Descartes Error by Antonio Damasio (review)

April 3, 2008

We have heard a lot about railway worker Phineas P. Gage
by now. In the summer of 1848 Gage blast away rock in Vermont
in order for the railway to have straigther and more level path.
Unfortunately, one days he lits the explosive powder
by accident, and an iron bar blows upward in his face.
The iron enters Gages left cheek and traverses the front of his
brain.
Miraculously he doesn’t die. And even weirder, he can
still function, sort of.
As it turns out, he is not the same man anymore.
With the frontal lobes damaged, he could not make good
choices. They were not reserved or slight
decisions of someone who whose mind is diminished and who is
afraid to act. No, his decisions were very poor, actively
disadvantageous.
And of the story goes. The mind i situated in the brain.
Brain damage is mind damage.

Damasio makes it clear that his account of the working
of the mind is a limited one: “I am skeptical of sciences
presumption of objectivity and definitiveness.
I have a difficult time seeing scientific results,
especially in neurobiology, as anything but provisional
approximations, to be enjoyed for a while,
and descarded as better accounts become available.”
– And then of course he sets sail for what appears
to be a pretty impressive definitive account of
what a mind in a brain in body – really means.

Based on Gages case (and the damage to his frontal lobes)
decision making is explored.
His somatic-marker hypothesis is explained.
I.e. you need feelings for decision making, and
if none is present (as in the robot or in
a frontal lobe damage patient) you only have infinite
decisions trees that doesn’t help you much actually
coming up with a decision.
The body turns out to take part in this. Emotions are send
out the body. And the body then performs some complex
calculations, which your mind then read back as a feeling.
(you walk along at night and is followed, your brain
set heart racing, and your mind then read your
heart racing away, which introduces feelings of terror).

Descartes error was that he imagined thinking
as an activity quite separate from the body.
The thinking thing away from the nonthinking body.
You think – you are. But not according to Damasio.
Here we go back to the dawn of humanity and
beings were beings. In the beginning there was
being, only later came elementary consciousness
and later still thinking.
Descartes error was the separation between body and mind,
between the mechanically operated body stuff on
one hand and the midn stuff on the other.
According to Damasio physical pain,
emotional upheavel cannot exist separately from the body.
So, if you really think you can simulate a mind,
you can only do so, by simulating a body also.

Sounds reasonable to me! A brilliant book.

-Simon

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