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Reptilian Rage

When an atrocity occurs we often find ourselves asking, ‘How could people do something like that?’ We seem to have forgotten that we are all wired to a crocodile and that it’s waiting to pounce at any moment. Some of us are better at controlling it than others.

We’ve all been there.

When we’re already slightly stressed trying to fix a leak in the shower, and the plumber fails to turn up, we experience a flood of frustration. We’ve waited in all morning, he’s not answering his mobile and the trickle from the pipe looks to us as though it is turning into a stream. We’re fed up of collecting it in a bucket to water the flowers so that at least it doesn’t go to waste.

‘Where the hell is he? Why doesn’t he ring?’ we bellow.

We have lost a sense of proportion. Compared to the Everest of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia this is less than a pimple. We never consider that the plumber’s mother may have fallen down the stairs or his pregnant wife has had to be rushed to hospital in premature labour, and that our leak was the last thing on his mind.

How do we learn to deal with this kind of over-reaction?

A Recent Pointer

As I explained in a recent post, reading a recent Guardian article by Michele Gelfand triggered a useful insight for me.

Amongst other things she wrote: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’ For me ‘tight’ can translate as narrow or shallow in terms of our perspective.

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear, in terms of our perspective on the world, narrows the compass of compassion and shallows the depth of our understanding, making intolerance and prejudice more likely.

I went on to say that the narrower and shallower the container of our perspective, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people. I thought I may have been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than possibly secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear.

What is at stake here is not just some general understanding of what may be going on behind the darker events unfolding in our society, it is also a model that we can use to bring the crocodile inside each one of us to account so that we don’t have to keep adding to the tidal discord threatening to engulf us.

 

A Possible Remedy

I want to pick up from here and explore a simplified model (see diagram above) that I am working on to help me remember how to deal with triggering events that precipitate me into potentially damaging reactions.

I’ll make reference to, but won’t repeat in detail, all the other blog posts I’ve written that relate to this issue.

When you start to examine the neurophysiology of feelings it gets quite hard to separate body from emotion. Most of what we term ‘emotion’ is generated by brain centres that go back to our evolutionary origins and cannot really be separated from our body. It is easier to see them as ‘gut feelings’ rather than anything higher.

The only encounters that I can remember having with my inner crocodile as a child were, first, in the terror I felt as I faced anaesthetization in hospital at about the age of five – that was the face of its fear – and the second was when I was in a fight on the primary school playground and a flood of anger immersed me – that was its face of rage. Interestingly, I ran away from the fight, not because I was scared of being beaten or being punished for fighting, but because I was frightened of my own anger and what I might do next. Possibly the fear of my own anger as a child may have been a conditioned visceral response somehow rooted in my earlier experience of powerlessness in hospital.

Just in case anyone was wondering I am not dealing in some Miltonic paradigm of Satan, replacing his serpent in the garden with a crocodile in the brain. My argument is far less aery faery.

What does the science of the brain have to say about this?

Take a classic text on this subject – Ledoux’s The Emotional Brain. He writes (pages 112-13):

. . . . modern researchers have gone into remote areas of the world to firmly establish with scientific methods that at least some emotions have fairly universal modes of expression, especially in the face. On the basis of this kind of evidence, the late Sylvan Tomkins proposed the existence of eight basic emotions: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. These are said to represent innate, patterned responses that are controlled by “hardwired” brain systems. . . . Paul Ekman has a shorter list, consisting of six basic emotions with universal and facial expression: surprise, happiness, anger, fear, disgust and sadness.

Very often if not always the amygdala is involved in all that is going on. Ledoux writes (page 168- 69):

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning. It is where trigger stimuli do their triggering.

Building on the role of the amygdala, Ledoux explains further (page 174):

the remarkable fact is that at the level of behavior, defence against danger is achieved in many different ways in different species, yet the amygdala’s role is constant. It is this correspondence across species that no doubt allows diverse behaviours to achieve the same evolutionary function in different animals. This functional equivalence in neural correspondence applies to many vertebrate brains, including human brains. When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain just hasn’t changed much. In some ways we are emotional lizards. I’m quite confident in telling you that studies of fear reactions in rats tell us a great deal about how fear mechanisms work in our brains as well.

So what?

I may have loaded the dice of my argument rather by placing this quote at the end of the sequence, but I do think there is a case for saying that most of what we regard as our key emotions are reptilian in origin, not even mammalian.

What I am suggesting is that there is this crocodile at the bottom of our mind’s swamp. The evidence is that it has access to events more rapidly than our higher brain centres which lag a few microseconds behind. We are already triggered into a strong feeling before our frontal lobes get a look in.

What makes it more difficult to handle is that there are more nerves passing alarm signals upwards from the amygdala than there are nerves operating to calm things down. And even while we have calmed our conscious mind, we will not necessarily have reduced the power of the reactions in the amygdala, as research in rats has shown.

So is there no hope, then, of improving our ability to manage our primitive reactions?

That will have to wait until next time.

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