Emotions and other Subcortical issues

The following are bits of writing from many sources such as personal correspondence, posts to on-line discussion groups, notes, and occasionally even some journaling. All of this is informal in nature, but contains some interesting and/or useful information.

Mental Models
You have probably experienced the phenomenon of seeing Tetris shapes falling before your eyes when you try to sleep following an intense round of play. Worry is something like this as well, where you obsess over the circumstances and try to figure out a way out. Basically, you're running mental models over and over in your year to find combinations of variables that represent a solution or at least an escape. Love is the only situation I know that demands this level of mental activity that isn't a form of worrying. I guess it is the process of trying to firmly ingrain a mental representation of the other person in your own mind so that you are better able to bond with them (e.g., can navigate encounters with one another with ease, anticipate desires, etc.).

Downshifting
It doesn't make sense to go in with a lot of instinctive protective urges turned on. You've probably heard the term "downshifting" to refer to this. In case you aren't aware of the origin, the term relates to the fact that when you respond to a situation when you are "charged up," you are, in fact, using a physically lower and more primative system (the limbic system) on which emotions are based (or from which they eminate... something; neuroscience hasn't pinned this one down fully just yet). If we're going to come to a satisfactory conclusion, it needs to be one borne of insightful discussion, not a caveman brawl fuelled by "fight or flight" urges.

Emotion
[from a letter to a professor of mine]
A couple thoughts about emotions:
1) You may recall I offered “embarrassment” as an emotion in class yesterday. This came from something a friend told me the other day. He had read someplace that humans (primates?) and dogs (all canines?) are the only animals that express shame or embarrassment (I think we can rule cats out immediately). Has anyone acknowledged this in the literature as far as you know? It would seem to me that if not, there are probably a number of cases in which lack of embarrassment (brazenness?) has been misinterpreted as an absence of fear or a deficit in planning via the frontal cortex. Just a thought.
A quick anecdote: One of my dogs was on the couch next to me the other day having of one of those classic “chase” dreams dogs always seem to have. The dream must have been so intense he awoke from it believing he should continue the chase. He darted halfway across the living room, stopped, realized what he had done and even how silly he looked, and slunk back to the couch, head hung low in an unmistakable gesture of embarrassment. He didn’t want to talk about it either.
2) While you were lecturing (sorry) I attempted to plot the emotions listed on the board and in the handouts on a 2 axis system, the first being positive vs. negative (as per the discussion) and the second as “active” vs. “inactive.” This probably isn’t the best way to express what I was thinking, but please read on.
The result is, of course, 4 quadrants. In the “negative/active” you find anger, fear, disgust, and anxiety. In the “negative/inactive”: sadness, despair, etc. For “positive/active”: happiness, excitement, etc. Now, try to guess what would go in the “positive/inactive” quadrant. Nothing we listed. I came up with a few on my own, although it’s hard to think of good names for them beyond the first: satisfaction (as after a meal, completing a project, etc.), being “stoned” via an opiate derivative (as opposed to amphetamines), and post-coital (um, pardon) “afterglow.”
It’s interesting that this quadrant is intuitively neglected. My guess is that this is due to a phenomenon homologous to that of the awareness of pain. You notice immediately when you have a headache; can say what time it started and so on, but could you say when it went away with the same degree of precision? A state of satisfaction requires no awareness of itself because it demands no action. Anger and sadness are highly motivating. Even excitement makes you jump up and down.
One quick note of clarification. In the experiment involving the confederates directing the emotional states of “hyped-up” subjects, it is interesting to note that the two emotions evoked (elicited?) –as I remember it- were excitement and irritation, two apparent opposites. The text I recall reading this in made a point (following James and Lange) to say that our physiological state is a barometer to indicate the intensity of the emotion we should perceive. They emphasized the fact that these emotional states yielded opposite behavioral consequences: eagerness to participate in the study vs. desire to abandon the experiment. For the study you cited they evoked fear vs. anger which probably aren’t terribly distinct since one can morph into the other relatively quickly.
Another thing: In the study I read they used diet pills (amphetamines) instead of epinephrine to induce the physiological component.
Sorry to ramble so much.

Your prefrontal cortex and you
Read this before continuing: Damaged: http://gladwell.com/1997/1997_02_24_a_damaged.htm Yes, it's another one of those Malcolm Gladwell articles I'm always recommending.
I think the article does a great job of spelling it out, but the point to remember is that individuals with an impaired prefrontal cortex have little to no control in the conventional sense. If they have the slightest impulse to *do* something, they will. They can't plan it, they just do it or say it or hit it, no matter how inappropriate their behavior is. And of course, this feeds back as frustration at their situation, so that exacerbates their negativity... and makes them more angry.
There's a lot out there you can read about the prefrontal cortex, but a couple take-home points to remember are that this is the part of the brain that is the least developed in any of us, particularly when we are younger. This is what makes kids say the wrong thing at the wrong time and draw on the wall with crayon when they know they aren't supposed to and eat the cookies when you told them not until after supper. They *know* what they *should* and *shouldn't* do in these cases by a certain age, yet they do it anyway. And if you ask them why they did it they'll say, "I don't know."
And if you ask Robert Downey Jr. what's so great about heroine that he has to risk jail time and losing everything else he ever had... he'll give you the same answer. He *knows* what's right for him, and he will tell you that he *knows* he doesn't *need* heroine... but he's going to flunk his drug test when he sees his parole officer next week just the same.
The prefrontal cortex doesn't really come on-line until you're 30. This is why "adult" 20-somethings aren't ready to have kids (by their own admission if they're smart) or to settle down and get married (instead of having "starter marriages"). They've still got a few more years of clubbing to do!

Feeling and Doing
One of the Stephen Covey-isms is his idea that you just make yourself do it the first time around, and before long you find that it becomes natural (or even a habit). Actually, this idea comes up in other people's philosophies throughout history. In Stanislavski's acting method, he says that pretend the emotion, just play the part as it were, and your body will follow with the appropriate internal state. This was independently echoed in Henry James' theories of emotion in which he thought that the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, etc. that contribute to your awareness of emotion) sort of coded your interpretation of your excitement. If you throw yourself into an adventurous spirit, you can't help but feel adventurous. The same is true for just about anything, including sexuality.

Free will
When I was in the car accident with Dani, I didn't think about anything except her in the car and making sure she was okay. I got a sort of tunnel vision that excluded all other elements of the surroundings. I didn't pay attention to the windowns breaking, that the car had spun 360 degrees, or anything else. I just concentrated on making sure she stayed in her seat while we were being tossed around.
I don't know how much of it was conscious and how much was just my "operating system" doing what it needed to. I think this gets at the concepts of accountability and free will. I mean, I guess it depends on what where you place value.
A related concept that, on a certain level, could be considered the opposite of "free will" might be talent. A talent is an innate ability that doesn't require conscious effort. Sure, people work to develop their talents, but this is often quite fun for them, so once again this bypasses to some extent the requirement for determination or "willingness." In "To Kill A Mockingbird," Scout is told by the family's maid (I forget her name) about how Atticus Finch is an amazing shot with a rifle. (paraphrasing) "Why, he would leave here with twelve rounds, then return with ten birds and complain about wasting ammunition." However, he would never brag about this, so his kids never knew. When they pointed this out, the maid explains that Atticus never had to work very hard to be a good shot. As a result, he was of the opinion that it came from God, so it wasn't his to brag about.
As it relates to the car crash incident, I don't know how much of this was an act of will-power, an effort to struggle against what I *wanted* to do in order to act in a fashion that ran counter to my desires. In all likelihood, I probably would have done exactly what I did, whch was to stay close to Dani, but I was on sort of an "auto-pilot" at that moment. I think I was physically stunned by the accident. I understood completely what had happened, but I wasn't thinking in a larger framework of what I could do at that moment Like I said, even Pearl [our foster dog who was in the car during the accident] dropped off of my radar for a time. She was yapping for a few minutes when she was first shaken up, so I calmed her while I was trying to keep Dani's head up and to get her talking and responding (which she didn't for several minutes).
I think you might draw a parallel between this and maternal instinct. My dad likes to relate the story of how when he and mom mom brought me home from the hospital, her maternal accumen just "kicked in." I forget exactly what it was that she was doing, maybe bathing me or something like that (probably not since we're talking about my first day home), and my dad was astounded how how she seemed to know exactly what she was doing. He said, "Where did you learn to do that?" She replied, kind of surprised herself now that she thought about it, "I just knew what to do." Certain innate patterns of behavior express themselves only at the most opportune moments. The most frequently-cited example of this is when a mother lifts a car to save her children. I don't know how often this has ever occured in actuality, but it almost certainly a real manifestation of this phenomenon. More important than the physical feat, astounding as it is, is the fact that mothers attempt this *first* before engaging in any other behavior. From an evolutionary perseptive, this is a good way to select for this trait. Those offspring that were saved under that car/rockslide/mammoth carcas just happened to be carrying a set of those genes that set the stage for Mom's heroism.

Subcortical intelligence
Below is something culled from a discussion with Dani, then rewritten for my parents, and since passed around among other friends. It is a synthesis of ideas that I think is helpful in perceiving behavior from a neurological perspective. This framework is particularly applicable to the motivation of students, but can be applied in many other areas.
Although some of the examples are somewhat technical, the ideas are staightforward. Many of the examples are autobiographical. Any comments and suggestions would be appreciated, but are not expected. Feel free to follow with any questions.
I came across a new way of collectively viewing a variety of mental conditions in a book I was reading recently, a collection of interviews with cognative neuroscientists, one of whom studied the changes addicts' brains (e.g. which parts/areas were differentially activated). In this interview, the scientist described the role of subcortical areas as opposed to the frontal cortex.
This is a fairly straightforward division of the brain into "top" and "bottom" portions according to anatomy, but it is more useful to distinguish between these areas than even the popular hemispheric division into "left" and "right" brain thinking because all behavior has at its roots some combination of influence from cortical and subcortical influences.
The frontal cortex contains processes involved in language, descriptive memory (e.g. stories, facts, but not skills like playing guitar or woodcarving, believe it or not). Areas beneath the cortex (i.e. subcortical areas) are responsible for (among *many* other things) extreme emotional states such as depression, rages, post-traumatic stress disorder and other panic attacks, etc. Some areas in this part of the brain include the nucleus accumbens, a region largely responsible for addiction, and the cerebellum that "remembers" practised movements like playing the aftermentioned guitar playing and woodworking skills.
The frequently frustrating result of this is that we are the sum of multiple "chuncks" of biological machinery. We can pretend to ourselves that we are dealing with a single "person," but really it's always an average (of sorts) of all the components.
My favorite example of this is the classic alcoholic. Let's borrow the format of the classic Reader's Digest series (famously adapted into Fight Club): Joe's frontal cortex has learned from experience that it is wrong to drink to excess. His frontal cortex has memories of this happening to him on too many occassions to count. The same part(s) of his brain also contain(s) memories of negative consequences of getting in trouble for this behavior. He remembers getting fired from work, getting in fights, having to pay traffic tickets, and so on.
Unfortunately, another part of Joe's brain *really* wants to drink. This is the prefrontal cortex. In it is an area called the nucleus accumbens. If you asked Jack what this part of his brain is saying, he really couldn't tell you. He could tell you all about what he's seeing and hearing at any given moment, what he dreamt about last night, what he had for breakfast, how to build a web page, and so on, but he couldn't tell you why he can't keep himself from drinking. That part of his brain is beyond his control in the same sense as most of his other everyday faculties are (e.g. heart rate, digestion, hormonal secretion, etc.).
For better or for worse, there are a lot more patterns of behavior under this sort of subcortical control. A lot of these are to our advantage and we don't think about them. For example, the cerebellum is a very old part of the brain (evolutionarily speaking) and is in charge of motor control whenever practised movements are called for. We use it to type, walk, play musical instruments, and so on. Interestingly, we become unaware of what our cerebellum "knows" the more we rely on it. Even though we may have played a song many times on a particular instrument, it would be difficult to spell out the notes without consulting the instrument itself (at least mentally, if not one in hand) to accurately relate the sequence. Here's another one: Without looking, can you tell me which key on the keyboard the ring finger on your right hand rests on? Probably not without a little effort, maybe by deducing which keys must be around the one in question. And yet you reach for these same keys unconsciously and never question how you "knew" where they were.
Although the cerebellum is a generally benign part of the brain (i.e. people don't have to attend psychotherapy for problems with it), the limbic system is full of frightening possibilities. This is where rage originates. It is horrible to have emotions triggered without any substantial basis in an individual's 1) conscious desire to feel/act or 2) learned history of responding in a socially appropriate manner to stimuli that do not ellicit a similar response in the average individual. Again in this case, the primary motivator of the behavior is in a part of the brain that does not "learn" through lectures, coversation, etc.
Similarly, clinical depression originates out of proportion to if not in spite of external circumstances. Yet, the acknowledgement of depression as a disease state has not been pervasive enough to prevent people from dealing with the afflicted individual with questions along the lines of, "Everything in your life is absolutely great, can't you see that? Why do you have to be so mopey? Get up and do something!" This only serves to instill the well-studied phenomenon known as learned helplessness. This just reinforces an already negative situation and further disinclines the afflicted individual from seeking treatment... which is already a formidable challenge given the disease's effect on motivation.
Of course, the disorder most frequently associated with lack of (or more often mis-directed) motivation is ADD/ADHD. Children (and, subsequently, adults) with ADD face a similar barrage of well-intentioned "motivational" chiding. When I was in grad school in education, I was finally exposed to enough literature on ADD to begin to persue a better understanding of my own problems. Superficially, my history reflected someone who was stupid (poor grades, lots of mistakes). However, a closer examination would have to be revised to "lazy." I was intelligent enough to do better, but never did (or at least did so inconsistently). This was, in fact, a more distressing evaluation since it meant now that I had a moral failing (whatever that means). Now that I'm older, I have been seen less as unmotivated and more in terms of "quirky" or as the "absent-minded professor."
The truth is that I and nearly everyone with ADD would *consciously* like to control unaided our moment to moment behavior and always make the sensible choice, the one that puts aside the quick fix (be it a video game, reading something for fun, etc.) for more demanding behavior with the long term benefit (e.g. studying, doing homework, etc.). Sounds just like the alcoholic or any other type of addict, doesn't it? My point is that the similarities are more than superficial; they have a definite biological basis.
The recognition of this dichotomy of behavior (cortical vs. subcortically-controlled) should eventually come around much in the same way the introduction of the "subconscious" (or more accurately, the "unconscious") revolutionized thinking 80+ years ago when Freud introduced it. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go in educating the public to an extent where they can appreciate it. Whereas Freud's ideas were based on somewhat mystical notions (e.g., a trinity of characters that rule the mind: the Id, Ego, and Superego), neuroscience is based on very substantial fact. It's a little more difficult to lay the groundwork of anatomy and physiology on which to pave new ideas about the mind.
However, once people start thinking in terms of this subcortical basis of behavior (where it's applicable; obviously not all behavior is subcortical*), then new ideas about controlling those previously unmanageable behaviors will emerge. As is stands now, all the chastising in the world will not dissuade Dani's mom from smoking. She is engaging is a completely irrational form of behavior (she a health professional -a nurse- fer cryin' out loud!), yet another part of her brain has such a sway over her moment-to-moment desires that it pushes her to go out of her way to light up.
That isn't to say that there aren't good reasons to involve the frontal cortex in changing this kind of behavior. Obviously, Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups (e.g. trauma survivors; people who have had terrible memories burned in their amygdalas) help individuals manage their "demons" by training their frontal cortex to overpower their contrary subcortical machinery. Placing pressure on a smoker through emotional appeals, rational arguements, etc. will push her part of the way from the problem, but not all the way. Transferring the behavior to something else (chewing gum, etc.) or substituting another chemical (or the same chemical via different means a la a nicotine patch) will push her pattern still further from the undesirable behavior.
The most "direct" approach any of us will attempt is to challenge an individual verbally when we want to change his or her behavior. Unfortunately, in the modern educational system, this virtually the only method many instructors try. Behaviorism is enormously unpopular among the extreme left (who predominate in academia), so a vast and entirely valid body of knowledge is rejected not on the basis of its efficacy, but on its political implications (e.g. that it is a form of "mind control").
However, while good classroom techniques will effectively get across ideas, education will not deal directly with the issue of motivation. There are substantially greater rewards (as far as the oldest parts of the brain go) for engaging in behaviors like talking to peers and being "cool" (forming social bonds and establishing a higher status within the group).
Consider AIDS and teen pregnancies. The campaign? Public education: scare tactics, statistics, etc. Now consider this: Which carried the species through the last few million years, sexual health awareness or hormones? I guarantee you it wasn't sitting in a classroom for a slide presentation.
The underlying implication of all of this is that much of the behavior we assume can be influenced through "talk therapy" is out of touch with the regions that can "talk." You can preach all you want to the cortex without having a significant impact on the subcortical areas. And, in the case of all of these disorders in their purest forms, they are never able to be controlled if the victim would just "try harder."
An interesting commonality among all these phenomena is that they can be modified by pharmacological manipulation in ways that frontal cortex functions cannot. Whereas there is no drug that can assist in studying for an engineering exam or learning a foreign language, any number of drugs can affect activity level, outlook on life, make an individual more or less impulsive, and even curb a number of additions.
Neuroscience will eventually achieve its implied promise to understand (and, where necessary, control) the processes of the mind. However, scientists are notoriously conservative where their results are concerned, for fear that they are over-extending phenomena seen under a microscope to a whole organism. The struggle continues....
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*Some examples of cortically controlled behavior include analytical ability, mnemonics, pattern matching (an ability much more widely applied than anyone appreciates), language skills (including the acquisition of foreign langugages), and learning disabilities.like dyslexia.
Whereas most of the disorders I mentioned above have subcortical basis, from what I understand about autism, there probably has a more considerable basis in the frontal cortex for that condition than in other parts of the brain (note the classic examples of savant abilities and characteristic absence of emotion). Ironically, the most widely used approaches in working with these children emphasize subcortical techniques (e.g. behavior modification, etc.).
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Anyway, that's as far as I made it in revising this jumble of thoughts. Hopefully it is all little more coherent now, but there is still a lot that I could develop. Still, the point is to simply point out this perspective on the analysis of human behavior. I hope it is helpful.

Subcortical
The cortical vs. subcortically-based paradigm should eventually come around much in the same way the introduction of the "subconscious" (or more accurately, the "unconscious") revolutionized thinking 80+ years ago when Freud introduced it. Unfortunately, we still have a ways to go in educating the public to an extent that they can appreciate it. Whereas Freud's ideas were based on somewhat mystical notions (e.g. a trinity of characters that rule the mind: the Id, Ego, and Superego), neuroscience is based on very substantial fact. It's a little more difficult to lay the groundwork of anatomy and physiology on which to pave newer ideas.
However, once people start thinking in terms of this subcortical basis of behavior (where it's applicable; obviously not all behavior is subcortical), then new ideas about controlling those previously unmanageable behaviors will emerge. As is stands now, all the chastising in the world will not dissuade your mom from smoking. She is engaging is a completely irrational form of behavior (she a health professional fer cryin' out loud!), yet another part of her brain has such a sway over her moment-to-moment desires that it pushes her to go out of her way to do it.
That isn't to say that there aren't good reasons to involve the frontal cortex in changing this kind of behavior. Obviously, Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups (e.g. trauma survivors; people who have had terrible memories burned in their amygdalas) help people manage their "demons." Placing pressure on your mom through emotional appeals, rational arguements, etc. will push her part of the way from the problem, but not all the way. Transferring the behavior to something else (chewing gum, etc.) or substituting another chemical (or same chemical via different means a la a nicotine patch) will push her pattern still further from the undesirable manifestation.

The subcortical mind and addiction
Returning to the issue of cortical vs. subcortical regions, you may know what's in my conscious brain, but even I'm not aware of what is in the other systems. I only know what I'm going to do because of past experience. Drug addicts can predict that they'll fall off the proverial wagon, but they certainly don't have any conscious desire to do so and they don't know when it will happen exactly.




Copyright Alexplorer.

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