‘Descartes’ Error’ by Antonio Domasio (book review)

Descartes’ Error was recommended to me by my psychotherapist.  In my psychotherapy sessions in recent weeks there has been a lot of discussion about body systems (e.g. the autonomic nervous system;  the limbic system), and feeling that I don’t really have a grasp of the more complex language that relates to the biological and neurological workings of the body and brain, I asked my psychotherapist if he could recommend any good introductory books – particularly in the domain of neuroscience.  He immediately suggested Descartes’ Error, explaining that it was a key book in the field, and the next day I purchased a copy from Amazon.

The book explores the relationship between mind and brain and body.  It is not a simple book in terms of the language used, but it is well written in the sense of containing simple sentence and paragraph structures.  This allowed me to get a general sense of the ideas being discussed, even if it was difficult to understand a lot of the technical vocabulary.

In the first part of the book, there is quite a lot of explanation about brain regions and systems.  I found this very difficult to follow, and the many diagrams depicting the brain in various different ways didn’t help at all – not only were the low quality black and white images difficult to see, but the accompanying descriptions were too complex for the novice reader.  As a result, I found myself reading the rest of the book with little or no understanding of what terms like “prefontal cortex”, “hypothalmus”, and “amygdala” were actually referring to.

The narratives of the case studies described in the first part of the book were easier to follow.  The author describes the case of a man called Phineas Gage, who suffered an injury whilst undertaking engineering work.  An unexpected explosion led to Gage’s brain being pierced by a metal rod.  The accident led to brain damage, and a significant part of the book is dedicated to trying to unravel what the brain damage meant for Gage’s life, in terms of his relationships, his working life, his well-being, and his emotions.

As well as the case of Phineas Gage, there are many other case studies that the author draws upon as he tries to explain how brain damage can affect human response to real life situations.  The impression one gets is that this pursuit is a bit of a guessing game, and nowhere is the impression given that there is much clear evidence for the way brain and emotions interact.  There are many hunches and hypotheses presented, but the author is quick to point out that neurobiology is a field in it’s infancy and there is still a vast amount of progress to be made.

The essential aim of Descartes’ Error is to readdress the way that we see the relationship between the mind and our emotions.  Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher, envisaged a clear divide between the mental faculties and the emotions.  He famously said “I think, therefore I am”, which shows the primacy he afforded to thinking within the experience of self.  Domasio’s philosophy is rather different.  He uses his own theory, the Somatic Marker Hypothesis, to attempt to persuade the reader about the ways in which mind states and thoughts, and emotional states, are intimately interlinked.

My understanding of the Somatic Marker Hypothesis is that the body produces a gut feeling, which is like a warning sign, when one perceives that unpleasantness might be experienced in a future scenario.  For instance, if I am discussing my new medication with a doctor and she mentions that I may experience nausea or vomiting as a result of taking the pills, I would most likely experience a bodily reaction as I heard about this, and this reaction would anticipate the ill effects.  I would momentarily experience an unpleasant “gut feeling”, which would act as a warning and may help me to make choices, such as whether to take a lower dose of the medication in order to avoid too many of the unpleasant side effects.  The gut feeling is a somatic marker.

Healthy individuals experience these somatic markers all the time, but what do they tell us about the connection between mind and body?  Clearly, they tell us that there is a close correlation between the two.  One might perceive that the connection is so close that it is difficult to imagine disembodied thought, as envisaged in the “brain in a vat” scenario that the author describes.

Domasio’s theory doesn’t to me seem radical in any way.  But on the other hand, he may well be challenging the assumptions on which a great deal of modern brain medicine are based.  From what Domasio writes, it seems that the brain is often viewed by scientists as an entity in isolation from the rest of the body, and this is surely wrong if we view the mind/body as a holistic system.

Descartes’ Error is an interesting book that has probably (in a small way) contributed to my understanding of neuroscience and neurobiology.  The book frustrated me by being too complex in places, but on the whole was accessible enough to follow in general and I did enjoy reading it.

Domasio has attempted to contribute a challenging perspective to the study of neuroscience, and to some extent, by focusing on human feeling, I think he has succeeded.  But for me, there are some glaring omissions that prevent this book from being a classic.  A philosophical perspective on life’s bigger questions is lacking througout, and the crucial question about whether or not God exists barely gets a mention.

If God does exist, there are clear implications for neuroscience and scientific endeavour in general, and these considerations have been completely overlooked by Domasio.  For instance, if God is responsible for human thought, by creating our minds anew in every moment, then we will never find out how the mind works by focusing on the physical dimension of the self; we need to explore the spiritual – the way God and humans interact – for illumination.  This has been a subject of philosophical speculation for thousands of years, and opinion is radically divided, but I have no doubt that these considerations are the primary ones we should be addressing in our quest to understand the human self.

Do you believe thought is linked to the human body?
What do you believe emotions are?
Is God relevant to neuroscience?

Please feel free to discuss in the comments below!

7 comments

  1. Sounds really interesting. Reminds me of a book my ramachandran I read in college “Phantoms in the Brian”. It has been more than 10 years since I read it but I remember liking it quite a lot. If you are looking for more of this stuff you might want to give that a look, or maybe get one of his newer books, I just put one on my wish list. (Why is it that I find 10 books that sound really interesting for every 1 book that I have time to read?)

    if God is responsible for human thought, by creating our minds anew in every moment, then we will never find out how the mind works by focusing on the physical dimension of the self; we need to explore the spiritual

    I have 2 comments for this:
    1. What if God is responsible for human thought, but he doesn’t have to create our minds anew every moment? If instead God is using some natural processes or something like that, couldn’t we learn about those processes by examining the physical?
    2. How would a neuroscientist go about exploring the spiritual?

    1. Hi there Hausdorff. Thanks for reading, and for the book recommendation. I can totally relate to your problem of having a long list of books you want to read!

      In response to your points:

      1) Thought is spontaneous and unpredictable, rather than being mechanical, in my opinion. This suggests to me that God is involved.

      2) I like the question! A neuroscientist might like to pray for God to reveal Himself, and might like to read books like mine, which aim to demonstrate God’s reality by pointing to aspects of existence that would be impossible without God. An awareness that God is in control of everything would help neuroscience to be more realistic, I think.

      1. As to thoughts being spontaneous and unpredictable, it certainly feels that way, doesn’t it. I would say that even though thoughts feel like they just pop into our heads, they are caused by the workings of our brains. Since that is very complex it seems mysterious to us. Do I have a really good reason for believing this? Honestly, I think I have to say no. I don’t really know much about neuroscience but my bias says that it is mechanical. Your view does certainly seem to fit the facts as well as mine does (at least as far as I know). Makes me want to read more about neuroscience.

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