Somatic Markers (R6)

The Figure of Eight

When I first read The Feeling of Now by Antonio Damasio, working hard to understand what seemed absorbing but rather dense, I doodled a diagram in order to get things into some perspective. The basic Figure of Eight construction I started with remains, but it’s undergone several changes since I first drafted it so that I now no longer know whether it’s an accurate depiction of the argument of the book or whether it’s just a model that works for me. Antonio Damasio does not mention Allport or Brian Lancaster, for instance, nor does he refer to Gurdjieff’s concepts of ‘self-remembering’ or ‘divided attention’.

In any case the diagram has become a model that I keep tinkering with; it seems to change as I think about it! What it does do is to suggest a couple of connected systems, with emergent properties, depicting fragments that could conceivably amount to what happens in the Other-than-conscious mind and in the relatively conscious mind with the point of crossover in the NOW.

The fundamental part of Allport’s concept of the Proprium (see ‘Self-regained’ 14th October 2011)—the ground of our being, that which precedes all the other parts of it in developmental terms—is Bodily Sense; there begin here all the other parts of the Proprium—Self-identity, Ego-enhancement, Rational Agent and so on: the little baby kicking & rolling over & lolling its head on one side, somehow expecting you to do the same, is exploring its deep sense of what it is to be a physiological being, delighting in its physical existence in the world; it has no words to explain the behaviour that can be such a delight to the doting parents; unlike them, it cannot use linguistic tags to explain its behaviour or predict what it will do next.

But it does have a vestibular system—a growing sense of balance and spatial orientation—the sensory system in the labyrinth of the inner ear, situated in the vestibulum in the inner ear. The vestibular system sends signals primarily to the neural structures that control our eye movements, and to the muscles that keep us upright.

It has viscera—internal organs, specifically those within the chest (heart & lungs, for example) or abdomen (liver, pancreas, intestines…)

And it has musculo-skeletal props that enable it to clench or unclench itself depending on its current felt-sense of the world and what it feels (without ‘knowing’) that it needs to do to achieve homeostasis—get fed or be made comfortable and so on—in order to maintain the constancy of its ‘internal milieu’.

In our unsophisticated adult way, we project the words for the simplified patterns of behaviour we have come to call ‘emotions’ on to the behaviour of the growing baby— ‘anger’, ‘upset’, ‘being in a paddy’, expressing ‘pleasure’, being ‘happy’ and so on. A less immediately comfortable but ultimately more accurate view of things is to grasp the idea that what we file away as ‘emotions’ are in fact simply ‘…cognitive representations of body states that are part of a homeostatic mechanism by which the internal milieu is monitored and controlled, and by which this internal milieu influences behaviour of the whole organism…’ (Bruce G Charlton)

This is depicted in the bottom half of THE FIGURE OF EIGHT.

When we adults become less smug about the truth of the way in which we see the world, when we slow ourselves down in order to make fine discriminations in awareness we will be able to comprehend that this is still and always going on for us: we have feelings deriving from the combined activity of our vestibular system, our viscera and our musculo-skeletal props, feelings on which we need never impose a limit by our habitual recourse to the over-simplification of words.

It is dawn

I look out of my study window to watch the thousands of seagulls who fly inland every morning along the course of the river Nene up from The Wash. Somewhere deep inside me is a feeling-response that I would be hard put to express in words though I have often tried. What is it I feel? Happiness? Nostalgia? Pain at the endless rigmarole of things? A whoosh of energy at feeling myself to be an integral part of Nature?

There are no precise words. But I know that always at dawn, if I am at my window, I will have this undefinable feeling; and at sunset I will have ‘the same’ feeling because I will see all those thousands of gulls flying back out to sea. In Antonio Damasio’s terms, I have a ‘somatic marker’, a something or other inside me that pre-verbally, bodily, in my gut, knows that river+ dawn + seagulls will evoke ‘the same’ cognitive response today as it did yesterday and will tomorrow if I choose to look out of the window at the appropriate moment shortly after dawn. ‘The somatic marker mechanism is the way in which cognitive representations of the external world interact with cognitive representations of the internal world—where perceptions interact with emotions…’ (Bruce G Charlton)

Many animals display awareness of external sensory stimuli (eg. monkeys may be aware of specific aspects of the visual environment they see, as demonstrated in innumerable experiments). But what is unusual about humans is that we are also aware of our bodies, our ‘selves’, and this inner-directed attention forms the root of consciousness. Damasio argues that consciousness is based upon an awareness of the ‘somatic’ milieu, and that awareness of inner states evolved because this enables us to use somatic states (ie. emotions) to ‘mark’, and thereby ‘evaluate’, external perceptual information. (Ibid)

I Googled ‘Damasio’ and was excited to find the writings of Bruce G Charlton who has such a neat way of putting things. I have recently re-visited the notion of ‘somatic marker’ by reading Damasio’s lengthier description in Descartes’ Error.

My consciousness of  river+ dawn+ seagulls derives from some patterning in the neurons that has become relatively fixed. I know right now that if I look away from the computer and out of the window I will see a determination of seagulls still making their way inland between the river banks that are becoming lighter as the sun rises; the feeling is there, inexpressibly there. In cognitive awareness, somewhere up at the top of the Figure of Eight, I have used the event in poems as a conscious metaphor to build on the ‘somatic marker’. It all goes into my working memory as a thought-cluster. Brian Lancaster (Mind, Brain and Human Potential), after Gurdjieff, suggests that we ‘tag’ memories with specific ‘I’s: I recall other occasions on which I’ve looked out of this window to watch the procession of gulls; they are tagged with an ‘I’ that makes a habit of doing this; the I-tag is ‘Looking-at-seagulls-I’. Going back 60 years there’s another I-tag called ‘Looking-at-seagulls-near-Beachy-Head-I’! In between then and now there are millions of I-tags. Each batch of experiences of this sort has a ‘somatic marker’ of the looking-at-seagulls variety! All somatic markers give events an emotional tinge of some kind.

Whereabouts, inside this physical frame where I have been all my life, are such markers located?—this pre-conscious, preverbal gut-feeling, that ‘if I look away from the computer and out of the window I will see a determination of seagulls…’ It’s there before the words come up for me… It’s somewhere in my ‘core consciousness’—the omnipresent sense of being alive, being able to form images of ‘reality’. I stop typing for a moment to put attention on the throb of heart, the coursing of blood through veins & arteries, my breathing, the movement of my chest, swallowing, a ‘click’ in the bone as I move my foot, the cold on my fingers; after much practice, I can move awareness from one part of my body to another; when I STOP myself from simply identifying with the OBJECT of existence—the endless daily interaction with what’s ‘out there’, outside the boundary or envelope of my being—I become aware of being locked inside this great glob of being. So just where is it located?—the pre-conscious, pre-verbal gut-feeling, that ‘if I look away from the computer and out of the window I will see a determination of seagulls…’ Literally in the gut, maybe, or in the head, or in the mole on my foot where I keep my soul, or, now I warm up to the search, spread throughout my whole being… Damasio’s laboratory explorations tell us that it’s in the pre-frontal cortex. But now, again, I am aware that the pre-verbal gestalt river+ dawn+ seagulls, the representation of which is contained in my body which has a lot to do with my sense of self, is a somatic marker that will determine one way in which my organism will interact with the object ‘out-there’.

It takes some time to write all this up

In reality it’s a split second event. Whatever it is inside me that comes up with a somatic marker runs round the lower half of the Figure of Eight in no time at all. It’s been like this for 74 years. Millions of somatic markers no doubt. Millions of I-tags.

The top half of the Figure of Eight takes us into a somewhat more articulate consciousness. Exactly where this starts on the Figure of Eight is anybody’s guess. But as soon as we start using words on it, paradoxically, we impose structures that are inventions and not necessarily true to the way things really are.

One way to STOP our habitual lurch into word-distortions is to get ourselves into what Gurdjieff/Ouspensky called ‘self-remembering’. The ‘this-is-me-here-now-being-me-here-now’ wordless experience. It is a higher form of being and comes to be learned only after we have endured for a time in the prison of our selves, busy slapping invented labels on things and distorting the world because all our false teachers and sterile vocational trainers tell us that language aids what they like to call ‘communication’.

river + dawn + seagulls—this is me here & now experiencing the boundary between somatic marker and what’s out there, a white flapping, purposefully making its way up-river in the dawn half-light.

Focus attention on ‘the moment just before’ and then ‘the moment when’—in between is self-remembering… Get the feeling of NOW… Construct a sensation of self at the crossover point of the Figure of Eight. Afterwards all the other things, including the news-world and breakfast and switching the central heating on and getting dressed, flood in.

Choose an event for yourself…

…and use this template to explore what goes on for you. Your event probably won’t be river+ dawn+ seagulls—it will be whatever it is.



After the original version of this Blog was published on 28th December 2009, my friend John Parsons wrote:-

Looking up now

dusk+Dawn+white horse
dusk+Dawn+brown horse

runner in luminous yellow, the creaking chair spring, Mary’s mulberry, partly digested wedge chips from the Co-Op, neck ache, no heating, slight irritation re viewing Internet and seeing all my work for sale on sites I have no control over, feelings of expectancy—a visitor coming, thoughts of you in your office watching gulls come and go—I have a flock of rooks—their flight less determined—they chat and fool around—more like me I think, Dawn locks the gate.

4 thoughts on “Somatic Markers (R6)

  1. I read with interest your blog on Somatic Markers, it resonated very much with me. So much of the work I do with clients begins with reconnecting them with their Somatic Self, through movement, bodywork and breath (in fact a process I have called Somatic Reintegration) and with Mindfulness.

    I was very recently lucky enough to attend a 4 day Masterclass with Stephen Gilligan on Generative Trance. A state which he identifies as the place artists (in his case specifically poet’s) go to when they are creating their work. Your writings tie in with this entirely.

    Your diagram is very useful as an aid to make visible the processes and connections and flow. A state of flow from the core occurs when we hold not too tight and not too loose to our three levels of experiencing; conscious mind, our somatic mind and our “field” mind, in holding not too tight and not too loose to all three parts – creative flow can occur.

    Losing awareness of our somatic selves, as we are prone to do, means in my opinion that we deny ourselves full access to the creative space and reduce our response to the world into well trodden unconscious paths of the familiar. Through our filters of experience we come to know the “truth” as we perceive it and thereafter fashion outside events to fit our personal truths in order that we can make sense of the world.

    Once we have decided that the word we will apply to a particular sensation is our “truth” – we limit our response to the world by acting upon the word/name we have given to the physical sensation (usually known as an emotion).

    e.g. A feeling of butterflies in the stomach can be interpreted in a number of ways – person one may interpret this as a feeling of “anxiety”; whereas person 2 may interpret it as “excitement”. Both interpretations are perfectly valid; but interpretations are what they are. When exposed to circumstances which might provoke a sensory experience of butterflies in the stomach – person one’s experience and perceptions will be very different to person two’s, as will the language they both use about the experience and any subsequent actions they might take in language or physiology. – Further the impact of their response on other people will be vastly different. (depending of course what the other persons personal truths are telling them!)

    Somatic Markers are for me always the starting point – what we “do” about them in our language, actions and re-actions is what makes the difference in how we interpret our lives – letting go of old limiting labels and entering a quiet and creative space allows us the opportunity to seek beneath the habitual, and therefore to create the opportunity to experience differently.


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