The following narrative demonstrates the ability for the mind to store connections, or somatic markers, and its capacity to save an individual’s life. Somatic markers are fundamentally the connections between stimuli that are associated with an emotional and physiological affective state. In other words, the mind is instinctually exposed to a certain emotion when making a decision, but cognition then takes over to assess the situation and make a proper decision. Anyway, it was an ordinary evening in Westwood, where I had met up with a friend to have a bite to eat. Although it has been touted to be a safer area than Downtown where USC is located, it is still an area filled with impressionable college students, and thus, filled with individuals who strive to take advantage of them. Although I may not have the most experience in urban areas at night, I have had enough to be able to form distinct memories and abstract associations of the situations of the general feeling I had faced before with homeless men and woman. And even though I have had some experience, I would not have been able to handle the following situation properly without the connections between a situation with a homeless person and the type of feeling I had typically formed in that context. The following is what happened on that night.
After eating dinner at a local place, my friend and I were headed to a parking garage, which is inconveniently situated on the outskirts of Westwood Village, where there was not a soul, except for a few homeless men leaning against the wall of the lot. Through various memories I have had with encounters with homeless people in the past, they only pestered me for any extra change, and were not at all aggressive or confrontational. Nevertheless, I have always made the association with homeless individuals to veer by with caution, but to clearly figure out the issue and how I could help in solving their issue. This night, though, was very different than what I had routinely faced.
I could smell the odor of alcohol wafting as the homeless man approached me. He stumbled across the street and confronted me directly, imploring me to give him all the money that I had on me. Naturally, my emotional system flagged this situation as dangerous, and my gut reaction was to run, but I was not alone. I had my friend with me, which made the situation that much more difficult. I had told him that I was a poor college student and only had around $10 at the time, but this only angered him. My mind began racing; how was I to solve this situation? Before I could utter a response, the homeless man drew a knife on me and told me that he would kill me if I wouldn’t help him. This, if anything, really made me want to run. But, through my interactions with the homeless in the past, I knew that running simply wouldn’t work.
The connections I had formed with the homeless in the past weren’t all immediately positive, but the positive ones I did have involved conversing with them and finding a solution with whatever issue they were having. I began to talk to him, albeit anxiously, inquiring about how I could help him and that I am a limited resource, but I’d be willing to help him out as much as I humanly could. This was a genuine plea for support. The somatic markers that had been formed previously didn’t necessarily decide what was to happen, but they aided in concentrating on forming a more thoughtful, rational decision. My gut reaction was to run, and my emotions told my body that something had gone awry, but with previous interactions and the connections I had made, these emotions compelled me to concentrate on making the right decision for my safety as well as my friend’s. The homeless man began to unravel his story: his brother had just died and he was simply angry that he was unable to make it to his funeral. He repeatedly told me that he was sorry, and I told him I would be willing and able to help him out with anything (in order to leave alive, obviously). He saw a Subway right across the street, and asked if I could buy him a sandwich, as he hadn’t eaten for days. I enthusiastically agreed and bought him two foot-longs, and ultimately walked back to the parking garage as quickly as humanly possible without taking a second glance. Little did I know the effect that somatic markers (and two sandwiches) had on my own mortality.
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