Your somatic markers know when to hold ‘em
There is a very large body of data that show that the body affects the mind. That is, bodily processes and responses to stimuli affect our thoughts about those stimuli and our behavioural responses to them. Some of the most intriguing research in this area has been done by Antonio Damasio – most famously the Iowa gambling project . They have primarily investigated people who have damage to their emotional system – ventromedial prefrontal cortex - yet seem to function very well on language and intelligence tests. They do, however, act in a socially inappropriate manner and make stunning judgement errors. One of the earliest studies showed that while healthy volunteers began to choose advantageously before they worked out which strategy was in fact advantageous, patients with damage to their prefrontal lobe chose disadvantageously the whole time – even if they had worked out which strategy was in fact advantageous. The study also showed that normals would have a galvanic skin response, a sign of sympathetic activation, before they realised they were about to make a risky choice. Damasio’s group has done a bunch of studies that underpin their Somatic Marker Hypothesis – “Somatic markers are events or chemicals in your body, detection of which evokes particular feelings or emotions. A note here that, according to Damasio – check out his very readable book ‘The feeling of what happens’, emotions are brain representations of body states. That is, you see a scary looking man approaching you, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, this sends feedback to your brain and your brain registers this feedback and you feel frightened). So, the essence of the somatic marker hypothesis is that when a “negative somatic marker is linked to a particular future outcome it becomes an alarm bell and when a positive somatic marker is linked to a particular future outcome it becomes an incentive” .
So, people who have damage to the part of the brain that registers feedback from the somatic markers, don’t ‘read the signals’ from their internal environment. The somatic marker hypothesis argues that this is why they make errors of judgement and do socially inappropriate things – they can’t process the shift in the somatic markers. So, next time you join the poker game, remember what the somatic marker hypothesis says: it is your body that tells you when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away and when to run, not Kenny Rogers. So, clearly there is bottom-up influence on cognition – the embodied cognition people talk about this a great deal. We have shown (see here for BiM discussion on ‘Rubber Hand makes your real hand go colder‘ and visual distortion) a top-down effect of cognitive representations on the body [3, 4]. The next blog will raise the stakes even further, albeit rather speculatively…..
1. Bechara, A. (1997). Deciding Advantageously Before Knowing the Advantageous Strategy Science, 275 (5304), 1293-1295 DOI:10.1126/science.275.5304.1293
2. Damasio AR (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 351 (1346), 1413-20 PMID: 8941953
3. Moseley, G., Olthof, N., Venema, A., Don, S., Wijers, M., Gallace, A., & Spence, C. (2008). Psychologically induced cooling of a specific body part caused by the illusory ownership of an artificial counterpart Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (35), 13169-13173 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803768105
4. Moseley, G., Parsons, T., & Spence, C. (2008). Visual distortion of a limb modulates the pain and swelling evoked by movement Current Biology, 18 (22) DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2008.09.031