Book Review: Descartes' Error

I have long been one to insist that emotion clouds reason. That the best analysis comes from a clear, dispassionate look at the situation, evaluating pros and cons, and then making a swift decision. When my friend Rob Urstein, Asst. Dean at Stanford GSB, recommended Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain I was intrigued.

The book’s premise is that contrary to popular belief emotion is essential to smart, rational decision making. It is heavy on neurobiology and evolutionary psychology, so I got lost in parts and it’s a tough read for a someone not steeped in those disciplines. This being said, it does raise some important issues. He lays out several patients with neurological diseases or deficiencies – in particular, those areas which regulate emotion – and demonstrates their faulty decision making.

I’m not totally convinced by its thesis yet, but certainly good food for thought. I recommend it if you are engaged by neuroscience and decision making.

3 Responses to Book Review: Descartes' Error

  1. Dave Jilk says:

    Does it make these conclusions primarily from patients, or does it use converging evidence from other experimental disciplines?

    It seems to me obvious that emotions are integral to decision making….

  2. ben casnocha says:

    Patients and evidence from neuroscience and biology. I agree it’s obvious that emotions are “integral” but it’s not obvious that they’re integral in a positive way. In fact, I think most people (and me) would argue that they can more negatively affect the process than positively. This author disagrees.

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