Friday, December 21, 2007

Embodiment and the Mind

Taken from the introduction to the seminal work "Descartes' Error", in the following extract, Damasio describes the often unmentioned link between the brain (and the mind) and the body: generally assumed, but rarely stated - although this emphasis on the role of the body in the proceedings is of course more central in embodied cognition, cognitive robotics, and the like.

"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 can then be about many other things, real and imaginary.

This idea is anchored in the following statements: (1) the human brain and the rest of the body constitute an indissociable organism, integrated by means of mutually interactive biochemical and neural regulatory circuits (including endocrine, immune, and autonomic neural components); (2) the organism interacts with the environment as an ensemble: the interaction is neither of the body alone nor of the brain alone; (3) the physiological operations that we call mind are derived from the structural and functional ensemble rather than from the brain alone: mental phenomena can be fully understood only in the context of an organism's interacting in an environment. That the environment is, in part, a product of the organism's activity itself, merely underscores the complexity of interactions we must take into account."

The central thesis of the rest of the book is well known: that 'logical' reasoning and decision making does not, indeed cannot, exist without the central role of emotion processes. This directly contradicted the traditional view of emotion clouding the 'cold', logical reasoning processes - a premise also used by 'traditional' AI (i.e. that not based on environmental situatedness, or some other form of grounding).

Antonio Damasio, "Descartes' Error: emotion, reason and the human brain", 1994, New York: Grosset/Putnam

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