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Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2006;30(2):239-71. Epub 2005 Sep 27.

The somatic marker hypothesis: a critical evaluation.

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MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge CB2 2EF, UK.


The somatic marker hypothesis (SMH; [Damasio, A. R., Tranel, D., Damasio, H., 1991. Somatic markers and the guidance of behaviour: theory and preliminary testing. In Levin, H.S., Eisenberg, H.M., Benton, A.L. (Eds.), Frontal Lobe Function and Dysfunction. Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 217-229]) proposes that emotion-based biasing signals arising from the body are integrated in higher brain regions, in particular the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), to regulate decision-making in situations of complexity. Evidence for the SMH is largely based on performance on the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT; [Bechara, A., Tranel, D., Damasio, H., Damasio, A.R., 1996. Failure to respond autonomically to anticipated future outcomes following damage to prefrontal cortex. Cerebral Cortex 6 (2), 215-225]), linking anticipatory skin conductance responses (SCRs) to successful performance on a decision-making paradigm in healthy participants. These 'marker' signals were absent in patients with VMPFC lesions and were associated with poorer IGT performance. The current article reviews the IGT findings, arguing that their interpretation is undermined by the cognitive penetrability of the reward/punishment schedule, ambiguity surrounding interpretation of the psychophysiological data, and a shortage of causal evidence linking peripheral feedback to IGT performance. Further, there are other well-specified and parsimonious explanations that can equally well account for the IGT data. Next, lesion, neuroimaging, and psychopharmacology data evaluating the proposed neural substrate underpinning the SMH are reviewed. Finally, conceptual reservations about the novelty, parsimony and specification of the SMH are raised. It is concluded that while presenting an elegant theory of how emotion influences decision-making, the SMH requires additional empirical support to remain tenable.

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