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Solms, M. (1997). Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, And The Human Brain. By Antonio Damasio. New York: Putnam, 1994, xix + 312 pp., $24.95.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 45:959-964.

(1997). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45:959-964

Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, And The Human Brain. By Antonio Damasio. New York: Putnam, 1994, xix + 312 pp., $24.95.

Review by:
Mark Solms

In this book, Antonio Damasio—a distinguished behavioral neurologist—advances a neuropsychological theory of emotion with which the psychoanalyst will feel comfortably familiar. Damasio's theory rests on two basic hypotheses: (1) that emotions play a positive role in the adaptive functions of the mind, and (2) that they do so by bringing the current state of the body to conscious awareness. The following passage captures the gist of the theory: “Feelings offer us a glimpse of what goes on in our flesh, as a momentary image of that flesh is juxtaposed to the images of other objects and situations; in so doing, feelings modify our comprehensive notion of those other objects and situations. By dint of juxtaposition, body images give other images a quality of goodness or badness, of pleasure or pain.” (p. 159).

Damasio acknowledges that his theory is in essence a revival of the James-Lange theory of emotion. On these familiar foundations, he constructs a new (though largely speculative) theory that combines the James-Lange paradigm with contemporary neuroscientific knowledge. Interestingly, this heuristic theory incorporates (apparently unwittingly) many components of Freud's classical psychology. Like the early Freud, Damasio conceptualizes the mental apparatus as a phylogenetically evolved “sympathetic ganglion” (Freud 1950p. 303) that mediates between compelling demands arising from the internal milieu of the body, on the one hand, and the practical constraints of external social reality on the other.

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