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Descartes' Error
Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

Antonio R. Damasio
Published by G. P. Putnam's Sons /NY in 1994
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2000


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The book would be better titled "Descartes' Truth" or "Damasio's Error". The author is a materialistic scientist with a firmly ensconced belief that the physical body comes first and from that evolves the mind. Here's his statement of what he calls Descartes' error:

[page 249] This is Descartes' error: the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body.

"Why bother with this particular error of Descartes'?" Damasio asks. Why bother with a guy who was so dumb that "He believed that heat made the blood circulate?" (Both quotes from page 250). Afterward Damasio adds, "the questions of how and why the blood circulates have been answered to our complete satisfaction." One can assume he means that the heart is a pump that pushes the blood and keeps it in circulation, a view held commonly by our materialistically bent scientists and doctors. Yet those who have bothered to do the calculations have evidence that the heart cannot provide enough power to pump the blood around the human body. Those who have ever seen movies of a fetus whose heart is not yet formed can testify that in spite of the incompleteness of the heart structure and its valves, there is a distinct pulsation and circulation. How can a unfinished pump, one without valves, work? That our blood circulation comes before the heart is finished provides powerful evidence that the heart is not a pump, but merely a hydraulic ram, like a tidal weir, whose job it is to modulate the already existing circulation. In the evolution of the Solar System, heat came first during the time of Old Saturn, and, rightly understood, this primordial heat is the driving force that powers the circulation of the blood today. Why is it so easy to accept that the background radio noise is a vestige of the beginning of the Universe, but not that our circulation is a vestige of the beginning of our Solar System?(1)

But Damasio got a lot of things right in this book. Let us look at his reason for writing this book:

[page xii] I began writing this book to propose that reason may not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were, than emotions and feelings may not be intruders in the bastion of reason at all: they may be enmeshed in its networks, for worse and for better.

Although his penchant for thinking over feeling as a mode of reason is obvious throughout this book, he admits that neurologically both reasoning (by which he means thinking reasoning) and feelings have a common origin.

[page xiii] The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with the body functions necessary for an organism's survival. . . . They (feelings) serve as internal guides, and they help us communicate to others signals that can also guide them. . . They are the result of a most curious physiological arrangement that has turned the brain into the body's captive audience. . . . Were it not for the possibility of sensing body states that are inherently ordained to be painful or pleasurable, there would be no suffering or bliss, no longing or mercy, no tragedy or glory in the human condition.

Damasio is definitely on the right track here, but without the insights of the nascent science of doyletics at his disposal, he tends to get stranded on a siding at times. Let me see if I can throw the right switch to keep us on a more useful track. His use of body states is a useful way to talk about the substrates of both emotions and feelings. But note his use of "sensing body states" above - he writes as though he sees that pain and pleasure are reported to the brain by the senses and the brain as "captive audience" reacts. But how can the brain, lacking any sensory transducers react to pain and pleasure? This was a key question asked by the instrumentation engineer Doyle Henderson some thirty years ago. He held that as an unanswered question until finally one day the answer appeared to him, an answer that was unique in all human history, "The brain recreates stored physical body states using the existing sensors at the extremities of the body." Thus, rightly understood, it is the body that is the captive audience of the brain when it sends these signals to the sensors to re-create a body state stored earlier. The brain cognitively computes whether these emotions and feelings constitute pain, pleasure, suffering, bliss, longing or mercy. There are no basic emotions, as William James so aptly put it, only names we give to some idiosyncratic set of physical body states. [See ARJ: The Unconscious in Its Empirical Manifestations.]

It is as if the brain is watching two movies at the same time and reacting first to one and then to the other. On the left screen the real world outside the body is being projected. We react to that movie. Now something happens on the right screen and we react to that. But on the right screen is a movie, not of what's happening outside of us right now (the left screen has that), but rather of something that happened to us before we were five years old. That right screen is not visible to us consciously, but we react to it all the same. Those reactions due to what's happening on the right screen, we call emotions and feelings, among other things. Due to the process of childhood amnesia, we have hardly any cognitive memory of those events that happened to us before five.

How do the movie clips get run on the right screen? When the movie on the left screen contains hints of components of an event that happened to us before five-years-old, the brain automatically projects a movie clip of that event and we react now as we did then, with no awareness of the event itself, only the feeling content of the event. This is necessarily so, because before five we had little to no ability to store anything but the physical body states (i.e., feelings) in our primitive brain. The brain before five has a fully functioning limbic system, but the cognitive processing of the neocortex does not fully develop before five.

When we go to large movie theater, we sit quietly in our seats, and the movie up there is playing in real-time on our left screen, and it is triggering short clips on our right screen of all those scenes from our pre-five-year-old history that cause us to weep, feel fear, become sad, or exhilarate in joy, all the while sitting in a comfortable seat in a theater. When you consider the paucity of inputs from the theater, mainly, the seat cushion and the feeling of the air, everything else that happens to you must come from remembered sensory data fed to your extremities from your right screen while the movie plays on your left screen. Thus, the body is the captive audience of the brain during the watching of television or a movie.

Our body today as an adult is a simulacrum of our childhood memories. When someone says, "Stop acting like a child," they are uttering a profound truth about human evolution that could be stated like this:

We store the body states of every event that happens to us before five and recapitulate them given appropriate signals thereafter, unless we stumble on a way to remove them.

I hated macaroni and cheese as a child. Refused to eat it as an adult, until some time in my twenties, I began to think about how strange it was that I liked cheese by itself now, and I liked macaroni by itself now. Why didn't I like them together? I thought about the many times I went hungry on the nights my mom served the dish. Somewhere in those thoughts, my dislike for macaroni and cheese disappeared. I had managed to convert a physical body state associated with the food, one stored in me before I was five-years-old, into a cognitive memory. Now I can eat it if I wish to and even enjoy it if it's prepared well. This was long before I encountered doyletics, but it's useful to discuss this, because so many people lose all or most of their food dislikes before they reach forty-years-old or so. What doyletics as a science provides is a way to understand, not only how it's possible for people to remove unwanted physical body states unconsciously, but more importantly, how to do it consciously and dependably, every time. [See Webpage: for instructions on how to do this for yourself.]

It was the famous story of Phineas Gage that got Damasio interested in the pre-frontal cortices in brain function. From his study of a digital reconstruction of Gage's brain, which was damaged when a six-foot tamping iron flew through his skull, it was clear that sections of Gage's pre-frontal cortices were destroyed by the accident. Later he met Elliot, a modern Gage, whose problems started after a tumor of the lining of the brain was removed. Elliot, like Gage, was completely lacking affect. When the author's colleague, Daniel Tranel, showed emotionally charged visual stimuli to Elliot, he evoked no response whatsoever.

[page 45] This was astounding. Try to imagine it. Try to imagine not feeling pleasure when you contemplate a painting you love or hear a favorite piece of music. Try to imagine your self forever robbed of that possibility and yet aware of the intellectual contents of the visual or musical stimulus, and also aware that once it did give you pleasure.

This is an excellent description of what one who has lost all access to one's doylic memories. Such a person will not be able to appreciate the above things suggested by Damasio, however, because there will be nothing for them to compare their own experiences with. One can not feel deprived if one is unable to comprehend what the thing is that has been lost. An autistic person cannot understand what it means to feel a complete range of emotions, not ever having stored them. They may, if they are a high-functioning autistic, recognize that their own responses are different from others and attempt to modulate their responses based on what they see and cognitively compute to be appropriate, but they are unable to do that computation based on any feeling because they lack that capability due to the absence of doyles of feeling stored before five-years-old.

Damasio goes through a range of descriptions of the various brain functions. On page 141 he has a graphic in which a person's authentic smile is shown as originating from signals in her limbic region and the inauthentic smile ["Please smile for the camera."] is shown as originating from the motor cortex. This indicates that smiles, as doyles, originate from the limbic region. How would a smile doyle originate? Sometime before five-years-old, one might see Mom returning to one's bedside and whatever tension in one's face disappeared resulting in a natural smile. That natural smile got stored in the limbic system. Later, whenever something pleasant, really pleasant happened, that smile was likely to return. Smiles get attached to so many contexts, it's hard to imagine what the trigger stimulus of a given smile might be.

In this next passage on phantom limb perception, Damasio talks about doyles.

[page 152] My interpretation of this phenomenon is that in the absence of on-line input from the missing limb, there prevails the on-line input from a dispositional representation of that limb: that is, the reconstruction through the process of recall of a previously acquired memory.

Thus, one can expect that the leg itch that someone feels in her missing limb is a doyle that was stored before she was five-years-old. When her other leg itches, she can scratch it, but what is she to do when her missing leg itches? Until doyletics, there was no easy way to answer that question. The answer is that she does a doyle trace while the itch is present and it will disappear at some time mark before five-years-old. And the itch will not return. This raises an interesting question: can someone who was born without a limb experience phantom pain in that missing limb? Unless some evidence can be found to the contrary, and I suspect it can't, this is good, albeit negative, confirmation that phantom limb perception stems from doyles.

Now let us examine Damasio's "somatic marker hypothesis". My suspicion is that what he calls a "somatic marker" is identical to what I have named a doyle, i.e., a physical body state stored before five-years-old. Basically he says that you plan something, review possible outcomes, and something happens:

[page 173] When the bad outcome connected with a given response option comes into mind, however fleetingly, you experience an unpleasant gut feeling. Because the feeling is about the body, I gave the phenomenon the technical term somatic state ("soma" is Greek for body); and because it "marks" an image, I call it a marker. Note again that I use somatic in the most general sense (that which pertains to the body) and I include both visceral and nonvisceral sensation when I refer to somatic markers.

Yes, doyles are identical to what he calls "somatic markers" - if you consider a bad outcome, you will experience some doyle that is triggered by the inputs of the outcome you imagined, whether it be visual, auditory, or other sensations combined together. If it causes a sinking feeling inside of you, that is a visceral sensation. If it causes you to flinch suddenly, that is a non-visceral sensation. Both are doyles. If you had not had a sinking sensation or flinched before you were five-years-old, you would not have stored the doyle, and you could not experience them in the process of making a plan for the future any more than Phineas Gage or Elliot could.

[page 179] The critical formative set of stimuli to somatic pairings is, no doubt, acquired in childhood and adolescence. But the accrual of somatically marked stimuli ceases only when life ceases, and thus it is appropriate to describe that accrual as a process of continuous learning.

Here Damasio has something important to say, but lacking the insights of doyletics, he errs when he says that the "critical formative set of stimuli to somatic pairings is acquired in childhood and adolescence." That set of pairing of stimuli to response are doyles and they are only acquired in early childhood, never in adolescence. The upper limit of doyle acquisition is about five years. This is an empirically acquired limit, not a theoretical one. The accural of somatically marked stimuli corresponds to adding contexts to which doyles are triggered, and yes, that continues as long as life does. Each new context in which a doyle is triggered becomes a future trigger stimulus for firing off the original doyle. If a boy hears a strident tone of voice while eating liver as a 2-year-old, and holds his gut tense, he will not like eating liver ever after. If a similar thing happens when he's eating sauerkraut later, he will not be able to enjoy sauerkraut. If something happens around him that he doesn't like, he may yell with his gut tense and replicate the strident tone of his father when he was two. Notice that all three contexts, yelling, eating liver and eating sauerkraut are linked to one doyle, the tense gut. Suppose the same person as an adult were to trace the tense gut associated with his yelling - might not we suppose that it would make sense that his dislikes for liver and sauerkraut would disappear? I think so now, but I didn't before, but this actually happened to me following my very first doyle trace. It took weeks before I discovered quite by accident that my dislike of liver had gone away. I ate an appetizer that I thought was tuna fish salad and liked it, only to find out it was chicken liver patê. A week later I awoke from a dream in which I had been eating sauerkraut and loving it. I ate some sauerkraut that very night and liked it for the first time. If one can enjoy something in a dream, one can enjoy it in real life, as the same doyles will be triggered, awake or asleep. >

This accrual process or adding on of contexts, I like to visual as the adding of leaves to a tree. Each time a new situation occurs where the doyle is triggered is a new leaf on a tree. If you go to a therapist with a problem and mention one of the contexts, she may cure you of that one context. One leaf from your tree was removed. You feel better, and she says come back next week. If you, alone and in private, do a doyle trace and remove the doyle, then it is as if the entire tree is uprooted and all the leaves are gone, forever. This is the power that comes with doyletics, and what distinguishes it from what generally passes for therapy. A doyle trace is a memory technique that one uses in private to remove the root cause of possibly numerous problem areas in one's life.

In the next passage Damasio describes the basic system of storage and re-creation of doyles in the limbic system and how the limbic system is integrated within the autonomic nervous system.

[page 205] The autonomic nervous system consists of both autonomic control centers, located within the limbic system and brain stem (the amygdala being the prime example), and neuron projections arising from those centers and aimed at viscera throughout the organism. Blood vessels everywhere, including those in the thick of the most extensive organ in the body, the skin, are innervated by terminals from the autonomic nervous system, and so are the heart, the lung, the gut, the bladder, and the reproductive organs. Even an organ as the spleen, which is concerned largely with immunity, is innervated by the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system controls the storage and re-creation of doyles today as it did during our early ancestors' time. It was the highest functioning system of brain, a brain that had not yet created the neocortex that provides us with cognitive memory today. As the convolutions of the neocortex began to be added, the limbic system continued to operate in the background, providing the automatic learnings and responses to the environment as it always had. The cognitive reasoning provided by the new neocortex began to oversee the operation of the body, but, down below, the limbic system functioned in the background, providing speech functions, organ control and homeostasis, muscular movements of all kinds, and the full flora of emotions and feelings for the remainder of the human's life. At our present stage of evolution, the limbic function is in a read-write state up to the age of five, and after that switches over to a read-only state. This means that doyles may be both stored (written into the limbic system) and re-created (read-out from the limbic system) only until five years old, at which time the doyles may only be re-created or read-out of limbic storage. The read-out of a particular doyle from limbic storage may be by-passed by a simple memory technique in which one traces the doyle back along time marks into one's past until the doyle disappears. What happens is that the brain, in going back before the original event of the doyle storage, has gone past this event for the first time with cognitive memory capability, and the neocortex does what it does best, creates a cognitive memory of the original event. Upon subsequent triggering stimuli, instead of the doyle being re-created, the cognitive memory, newly created, is fed up by the neocortex. The same mechanism that kicked in at five years old to preferentially store cognitive memories over new doyles, kicks in to feed up the newly created cognitive memory of the original event just traced instead of the stored doyle. The doyle is still stored, but it is never again activated.

As far as the science of doyletics is concerned, Damasio has made no error in writing this book. The data he presents and the evidence of somatic markers (doyles) is convincing. Perhaps he will someday review the hypotheses and findings of doyletics, which I hope will lead everyone to a simple understanding of what happens in human beings when they have emotions and feelings.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1.
October 22, 2013 Update: I received a link to this
enlightening article which says, among other things,

In 1932, Bremer of Harvard filmed the blood in the very early embryo circulating in self-propelled mode in spiraling streams before the heart was functioning. Amazingly, he was so impressed with the spiraling nature of the blood flow pattern that he failed to realize that the phenomena before him had demolished the pressure propulsion principle. Earlier in 1920, Steiner, of the Goetheanum in Switzerland had pointed out in lectures to medical doctors that the heart was not a pump forcing inert blood to move with pressure but that the blood was propelled with its own biological momentum, as can be seen in the embryo, and boosts itself with “induced” momenta from the heart. He also stated that the pressure does not cause the blood to circulate but is caused by interrupting the circulation. Experimental corroboration of Steiner's concepts in the embryo and adult is herein presented.
See ARJ Reviews for more on the circulation of the blood: The Theosophy of the Rosicrucian, Macrocosm and Microcosm, and The Effects of Esoteric Development.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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