Somatic Markers and Growth

Antonio Damasio, a neurological researcher, described a time when he presented a man with two options of when they should next meet up. The man spent the next 30 minutes acutely analyzing each option and the pros and cons of each with no conclusion seeming to arise out of them. He potentially could have gone on debating for hours, unable to choose between one or the other.

This man had suffered brain damage that prevented emotions from being processed properly. Everything about him was otherwise normal, but he couldn’t feel properly, and yet this lack of feeling was somehow linked to his inability to make personal choices well, if at all.

He is part of why Damasio and his colleagues devised the “somatic marker” hypothesis, which simply suggests that personal, social, and moral decision making is never simply rational. It depends on emotional markers that are sensed within the body. Potential options carry certain emotional undertones that we may not even be conscious of, but we respond to them, be they positive or negative. Options that have significantly negative tones are pulled off the table, potentially without even recognizing it, while options with positive tones are brought into stronger focus, a sort of emotional “Choose this one!”

spiritual formation, somatic marker, Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error, Emotions, Feelings, neuroscience, neurobiology, decision-making

* Image Copyright Fiona Bradley

Of course, just because a somatic marker has a positive tone doesn’t mean that it is a good choice. Yelling at the gal who just rammed her cart into you at the grocery store on a particularly bad day might have a positive marker, but there are likely better choices. Reason can perhaps help to identify that even though the choice is in focus, it’s still not the best one. Additionally, it might help to add information that could alter the feel of the marker so that maybe it isn’t quite so positive, though such a process might take some time.

But likewise, the negative somatic marker doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a choice is bad. It just means that it’s become associated with something somehow negative. The fact, however, that negative somatic markers can cause one to pull options off the table, sometimes even before they’re recognized consciously, presents a potential problem. A very good option might for some reason have a negative marker attached, and with that you’d never realize it was there. Perhaps talking to the boss doesn’t even occur to you because it’s simply too anxiety-provoking.

When making choices, maybe it’s not a bad idea to consider this possibility once in a while. Are there options that I’m not considering, maybe not even aware of because they’re just that ghastly to me? Perhaps such a time might be good to stop and ask the Spirit what options you’ve already discarded, even without realizing it. And perhaps asking others’ thoughts might be sound as well; they may not have the same kind of marker attached and see something different.

If Damasio is correct, markers like come from experiences in the past. Something went crappy before? Now things like it will carry a bit of a marker to steer us away from them. Something felt good? Now things like it will carry a positive marker. But again, maybe negative markers shouldn’t be quite so negative. And if that’s true, the only way for the marker to change, short of God rewiring our emotions directly, is to experience it in a less negative fashion. This, you’ll note, requires experiencing it at all, which means that it needs to be a valid potential option.

In order to grow to choose better, we may have to choose against our emotions and even the effect they have on our thinking. May the Spirit give us the wisdom and courage to try and to internalize something different and better. Particularly may the right options gather markers that are toned with the love and presence of the Spirit of Christ in us.


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