Monthly Archives: October 2009

"Nana Window"

I just finished reading the cover story in this week’s NYTimes magazine, which I knew would get my amygdala aroused [and it did]. It’s about people whose amygdala gets aroused “too easily.” Oh, yeah? Says who? Jerome Kagan has been doing a longitudinal [Bad Fairy at the Christening] study at Harvard, starting with babies in 1989, whom he identified as either highly reactive [to novel stimuli], somewhere in the middle, or “low-reactive.” I’m going to let anyone interested look up the article; and instead I shall cut right to the chase. “Mary” was one of his “high-reactive” subjects, and he predicted that she would grow up to be a worrier. And, lo, she did. She’s worrying her way through Harvard as I write this. To which I respond, “Oh, come on! If that’s ”bad outcome,’ whaddaya call ‘good outcome,’ Jerry?”

Many pages into this up-till-then uncritical review of Kagan’s findings, the NYTimes author cites a researcher with a quibble: Dr. Robert Plomin of King’s College, London, wonders if, perhaps, subjecting these kids to the daunting fMRI, itself, might not account for much of their amygdalar arousal. Nar’mean?

Towards the end of the article, other dissenting voices are quoted, wondering why all of the “high-reactives” haven’t developed clinically significant anxiety [as predicted by Dr. Kagan]. Turns out some of the subjects are schmizing themselves into interpreting their racing pulses and dilated pupils as “being jazzed,” which they describe as “vaguely exhilarating or exciting.” Others [T.S. Eliot is mentioned] somehow manage to channel their amygdalar arousal into creating works of art [for the amusement & edification of the more laid-back among you, apparently]. Yet, the Bad Fairy gets the final word: “In the longitudinal studies of anxiety, all you can say with confidence is that the high-reactive infants will not grow up to be exuberant, outgoing, bubbly or bold.”

If that weren’t such an obvious load of old cobblers, I [the Exemplar of “High-Reactive” infants] would find it humiliating. Anyway, for those of you who would like a low-tech coping strategy to deal with anxiety, go to YouTube and look up “Nana Window.” On 23 April 2009 [St. George’s Day in England], the usual gang on the Chris Moyles [BBC Radio 1] show were joking around with Carrie, who had said, “My Nan always puts one in her window on St. George’s day.” [Her grandmother displays the Cross of St. George flag, which is England’s (red-cross-on-a-white-field) part of the United Kingdom’s “Union Jack.”] Chris & Comedy Dave chose to find a double-entendre in her innocent remark, and immediately improvised a Reggae song with the following lyric: “Nana Nana window. Nana window.” If you can’t find it on YouTube and still want to sing it, it’s all on one note, except for the “dow,” which is a 5th higher. Commence singing at the first sign of anxiety and repeat until you feel better.

In scientific point of fact, singing almost any song will reduce most anxiety symptoms, for the following reasons. Singing regulates breathing [thereby countering hyperventilation]. The sillier the lyric, the more likely you are to laugh [thereby relieving muscle tension]. The louder you sing, the more adrenaline you expend [thereby restoring homeostasis to your body]. Cognitively, you are likely to distract yourself from the alarming stimulus for long enough to get some perspective on it. [Is the irritant really awful or just…you know the mantra by now.]

The lyric “Nana Window” is the latest in the long and worthy tradition of non-lexical vocables [such as “Hey nonny nonny” from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and more recently, “Ob-la-di-ob-la-da” from the Beatles’ White Album], which multitask, by fulfilling [at least] two Speech Functions. They are Phatic [imparting no factual information, just keeping the listener listening] and/or Poetic [since they may, indeed, be a secret code for something else[such as “Carrie’s Nan is displaying something in her window.”]; and they often are also Emotive [expressing a particular feeling]. [“Hey nonny nonny,” according to Shakespeare scholars, expresses dismay.]

Here is Lili, displaying herself in the window, while keeping [hypervigilant?] watch for intrusions. The other day, I was upstairs brushing my teeth, when I heard [evidence of] her aroused amygdala: barking. I planned to go down and assert my Pack Leader status over her, by telling her to “Yaka mashie. Asoko.” [“Be quiet. Go down to your room in the basement until you can compose yourself.”] But before I could even rinse my mouth out, there was silence. I discovered that Lili had piped down and taken herself downstairs, all on her own. Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! So, okay, our amygdala gets aroused easily; but we humans, too, can learn to tell it to “Yaka mashie. Asoko,” [perhaps by singing the “Nana Window” song], and thus stand ourselves down from our many alarums.

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Filed under comic relief, limbic system, murky research, stress and cortisol

Turn On the Waterworks

What’s the good of crying? [That’s not a rhetorical question.] Sir Henry Maudsley (1859-1944), a neurologist and psychiatrist who took care of shell-shocked Australian soldiers during World War I, knew the answer: “Sorrows which find no vent in tears may soon make other organs weep.”

Ancient Greek dramatists knew it, too, staging tragedies so shockingly blood-thirsty [remind you of a current genre?], that audiences were guaranteed to have a good, cathartic cry. Today on the Beeb [BBC radio 1, that is], as Trueblood makes its UK debut, a group of media mavens were asking each other, “What is this current fascination with vampires and such?” One pundit opined that “in times of economic distress, people need an outlet for their own misery and fear, so they give themselves a socially acceptable reason to weep and wail.”

Cue the Possibly-Mad-Scientists. My personal fave is Jaak (not-a-typo) Panksepp [originally from Estonia], who coined the term “affective [pertaining to the emotions] neuroscience.” He studies the vocalizations of animals, such as rats, and has found that they wail with distress and laugh with delight. [Today’s post is no laughing matter. Later for that.] So, guess what familiar substance is found, in significantly elevated levels, in the saliva of wailing rats (inasmuch as they do not shed tears of sorrow)? CORTISOL. It’s also found in the tears and saliva of crying humans, folks. Talk about catharsis!

So, when Lili makes that keening noise as she is sent [or, these days, sends herself] to the basement, for the misdemeanor of barking at the UPS guy, an analysis of her saliva would likely show a whole lot o’ cortisol, which she cleverly lets “Duck” [her comfort stuffed animal] absorb, as she holds him in her mouth. In a few moments, she regains her composure and is back upstairs, happy as Larry [an Australian idiom, meaning “very happy”]. Very few of Maudsley’s wartime patients were Happy as Larry, one gathers.

How lucky for Lili (and Jaak’s rats, and human children), that society permits them this low-tech method of ridding the body of toxic cortisol. How unfortunate, that when grown-ups (especially men, or women in non-traditional jobs, such as the military) weep, they are humiliated with labels such as “weak,” “manipulative,” or “suffering from a Mood Disorder.” Recent research purporting to demonstrate that weeping only makes men more distressed [especially studies using my least favorite research tool, the fMRI], have been critiqued as culturally-biased. The subject’s (radio-active) brain is registering the anticipated, negative social consequences of crying, not a “hard-wired” neuro-chemical consequence. The brain of a male actor anticipating an Oscar nomination for his convincing on-screen crying [I hypothesize] would look very different in such a study, from his brother, the Marine Corps Drill Sergeant.

Which reminds me of a harrowing but invaluable class in our acting school, in which male & female students alike had to produce real tears on cue, for a grade. In keeping with the school’s Method Acting approach, no artificial means of lacrimation [such as onion juice on one’s fingertips, or a tack in one’s shoe] were permitted. The actor must Prepare: conjure up a powerful, tear-jerking memory, and use it as the spigot, to Turn On the Waterworks. Just imagine the endorphin hit which follows the [male or female] acting student’s right-on-cue crying jag. Talk about tears of joy!

Which we will, in the next post.

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"It would have made a cat laugh…"

“or a dog; I’m bid to crave an audience for a frog!” This first citation of a common British idiom [meaning, “so ridiculous, it would coax a laugh out of an improbable source”], is from The Queen of the Frogs, the last of 176 plays written by James Robinson Planche, in 1879. Besides turning French fairy tales into satirical comedies for the London stage, he was the father of the English costume drama. [Helpful for 19th Century “Kangaroos,” don’t you know.]

Now, back to what makes a rat laugh [according to Jaak Panksepp and his merry pranksters]. Before I tell you what, I’ll tell you how he knows [that a rat is laughing]. He uses the Mini-3 Bat Detector [made by the Ultra Sound Advice company, of London]. Cue the Pied Piper, in historically accurate costume. I’m not making this up. Laughing rats [also cats, dogs, primates, and human children] emit ultrasonic vocalization patterns (USVs) at the frequency of 50 KHz, which Jaak calls “chirping.” [This is in contrast to “long-distress” USVs @ 22 KHz, which express negative emotions, such as fear, “social defeat,” or anticipation of pain & suffering.] So, how do you make a rat laugh? Tickle him [or let him self-administer cocaine]. Seriously. And how do you bum a rat out? Mix cat fur into his cage bedding [or take away his blow]. Whom shall we call first: the Nobel prize committee, or PETA?

While you’re pondering that, you should know that these rats have no personal experience of cats as predators; but even one cat hair in their cage freaks ’em out. Panksepp opines that lab researchers who own cats skew rat-study data all the time, due to this overlooked fear factor on their clothing or person.

But we humans have more degrees of freedom than lab rats, many of us. What other stimuli (besides tickling & coke) might make us laugh? The ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, thought they had the definitive answer: a feeling of superiority. According to this cynical lot, all human hilarity arises from Schadenfreude: delight at another’s humiliation. Hmm. Maybe for grown-ups. Not so much for human babies and other young mammals [who are suckers for the tickling]. Heroditus [484 – 425 BC], used historical vignettes to explain how tears of joy can so quickly turn into tears of sorrow. [How the USVs can drop from 50KHz to 22 KHz, in the blink of an eye.] He tells, for instance, of Xerxes, who is kvelling over his fleet at a regatta at Abydos, then suddenly becomes all verklempt; and when his uncle asks him,“Boychick! Was ist los?” Xerxes says, “In 100 years, all these people will be dead, and no one will know how powerful I am!” Solipsistic, much?

In 1979 psychologists Efram & Spangler posited that all tears [whether of sorrow or joy] occur during the recovery phase of limbic arousal. “All tears are tears of relief.” Miss America cries because she was so afraid she would lose. Mourners cry [according to these guys] because they are so glad that the bells are not (pace John Donne) tolling for them.

Back to our putative laureate, Panksepp. He would assume that all tears [whatever the frequency of our USVs] contain cortisol: that the relief we are experiencing [whether we label ourselves “over-the-moon” or “down-in-the-dumps”] is, whatever else, neuro-chemical.

Personally, I’m saving up for a Mini-3 Bat Detector, to find out what makes a dog [like Lili] laugh. And meanwhile, I suggest we all take careful note of what makes us laugh and/or cry. I just know there are more triggers for mirth than tickling, blow & Schadenfreude. Tell you about some of them next time, yah?

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Filed under catharsis, comic relief, confounds, murky research, stress and cortisol

What are you laughing at?

Tell you what Arthur Koestler thought. In 1964 he wrote a tome on the subject, The Act of Creation, the burden of whose 751 pages, is that all humor, scientific discoveries, and works of art occur when two worlds collide. He put it rather more ponderously, “when two matrices bisociate.” By this he meant, when two frames of reference [each with its own rules of logic] are unexpectedly juxtaposed. Abstract and boring enough for ya, so far?

Consider this visual joke: Penny the Cucamonga cat is “wearing” a [photo-shopped] party hat, looking anything-but-in-a-party-mood, being held by my daughter [most of whose festive facial expression I have discreetly cropped away, to preserve her privacy]. Koestler would say that there are at least two matrices bisociating here. Penny, a cat, is impersonating a human “party animal,” which is also a pun; and the obvious photo-shopping of the party hat is my daughter’s mockery of the shoddy paparazzi “photo-journalism” ubiquitous in LA, where this picture was taken. Not unlike those ancient philosophers, Koestler believed that in all humor there is an element of defensive-aggression, against the butt of the joke. In this case, the joke is metaphorically on Penny [since we know how much pets detest wearing silly human costumes for gag photos]; but it’s actually on the paparazzi. Geddit?

Let’s go back to my fave joke, introduced in the “Funny Bone” post. “Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?'” One matrix is the well-worn, formulaic [mostly New York-based] genre of “guy-walks-into-a-bar-bartender-says-why-the-long-face?” joke. This collides with a more obscure joke tradition [mostly in Ireland & the UK], of placing horses in unusual settings. Back in the day, there was a series of print ads for whiskey, using the slogan, “You can take a White Horse anywhere.” Near the beginning of the cult Irish flick, Into the West, a [white] horse is taken by lift up to the top floor of a council housing flat in Dublin, and the human passengers on the lift don’t bat an eye. [A nod to the whiskey slogan.] That gets the horse into the bar, in my fave joke. The second matrix is a pun: a play on the words, “long face.”

But where’s the element of defensive-aggression in this oh-so-sophisticated joke? The butt of the joke is the genre of joke, itself. It is what Jon Stewart would call a meta-joke. It is a joke about a type of joke. Probably, it resonates most with those of us who have tried to “be funny,” for a living [or for a grade in acting school].

Those of you who remember Jakobsen’s six Speech Functions will be raising your hands and “chirping” [@ 50 KHz], “Oooh! Oooh! This is Poetic Speech we’re talking about! Designed to Tell the Ugly Truth without Suffering the Ugly Consequences.” That is exactly what we are talking about. The teller of the joke [little David] gets to poke fun at big, bad Goliath; and the laughers at the joke get to expend their adrenaline in a non-combative manner. If they laugh until they cry, they even get to purge themselves of some cortisol. Goliath is mocked, but everybody survives. That’s what Koestler thought; and his most enduring book is Darkness at Noon, a repudiation of the “Goliath” of Communism, with whom he had previously cast his lot in the 1930s.

Now, back to Jaak’s laughing rats and tickling. [I’ll leave the cocaine commentary to the Wallabies among you.] Koestler believed that what rats [and little children] find laughable about tickling is that it is a mock attack. It’s funny because they know they are not really in danger of pain & suffering. The tickler is only impersonating an attacker. If actual pain results, or even the fear of pain, it’s no laughing matter. In fact, Jaak found, if even one cat hair [a signifier of threat from a predator] is in the room where a rat is being tickled, the rat will not “chirp” [@ 50 KHz]; it will bum [@ 22 KHz].

The rough-and-tumble play of all baby mammals produces “chirps” of glee. In developmental psychology, this epitomizes the concept, “This is only pretend.” Sigmund’s daughter, Anna Freud [she of the German Shepherd “Wolf”], called this Regression in the Service of the Ego one of the most important defenses older humans can use, as a respite from the real [not mock] threats in their lives. When we laugh at Jon Stewart poking fun at Kim Jong Il, we are pretending that the threat that little martinet poses to the world is “only pretend.” For that little moment, we are regressing to a childlike belief that Kim is just a joke [and giving our overtaxed limbic system a rest].

So, go ahead and laugh it up, folks. Feels great, doesn’t it?

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One-Trial Learning

The American philosopher-turned-behavioral-psychologist, Elwin R. Guthrie (1886-1959), challenged other Behaviorists of his time, by declaring: “A combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.” BFD? You’re missing the “heaviosity” of his premise. Unlike Pavlov [Big Daddy of Classical Conditioning] or Skinner [BD of Operant Conditioning], Guthrie was the BD of Associative Learning. No reward need be given, said he, for a movement to become “cued” by a stimulus. Forget the all the use of High-Value-Treats to reward the desired response, advocated by dog trainers, or the symbolic reward, the clicker [which betokens to the dog that a treat has been earned, redeemable at a later time]. According to Guthrie, it only takes one coincidence of stimulus and movement, for the two things to become forever paired. Boom! Done! [Pavlov’s dogs had to have many pairings of sub-lingual meat powder with a bell, before the bell alone elicited drooling.]

To the extent that Guthrie’s theory is true, it is not altogether good news. In college I was riding shotgun in my roommate’s car, when a motorist failed to observe the Stop sign at an intersection, and plowed into the side of the car. Having caught a glimpse of his not-slowing-down car in my peripheral vision [the cue], I crouched into the fetal position recommended for airplane crashes [the movement]. Nevermind that my addled hippocampus had applied the wrong transport safety tip [and I consequently suffered gory-looking but superficial facial abrasions that I would have avoided, had I remained sitting upright]. To this day, 4 decades later, when a I see a car approaching an intersection “too fast to stop,” I have to fight the reflex to cringe. It doesn’t happen when I am driving, mind you, just when I am riding shotgun; but this One-Trial Habit [as Guthrie called it] annoys the hell out of whoever is driving “Miss Crazy.”

Let’s do the wolf-work. It is humiliating to them, that I appear not to trust their driving skills. Further, my sudden movement is both intrusive (sometimes blocking their view of the other car) and frightening (since it betokens a “clear & present danger,” rather than a remembered danger from long ago).

Guthrie’s own recommendation, to diminish the power of a problematic cue/movement connection, was called Sidetracking. One must endeavor to discover the initial cue, and then deliberately associate a different [incompatible] movement with it. Alrighty, then. What’s incompatible with cringing? Why, sitting upright (as I should have done in the first instance), with my forearms resting on my thighs (rather than covering my face). Unfortunately, whenever I abruptly assume this crash-test-dummy position, it is almost as alarming [therefore, annoying] as the cringe. At least it doesn’t obstruct the driver’s view. In recent years, I’ve taken to wearing sunglasses while being driven [avoiding harmful UV rays, you know], behind whose dark lenses I close my eyes when a car rushes up to the Stop sign. I also contrive to sit in the back seat whenever possible, where I am blissfully oblivious to the threat of reckless drivers. I am unflappable in taxis, even in Manhattan.

Not all instances of One-Trial habit formation are as trivial as my intersection cringe, however. The cue/movement nexus might account for the intractability of various substance addictions. Today’s New York Times has an article speculating that Adam Goldstein [aka DJ AM], may have relapsed into drug abuse because of filming a documentary in which a young woman injected herself with heroin. An individual’s first use of an addictive substance is likely to occur in the presence of others who are using the substance. According to Guthrie’s model, the cue [of others shooting/lighting/drinking up] will be forever associated with the movements one made, in connection with the first use of that substance.

Nor need the cue be visual. Even in 1960s Britain, the sound of an air-raid siren sent survivors of the Blitz diving for cover under a table or bed. The whiff of that certain food you ate just before you got sick can, years later, activate your gag reflex. The song you were listening to when that false love in high school broke up with you can still make you cry, a lifetime later.

Yesterday, while making his weekend rounds at two DC hospitals, my husband discovered that his car had [at least temporarily] “died,” and he came home in a rental car. Lili, who was awaiting the return of her beloved master, saw the intrusion of a strange white vehicle in the driveway [the cue], which set up a barrage of histrionic barkitude [the movement]. Even when her master emerged from the rental car, she could not stop herself from barking at it. Just now, his arrival in the cue vehicle again sent her into a reflexive barkfest, despite my commands to her to assume a position [presumably] incompatible with barking [“Foo-say!” Lie down!]. When the UPS truck cues Lili to bark, she has learned the incompatible movement of sending herself down to the basement [where she can’t see the offending vehicle]; but apparently this weekend’s “combination of stimuli” [strange car, beloved master] presents a more difficult cue to Sidetrack.

It was Guthrie’s contention that “excitement facilitates associative learning,” making the cue/movement connection even stronger. Lili is very excited whenever her master comes home.

To be continued.

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Filed under gets right up my nose, limbic system, post-traumatic stress

Virtual Backgammon

Yes, I admit it. I am a Luddite, but not a Troglodyte. Until last Sunday I regarded computer games [especially the one which spends electricity, merely to spare the player the Therbligs it would take to shuffle and lay out an actual deck of cards] as a waste of time and resources. Not any more.

I direct your attention to a BBC on-line [see, I do use my MacBook for more than word processing] article, posted on 18 Oct 09: Virtual Reality Tackles “Shell Shock.” In it, the Beeb’s medical correspondent, Fergus Walsh, describes the successful treatment of 30 [out of a group of 40] US military personnel diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, following several tours of duty in Iraq. Alas, the 30 who responded well to the treatment were thereafter sent back to Iraq, or on to Afghanistan. But I digress…

The [non-radioactive, non-pharmaceutical] treatment was developed by Albert Rizzo, of the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, and is based on the X-Box game, Full Spectrum Warrior. We’ll get to the [literally] whiz-bang features of the current treatment soon, but first, back to Vienna.

If you recall my original “Backgammon” post, Freud used that game metaphor to describe the capture and imprisonment of one’s “soldiers” at the scene(s) of particularly harrowing “battles” in the course of one’s life. Lose too many troops [which he conceptualized as psychic energy], and you become unable to “soldier on.” His therapeutic model encouraged the traumatized individual to revisit the distressing events, recalling them in as much detail as s/he could manage, with the goal of “liberating the hostage soldiers” [regaining psychic energy]. In the actual game of backgammon, one has to throw a specific dice score, to move a “soldier” off the bar, and allow him to complete his journey home to safety [“bearing off”]. Why did this psychotherapeutic treatment take so long [or not work at all]? Resistance. Having survived [sometimes, just barely] a traumatic event, who would want to “go there” again? The Jack Nicholson censor in the mind tells the would-be recollector of a trauma, “You can’t handle the truth! I’m not going to let you remember what really happened back there.”

Let’s use the wolf [up-your-nose] model to explain the same thing. By definition, the traumatic event was frightening. If a major injury was sustained, there was pain & suffering. Often, the trauma involved the sudden intrusion of hostile individuals or their devices of destruction. Less obviously, but saliently, there may have been humiliating circumstances [such as a momentary loss of nerve, or loss of continence]. When the amygdala is thus aroused, the hippocampus is deprived of blood. Therefore, the brain’s most direct information-processing site is “off-line” during the traumatic event. Victims of violent crime are notoriously bad at picking their assailant out of a line-up. Back in college, I was a very weak witness during my deposition for my roommate’s totalled car lawsuit: unable to remember the make of the car that hit us, or even the make of the car we were in! [Luckily, the guy settled out of court, just as our case was called.]

Guthrie’s One-Trial Learning model is also relevant here. The complex stimuli of a traumatic event [the cue] may be followed by an evasive movement [as is my case], or by an aggressive movement, or by a catatonic freeze. When I was a VA Psychology Trainee in 1973, working with veterans “fresh out of the jungle” [of Vietnam], the most commonly cued movement in our clientele was aggression. Assaulting a stranger who accidentally brushed up against you from behind would get you arrested in a New York minute, back in the day. The best explanation the assailant could offer the judge was the non-specific, “All-of-a-sudden, I was back in Nam.” [Just like, all-of-a-sudden, in that shotgun seat, I am back in Durham.]

In 1999, Rothbaum et al. modified an X-Box wargame to treat a 50-year-old Vietnam vet, who had been suffering flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms since that war. Their hope was that Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy would overcome the patient’s resistance [or limbically-induced amnesia], allowing him to re-experience, in a safe and controlled setting, the traumatic events that had held him hostage for 3 decades. Once the memories were recovered, the conventional therapeutic work of processing the information and assisting the patient to “handle the truth” could begin.

As the lead clinician in the current San Diego study says, “Our different senses are very powerful cues to our memory.” Therefore, as well as tailoring the sights and sounds to re-enact the individual soldier’s traumatic event(s), the Virtual Reality program adds realistic motion [such as vibrations and sudden impacts] and smells: burning rubber, cordite, garbage, smoke, diesel fuel, Iraqui spices and what is euphemized as “body odor” [but was more likely ordure]. The subject’s heart rate and galvanic skin response [both measures of anxiety] are constantly monitored during the 30-minute VR sessions, to “keep it real,” but not so real that the original [fight/flight/freeze] movement is triggered. Then an hour of debriefing and talk-therapy ensues. The entire treatment consists of only 4 once-weekly sessions.

Just think of all the Therbligs such a treatment method could save the government! More importantly, just think of all the “hostage soldiers” it could “liberate” from their traumatic war experiences.

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Filed under catharsis, gets right up my nose, limbic system, post-traumatic stress


In 1961 our family [and just about everyone else in the UK] went to see Anthony Newley’s WestEnd musical, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off, which was thrillingly cynical [especially to us Young Ones], about what is euphemized in the US as “a shotgun wedding.” Newley wrote & sang the phrase, “I’ve been lumbered.” It sounded like another example of Cockney slang [the meaning evident from the context]; but it’s actually ever so old, dating from the 1500s in England, and the 1300s in Continental Europe. It refers to an Italian ethnic group, the Lombardi, who were pawn-brokers and money-lenders. Lombard Street in London was so named for its plethora of pawnshops. [Incidentally, did you know, “Pop goes the weasel” is a euphemism for pawning a fur garment?] The Oxford Concise Dictionary (1911 ed.) defines “to be lumbered” as “to be burdened with something unpleasant” [which pawn-brokers were: namely, the “popped” weasels, used furniture, and other old tat that their clients had exchanged, for enough money to buy more rice & treacle]. Nar’mean?

Last week’s exploration of Guthrie’s One-Trial Learning theory was prompted by an event in the forest, during Lili’s & my morning walk. It had been raining for days, and then it got windy. The beaten path was like a waterslide in the downhill parts, to avoid which, I was detouring right through the trees, for better footing. As I came to the next downhill bit, I heard a tremendous crack, like the detonation of a shotgun, directly in front of me. First, I froze. Then I looked behind me, to see if a deer had been shot [since I, happily, had not]. Then I looked directly ahead, to see if I could spot a hunter and tell him to cease fire. Lili, meanwhile, looked straight up. Following her gaze, I saw a huge branch break off a tree, and fall right on the spot where I had planned to walk. Amazingly, I did not utter my trademark Hitchcock-victim scream, but just calmly followed Lili [my Pack Leader pro tem] along the slippery path, away from the newly fallen lumber.

We used to think Lili was silly, to look up warily at every looming object she passed [such as playing field lampposts, the water tower, and even our ceiling fan, when it first turns on or off]. Now I get her point. I was looking everywhere but up, in the woods; and without Lili’s vigilance I would have been well and truly lumbered.

Then I wondered if the next day I would shy away from that specific part of the woods, or if I would be more amygdally aroused in general, especially by any “gunshot” noises. In fact, I was able to cognitively reframe the falling branch as “a lucky escape,” rather than a “trauma”; and we have had remarkably serene walks. Today was the first time my husband has been able to come with us in two weeks, and it had been bucketing rain last night, so I remarked, “I hope all the branches have done their falling, by the time we pass through.” Several 100 yards past the site of last week’s fallen branch, he pointed to an 8-inch-in-diameter, newly fallen tree, lying directly across our path, and said, “Well, there you go.” [It’s not the one pictured here. No camera today.] Lili glanced up warily at an adjacent, precariously-balanced tree, decided it posed no immediate hazard, and jumped over the fallen lumber.

So, even without a tailor-made X-Box game [Timber!], I have been able to do my own limbic debriefing, and avoid being lumbered with a fear habit about our beloved walks on the wild side. In the thick of the forest, I will trust Lili’s big ears and big eyes, to warn me of impending danger from above. Still, I will be the judge of whether the people and animals we encounter on the ground are friends or foes.

Meanwhile, since last week, I have not flinched once while riding shotgun with my husband. See, we can learn to tame our Wild Things [aka howling limbic wolves], of which, more next time.

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Filed under limbic system, post-traumatic stress, semiotics

Timber Wolf

Before we consider the genius of Maurice Sendak [in the next post], let’s hear it for the amygdala [which I am usually offering readers tips on subduing, or at least bending to their will]. If you look up “timber wolf,” you will see a photo of a black wolf, who looks quite like Lili [except Lili’s ears are bigger and shaggier, like an over-the-top stage version of the wolf in a melodrama]. Since she is my totem to represent the amygdala [and I am feeling particularly grateful to her, for alerting me to falling branches in the woods, this rainy season], I shall henceforth regard her as my “Timber! wolf”: a niche-market service dog who warns its owner of a very specific [hopefully, rare] hazard, thereby inspiring confidence during woodland walks.

Speaking of (actual) service dogs, this week’s New Yorker has an article entitled “Man’s Best Friend: Scratch and Sniff,” describing the ability of several dogs in the K-9 Unit of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, to detect the presence of contraband cell phones in prisons, by “scent.” It’s a heartwarming article [unless you are incarcerated in New Jersey, Virginia, or Maryland], but here is my favorite bit. I shall quote, as the article does, K-9 Officer Mitchell: “All our dogs right now are German shepherds or Labs. We did try one golden retriever, but we had to fail him out. That dog was too easy going. He’d come into a room on a search and just lay down. We sent him back to the Seeing Eye dog center in Morristown, where all our cell-phone dogs came from. That golden was a lover, not a fighter.”

So, what breed of dog are you? What is the default setting, in your amygdala? Do you tend to “bark” at the first whiff of threat? Do you, instead, high-tail it outta there? Or do you go into the deer-in-the-headlights freeze? And, anyway, which limbic response do we think that golden was displaying, lolling around on the cellblock floor? Is that the laid-back form of freezing? [Gives “Chill out” a whole new meaning.] To use an Australian animal metaphor, in the choice of a K-9 partner to sniff out the dodgy stuff, it’s a matter of “horses for courses.” [By which a racecourse punter in Oz means to say, if the bobtail nag is a good mudder, and the track is listed as “sloppy” that day, bet your money on her; but if the track is listed as “fast,” bet on the bay. No worries, mate.] So, if a dog is limbically wired to bark at a perceived threat, it is a better bet for contraband detection, than one wired to run away or freeze [or loll, even].

In fact, all dogs [and horses, and people] are capable of all 3 limbic responses. It’s just that one response is more typical or characteristic of any given individual. Here is where I invoke our acting school aphorism: “Know your type, and love your type.” I love Lili for her vigilance [even if she issues many false alarms in the course of a day]; and I know that my limbic wiring is closer to hers, than to the 2 hippy-dippy golden retrievers next door. My goal is not to “change breeds,” but to become the best German shepherd [or even Timber wolf] I can, by lowering my incidence of false alarms.

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"How do children survive?"

Maurice Sendak’s question is quoted at the top of an article about Where the Wild Things Are, in The Psychologist, the journal of The British Psychological Society [of which I have been a member since the 70s], written by an American psychoanalyst, Richard Gottlieb, whose thesis seems to be that Sendak had a rotten childhood, so he writes about children having rotten childhoods, who nevertheless, against all odds, survive.

Predictably, I beg to differ. Some aspects of Sendak’s childhood [like yours & mine] were rotten. His genius has been to transform his tough stuff into images [visual and verbal] that kids receive with delighted recognition: “I know just how Max/Mickey/Pierre/Really Rosie feels, cuz sometimes I feel that way, too.” In Gottlieb’s tone, I detect the whiff of unacknowledged wolf. He even tries to make psychoanalytic hay out of Max’s wearing “his wolf-suit” [which, tonight being Halloween, I’m betting we’ll see more than one of, at our front door]. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a wolf-suit is just a wolf-suit.

Now, to introduce Ying Tong, the Worst Cat in the World, whom I credit with my childhood survival. Like little Maurice, I was a sickly child [although my parents didn’t “make a dog’s dinner” of their concerns about my health, unlike the Sendaks]. In the winter of 1961 I developed severe bronchitis, and my constant bouts of phlegmy coughing made it almost impossible to keep food down. When we had moved to the UK the previous summer, we had tearfully left our dog Alfred behind [because of the draconian 6-month quarantine rule], so on Christmas eve my father burst into the house [bleeding and swearing profusely], and pried a black & white, snarling Wild Thing off his neck, saying, “Merry effing Christmas!” My parents had secretly agreed that the family needed a local pet, to ease the loss of Alfred. The cat was a rescue from the RSPCA, supposedly female [and therefore named by my mother “Jingle Belle”]; but later assessed by the vet as Ever So Male: “Perhaps you would like to call him ‘Jingle Bill’?” We fell into the habit of calling him Ying Tong, after the Goon Show song, “Ying Tong Iddle I Po.” [Another gem of non-lexical vocables, suitable for lowering anxiety.]

The cat was the bane of the street, commando-raiding the neighbor children’s outdoor tea table and making off with their Marmite sandwiches; climbing another neighbor’s sapling tree and chewing off all the buds. Inside the house, he would lurk under my bed, snarling with menace. I would do the longjump from the hallway to under my bed covers, and he would pounce, trying to bite me through my many layers of duvet. Then [and this is the Beauty Part] he would curl up on my chest and fall asleep. My parents theorized [and I agreed] that the very credible threat of a woken up Ying Tong’s wrath would strongly motivate me to resist the urge to cough, thereby keeping my food down and my strength up. And, lo, I survived! And, despite his rotten disposition, I just loved that cat.

The week we were set to move back to the US, a worried neighbor knocked at our door, asking if we owned “that large back & white smooth.” My mother said, “Yes. What’s he done now?” “Well, I’m afraid, been run down by a lorry. He’s in our front garden,” said she. Cheer up. He didn’t die from his injuries, which were extensive: a broken hind leg, a broken jaw, and a gash in his side. In fact, he became [marginally] sweeter. Because he chewed off his plaster cast on the voyage home, his leg fused in a straight-out position; but that did not affect his agility or speed. When we got to our new duty station, we were [unexpectedly, but joyously] reunited with our beloved dog Alfred, and were also given a gray & white cat [whose markings were identical to Ying Tong’s]. That cat had 7 kittens [none of which was going to St. Ives], all of whom learned to sit with one hind leg extended, in apparent emulation of “Uncle Ying Tong,” who lived to the age of 18.

So, my answer to Maurice Sendak’s question is: Children survive by consorting with fierce creatures [both human and 4-legged; both inside themselves and Out There]. To make the wolf [or a vicious cat] your friend is sometimes the key to making it into adulthood, against all odds.

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