuroscience to confirm or deny much of ...more
Pooja N Babu
Jul 24, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: neuroscience
The book started out fine explaining how the neuroscience studies usually do not take emotions into consideration. It starts to get a little vague after the first chapter, then the content started to go above my head. As a person who likes to read books on Neuroscience, I couldn't keep with the details and their abstract nature even with a lot of effort. So stopped reading midway (which I usually don't). The author could have been more lucid with his explanations which could have been easy to vi ...more
Jonathan Karmel
May 04, 2014 rated it liked it
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.
Dan Downing
Aug 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Michelle Marvin
Dec 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I'll be honest, I'm shocked that I liked this book as much as I did! I've read Damasio's 2010 book, "Self Comes to Mind" 4 times through now, and I'm very at odds with many of its premises and claims. Having read that book first, I approached "Descartes' Error" with an antagonistic stance, ready to fight ... and found myself bewildered as I was highlighting and underlining key philosophical presuppositions that weave throughout the book that I agree with. Mind and body are integrally connected, ...more
Oct 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: neuroscience
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
Mar 22, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  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
Dec 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Daniel Solomon
Apr 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book sets out one of the best available theories of the role of feelings and emotions in human thinking, the somatic market hypothesis. In a nutshell, emotions and feelings are markers of the value of different things and situations in making decisions. Without these markers of values, rational decisions by the human mind would be impossible.This is a significant improvement over a more traditional view that emotional and rational thinking are opposite.

The distinction between emotions as b
Jan 17, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ha ...more
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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

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