Category Archives: Know thyself

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.

It’s a “mindfield”

Image by Nevit Dilmen

We are now on week 5 of Coursera’s Know Thyself which focuses on Timothy Wilson and his book Strangers to Ourselves

The study question I chose for this week is

What is the “psychological immune system”? In light of your answer, please elucidate Wilson’s remark that the conflict between the need for accuracy and the need to feel good about ourselves is, “one of the major battlegrounds of the self”

According to Wilson the mind needs to gather accurate information to make decisions and judgements. We do it all the time, gauging people’s facial expressions to determine their mood or assessing the danger level of a situation. However, he felt that there are two facets to the unconscious mind. As well as accuracy the mind has a “spin doctor” whose purpose is to make you feel better about decisions you have made. Didn’t get the job you wanted? Well the salary wasn’t good. Been dumped? Well he was no good anyway. Failed the exam? Well it’s not a subject you will be using in your career anyway. We all do it and according to Wilson we don’t even realise we are “boosting our psychological immune system”. It’s known as as boosting our psychological immune system because it protects our emotional well being.

Of course we know people who operate on the either end of the scale, those whose mind is a sea of accurate information and nothing else. The “spin doctor” is absent and this can manifest itself as pessimism or depression. We also know people whose “spin doctor” is operating on a high spin and everything is great and will be great. They could be described as naive or not living in the real world. It’s about hitting the right balance.

How much “spin” or accuracy you have affects the decisions you make. If you have lots if spin you may take more risks, do things out of your comfort zone because you feel “everything will be okay”. Being on the opposite scale may mean that you get bogged down in the facts, issues and concerns and not dare take a risk. For those of us in the middle there will be times when we are faced with making a decision and we have to work out what to do, any decision will be based on how we think it will turn out.

Not looking after our psychological immune system is also one of the factors in the bad decisions we make when it comes to affective forecasting. This is basically being able to predict how we will feel in the future, something which we are notoriously bad at. We often overestimate how positive we would feel about a significant windfall for example.

Because we are unaware that we boost our psychological immune system, when we end up feeling better about a situation then originally predicted, we attribute it to something else for example God. It also affects decisions in other ways. Wilson used an example of buying a jumper from a shop without a returns policy. People will try and rationalise a bad purchasing decision as there is nothing that can be done about it. However, if there is a generous returns policy there is little or no need to justify the decision. As a result people are often happier with decisions they can’t change as they are already in the process of boosting their psychological immune system.

This is just a short piece on the subject but already I can see why it is a battlefield. We are constantly trying to make ourselves feel better and justify our decisions (without realising) and yet we are so bad at predicting how we are going to feel in the future.

Do we really know our own minds?


We are all animals – Freud


Week 4 of Know Thyself focused on Freud and psychoanalysis. The study question I chose was

Freud claims that, “…civilization is to a large extent being constantly created anew.” (p.12 of the Scribed version of his Introductory Lectures). Please explain this remark and its significance for Freud’s view of the unconscious as it relates to human action.

Freud believed that humans are essentially driven by their instincts in particular sexual and violent ones.

Men are more moral than they think and far more immoral than they can imagine

In his book Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), he describes a tension between civilisation and the individual. The individual, left to his own devices, would follow his baser instincts, and civilisation is concerned with curbing and harnessing those instincts, eg creating laws and punishments for when the laws are broken.

He describes an irony, where civilisation is created to ensure the happiness and bringing together of people but by doing this it makes the individuals unhappy because of the rules and restrictions it imposes on them.

In his introductory lecture he goes on to say that civilisation is constantly being renewed as each time a human enters civilisation he is repeating the sacrifices (in terms of human instincts) that his forefathers did. This sacrifice is made for the good of civilisation as a whole.

However, these instincts don’t go away they are simply redirected, or as Freud calls it sublimated.

to divert the expression of (an instinctual desire or impulse) from its unacceptable form to one that is considered more socially or culturally acceptable

The problem with being human is that our impulses (he believed that the sexual impulses were the strongest of the human instincts) can’t be fully repressed and they have a habit of showing themselves through dreams or “Freudian slips” (known as parapraxes by Freud). He understands that some of these mistakes or ‘slips’ are down to genuine reasons, illness or tiredness for example. Maybe we weren’t paying attention and this is the reason for forgetting.

However, it’s not that simple. Freud also argues that we do many things without paying attention, walking or playing the piano, and not make a mistake. Also, when we forget a name, why is it so difficult to remember when we focus all our attention on it, it’s on the tip of our tongue and we remember it as soon as someone says it. We also make the same mistake over and over. In his lecture Freud uses the example of “forgetting” an appointment. Then missing it a second time because you wrote down the wrong time. Freud listed a number of different types of parapraxes, including a mishearing or a misreading. He thought that these slips were some repressed thought, wish or desire rearing its ugly head through the conscious. In his lectures he says that they are not

chance events but serious mental acts

According to Wikipedia

the id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends; the super-ego plays the critical and moralising role; and the ego is the organised, realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego. The super-ego can stop you from doing certain things that your id may want you to do.

If you believe what Freud says it would appear that there is an continuous battle going on in our minds which we are not aware of. Occasionally this spills out in what appear to be innocent “slips” and strange dreams.

I don’t think that Freud had much faith in humanity and seemed to think that we were only a step away from rape and murder. I only hope, based on some of the weird dreams I have, that my super-ego manages to control my id!

Is my brain really in a vat? Are my senses deceiving me?


I briefly touched upon this subject in my introduction to philosophy course with Coursera and now it’s come up again in Know Thyself. It fascinates and intrigues me so I have decided to look at it more closely. The basic concept is that we can’t prove that we aren’t simply brains in vats being fed experiences. Ridiculous you might say, but prove it’s not true. You can’t. And if this is the case how can we be sure what we believe is true. Do we really know anything?

Descartes discusses this issue in his meditations of first philosophy published in 1641. This is a process he undertook where he basically discarded all the beliefs he held before of which he couldn’t be certain, and then tries to establish what he can be sure of.

SEVERAL years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design.

Meditation 1 of Meditations on first philosophy, Rene Descartes

What an amazing task to undertake. To decide that maybe everything you knew may not be true and to sit down and look at your beliefs and try and establish what you can be certain of, if anything.

He asks whether our senses, or even a mischievous god, deceive us into believing things. Most of us have experienced this at some point. Maybe experiencing a dream so vivid that it feels like it is happening whilst you are awake. Or perhaps having our minds messed with by our devious senses. I recently watched an episode of QI (comedy quiz show on the BBC) and saw something that still scrambles my mind to this day. See for yourself

I started looking at other optical illusions, this one for example, or this one and it made me think how easily we can be fooled and can’t rely 100% on our senses. Our memory plays tricks on us too. So it would appear our whole being is out to deceive us. So if we can’t rely on our beliefs, senses or memory what else is left? And if the answer is nothing how can we be sure that we aren’t brains in vats?

I look forward to reading Descartes’s meditations but hope that I am not a brain in a vat as I would like to think that I really am experiencing the things I am experiencing and not just being fed them by some evil scientist. But then again, if I don’t know that I am a brain in vat does it matter if I am a brain in a vat?


Components of the Self

Image provided courtesy of

We are now at the end of the second week of Coursera’s Know Thyself

So I have decided to tackle another study question to help me understand the subject. Last week I tackled The Unexamined Life

This weeks question is;
Please explain, with the aid of examples, the four main components of the self that we have isolated thus far: cognitive, affective, experiential, and character traits. Are any of these components more amenable to introspection than others? Please explain your answer. Finally, explain why some hold there to be an asymmetry between my knowledge of my introspectible states, and my knowledge of others’ introspectible states.

According to the lectures by Mitchell Green there are four main components which I will briefly describe here;

This basically means what you know, information and also memory. For example you know that Paris is the capital of France and you remember learning this at school.

Emotions and moods make up the affective component but there is a difference between the two.

Mood is a temporary state of mind or feeling

Oxford Dictionaries

Emotions can be described as

a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.

Oxford Dictionaries

The difference between them is substance. Moods don’t have substance. You can be in a particular mood, ie anxious, and not necessarily have a reason for being in that state of mind. On the other hand an emotion is about something; sad because someone has upset you, angry because you missed your train, happy because you have been told you are getting a pay raise.

Things that are based on the look, taste, feel of a thing (sensations) and an experience of a thing.

Although separate the three components intertwine. For example if you are looking at a lemon you know (cognitive) it’s in front of you and the colour might remind (cognitive) you of a dress you once owned. This will then bring up happy thoughts (affective) of the holiday where you wore the dress.

Character Traits
Character traits, basically describe your personality; grumpy, easy going, highly strung etc. Character traits are not a component of the mind in the same way that cognitive, affective and experiential are but nonetheless form part of the self.

So now we have described the four components of the mind, are any of them more open to introspection compared to the others? This is something we will be studying in the coming weeks. However, I am interested in attempting to answer the question now from a layman’s point of view.

Firstly, what is introspection?

Introspection is examination of one’s own conscious thoughts and feelings.[1] In psychology the process of introspection relies exclusively on observation of one’s mental state, while in a spiritual context it may refer to the examination of one’s soul. Introspection is closely related to human self-reflection and is contrasted with external observation.


Based on this definition, and taking each of the four components of the mind, I would suggest the following;

Cognitive introspection would be the easiest as it is tangible and you can produce standardised exams to test your knowledge and memory.
Moods and emotions are still fairly easy although not as simple as cognitive. You can look back over a day or event and consider how you felt. What might be difficult is trying to pinpoint a feeling or mood if it’s not clear. You may remember feeling tense but maybe it was anxiety or trepidation or stress. Maybe it was all four. What makes it more complicated is not necessarily knowing why you felt a certain way or what caused it. You may feel a bit down, but has that been caused by a specific event? Maybe it’s a symptom of tiredness or perhaps you are coming down with something.
Experiential is another difficult, I think, component to self study. As it is based on your experience it may be tangled up in all sorts of emotions, feelings and thoughts you were undergoing at the time. It’s also age and experience related. The way you experienced something at a younger age will probably change when you look back on it later as you have changed and experienced different things since then.
Character traits are also tricky because you may consider yourself an introvert but someone else may describe you as moody. Can you really be relied upon to conduct a truly objective introspection of your own character traits?

Which leads on to the last part of the question regarding the possibility of asymmetry between my knowledge of my introspectible states, and my knowledge of others’ introspectible states.

Are we really the best judges of ourselves? In some respects no. Have you ever been asked by someone if you are okay and said “yes, why?” And they point out that you had been fidgeting, scowling, looking sad or distracted. They saw something that you may not have been aware of. On the other hand a stranger may say that their first impression of you was that you were uptight or arrogant. However, if you are shy then maybe this is how it translates to the outside world. I suppose emotions and moods are tricky so they can be misjudged or misinterpreted by others or by yourself.

It’s a big subject which I can’t cover in one post especially as I have only just started the course. But I hope to develop my understanding over the coming weeks and improve the cognitive component of my mind without short circuiting the other components!

Image by MIT OpenCourseWare

The unexamined life


So now I am officially addicted to MOOCs as I start my 5th one in a month! This is the first week of Know Thyself. Part of the course includes weekly study questions and I have decided to use my blog as the platform for this aspect of the mooc.

Week one study question;
Socrates claims in the Apology that the unexamined life is not worth living. (“The unexamined life is not worth living, for a man.”) Explain what it might be to examine your life, or your self, in a way that seems relevant to Socrates’.

This got me thinking (I suppose this is what Socrates was after) as it’s not something I have thought of before. Or maybe I have and just not done it consciously.

For Socrates self examination was the foundation of life itself and he sought excellence and virtue of character. It was so important that he chose to die, being forced to drink hemlock after being sentenced to death, rather than give up self examination. He even had a method of doing this called the Socratic method.

Scholars call Socrates’ method the elenchus, which is Hellenistic Greek for inquiry or cross-examination. But it is not just any type of inquiry or examination. It is a type that reveals people to themselves, that makes them see what their opinions really amount to

excerpted from Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I don’t claim to fully understand the method so can’t go into detail in terms of what it is exactly. You can read more about it or Wikipedia

From what I have read it appears to be a dialogue which is deliberately confrontational with a view of getting you to question your own views and perspectives.

The principle underlying the Socratic Method is that students learn through the use of critical thinking, reasoning, and logic, finding holes in their own theories and then patching them up.

Socrates would consider life without this self examination to be unconscious repetition.

But is it really? I couldn’t imagine going through self examination in the way that Socrates suggests. Maybe I should but I haven’t, yet, felt a need to. I applaud people who do but wouldn’t condone those that don’t. I think what is more important than this dogmatic self examination is awareness of yourself. I don’t mean all the time and of everything but just knowing what your strengths and weakness are is a useful skill that you learn as you get older. Whether its in a quiet moment or after some significant life event we may take stock or suddenly realise something about our selves. Self examination also comes more naturally with age as you have more years and experiences to look back on. So in this regard I agree with Socrates

Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who, though ignorant, still claimed knowledge

I also think that

an unexamined life is not worth living

is going a bit far. There are plenty of people out there who live happy and fulfilled lives that don’t self examine. You have to admire Socrates though. At his trial he refused to give up philosophical questioning and self examining and it cost him his life

…if, I say now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods… then I would be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise. For this fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.

I look forward to learning more and quenching my ignorance!

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