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Review of Descarte’s Error, by Antonio Damasio

2017 September 22

This book is a bit long in the tooth now, having been published in ’95. The role it suggests for emotion in the use of reason is, in generalities, no longer controversial. But it was a landmark book for me, when I read it, and it’s still relevant and worth reading.

There’s been a LOT of work around how reason and emotion work together, or don’t. One popular model is “thinking fast and thinking slow,” with emotion as primary in the first, and reason the second.

There’s truth to this, but it’s only a partial truth. In complicated situations, reason does not work alone and can’t.

The human mind is limited, it simply cannot hold a lot of information at one time. Working memory holds about seven bits of information. Some people have a little more, some a little less, and there’s some variation on how much can be held based on the complexity of what is held.

Impressive memory tricks are mostly a result of clumping information into meaningful bits. One strategy for memorizing numbers is to do them as times, for example, making each bit longer.

Logic can work in two ways: sequentially and in parallel. In parallel it can only work up to the limit of working memory. Sequentially we can work through logical chains, but long chains run up against the working memory limitation in their own way–after a time, we don’t really remember the chain.

Humans, for all that we pat ourselves on the back a lot, are fundamentally stupid. It’s just that most other animals are terrible, and those who might be about as good as us or even better are, in some ways, handicapped otherwise, in terms of hands, and/or language, and/or lifespan (octopi), and so on.

Damasio notes that the realm of pure reason is very limited. Most decisions are not obvious. One example he gives is of a patient who has lost the ability to feel emotions trying to decide when his next appointment should be.  It’s not obvious, and he can’t do it, he can spend hours trying to decide.

This same patient, however, in a potential motor vehicle accident where there is an obvious solution, has no problem. Because he feels no emotions, he does the right thing and it’s no big deal for him.

Emotions are really body-states. You feel all emotions in your body. If you don’t, you don’t feel an emotion. (Meditation will show this to you experientially, if you wish.)

We remember emotions and we re-create them as necessary. (Remember the last time you hugged someone you love, feel the emotion. To enhance it, stand and physically mimic hugging them.)

We assign these emotions even to very subtle things, like logical propositions and thoughts on subjects.

When a problem is too hard to deal with using pure reason, when it’s not important enough to subject to pure reason, or when there is no time for pure reason (because logical thinking is, indeed, SLOW), we refer to our feelings, and we go with the one that feels best (or least worst).

Thinking is rarely divided into “pure reasoning” (slow) or “pure feeling” (fast), most complicated decisions use both.

More to the point, most hard decisions are hard because they aren’t clear: There isn’t an obvious logical choice.  They’re close calls, and, in such decisions, we will go with the decision that feels best.

So pure reason is rare, slow, and usually only used for decisions that are, actually, clear cut.

This has a lot of implications, but the one I want to end with is this: Your emotional map of reality is most of your intelligence and if your emotional map of reality (or any decision space within reality) is not accurate, you’re going to make a lot of bad decisions.

This, though Damasio does not go into it, is where ideology and identity come into things. Through those two methods (and anyone who doesn’t think they have an ideology is a fool), we build emotional maps we then layer on top of reason. If our identities or ideologies are screwed, we make bad decisions.

This is an important book to read. Even if all details are not accurate, it is a necessary antidote to a lot of foolishness about how thinking and decision-making actually works.

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. V. Arnold permalink
    September 23, 2017

    LoL; I’ll bet not one of your commentariate has a clue about Descarte’s writtings.
    A mad scramble follows in google search…
    Comment’s sure to follow…

  2. V. Arnold permalink
    September 23, 2017


  3. V. Arnold permalink
    September 23, 2017

    Having read Descartes many decades ago; this is what I remember;
    Descartes lays out four rules of thought, meant to ensure that our knowledge rests upon a firm foundation.
    The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.
    To this day, that has been my standard.

  4. V. Arnold permalink
    September 23, 2017

    Oops, forgot attribution; wiki

  5. September 23, 2017

    Good book – must read.

  6. bruce wilder permalink
    September 23, 2017

    I certainly do not know any more about Descartes than Cogito, ergo sum. Which I regard as a fundamental error, but one that concerns epistemology. The seeking after an empirical or normative procedure that will furnish the logical certainty of an axiomatic proof begins with Descartes and ends with Kant’s fashioning of the golden rule as a “categorical imperative” and in between those two, there is the example of Newton’s Principia, showing the power of analysis to produce powerful insight into how the world works, if we are willing to loosen a bit our obsessions with what the world means, and that is The Enlightenment — the historic era and event, not the personal transformation.

    Human evolution was mostly about multiplying the number of neurons in the cerebellum, a development that is somewhat overshadowed in the conventional story, by the growth of the prefrontal cortex. The cerebellum enables fine motor control in our hands and hand-eye coordination, and the ability to understand, mediated perhaps by metaphor, a machine.

    The tiny size of human short-term memory, mentioned in the OP, is indeed, a remarkable limitation, and it is too little appreciated how much of science and politics is shaped by the need to squeeze thru that tiny waiting room. There are tricks, as Ian mentions, to feats of mnemonics. We learn to think by following sequences of steps or applying our impressive cerebellum to manipulate systems of notation. The ability to compress a complex idea into a slogan or a “law” and then mechanically unpack it again is critical to the social propagation of knowledge. A lot of the arguing amongst our selves that we do, has to do with trying to resolve differences concerning how we should unpack an idea that has been compressed into a phrase, sentence or equation, and a lot of formal education is about learning to do that decompression exercise correctly (or conventionally or creatively as the case might be).

    The power of E=mc2, or “survival of the fittest”, or evolution by variation in descent and natural selection, or “single-payer”, or “all men are created equal” , or any number of memes that can be unpacked rightly, wrongly but always elaborately, is what I refer to.

    But, a lot of argument isn’t logical and the power of metaphor is not solely about mechanical analogues. It is interesting to me that philosophers should think arguments are importantly logical and should be proved, but what I see is that arguments are mostly structured not around standards of logical proof, but around the need to persuade, which reduces to the requirements of hypnosis. We instinctively structure most argumentation around efforts to induce hypnotic trance states and then make emotional associations that “sell” something.

    I am puzzled by the denigration of emotion inherent in the story that places thinking inside the brain, not the body, and makes argument a logical proof. It seems to me that the reality is not just that thinking is somatic, but that thinking is social. Emotions are not just a way for the body to express taste and make decisions informed by taste or other preferences, emotions are social phenomena and are about dressing up awareness with meaning, and meaning is social. Affection is social and motivation flows from affection. It seems to me that a lot of what, say, a motivational speaker or a priest or a psychotherapist or a guru says is nonsense, by the strict cognitive standards of empiricism, but, so what?

    As for ideology, sometimes we over think what are at base psychological adjustments, not philosophical expression. We need meaning. Something in our post-Enlightenment (period again) culture wants to starve us of meaning, perhaps not without reason, as we are gluttonous for meaning and not discriminating enough. In my experience, most ideologies are remarkable for the armor they provide against thinking in the sense of critical reason.

  7. relstprof permalink
    September 24, 2017

    Re “Thinking is social” and “affection is social”

    On one level, Descartes is wrestling with the Stoic conception that emotions are the failures of rational thought. To undergo a passion, an emotion that clouds how one is thinking about reality, one has already failed to interpret reality according to logic. Emotions are “false judgments” or “the wrong use of impressions” of reality (referencing Epictetus here — not the only view of Stoicism, but a very influential one. Western Christianity adopted aspects of his popular teachings). In a sense, this is fast thinking, since my judgment of what is happening isn’t deliberative and may be simply conventional. E.g., any person holding a handgun is a threat = fear. For the Stoics, emotions are not primarily somatic experiences that are secondarily interpreted by a rational capacity, but a failure of the rational capacity itself. I am fearful or full or grief or angry and anxious because I am not understanding the world in the way that the world actually works. False judgments produce passionate emotion and not the body formations.

    Where Descartes differs is in his attempt to make an ontological distinction between “pure thought” as a spiritual substance, and bodies as material substance. For Descartes, these two overlap but are hierarchically distinct: the spiritual mind ought to rule the material. The mind is sacrosanct (like Stoicism) and so ought to be confident that the material will bend to the “pure mind” in many cases (unlike Stoicism). Stoicism is humble in this regard — passionate emotions are often (not always) causal misunderstandings about how much control the rational capacity has in dealing with reality in its complexity. Freedom from passionate emotion is the acceptance of a more limited role for human agency in the universe. This is not a disavowal of human agency, but a scaling back of what is considered under the control of human beings for human flourishing. If in doubt, trust in the providence of the universe.

    The problem for both Stoicism and Descartes is the reality of the unconscious. A modified post-Freudian (attachment-interdependent) course is more fruitful for two reasons:

    1. It begins from a developmental perspective. Take Winnicott for example — the human is a bundle of genetic and environmentally-bounded material from which a consciousness develops. This conscious self will include an unconscious dimension that becomes a repertoire of highly developed thinking and feeling human social skills (if everything goes well!). We are the kind of animals within whom the right kind of attachment and affection will create the right kind of “rational” beings. The high-functioning interdependence we can achieve depends on a healthy unconscious wherein our ability to play creatively is our thinking and feeling in collective negotiation.

    2. It suggests a political program for universal human benefit based on what human beings need to experience as wellbeing, individually and collectively.

    Granted, number 2 is a tough order. : )

  8. September 24, 2017

    The one thing that stands out down through the years: he scared The fucking Church as much as Pascal.

  9. September 26, 2017

    I first encountered the idea that reason and emotion work together, and indeed can’t be separated, in Suzanne Langer’s “Philosophy in a New Key,” originally published in 1941. I read it in my 20s, about 40 years ago. You don’t really need contemporary neuroscience to figure it out; just to be able to think.

  10. realitychecker permalink
    September 26, 2017

    The untrained mind is not much different from the purely emotional one.

    The trained mind is very different, and readily separable.

    There just aren’t that many around anymore, sadly.

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