What Is The Somatic Marker Hypothesis?

This concept tells us about the relationship between emotions and decision-making.

Somatic marker hypothesis

The human being is a complex animal. Underlying his reality as a living organism is both the ability to feel deep emotions and to elaborate cognitive hypotheses about the way in which reality is presented in front of him.

For many years, emotion and cognition were understood as independent and even opposed realities, forming an artificial antagonism in which the affects were relegated to the background of the animalistic and the irrational.

However, today we know that emotion and cognition are two necessary gears for the optimal functioning of the mind, so the involvement of any of them will compromise important processes during 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 the way 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 right now how we felt the last time we experienced fear, one of the basic emotions. Our heart rate quickens, we breathe profusely, our muscles tense, and our entire body prepares for a rapid fight or flight response. Sometimes this response is so immediate that it obviates any previous process of cognitive elaboration.

Just as we are able to evoke these physical sensations, we may be able to glimpse the thoughts that are usually associated with them. Instantly we are able to interpret that emotional stability has been altered in the presence of an environmental threat, and consequently we become aware that we experience fear. Both phenomena, physiological reactions and cognitive certainty, seem to occur in a coordinated and automatic way.

However, from the very dawn of the study of emotions, which unfortunately took a long time as a consequence of having been understood as irrelevant epiphenomena, theorists questioned the order in which both moments of the process occur: Are we afraid? Why are we trembling or do we tremble because we are afraid? Although our intuition might make us think the latter, not all authors have followed this line.

William James, who focused his efforts extraordinarily on the dynamics that govern affective life, postulated that the emotion that we perceive at a given moment is the result of the interpretation of physiological signals, and not the other way around. In this way, when we feel that our body begins to sweat or activate, we would conclude that the emotion of fear overwhelms us ; joining the sensations and emotions in an integrated experience.

From such a perspective, which Damasio recovers to shape his hypothesis of the somatic marker, the body would have the ability to anticipate awareness itself of what we are feeling at every moment, asserting itself as a sentinel to guide consciousness in multiple areas of life. In a way, it could be said that the physiological imprint of the experience ends up “programming” the body to emit quick responses to situations that require it.

What is the somatic marker hypothesis?

The human being resides at the perennial crossroads of two great worlds: the exterior (which perceives through the sense organs) and the interior (which acquires the form of thoughts and images through which it represents and elaborates its individual reality) . Both are coordinated, in such a way that the situations that correspond to us to live are colored by the thoughts that are elaborated around them, and from which a concrete emotional response emerges.

The occurrence of positive and negative situations is inherent in the very fact of living, and all involve an emotional response that involves both physiology and cognition (sensations and interpretations). The result of each one of our experiences brings together the concrete event, the thoughts that originate, the emotion that emerges and the physiological response that erupts; all this being stored in its entirety in the increasingly thick registers of the episodic memory.

This complex sequence involves a succession of phenomena that, under normal conditions, occur unconsciously and automatically. Thoughts, the emotion that depends on them, and physiology itself, take place without deliberately trying to steer them in any direction. For the same reason, many people directly link the event experienced with emotions and behavior, ignoring the mediating contribution of their way of thinking.

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

This effect follows the basic laws of learning, associating the general characteristics of the situation with the contingent emotion that accompanies it, making all this extensible to subsequent events that harbor similarities with respect to the original. In this way, primary inducers (environmental stimuli that provoked the emotion in the first place) and secondary inducers (subsequent environmental stimuli to which the original event-emotion relationship is generalized) are distinguished.

In the initial moments of the process of evaluating a present experience, while the cognitive mechanisms that are required to respond to the environment with the maximum immediacy and success are being deployed in our internal body, the somatic and visceral reaction that was experienced before it emerges in parallel. a fact similar to what we faced in the past. The question is: how does this double and underhanded reaction affect us, based on previous experience, but with proactive capacity?

What is your function?

It is said that humans are the only animal that trips over the same stone twice. That is, in a situation very similar to the one in which he made a mistake, he tends to repeat the same strategy to end up again engulfed in the turbulence of failure. And popular wisdom, embodied in the rich Spanish proverb, also suggests that: “the first time it was your fault, but the second time it was my fault.” The wisdom of our ancestors cannot ever be underestimated.

The truth is that we have very limited cognitive resources. Every time we are faced with a new situation of high demand, we usually go through a period of anxiety that even compromises our mood; since we need all the mental capacity available to extract, encode, systematize and understand the information that is involved; processing it efficiently to offer an adequate response to the extent possible.

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

Emotion acts as a guide, ultimately. It tends to unfold before each significant event in our life, forming part of its memory when it is remembered even many years later. For all of this to be possible, the brain needs numerous structures, reserving the amygdala (located deep within it) for emotional memory.

Well, when we are faced with a demanding situation similar to the one we could live in another moment in the past, the body sets in motion a somatic marker: we immediately feel the bodily sensations that occurred on the previous occasion (those specific to fear, anger , sadness, etc.), offering us a compass on the appropriate decision at the current moment, equating what has been lived in the past with what is being lived now.

At a colloquial level, this phenomenon has been transmitted through popular expressions such as “I had a hunch”, which make a direct allusion to the physiological components (heart rate) that occurred at the very moment of making a decision, and that at the dessert decanted the process. In this way, emotion would be acting as a cognitive economy mechanism through its somatic components, and releasing the high load of cognitive processing.


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

The somatic marker would resort to the physiological pattern of emotions that took place during past experiences to facilitate a 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 greater experiential depth), which requires the interacting orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala, as well as the integrity of the connections that unite them. That is why frontal injuries (tumors, accidents, etc.) have been consistently associated with difficulties integrating emotion into decisions, which leads to difficulties in assuming one’s own personal autonomy.

Bibliographic references:

  • Márquez, MR, Salguero, P., Paíno, S. and Alameda, 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 Neural Theory of Economic Decision. Games and Economic Behavior, 52, 336-372.

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