Fortnightly logo

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

Antonio Damasio's book, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, which has become an international bestseller since its publication in 1994, takes to task Descartes' dualistic separation of the body from the mind. The Cartesian ideal for rational thought mandated separation of mind and body, thought and emotion.

Damasio has studied people who have received very specific brain injuries that separate the part of the brain that creates emotions from the part that creates thoughts. At first these people seem totally normal. But under close examination it becomes clear that they are virtually incapable of making decisions without the valuing aspect that emotions give to ideas. This has given rise to a whole new way of conceptualizing ideas and emotions as two essential aspects of any thought. The mind simply does not work if it is separated from the body. Descartes should have said "I am therefore I think" versus "I think therefore I am."

Damasio is the M.W. Van Allen Professor of Neurology and Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. His many awards include the William Beaumont Prize from the American Medical Association.

Damasio and his wife, Hanna Damasio, also a scientist, often collaborate on research projects and together they recently won the Pessoa Prize. The joint Science article entitled, "The Return of Phineas Gage: Clues About the Brain from the Skull of a Famous Patient," was a fascinating melding of computer science and neuroscience and makes interesting reading (20 May, 1994, Vol. 264, pp. 1102-1105).

Antonio Damasio's lecture at the Athenaeum is cosponsored by the department of psychology at CMC.