Feelings are not just the shady side of reason – they help us make decisions well’ (Antonio Damasio)

This book is a fascinating read.  Being quite ‘long in the tooth’ I can remember a number of paradigm shifts in Psychology over the years and this book was quite a game changer.

Antonio Damasio’s research sheds light on the integral role emotions play in human reasoning and decision making.  The ‘somatic marker hypothesis’ explains how physiological and cognitive responses to our environment are stored in the brain as integrated ‘dispositional representations’.  We acquire somatic markers through our lived experience, through socialisation and formal education and develop anticipatory emotional responses which guide and influence our decisions.  A distinction is made between primary (universal, innate) emotions and secondary emotions which are the more nuanced interpretations we give to emotions, often shaped by the norms of our social groups.

Somatic markers, these neural firing patterns of cognitive and emotional states, are re-activated when we experience things which seem to be similar to past situations.  Research studies suggests the amygdala (often described as the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ brain region) is important in this reactivation mechanism.  Without these emotional biases to narrow down the range of decision options, to effectively follow our ‘gut instinct’, we would be lost in an endless loop of deliberation as shown in case studies of clinical patients with brain injuries which have affected this part of brain.

Essentially the book challenges the long-standing dualist philosophical perspective on the mind as a free-floating entity (put forward by Descartes).  Through empirical research Damasio shows that this is not the case and provides an explanatory account of conditions such as ‘phantom limb’ along the way.  A medical doctor by background, the author, argues for a more integrated understanding of the mind-body connection, in both medical practice and research, to achieve a deepened understanding of human diseases.

Therapeutically, the research is useful in helping clients to recognise the importance of tuning in to their emotions and seeing them as valuable, intuitive communications from the body but to recognise that these communications are interpretations rather than facts.  Therapy provides the opportunity for clients to re-appraise emotional responses, re-interpret and re-define responses that can be more appropriate to their situations.