What is the somatic marker hypothesis?

The human being is a complex animal. Underlying its reality as a living organism is both the ability to feel deep emotions and the ability to make cognitive assumptions about how reality presents itself to it.

For many years, emotion and cognition have been understood as independent realities and even confronted, Form an artificial antagonism in which ailments have been relegated to the background of what is animal and irrational.

However, today we know that emotion and cognition are two gears necessary for the optimal functioning of the mind, so the assignment of one of them will compromise important processes in the course of life. .

In this article we will review the somatic marker hypothesis (HMS) proposed by the prestigious neurologist Antonio Damasio; which articulates an integrated explanatory model to understand how we feel, decide and act.

    Emotions, cognition and physiology

    Emotions have, in addition to a purely affective component, cognitive and physiological correlates. We can all imagine at that precise moment what it is like to feel the last time we experience fear, one of the basic emotions. The heartbeat quickens, we breathe deeply, muscles tighten, and the whole body prepares for a quick fight or flight response. Sometimes this response is so immediate that it ignores any previous process of cognitive development.

    Just as we are able to evoke these physical sensations, perhaps we can glimpse the thoughts that are usually associated with them. We are instantly able to interpret that emotional stability has been impaired in the presence of an environmental threat and, as a result, we realize that we are experiencing fear. The two phenomena, physiological responses and cognitive certainty, seem to occur in a coordinated and automatic fashion..

    However, since the very dawn of the study of emotions, which unfortunately took a long time to be understood as irrelevant epiphenomena, theorists have questioned the order in what happens at both points in the process: do we fear because we are shaking or do we tremble because we are afraid? Although our intuition may remind us of the latter, not all authors have followed this line.

    William James, who has focused his efforts extraordinarily on the dynamics that govern emotional life, postulated that the emotion we perceive at any given time is the result of the interpretation of physiological signals, not the other way around. This way, when we feel that our body is starting to sweat or activate, we will conclude that we are gripped by the emotion of fear; bring together sensations and emotions in an integrated experience.

    In such a perspective, which Damasio recovers to shape his hypothesis as a somatic marker, the body would have the capacity to anticipate the very consciousness of what one feels at a given moment, asserting itself as a sentinel to guide the consciousness in multiple areas of life. . In a way you could say that the physiological imprint of the experience ends up “programming” the body to provide rapid responses to situations that require it.

      What is the somatic marker hypothesis?

      Human beings reside at the eternal crossroads of two great worlds: the exterior (which they perceive through the sense organs) and the interior (which takes the form of thoughts and images through which they represent and elaborate their reality. individual). The two are coordinated, so that the situations in which we must live are nuanced by the thoughts that develop around them, And from which emerges a concrete emotional response.

      The occurrence of positive and negative situations is inherent in the very act of living, and they all involve an emotional response that involves both physiology and cognition (sensations and interpretations). The result of each of our experiences unites the concrete event, the thoughts that flow from it, the emotion that emerges and the physiological response that erupts; store all of this entirely in the ever-thicker registers of episodic memory.

      This complex sequence involves a succession of phenomena which, under normal conditions, occur unconsciously and automatically. Both thoughts, along with the emotion that depends on them and the physiology itself, take place without deliberately trying to lead them in any direction. For the same reason, many people directly associate the event they experience with emotions and behaviors, ignoring the mediating contribution of his way of thinking.

      Well, each emotion involves the activation of different regions of the brain, as well as bodily sensations specific to its evolutionary properties. Joy, fear, sadness, anger, disgust and surprise in each case involve a different and identifiable physiological reaction. When, through our experience, we face real-life situations that precipitate them, there is an association between the events we experienced and how they made us feel.

      This effect follows the basic laws of learning, Associate the general characteristics of the situation with the contingent emotion that accompanies it, making it all expandable to subsequent events that have similarities to the original. Thus, a distinction is made between primary inducers (environmental stimuli which caused the emotion in the first place) and secondary inducers (environmental stimuli which later generalize the original fact-emotion relationship).

      In the first moments of the process of valuing a present experience, when the cognitive mechanisms necessary to respond to the environment with the maximum immediacy and success unfold in our internal jurisdiction, in parallel emerges the somatic and visceral reaction that was experienced when faced with a fact similar to the one we are confronted with in the past. The question is: how does this double and overlapping reaction, based on past experience, but with a proactive capacity, affect us?

        What is its function?

        It is said that humans are the only animals to trip over the same stone twice. That is, when faced with a situation very similar to the one he was wrong in, he tends to repeat the same strategy only to find himself again stuck in the turbulence of failure. And popular wisdom, embodied in the rich Spanish proverb, also suggests that “the first time was your fault, the second was my fault.” We should never underestimate the wisdom of our ancestors.

        The truth is that we have very limited cognitive resources. Whenever we are faced with a new situation of high demand, we usually go through a period of turmoil that even compromises the mood; because we need all the mental capacity available to extract, codify, systematize and understand the information involved; effective treatment to provide an appropriate response to the extent possible.

        This process is known, in general terms, as decision making. If we understand it in the way indicated in the previous paragraph, it is tempting to interpret that the emotions did not contribute at any point in the process, but the truth is that the evidence indicates that these are absolutely necessary to choose the best course of action. within the framework of a multiplicity of possible paths to choose from.

        Emotion acts as a guide, In short. He tends to unfold in the face of every significant fact in our life, becoming part of his memory when recalled even years later. For all of this to be possible, the brain needs many structures, reserving the amygdala (located deep within itself) for emotional memory.

        Well, when we are faced with a grieving situation similar to what we may have experienced at some other time in the past, the body puts in movement a somatic marker: we immediately feel the bodily sensations that occurred on the previous occasion (the specific of fear, anger, sadness, etc.), offering us these a compass on the timely decision at the present time, Assimilate what has been experienced before to what is experienced now.

        At the colloquial level, this phenomenon has been conveyed by popular expressions such as “I had a premonition”, which directly refer to the physiological components (heart rate) that are occurring at the very moment of making a decision, and this actually decanted the process. In this way, the emotion would act as a cognitive economy mechanism through its somatic components, and would release the heavy burden of cognitive processing.


        Emotions and cognition are inextricably linked with all basic decision-making processes.So these require the integrity of the brain structures on which they depend.

        The somatic marker would look to the physiological pattern of emotions that took place during past experiences to facilitate prospective analysis of current ones, helping to choose specific courses of action in complex environments.

        The convergence of emotion and cognition is called feeling (which acquires more experiential depth), which requires the interaction of the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala, as well as the integrity of the connections between them. This is why frontal traumas (tumors, accidents, etc.) have always been associated with difficulties in integrating emotion into decisions, leading to difficulties in assuming personal autonomy.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Marquez, MR, Salguero, P., Paíno, S. and Albereda, JR (2013). The somatic marker hypothesis and its impact on the decision-making process. Electronic Journal of Applied Methodology, 18 (1), 17-36.
        • Bechara, A. and Damasio, AR (2004). The somatic marker hypothesis: a neuronal theory of economic decision-making. Games and Economic Behavior, 52, 336-372.

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