A Book I’ll Never Forget: Descartes Error (by Antonio Damasio)

This isn’t a book review: this book changed my thinking about the relationship between logic and emotion, but I read it so long ago (2008) that I can’t really “review” it at this point. Before I read this book, I had vague thoughts and feelings about how ridiculous it was that our culture believes so strongly in a mind / body split, and that we so strongly privilege logic and reason over emotion (which, in our cultural stereotypes, also feeds into privileging men over women, whites over people of colour, and so on). In this book, Antonio Damasio (a neurologist), shows how logic and emotion must work in concert in order for people to make reasonable decisions. The example I remember most is that of Phineas Gage, a person who suffered a brain injury that cut off his emotions. He was capable of making decisions based on “logic,” but those decisions were disastrous because they didn’t take into account the affective / emotional impact of those decisions on the people around him. One of Damasio’s arguments was that both logic and emotion must be engaged to facilitate an effective decision-making process.

Since that book came out (1994), there has been more and more research showing that the mind and body are not as separate as we’ve been taught. Schizophrenia and depression, once thought to be purely “mental” problems, are proving to have biological bases and environmental or experiential triggers. Thyroid problems are body-based but can be triggered by stressful life events. Post-traumatic stress disorder (and complex PTSD) can be triggered by both emotional and physical trauma, and its symptoms and effects are both physical and emotional. And so on and so forth.

I will always remember reading Damasio’s book for its clear articulation of something I had always felt but hadn’t really thought about deeply and so had no words to argue my point. Now I feel more confident when refuting the notion of a mind/body split, and in arguing that the separation is purely semantic. I think we continue to be taught about the split partly because science in schools lags so far behind actual research, and also because it is pretty convenient to 1) be able to tell people something is “all in their head” and therefore not real or worthy of attention, and 2) be able to tell people that what happens to their physical selves (and the circumstances of their actual lives) is unimportant and that if they submit, their “minds / souls / essence” will be rewarded later with paradise or karma or similar.

I seem to remember that some parts of the book were quite scientific, and others quite anecdotal. I am glad to have read it and learned some of the research-based evidence refuting the notion that logic is better than emotion.

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2 thoughts on “A Book I’ll Never Forget: Descartes Error (by Antonio Damasio)

  1. beingwoke

    This is super interesting. I was speaking to an inter cultural psychologist – I’ve forgotten his title – but he’s an expert in his field (suman forgotten his surname). He was telling me how in many cultures, the body and mind were not considered separate entities. But Eurocentric thinkers bought in their thoughts of the two being seperate and the body being more important, destroying the healing processes.
    You still see how in some languages they don’t have words for emotional pain – the words translate into physical descriptions. This is one reason the NHS state they struggle to diagnosis mental health issues within BME communities before crisis stage.

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