Somatic markers and the morality of the gut instinct

It’s been a while since I’ve bored readers with musings prompted by the various neuroscience books I’ve been reading. Lately I’ve been trolling through “Descartes’ Error” by Antonio Damasio. His argument is that separating the mind — the tool we use to reason, feel emotion and generally interpret experience — from the body is incorrect; the two constantly influence another and are inseparable.

One of the ideas he introduces is what he calls the somatic marker. This is essentially a gut instinct, a sensation that prompts one to think that a potential decision could have good or bad results. (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Han Solo once sagely observed as his crew contemplated boarding the Death Star.) It’s key to realize that the gut instinct is actually felt — it is a physical sensation that can be observed — a tight stomach perhaps, or a feeling of cheerful looseness.

How are somatic markers created? They are acquired through experience. Let’s say your friend proposes that you steal a book from the bookstore. At the suggestion, your pulse quickens and you feel slightly ill. What you may not consciously recall is that at the age of eight you were caught stealing and beaten by your father. That beating led to the creation of of a somatic marker which associates stealing with a negative consequence.

In discussing somatic markers, Damasio makes an interesting side point:

The effect of a “sick culture” on a normal adult system of reasoning seems to be less dramatic than the effect of a focal area of brain damage in the same normal adult system. Yet there are counter examples. In Germany and the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s, in China during the Cultural Revolution, and in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime, to mention only the most obvious such cases, a sick culture prevailed upon presumably normal machinery of reason, with disastrous consequences. I fear that sizable sectors of Western society are gradually becoming other tragic counter examples.

There’s a couple interesting facets to this paragraph, one being that it showcases Damasio’s fondness for the run-on sentence. Also noteworthy is his contention that the above-mentioned “sick cultures” were failing to instill correct somatic markers in their populace. If you or I contemplated killing a Jew, we would get a sick feeling. Not so with Germans in the 1930s (yes, I’m simplifying the argument, but you get the picture.) But most interestingly, Damasio contends sections of Western society are also incorrectly installing or not installing gut instincts in their populace. What sections is he referring to (the book was written in the mid-90s)? Beats me — maybe I’ll find out later in the book.

There is another interesting idea floating around in all this talk of somatic markers which is that our moral decisions are based more on gut instinct than reason. (Of course, the creation of that that instinct might have been reasonable.) The impact of this idea on our notions of free will and morality is thought-provoking.

1 Response to “Somatic markers and the morality of the gut instinct”


  1. John Saleeby

    That bit about a “Sick Culture” influencing our actions is certainly correct. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going out to torch a gay bar.