Monday, September 15, 2014


Naomi Eisenberger

Naomi Eisenberger is a scientist but also a beautiful young mother.  The impression comes across as a pretty nurse or a glamour health evangelist, but her own intent and open attitude translates that to something appealing on a deeper level.  Here she is:   speaking on, a brainy but progressive bunch that grew out of the beloved Whole Earth Catalog.

I’ve been searching for words for what goes on in the neuronal tissues that aren’t already “owned” by the introspective psychoanalytical crowd, words like “unconscious” or “subconscious.”  Using those words makes people’s heads jump to Jung, esp. reflective young men.  Eisenberger uses the words “substrates” and “neural underpinnings,” which are more clearly physical, measurable and organic.  I’ll try to use those words in future so as to avoid distressing those who think their respective introspective worlds take priority over the body.  It's a useful clarification.

Eisenberger herself accounts for her body-anchored point of view by saying that she began as a social psychologist, moved into animal studies, and then braided them with health issues which often combine the physical and the emotional.  A continuing theme for her was “relationship” but -- maybe because of the animal base -- not cultural romantic relationships.  More attention to belonging, group-to-individual, maternal support.  She was reading about Harlow’s monkey babies choosing between milk and comfort or Bowlby trying to get sense out of attachment even in the face of punishment.  (Me, too.)  

She makes a case for the hybrid mixing of fields like “social neuroscientist” or “psychoneuroimmunologist” in order to get at the complexity of personhood.  It’s sort of like “fusion” music or food -- a blending of focus.  For instance, her experiments test for the relationship between overall well-being and affectionate support (check the vid), using the metaphor of “warmth” which we already use for both temperature and affection, to compare warm hands from a heat pack and “warm heart” from someone’s words.  It works!  Warming hands makes self-reported cheer go up, just like a warm smile.

At last there’s an interpretation of why support-givers get attached: it makes them feel good -- it pleases them!  The idea of co-dependence (attaching to someone who is trouble because the thrill of it all) and the notion of enabling (subtly helping someone do bad stuff so they will stay dependent) had sorted of gutted the idea of the faithful spouse.  We have professed contempt for such a sucker, or maybe control issues.  Now can we move over to make room for altruism?  Does the pleasure of helping have to be pejorative?  This is helpful for professional care-givers as well -- that they are benefiting themselves as well as their --  well, what’s a good word?  More vocabulary needed here.  “Clients, patients, subjects, objects of care . . .”   It sounds sort of domestic, a woman’s kind of thing.  Is it too trivial to be scientific?

At the end of this vid, responding to questions, Eisenberger is asked about the feminist thing -- is she feeling kept down because she is female?  She notes that when her data is presented by a man, the listeners' questions are less challenging and doubting than when she herself presents the same facts.  Also, that men seem to like questions that start arguments and enjoy the intellectual fencing match as a value, which she thinks may be a “scientist” thing.  

Since so much of the foundational psych work was done by German Jews, I wonder how much of it is Jewish traditional education that depends on argument between two students as a way of learning.  I once saw a depiction -- can’t remember whether it was fiction -- in which one of a pair of arguers lost his way.  Quickly, his opponent stepped in to help:  “The response on your part should be . . .”  “Oh, yes!  Thanks!” and they plunged back into the fray.  It’s like lawyers attacking each other’s arguments as hard as they can -- then going out to share drinks afterwards.  Men fight to fulfill the Mediterranean syllogism proposed by the Greeks: thesis/antithesis/synthesis.  Women fight for survival.

Eisenberger notes a reluctance on the part of women to “promote themselves” with speeches and panels, so that what seems like pushing on the part of the male may be apparent only because of backing-off passivity on the part of the female.  I recognize all this.  My struggle to discard my exoskeleton of being devout, docile, obedient, conventional, conscientious and all that -- which over the years had turned out to be less a protection than a prison -- has revealed the essential quill pig underneath.  Not much appreciated but much more powerful.  I suppose it began with being an officer with a badge (animal control).  You don’t take guff off nobody.  You drill for the facts.  A male sort of thing.

Jen Wilson (the pastor of Grace UMC)

Oddly it was ministry that showed me the limits of a woman in a male-defined power vocation.  By now the job itself has become far more pink, defined as counseling and success-promotion, the management of emotion instead of rational analysis in search of truth.  I had been attracted by the potential for power but discovered that it depended on the old-boys-network the same as all the other male-defined domains.  It’s not the only field in which content of graduate schools doesn’t count as much as the connections one makes with others.  The “mafia” one builds.  Women will do that for men, but not for other women.  Stigmatized minorities, despite all rhetoric, are not invited and must worm their way in.  (Worming is not a power position.)

At the same time one is making those connections -- the rewards and deficits of relationships -- one is also forming the genetic substrates and neural underpinnings of temperament and morality -- what is formally called “vocational formation.”  It is real and embedded in the connectomes of the brain deeply enough not to be conscious.  That is, you don't know that's what you think.  

Going into the ministry at age forty meant that my “formation” was already formed, much of it on an Indian reservation with an artist twice my age.  I interpret the receiving of support as surrender, intimacy that must be justified, and possibly a trap.  Since a basic and major part of a congregant’s relationship to his or her religious leader is support, this meant a deep conflict that we really couldn’t identify.   As Eisenberger puts it, the female may want to retreat to the lab, the office.  The male, esp. the narcissistic male who feels 
support is only his natural due, will thrive and bloom at the lectern

When I googled for “news” about Eisenberger, I got a story about diet.  Oh, blech.  More stuff about how bad fast food is for you. McDonalds is out, of course, but “fat” and “sugar” are out?  What KIND of fat?  What KIND of sugar?  (A recent story tells about sending cereal and sugar to refugees.  It was across the page from stories about dropping sales of cereal and sugar.)  

The story recommends the Mediterranean diet.  The idea is that whatever causes inflammation tends to cause depression, and whatever opposes the inflammatory “cytokines” is going to make you feel better.  Fats and sugars of the wrong kinds can trigger inflammation. No argument from me.  But it shows how the lab and the kitchen have a lot of overlap these days, which means women might feel more at home.  They are used to dealing with the subtle interconnections of cooking, housekeeping, and raising children.  Is running cookies in and out of the oven that different from running volunteers in and out of an fMRI?

But in the end I’m thinking that these concerns and inquiries are linked to having a LOT of financial resources.  How much do you think Eisenberger spends on her hair?  Considering where she lives, I expect it’s more than a hundred dollars a month.  Could she work this hard without household help?  How relevant is it to worry about depression and inflammation in a population that is starving?  

On the other hand, I’m pleased to know these things and they might very well help people in my family or friendship circle, besides leading to rather major breakthroughs.  It is the inspired reweaving of domains and fields of inquiries that may be the biggest breakthrough, even if it turns out to be Penelope’s loom.

All that reweaving can give a gal a backache.

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