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Passion and Ease

To understand what matters to us and what does not, we need to understand some pretty basic things about our emotional life. Most of our emotional life is not consciously decided. Though it may obviously result from how we act and what we intend, mostly emotions are experienced as outside our direct control. This is fine, and it is almost always reasonable to say that what makes you responsible is not how you feel, but what you do about it. That I feel like punching someone in the face can be a very useful piece of information to me, but only if I can separate that feeling from actually punching him in the face. One of the most basic facts about our emotional life is that it operates at different speeds from our workaday thinking. I may feel the fear before I become aware that it is from a barking dog, so any action I take may require “engaging my brain” to realize that, despite my dog phobia, I am not at serious risk, and the dog is probably just guarding its perceived turf. But I also have to realize, though I may actually be in no danger, that my feeling of fear may take some time to dissipate. As might the feeling of anger, so even after I decide that I was mistaken, and that the perceived violation that made me feel like punching this person in the face did not occur, it may take that feeling time to dissipate

Many of the errors in our psychological lives have to do with these timing problems. Of feelings running ahead or lagging behind thought. If, to justify my feeling, I look for something else that might be making me angry, I might well find other things. Emotions don’t come labeled with their causes, and we regularly misattribute them. That doesn’t mean that the emotion is constituted by the attribution, as emotions do have physiological specificities that are quite relevant to their functions, and to our experience. But some awareness of the time course is often useful. I sometimes joke that when you get angry at a child, you have already lost, but that is only if your actions fail to take into account that, for example, you are likely to be more effective if you give yourself some time to think, or even just count to ten. And know this: Never shake a child. Think of what happens to a bowl of jello if you shake it. Not only might it break into pieces, but it can get all sorts of cracks and fissures in it even if it does not. That is what happens to a child’s brain when you shake the child. So please, don’t think you are doing your children any favors by shaking them, as a bruise or even a broken bone may produce less long-term damage. And as a rule of thumb, anger almost always hides a fear, and if you can identify and deal with that fear, you will go a long way toward dealing with the anger, both in yourself and in others.

One basic functional characteristic of the nervous system that is important to keep in mind is its “vertical” organization. Bottom-up effects, of almost any variety of stimulation, tend to accumulate, so the more that is going on, the more awake, alert and aroused you are likely to be. Introverts hit the point of discomfort with this arousal sooner than extroverts, so introverts prefer situations with less going on, and extroverts tend to both seek out and produce greater stimulation. Top-down effects, that is, effects from your higher cortical functions on the rest of what is going on, tend to be inhibitory. Reduce these, and you reduce inhibition. A male praying mantis whose head is bitten off by a female during mating will copulate more vigorously before he dies. Since emotions tend to be more similar at higher levels of arousal, this makes it easier to distinguish between them, and we can experience a wider array of emotional variation and nuance. Less thought, less inhibitio

Obviously, this can be nice. After a drink or two, you are less inhibited, less wrapped up in your thoughts, worries, and anticipations, and the freer you feel to act, try things, do things you otherwise wouldn’t do. Obviously this has a down-side: You will take more risks, and act more aroused and less differentiated in your actions. One of the standard problems produced by alcohol, or other central-nervous system depressants, is that you become cognitively myopic, “near-sighted” in the sense that you do not look ahead to the possible consequences of your actions. Cognitive myopia includes “beer goggles” and “drunk texting.”

The other basic characteristic is “horizontal,” the “opponent processes” we talked about in “Face Your Fears.” This is the central organizational aspect of the nervous system that produces passion and ease. These are the two “opponents” of the autonomic nervous system. Omnia Gallia est in tres partes divisa was the opening line of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which I read in my high school Latin class, but all of the peripheral nervous system (the part other than the central brain and spinal cord) is also divided into three parts. One is the voluntary nervous system, which controls most of our external musculature, the other more automatic one is the autonomic nervous system, which provides the accelerator and the brakes of our physiological arousal. This is a neural network from the spinal cord to the organs including the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, genitals, and the arterial system. It is divided into the sympathetic, usually cald the “flight or fight” system (two of the four “F”s of mammalian motivation), and the parasympathetic, “rest and digest.” The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (SNS and PNS, respectively) act in opposition to each other, but they are independent systems, and are organized a little differently. The sympathetic ganglia are organized in a linked chain, right next to the middle of the spinal cord, so they tend to operate in unison. The parasympathetic ganglia are separated and located near the end organs.

The sympathetic, fight/flight system does about what you would design a control system to do, to activate the body for a rapid, emergency response, say, if you were being attacked by a predator: Dilate pupils (for more information, better response in low light), speed and strengthen heartbeat (more fuel, faster), dilate bronchii, quicken breath (more oxygen), constrict blood to organs and periphery, strengthen its flow to muscles and brain, slow digestion (stop salivation, peristalsis, stomach enzymes, possibly vomit), more glucose from liver, break down fat, and increase metabolism. Bladder and bowels? Wouldn’t you want to dump ballast? Anyone who has seen runners at the end of a race, in final extremis, has probably seen someone wetting themselves, and the description of someone being “scared shitless” is literally true. I still have the boot knife that my grandfather gave my father, probably from some movie fantasy of trench warfare. My father only used it once, after the Battle of the Bulge, to cut off beshitted trousers, after mortar fire started hitting their trench. “There wasn’t a dry pair of pants in the trench.” As for sex, well, there is certainly a loss of libido under stress, and some genital shrinkage. Though I have seen textbooks that just don’t talk about the effects of the autonomic nervous system on the genitals, which would seem odd in a psychology text any time after Freud, they are usually illustrated with flaccid male organ as one of the body parts anatomically depicted. But I also used an Emotion textbook, now in its third edition, which included a drawing of female genitals.

The parasympathetic, as you might also predict, mostly does the opposite: Return pupils to default, slow heartbeat and breathing, constrict bronchi, ease digestion (drool, stomach enzymes, stimulate peristalsis, store energy as fat) and, while there is no direct effect on blood vessel constriction or dilation, sympathetic cessation can produce that wonderful “food coma,” or an after-meal siesta. Interesting that, in a generation suffering increases in the level of stress and anxiety, the reduction of peristalsis by the sympathetic nervous system might be behind increased incidence of “irritable bowel syndrome.” What about sex? The parasympathetic system, all about the opposite of anxiety or fight/flight arousal, also helps prepare for sex, dilating blood vessels to the genitals. Which means that, for example, any nervousness or anxiety on the part of the male is going to mean erectile dysfunction. But wait, while less sympathetic nervous system activity may be important for early stages of arousal, coition is surely one of those kinds of “vigorous bodily activity” that is produced by the sympathetic system, and yes, it is the sympathetic activation which produces ejaculation.

I used to have fun with students, speculating on wedding night activities: So Bob and Sally have spent all day in the presence of relatives and friends, in a certain amount of celebratory excitation, and now they retire to the wedding suite, and slip into something more comfortable. They also may have imbibed some of that disinhibiting alcohol, so are all that much more “in the mood.” And indeed, at high levels of now parasympathetic function, it is all that much easier for them to digest the day’s indulgences, as well as more likely for them to have the vasodilation important to genital tumescence. Yeah, let’s keep it clinical. So, Sally and Bob are soon about the business of consummating their marriage. OK, I know, that is sadly defined solely in terms of ejaculation. Moreover, early sexual experience tends to be far more painful and uncomfortable for young women. And, while Bob, being male, tends to get aroused more rapidly than Sally, and has the necessary accompaniment of parasympathetic preparation, the actual consummation might require more sympathetic function than he is capable. So what is Sally to do, when it has been going on long enough, perhaps long enough to increase her discomfort? Politely ask Bob whether he will soon consummate? Hardly romantic, plus, knowing that what might be necessary is to stimulate the sympathetic system suggests other tactics. Yell “fire” or something else designed to signal “emergency”? Maybe, but that’s hardly romantic, and might leave Sally having to explain herself later. Surely, Sally’s own vigor might help, or some encouraging noises. Students rarely needed the hint that pain is a paradigm stimulus for the sympathetic system, or relevant quotes from the Kama Sutra, before someone suggests it. Personally, I have never known a bride-to-be who hasn’t spent weeks growing and strengthening her fingernails. I have actually known more than one woman who sharpened hers. To quote the Rolling Stones’ song “Don’t Stop” (GRRR!), “You wrote your name right on my back. Boy your nails were sharp.” Of such passion are memories made. “Tire tracks all across my back” (Jimi Hendrix, “Crosstown Traffic” from Electric Ladyland).

Clearly, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, though they affect mostly the same organs, are not perfectly opposed. They are like two rheostats, normally in balance, but they are independent so they can have some interesting combination effects. At high levels of ecstasy, whether sexual or mystical, there may be spillover effects of both systems to the other (Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief). Stress-related nausea can be a combination of sympathetic activation of the stomach, along with parasympathetic peristalsis. Like pressing your hands together in isometric exercise, if you pull one of them away, you can get an “over-reaction” from the other. Clearly it is not the action of the sympathetic system, which reduces the production of digestive juices, that is solely responsible for the excess of acids leading to ulcers. It is probably useful advice in any of a number of circumstances that, after completing a highly stressful task it makes sense to back off slowly, rather than, say, intensify already heightened parasympathetic function by slugging down a double martini. Combinations of these opponents can also be important for precision control, like with an accelerator and a brake. Under predatory threat, a combination of PNS “brake” (hide, appease) and SNS “gas” (flight, escape) following the release of the brake can catapult a prey animal into a sprint. In general, for example, circumstances of heightened attention involve PNS mediated decreases in heart rate, with SNS mediated pupillary dilation, and there is a whole science of pupillometrics used for examining the momentary pupillary variations that signal attention or interest during reading a text or watching a video. A study published in Scientific American over 50 years ago showed that facial photographs with artificially dilated pupils were judged as more attractive, which raises the possibility that one’s own pupil-dilated interest in someone else also makes you look more attractive to them. Not to mention the interesting effects of different colored eyes. A deep brown that is difficult to distinguish from dilated pupils, or the icy blue eyes in which one can clearly distinguish pupil from iris, and also more readily judge intentions from direction of gazing.

There is an “autonomic specificity” hypothesis which suggests that different emotions may be produced by different balances, including the different subcomponent balances made possible by the independence of parasympathetic influence on different organs. So, for example, arousal is lower in happiness than for the negative emotions of anger, fear, sadness and disgust. Anger and fear show the largest heart rate acceleration, followed by sadness; happiness and surprise show only small increases. With disgust, there is actually a small decrease (as this is related to the possible ingestion of dangerous substances, one might want them to be metabolized more slowly). Anger shows whopping finger temperature increases, happiness a distant second, sadness a small but positive change, and surprise, fear and disgust show decreases (in that order). This would certainly correlate with increasing blood flow to the periphery in anger (which would signal better), and the different felt experience of fear. As I have said elsewhere, one of the difficult truths of our emotional lives is that negative emotions like fear and anger are associated with higher levels of arousal than are positive emotions. This actually makes sense, as negative emotions often signal the need for action, and positive emotions are often “don’t worry, be happy,” and require much less of us. Tragedy may therefore also be more memorable than romance or comedy; happily tragicomedy, where a tragic drama ends well, is one of the most popular. Still, positive emotions may both function to “bring us back to baseline” faster after more disturbing events, and also provide the opportunity to step back and see the forest for the trees of our quotidian difficulties. For illustration, some Finnish researchers had subjects indicate the varying levels of intensity experienced in the body for different emotions

I did find it interesting that very little intensity was reported “below the belt” for any emotions except happiness or love. But these are “self-reported,” so perhaps this is what people will report, not what they experience. Maybe many bodily responses are subconscious.

Our understanding of the SNS/PNS balances also provides an interesting take on how we understand trauma and PTSD. Patricia Ogden, Kekuni Minton and Claire Pain in their (2006) Trauma and the Body outline a “polyvagal” theory of parasympathetic function that distinguishes between two branches. A ventral vagal system helps moderate our arousal to balance the sympathetic hyperarousal, which focuses our attention and prepares our resources for fight or flight, to a “window of tolerance,” an optimal level of arousal for social engagement and passionate intellectual and emotional interaction. In short, it regulates our autonomic arousal from the sensitivity, emotional reactivity, hypervigilance, intrusive imagery, and disorganized cognitive processing (including among other things, very poor response to any necessity for novel or creative solutions to problems) characteristic of full emergency response. We are able to integrate both internal and external information, and process the ongoing barrage of sensory information by virtue of being able to both process current input while processing prior input. We also maintain the cognitive functioning needed for integrating information from cognitive, emotional, and sensorimotor levels. The dorsal vagal branch, on the other hand, produces the hypoarousal of reduced physical movement, cutoff of sensation, numbing of emotion, and disabled cognitive processing that is associated with an organism that is overwhelmed, helpless and unable to function. This is the shut-down zone where an emergency has become overwhelming, and where one is, in a sense “no longer there.” If you are about to be attacked by a predator, where there is no effective response to an overwhelming assault, this may be adaptive. But it is also what produces trauma. Top-down regulation is not possible, experience is dominated by the danger, and what was past is re-experienced as current. A soldier

is in the front seat of a Humvee in Iraq hit by an IED, his buddy’s hands blown off by the explosion, his buddy hysterically shrieking “look ma, no hands.” Situations produced by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) can easily produce trauma, as much of the experience actually occurs during or subsequent to the explosion, the experience already overwhelming. A year later, the actual victim of the explosion is now learning and exploring the capacities of his new, technologically advanced prosthetic hands. It is the buddy who helplessly watched who is suffering from PTSD, experiencing regular intrusions and flashbacks from the events. A man and a woman are upside down in a car in a 70-car pile-up outside Toronto. The man who was driving, responding to avoid the smashup, but failing, is trying everything, trying to break the window, taking out his pocket knife to cut out of his seatbelt. His wife, hanging from her seatbelt, was the passive victim, not even being aware of what was going on except to remember, as the minutes flowed by, a girl in the car in front of them screaming as she burned to death, “I’m only 14, I’m only 14.” The man recovers. Ten years later his wife is still suffering from PTSD. The difference is not in success at overcoming overwhelming situations, but in active response.

Bessell Van Der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score reports research on trauma victims, including brain scan results, that show not only cortical shutdowns, but even inhibition at the level of the thalamus, which normally integrates information from multiple senses into single percepts, such that even perceptual-level processing may be fragmented into unintegrated sensory channels. Little makes sense, and in order to heal a victim will need first to be able to cope with trauma-related stimuli that reinvoke the trauma, before they can be integrated into coherent narrative form. They don’t experience these re-invocations as memories of the past but as flashbacks, as contemporary re-experiencing of traumatic events. When physiological and emotional responses can be regulated to tolerable levels, and narrative accounts constructed, victims of even very horrific circumstances can still experience them as memories, not as happening again.

The work of Van Der Kolk, and of Ogden and her colleagues has important implications for the treatment of clinical levels of PTSD, particularly their attention to the role of the body, and bodily experience, even when not initially cognitively integrated, and the value of this attention in therapy. But I think there is another interesting suggestion, though it is of the sort that psychological theories about memory have not begun to address. That is that we may all have smaller versions of these intrusive and unprocessed “flashback effects” of what some clinicians are willing to call “small-t” trauma. When my daughter’s car was nigh-totaled by a truck coming out of an alley on her way to take the SAT, she bummed a ride with a witness to get to her test, but then had trouble concentrating because events of the accident kept intruding. She later re-took them and is now doing post-doctoral work in astronomy. But how many people experience a failure, a death, or even a serious betrayal or romantic breakup that has left them, to some degree traumatized, still uncomprehending of the events, and still continuing to re-experience them, on intrusive occasions, not as remembered events that are now in the past, but as contemporary events they continue to re-experience. How many of our life-narratives are actually built around such lacunae in our ability to make sense out of our lives or our world?