It’s a Walk in the Park! Or is it?

It’s a Walk in the Park!  Or is it?

It’s a Walk in the Park! Or is it?

     I can still hear the way my mother laughed when she would tell her favorite stories about her children.  I’m sure there is some very specific emotion that comes out at such times.  One of my favorites involves me dealing with mental imagery before my brain had much experience categorizing the variety of visual phenomenon that we encounter in day to day happenings.  The story goes like this…when I was a very young child, I saw my reflection in the bottom of a glass of milk I had finished drinking.  Apparently, I yelled out in fright, “There’s a man in the bottom of my glass!”

     What in the world was he doing there?  It’s fun to share these stories and wonder together what the mind of a child is like.  How is it different than the mature mind after the brain has quieted down from all of the exponential growth that occurs the first few years out of the womb?  During these early years  various neural pathways are growing in coordination with stimulation from the outside world.  They shape how we respond to our own emotions and determine our style of communicating about what is happening in our lives. Evolution has set things up to have our brain grow outside of the womb and forestall maturation until about school age to let this happen.  Unlike other animals who are well on their way to adulthood by at 6!

     John Bowlby, the founder of Attachment Theory called the best fit between the child and the environment the environment of evolutionary adaptedness.  While there is room for shaping of the brain based on the environment we grow up in there are a set of particular resources in our environment that will help us mature optimally based on millions of years of natural selection.  Among them is a set of biopsychosocial resources that allow us to socially collaborate around meeting our needs.

     You don’t have to go far to hear from neuroscientists these days who will tell you how much of your behavior is not determined by you consciously.  The brain science about all the processing that happens out of our awareness that primes us for certain choices can be daunting to take in. Add to it the role of genetics which also may seem to determine everything and why bother trying to make a conscious difference in our lives!  Freewill is even seriously questioned as a reality.

     So, why have consciousness at all?  Why grow up to see a man in the bottom of my glass and know it’s not me?  Did it matter whether or not my parents talked to me about the imagery I noticed and helped me determine if I was hallucinating or not?  Not only does the brain take it’s time maturing before school age but there are two other major growth spurts when we are middle school aged and again prior to young adulthood.    If all that mattered was that the brain do its thing then we might as well have stopped maturing when most other animals do.  When they can fight, flee, and freeze at various points when dealing with predators.  

     The type of brain growth later in development is particularly focused around making connections between disparate regions of the brain.  It seems to make sense that we humans will spend quite a lot of time as adults, “making connections”.  Not only within our mind’s eye but between ourselves, our history, and our desired future.  This type of processing may be derived from unconscious substrates but its hardly exclusively determined by them.

     Indeed if there is a place we can exert some influence on how to best make it in the world it’s through optimising our capacity to be aware.  To be aware of not only our present, but our past, and anticipated future.  This type of consciousness is uniquely human, intentional, and influential, even down to the very neurons that are working hard everyday to organize our behavior.  The imagery that we create of ourselves and others on a personal as well as cultural level will also determine our success in life.

     While Donald Hebb was applying his insights on neuroscience/neurobiology to what he observed in educational settings, he noticed that environments that were perceptually and motorically stimulating supported the development of the brain and subsequently the way the mind functioned.  In particular, an environment that is socially stimulating seemed to promote learning and the acquisition of the capacity to accurately simulate what was happening in the world.  On the other hand, Hebb noticed in his research that sensory deprivation could lead to poor pre-frontal lobe or “executive functioning” and at worst hallucinations.

     Now imagine decades of science focused on studying brains out of the context of a self (personal) or relationship (interpersonal) environment.  What if those brains were rat brains as well?  After all, the neuroscience seems to indicate our brain is in control and self-consciousness doesn’t matter a whole lot right?  How you feel about the yourself and the world and how you came to feel that way doesn’t matter and if it did it would only be a product of some brain chemicals that are out of balance. Besides, it’s all programmed by our genes anyway.  Your personal and social history would be a waste of time to explore, let alone your cultural history.

     So just sit back and go with the flow right?  We can develop some chemicals to fix your brain if it becomes “out of balance”.  Let’s say you find yourself addicted to drugs or alcohol.  We can solve that.   Let’s get your brain to produce chemicals that make you feel good so you aren’t reinforced by the alcohol or drugs and you will be all set.  Your brain will do the rest!

     Well, I sure am glad my parents discussed the man at the bottom of my glass with me rather than take me to the pediatrician to balance the chemicals in my brain so that I could tell that it was just my reflection!  As it would turn out they spent a great deal of time discussing many life events that would cause me to feel frightened, angry, or shocked and provided an environment within which I could makes sense of my conscious experience and sort out problems by staying connected to myself and those around me.  They shared their personal history and taught me about the cultures they came from.  Where they couldn’t do this I would seek out psychotherapy as an adult and consciously help my brain sort out what it needed to so that I could understand why I might find myself stuck in overly angry, anxious, or frozen state when trying to work life out.

     I would even come to learn about my temperament and genetics and the unconscious mind.  The knowledge that I wasn’t personally in control all the time helped me take control of what I could and let go of what I couldn’t.  My father left me with one of his favorite poems that would become one of mine.  “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.

“Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.”


     This poem and the memories of talking with my parents when I was consciously experiencing intense emotional states laid the groundwork for me to seek out safe individuals and groups to connect with and talk about how life was going.  Social environments that contained resources for curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. These resources would prove to be more than just epiphenomenal trivialities emerging from the “real causal properties” of the brain.  Or things of which only experts knew about.  Was it possible that our conscious experience of ourselves and others might be a clue to making adjustments in living that support well being?  If so, we’d better start paying more attention to how we feel, what we think, and how others make us feel and what they lead us to think!

     In my clinical work as a psychotherapist I’ve noticed how important the theoretical models are that we internalize.  I’ve wondered about those of my clients who seem to struggle with their own mental imagery and seek out solutions at the bottom of various types of bottles.  You know, beer bottles, wine bottles, pill bottles, and the like.  As the old saying goes, “You’re not going to find the solution to your problems in the bottom of a bottle!”  What are we looking for in those bottles anyway?

     Is there some sort of hallucination taking place when we turn to ingesting chemicals to deal with life?  Could there be answers to the widespread abuse and dependency issues in the world that lie somewhere between the brain, the self, and our interpersonal relationships?

     We could start a “War on Drugs”, or give “Prohibition” like policies another try.  We can get some mileage out of such aggressive and passive-aggressive interventions, but there is another way.  What if we provided a stimulating social environment that would leave us with friends, family, and memories to inspire and comfort us?  I’d begin with opportunities for connecting and communicating around real life issues.  Especially things we have become too afraid, ashamed, or overwhelmed to take responsibility for.  Things we think no one wants to help with.   Could it be so simple?

     Jaak Panksepp has led the way to a great deal of understanding of human emotions through his passionate pursuit to scientifically show that animals experience emotion.  He died this year at age 73 from cancer and leaves behind some of the answers we need to makes sense of why we humans grow to seek comfort in bottles rather than loving relationships. While I never met him, I will miss what his life force has provided for all of us.  Among the many contributions he made was the careful mapping of seven basic affective circuits that humans share with many other mammals.  These neuroaffective circuits make up a contemporary view of instincts.  In other words according to his studies and observations, we all have 7 basic instincts that motivate us at a deep neurobiological level.  They include, the instinct to SEEK, LUST, RAGE, FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF, PLAY, and CARE.

     We need no external motivation to seek out the needs associated with the 7 areas of life.  However we do need external sources of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love as we tend to these needs each day and over a lifetime.  If you take a tour of Jaak’s work (see link above) you’ll find that each of these neuroaffective circuits includes a powerhouse of endogenous drugs that make us feel happy, ecstatic, powerful, confident, anguished, and terrified.  Deep within brain structures we share with other animals is the cocktail of all cocktails, the feeling of being alive.

     It’s a roller coaster for sure, but one intended to be made together.  As an older child when I first worked up the nerve to ride the carnival ride called the “Octopus” it was my brother who sat beside me and recited the opening lines to the “Twilight Zone” intro in a Rod Serling like voice.  He imbued this with his affectionate laugh and intermittent reassurance that it would be “alright”, thereby cleverly working with me to regulate my own emotional and mental state.  It seems like hardly a moment to remark upon, but within that experience was one memory I would reflect on in years to come when life seemed unsettling.  The adventure that is life is about feeling a range of emotions and using them all as guides, not merely seeking to “feel good”.

      So let’s take Attachment Theory, The neurobiology of memory, Affective Neuroscience, mix it up with consciousness studies, poetry, culture, and my first person experience and then look at chemical dependency.  What do you get?  Rat Park of course!  If you haven’t seen this video, follow the link and check it out.  Early studies on addiction and the brain used models of mice in cages. Later follow up studies put the mice in more lifelike environments.  Bruce K. Alexander sums of the results of his work on rat park here.

     I’m not an expert in this area, so I’ll let you investigate. What I am an expert in is understanding how we can come to substitute substances and other preoccupations for social engagement.  By social engagement I don’t mean indiscriminate social activity.  I mean really bonding and sharing our life experiences, especially those likely to produce high levels of anger, anxiety, panic, or shame.

     Jaak left us with one insight that I find particularly compelling when it comes to alternatives to helping our family and friends move from addiction to life.  In the study of emotions and bonding there is one drug that gets a lot of attention.  Oxytocin. Oxytocin has been thought to be like its cousin Dopamine.  Many of us know dopamine is the “happy drug” produced in the body naturally.  Well Oxytocin was also thought to produce the conscious experience of happiness when released during various activities involving bonding in both animals and humans.  Jaak has describes some compelling research that Oxytocin may produce the subjective experience of confidence not happiness.

     What’s the big deal?  Well if he was right, then it means a major source of a very powerful endogenous drug that shapes our behaviors, motivation, and style of relating involves experiences of collaborating with others.  It means we feel good and like, “We did it!”.  This translates into “I did it!”, “I can do things!” and “We can do things together!”.  In this scenario rather than trading one bottom of a bottle for another that has oxytocin in it, we get the memories, the real life relationships, and the practical help we need to keep life going.

     This also may mean that chemical dependency might be looked at as an acute example of humanity’s loss of faith in itself.  A reticence to accepting a life in a cage with only a quick high to stimulate us.  Wars and prohibitions on drugs only reinforce the notion that the rest of the world is as just as preoccupied with the substance or activity and not interested in life.

     The more punitive approach will reinforce a type of enslavement.  Isn’t that what life in a cage is like, Mr. Rat? I’m sure glad that man at the bottom of my glass turned out to be me and that I was a boy somebody loved.  We all deserve to walk in the park with someone who loves us and motivates us to live by our highest values.  If I may William Ernest Henley…

“It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

We are the master of our fate,

 We are the captain of our soul.”

Leave a Reply