emotions


I’ve just begun reading Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. I bought the book while I was in grad school, knowing it would be years before I could get to it, but so excited by the title! Consciousness and how it relates to the body and emotions is one of my favorite topics of inquiry. Plus, Damasio is a scientist with a (rare) good reputation as a writer.

In the introduction he describes six facts that a good theory of consciousness will have to take into account. Here are my paraphrases:

1) There will be an “anatomy of consciousness”: Elements of consciousness appear to be associated with activity in certain parts of the brain.

This may be scary to those who believe that consciousness is magical, or that its magic would be somehow diminished if it relied on the brain’s circuitry. I too used to be uneasy about that idea. After diving into brain studies a bit, though, I feel both excited and humbled by it. It’s just neat that our brains apparently produce all the subtleties of our experience. Also, it’s a good reminder that our experiences of feeling, thinking, knowing, and of awareness itself is created by our brains, and is not a direct line on reality.

2) Consciousness is more than wakefulness or attentiveness. Humans can be awake and attentive without being conscious.

Damasio describes patients who are clearly awake and attentive, but not conscious, and promises to devote two chapters to the significance of this phenomenon.

3) You cannot have consciousness without emotion.

I am excited about this point because I’ve thought it both crucial and little recognized since reading The Mind’s I many years ago. It had an essay which convinced me that real artificial intelligence would not be possible without emotion. Without emotion all you have is processing power. And in human intelligence at least, emotion brings in the body. Emotions are not just mental phenomenon. I can’t wait to see how Damasio deals with this.

4) There is a distinction between “core consciousness,” producing a sense of moment-to-moment “core self,” and “extended consciousness,” producing a story-making “autobiographical self.”

This distinction could bring clarity to the debates about consciousness in infants and non-human animals. Core consciousness may be the kind that everyone has, and extended consciousness the kind that we develop as our experience becomes more and more intertwined with language and concepts.

Core consciousness sounds to me like the experience that meditators work to remain in. We live most of our lives in the useful but problematic realm of extended consciousness, judging experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, safe or unsafe, and other ways they relate to the story we have of ourselves. Once we are living this way it is difficult to escape. Meditators find that maintaining awareness of core consciousness can be a welcome rest from all that. This practice may help the autobiographical self have an easier time as well.

5) Consciousness cannot be wholly described by other mental activities. Things like language and memory are necessary but not sufficient for full consciousness.

You can’t leave consciousness out of the discussion. It is more than its parts. I like this because I think a lot of scientists are squeamish of even using the word “consciousness.” It makes you sound like a hippy. Prepare to hear a lot of scientists trying to talk about consciousness without sounding like a hippy.

6) Consciousness also cannot be described wholly by describing how the brain creates our experiences out of sensory and mental data.

I read some famous scientist saying that if he were to be at the beginning of his career, he would be looking into creation of qualia, the “particles” of experience, that this was the next holy grail of psychology. That’s a good one, for sure, but I think an explanation of consciousness is a better holy grail than an explanation of qualia.

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There is quite a bit of controversy about it, but it looks as if Asperger’s Disorder will only be around for a couple more years. This diagnosis will probably get the axe in the upcoming DSM-V, when it arrives, subsumed into the so-called Autism Spectrum. It will be interesting to watch how a change in language will change how we think about a certain constellation of behaviors. If you’re interested, I have a link here to the proposed changes to the DSM.

Please read my disclaimer here about diagnosing yourself or anyone you know. The short version is, you can’t do it.

And, for the time being, here are the diagnostic criteria, word-for-word from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, page 84. As with Autistic Disorder, note the absence of qualities we may think of as common in Asperger’s Disorder, such as being picky about food or other things, being sensitive to things like noise or texture, any visual processing abnormalities such as non-susceptibility to visual illusion, being easily upset, self-harming behaviors, high IQ or “splinter skills.” None of these are considered in the diagnosis.

Diagnostic criteria for 299.80 Asperger’s Disorder

A. Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:

(1) marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction

(2) failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level

(3) a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)

(4) lack of social or emotional reciprocity

B. Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least one of the following:

(1) encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus

(2) apparently inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals

(3) stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms (e.g., hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements)

(4) persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

C. The disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

D. There is no clinically significant general delay in language (e.g., single words used by age 2 years, communicative phrases used by age 3 years).

E. There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skill, adaptive behavior (other than in social interaction), and curiosity about the environment in childhood.

F. Criteria are not met for another specific Pervasive Developmental Disorder or Schizophrenia.

I go swimming most Friday evenings with my six-year-old friend, Akira. We started about a year and a half ago, calling it “swimming lessons.” Now we just call it “swimming.” It has been a joy to watch him learn to swim, just the way I think people should learn to swim: Having fun in the water, discovering new skills and games at whatever pace feels right. It took him almost exactly a year before he actually swam. He had slowly gotten comfortable putting his face in the water of the hot tub, and then found that when he did, he could lift his feet off of the bottom and float, which he started doing for 15-20 seconds at a time. Then one night he just started swimming, face down, slowly and relaxed, all the way across the hot tub. When he came up for a breath he was so excited. “Nathen! I don’t even have to swim! The water holds me up and all I have to do is pretend to swim!”

He is swimming three times a week now, and looks like a real natural–complete comfort in the water. You would never guess how nervous and circumspect he had been about water. He wouldn’t even blow bubbles for eight months–the bubbles popped uncomfortably close to his nose and eyes.

I am also getting to watch him grow up, which is mostly delightful. He is getting confident and funny–not surprising, since his parents are two of the funniest people I know.

Tonight, we were in the hot tub with another kid Akira’s age, and that kid started trying to make friends. “What’s your name?” “Can you do this?” Stuff like that. He seemed like a nice, friendly kid, and Akira was playing along. At a certain point the kid made an awkward move, standing too close and smiling too much. I realized later that he was going to try to lift Akira up out of the water a little, like he had seen me do. It created this awkward moment, though, and Akira said, “Weird.” The kid’s smile turned a little anxious, but he didn’t move away. Akira said “You’re weird. Get away from me.” The kid followed through with the lifting-up move, but instead of the original, playful feel, it ended up feeling aggressive, like, “This is what you get for calling me weird.”

I had an impulse to intervene, to stop the misunderstanding somehow. I had thought of this kid as a potential friend for Akira. I just didn’t think of anything to say besides, “Stop!” or “Don’t be mean.” Neither of those seemed right. The kid’s dad was there too, watching, and he didn’t say anything either. Akira started staying close to me, making a game of walking over my lap. I realized that he was nervous, that when he had said, “You’re weird,” he had been uncomfortable, a little scared.

Then it hit me what a powerful tool “You’re weird” is to a kid. Weird is the worst thing you can be at that age, the doorway to isolation and bullying. Being able to say “You’re weird” with enough poise shows where you stand in the hierarchy and rallies the troops of conformity to your aid. It is also a way to avoid vulnerability: A year ago, Akira would have just retreated, outwardly scared and confused. He would have whispered in my ear, “Can we go to the cold pool now?” Saying “you’re weird” was standing up for himself, a six-year old’s way of saying, “The way you are standing close to me is making me uncomfortable. Please stop doing that.”

So partly I was proud of him, and partly I was sad about the struggle he is entering into. It takes constant vigilance. Don’t be the weird one, the one who cries, the one who stands too close, the outcast, the one you can safely tease. Then, a few years later, don’t be the uncool one, the awkward one, the kid who gets beat up with impunity. Then, a few years later, don’t be the unhip one, who doesn’t quite know the right music in time, who has to pay close attention to stay on the tail-end of trends, the wannabe. For God’s sake, don’t let yourself be vulnerable! Every action must shout invulnerable and in control. And inside it’s, “Please believe me. He is the weird one. Not me. Him.”

I think conformity is a stage, unavoidable unless you are truly incapable of achieving it. I think it has to be negotiated by the kids, between the kids, for the most part. When Akira told me, “That kid is weird,” I said, “Well, I think he just wants to be friends,” but I couldn’t tell if it sunk in. And I don’t know how useful it would be if it did. Maybe the sooner he masters conformity, the sooner he can reject it and start exploring the joys and pain of vulnerability again.

I think this is brilliant:

John Gottman says, in his book The Marriage Clinic, that there are basically two things that make the difference between couples who stay together and those who do not. First is what he calls the partners’ “uninfluenced stable steady states,” which are a result of the temperament of each partner plus the history of the relationship.  The second is the partners’ “influenced stable steady state,” which is the emotional direction that each partner takes, once they are interacting.

If the way you feel and act worsens when interacting with your partner–that is, if your influenced steady state is more negative than your uninfluenced steady state–you may well be heading for a divorce. The crucial question is, how much negativity from your partner does it take to turn your mood negative? If you can respond in a positive way to your partner, regardless of their mood or complaint, that’s a real strength. If you respond in a negative way, this is trouble. Negativity will tend to escalate in each conversation and throughout your relationship. Gottman says that if you cannot maintain a ratio of 5 to 1 positive-to-negative interactions at worst (that is, during conflict) you are heading towards (or are in) an unhappy relationship. If you dip below a 1 to 1 ratio, you are heading toward divorce.

“Negative affect reciprocity” is a closely-related pattern that Gottman says is the best predictor of happy or unhappy couples. (“Affect,” remember, is just a science-y word for emotion.) The extent to which you are more likely than usual to be negative when your partner is negative (as opposed to when your partner is neutral or positive), you are showing negative affect reciprocity. This could look a lot of ways, like responding to anger with your own anger, responding to criticism with stonewalling or defensiveness, responding to sadness with irritation, and so on.

Gottman says that negative interactions are inevitable, so what he calls “successful repair attempts” are all-important. That is, emotional repairs such as humor, taking responsibility, compromise, and soothing, must be offered, recognized, and accepted. When couples can recognize and accept all of each other’s repair attempts, he says, they are finished with therapy.

I’m studying Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, or EFT, this term in my Couples and Family Therapy master’s program. In her book for therapists, Susan Johnson writes that many people, especially those with histories of trauma, have strong fears about expressing strong emotions. She gives five common examples. These are directly quoted from her book, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, p. 73:

We may fear that if emotions are unleashed, they will go on forever.

We may fear that we will be taken over by such emotions and our ability to organize our experience, our very sense of self, will disappear.

We fear that we will lose control and be slaves to the impulses inherent in these emotions, and so we may make things worse or actively harm ourselves or others.

We fear we will not be able to tolerate these emotions and will go “crazy.”

We fear that if we express certain emotions, others will see us as strange and/or unacceptable.

When your partner in a relationship stonewalls, what does it look like? They might leave the room or house. They may stop talking and ignore you. If they are an accomplished stonewaller, they probably look like they don’t care, are calm and unaffected. They look like “You could stand there screaming all day and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash.”

The first thing to know about this behavior is that, if it happens very often, your relationship is likely in trouble. You probably needed couples counseling years ago.

That is pretty common knowledge these days, now that John Gottman’s work is so well known. What I found surprising about stonewallers when I read his work is that if you hook a stonewaller up to a biofeedback machine like a heart-rate monitor, you find out that they are freaking out inside. Their heart rate and blood pressure are way up. They just look calm or withdrawn. They are actually so painfully engaged that they can’t deal with it. This knowledge has helped me think more clearly about stonewallers. I can be a lot more sympathetic to someone I know to be in something like flight-fight-freeze mode than someone who appears to be shutting me out.

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