Sunday, October 19, 2008


Long ago when I had fantasies of becoming a clinical psychologist (not really knowing what such a creature was) I took a class in motivation, which I thought would be like Powdermilk Biscuits giving a person the will to do what has to be done. Instead it turned out the class was about why rats get hungry and thirsty.

Much later -- when I’d turned to a new fantasy about becoming a Unitarian minister -- I took a class from Stephen Toulmin about how the body thinks and feels. I still vividly remember the “kinds” of thinking he defined in waking up and starting the day. How do you know to wake up? At what point and how is the decision made to actually sit up and throw your feet on the floor? When you put your socks on, how do you decide which one to put on first? Then there’s all the breakfast stuff: what to eat? When to turn your egg? How to eat it -- yolk or white first? Or do you care or do you mix them?

It appears now that most of these questions are turned into answers by the insula, which uses information from the parasympathetic nervous system -- nerves that monitor breathing, heart rate, digestion, perspiration, body temp, and so on which I would say are roughly synonymous with emotions -- to form expectations and then register fulfillment. This recently became very interesting to researchers when a patient with damage to his insula gave up smoking without any symptoms or yearnings at all. The theory is that what he was hooked on was not just the nicotine, but the responses of his body to nicotine PLUS the other associated conditionings like posture, inhaling smoke to the lungs, holding the paper cylinder, the smell and taste, and so on. All the things the insula records and organizes. Since his insula no longer set up the expectation of these things, he didn’t miss them.

There’s another theory forming about what happens when a desire is not fulfilled by the actuality. What about a person who expects a rich pleasure from chocolate but then has an impaired ability to really taste and assimilate it? In her last year or so my mother constantly craved “a really hot cup of coffee,” but even right off the stove coffee didn’t give her the satisfied flush she had expected, the surge of energy. She had a blood cancer that evidently interfered. This may be a reason for over-eating: the first helping doesn’t have the wished-for consequence, so a second helping is tried. This interface in the insula has something to do with wanting and not-wanting, with expectations versus fulfillment, with emotion as a physical state and emotion as a personal characteristic.

Which brings me to the question of “neuroticism” which preoccupies me so easily because it keeps getting waved at me in many forms, beginning with Old Lady Otto remarking in my infancy that my red hair meant I would have to be “broken early.” I’m aware that cat personality is closely related to cat color, so if there is a genetic link between red hair and “neuroticism,” which means something like being a “hot reactor” with intense emotions and desires, I won’t be surprised. The problem is finding the right social context for such equipment. And maybe it helps to have two X chromosomes, like a calico cat with three colors the third of which is on the second X along with a little extra moxie. To mix animals, maybe the problem is more horsepower than usual, which is a little harder to handle.

The Big Five inheritable personality traits are supposed to be openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and that wicked neuroticism. Without a lot of questionnaires I can tell you I’m at the top for Openness (art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiousity, and variety); unreliably Conscientious (I do it if I think it matters); not in the least Extraverted (I had to look up “surgency” which seems to be code or jargon for the things that create success: “dominance, self-confidence, competitiveness, outgoingness, decisiveness and getting ahead in life,” my lack of which explains a lot of things); again, unreliably Agreeable depending on what’s involved; and quite high in Neuroticism (emotional “instability,” getting angry, depressed, anxious or vulnerable). Pretty much resolved that last with solitude. Actually, it’s GOOD for a writer to be neurotic, isn’t it? Sensitive? Reactive?

What’s particularly interesting when I got into the depths of the Wikipedia discussion is that the inventor of the basis of this classification system was Sir Francis Galton FRS (16 February 1822 – 17 January 1911). A half-cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton was "an English Victorian polymath, anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, and statistician." He was knighted in 1909. Inventor of the twinned terms nature/nurture, as well as twin studies, and the coiner of the word “eugenics,” he pioneered the uses of questionnaires, invented the statistical standard deviation, and figured out how to group fingerprints. He thought all the best people (defined as most intelligent) should marry other best people and have best children. This preoccupation with what comes perilously close to being fascist “high class” is what tips us off that he was not value-free and what he valued were his own characteristics. My guess is that he was not in the least neurotic or even emotional, and that he was irritated by people whom he considered to be like that.

So this guy with a phlegmatic insula, highly focused on statistics and the measurable characteristics of the “criminal class,” came up with the beginnings of the Big Five Factors by making a list of all the dictionary terms for temperament and grouping them into a taxonomy. Following his example in 1936, Gordon Allport and H.S. Odbert sorted 17,963 words for describing personality, and reduced them to 4,504 according to their own criteria of validity. In the 1940’s Raymond Cattell added terms, eliminated what he considered to be synonyms, boiled the list to 171, then used questionnaires to get 35 major “personality traits.” In 1961 a couple of Air Force guys defined five major factors. VOILA!! Triple-distilled personality definition, culturally framed. All that remained was to demonize them by correlation with the categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Of course, the WORST traits were those things about not being agreeable and being too neurotic. Troublemakers, so obviously they were troubled.

It’s a far cry from figuring out how a rat knows it’s hungry and ought to eat some pellets to figuring out why this particular rat is a troublemaker and ought to be “adjusted.” Of course, if you can make the rat stop wanting to smoke... The Scylla for this Charybdis is that in eliminating desire in the rat -- its “get-up-and-go” -- what you get is a rat that doesn’t care, doesn’t even bother to eat, lies around in the bottom of the cage until it dies of inanition, failure to thrive. I’ve seen too many kids like that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some years back at the national rabbit show of ARBA in Columbus, OH, I perused all the breeds and color variants trying to figure out which would make the most interesting pets, so far as behavior was concerned. I concluded that red color variants were more exploratory and interactive, when in the presence of an observer just outside their cage, an observer who might place a hand near (not in) their cage. J