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  • Commentary on “Mind, Body, and Mental Illness”
  • Antonio R. Damasio (bio)

I have read Søren Holm’s review of Descartes’ Error with great interest, and I thank him for all the appreciative comments he makes regarding the book’s contributions to cognitive neuroscience, neurology, and psychiatry. Søren Holm also notes two specific criticisms. The main criticism concerns the degree of audacity of my ideas regarding the relationship between body and brain: Holm does not think I am audacious enough. The other criticism concerns my neglect of the work of the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty. I was asked by the editors of this journal to reply to these criticisms, and here are, in brief, my reactions on both issues.

I shall begin with Holm’s substantial criticism that my ideas on body and brain are not sufficiently radical. He applauds me for making room for the body in reasoning and emotion, but regrets that I do not manage to dissolve or solve the basic mind-body dichotomy. He summarizes my position in the following sentence: “For him the body seems to act as some kind of active resonance chamber for the brain.” Unfortunately, this summary, as well as many of the interpretations Holm attributes to me, are simply not correct, and I would like to explain why.

Holm’s characterization of my views seems to have been drawn largely from the section of my book describing the somatic marker hypothesis, and his description ignores the numerous other sections of the book that discuss the issue in detail, namely the chapter on the neural basis of the self (chap. 10), the chapter on emotion and feeling (chap. 7), and the introduction.

Few ideas are as diametrically opposed to mine as the idea that the body is a mere resonance chamber for the brain. On the contrary, I describe the body as the provider of the contents of the mind, and I write on numerous occasions about the original, non-algorithmic nature of those body contents, as well as about the infinite variety of creations that body states afford in terms of contents of the mind. In the introduction, I say that the body, as represented in the brain,

may constitute the indispensable frame of reference for the neural processes that we experience as the mind; that our very organism rather than some absolute external reality is used as the ground reference for the constructions we make of the world around us and for the construction of the ever present sense of subjectivity that is part and parcel of our experiences; that our most refined thoughts and best actions, our greatest joys and sorry sorrows use the body as a yardstick.


Holm’s idea of a resonance chamber, if I understand it correctly, would imply that the body would function as a means to echo, or perhaps amplify, signals originating in the brain. It certainly would signify that there is no originality in the chamber, the body being at the mercy of the [End Page 343] initiator of the signals, the brain. In Descartes’ Error, however, I say precisely the contrary. I state that the body provides a variety of sources for signals to the brain, and that those signals come from the variety of landscapes constituted by the body’s own physiological states. Moreover, I indicate that while some of those states are original creations in response to signals originating in the brain, some actually originate in the body without a first prompt from the brain, as is the case with background emotions.

On numerous occasions I indicate clearly that, from an evolutionary perspective, the body is the driving force behind the creation, design, and maintenance of the brain:

Surprising as it may sound, the mind exists in and for an integrated organism; our minds would not be the way they are if it were not for the interplay of body and brain during evolution, during individual development, and at the current moment. The mind had to be first about the body, or it could not have been. On the basis of the ground reference that the body continuously provides, the mind then can be about many other things...

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pp. 343-345
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