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Circular Thinking

 The other day I got into a conversation with Judith, in which we wondered about our tendency to feel differently after talking about how we were feeling. (Such talking is pretty frequent between us.) Assuming that “feeling,” as in emotion, is not simply a metaphor but a literal event, when I feel, say, sad or depressed, I am actually physically aware of certain hormonal changes in my body. The activity of our brains is electro-chemical in nature, and a lot of the activity in different parts of our bodies is reported and initiated by hormones traveling through the networks of fluids that make up our internal communication systems. For example, when we feel fear, what we feel are the physiological changes in our bodies initiated by the autonomic nervous system. But how, I wondered, is all this chemical activity altered by talking?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his best-selling book Wherever You Go, There You Are, described his experience with changing his emotional reactions to a minor annoyance: Other members of his family often left the cat’s food dish in the sink to soak, among the dishes for the rest of the family. This annoyed him, and that annoyance built up into more active anger because it seemed to him that they knew how he felt about the cat’s dish but were unwilling to respect his feelings. Each time he discovered the dish, he went through the same cycle of negative feelings. Finally, he began to simply observe himself as he experienced the annoyance and anger (and sometimes voicing his feelings).

Part of such experiences is the concomitant awareness that the negative feelings, and even the verbal outburst, seldom do anything to change the situation. At least they seldom have the effect one desires.

As he watched the workings of his mind (and his gut) without judgment, something strange happened: the feelings themselves eased. After a time (because these things don’t usually happen immediately), he noticed that he could see the cat’s dish in the sink without experiencing the annoyance or the anger. In fact, he found the whole thing rather humorous, particularly his earlier reactions.

How do such things happen? Nothing was different except his response. He didn’t tell himself to let go of the anger; he merely observed it closely—and repeatedly.

I’ve experienced similar things in my own life. One day, I’m overwhelmed by feelings which, the next day, are completely gone—without the circumstances being one bit different. Sometimes I can’t figure out why I had been so distraught.

The hormonal changes which I interpret as anger, or sadness (even depression), or whatever, may have simply dissipated because they were not reinforced. I’m not sure. But it seems that our minds are altered, and in turn alter the signals sent to our emotional system, particularly in the amygdale, which is an area of the brain that is part of the limbic system. According to neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux*, it’s harder to get rid of emotions than it is to get them, because the neural pathways between the amygdale and the cognitive areas of the brain are fewer in one direction than in the other.

So, while we can’t easily will ourselves out of an emotion, there are ways to escape it. It helps to understand how emotions come about and how they relate to the rest of our lives.

Many of our memories are linked to emotions. Often, if we are experiencing an emotion, memories that elicit similar emotions come to the surface. A slight by a friend, for example, might trigger the memories of past slights—by the same person or by someone else. Soon, one may be overcome with the emotion, because each remembered incident reminds us of another, until a circular storm of emotion seems to take over. The circularity feeds on itself until it is interrupted or until it simply runs out of gas. The sooner the interruption occurs, the easier it is for the emotion to dissipate.

Alternatively, if we act on emotions, our behavior can reinforce and prolong the emotion. Some people can be caught up in anger, for example, and by acting on it intensify it—sometimes to the point of uncontrollable rage. We often hear about incidents of domestic violence where this has been demonstrated. On the other hand, calmly talking about our anger seems to provide an interruption to the emotional cycle itself.

I’m not trying to say that one can “simply snap out of” a negative emotion by force of will. We all know that doesn’t usually work very well. But with practice, one can interrupt the circularity of the process.

The amygdala is an ancient part of our brain, one that we share with older forms of life such as reptiles and amphibians. It’s part of a survival mechanism for them. It contains “emotional memories” that interact directly with the autonomic nervous system but not easily accessible to our conscious minds. When we recall an incident from our past in which we experienced strong emotion, we might remember that we were emotional, but we don’t often feel the emotion again, at least not right away. If we “replay” the incident for a while, however, we can get in touch with the emotion again. What is happening is that the emotional memories are triggered by the replaying of the memories, and the messenger hormones flood the body once more—and this is what we “feel” as emotion.

Memories are built on association, links between fragments. Often the associations take place outside of our consciousness. When emotional memories are engaged by these associations, we can feel the emotions without ever remembering the original events themselves. Feeling angry or blue “for no reason at all” usually means that some present experience has triggered an old emotion that is somehow associated with it. That, in turn, may trigger other memories that are associated with the same emotion. This “circular thinking”—which is more like “circular feeling”—feeds on itself.

Sometimes “sleeping on it” can allow it to dissipate. If it’s persistent, however, it may take professional counseling to untangle the memories—conscious and unconscious—that keep bringing it back.

It’s another demonstration that we aren’t as much in control of these mysterious bodies and minds as we like to think.

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* : A Talk With Joseph LeDoux [2.17.97] (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/ledoux/ledoux_p1.html)

 

 

May 22, 2006

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