October 28, 2009

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

Posted in Book/article Reviews tagged , at 12:09 am by Jeremy

descartes_errorDescartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

By Antonio Damasio

New York: Penguin Books. Damasio, A. (1994).

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 thinking can take place without a direct connection to the body’s bio-regulatory processes.

With this context, when I finally read Descartes’ Error, (probably Damasio’s most cited book), it had some of the characteristics of a quaint, historical document, making the case for embodied cognition as though it were a radical new idea: “Surprising as it may sound, the mind exists in and for an integrated organism.”  I guess that shows the enormous impact Damasio himself (and others such as Edelman, LeDoux, etc.) have had in changing perceptions about consciousness in a mere fifteen years.  Thanks to these ground-breaking neuroscientists, “we’ve come a long way, baby.”

I can only agree with the array of distinguished names that cite Descartes’ Error as a key book for understanding human consciousness.  Through Damasio, Phineas Gage has become a household name (in certain households!) – the emblematic tragic figure whose prefrontal cortex was severely damaged in 1848, and whose consequent experiences paved the way for the neurological understanding of the prefrontal importance in regulation of emotion, complex decision-making and general executive functioning.

I think there are two fundamental take-aways from Damasio’s classic: (1) the mind is embodied and without this foundation, no approaches to higher cognitive functions or theories of consciousness have much validity, and (2) the prefrontal cortex (pfc) is the crucial mediator between our “innate regulatory circuits” and our self-aware consciousness, with its attributes of reason, willpower, symbolization, abstraction, etc.

Damasio’s work is a significant resource for my research project.  However, an initial impression of my thesis of “the tyranny of the pfc” might be that it’s incompatible with Damasio.  After all, if the pfc is the key bridge between bodily regulation and self-awareness, how can there be a “tyranny” of the pfc?  And what sense does my distinction of conceptual and animate consciousness make if conceptual consciousness is fundamentally connected with animate consciousness?  In fact, though, my approach is not only consistent with Damasio, it relies squarely on the work of Damasio and others for its evidence.

My argument is not that an individual’s prefrontal cortex is, by itself, a “tyrant” of our consciousness, but that our Western cultural milieu, imposed on an infant’s perceptions before s/he has even learned to speak, shapes the individual brain in such a way that our sense of identity and values give an inappropriate priority to pfc-mediated attributes (such as planning, reason, abstraction, logic, etc.) at the expense of a balanced self-identity emphasizing such attributes as integrated mind/body experience or full awareness of the present moment.

Here’s a key passage from the book which relates to my notion of a split between animate and conceptual consciousness:

From an evolutionary perspective, the oldest decision-making device pertains to basic biological regulation; the next, to the personal and social realm; and the most recent, to a collection of abstract-symbolic operations under which we can find artistic and scientific reasoning, utilitarian-engineering reasoning, and the developments of language and mathematics.  But although ages of evolution and dedicated neural systems may confer some independence to each of these reasoning/decision-making ‘modules,’ I suspect they are all interdependent.

What Damasio describes as the “collection of abstract-symbolic operations” is essentially the same as my idea of “conceptual consciousness.”  As he pointedly emphasizes, they are “interdependent.”  But Plato, St. Augustine, Descartes and the whole momentum of Western civilization have idealized the conceptual consciousness as “the soul,” as the proof of our very existence, and as the foundation for science and civilization.  It’s only when we begin to re-balance our values to give equal import to our bodily existence that we can begin to move towards a ‘democracy of consciousness.’

So thanks, Antonio Damasio, for your ground-breaking classic.  Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in gaining a serious understanding of human consciousness.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: