What keeps you doing such crazy things?
Much of what Siegel wants us to consider can be condensed into a simple phrase: “what fires together, wires together.” The idea is that when a set of neurons are stimulated, they link up with all those other neurons that are simultaneously firing. Whether the groups of neurons that are linking make sense to us as observers on the outside is beside the point. Odd pairings can occur, strange juxtapositions of feelings and sensations that, outside of the experience of a particular individual, seem almost impossible to the rest of us. I’m reminded of a narrative in the old DSM-IV casebook that describes an individual who had come to associate sexual arousal with being covered in insects. As a child, that individual had been locked into closets for unimaginable amounts of time, and during those times, bugs would frequently fill the space and crawl on him. The child, trying to seek some sort of escape from the reality of his experience, found comfort only in sexual release, even though he was too young to even know what sex was or meant. His body knew only that it felt good, and it provided the only possible escape available to him. It soothed in the midst of trauma. Those associations—comfort through sex and the sheer, incomprehensible horror, fear, and rage at being locked away in a closet full of insects—became in that mind, quite literally, wired together, so that sex, horror, pleasure, rage, and insects, became bundled as a mass of neurons that shared the same communication pathway. Siegel wants us to become aware of those types of associations and, just as importantly, types that are more mundane and quotidian. They are as much physical as they are “mental,” and they can be anything from unsurprising to astonishing. Sexual gratification and bugs, it turns out, can go together, despite what most of us imagine.
A huge amount of text and then:
The animal brain of the child is quite sensitive to touch of all sorts. It recognizes the safety of a hug as well as the danger of a slap without the slightest bit of explanation, and it learns rather quickly that certain behaviors can lead to danger and a red ass. The problem, for folks like Siegel and Bryson, is that children enter a world of emotional chaos when their attachment figure, from whom they are wired to seek safety and security, becomes the figure who also inflicts physical harm. The animal brain, the one that seeks fight or flight, is at that moment conflicted, confused, and, probably downright pissed off. As the brain stem and limbic system instinctually tells the child that danger is coming and that he needs to seek safety and security in the embrace of the attachment figure, the limbic system also confronts the reality that the attachment figure is, in fact, the source of danger. Safety and danger conflated. Brain chemistry roundly fucked up. You might picture Curly running around in circles looking for a place to find safety from Moe, who pops him repeatedly on the forehead. Like poor Curly, lizard brain has very few ways to decipher what is happening and so just circles round and round, occasionally slapping anything or anyone (presumably Larry) nearby.
This internal conflict can lead to what neuropsychologists call “dysregulation.” The neurons start forging relationships that don’t make sense to the more advanced parts of our brain, and as the mind tries to integrate the information, it seeks out solutions, associations, and meaning. When that meaning is hard to discern, as in the case of spanking or even the threat of spanking, the child brain becomes increasingly frustrated, and it essentially dis-integrates. Melt-down ensues. More importantly, it is difficult to construct a coherent meaningful lesson and skills have not been built to make the child more adaptive next time. It has gained no new ways to interpret information, nor has it gained any new ways of making sense of the world with the cortex part of the brain. Instead, the brain-stem and the limbic area stay in charge, and the child, unable to process the conflict, learns a temporary, if also momentarily effective, lesson: if I do X, dad whips my tail. This is not insight or learning or skill-building, this is lizard logic.
The above linked is an enormous article — it’s brilliant, but it’s huge. It’s mainly focused on child discipline, spanking, time outs and saner alternatives to such. And, well worth the read.
But, the above is striking. And, it begs a simple question:
Exactly how much of the behavior of panic and anxiety attacks is really just an adult version of the exact same childhood dysregulation?
Food for thought…