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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Antoine Bechara's 'Miracle'

Scientific thinking is a miraculous thing, but if the miraculous is part of the thinking, you've got trouble. It's all a matter of 'semantics', or in other words, how you define your terms. Sometimes you over define your terms, but lose meaning because (think Obama health care plan) no one knows what you mean. But at other times you scarcely define them at all, thus clarifying your meaning and making it meaningless at the same time. Know what I mean? A prime example of semantics gone bad is the 'Somatic Marker Hypothesis'. Formulated by the neurologists Antoine Bechara and Antonio Damasio, the hypothesis simply states that when faced with ambiguous or difficult choices, a 'gut level' response will prod you in the right direction and thus allow you to go on your merry way. Sounds reasonable, and it indeed it conforms to how we think about such

things as intuition, hunches, and of course 'gut feelings'. How the somatic marker works is of course a very complex thing, and involves the interaction of all sorts of brain bits and pieces such as brain stem nuclei, insular cortices, the hypothalamus, amygdala, ventral striatum, and the cerebral equivalent of the kitchen sink. But thankfully, this verbal mumbo-jumbo has been distilled into a simple little formula which as we will soon discover, has a little miracle tucked inside.
So how does the somatic marker work? Well, the 'for dummies' version works like this. According to Bechara, "Primary inducers are innate or learned stimuli that cause pleasurable or aversive states. Once present in the immediate environment, they automatically and obligatorily elicit a somatic state." He further defines primary inducers as surprising or novel events such as winning a prize, solving a problem and the feel good moment that naturally follows. This feel good moment then elicits a somatic state or state of bodily arousal that provides that 'gut level' feeling that nudges you in the right direction by helping you eliminate bad response options.
But what is the physiological correlate for novel and surprising events? Here's where the miracle comes in, because Bechara conveniently doesn't tell us. The problem with novel and surprising events is that by definition they occur because of how the environment is arranged, not how the environment is. Secondly, these pleasurable states are represented by the release of the neurochemical (actually neuro-modulator) dopamine which doesn't induce a subjective state of pleasure at all, but a state of 'wanting' (sort of like a mental itch) that increases the importance of what you're doing. A good example of this is gambling behavior, when momentary positive surprises (winning a few coins with the pull of a slot machine lever) keep you fixed on the short term fix of positive surprise and the unsurprising result that your bank account will soon be empty.
Thus defined, Bechara and Damasio's logic becomes this: an affective event that is elicited by short term results (i.e. novelty) elicits an affective event ('gut feeling') the helps you make long term decisions. This is akin to saying that near-sightedness will help you see far. Of course it doesn't make sense, but that's ok, since nobody has yet picked up on this nonsense, and that indeed is a miracle.

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

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