Descartes' Error

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Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
File:Descartes' Error (Paperback Cover).jpg
The original paperback edition
Author António Damásio
Language English
Published 1994
Pages 312
ISBN 978-0-399-13894-2

Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain is a 1994 book by neurologist António Damásio, in part a treatment of the mind/body dualism question. Damásio presents the "somatic marker hypothesis", a proposed mechanism by which emotions guide (or bias) behavior and decision-making, and positing that rationality requires emotional input. He argues that René Descartes' "error" was the dualist separation of mind and body, rationality and emotion.

The embodied mind: somatic markers

'Damasio argues in his well-known book that it is wrong to think that only minds think. The body and our emotions have a key role in the way we think and in rational decision-making'.[1] Since, in his words, 'the body...contributes a content that is part and parcel of the workings of the normal mind', it follows that 'the mind is embodied, in the full sense of the term, not just embrained'.[2]

Damasio's theory stresses 'the crucial role of feeling in navigating the endless stream of life's personal decisions....The intuitive signals that guide us in these moments come in the form of limbic-driven surges from the viscera that Damasio calls "somatic markers" - literally, gut feelings'.[3] Listening to your gut reactions, 'the somatic marker...may lead you to reject, immediately, the negative course of action and thus...allows you to choose from among fewer alternatives '.[4]

The concept of self

In Descartes' Error, Damasio also explored the way 'the neural basis of the self' as I see it, resides with the continuous activation of at least two sets of representations. One set concerns representations of key events in an individual's autobiography....The second set of representations underlying the neural self consists of the primordial representations of the individual's body'.[5]

From these two sets, Damasio would later develop his concept of the hierarchy of consciousness, including the protoself, core consciousness, and extended consciousness - Stern's verbal self.

Wider influence

Damasio's book is widely acknowledged to be a 'work with far-reaching implications for understanding mental life'.[6] Partly in consequence, there is 'at present introduced by literature such as Damasio's Descartes' Error...a trend to include (or rather rehabilitate) the body and its movement into the research of the social and behavioral sciences'.[7]

In literature too 'it is Damasio who seems to be the key inspiration behind the dismantling of the emotion/reason dichotomy'.[8]

Richard Webster writes that the appearance of Descartes' Error is encouraging for those who see the traditional dichotomy between reason and feeling as artificial and damaging, noting that it contests the division on the basis of both clinical experience and the findings of modern neuroscience. Webster comments that Damasio's argument is relevant to ideas that he develops in his Why Freud Was Wrong (1995).[9]


Damasio uses Phineas Gage and other brain-damage cases to argue that rationality stems from emotion, and that emotion stems from bodily senses. However, the book's presentation of Gage's history and symptoms has been criticized as fictionalized.[10] Others object that in using Descartes' name Damasio was knowingly or unknowingly employing a straw man; and that in fact 'the post-Cartesian medical tradition was well aware of the role of emotions in thinking'.[11]

Publication data

See also


  1. Henrik Lagerlund ed., Forming the Mind (2010) p. 15
  2. Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes' Error (London 1996) p. 226 and p. 118
  3. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (London 1996) p. 53
  4. Damasio, p. 173
  5. Damasio, p. 238-9
  6. Goleman, p. 27
  7. Stephanie L. Brooke, Creative Arts Therapy Manual (2006) p. 110
  8. Dominic Head, Ian McEwan <2007) p. 133
  9. Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. p. 617. ISBN 0-9515922-5-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. See:
  11. Lagerlund, p. 15

Further reading

J. Birtchnell, The Two of Me: The Rational Outer Me and The Emotional Inner Me (London 2003)

J. Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience (OUP 1998)