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  • Published on: 15th October 2019
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The book I reviewed was “Descartes’ Error” by Antonio Damasio who wanted to question traditional ideas about the association with rationality and emotion as he believed it could not be correct. The traditional idea is believed to be that emotion and rationality don’t go hand in hand with each other. The book is mainly also about the brain science of emotions, how it implicates decision making and in particular social behaviour. To find the association between the two factors he separated the book into three major topics; the first looking at the reason for traditional views, the second which was about feelings and the last topic which is the body representations in the brain fo neural processes.

In the first section of the book; Damasio focuses on Phineas Gage’s change of character from having “a well balanced mind….” And being “energetic and persistent” to having “the grossest profanity” (Descartes Error Chapter 1 p.8), however, what Damasio found remarkable was that his speech, motor skills and memory were unaffected. This results in him having a belief that the brain; a supersystem of systems and the “whole is greater than the the sum of its parts” as well as the fact that human reason on many brain systems working in union compared to a single brain centre. He also insists that there are separate components in the brain which leads to a concentrated operation of the different systems resulting in the mind. All of the opinions that Damasio goes strongly against Aristotle’s belief that the body and the mind are joint and the soul is inseparable from the body- this is known as Aristotle’s ‘four causes’. In addition to focusing on Gage, Damasio also looks at one of his own patients Elliot, it is also taken into account that Elliot’s psychologist never acknowledged the connection between his  personality change and brain damage. Although his cognitive functions remained intact as well as a conceptual understanding of social convention unfortunately we find out he has ‘flat affect’ which is shown when there was no emotional reaction to disturbing pictures. The flat affect made his “decision-making landscape hopelessly flat” and even “shifty and unsustained”. The main ideas that can be gathered from the first part of the book is: firstly, emotion can disrupt reason- too much of too little emotion can cause this. Secondly, the key area for emotion is the prefrontal cortices, thirdly anosognosia, known as denial of impaired performance, is associated with the right cerebral cortices in the somatosensory area. And most importantly we understand that high and low level brain areas from the prefrontal cortices, the hypothalamus, brain stem unite in the creation of reason.

In the second part of the book Damasio focuses on feelings. He is defines feeling as the “consciousness of emotion” (Descartes Error Chapter 7 p.133) and also saw feeling as the experience of changes in the somatosensory cortex. He notes that there is also secondary emotion which is a combination of mental evaluative process which can either be simple or complex (Descartes Error Chapter 7 p.139)  he also differentiated emotion as the reaction of the body and feeling as the subjective state (Descartes Error Chapter 7 p.132). He found that there are four main factors for the biology of rationality. The first is images

In this section we notice that there is an objection among phenomenologists who argue that he is confusing as he says images can’t be perceived like other things and that perception can’t be confused with neural activity. Furthermore, he connected dispositional representations with knowledge- he believes that innate knowledge allows the development of dispositional representations in the brain stem, hypothalamus and limbic system  which is important for actions such as infant having the ability to know how to breathe and more. Damasio also points out the fact that nurture is said to be second nature as he argues that social regulation have become a part of everyone’s bio-affective structure which has to be properly attuned, unlike Gage and Elliot, to prevent us from acting on our thoughts, such as murder. From the main arguments made by Damasio we can understand the definition of reasoning, which can be different e.g social or abstract reasoning, and also how it  helps with deciding or even selecting a response option. We also get the definition of somatic markers which not only shows the relationship between emotion and reason but also are feelings generated by secondary emotions which predicts the future outcome of scenarios (Descartes Error Chapter 8 p.175). Focusing more on somatic markers we see that they can be either overt or covert, it can play a role in decisions with the working memory model.

In the final section of the book, Damasio focuses on body representations and emotional sensitivity to images which he realised that through the startle reflex patients that had a frontal damage couldn’t show any galvanic skin response or ‘sweat’ that should be released by the autonomic nervous system when something emotional occurs. But what was more surprising was that they could actually explain what they felt. In a gambling experiment that Damasio carried out he also found that the frontal patients were ‘trapped’ in the present as they lacked the ability to use somatic markers to predict whether they would win. In this section of the book he also looks at the mind which is believed to be “embodied, embedded and brained” (Descartes Error Chapter 10 p.225-226). He also mentions how the body isn’t just an exterior or source of input but a can be monitored by neural circuits alongside the brain. What we can gather from the last part of the book is that we have “double signals”; we can perceive objects and note how there is a change in the body in regards to the objects which can lead to the understanding of perception, such as being able to feel you can see something even though your eyes are closed. This causes the emergence of of subjectivity (a third party viewpoint) which is when organisms produced by the brain respond to an object.

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