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Friday, January 05, 2007

Damasio's Error


One reason bad psychology has such staying power is that it is full of grand predictions, but untestable results. Indeed, that's why it's bad, because it fails the most basic litmus test of science, namely that a scientific hypothesis, to be scientific, must be testable. It is for this reason that concepts like God, free will, and the afterlife are not scientific concepts. But just as bad science is not really science, bad psychology is really not psychology at all, but a perversion of a name.

The problem for good psychologists however is that because they come up with hypotheses that are testable, their fame can be a very tenuous thing. That is, if you make a grand prediction that doesn't test out, your accomplishment can be as fleeting as a soap bubble. As an example, consider the hypothesis of the somatic marker. As a pivotal hypothesis that defines the neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio's claim to fame, the somatic marker hypothesis derives from the salient and well accepted idea that behavior is 'embodied', or in other words is directed as much as by how we feel as how we think. The concept of the somatic marker is simple, namely that changes in the peripheral nervous system and the autonomic arousal that is stimulated by those changes constitutes a 'gut' feeling that helps you make correct choices prior to thinking about that choice. That is, the somatic marker helps you decide upon what course of action to take before you rationally consider what actions to indeed take. On the surface, the concept makes sense, however the problem with this hypothesis is that Damasio implicitly equates a rational consideration of response options with their conscious consideration. This is because non-conscious information processing (which is species of cognition or thinking too) was never considered or controlled for in Damasio's work. But as with all good scientific hypotheses, other folks such as Tiago Maia did just that, and proved Damasio wrong. Indeed, one can act rationally without being at all aware of the logical reasons for behavior, and non-conscious information not only precedes the somatic marker, it appears to do so in every case. Indeed, most arousal occurs when we already know what's happening, as when we become aware of bad turns of events, such a when the stock market falls or when we end up in the slowest line at the food store. Finally, if you cut off the physiological input from the peripheral nervous system, and decision making goes on merrily unimpaired. Thus the somatic marker is not only unnecessary but un-useful as an aid in decision making.

Naturally, Damasio is quite defensive about this, which of course will serve him naught if he is indeed wrong. And he is. Which brings me to the moral that all good psychologists must follow, since they can't rest on their laurels by claiming they are right just because they say so, like Dr. Phil (or Humpty Dumpty for that matter). The moral is: DON'T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB. Since Antonio has remained a neuro-psychologist and has not quit to proselytize his wisdom on the lecture circuit and on Oprah, his future is secure regardless of the future of the somatic marker hypothesis. That's my gut feeling anyway.

For much more on the somatic marker, take a look at my new e-book on the psychology of the internet:

2 comments:

Martti said...

Damasio's "The Feeling of What Happens" gets to the point where the "somatic marker" as a part of the funtionings of the core consciousness gets into the business of directing the workings of extended consciousness.

He is in no way ignorant of the inner logic -which you somewhat carelessly call rationality- of our thought processes. It seems that he chooses to call "rational" only the stuff that we process consciously.

Antonio Damasio is a very important figure in the research of consciousness as he uses his clinical experience as a neurologist to search for ques and make his points. I find it fascinating to realize that we can be awake though not conscious or asleep but REM-conscious -a state that in EEG resembles closely the normal awake state.

The dichotomy of object and subject in the perceiving process is also very eloquently described. The subject is us, our I-ness. The object becomes available to us by its interaction with our senses. This interaction causes a change in the status of our core consciousness and if relevant enough, becomes "known" by the extended consciousness.

The processes that rise are not available to our perception until a good amount of processing has been done. Damasio refers to Benjamin Libet's work which highlights this fact clearly.

It has been said that our free will has about 1/10 of a second to say "no" before the execution of our unconscient thought processes start to take place.

I really do not think that Damasio should quit his day-time work, rather the contrary. Of course, he should not be kept as the only authority nor an infallible one.

Intuition, theoretical implications, scientific testing and clinical experience constitute an exciting set of tools Damasio takes good advantage of.

I have to admit, thoug, that despite my medical background I have to read his passages quite a few times to really understand his point of view.
Challenging and time consuming though it is, I find the reward well worth it.

with respect

m

Martti said...

Well, the risk of giving links is that somebody actually goes and reads them.
Here's what Tiago Maia himself said about his results:

"Our results do not prove that the somatic marker hypothesis is wrong," Maia says. Indeed, he notes, his and McClelland's findings did not explore the extent to which the participants actually based their behavior on conscious knowledge at the time of their decision".

In his comment Damasio pointed out that somatic markers function at the base of our rational thinking as well, even though we are not aware of their messages.

In my view, Tiago Maia's work certainly refines our knowledge of decision-making. I do not see him actually disputing the somatic marker hypothesis. Rather, he is approaching the question from the rational side of the imaginary fence.

Beautiful stuff, BTW.

with respect

m