pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 19 Feb 04 18:37
You'll have to ask Steven exactly where the Freud quote comes from, probably from "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." I'm not sure where the term "divided self " comes from, quite possibly Liang. A post-modernist term is "dispersion." Clearly the Buddhists have been on to the divided mind for centuries and I suspect a lot of other observant thinkers down the line have too. In modern terms I tend to think of it coming from William James or Freud. While Ego, Id and Superego may not be very good models, they still speak of internal forces often working in opposition.
David Dawson (dawson54) Fri 20 Feb 04 00:26
Jane: As a footnote to your post in <20>, I'm just finishing a new book entitled "The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain," by Alice W. Flaherty. I have been absolutely bowled over by the scope and insight of this book, which looks at the revelations of brain science (for want of a better term) in regard to such topics as the connection between metaphor and emotion, hypergraphia (which the author has experienced), why and how we write, and the "inner voice" that deeply connects writers and readers via this amazingly complicated vehicle called the brain. In other words, it addresses a good many of the topics and questions that you raise. I'm just now opening my copy of "Mind Wide Open," so I'll be playing catch-up. Sounds like it's going to complement this Midnight Disease book very well. I'm looking forward to joining in....
jane hirshfield (jh) Fri 20 Feb 04 10:02
Thanks, David--I read some reviews of that Flaherty book and yes, it did sound fascinating--thanks for the recommendation. Today's press reports an interesting bit of research that seems somewhat connected to my musings (based on previous research-reading) about literature activating the same brain responses as "real" life-- that couples responding empathetic reactions to one another's (well, actually, they just seemed to test the women--were they afraid the men would prove less empathetic? I'd love to see the thing run again the other way) pain. Here a url with the basics: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-02/ucl- efp021904.php (should have posted that on a separate line, and sorry, I don't know how to convert it to a "tiny") http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-02/ucl-efp021904.php Not only does empathetic response activate some of the same areas as one's own pain response, but in this experiment the experience was "communicated" by means of an intermediary symbol--the women were responding not to the men's facial expressions or groans or whatever, but to a symbol indicating what level of pain was being inflicted. The implication for literature that I draw... the writer has to create a character or situation about which the reader cares enough to feel connected; once that's done, the experience on the page is processed exactly as if it were one's own. Now, this is what anyone would have said without the benefit of neuroscientists confirming it--but it's kind of fun to see the mechanism demonstrated in the research. (Steven mentioned that he's on book tour--I'm amazed he's been able to come in here at all under those circumstances, they can be pretty all-consuming.)
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Fri 20 Feb 04 19:43
Regarding what you said, Jane, in <21> >What great literature does is create what I feel to be equally >primary experience, *through* language. Another fascinating book on neuroscience is John McCrone's "Going Inside: A Tour Round a Single Moment of Consciousness." In it the author puts forward that idea that the brain is a kind of awareness engine (among other things), working to produce awareness for the purpose of making decisions in the present moment. As a contrast to humans, we can say an animal's awareness, like a wolf's, is strongly geared toward dealing with present situations. Wolves have memories and learn from experience, but these are there to serve awareness of the moment. A wolf hears something rabbit-like and this draws up images and memories of chasing rabbits and sometimes catching them. The memories feed the wolf's decision making in the moment. With humans, you have the added capacity of complex grammatical language. What this helps us do is generate false moments in our minds (i.e. reflect). With language we can dwell on all sorts of scenarios with words conjuring images and experiences, creating imagined present moments and sort of tricking the brain into reacting as if these moments were real, at least to a degree. Anyway, I think it supports what you're saying about "great literature."
gary (ggg) Fri 20 Feb 04 19:47
a very apt synchronicity, <jh>, and an interesting article. (yea, why no men, huh!?) "emotional and not cognitive processess are triggered by the mere perception of a symbol": like ... an american flag, after 9/11, say. well, i tried channeling steve, on the road, but his chakras are all consumed. however, his amgydla informed my subconvious: he will be speaking and signing in the bay area soon. I caught 12:30 (noon time) at stacey's on market, monday feb 23. maybe elsewhere too
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Fri 20 Feb 04 21:01
Obviously, you all are doing just fine without me! Sorry I've been unable to post more frequently -- this tour has been much busier than any of my other tours: back-to-back media, signings, etc pretty much all day, plus all the travel. Nothing to complain about, other than the fact that I've missed being more involved here. A word about the consciousness question: yes, it's true that the book deliberately avoids speculating about where consciousness comes from, but Jane's exactly right that the experience of consciousness is a huge part of what I'm talking about -- learning, in a sense, to be a better listener to the mind, to hear all those modules playing in sync (or mostly in sync) with each other. That is indeed a kind of consciousness, even a higher consciousness. But what isn't addressed in the book is how that consciousness comes into being, how it's even possible that I'm able to feel the release of adrenaline in the first place. Almost every page of the book includes a description of some kind of consciousness, but there's no point where I try to *explain* consciousness. That's another way in which the book is literary in its approach to the mind. A few odds and ends: I seem to recall that the Freud quote is from a preface to Pleasure Principle, but I'm in a hotel in Houston right now, not my study in Brooklyn, so I'm not sure. And yes, I'm reading at Stacy's Monday at 12:30, and Keppler's in Menlo Park on Tuesday at 7:30. Come out if you can!
jane hirshfield (jh) Sat 21 Feb 04 09:08
Oh, I was hoping they might have also put you into Book Passage in Corte Madera...
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 23 Feb 04 13:14
(wondering how the Stacy's reading went...) Steven, before you joined us here in Inkwell we'd been discussing brain function from another angle with David Shenk, author of an Alzheimer's book called "The Forgetting." I'd asked him a question that we batted about a bit but never quite got sorted out. So I want to bring it up again in hopes that you might be able to shed some more light on this. *********** A few months ago, one of the residents in the memory care wing where my mom is died. He'd been fairly low-functioning -- non verbal, mostly non- reactive, almost never interacted with the other residents. But he wasn't on hospice watch, so his death was somewhat sudden. The staffers were quite sad. The residents didn't appear to notice that the man was gone. But they somehow felt sad anyway. We suspected they were picking up on the staffers' feelings, despite their best efforts at hiding their sorrow. And I know that when I'm getting frustrated with my mom, even if I keep my voice calm and don't give her any obvious outward indication about what I'm feeling, she gets upset. She definitely picks up on my feelings. Since her reasoning abilities are pretty well shot, and since she's got the mental and emotional landscape of a 4-year-old these days, what's left in her Alzheimer-riddled brain that's allowing her to be so sensitive to the subtle cues that most "regular" people wouldn't see or be aware of? Where does the brain store "intuition"?
jane hirshfield (jh) Mon 23 Feb 04 15:56
THat's a sad and interesting question, Cynthia. I just looked up intuition in the book's index, and it has two references, both placing intuition in the amygdala rather than the neocortex, which might explain this. But I don't want to quash more discussion. I never read the full John Bayley books, only what ran in the New Yorker, but if the bit in the movie Iris about Murdoch giving a full-blown sentence very late in the Alzheimer's process, out of the blue, is true, it raises a similar kind of issue. Four year olds are pretty good readers of emotions--maybe more so than us older, more "sophisticated" adults, who want the world to be what we want it to be and so allow ourselves to be more easily fooled by surface content. At least consciously fooled. I suspect our amygdalas know the truth too.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Mon 23 Feb 04 19:14
The book doesn't tackle the issue of intuition in much detail but I suspect the word "intuition" is kind like the word "attention." We tend to think of it as a singular faculty but it is probably produced by various combinations of the brain's modules depending on the task. With attention, the brain uses different areas to pay attention to a computer game than it does paying attention to a person talking. Someone with good attention in one area may be bad in another. Here's what Steven writes: "The concept of attention is a prisoner of our language: we think of these different skills as qualitatively alike because we have one word that embraces them all." Intuition is probably a larger catch-all term. But it does seem clear the amygdala is doing a lot of the "mind reading," quickly processing the numerous signals of communication -- facial expression, body language, tone of voice -- beneath the level of conscious awareness. I'm not sure, but I can imagine that an Alzheimers sufferer may have significant damage to the neocortex yet at the same time may have a pretty healthy amygdala. This could explain Cynthia's mom's behavior. There's an anecdote in the book about a Memento-like amnesiac who can't form new memories. The woman's doctor has to reintroduce himself every time he meets with her because she never remembers him. One day he puts a tack in his palm and shakes her hand. The next day, the woman has no recollection of him or the painful handshaking, nevertheless she avoids shaking hands. This suggests the amygdala was doing its job but the neocortex wasn't able to draw any memories into consciousness.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 24 Feb 04 15:38
<scribbled by cdb Tue 24 Feb 04 16:19>
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 24 Feb 04 16:23
(36 scribbled because of disjointed thought process. let me try again!) Yes, David Shenk also discussed that amnesiac in "The Forgetting." A fascinating thing to ponder, for sure. As far as the amygdala and Alz, I asked him about it -- pondering if it was one of the areas of the brain that wasn't attacked by plaques and tangles until the end stage of the disease -- he said no, "The amygdala is actually ravaged very early in the disease." If that's so, then your theory doesn't work, murffy. The extra sensitivity to others' emotional states that Alzheimer sufferers exhibit can't be coming from the amygdala.
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 24 Feb 04 16:30
I'm not sure the recognition of emotions is an intuition thing. Isn't the ability to sense emotion supposed to be deep down in the brain? Isn't it in the dinosaur part we share with birds, those feathery bundles of emotional response?
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Tue 24 Feb 04 19:28
Oh well. Back to the drawing board. I suppose if the amygdala is ravaged early on by Alz then so is the bulk of the limbic system. Another thought regards the amygdala's "quick and dirty" way of processing information. The memories that it records and draws on have less information than the conscious memories we normally think of. Maybe, because of this, the amygdala can some how function better in a damaged state than the neocortex because its function is less complex. Also, damaged brains are able to cobble together functionality, co-opting other systems to support a damaged one. Perhaps the brain considers it more important to cobble together core emotional responses than to produce "higher-level" cognition. Just thinking out loud ...
David Dawson (dawson54) Wed 25 Feb 04 00:42
Re: intuition. There was speculation a couple of years ago that we all possess something the researchers were calling the "enteric brain." Basically the theory was that the digestive system is far too complex to do its job based on signals merely from the vagus nerve, and hence the nerves that control the thousands of actions per minute necessary to digest food -- all day and all night -- were in fact a secondary brain. If I recall correctly, some researchers had concluded that the types of neurons and the stew of chemical transmitters were identical to the brain in our heads, and that this was true only in the digestive system (as is smooth muscle tissue). So, their conclusion was that "gut feelings" were real, and that often our enteric brains would foretell or inform before our conscious minds picked up on it. In other words, intuition. This may be complete piffle for all I know, but having had fairly extensive gut surgery I can attest that everything does work differently, and that I am much more likely to feel emotions in the guts than I was before the surgery. As above, just thinking out loud....
Steven Johnson (stevenjohnson) Wed 25 Feb 04 19:57
Hey gang, back in Brooklyn finally after the most arduous stretch of the book tour. The Stacy's event was a complete delight, at least as far as I was concerned: full house, lots of great questions, nice energy in the room. I do love the Bay Area -- it really feels like my second home in the US... One quick and no doubt disappointing response to Cynthia's fascinating and difficult question: I don't know the answer. Jane and Murffy both said exactly what I would have said, which is that the amygdala definitely plays a role in the recognition of emotional states and expressions in other people. But Alzheimer's does seem to target the amygdala as fiercely as it does the hippocampus (the seat of memory), so I don't have a good explanation for what Cynthia is experiencing with her mom, other than the fact that the brain has all sorts of redundancies built in, and so there may well be another part of the brain that is also involved in emotion-recognition and that isn't damaged by the plaques. So it's a mystery to me as well... Now, since the book tour has sucked a bit of my time away from this discussion, I thought I'd make up for it by talking here about some new ideas I've had in the past few days, partially triggered by the tour itself. I've been thinking a lot about my everyday life experience of dopamine, and the brain's reward system. Allow me to quote from myself briefly to get the relevant information across: "Dopamine... is not so much a pleasure drug as a kind of pleasure accountant. It anticipates rewards that it expects the brain to receive, and sets off an alarm if the reward exceeds or falls below that anticipated level. It's not unlike what a stock analyst does in watching quarterly earnings reports: If the company meets expectations, there's no news. But if the company shows a less-than-expected loss, or a surprisingly high profit, then there's something to talk about. If you're expecting a certain reward seeing the face of a loved one, landing a new client and the reward comes through as promised, the dopamine in this system remains level. If you're denied the reward, dopamine production drops accordingly. And if the reward turns out to be even better than expected the loved one shows up with a bouquet of flowers, or the client gives twice as much business as originally indicated then your brain releases extra dopamine to signal the good news." There's much to be said about this model in terms of understanding what we mean when we talk about addictive personalities: one way of thinking about people who battle addictions is that their reward expectation levels are more easily reset by recent experience. If you're expecting a reward of 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, and you get delivered an 8 on one particularly good day, some people will wake up the next morning expecting another 8, while others will go back to expecting a 5. If life serves up another 5, the folks who were expecting an 8 will be disappointed, and they'll have lowered dopamine levels, which will induce a seeking/craving feeling causing them to seek out more reward. I've been thinking about this a great deal over the past few weeks, because it connects to the strangely seasonal rhythms of the writer's life. When you're working on a book, you spend massive stretches of time with only the slightest forms of self-delivered reward in your day-to-day existence: it's just you and the word processor, and the good days are the ones where you get a couple thousand words on the page, and the bad ones are the ones where you only get five hundred. (Or at least that's my experience -- your mileage may vary.) The external world lets you go about your business without delivering any positive or negative feedback. And so, in my experience at least, I find that I get to a kind of dopamine equilibrium: the difference between the good days and the bad days isn't really that significant, and so I don't find myself experiencing dramatic mood swings during the writing process. But then there's this phase -- the one I'm smack in the middle of right now -- where suddenly for a 3-4 month period, that book you've been toiling away at for two years -- or ten -- suddenly is out in the open, and people are reviewing it or ignoring it, buying or not buying it, showing up for readings or avoiding you like the plague. You go almost overnight from a career where reward is entirely dealt out by your own evaluations ("Today was a good day; I finished that chapter") to a career where the rewards change literally by the hour ("My Amazon sales rank just dropped 300 places!") And your dopamine system responds accordingly. Good news inevitably leads to a crash the following day, because you've set your expectations so high. If this were the rhythm of my work life 365 days a year, I think I might be better at "managing expectations," as the Wall Street folks say, but because it's this strange anomaly that happens every couple of years when a book gets published, I find myself more vulnerable to the swings. At any rate, sorry to ramble on, but I'd be curious to hear how this corresponds to other people's work experience, whether publishing-related or not....
nape fest (zorca) Wed 25 Feb 04 20:49
no, no. do ramble. it's like extra sprinkles on the sundae. so do you think that you have much control over the dopamine release? other than the actual tour schedule? do you think intake of certain chemicals, even common things like coffee or a martini, make a difference?
David Dawson (dawson54) Wed 25 Feb 04 22:54
Stephen -- I read a similar discussion from social psychologist Daniel Gilbert on The Edge site today. Not identical to what you're talking about, but very close. From the site (www.edge.org): "The problem lies in how we imagine our future hedonic states. We are the only animals that can peer deeply into our futuresthe only animal that can travel mentally through time, preview a variety of futures, and choose the one that will bring us the greatest pleasure and/or the least pain. This is a remarkable adaptationwhich, incidentally, is directly tied to the evolution of the frontal lobebecause it means that we can learn from mistakes before we make them. We don't have to actually have gallbladder surgery or lounge around on a Caribbean beach to know that one of these is better than another. We may do this better than any other animal, but our research suggests that we don't do it perfectly. Our ability to simulate the future and to forecast our hedonic reactions to it is seriously flawed, and that people are rarely as happy or unhappy as they expect to be. AFFECTIVE FORECASTING...OR...THE BIG WOMBASSA: WHAT YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING TO GET, AND WHAT YOU DON'T GET, WHEN YOU GET WHAT YOU WANT A Talk with Daniel Gilbert"
David Dawson (dawson54) Wed 25 Feb 04 22:59
And on another note, I noticed that the February 26 (today) episode of Fresh Air will feature Stephen Johnson discussing "Mind Wide Open." If you're reading this after the fact, the shows are archived on the NPR and WHYY sites.
Jim Klopfenstein (klopfens) Thu 26 Feb 04 07:06
I wonder to what degree dopamine is involved in expectations that don't directly relate to simple pleasures. For instance, if you were satisfied with your job, received an interesting offer that fell through, and then found the old job unsatisfying.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 26 Feb 04 18:56
So, Steven, do you experience a hangover after the post-book phase? I can't say I've had the experience (maybe some day). One thing that comes to mind, though, is that sometimes I get into a kind of expansive state where ideas click away, perception seems sharper, conversation flows like wine. It's a good state to be in, where I like to be. Yet it doesn't come around that often and there is kind of hangover effect when I come down from it (even if no alcohol was involved), a kind of drained feeling. It stands to reason my brain is recovering from its self-induced chemical buzz. Fortunately, my expectations don't reset themselves at that level. In fact, for a little while, I'm not interested re-achieving the expansive state
Uncle Jax, the Nicest Asshole on the Well (jax) Thu 26 Feb 04 23:43
Caught Steve on Fresh Air tonite ... Steve, you're a great popularizer of the concepts of neurology in the tradition of Sagan popularizing general science. Nice interview!
Jeff Loomis (jal) Fri 27 Feb 04 02:31
46 sounds like hypomania to me, which I've heard has something to do with the amygdala.
Jeff Loomis (jal) Fri 27 Feb 04 02:36
See http://www.neurotransmitter.net/bipolaramygdala.html for example. I'm not sure if this has been mentioned in this topic before, sometimes when there are a lot of new responses I tend to skim.
jane hirshfield (jh) Fri 27 Feb 04 09:10
I'm glad you brought that up, Steven--I found that bit about dopamine very illuminating, as previously I'd had it blurred in with pleasure stuff, rather than expectation/reward. My experience has been very similar to yours, in several different contexts--regular readings, the buzz around book publication and a book tour, teaching at workshops, going to an artist colony for a month at a time. There's a continuum here about intense interactions with others, or in the last case, mostly an intense interaction with one's own work, and some social aspect to it, and in each case to some degree or another, the buzz of public acknowledgement followed by the return to quiet regular life. It really helped me when I learned to expect the downdraft--knowing it was an inevitable part of the pattern made it a much less strong experience--i.e., my expectations were reset to include it, so it stopped happening so much. I've taken to warning any first timer I meet at an artist colony about it--"you may very likely go home and find yourself depressed and restless and want to change your life, and it might help to know ahead of time how likely that is and that it's part of leaving paradise." (I myself moved immediately after my first month at Yaddo.) So in my experience it makes a big difference for this to be a conscious thing--it's the unconscious expectations of continual buzz that get to a person, once you know what's going on it's more takeable in stride. So that goes right back to this question of consciousness and how it enters the dance of biochemistry--in at least some areas, it can "retrain" the chemistry almost instantly. (By the way, I don't recall you dealing with EMDR therapy in the book, whcih seems, when it works, to be able to re-train the amygdala with almost miraculous speed.) Glad it was a great tour, by the way!
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