Damasio's somatic marker hypothesis

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Chapter 8 endnote 14, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Today, Dewey’s role in this jumble is forgotten, and countless publications attribute his theory to James. A prominent example is the writings of neurologist Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes’ Error and other popular books on emotion. [...] Damasio has further outlined his somatic marker hypothesis in his three bestselling books.

The neurologist Antonio Damasio has outlined his somatic marker hypothesis in three best-selling books for popular audiences: Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain; The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness; and Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. According to Google Scholar (at the time of this writing), these books have been cited more than 28,000 times since their publication. (Descartes’ Error, published in 1994, has been cited more often than Darwin’s Expression, published in 1872.)

According to the somatic marker hypothesis, an emotion’s unique physical fingerprint (changes in heart rate, breathing, hormones, muscle tone, facial expression, etc.) is a “somatic marker”: a source of information used by the brain to make good decisions. Damasio writes that an emotion (including anger, disgust, fear, sadness, joy, shame, contempt, pride, compassion, and admiration) is an “action program” that triggers a biologically preset, stereotypical, and very specific bodily reaction and facial expression (i.e., an emotion fingerprint). The body sends sensory information about these specific bodily patterns to the brain where they are represented as “somatic markers” that can be used to aid decision-making. These body changes can also be experienced consciously as emotional feelings. Emotion, and emotional experience, are different phenomena.[1]

The key ideas of the somatic marker hypothesis are strikingly similar to the philosopher John Dewey’s formulation, who proposed that an emotion is like an object, and the experience of an emotion is separate from the emotion itself; they are distinct phenomena and it is possible to have one (the emotion) without the other (the experience).[2][3] This is very typical of theories that take a classical view of emotion.[4]

The theory of constructed emotion is similar to the somatic marker hypothesis in hypothesizing that feelings reference physiological states (valence and arousal, as affective properties, are features of a brain state that includes interoception). But my theory has no assumption that emotions are innate action programs, nor that emotions are physical states separate from feelings.


Notes on the Notes

  1. Damasio, Antonio, and Gil B. Carvalho. 2013. "The nature of feelings: evolutionary and neurobiological origins." Nature Reviews Neuroscience 14 (2): 143-152.
  2. Dewey, John. 1894. "The theory of emotion. I. Emotional attitudes." Psychological Review 1: 553–569.
  3. Dewey, John. 1895. "The theory of emotion. II. The significance of emotions." Psychological Review 2: 13–32.
  4. Gendron, Maria, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. 2009. "Reconstructing the past: A century of ideas about emotion in psychology." Emotion Review 1 (4): 316-339.