Sunday, October 01, 2017


So many of those who say they aspire to be writers are not talking about actually composing sentences at all.  They aren’t even trying to become aware of the concepts and issues underneath what they say, whether it is logical or emotional, whether it is true or false.  What they really want is the recognition, the feeling of being “somebody” that others know and value.  (Maddened and frustrated drunk men demand,  “You’d better respect me!” as they beat down intimate others.)  

But isn’t awareness of motivations where the writers should be in the beginning?  Don’t we read in hopes of intimate contact through writers?  And isn’t that also what's behind other media — vids or painting or dance?  I’m always searching for concepts related to intimacy.  (From a distance, of course.)  I ignore power and even respect.  (From a distance.)

I had never heard of alexithymia, which is defined as   “a personality construct characterized by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating.”  That just sounds like a new version of autism.  It defines the noun in terms of results, rather than causes.

A new study is looking for an organic cause by testing.  “Recent research suggests that frontal EEG asymmetry during resting state is related to approach/withdrawal motivation and is also found in affective disorders such as major depressive disorder. Patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD) show aberrant behavior in relation to both approach and withdrawal motivation, which may arguably be associated with their difficulties in emotion processing.”  What caught my attention is the approach/withdrawal dyad.  I am not so interested in depression or borderline personalty disorder.

“A large body of research on the relation between emotion and motivation has postulated the existence of two overarching motivational systems that organize behavior. ... Rather, emotion-related lateralization is observed because emotions contain approach and/or withdrawal components.

We know that all biologically based processes are shaped into loops of depletion and replenishment that interact, whether molecularly or at the cell level or in motivation behavior (if you’re thirsty, you drink) and ultimately in all behavior.  This is the basis of the homeostasis of life, the idea that conditions of survival are like a stream with two banks, one labeled “too much” and the other one labeled “too little.”  Like a real-life stream, the banks can change according to conditions or some individuals can go a little further one way or the other by being able to cope with a little more or a little less: live farther up the mountain because of adapting to less oxygen, tolerating higher temps so living closer to the equator.

Emotions are part of this living stream with some tolerating more challenge than others.  Scientists “have suggested that emotion is best represented on a circumplex (two orthogonal axes). The first axis, commonly labeled the valence axis, represents the pleasantness/unpleasantness of emotion, and the second axis represents the degree of arousal associated with the emotion. Therefore, emotional stimuli, processes, memories, action plans, and central and peripheral support physiology are differentiable in terms of both valence and intensity. For example, happiness and fear are both high in arousal but differ in valence, whereas happiness and calmness are both positive in valence but differ in level of arousal.”  (All quotes are from Wikipedia, more or less.  I’m lazy.)

I have a dear friend who cannot be approached intimately beyond a certain point, because in early childhood he had a parent who overwhelmed him with “loving” sexual attention that mixed arousal with violence.  His best way of coming close is in confrontations, but that can lead to disastrous results.  In any case, the amount of anxiety it causes is at the level of panic and flight, which are a result of arousal triggering fear of mortal punishment.  This is related to what we’re now understanding to be post-traumatic consequences.  But he's alexithymic: he doesn't know why his emotions shift like this, isn't aware it's happened until those around him react with dismay.

This thinking about the pre-frontal cortex described in these studies does not offer a cure or even a strategy for managing.  But it is looking for signs in the brain associated with the felt state of mingled approach/avoidance.

I had to look up circumplex but the definition wasn’t much help.  It seemed to be the old X-Y quadrant re-organized as a circle (circum-).  “Orthogonal means In geometry, two Euclidean vectors are orthogonal if they are perpendicular, i.e., they form a right angle. Two vectors, x and y, in an inner product space, V, are orthogonal if their inner product is zero.”

Valence, as used in psychology, especially in discussing emotions, means the intrinsic attractiveness/"good"-ness (positive valence) or averseness/"bad"-ness (negative valence) of an event, object, or situation.[1] The term is also used to characterize and categorize specific emotions. For example, the emotions popularly referred to as "negative", such as anger and fear, have "negative valence". Joy has "positive valence". 

“A similar model linked to research on frontal EEG asymmetry during emotional states. [The scientist] posited that frontal asymmetry was not related to the valence of an emotional stimulus but rather to the motivational system that is engaged by that stimulus. He proposed that the left PFC is involved in a system facilitating approach behavior to appetitive stimuli, whereas the right PFC is involved in a system facilitating withdrawal behavior from aversive stimuli. To explain prefrontal asymmetries for valenced emotional processing, this model assumes that processing related to emotional valence itself is not lateralized in PFC. Rather, emotion-related lateralization is observed because emotions contain approach and/or withdrawal components. Therefore, emotion will be associated with a right or left asymmetry depending on the extent to which it is accompanied by approach or withdrawal behavior “

There’s much argument and theorizing about all this, but clearly the most important “take-away” is that what happens, particularly to a child, inscribes on the brain push/pull systems function that may contradict each other, causing confusion and possibly paralysis.  I would guess that were it strong enough, it would become epigenetic, overwriting an individual’s natural tendencies.  If shared events or beliefs provoked enough rage, the whole culture could change.  Maybe that is what has happened in America.

One majorly interesting insight is that anger -- which is thought by many progressive persons to be an evil to be avoided (a prevailing conviction in many Asian cultures) -- can play out as either negative or positive, pleasant or unpleasant.  “Davidson's approach/withdrawal model predicts that, to the degree that anger is associated with approach behavior, it should co-occur with left prefrontal activity, whereas Heller's valence/arousal model predicts that, to the degree that anger is associated with unpleasant valence, it should co-occur with right prefrontal activity.”  

Locating emotion in the brain is useful for a researcher. but the usefulness of emotions is located in the results for the individual.  Often enough, anger will get things unstuck, move beyond paralysis.  The kicker is that it might not bring the person out on the survival side of the stream.  But one name for what it gets rid of is alexyithemia.

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