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Week 6 of Know Thyself – The Somatic Marker



Week 6 of Know Thyself and we are looking at Neuroscience, emotions and somatic markers, particularly, Antonio Damasio and his book Descartes’ Error. The study question I chose was;

Damasio hypothesizes that one factor causing certain societies to permit genocide, discrimination, slavery, and related forms of injustice is the corrosion or manipulation by demagogues and propagandists of somatic markers across an entire population. Please explain his reason for this view.

Somatic markers are;

The somatic marker hypothesis (SMH) proposes a mechanism by which emotional processes can guide (or bias) behavior, particularly decision-making.

Basically, for Damasio, the somatic marker is your gut feeling. He used an example of you meeting a potential business partner with whom you could make lots of money with. However, you know he is your best friends arch enemy. You can conjure up an image of sitting outside the cafe with the potential business partner and your friend walking past and seeing you. Not only can you conjure up the image but you can “feel”how your friend would feel when he saw you. This would then probably make up your mind not to continue the association.

Most of us have the ability to use gut instincts to make decisions. In fact most of us have the ability to make logical decisions but also follow our instinct and use our gut feelings to help the process. Some might go as far to say that the somatic marker hypotheses can be considered a higher type of reasoning and precludes practical reasoning. This You Tube video featuring Damasio sums it up nicely. It is also a process based on previous experience. You aren’t born with it as you need to first experience things and how they make you feel. If you are trying to make a decision and it conjures up a previous experience that was pleasant it may encourage you to follow a specific course of action.

As part of this theory it is also important to understand that we have two types of emotions, primary and secondary. Primary emotions are basic and are generally found across cultures; happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust. Secondary emotions can be described as more sophisticated and are based on evaluating and reflecting on a previous experience and can be based on your specific culture. In the lecture Professor Green used the example of the Japanese emotion of “Ame” (can’t seem to find out any more about this and don’t even know if this is the correct spelling). This is a feeling of bliss that some people may feel when lost in a large crowd. This obviously can’t be described as a primary emotion as it more than a basic emotion and is based upon you holding certain views or being from a certain culture. You are unlikely to experience “Ame” if you grew up on an African plain or in the Canadian mountains.

However, there are some people who have somatic marker dysfunction as Damasio touched upon in the interview on You Tube. Professor Green spoke to us about one of the subjects that Damasio studied, Phineas Gage who had appeared to have this dysfunction following a brain injury. Professor Green explained

he seems to have no way or at least no feasible way of contemplating a potential outcome of his actions and having a gut feeling as to whether or not that would be a good thing or a bad thing. Remember, he has emotions, but he’s not able to apply his effective responses to
perspective outcomes, in such a way as to get the whole process of practical rationality up and off the ground.

Another subject was Damasio’s patient “Elliot” (his name was changed for anonymity). He had sustained damage to the same area of the brain as Gage and experienced similar problems particularly when it came to making decisions and being able to apply emotions to perspective outcomes.

This is an outline of Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, so now on to the study question. Damasio suggested that it was the corrosion or manipulation by demagogues and propagandists of somatic markers which allowed genocide and other forms of injustice or cruelty.

Damasio said that “a sick culture prevailed upon a presumably normal machinery of reason with disastrous consequences” when discussing Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Basically he proposed that people can manipulate individuals, or even large groups of society, into believing that its okay to hurt certain groups within society i.e. Jewish people, black people, women etc. It’s something we have seen throughout history and sadly continue to see. No doubt this won’t change any time soon.

Damasio claims that

Most of the somatic markers we use for rational decision-making probably were created in our brains during the process of education and socialisation, by connecting specific classes of stimuli with specific classes of somatic state.

Damasio goes on to say that these markers can also go wrong. The Nazis successfully convinced a large part of society that Jewish people or disabled people were not human, sub-human, and therefore it was okay to discriminate against them and kill them. They didn’t count. Ordinary Germans contributed to this. Can we say that this was because they followed orders because they were scared? In some cases yes but certainly not all. They had been successfully brain washed into thinking this was okay. If, as Damasio, claims, somatic markers are used for rational decision making, and they are created thought the process of socialisation and education, it is easy to see where the weak link is.

If somatic markers are created through socialisation and education and they are based on experience then it is easy to see how they are open to manipulation. If you grow up being told by your family, school and community that a particular group of people are bad, wrong, sub human, there is a good chance you will believe this. If it is true we use our somatic marker for rational decision making then, to you anyway, discriminating against a particular group will be rational or normal. This reminded me of an experiment I once read about where a teacher in America divided her class into blue and brown eyed groups. She then told the blue eyed children they were better and treated them more favourably. It didn’t take long for them to become arrogant and pick on the blue eyeds. The blue eyeds in turn quickly became subservient. If this can be done by a teacher, in a short period of time, without conviction it’s no wonder that political leaders, can manipulate large groups of the population.


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