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Descartes' Error

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Descartes' Error

Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain


15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Think emotions always lead you astray? Think again. Your heart often knows more than your head.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Scientific
  • Eye Opening


The French philosopher René Descartes could not have been more wrong, according to Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. Descartes thought the mind was completely separate from the body - an immaterial "thinking thing," the essence of which was cool conscious reasoning untainted by base physical influence. Through his research on patients with prefrontal cortex damage, Damasio discovered that reason, like almost all mental processes, is "embodied," that is, based in the human being’s physical self. Emotions and other states that are rooted in physicality profoundly influence not only what people reason about, but how they reason. Without them, people either can’t make decisions or they make self-defeating ones. This book tells how Damasio created, developed and tested his theory of embodied cognition, which is now widely influential in psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. getAbstract recommends this refreshingly nuanced, conversationally told (though sometimes desultory) narrative of scientific invention and discovery to readers who want to learn about this profound, influential set of ideas from the source. You will never think about your mind the same way again.


The Strange Case of Phineas P. Gage

In the summer of 1848, Phineas P. Gage was managing a group of men laying railroad tracks across a rocky stretch of Vermont countryside. Tall and athletic, the 25-year old Gage was a model employee, "efficient and capable," according to his boss, as well as temperate, shrewd, smart and "persistent in executing his plans of action." One of Gage’s tasks was to set explosive charges in rocks. His men would typically drill a hole in a rock, place gunpowder and a fuse in the hole, cover the powder with sand and then tamp the sand with a three-foot long, 13-pound iron bar so the explosion would be directed downward into the rock.

Gage was expert at this task, which he had performed many times. One day, after the fuse had been placed, but before sand had been poured in the hole, someone called to Gage. Distracted, he dropped the bar into the hole, igniting the fuse and the powder. The resulting explosion launched the bar like a rocket upward into Gage’s face. The bar penetrated his left cheek, went through the top of his skull and landed a 100 or so feet away, covered with blood and portions of Gage’s brain. Still conscious, Gage was taken...

About the Author

Antonio Damasio, M.D., heads the department of neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, where he is a professor. He is an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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