Where is a History of Feeling?

An interesting book review highlights the relationship between experience and brain chemistry among its other items.  On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail suggests that one common theme through history is our desire as human beings to alter our moods and feelings.  And what I find interesting is that the emphasis is on mood and feelings rather than a more cerebral cognition.

This binary disconnect between cognitive thinking and emotion can sometimes be summed up like this, I suspect.  I think, therefore I am.  I feel, there fore I am ALIVE.  Emotion trumps cognitive thinking over and over again in terms of strength in our overall sense of awareness.  We exist to feel in profound ways and the great religions of the world have gone into sometimes exquisite detail on the “heart” and its management.

There have been many intellectual histories written that trace the development of ideas.  Ideas grow, change, and evolve as mental models frame and reframe around core concepts.  Emotions, moods and feelings remain much more constant over time.  Anger, love, hatred, and so forth remain from generation to generation, culture to culture.  What changes is how we allow ourselves to express them.  As Star says:

“Our very synapses are shaped by experience and education from before birth to the time of death. The brain of a monk does not resemble the brain of a soldier or a taxicab driver. An impulse to swoon in distress or erupt in anger may be innate, but Victorian women were quicker to faint at the sight of blood and Southern men are faster to react to slights than women or men in many other places. These predispositions can be passed on from generation to generation without any alteration in anyone’s genes, and yet they are readily seen as aspects of our nature. In a way, they are. “Culture is wired in the brain,” Smail writes, and “cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences.”

It would be interesting, I think, to see a written emotional history comparable in scope to the great intellectual histories.  They may exist (and if anyone knows of a good recommendation please post).  Smail’s book would to a subset of that category as he focuses upon the more narrow subject of our pursuit of mood altering technologies.  But he brings up important questions relative to our continuing efforts to come to grips with both our thinking and feeling selves. 

Link: I Feel Good

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Creativity is indeed kind of “Spacey”

Take six jazz musicians and put them in MRI scanners.  Add special plastic keyboards so that they can jam together (itself a feat in these confines) and see what happens.  When this experiment was performed recently some interesting things were observed.

Inhibition switches off.  Self-expression switches on.  Sensory awareness is heightened.  Specific areas of the brain controlling these functions either shut down or powered up.  It was much the same type of pattern that happens when we enter a dream state.

It certainly mirrors my subjective sense of what happens during my own creative flows.  Story-telling switches on.  Feelings intensify.  And at flow’s end there is the often surprising realization that hours have gone by.  Check it out at the link.

Links: Creativity puts the Brain in a Dream-like State, Associated Press

Is Anger Related to Brain Structure?

A very small and experimental study among adolescents in Australia suggests that the size of the amygdala plays a part in the expression of anger – at least among teenagers (which suggests that a tired teenager is even worse.)  The authors of the study, a joint research project conducted by the University of Melbourne, Australia and the Oregon Research Institute in the United States, state that  their findings suggest that mood behaviour and the ability to control it during family interactions is related to brain structure.  In essence, they found a positive relationship between the duration of aggression and the size of the left and right amygdala, though it was only significant on the left-hand side.

So what does this mean?  Does it excuse angry outbursts followed by rationales, such as, “I can’t help how I’m wired?”  Hardly.  But it might offer an additional physiological reason for the variability in individuals and their “anger quotients.”  And if that’s the case, then it becomes one more bit of understanding about the brain and how it functions that can help coaches craft better strategies and tools for anger management.

 Links:  Teen Anger and Brain Size; An Abstract of the Original Study ; Children and other Impulse Behaviors

New Anger Management Resource

 Newly added to our resources links is the AJ Novick Group, co-founders of the Century Anger Management model of intervention and providers of anger management classes, executive coaching, professional certification and a wide range of home study anger management classes and online anger management classes.  Check them out at the links below or in our resources section.

Links:  AJ Novick Group, Anger Class Online, Century Anger Management

Dreams and other Stuff

Jonah Lehrer, Seed Magazine, posts a cogent reminder on the limits of reductionism in answering many fundamental questions about who we are and how we live.  And it is worth reiterating here that understanding the physical workings of the brain only gives us certain types of information. 

To quote him – “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff. What we need is a science that can encompass both sides of our being.”  Indeed.  And somehow through the messiness of sociology, philosophy, religion and other softer sciences we do indeed try to grapple with this messiness of subjective experience.  And there, of course, is the rub.  We are the ghost in the machine.  Understanding the machine is becoming easier.  Understanding ourselves remains, so far, as complex as it ever was.  But we increasingly have tools that make it at least a little easier.  What we do with them has been an evolving process.  Where we go with them remains yet to be seen.

The Brain’s Clustered Plasticity

Tough title.  All it means is that neurons assist one another in processing information.  Traditional research has heretofor concluded that neurons communicate with one another simply by sending chemical bursts from one axonal ending to the next.  New research at Maryland’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute indicates that neighboring synapses also become more sensitized to assist.

“The traditional view was that each synapse functioned independently, and the strength of individual connections modulated memory storage,” said Mr. Harvey, a graduate student at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. “What we’ve shown is that neighboring synapses may function together, which leads to the idea that information is stored in a clustered manner, with related things concentrated in the same neighborhood.”

This period of sensitivity appears to be on the order of ten minutes or so, which squares with the pragmatic need for keeping information just long enough to accomplish a task without overwhelming the system with too much information.

 Link:  New York Times

Culture Influences Brain Function

Been out for the holidays among other things but of interest on my return is a news release indicating that cultural bias can influence physiological brain function.  ScienceDaily, in this post, states that people from different cultures use their brains differently to solve the same visual perception tasks.  Using the binary cultural differentiation broadly characteristic of Eastern and Western cultures (emphasis upon the individual as opposed to emphasis upon the group), the study found that –

. . . the two groups showed different patterns of brain activation when performing these tasks. Americans, when making relative judgments that are typically harder for them, activated brain regions involved in attention-demanding mental tasks. They showed much less activation of these regions when making the more culturally familiar absolute judgments. East Asians showed the opposite tendency, engaging the brain’s attention system more for absolute judgments than for relative judgments. 

Making judgments outside of one’s cultural comfort zone involves more brain processing activity.  As one of the study authors suggests –

“Everyone uses the same attention machinery for more difficult cognitive tasks, but they are trained to use it in different ways, and it’s the culture that does the training,” Gabrieli says. “It’s fascinating that the way in which the brain responds to these simple drawings reflects, in a predictable way, how the individual thinks about independent or interdependent social relationships.”

Of related interest is the impact of culture on the brain’s mirror neuron system, the system that operates both when we do something as well as when we merely observe someone doing something.  It is this observation aspect that is significant as neuroscientists presently think that this “mirroring” is the neural mechanism by which people are able to empathize with others.

 A recent study indicates that mirror neuron activation increases when one is observing someone from one’s own cultural background as opposed to someone from a different cultural background, even when both are making the same culturally understood gestures.  “All in all, our research suggests that with mirror neurons our brain mirrors people, not simply actions,” this study’s author states. 

And that has interesting implications for empathy, group dynamics, communication, and other issues.

This idea that culture not only trains and influences how we behave, but actually impacts the physiological ways in which we use our brains is an interesting springboard for further exploring how we relate to one another, and more importantly, how we can develop better communication and coaching tools for the building of community.