Posts Tagged ‘panic’

SERMON: “A Map of the Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

I got emotional recently, to the point of crying (not that unusual, in my case).  No sooner had the episode begun but  there was a particular “voice” in my brain that started to chatter…rather insistently.  I did my best (this isn’t the first time this has occurred) to “disengage” my attention from that particular part of my consciousness so that I could get on with my emotional moment.  But afterwards, I began to ponder just where this “chattering voice” was coming from.  I began to think about the “geography” of my own consciousness.

Here is a good place to make something clear:  I approach questions such as this from an understanding that any and all of this mental cacophony that I experience is happening within the confines of my skull (and not outside of my self).  Still, I have a need to “place” things.  That’s only natural.  The big difference, then, between me and many others is that I don’t place any of my conscious self outside of my physical self.

So as I thought about the chatter that kicked in when I was emotional, it didn’t feel like it was coming from a “higher” functioning part of my consciousness, but from a sort of ante-room of my brain.  Having said that, I must still recognize that I am applying an imaginary construct in order to give a location to the different aspects of my functional consciousness.  This is a conceptual tool — like language itself — that allows me to create a visual sense of something that is biological and electrochemical.  Therefore there will never be an exact one-to-one physical relationship between the mental phenomenon such a framework describes and the phenomenon themselves.  But then, language has no intrinsic connection to the things it describes — what matters is that those of us using language share our catalog of word-object associations with our fellow speakers (so that, for instance, we don’t picture a pit bull when someone asks us if we like their hat).  On the other hand, we know from recent studies that certain actions are taking place within specific regions of the brain.  So my exercise in mental geography — fanciful though it is — is not without some basis in reality.

That being so, what can I know about the nature of this chatter that popped up to halt my tears?  Well, it almost seems as if it had intention, in that it appears to be a quite specific reflex that is triggered by strong emotion, almost like a too-earnest friend that jumps in with a “WHAT’S WRONG  IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO HELP AND MAKE YOU STOP CRYING RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” while what we feel like saying is: “Shut up and let me cry!”.  (Actually, the “heart” doesn’t want to say anything — does not, in fact, want to switch it’s focus from emotion to the part of the brain that is used to tell someone to “shut up!”.   No, in moments of deep emotion, our “heart” just wants to feel what it is feeling, which is a joint exercise of mind and body that, like sex, doesn’t like distractions just now thank you very much.  But then, that could be precisely why the noisy chatter is effective — that interruption, alone, breaks the hold of deep emotion on our conscious attention.  Like sleep, like sexual intensity, deep emotion — once interrupted — can be “lost”).

You’ll note here my use of the term “heart” for the seat of my emotion.  This is a rather universal exercise in placing parts of our brain activity on a conceptual “map”.  In this case, however, the emotions are displaced to a place somewhere in our chest — or gut, depending on the emotion — a foot or two away from our brain case.  This is a recognition, I think, of the sense we have of emotions coming from a certain depth of our consciousness.  They feel too deep to be taking place within our brain, and, since they are felt in our body, we place them (with some good reason) somewhere in the deepest parts of our physical body.  (In a similar, if more dramatic way, we most often displace the mid-level of our consciousness — the part that answers us when we talk to it — much further outside, or above, us).  Which just goes to show how natural is the bleed-over between our brain and body, and how natural, then, is our ability to displace aspects of our consciousness from the particular region (or regions) of the brain that they are actually occurring in.

Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the "quirks" of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog).

Hannah Holmes does a great job of exploring the “quirks” of the human mind in her book (reviewed this blog).

And so what sense can I make of this mental chatter that would seem to be — if the emotions are the root of the tree —  the chirping birds in the upper branches?  I can make some guesses about what this part of my consciousness is all about — what it’s “intention” is.  And I can have some confidence that it is there for a useful reason (useful for my evolutionary success, anyway, even if it gets in the way of my emotional life).  But I may never be able to state with absolute confidence what is really going on in that part of my brain.  We are, after all, wary, reactive, emotional animals.  Understanding that fact alone immediately makes a lot of what goes on in our day-to-day experience of consciousness make some sense (even the parts that don’t seem to make sense for the kinds of comfortable lives many of us Westerners actually live).

The fact is I have no good, specific answer to give you on that score.  I do have a more general answer that may have to suffice.  But it involves a story, and a kind -of answer.

I used to be a much more anxious human than I am today.  I struggled with intrusive thoughts and periods of panic and even depression.  This led to what I refer to as my “Therapy Years”.  But the point where things began to turn around took place at a Golden Corral restaurant one night.  It must have been around this time that my therapist first offered me the idea that the “biggest thing wrong with me what that I thought something big was wrong with me”, and that the panics that gripped me were not necessarily events that just happened to me — were not, in fact, irresistible forces imposed on a helpless Bob.  This seemed far-fetched, as it felt as if a panic would always hit me before I saw it coming — like a mad monkey that suddenly was on my back — and all I could do was react after the fact.  But that night as I finished my dinner, I had turned enough of my attention to the workings of my own brain that when a panic hit me, I caught the slightest glimpse of a tiny gap between the thought I was thinking and the nearly instantaneous global bodily reaction of cold fear.  I had at last witnessed the machinery of reaction in my consciousness.  After that, it was only a matter of time before my senses become attuned to the point where I could widen that gap, and identify the thought I had had that triggered the reaction.  Then began the process of learning to interrupt the process between the thought and the panic (it turns out this can be done).  My therapist was right: my own thinking was the source of my panic.  But it was the (rather intriguing) ability to use one part of my consciousness to catch another part of my consciousness in the act that led to my coming to terms with that brain of mine.  I was learning to fight brain with brain.

Obviously, this has informed my view of consciousness as I then moved from the last years of my religious (or quasi-religious) belief to a more materialistic view of consciousness.  Having experienced many of the quirks of our human consciousness, I deeply appreciate the insights into those quirks that neuroscience and evolutionary psychology offer.  The upside of this is obvious, as such a view can free us from some of the add-on doubts and terrors — based in a belief in outside intentional agents acting upon our exposed souls — that have accompanied our evolution over the last few tens of thousands of years.

The point being that this non-externalized understanding of the brain makes analysis of events much different than the standard search for external agency that is our most common response.  Note that the phenomenon in question do not change, only the way in which they are interpreted or understood to exist.  It is a question of SOURCE, and with our determination of source comes our idea of causation or intention.

Hence, I can see this odd chattering that suddenly pops up when I’m crying not as some evil spirit, or neurosis, or critical agent, but a reflex that most likely evolved in my brain and may be more or less active in me than in the average human (perhaps as a simple tool to reduce my physical vulnerability when overcome by emotion by “snapping me out of it”).  In other words, there is a real possibility of understanding it in a nonjudgmental way, which removes from the discussion all sorts of further emotional and existential complications.  (After all, if I think the Devil is trying to seduce me away from God, then my poor mind and body are reduced to a sort of confused war zone with spies and plots and open battles taking place over my highly-valued soul.  What a mess).

Instead, I can see my brain for the highly evolved organ that it is, even though this also means that it carries within it some rather ancient operating systems, reflexes and responses that were programmed at different times in my evolution, some of which are not necessarily the most conducive to living in a relatively non-violent, non-life-threatening modern social environment.  This is the down side: the fact that we have to come to terms with the notion that — having the evolved mammalian brains that we do — we are living with a consciousness that is actually a complex, sometimes self-contradictory alliance of innumerable evolved survival responses often better suited to a lizard than a lawyer (insert favorite lawyer joke here).

And, finally, back to my allusion to the “intention” of my emotion-interrupting mental chatter that kicked off this sermon.  I have to say here that the mind’s response to stimuli turns out to be intentional in only a rather limited way.  I’ve come to understand that there resides in my brain a sort of “blind librarian” that connects current stimuli to stored experience, and in a bio-chemical version of a word-association game, yanks from our memory any and all cognitive and bodily responses in our past experience that have any possible connection to the moment at hand.  That’s why certain triggers can make people panic over and over again — even when the current situation doesn’t warrant it — and why such connections are so challenging to break.  In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense as a means of keeping a wary animal wary, but it can sure get in the way of relaxing and “enjoying” life.

As an aside, I can tell you from my own experience that one of the most curiously challenging parts of my own journey has been this recognition of the kind of brain we humans are actually carrying around in our skulls: That the very organ that has brought us through all of our generations of evolution — and that we rely on for every bit of our ongoing survival and experience of life — is, well, a “Kluge” (as Gary Marcus so aptly describes it in “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed this blog).

In general, I am obviously well-adapted to my overall species (and individual) survival, but that does not mean that I am always going to be perfectly suited to any and every situation I find myself in.  Evolution is not about perfection, but adaptability.  And so nature doesn’t care if the human brain is an amalgam of reserved bits and pieces of its evolutionary journey through every brain it’s ever been, from fish to shrew to monkey to man.  I may care, but that, in the end, is my mental problem to map out.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “OUR INNER LIZARD” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

When I wake up each morning, I’m in the habit of quietly thinking about the day ahead of me.  I flip through the catalog of projects I have in the works, and note any resonance in me for making any progress on one or two (or three) of them.  In this I imagine that I’m a bit like a farmer rising in the morning and looking at the sky, then the ground, and deciding which necessary tasks the weather and soil conditions favor.  Often the dry, critical voice in my mind will demand that I work on this or that, but I instead defer to my gut — the “wet”, fertile part of my consciousness — and to what it feels like doing.  For I’ve learned through experience that I’m a) more productive, and b) a hell of a lot happier when I “go with the flow” and channel what energy I have into the projects that are most ripe for the picking.  It’s an interesting dance between mind, intention and circumstance which has taken me many, many years to develop.  What is surprising is the apparent effect this approach seems to have on the reality of my work day, for it actually appears to make a difference that my intentions are clear and lined up with what my consciousness somehow can ascertain about external opportunities and conditions that would seem beyond my immediate sensory knowledge.  Some days I can get no clear sense of what I’m going to work toward, and I take those as “surprise” days, meaning something’s gonna come up that is going to require my attention, so it’s best not to get started on a project that will only be interrupted later.  It’s not a perfect system, to be sure, but it often seems to work to a level of precision and ease that can, frankly, amaze me.

So what is really going on?  Do I really — like the Norse god Odin — have twin ravens at my shoulder that fly out every morning to search the countryside and bring me back news?  I like to imagine that I do.  Of course this is just a colorful image (or narrative) to lay upon a natural phenomenon of my multileveled human consciousness.  For many of us the default response to descriptions of such phenomenon may be to either dismiss them as imagination or delusion or (more commonly) to attribute them to the presence of God or helpful spiritual forces.  The truth is, the phenomenon requires neither of those explanations.

When I woke up yesterday, I thought I might get some time in later in the morning on a commissioned pencil portrait.  I’ve been getting over a upper respiratory virus and coming down with a cold, and figured that would be some quiet work I could do in my studio.  I had a lunch scheduled with a psychologist friend to pick his brain about the levels of human consciousness and how we externalize parts of ourselves and view them as “God”, and there was a chance of a later coffee with another friend (who is an anthropologist).  But after I hit the gym and settled in at my usual morning coffee shop, I ended up having a long instant messaging chat with a friend (a former realtor/journalist who is now homesteading in Sierra County, raising chickens, pigs, goats, onions and garlic).  Our conversation was intense and invigorating (as always) as she was musing about the lessons that animals teach her about life.  I had no sooner left that conversation when Dave (a statistics professor friend) sat down and we got to talking about poor education and the irrational (if heartfelt) sentiments of the T.E.A. Party movement.  Shortly after he left, my retired Canadian airline pilot friend (and current engineering professor) stopped by, and we talked about reason and the challenges and labor-intensity of setting up solid scientific experimentation.  By then it was time for lunch with the psychologist.

It became clear this wasn’t going to be a “drawing” day, so I made the decision to give myself to whatever the day would bring me.  The only concern I had was that my mind would experience some sort of overload from so many energizing and engaging conversations on subjects that excited me!  I quickly spoke some conversation-inspired thoughts into my little digital recorder, and headed to lunch.

The theme of lunch was the current research into the many levels of our human consciousness (there are much more than the two levels I had imagined!).  The basic fact is that our consciousness has several layers of function, each of them likely adapted to specific uses that have proved helpful in our evolution and survival.  I was after a scientific explanation of how the common phenomenon of us humans talking to ourselves (and getting answers back) is externalized to a point where we believe we are talking with God, and that God in turn is talking to us.  Turns out the explanations are there.  I was excited to hear that.  What surprised me was the insight my psychologist friend gave me that we humans are so deeply driven by our fear response.

In terms of survival as animals, it makes complete sense that our fear response would have the capacity to dominate all the rest of our conscious functions: get to safety first, think about it later.  Those of our kind who tried it the other were likely eaten more often than not.  And so the psychologist spends a great deal of his or her time working with patients to moderate the overheated application of this primal flight response (in the absence of the true carnivorous attackers of our primitive past).

As I heard this, I reflected on a big chunk of my own life in which I was tyrannized by fear and anxiety.  I could instantly recall the many times where panic would grip me, and I would find myself completely cut off from my feelings and the input of my physical senses.  Beginning in my late twenties (what I call my “therapy” years), I began the long process of engaging with my emotional, sensual self as I gradually developed tools and techniques to manage the primal lizard in my brain stem.  It took me a long, long time.

Along the way I learned two important things: 1) Panic is irrational, and immune to reason and logic (once the adrenal glands have taken over, well, you’re taken over), and 2) We have control over this powerful response in many situations.

I remember the night I was having dinner at Golden Corral (back when I could still stand their food), and my mind drifted to an idea or situation that suddenly triggered my panic response.  In less than a heartbeat I went from content to blanked by fear.  But there was a critical difference: this time I caught just a glimpse of the chain reaction that led to the panic.  Months before I’d been crying to my therapist in the midst of deep anguish about my life and she made a comment that stopped me in my tracks.  “You mean, I’m creating all of this anguish myself?” I asked.  “Yes”, she replied.  Until then my panic attacks had been mysterious and overwhelming — forces of nature against which I had no hope.  But I decided to allow that my therapist might be right, and began to watch myself more closely.  And so, on that night at the Corral I noticed, for the first time, that there was just the smallest gap — or delay — between the triggering thought that popped into my mind and the global panic response that arose.  I sensed that in that gap lay my salvation.

Over time, as I paid attention, the gap became clearer to me until there came the time when I stepped into that gap and said “no”.  To my utter amazement, it worked.  The heretofore unstoppable panic was stopped.  It turned out that I had the power to select the focus of my consciousness — I did not have to remain a victim to my own mind.  My therapist was right.  Over time, I got better at it as I also got better at feeling my emotions, my body and building a way of living that was responsive to my true desires and interests.  In popular terms, I learned to “live in the moment” where, it turns out, all of my evolved primate senses are attuned and most effective.

It is common knowledge that we humans have an amazing level of influence over our own consciousness.  That’s why meditation works for some, therapy for others.  It’s a pretty amazing thing to contemplate (and even better to act on for the increased enjoyment of living that it offers).  But you may notice that nothing about this process invokes the idea of forces external to us — namely no “God”.  The wonder of our multi-layered consciousness is not, frankly, enhanced by attributing any of its attributes to God or the Devil.  In fact, I would argue that such attributions diminish the wonder.  And why wouldn’t they?  For by using such explanations we are taking a vastly (and exponentially) expanding modern knowledge and trying to squeeze it back into a bronze-age superstition.

Back to my very-satisfying “Tuesday of Conversations”: As I wrapped up coffee with my anthropologist friend that evening, I felt very fortunate indeed to have both the interesting and thoughtful friends that I have and that I had developed enough as a person to fully engage and enjoy all that they had to teach me.  The next morning (as I reflected on my many and varied conversations) my mind came to rest on one theme of the day, which seemed to be a discussion of the irrationality exhibited by many of our fellow humans.  The T.E.A. Party folks seem to react from a deep yet unfocused nostalgia for a mythical past epoch in America, voicing a distrust of big government even as they enjoy the benefits of living in a moderately-well governed society; Islamic terrorists are often upper middle class and college educated, and yet hold screamingly irrational views of God and culture; and all of us humans live with this deeply irrational fear response that can — at any time — take over our entire mind and body for petty reasons that do not truly represent threats to our physical survival.  My “chicken-farmer” friend admires the lack of “sentimentality” among her chickens, and the lack of pretense or artifice in the animals in her care, noting that much of what constitutes our human social life is “made up”.

And so I wonder where to focus my efforts to encourage the rational side of our natures, the parts of our consciousness that are kind, thoughtful and humane.  Should we focus on education?  Critical thinking skills?  Eliminating poverty or debunking religion?  Yes, yes, yes and yes.  But I don’t know the best answer.  To me the gravest problem we humans face is our capacity for irrationality, for acting out of the lizard part of our brain that just doesn’t give a shit what the evidence says.  This is the power of the angry mob or the political (or religious or — god forbid — both) ideologue that can ignore the scientist and the expert because, well “I know what I know!”.  How do we combat this?

I once wrote a song about a rattlesnake on a hot highway, and my imagined interaction with him as I tried to shoo him off the road before he was squashed flat by a passing semi.  How would I communicate to that snake (already hot and mad) that I was only trying to help?  That’s how I feel about many of my fellow humans — they’re already hot and mad and unlikely to understand my entreaties and venomously bite me for my efforts.  Still, I try.

That’s what this blog is about, really.  It’s about hope for us humans — of the real transformations we can experience and the satisfying lives we can lead based on the evidence and reality of our evolved selves.  There is, frankly, no greater wonder available to us than the wonder of nature.  There is no greater complexity, no greater mystery and certainly no story more interesting to us as our own as we continue to live on this planet.  The question remains, however: how do we bring as many of our fellow Homo sapiens as possible along with us?

t.n.s.r. bob