Professor Bourdieu, meet Dr. Damasio

I am reading Descartes’ Error by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who always has something interesting to say.  I don’t know which one of Descartes’ errors he focused on yet; Damasio says early on he will reveal this at the end and I am only 2/3 the way through, so more later.  He does emphasize several important modern notions.  Our higher level cognitive abilities are grounded upon lower level processes.  One of these is our emotional capacity, which he says is critical to our thinking adequately about social interaction and thinking through and accomplishing tasks.  He describes several clinical cases illustrating the negative impact on cognition of brain damage affecting emotions, one of which is Phineas Gage, a famous instance from the 1900s.  Gage was tapping some explosive into a hole preliminary to blowing up some rock in the way of construction when the explosive went off prematurely and sent a steel rod through Gage’s head, destroying areas in his frontal lobes.

Gage survived and recovered much of his cognitive functioning, but while he could think and talk about many things, he could not do so much.  His efforts dissolved into blithering, meandering actions without any focus and movement towards completion.  Along with this his doctors noted that he had very flat affect; he just was not concerned about anything.  Damasio and his wife explored the records and even studied what precise areas were probably damaged, given the early descriptions of the injury, and they explored several contemporary cases where strokes, etc., had damaged patients’ brains similar to that hypothesized for Gage. Investigating these cases very systematically, using modern imaging techniques and neuropsychological tests, they demarcated a clear syndrome wherein almost all cognitive skills were left intact, yet the patients were virtually affect-less and unable to accomplish much due to their dithering.  Ah, says Damasio, emotion is necessary to cognition.  Indeed, while they are different, they are mutually interdependent for adequate adaptive functioning.  Amen!

In developing a hypothesis to understand how this could be, Damasio recognizes the important research of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, showing that our rational processes are far from logically fail-safe and quite dependent upon cognitive shortcuts that they call heuristics (see post 6/11/18).  Damasio finds a linkage between these heuristics, austere thinking and emotional buttressing.  He sees a neurological system with an important nexus in the ventral medial frontal lobe that creates dispositions for action he calls ‘somatic markers’.  His discussion here is quite complex with several perspectives and lines of evidence to support it.  I began to understand it when I realized its relevance to Bourdieu’s habitus, of which more later.

Damasio’s somatic markers come about through the interaction of cognitive processes rendering the situation, actions, and consequences and of emotional processes that render an assessment of the desirability of the action.  They are learned or acquired through experience and that experience is referenced to the body, i.e., the soma, thus the name somatic markers.  As we encounter (read ‘generate’ or ‘delineate’ mentally) situations, we respond based upon these dispositions sometimes and at other times we engage in a more rigorous cognitive evaluation.  This fits with Tversky and Kahneman’s thinking fast and slow—sometimes we use quick heuristics and sometimes we actually think things through. This also fits with Damasio’s observations of patients with frontal lobe damage like Phineas Gage—they know the situations and can even articulate the rationale for their actions, but they fail to change their dispositions and learn from negative consequences.

Damasio discusses current empirical support for his somatic marker hypothesis and what needs to be determined through future research.  One aspect here is that while we primarily process these markers through objectively happening situations, we also, and increasingly so with intellectual development, secondarily process situations “as-if”, i.e., we imagine virtual situations and develop hypothetical or abstract markers, so that our dispositional actions are “as-if”.  This is a necessary level if symbolic activity is to be accounted for in this hypothesis.  Damasio goes on to say that, given the learned nature of these dispositional markers, he expects a lot of individual variation in our acquisition of these proclivities.

Now as I worked to understand this, several things came to my mind.  First is Bourdieu’s exposition of the habitus, our cultural ways of doing things (see post 8/13/17).  Some of our “as-if” somatic markers would be acquired through the processes of acculturation, e.g., how to marry, how to organize group activities, the social mores governing group interactions, etc.  Some somatic markers, primary and secondary (as-if), would be acquired through the processes of socialization, e.g., how our family and culture express emotions, treat with elders, etc.  It seems to me that Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis provides us with a way to begin understanding the neuropsychological underpinnings of the habitus.  Most excellent!

Return to the idea “of individual variation in our acquisition of” these somatic markers and their associated dispositional actions. Here individual variation can mean the variation between people inherent in their socialization, acculturation, and acquired invariant dispositions (after all we each experience our life quite differently from anyone else, so how could our dispositions not vary?), and variation within each person according to the processing systems of our specialized neurological structures.  This latter is the one I find especially interesting, because we can see an important distinction in the acquisition of somatic markers and their dispositions. Damasio refers to it as the distinction between social interactions and the actions needed for praxic solutions, i.e., how to do things, not do with people.  I translate this to convey that we have social dispositions both personal, e.g., differing displays of affect according to audience, and not-personal, e.g., driving a car.  This seems to me two basic modes of processing context and intent that are inherent in our brains.  I think it is not just personal-impersonal—it is also immediate, because most social interaction is most appropriately immediate and so biased to the right hemisphere, or displaced because we deal with so much information that is not immediate by using our language to create context (topic) and figure (intentional propositions) and so biased to left hemisphere processing.

Is the experience being learned from as we form a somatic marker part of our autonoetic or autobiographical/episodic record, which is heavily biased towards interpersonal activity and so emotionally engaged and infused, or experience dominated by abstract and semantic memories, which are heavily biased towards accomplishing intentions and so emotional control and dissociation are paramount?  Damasio discusses the VMPFC, the ventral medial prefrontal cortext, as a nexus for composing somatic markers.  What else goes on there?  Damasio says this region is special for its connections to virtually all the rest of the brain, saying there is no experience to which it does not have access.


DMPFC=dorsomedial prefrontal cortex MPC=medial parietal cortex Illustration provided by Georg Northoff – Georg Northoff Brain and self – a neurophilosophical account Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2013, 7:28.

The prefrontal cortex is important to human cognition because it links with so many other areas and because it processes this information in some specific ways.  Damasio says the lateral or outside side processes information from the outside, e.g., objects, consequences of actions, etc., and thus can be dissociated from more personal engagement.  This stems from its connections with posterior areas that provide information about perceptions and body orientation and with motor planning and enactment areas, plus areas giving rise to plans and intentions in general.  The inside or medial prefrontal cortex, those areas hidden down in the cerebral commissure, function quite differently, as I have posted in recent weeks.  Damasio notes that they work with bioregulation and social interaction, i.e., they maintain emotional control and govern relationships.  Hmm, core (inside) areas work with somatic and personal engagement and lateral (side) areas work with actions with non-social environment. For a complex example using both, consider your ancestor who cooperates with his clan, with one of whom he just had an argument, while hunting a larger animal and moving silently through terrain and coordinating the use of his weapons.  It takes a whole brain to make a functional mind.

Recall now two recent posts, one on autonoesis (9/16/18: Existential neuroscienceand autonoesis) and one on Decety’s model of empathy (9/9/18: Whose brain could we study?).  Autonoesis refers to experiences that are important to the self, i.e., the self is engaged emotionally and socially as opposed to those humdrum activities that bear little import for the self, e.g., adding numbers, driving, washing dishes (unless doing so mindfully).  Marco Iacoboni thinks that our mirror system plays an important role here; specifically the medial parietal cortex (posterior and part of Empathy Central) and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (frontal area important for motor and intentional activity) light up together when the experience is deemed important. He cites research showing that these areas light up when political aficionados discuss politics and do not light up when someone is bored by that topic.

Jean Decety’s model of empathy emphasizes that our brains distinguish our autonoetic experiences from those we empathically feel from another person, that we are able to set our own autonoesis in the background in order to fully consider the other person’s perspective, and that we can regulate our emotions in order to maintain our focus and keep diverse information in mind regardless of the social context.  These same prefrontal areas contribute to these empathic functions, including processing social feedback from others about ourselves (and that shades into autonoesis very quickly).

The formation of Damasio’s somatic markers and behavioral dispositions involve both autonoesis and empathy. We acquire (or not—consider our president per 9/9/18 post) our cultural ways of forming autonoetic experiences and of empathizing with others as we are socialized and acculturated.  These developmental steps are at the root of Boudrieu’s habitus.  We can see this in how different cultures manage such phenomena.  Autonoesis is different between Asian and Western cultures. Asians see the self as defined by and subordinate to social relations; showing off is extremely poor manners. Westerners see the self as defined by individual achievement, so showing off is only ‘natural’.  Similarly empathic expression differs with Asian cultures maintaining a more stoic expression around non-intimate others.

A more deleterious example of differential empathy development comes with our acquisition of racial or other constructs, e.g., our habitus holds some other people distinguised by their skin tone, religions, or other markers to be inferior, even the enemy not worthy of humane consideration.  These cultural features can be changed in an individual when we understand that commonly held assumptions are wrong, e.g., rejecting our family prejudices against another race, and they can shift over time, as when our art shows us a deeper truth, e.g., Brokeback Mountain,Call Me By Your Name,Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner, or South Pacific (see my post 3/6/18: art and cultural shifts).

I want to post again about Damasio’s book, which I find to be informative, provocative and leading to a wisdom of sorts.  And I want to connect these ideas to my conceptualization of the soma, its brain, and the MEMBRAIN.  So, hasta la vista and travel on.


Part 2: Creed

Continuing from last post:

I follow an ethic of knowledge.

         Jacques Monod followed his scientific quest for understanding life and ourselves with enough rigor to see that science offers virtually no guidance as to values because its prime assumption of objectivity sees what is statistically possible, i.e., chance, and what any statistical result entails as then necessary. In other words in its objectivist stance so necessary for and inherent in scientifically based knowledge, science provides no ethical mandates except one and that is to study and understand, i.e., an ethic of knowledge.  This prime directive seems and is quite straightforward:  establish empirically validated factual knowledge, develop theories with enough coherence to ‘explain’ those facts, and ascertain the limits such facts and theories meet as we extend them in practice.  William James in his wonderful book, The Varieties of Religious Experience,followed such an ethic of knowledge.  He sought to understand the human religious experience up until the point of death, admitting that the mystery of what happens thereafter must endure somewhere beyond the realm of objective knowledge. Like Iris Dement in her simple and delightful song, “Let the Mystery Be”.

Another example of such a limit is our effort to understand ‘evil’.  Simon Baron-Cohen addresses this in his book, The Science of Evil,as he seeks to understand the origins of cruelty not as a spiritual failure but as a failure of our biological nature as empathic, altruistic social creatures.  One example he uses is Hitler and Nazi Germany, which certainly qualifies as evil, and one can say so deeply so that we can justifiably say some spiritual animus took over some humans back then, and continues to do so today.  But Dr. Baron-Cohen rejects the notion of spiritual evil as an explanatory construct and instead looks at how a scientific effort could lead to a deeper understanding and perhaps better efforts to contravene the rise to power of such an animus.  (Oops, it seems to be rising again in this country and in Europe). The phenomenon of Hitler’s Nazi movement might have seen itself as mystic in origin but in the prosaic light of day, Baron-Cohen has much to say about how such cruelty developed.  In this he echoed many who lived through those times, including Jacques Monod and Albert Camus.

Back in the recent USA some have called the individuals who perpetrate mass shootings ‘evil’.  The young men who killed worshippers at the Charleston Church and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did not rise from the spiritual realm to murder. When I worked as a clinical psychologist, I saw many young men who could have become such murderers and I came to understand some of the genetics, family circumstances, idiosyncratic events that influenced their development one way or the other, the cultural streams that they followed as enabling, and the failures of different social systems that then failed to help them and protect others.  The resurgence of public demonstrations of racist ideology, e.g., Nazis and fascists, their visibility a measure of the validation they feel coming from our President and others, and the rise in hate crimes of all sorts are, again, quite evil, but we can and should study and understand how this is happening.  Our congress failed to follow an ethic of knowledge when it denied funding a few years back to any scientific endeavor to study empirically (you know, like gathering data and analyzing for deeper understanding) gun violence.  Evidently some thought that studying such ‘evil’ would violate 2ndamendment rights (and cut into gun manufacturers’ profits and so reduce funding for the NRA).  So I follow an ethic of knowledge and work to understand the complexities of modern life.

I grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I take this from Monod as well.  Yes, science may only give us one ethical rule to follow, but it covers most domains. Values and ethical mandates that humans have attributed to god(s) are here understood to be sociobiological phenomena arising from our evolution.  Several other thinkers are relevant here.  First, the existentialists and their partner in the absurd, Albert Camus, assign the responsibility for our values and actions back on us.  Yes, many claim to follow some religious precepts here and there, but these in our current analysis are man-made.  Yes, their origins may be lost in the mists of time; all these precepts are ancient and our biological roots run deep and back aways. Our sociobiological evolution sets up historical trends and traditions from which we can escape only through an ethic of knowledge and the consequence knowledge of ethics.

Second, Michael Tomasello has written an eminently plain-spoken and sensible book on this issue, The Natural History of Human Morality, in which he examines our sociobiological heritage to understand our evolutionarily inherent proclivities, e.g., we are cooperative, empathic and follow the Golden Rule, as these operate under the cultural overlay that all too often institutionalizes tribal good us vs. bad them, inequitable resource allocation, and social governance favoring a few elite, be they inheritors of special status, wealth and power or those who usurp democratic ideals through religious demagoguery and/or secular power and aggression.  Tomasello follows an ethic of knowledge that helps us with a knowledge of ethics.  So does Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21stCentury, a marvelous compendium of data keenly analyzed that demonstrates how wealth has been socially ordained to be inequitably distributed in modern societies.

Finally I want to mention Jonathan Haidt who examined our political differences in his book, The Righteous Mind.  Following the understanding developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky about the severe and nearly invisible limits of our rational considerations, Dr. Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider, the rider being our conscious processing and the elephant the enormous sub-conscious processing of which we have little to no consciousness.  He quite correctly, I think, says that we form most of our political (and other ones as well) opinions subliminally, automatically and without much conscious reflection, i.e., the elephant, and then we rationalize the basis for those opinions after the fact, i.e., the rider.  Here the elephant goes where it wants to go and the rider explains how he was in charge the whole time.

We have so much science and medicine these days that supports such a view of our mighty intellect as an oftentimes foolish facade.  In addition to the understanding given us by Kahneman and Tversky of how we use errant heuristics, we also have mental phenomena documented by scientist-practitioners like the great late Oliver Sacks.  Yes, there was a man who calmly and rationally thought his wife was a hat, and there are people who argue that their paralyzed arm belongs to the doctor or who argue that a healthy limb needs to be amputated and split-brain patients who try to smoke a cigarette with their right hand while their left hand smacks it away and they talk on rationally while ignoring what is happening.  These examples are akin to the passionate conspiracy theories all too many find ‘rational’.

Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow,posits a System 1 (fast) very prone to error and System 2 (slow) where errors are monitored, corrected, and a rational accurate process can ensue.  Jonathan Haidt thinks something like that operates in our political thinking and discourse.  This brings me back to this precept,

I grow with a knowledge of ethics.

This not so much about knowing more stuff as about understanding how to interact with people more respectfully and compassionately while deliberating conjoint actions to solve social dilemmas.  I have found this to be a life-long lesson.  More recently I have focused on acknowledging others’ narratives, e.g., racial, gender, religious, etc.  more clearly and leaving myself and my preconceptions out of it.

One of my interests in understanding our humanity is how we can differ so much in our understanding.  I am thinking here of our political divisions but also, and perhaps more importantly, about our self-righteous prejudices, fanaticisms and conspiracy theories. Mexicans are good people.  Females deserve equal and full rights.  Human mutilation and torture cannot be justified. Violence in the name of god serves only the dark side of human intelligence.  How can ‘rational’ humans think otherwise?  How can people forsake their reality orientation and empathy in order to be as ignorant as they want to be and mistreat others to gain selfish advantage? More to the point, what is my ethical guidance for treating with them? Other than setting a contrasting limit, I don’t yet know.  I watch my wife and marvel at her ability to engage another in terms of their narrative even as she respectfully disagrees with them.  I am not there yet, but I do know I will not abandon my ethic of knowledge and I want to grow in my knowledge of ethics.  That said, I have one more precept coming up in the next post.