Thursday January 17, 2002

Turday I was walking down the street with my chicken and I saw "DON’T' BE AFRAID" tattooed on the sidewalk in front of the old folks home on Guerrero street. Good one. That's the best one, in fact. There's lots of sidewalk stencils in my neighborhood and I have to say that this one is the number one best piece of advice you could give. One that every human being is capable of using, to some extent.

I was having sparkling dinner conversation a week ago with Megan and David and Adam and they were talking about how sad it is that people are so uninformed about how their diet affects or doesn't affect them and how misguided people are about the things they choose to concentrate on. One example was how vegans restrict their diet to the point that it has profound effects on their ability to be part of society and this stress inducing "social irritant" in the end may have much more detrimental effects on their over-all well being than any benefit from the change in diet. People's obsessive focus on minor things (for example, attempts to be "holistic") are a sure sign that they are overinformed and in the dark.

Good stuff, yes, and the main point was that people basically gather random anecdotal "health pointers" from news headlines (don't eat too much salt) (a glass of wine a day is good for you) which may be based in some sort of scientific study but by the time they get it, it might as well be some passed down shit from the middle ages. And the problem is, of course, that the information is uncorrelated and at worst, contradictory. Depending on which newscast you watched, you'll get a different set of mandates. You assimilate them into something you think is a comprehensive view of health but it's not based in real understanding. It's just an umbrella made of doilies and it's about to rain.

Adam's head was about to explode. Yeah, the misinformation was a bad one, but his choice for supreme evil was fear. Why, god, oh why are people so afraid? Why are healthy young members of our society routinely traumatized by fear-mongering parents? Their little souls are crushed by adult obsessiveness and pettiness. And why are those adults afraid? What have rich Americans got to be afraid of? Why is the machinery of the media, measuring out regular doses of late local fear, so effective in sublimating us into trembling puppies pissing on the floor?

But I butted in, in a voice verging on yelling, right there in Valencia Pizza and Pasta, that that's small shit. There's a chunk of knowledge that's easily the most basic and most fundamentally important thing for every human on the planet to know which remains solely in the realm of academia: how the brain works. Namely, that science has started to get a handle on the last bastion of the unknown, the thing that we thought would never be known, and it's only a matter of time before the people know it and start to use it.

There is one dark corner where all our folklore, wives tales, pseudoscience, quackery and intuitions still flourish. Modern psychology and self help have touched the surface but most people still interpret their existence with a very limited vocabulary. All the superstitious beliefs resulting from ignorance, behavior problems, fears of the unknown, trust in magic or chance -- they all prosper because no one understands their own mind. More specifically, people don't understand their emotions. But science is starting to. much more than feelings.....feelings are but the tip....of our icebergs of emotions.

The light of scientific discovery and understanding chased away the bullshit in many fields of understanding (we know why we get sick and it doesn't have anything to do with bodily humors, spirits, magnetism, or any other shit that's been suggested over the years). Hell, just the fact that we know about germs explains sooooo much and renders obsolete multitudes of belief systems we developed to cope with the things that germs were doing to us. If you've ever studied anthropology, or studied cultures that don't have any idea what a germ is, (or anything microscopic, for that matter) you'll see that they sometimes have good ways of coping with hygiene and that their belief system may have developed safeguards that protect them from germs even though they don't imagine in their wildest dreams that they exist. But which culture would you rather be in? Frankly, I want to know about germs. Even if it means that I have to give up going to church, stop listening to the elders, I'm in it for the enlightenment. Some crazy people go so far as to suggest that you should keep this kind of information from others so that it won't corrupt their belief systems and destroy their culture. Whatever.

Neurobiology of emotion. Affective neuroscience. From what I can tell, the discoveries are revolutionary. Like musket-ball-in-your-fucking-face revolutionary. Scientific understanding of the emotions of humans is such a significant and all-relative and a-priori body of knowledge that most people will have to go through a major paradigm shift if they are going to assimilate it. Emotions as psychological "states" are about to die. Most people are just trying to catch up with the popular teachings of psychology but if I was a psychology student, I'd be thinking about another major. In fact, they'll probably be changing the name of the department in a few years.

Cognitive Science, the blending of philosophy, linguistics, psychology, neurology, artificial intelligence and biology, as a discipline has only started to wake up. It's a very young branch of science but it is easily the most important. The people doing Cognitive Science are the Aristotles, the Galileos, the Newtons, and the Einsteins of today.

The reason "DON’T BE AFRAID" is the best piece of advice you can give is that fear is the most important emotion and emotion is the most important brain function and humans are the exclusive source of their own fears.

I've got to go down the street and get something to eat right now. Hopefully when I get back, I'll begin to convey to you what I've learned in the book, "The Emotional Brain: The mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life". That's why I started writing. Or at least that's the best guess I have as to my emotional motivations for writing tonight. Cognitive science has been sputtering to a start but Joseph Ledoux and his contemporaries have grabbed it and steered it onto a superhighway of discovery.

Mmmmm. Good falafel. Now, I don't know about that brave soul who stenciled that shit on the sidewalk but I'm not trying to imply that fear is a bad thing -- as in, bad: to-be-avoided. No, we should not fear fear. That would be ridiculous. We are made of fear. It would be like telling the ocean to try not to be so wet. I think that the statement "DON’T BE AFRAID" is effective not because you would follow its advice. Hah! That's a joke. No, I like it because it points directly to the fact that we are the ones that make ourselves afraid. We have no natural predators except for our own imaginations.

This is for Megan and Adam, and to those folks who think that eating at Burger King is equivalent to self mutilation, yes, those well-intentioned folks who are sure that their child will be instantly plucked off the street by one of the thousands of pedophiles roaming the neighborhood if they were to leave them alone for 1 minute.

Never got back on track after that falafel and two Mickey's. Oh well. I'm posting what I got so far.



It doesn't make much sense to mention this but it is a couple days later and I've got one less Mickey's in my blood so I'm gonna try to continue. If you see a number in parenthesis, it's the page number of LeDoux's paperback.

Do we have control over our emotions or do they control us? And how do our emotions shape every other aspect of conscious life -- perceptions, memories, thoughts and dreams?

The basic points that I want to focus on are that emotions go on mostly unnoticed (primarily because they are better off that way) and when they are noticed, they are liable to be misinterpreted. And further, that the awareness of emotions is generally a one-way street and consciousness (our thoughts, desires, plans) has a very limited ability to control or stop them.

This may seem like common sense and anybody will admit to frustration at not being able to overcome an "irrational" fear or forget about a doomed infatuation but the incredible thing is that we all act and talk and assume that we can control our emotions. Society, and its rational fairness and peacefulness is the most glaring example of the way we believe in the primacy of the things our cerebral cortex's come up with.

Emotions are biological functions of the nervous system and their workings can be uncovered in the same way we understand digestion. For years, psychologists have been trying to understand the emotions by asking people about their emotions. Entire systems featuring emotional maps, like the one by Robert Plutchik, have be constructed based on the feedback of people in psychological studies. People are asked, "What emotion were you feeling when that occurred?" And the results are tallied into some sort of cause-and-effect matrix. But this is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons.

Scientists who study emotion have set things up so that they will not understand emotions until they've understood the mind-body problem, the problem of how consciousness comes out of brains, arguably the most difficult problem there is and ever was. (268)

Figuring out the exact nature of consciousness and the mechanisms by which it emerges out of collection of neurons is truly an important problem." But, it's "not necessary for emotion researchers to wait for the solution before studying how emotions work. (281)

One of the reasons for this is that our emotional systems have been conserved through evolution and the systems that developed to allow us to feed ourselves, find shelter and procreate are still active. They are amazingly similar to the brain functions of other animals. The fact that we developed language and higher cognitive functions has not made them obsolete. They are still active and working in parallel with higher reasoning. When these system function in a conscious brain (like in humans, a possibly higher primates), feelings are the result. But most brains, most of the time, don't even produce feelings. Feelings, when they happen to occur in a conscious being are similar to exhaust coming out the back of car. This is where psychology has had its nose for the last 50 years -- trying to diagnose an engine by sniffing a tailpipe.

The study of emotion focused on where subjective feelings come from rather than on the unconscious process that sometimes do and sometimes do not give rise to those conscious states. (269)

Freud was a notable exception to this, he located our drives in an unconsious and unaccessable place, but he proposed an abstract state of trauma (like where boys are afraid of castration) which drives the various emotional responses. But I'm getting ahead of myself. It all started in 1884:

William James published "What is an Emotion?" in the journal "Mind" and the question of what is an emotion and he answered with another question: Do we run from a bear because we are afraid or are we afraid because we run? The obvious answer, that we run because we are afraid, is wrong. James argued that we are afraid because we run. For the first time, the discussion of emotions was framed as some arousing stimulus that ends with a passionate feeling (a conscious emotional experience -- being afraid). The mental aspect of emotion, the feeling, is a slave to its physiology, not vice versa: we do not tremble because we are afraid or cry because we feel sad; we are afraid because we tremble and sad because we cry.

James suggested that our conscious feelings were recognizable and differentiated because different emotional responses manifest them selves differently in the body. We read our bodies reactions. But in the 20's Walter Cannon, a physiologist who was studying the Autonomic Nervous System, the neural network responsible for arousing the body during an emotional reaction, said that the bodily responses were too vague and there's no way we could get all the various feelings from the simple, blood pressure, heart rate, sweat, adrenaline etc. -- the activations of the Autonomic Nervous System. This became known as Cannon-Bard Theory and they furthered James's thoughts by claiming that emotion is felt first, and then actions follow from cognitive appraisal. In their view, the thalamus and amygdala play a central role; interpreting an emotion-provoking situation and simultaneously sending signals to the ANS.

But this was during the reign of the behaviorists. Their claim was that subjective experiences were currently unmeasurable by science and therefore, good, hard science must ignore them completely. The means by which stimulus's gave rise to conscious feelings was ignored because they feelings were not "legitimate phenomena for scientific investigation." Research continued in the fields of behavioral conditioning (Pavlov's dog) and around 1960, Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer came up with a theory that's been the way we've proceeded up to this point:

Schachter and Singer started with the assumption that physiological response in emotion -- sweaty palms, rapid heart beat, muscle tension -- inform our brain that a state of heightened arousal exists. However, since these responses are similar in many different emotions they do not identify what kind of aroused state we are in. Schachter and Singer suggested that, on the basis of information about the physical and social context in which we find ourselves, as well as knowledge about what kinds of emotions occur in these particular kinds of situations, we label the aroused state as fear or love or sadness or anger or joy. According to them, this labeling of the aroused state is what gives rise to and accounts for the specificity of felt emotion. In other words, emotional feelings result when we explain emotionally ambiguous bodily states to ourselves on the basis of cognitive interpretations (so-called attributions) about what the external and internal causes of the bodily states might be. (47)

They were so successful that for the next 30 years the study of emotions concentrates almost exclusively on the role of cognition in emotion. Cognitive science was going strong and we were programming artificial intelligence in computers, modeling a cat's visual systems and other information processing tasks of the brain. "Cognitive Science treats mids like computers and has traditionally been more interested in how people and machines solve logical problems or play chess than in why we are sometimes happy and sometimes sad.

The cognitive appraisal of a stimulus started to become the very essence of the emotional system. There was a stimulus - the bear - you appraised its danger value, the judgment you make, whether good or bad triggers a feeling. Boom. The essence of an emotion was altered in order that emotions could be conceived as reasoned thoughts about situations. All the blood and guts had been taken out of emotion and it became just another high-level cognitive process like reasoning or speaking.

But then around 1980, Robert Zajonc argued, quite simply, that preferences (which are simple emotional reactions) could be formed without any conscious registration of the stimuli. This, he said, showed that emotion has primacy over (can exist before) and is independent of (can exist without) cognition.

He proposed the existence of something called the "mere exposure effect". If subjects are exposed to some novel visual patterns (like Chinese ideograms) and then asked to choose whether they prefer the previously exposed or new patterns, they reliably tend to prefer the preexposed ones. Mere exposure to stimuli is enough to create preferences.

The twist to the new experiment was to present stimuli subliminally -- so briefly that the subjects were unable in subsequent tests to accurately state whether or not they had seen the stimulus before. Nevertheless, the mere exposure effect was there. The subjects judged the previously exposed items as preferable over the new (previously unseen) ones, in spite of the fact that they had little ability to consciously identify and distinguish the patterns that they had seen from those that they had not. As Zajonc put it, these results go against common sense and against the widespread assumption in psychology that we must know what something is before we can determine whether we like it or not. Recognition (a prime ingredient in appraisal) is not a precursor to emotion. (53)

Judging from what has been learned by studying fear and the defense mechanism, the current model for how the brain has an emotional experience is that there are multiple systems operating in parallel, mostly unconscious, that process stimuli and memories in a series of feedback loops. It's important to remember that the system for other emotions could be very different and involve different parts of the brain. LeDoux has only studied fear because he believes the defense mechanism is common across all species and what we know as fear is those survival mechanisms at work.

An image of a bear goes in your eyeball and then to your visual thalamus. From there it branches -- part to the amygdala and part to the visual cortex. Studies have shown that the amygdala is capable of some low level evolutionarily programmed responses -- on the order of a general "go/no go". It's been observed that monkeys who have been isolated in laboratory cages for their entire life, will still instantly recognize a natural predator on first sight and react violently. The amygdala has many connections to other parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, as well as direct outputs to the nervous system. It is in charge of activating the adrenal gland and other aspects of the ANS. Simultaneously, the information has been sent to the visual cortex and, along with the hippocampus (the area where long term memories are stored) it is surmised out that we have a bear on our hands and past experience says that it's dangerous. This is merely on the level of disembodied information until is correlated with what the amygdala is putting out. There still is nothing in consciousness that we would identify as a feeling of fear. Only when the bodily feedback is assimilated does the emotion begin to escalate or abate. The hippocampus has the ability, at any point, to short-circuit the amygdala and tell it to stop arousing the body. For example "Oh, that's just a cardboard cutout of a bear.", or "It's a grizzly -- meanest man eater of the bunch."

The outcome of the appraisal, which includes past memories, the strength of the body's reaction, and new incoming sensory information, is re-input into the amygdala and the entire system is either amplified or neutralized. This amplification loop continues until the danger is overcome or the brain *thinks* the danger is over. All of this can happen without ever becoming aware that you are having an emotional reaction. You may be afraid and running but you don't know you're afraid until your legs have already stared moving and there's sweat on your palms.

And what is consciousness, that breeding ground for feelings?

What we know of as the present moment is basically what is in our working memory. Working memory allows us to know that the "here and now" is "here" and is happening "now." This insight underlies the notion, adopted by a number of contemporary cognitive scientists, that consciousness is awareness of what is in working memory. (278)

This functional aspect of the brain is an assimilator of different sensory inputs and integrator with memory. It has been shown that it is capable of holding about 7 distinct items at any point. It functions similar to a data buffer in a computer. Information is pushed out as new information is added. Guess which system determines which sensory input is most important? The emotional system, or more specifically, the amygdala.

Working memory can be thought of as a serial processer (one at a time) while the rest of your brain is working in parallel to process the emotion. The amygdala is working with memory and various processing regions in the cortex -- visual, auditory, linguistic, spacial, etc. In any emotionally charged situation, the amygdala immediately influences the cortex and focuses its attention to what it thought was most important. In addition, it triggers over-all brain arousal and body hormonal and nervous system arousal -- signals in the body and those signals are then returned to the brain (gut feelings).

LeDoux believes that the human brain, in its current state of development is imbalanced. Basically, there are stronger connection going *from* our "automatic" unconscious emotional systems to our cortex than the other way around.

The amygdala has greater influence on the cortex than the cortex has on the amygdala, allowing emotional arousal to dominate and control thinking. Throughout the mammals, pathways from the amygdala to the cortex overshadow the pathways from the cortex to the amygdala. ... At the same time, it is apparent that the cortical connections with the amygdala are far greater in primates than in other mammals. This suggest the possibility that as these connection continue to expand, the cortex might gain more and more control over the amygdala, possibly allowing future humans to be better able to control their emotions. There is some hope that the future evolution of the human brain will take care of this imbalance. (303)

One curious development over the last few hundred thousand years (a blink in biological time) is that we've eliminated all our natural predators and have become our own worst predator. Our ability to think abstractly -- to imagine things and events that aren't happening at that moment -- has freed us from immediate dangers involved in trying to find food, shelter and avoid predation. But we have just replaced those sources of danger with ones of our own imagination. We have an innate (genetic) and unconscious emotional reaction to a number of things but I can guarantee you that elevators aint one of them.

What is so useful about being afraid of heights or elevators or certain foods or means of travel? While there are risks associated with each of these things, the changes of them causing harm are usually relatively small. We have more fears than we need, and it seems that our utterly efficient fear conditioning system, combined with an extremely powerful ability to think about our fears and an inability to control them, is probably at fault.(266)

William James said that nothing marks the ascendancy of man from beast more clearly than the reduction of the conditions under which fear is evoked in humans.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt renowned ethnologis: "Perhaps man is one of the most fearful creatures, since added to the basic fear of predators and hostile con-specifics come intellectually based existential fears."

O. Hobart Mowrer : The capacity to be made uncomfortable by the mere prospect of traumatic experiences, in advance of their actual occurrence (or reoccurrence), and to be motivated thereby to take realistic precautions against them, is unquestionably a tremendously important and useful psychological mechanism, and the fact that the forward-looking, anxiety-arousing propensity of the human mind is more highly developed than it is in lower animals probably accounts for many of man's unique accomplishments. But it also accounts for some of his most conspicuous failures.(233)

Anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder are all fear based psychopathologies. All can be seen as replacements for threats that we are no longer exposed to.

I want to finish up with a large quote on the inaccuracies and untrustworthiness of our feelings and our ability to explain or even express them. (By the way, there are very good reasons why emotional processing goes unnoticed -- for the same reasons that when you want to walk across the room, you don't want to be aware of the instructions from your brain that move your legs each time you take a step.)

Stimuli that are not noticed, or that are noticed but their implication aren't, can unconsciously trigger emotional behavior and visceral responses. In such situations, the stimulus content of working memory will be amplified by the arousal and feedback that result, causing you to attribute the arousal and bodily feelings to the stimuli that are present in working memory. However, because the stimuli in working memory did not trigger the amygdala, the situation will be misdiagnosed. And if there is nothing in particular occupying working memory, you will be in a situation where your feelings are not understood. If emotions are triggered by stimuli that are processed unconsciously, you will not be able to later reflect back on these experiences and explain why they occurred with any degree of accuracy. Contrary to the primary supposition of cognitive appraisal theories, the core of an emotion is not an introspectively accessible conscious representation. Feelings do involve conscious content, but we don't necessarily have conscious access to the processes that produce the content. And even when we do have introspective access, the conscious content is not likely to be what triggered the emotional response in the first place. (299)