Category Archives: limbic system

“hooked on the sound like it’s nicotine”

This apt metaphor comes from the current BBC Radio 1 hit, “Make Peace Not War” by the BritRap DJ, Skepta (known to his Nigerian-born parents as Joseph Junior Adenuga). I highly recommend its addition to your MP3 player, if only for the addictive hooky sample, “Everybody Dance, Now.”

As you may have guessed, the nicotine addict pictured above is not Skepta, but my own dear, long-since departed father (known to his Irish-born parents as “Red,” and to his shipmates as “Rosie”). Indeed, this picture comes from the official Naval book, U.S.S. WALKE, Korean Cruise, October 1950 to August 1951. What’s he like, eh? While everyone else in the book is pictured in uniform and smiling, the editors chose to let the Executive Officer’s inner wolf flag fly: “The Exec…If you felt you’d been [on deployment] too long, if you weren’t completely happy with your work, if you had any little problem at all, you just brought it in to this kindly old soul. He knew just how you felt.” [Note the use of the Poetic Speech function.]

A propos Memorial Day weekend, I will quote further from the book: “At 0740, June 12, 1951…a heavy explosion. In one stunning moment the full agony of war came home to us. In that moment 26 shipmates lost their lives and 40 more were wounded. Out of disaster came heroism and determination. The wounded were brought to safety and then we saved the ship. In the ordeal that followed a good ship became a great one…and the WALKE and the men who sailed her lived to fight again.”

One is tempted to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, North Korea!” However, alas, it was Rosie, and many of his fellow Americans, who did the smoking; and this post is yet another attempt to understand why.

The research I will quote comes from an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, published on 17 June 2010: “Nicotine Addiction,” by Neal L. Benowitz, M.D. He begins with the usual grim statistics. “Cigarette smoking remains a leading cause of preventable disease and premature death in the United States and other countries. On average 435,000 people in the United States die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each year; smoking causes 1 in 5 deaths. The chance that a lifelong smoker will die prematurely from a complication of smoking is approximately 50%.”

So, what gives? Are all those smokers (including smart, brave, stoical Rosie) just Crazy Like a Fox? Maybe. “The pharmacologic reasons for nicotine use are enhancement of mood, either directly or through relief of withdrawal symptoms, and augmentation of mental and physical functions.” Wait, what? Don’t tell your “Kangaroo” [aka attention-challenged] children; but Benowitz cites lab animal & human research studies suggesting that nicotine improves concentration and adherence to task. The evidence is more compelling [and also ethically distressing] in the rat studies, since one would presume that the rats are responding only to the cholinergic effects of the nicotine, not to the learned social cues and expectations so exhaustively explored on MadMen.

To totally simplify his neuroscience-speak, the initial chemical effect of nicotine on the brain is to increase available dopamine [leading to a sense of calm well-being & “in-the-zone” mental/physical performance]. But soon the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (known to their friends as nAChRs) become desensitized, “demanding” ever higher doses of nicotine, just to forestall (in rats) “anxiety-like behavior and the release of corticotrophic-releasing factor (CRF) in the central nucleus of the amygdala.” Aha! Our old nemesis, the howling wolf [amygdala, yah?] is flooded with toxic CRF, resulting in (unaccountable) fear (aka anxiety), and pain & suffering. No wonder those in nicotine withdrawal are so cranky!

Benowitz is not a big fan of [comparatively inefficient] nicotine-replacement delivery systems [such as gum or trans-dermal patches]. He believes in shielding the nAChRs from the depredations of nicotine in the first place. Short of psychosurgery or serendipitous Traumatic Brain Injury, however, no such nicotine-eluding technology yet exists.

Like a hooky song you can’t get out of your head, once you take “Nico” on board, you may have a “shipmate” for life.

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Filed under crazy like a fox, limbic system, stress and cortisol

No Teddy Bears’ Picnic


If you’re familiar with Harry Hall’s 1932 recording of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, ” you’re in distinguished company. For more than 30 years, BBC sound engineers used it to check frequency cycles before broadcasts, because of the fidelity of the recording and the wide-ranging pitches of the little ditty. Tell you something else that was wide-ranging: Irish lyricist Jimmy Kennedy’s various attributions of the danger posed by Teddy Bears in the woods. For a supposedly light-hearted children’s song, it’s as full of dark foreboding as a Twilight flick. “If you go into the woods today, you’d better go in disguise…you’d better not go alone. It’s lovely out in the woods today, but safer to stay at home.” And why all the angst? “Today’s the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic.”

I’m not a big fan, never was, of sending mixed messages to children about safety hazards. Seems to me there are enough truly scary things and situations out there “in the woods” to worry about, without setting up “straw men” like picnicking Teddy Bears, nar’mean? But that’s me being literal-minded, rather than Poetic, about it. I’ve read [and recommended] Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, the point of which is, that Grimm fairy tales [and zombie films, and their ilk] afford a less amygdala-setting-off, more reassuringly metaphorical way of facing our fears.

About 2 months ago, as Chris & I were walking Lili into the thick of the woods, a middle-aged woman [I should talk!], clad in a brown velour track suit which the 80s wanted back, jogged up to us and said, “Better be careful! There are police in the woods!” Intrigued, Chris & Lili forged ahead, while I stumbled behind them [my ankles suddenly turning to jelly from anxiety]. “A dead body? An armed & dangerous felon?” I wondered. What did their presence betoken, that had so freaked out the Lady in Velour? When Chris saw them, he asked “What’s up?” They said, “We’re looking for hunters.” They were U.S. Federal Special Police Officers, from the Smithsonian Institution Office of Protection Services [Did I mentions that “our” woods are a Smithsonian nature preserve?], acting on a tip that hunters had been spotted in the area. So we regaled them with anecdotes of our many encounters with [apparently illegal] hunters in the woods over the years, and they admired Lili, and gave me a business card with their phone & fax numbers, asking that Lili & I be their “eyes & ears” on our daily rounds. “Our office is just around the corner, and we’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

Talk about an official seal of approval! It was as if Lili had been transformed from a ravening beast, to a Deputy Dawg! I may continue to experience fear, intrusion, and even pain & suffering when I trip over a hidden tree root; but I think my days of humiliation in the woods are over.

But what, we wondered, was Brown Jogging Lady so spooked about? Was she a superannuated Hippie, who still regarded the Fuzz as the foe? [This was before OWS, mind.] Had they advised her not to wear deer-colored clothing in the woods during hunting season, or she could get shot?

Like Jimmy Kennedy, she manifested ambivalence about the threat level in the woods that day. I do, too, of course, always dreading my next encounter with Skipper the Unleashed and his insouciant owner. As it happened, the very next day Chris, Lili & I were once again menaced by the appalling pair; and I just happened to drop the name of the Smithsonian Police.

Haven’t seen them since. Still, with other free-range dogs about, newly fallen lumber every day, and muddy footing, it’s no picnic.

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Filed under ambivalence, attribution theory, limbic system

The Uncanny Valley


This highly technical term, coined in the 70s by the Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, could just as well be the title of a Hollywood horror flick, nar’mean? What Mori-san meant, though, was that sudden dip in a graph measuring the “appeal” of humanoid robots, that occurs when The Thing looks both Too Human, yet Not-quite Human, and the observer gets freaked out.

Dr. Christian “Jeepers” Jarrett’s article, “The Lure of Horror,” in the Halloween issue of The Psychologist, tries to account for the apparent predilection among current cinema-goers [it’s a British journal] for being freaked out. Despite what you might gather from the weekly Box Office grosses listed in The Hollywood Reporter, not everyone craves creepiness. In fact, it’s mostly males aged 6 to 25 who really dig “trips” to the Uncanny Valley. The rest of us get quite enough of that eery sensation, thank you very much, from our nightmares, hypnogogic illusions [in that twilight state between sleep & waking], and the weird coincidences of everyday life.

The concept predates modern film-making. Freud & his contemporaries were writing articles about Das Unheimliche [the Uncanny] in the early 1900s, pondering the scariness of dolls with missing eyes [remember the cartoons of Orphan Annie?], clowns, and anyone hiding their face behind a mask [or veil]. The limbic explanation, then and now, is that we vulnerable mortals need all the visual cues we can get, to determine whether a stranger poses a threat or not. If we think someone is PLU [People Like Us], and suddenly the mask slips, to reveal that they are [gasp!] non-PLU, our visceral response may be so dramatic that we get vertigo.

Back in the day, when I was a VA Trainee, I was interviewing a young “woman” veteran, to assess whether the first government-funded sex-change operation would increase or decrease his/her suicidal acting out. I had lived in Greenwich Village, the mecca of glamorous transvestites; but the individual before me looked and acted more like an Amish farm girl. When I asked about an incident from adolescence, the person’s voice, body language and facial expression morphed into the 16-year-old boy he had been; and I nearly fell out of my chair. It wasn’t scary; it was uncanny. We both had a good laugh about it, and carried on with the interview, in the safe surroundings of the Manhattan VA hospital. As a transsexual individual trying to live a “normal” life in 1970s NYC, however, the uncanny feelings my patient evoked in macho men often turned violent. [ See The Crying Game, not so much Tootsie.]

In this regard, Jarrett reports a startling finding from my least favorite research tool, the fMRI. 40 subjects watched creepy clips from scary movies and also boring clips from the same films. The researchers expected the amygdala to light up during the creepy bits; but, no, the intracranial wolf did not howl. What lit up were the “visual cortex, the insular cortex (a region involved in self-awareness) and the thalamus (the relay centre between the cortex and the sub-cortical regions).” I hate to admit it, but this is heavy. It suggests that members of that coveted demographic, males between 6 and 25, do not seek out horror films to get scared. They are there to get schooled. They are practicing [in what they are quite aware is a safe, pretend setting] vigilance. They’re getting good at discriminating the PLU from the non-PLU, innit?

Their motto is not, “Jeepers, creepers!” It’s “We won’t be fooled again.”

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Filed under attribution theory, limbic system, sharks and jets

"(Venez) M’Aider!"


In 1923 Frederick Mockford, the senior radio operator @ Croydon Airport, near London, was asked to come up with “the international radiotelephone signal for help, [to be] used by ships and aircraft in distress.” [Webster’s 1988 ed.] Since much of Croydon’s air traffic plied the route to and from LeBourget airfield in France, Mockford thought of the French phrase, “Venez m’aider!” [“Come help me!”], which was shortened to “Mayday,” then lengthened to “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!” [since the redundancy makes it clear that you really mean “Help!” and are not just talking about the 1st of May].

In this April’s issue of AOPA Pilot magazine [the official publication of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association], an article called “High Anxiety” recounts the consequences of a Panic Attack, suffered by a private pilot “with 20 years of flying experience” while he was flying solo and practicing an Instrument [as opposed to Visual] approach into Oceanside Municipal Airport [near San Diego, CA}. “Shortly after I entered the clouds, a wave of incredible panic and terror came over me. I believed I was completely out of control of the situation. I was afraid of losing control of the airplane, as well as the repercussions of [Air Traffic Control] if I got on the radio and told them I was losing control of the airplane.” [In other words, he feared that if he called a “Mayday,” he might lose his pilot’s license.]

Well, since this is a nonfiction article [not an episode of Lost], we can assume that he managed to overpower his “howling wolf” [fear-fueled amygdala, which was freezing up his hippocampus] and get it together for long enough to land, yah? Here’s what he recalls of that process: “I started talking to myself out loud, telling myself that there was nothing that needed to be done that I hadn’t done many times before. I got the needles centered where they were supposed to be and completed the approach successfully.”

Thereafter, though, he developed the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress, becoming unable even to fly as a passenger in a commercial airplane, and sought psychotherapy [of which more, later]. Meanwhile, what may have saved his life during the event was talking out loud to himself. If he had burst forth into song [maybe “I believe I can fly,” or “Off we go into the wild blue yonder”], he might have gotten a good result, as well, since his vocalizations short-circuited the unhelpful shallow breathing which fuels Panic. Speaking, singing, and whistling a happy tune really do work as anti-anxiety strategies, just as Rogers & Hammerstein told us.

His psychotherapist used 2 non-pharmaceutical techniques with our grounded pilot. He suggested a bit of in vivo desensitization [taking aerobatic gliding lessons with a seasoned instructor as his co-pilot], and cognitive challenging of any feelings of anxiety he experienced while flying, with reality-testing. If he began to feel anxious, he would quickly realize that he “was in complete control of the airplane and there was no reason to feel that way.” [And even if he “lost it,” the co-pilot could take over the controls at any time, if necessary.]

It is unclear, whether our pilot also took medications to control his anxiety. At the end of the article there is a message from the AOPA Medical Services Program, setting out the regulations for becoming recertified as a private pilot, after taking SSRIs or benzodiazepines. We do know that he has currently chosen to fly ultralight aircraft, for which no pilot’s license is required.

Be that as it may, the article offers insight into the onset, course, and successful treatment of a first-time Panic Attack, when a seasoned pilot who always thought he had “the right stuff,” got “tangled up in blue,” lived through it, and found the courage to take aother leap of faith “into the wild blue yonder.” Once again, he believes he can fly.

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Filed under limbic system, post-traumatic stress

Taking the Mick Out of Murphy’s Law


In 1949 at Edwards Air Force Base, a team of military engineers were studying the effects on the human body, of “sudden deceleration,” using a speed sled on rails & brave volunteers. The lead researcher, Capt. Edward A. Murphy, annoyed with the imprecision of one of his technical assistants, remarked that if a device could be fitted incorrectly, this clown would do it. Later, Dr. John Paul Stapp, who survived a 40-G [sic] deceleration in the sled, told reporters that, “the good safety record on the project was due to a firm belief in Murphy’s Law.”

So, how did the 20th Century dissing of one schlemiel in the California desert morph into the pessimistic worldview now implied by the idiom, “It’s Murphy’s Law, isn’t it?” uttered whenever [as the 18th Century Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote] “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”?

Well, as long as we’ve wandered back to the British Isles, let’s consider the far older [but unattributed] expression, “It’s sod’s law, innit?” In post-1950s dictionaries [both British & American] the two phrases are listed as interchangeable. But dey’re not really, are dey now? Cuz your British lexicographer was until recently reluctant to codify pejorative references to the Irish, even referring to a certain AKC breed of dog as a “red setter,” lest offense [and, presumably, reprisals] be taken. [Compare this to the linguistically insouciant Yanks, who t’row scores of Hooligans into Paddywagons every March 17th, for da love o’ Mike!] Mind you, there also are no “German Shepherds” in the UK; there are instead “Alsatians,” n’est-ce pas? [“Don’t mention the War!”]

Cultural nuances aside, though, there are important locus-of-control differences in the lessons to be drawn, between Sod’s and Murphy’s Laws. The former posits “a perversely malignant universe,” in which “dropped toast always lands buttered-side-down,” and bad things happen to good people. It is essentially Nihilistic. Murphy’s Law, on the other hand, suggests the adoption of a “belt & suspenders [or braces, as the Brits would have it]” approach to human endeavors. There may be no such thing as a “fail-safe” plan; so there should be at least one back-up plan. Written down & rehearsed [since, once the limbic system is lit up, hippocampus-mediated problem-solving will go off-line.] Yeah, sure, that plan might not work, either. Score one for the Nihilists. But, then again, it just might. Worth a try, yeah?

For Lent, I’m trying to give up seeing the world in Sod’s Law terms. I still believe in Murphy’s Law, of course. I know, for instance, that at the end of an hour-long, free-range adventure in the woods, Lili will still feel the need to “leave a message” for her canine correspondents on the lawn of the public schoolyard. Never let the other guy have the last “word,” is her motto. Luckily, though, this time she was “only taking the Mick” [Google it]; and no deployment of a New York Times blue plastic bag was necessary. [But I always carry at least one in my pocket, pace Capt. Murphy.]

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Filed under limbic system, locus of control, semiotics

Does a hangdog expression betoken guilt?


Funny, how old words morph their meanings, innit? Take “hangdog,” which has been around since the 1670s, adjective & noun, originally meaning “contemptible & sneaking.” [Think Dickens’ passive-aggressive character, Uriah Heep, always presenting himself as ‘umble, while surreptitiously scheming to bring the high & mighty down.] By 2010, The American Heritage Dictionary defined a “hangdog expression” as “looking shamefaced & guilty.”

Consider the word “guilt,” even. As late as 1934, the only definition in The Concise Oxford Dictionary was “culpability.” Guilt wasn’t a psychological construct. None of your subjective, self-referential, conceptual feeling [as in “survivor guilt,” or “Jewish/Catholic/Protestant guilt”]. Just the objective fact of the case: “How does the defendant plead? Guilty or not guilty?” Also, “How does the jury find: guilty or not guilty?” [Their verdict is a subjective opinion, but it’s presumably based on the objective, admissible facts presented.] The notion of remorse doesn’t come into it, until the sentencing phase of the trial, if the erstwhile “not guilty” defendant is found “guilty” [at which point, his lawyer advises him to show how sorry he is by adopting a hangdog expression].

So, here we are in the 21st century, with the burgeoning field of Social Neuroscience and its ugly Iron Maiden, the fMRI [colloquially referred to in the media as The Brain Scanner], claiming to have located the Seat of Guilt in the Brain, no less! Point of order, would that be the seat of objective or subjective guilt, they’ve found? Let me not bore you with my observations on the flawed research designs of such studies [like, having a subject read or watch scenarios of other people behaving badly, in order to light up the Guilt center(s) in the subject’s own brain… What? When I watch Othello snuff Desdamona, I’m the one who feels/is guilty?]. Let me instead quote the brain-imager, Dr. Gregory Miller of the University of Illinois: “Functions do not have a location. Decisions, feelings, perceptions, delusions, memories do not have a spatial location. We image brain events… We do not image, and cannot localise in space, psychological constructs.”

At most, then, the fMRI is currently no better than the 20th Century polygraph at measuring physiological changes correlated with limbic system changes correlated with psychological constructs, such as fear and humiliation. From which I know, having treated several Intelligence Officers who had failed the annual polygraph test because of an exaggerated sense of guilt, over sexual peccadillos, rather than because they were actually guilty of breaching national security. So dedicated were they to their Intel work [from which they were sidelined by the failed polygraph test], that some of them would ask [semi-jokingly], “Is there such a thing as a ‘guilt-ectomy’ that I could have, just so I could pass the polygraph?” Just give those brain-imagers a chance, and they’ll be in there before you can say “knife.”

Back to the title question, addressed on a pet behavior blog, in the form, “Do dogs feel guilt?” Their answer was, “No. Guilt is an abstract concept. Dogs express fear & submission, in response to the owner’s anger, which they sense through body odor, glaring eyes, stance and tone of voice.” The dog “looks hangdog” to avoid or lessen the Alpha Dog’s punishment [just like a defendant who has been “found guilty”].

The wolf looks “sheepish” in the presence of a more powerful wolf. It has correctly read the power subtext of the situation. It endures the humiliation of acting submissive, to avoid the pain & suffering of being put in its place [which might be completely beyond the pale, where chances of survival are slim] by the Big Dog. That’s more useful than guilt. That’s Social Intelligence.

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Filed under limbic system, murky research, power subtext

Buffalo Springfield Redux


Stick around 3 score years or so, and you’re likely to have a certain number of deja vu moments. Cue Stephen Stills’ 1967 hit, For What It’s Worth. [“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”] It became the anthem of the anti-Vietnam War movement, although he wrote it in response to a scuffle between rowdy clubbers and policemen in NYC [4 years before the student deaths @ Kent State, mind you, as mourned in his former bandmate Neil Young’s song, Tin Soldiers.]

[Music trivia note: The band’s name, Buffalo Springfield, has nothing to do with the Wild West, where endangered species roam, play, etc. It was inspired by a steamroller parked in the street outside their LA house, manufactured by the Buffalo-Springfield Roller Company.]

For me [who took to playing it on “infinite repeat” during those anarchic, all-bets-are-off days of the late 60s], the song had the power to transform my overwhelming fear (for myself, for my classmates who were facing the nightmarish fight [in Nam] or flight [to Canada] dilemma, and for my going-to-the-dogs country) into something less primal. Like all works of art (and this one earned the band induction into the Roll & Roll Hall of Fame, ya know), it imposed some order on the chaos, partly by making the general particular: “There’s a man with a gun over there.” As the song implies, it doesn’t much matter if he’s a public servant or a vigilante. Either way, it lights up our limbic system.

Good ol’ Stephen Stills channels his pre-frontal cortex, and advises, “I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”

There you have it. That’s the whole, sane, soothing message of his song. Not an empty promise of “Everything is going to be all right.” Not the braggadocio of “We will rock you.” Just, “Stop. Everybody look what’s going down.”

Cuz, as he said in another song, with another band, “We have all been here before…”

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Filed under aggression happens, limbic system, reference group