Credit: Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels
09 July 2021
This piece in The New York Times is fascinating background to René Descartes’ well-known concept ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It’s a declaration so central to the way many of us perceive what it means to be human, that it may seem inconceivable that Descartes could have been, well… wrong. Speak to neuroscientists today though, and you may find they look less towards Descartes for answers than to his contemporary, Baruch Spinoza, who declared ‘I feel, therefore I am.’
The differences the article describes between Descartes and his intellectual adversary lie in how they viewed the mind. Descartes treated mind and body as fundamentally separate, while Spinoza saw them as a continuum. The mind is not, as Descartes claimed, a ‘reasoning machine’. Rather it is driven to ensure the body’s survival.
It’s fascinating how, despite Spinoza’s position being roundly rejected at the time, we can now appreciate just how prescient he was – all thanks to modern neuroscience. He grasped how critical our emotions are in ensuring our survival and in allowing us to think.
Over recent decades, emotions have been starting to receive a lot of well-deserved attention. Antonio Damasio, above all, has made an enormous contribution to understanding the brain’s processes underlying our emotions, feelings, decision-making and consciousness.
Damasio has supplemented Spinoza’s position, arguing, for example, that feelings do not cause bodily symptoms – they are caused by them (we do not tremble because we feel afraid; we feel afraid because we tremble). Damasio’s observations are the foundation of many of the psychological ‘third ways’, new types of interventions that are breaking ground, including mirror therapy, which you can read about here.
Contact Dr Francesca
Send Dr Francesca a message using the contact form.