research-in-brain-function

David Earl Johnson, LICSW

22 minute read

This is the fifth in a series of articles on Emotional Intelligence for Personal Growth. Probably all of us have asked our self from time to time if our thoughts, feelings, or behavior at any single moment is “normal”. Actually, there are different answers for each one of these. Normal behavior is, like it or not, defined by our legal, community (family, neighborhood, social group) and religious institutions. The law is enforced by our local police, and sanctioned by our courts. Religious values might be said to be collectively defined by our church going population and it’s leadership. If we are observed behaving outside of legal boundaries, we may find ourselves in a court room facing a judge. If we stretch our community or religious values, we might be ostracized, and separated from the kind of support we have been reliant on through our life. Our internal life, our thoughts and feelings, that which goes on within ourselves may be our last real privacy. And that is indeed fortunate. Our internal creativity is uncomfortably broad. We are capable of thinking and feeling most anything from time to time. Under provocation, we are capable of thinking about things we would never do. Angry enough, we may think of assault, even murder. Seeing a pretty woman, a married man might think about cheating on his wife, but never act on that thought. Shocked about a death in the family, our first thoughts may be directed at the inconvenience of disrupting out usual routine and our feelings might be closer to annoyed. Our thoughts and our feelings often contradict each other. In a real sense, we live a dual existence. Duality Our body speaks to us through our feelings. Messages are typically fast, automatic, effortless, associative, not available to reflection, and often emotionally charged. Messages are also governed by habit and are therefore difficult to control or modify without time and significant effort. Curiously, since the messages do not require conscious awareness, they do not cause or suffer much interference when combined with other tasks. Our thoughts, however, are relatively slower, serial, effortful, more likely to be consciously monitored and deliberately controlled. Compared to feelings, thoughts are relatively flexible and thus change readily and can be directed by conscious or habitual rules. Because thoughts are effortful, they tend to disrupt each other. Thus monitoring mental operations for quality interferes with monitoring overt behavior. People who are occupied by a demanding mental activity are more likely to respond to another task by blurting out whatever comes to mind. ResearchBlogging.org Intuitive judgments combine the function of feelings and thoughts. The perceptual system and intuitive about perceptions generate impressions of the attributes of objects. These impressions are neither voluntary nor verbally explicit. Judgments are always intentional and explicit even when they are not overtly expressed. Thus, thinking is involved in all judgments and can be reflected upon, whether they originate in impressions or in deliberate reasoning. Monitoring of intuitive judgments is normally quite lax and allows many to be expressed, including some that are erroneous (Kahneman, 2003). We perceive reality by these two interactive, parallel processing systems.

“The rational system , a relative newcomer on the evolutionary scene, is a deliberative, verbally mediated, primarily conscious analytical system that functions by a person’s understanding of conventionally established rules of logic and evidence. The experiential system, which is considered to be shared by all higher order organisms (although more complex in humans), has a much longer evolutionary history, operates in an automatic, holistic, associationistic manner, is intimately associated with the experience of affect, represents events in the form of concrete exemplars and schemas inductively derived from emotionally significant past experiences, and is able to generalize and to construct relatively complex models for organizing experience and directing behavior by the use of prototypes, metaphors, scripts, and narratives. Although the experimental system is generally adaptive in natural situations, it is often maladaptive in unnatural situations that cannot be solved on the basis of generalizations from past experience but require logical analysis and an understanding of abstract relations.

[B]ehavior is guided by the joint operation of the two systems, with their relative influence being determined by the nature of the situation and the degree of emotional involvement. Certain situations (e.g., solving mathematical problems) are readily identified as requiring analytical processing, whereas others (e.g., interpersonal behaviors) are more likely to be responded to in an automatic, experientially determined manner. Holding such situational features constant, the greater the emotional involvement, the greater the shift in the balance of influence from the rational to the experiential system (Denes-Raj & Epstein, 1994). “ One might ask, why are there two systems? Many of us have at times wished that our emotions could quiet themselves or even go away. Our culture has a bias towards logic and is suspicious of our emotional side. To quote Ayn Rand:

“A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation – or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a bail and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown…” Not matter how much we wish we could be logical and rational, there is a burgeoning literature that says otherwise. Our decisions are evident in our brain activity long before we are consciously aware (For example, see Libet et al., 1983 and Dennett, 2003). We have a dual system of decision making because it works. Think about it. How often to we make decisions where we have all the information we need to be absolutely sure that our logical deduction is correct? I would venture to say that being sure is limited to only our most simple and concrete decisions. Most every other decision involves weighing facts, impressions, intuitions, and feelings and making as best a decision as possible.

CGI image of rod piercing Phineas Gage's skull...

Image via Wikipedia

Phineas Gage is perhaps the most famous neurology patient of all time. After a gruesome injury in which he was impaled through his skull by a metal rod and then miraculously recovered, poor Phineas retained all the logic he ever had, but was completely unable to make a decision. He was also left without any awareness or expression of emotion (Demasio, 1994). The very act of making a decision is an emotional process. We choose our decisions among competing alternatives based not only the evidence, but what feels best to us, our “gut level” reaction. The story behind this dual system is most evident in normal social development. The Attachment Relationship John Bowlby (19691982) is credited as the founder of Attachment Theory, based on his observations that the quality of a child’s social development was largely determined by the quality of the child’s relationship with her caregiver. Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main began the research that would ultimately follow children over their first 20 years of development demonstrating Bowlby’s concepts to be true and elaborating that theory to account for how, as a child and adult, how freely and effectively she can think, feel, remember, and act (Ainsworth et al., 1978, Main et al., 1985 & Fonagy et al., 2002). Fonagy went on to find that a parents style of attachment before birth predicts their one year old child’s attachment style. The parent’s ability to mentalize strongly predicted their child’s subsequent security. Perhaps most importantly, the the strength of the adult’s ability to mentalize enables her to strengthen their attachment style.

“Attachment is not an end in it’s self; rather it exists in order to produce a representational system that has evolved, we may presume, to aid human survival. The quality of our attachment enables us to understand, interpret, and predict the behavior of others as well as our own behavior. It is the cornerstone of social intelligence (Wallin, 2007).” It is through attachment experiences as a child that she develops rudimentary affect regulation. In the loving care of her caregiver, the child senses that connection to others can be a source of relief, comfort, and pleasure. The child ultimately learns that she — in expressing its full range of bodily and emotional experiences and needs — is good, loved, accepted, and competent. One of the more interesting parts of the process is the role of imitation, mirroring and empathy. There is growing evidence that the same brain areas involved in the execution and observation of motor actions also become active when people listen to sentences that describe the performance of human actions using hands, mouths, or legs, or when people imagine performing an action without actual movement. It would appear that the processes of motor control, mirroring, and mental simulation (or imagination) rely on shared neural circuits (van Gog et al., 2009). While a mother interacts with her child, they interact in a largely non-verbal body-based union. This process of attunement builds within her child a largely emotional communication system that becomes the foundation of intimacy in all future relationships.

“[T]hrough a kind of “social biofeedback,” the child comes to associate the initially involuntary expressions of her emotions with the responses of the caregiver. That is, the infant comes to “know” that her affects are responsible for evoking the caregiver’s affect-mirroring responses. Thus, in the most desirable scenario, the infant is learning a number of very useful things: (1) that expressing her feelings can bring about positive outcomes–which generates positive feelings about the self and others; (2) that she can have impact on others–which generates a dawning sense of agency or self-initiative; and (3) gradually, that particular affects elicit particular reactions– which helps her begin to differentiate and eventually name her feelings (Fonagy et al., 2002) A relationship of secure attachment can thus be seen as a school in which we learn to effectively regulate affects not only in early childhood but throughout our lives (Wallin, 2007)” Through the secure attachment experience, the child learns to reflect on her feelings and thoughts. Her sense of security, flexibility, and internal freedom becomes very much enhanced. Secure attachment embodies a quality of attunement and contingent responsiveness between mother and infant that is close but imperfect. By the very process of attunement, distraction and reconnection, the child learns that her own internal states are sharable and, at the same time, distinct from those of her caregiver, she recognizes herself and her caregiver as a separate persons, rather than objects. From the loss and regaining of attuned connection emerges from the discovery that the other, and the relationship itself, can survive anger and conflict, and learn to balance the needs for self-definition and relatedness. The parent must reflect on emotion, her’s and her child’s, so as to make sense and inform her responses. She effectively regulates her own emotions while modeling how the child can regulate hers. Raw feelings become namable and integrated in interaction with her. The child creates representations of her emotion, then the parent names those emotions through her body, feelings and finally words. Much learning is acquired in non-verbal form while the child acquires language skills. Some learning may be stored unconsciously, for example, when thought, felt, or spoken, this information could threaten vital relationships, especially formative and traumatic experiences. The center of verbal memory, the Broca’s area of brain doesn’t come on-line until 18-36 months, remains a secondary process until after a child enters school and continues to mature well into adolescence. Traumatic experiences cause overwhelming emotions, which effectively shuts down Broca’s area, limiting verbal learning. So much emotional learning happens after childhood during highly emotional experiences. Explicit memory, the verbal memory of Broca’s area of the brain, can be consciously retrieved and reflected upon. This memory can be readily turned into words, it is symbolic, and it’s content is information and images. Implicit memory is present from birth and includes reflexes that are not learned as well as emotional learning acquired in childhood or traumatic learning at any age. It is largely nonverbal, nonsymbolic, unconscious in the sense that it can’t be reflected upon. The content includes emotional reactions, patterns of behavior, and skills related to knowing how to do things without thinking. These memories cannot be recalled, but they can be recognized, for example, like deja vois. From implicit memory comes our personal style, implicit relational knowing (gut-level knowledge) and some relational expectations. Perhaps most significant to this article, implicit memory includes the internal working model of attachment. Our attachment style is often enacted without awareness, especially in non-verbal communication. Ultimately, through our early intimate relationships, we make sense of ourselves and others in terms of a “coherent autobiographical and biographical narrative”, a personal story (Wallin, 2007). Adult Experience – Duality Integrated We have a built in need to be around people. Our social nature has been built in for thousands of generations with genetic and biochemical support. We feel pleasure just being around people with whom we feel safe. Our social group also influences our behaviors and values. We are reminded by our knowledge of social expectations within the Continue reading The Essence of Human Experience: What is Normal? Emotional Intelligence for Personal Growth, Part V.

David Earl Johnson, LICSW

4 minute read

I’ve been a skeptic about self-help books as have many of my colleagues. Self-help concepts often represent the home grown philosophy of the author. Seldom is there comprehensive research documentation of the foundations of the concepts shared. And so you can never be sure you are reading something that applies real science to every day needs. Cover via Amazon This book is an exception. Buddha’s Brain – The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.

David Earl Johnson, LICSW

27 minute read

ResearchBlogging.org Aaron Beck, considered the Father of Cognitive Therapy, is an American psychiatrist and a professor emeritus at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He is President of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research that is directed by his daughter, Judith S. Beck, Ph.D.. He is noted for his research in psychotherapy, psychopathology, suicide, and psychometrics, and the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), one of the most widely used instruments for measuring depression severity. At age 87, the man is still publishing, building on his pioneering work on the cognitive model of depression. In his latest article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, he recalls his early work:

Caught up with the contagion of the times, I was prompted to start something on my own. I was particularly intrigued by the paradox of depression. This disorder appeared to violate the time-honored canons of human nature: the self-preservation instinct, the maternal instinct, the sexual instinct, and the pleasure principle. All of these normal human yearnings were dulled or reversed. Even vital biological functions like eating or sleeping were attenuated. The leading causal theory of depression at the time was the notion of inverted hostility. This seemed a reasonable, logical explanation if translated into a need to suffer. The need to punish one’s self could account for the loss of pleasure, loss of libido, self-criticism, and suicidal wishes and would be triggered by guilt. I was drawn to conducting clinical research in depression because the field was wide open–and besides, I had a testable hypothesis. I decided at first to make a foray into the “deepest” level: the dreams of depressed patients. I expected to find signs of more hostility in the dream content of depressed patients than nondepressed patients, but they actually showed less hostility. I did observe, however, that the dreams of depressed patients contained the themes of loss, defeat, rejection, and abandonment, and the dreamer was represented as defective or diseased. At first I assumed the idea that the negative themes in the dream content expressed the need to punish one’s self (or “masochism”), but I was soon disabused of this notion. When encouraged to express hostility, my patients became more, not less, depressed. Further, in experiments, they reacted positively to success experiences and positive reinforcement when the “masochism” hypothesis predicted the opposite (summarized in Beck). Some revealing observations helped to provide the basis for the subsequent cognitive model of depression. I noted that the dream content contained the same themes as the patients’ conscious cognitions–their negative self-evaluations, expectancies, and memories–but in an exaggerated, more dramatic form. The depressive cognitions contained errors or distortions in the interpretations (or misinterpretations) of experience. What finally clinched the new model (for me) was our research finding that when the patients reappraised and corrected their misinterpretations, their depression started to lift and–in 10 or 12 sessions–would remit.” We owe a lot to Dr. Beck. His cognitive model of depression still dominates how I and most of my colleagues write treatment plans for persons suffering with depression. Our goal is to inspire and teach our clients to change their negative self-evaluations, correct distorted memories, and create an expectation of success. The only problem is depression is not that simple. Try as they might, many clients are able to recognize what they need to do, understand how their thoughts about themselves and their world need to change, are able to state those changes, and diligently practice them. But when they really need to be able to master their fate, when ruminative thoughts spiral downward into the depths of depression, their efforts quickly collapse and they succumb. So is the Cognitive Model of Depression wrong? No, I think it’s incomplete. There is the biomedical model of depression involving errant neurotransmitter levels treated by various anti-depressants. That discussion is beyond this article’s purpose. I’m more interested in what we as therapists can do differently in the counseling office. Of course we need to be sure a severely depressed client is referred for a medication review. But I want to know how we might better facilitate our clients attempts to master their mood. To this end, I will review my recent reading on the subject of emotion and argue to include emotion in a new Cognitive Theory.

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David Earl Johnson, LICSW

5 minute read

Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr With elections just around the corner, I thought we could all use a reminder about just how easily we are influenced beyond our awareness by election campaigns. The Frontal Cortex “In reality, we voters — all of us — make emotional, intuitive decisions about who we prefer, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain the choices that were already made beneath conscious awareness.

David Earl Johnson, LICSW

2 minute read

This story is truly astonishing. Jill Bolte Taylor is a Neuroanatomist who had an remarkable experience of self-discovery. In this experience, she found Nirvana, that place of total peacefulness we all seek. At the same time, she discovered it’s neuroanatomy. She effectively defined mindfulness. TED | Talks “Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for. One morning, a blood vessel in Jill Bolte Taylor’s brain exploded.

David Earl Johnson, LICSW

4 minute read

Scientific American has a very interesting article on growing evidence that implicates the immune system. The body’s reaction to infection from the flu virus or even strep in pregnant woman and their unborn children may play a role in the development of schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, autism and other brain diseases. “More than 200 studies have suggested that schizophrenia occurs between 5 and 8 percent more frequently than average in children born in the winter or spring.

David Earl Johnson, LICSW

11 minute read

I’ve previously complained about research that so often is focused on small parts and pieces so small that they mean very little to the average person, or even the practitioner in the field. Worse yet, few authors seem willing to reach beyond the data and advance theoretical knowledge. It is at the level of theory development that research reaches into application and education. There seems to have been few willing to work on a new grand theory of psychology based on the nearly 50 year old previous attempts that integrates the research results since that time.

David Earl Johnson, LICSW

2 minute read

A while back, I had characterized a post in Deric Bownds’ MindBlog detailing how brain biochemistry had entered the internal experience of the scientist. I’d called it possibly unfairly as “largely devoid of meaningful self-exploration”. My frustration is with the reductionistic flavor of research reports. Talk about a brain “awash in glucocortocoids…, full of adrenaline, and … endogenous opiates” may well not lend itself to meaningful self exploration. However, that was not the point of the original article.

David Earl Johnson, LICSW

2 minute read

Here is an excerpt from Deric Bownds’ MindBlog titled “A New Description of Our Inner Lives.” “Paul and Pat, realizing that the revolutionary neuroscience they dream of is still in its infancy, are nonetheless already preparing themselves for this future, making the appropriate adjustments in their everyday conversation. One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting.

David Earl Johnson, LICSW

7 minute read

Psychological research in general seems to have drifted from it’s roots. Thirty years ago, when I was in training, there was a plethora of theoretical articles and books that discussed at length theoretical frameworks for constructs that serves as the building blocks of theory. Concepts in psychological measurement were verified in a process called “construct validity”. Construct validity refers to ability of a concept to explain what is known about the phenomena. Construct validity can seldom be proven because in order for a concept to be meaningful, it must generalize to many similar circumstances. The more meaningful a concept is, the more difficult it becomes to measure. So construct validity can only be supported by repeated measurement from different perspectives. Word Net defines “theory” as a:

“a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena; “theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses”; “true in fact and theory”” A theory connects several constructs into a cohesive whole. A hypothesis is a:

“tentative theory about the natural world; a concept that is not yet verified but that if true would explain certain facts or phenomena; “a scientific hypothesis that survives experimental testing becomes a scientific theory”” Theoreticians deduce hypothesis from accepted theoretical frameworks and suggest how such hypotheses might be verified by research. Deductive reasoning involving inferences from general theoretical principles has been considered the preferred way to build hypotheses to be tested. Attempting to generalize to theoretical principles from research results (inductive reasoning) has limited value in that there are often numerous possible explanations for each research result. In other words one needs a theoretical framework to make sense out of individual research results. Unfortunately, there seems to be little integration of theory and research. While the research I’ve been reading includes a literature review of similar research, there is less discussion of relevant theories. Discussions include speculation about theory, but the concepts suggested are less likely to apply to a broad theory, and so meaningfulness is limited. Some would call this “dust bowl empiricism.” The following research presents a good example of research that lacks a firm footing in theory.