Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Subliminal Frowning Can Create A Powerfully Negative Somatic Marker

I woke up this morning an hour before my alarm clock sounded. I realized that I would not be able to get back to sleep so I held a few yoga stretches and lay back down to meditate. I was doing so concertedly, concentrating on abating the chaotic negative thinking that is constantly going on in my mind. I tried to notice the recurring waves of negative thought crash on the forefront of my consciousness and I was trying to break them up slowly but methodically by examining the sensations involved. I found myself actually making some headway. I felt some of the storm clouds in my mind begin to dissipate and then I realized what was really happening… I was slowly relaxing a low-grade, perpetual frown or grimace from my face that I must have learned to ignore long ago. This is a subtle wincing, barely perceptible in a mirror, that I believe may afflict many of us and contribute to psychological distress and even psychiatric disorder.

I stayed in bed for a full hour keeping the contorting expression from coming back. As soon as my mind wandered, the tension around my eyes would resurface and I realized that my motor systems had become accustomed to sustaining it. Similarly, I have found that, ever since a series of "traumatic" incidents 8 months ago, I wake up every morning clinching my teeth. There are many examples of our muscles retaining tension that is completely unnecessary. This happens because the brain systems responsible have compensated for the constant demand and moved on without continuing to apprise us of their relentless activity. By habituating to such burdens we force ourselves to carry them unknowingly. I think that this subliminal frown has contributed a good deal to my anxious and depressive thinking.

After contemplating this and attempting to bring awareness to the feeling of frowning (and its absence) for an hour, I got dressed and went on with my day. But something was very different. It was as if a huge weight was lifted. I felt like I had taken a powerful antidepressant - the feeling was unmistakable. Throughout the day today I noticed that the frown would return all on its own. Each time I noticed it, I allowed my face to turn placid again and the calm, tranquil feeling would reinstate. Now, at the end of the day, just thinking about frowning makes me feel nauseous. Holding a frown now feels like I am reinflicting a wound. I hope I never go back to inadvertently and subconsciously maintaining a discomfort-inducing countenance.

Now you might be a little skeptical. You might not believe that people have the capacity to unwittingly carry mental hardship with them in the form of a frown. But imagine a small monkey. Imagine this monkey was traumatized as a baby and ever since has trod around with a wince on his little face. He will derive pain from it. Just imagine how this would affect his inner world, his encounters with others and their impressions of him. He inevitably will perceive things as more negative than they really are because of the powerful interrelationships between bodily expression and emotional condition. The biological underpinnings of this have been explored by the "facial feedback hypothesis." I think a frown actually has the capacity to create a “somatic marker,” anchoring you to an aversive state. Please, spend a few moments of your own looking for this in yourself and taking measures to counteract it.

Addendum 2/15

I recently had a cup of coffee and bedded down in my garage for three hours in a search for the source of tension in my mind. I continued my search as I did before (in the anecdote above) when I realized that I was continually wincing. I had previously traced the source of a good proportion of unease and anxiety to the tension that I unconsciously held in my eyes and cheeks. Even though it seemed that my entire face was now fully relaxed I still figured that there must be another tense cramp somewhere in my psyche that I had to discover and unravel. I was in total dark, there were no noises and I tried to get as comfortable as possible so that I was not distracted by the urges to reposition myself. I imagined myself searching in the dark for a large knot somewhere in the recesses in my brain. The imagery was unrealistic but it helped to drive me toward what I was searching for. I expected to notice that my anxiety was maintained by a certain thought pattern. I half expected that this would generally consist of a string of normal thoughts followed by a brief, subtle state of panic repeated over and over again. I was searching for this pattern so that I could understand and interrupt it. But the pattern wasn’t psychological as I expected, it was still facial.
I must have been ignoring the sensation for 15 years, but when it finally reemerged into my consciousness it was clear and unmistakable. Lying in the dark, I felt a tingling sensation on a small strip on the bridge of my nose. I realized that the muscles that led up to this strip were highly flexed or tonic. The muscles fibers in this area constitute the superior portion of the nasalis muscle and especially the procerus muscle which crosses the bridge of the nose and anchors near the cheeks. For the first time, I could tell that even when I thought I was relaxing my face, these muscles were still in overdrive. It took an hour of meditative thought and exploration to even notice; however, once I became aware of the sensation it was impossible to ignore – it was all I could feel for several minutes. I felt that the muscles were very tense and stiff, but I could not relax them. I could feel that they were flexed but I couldn’t intervene, as in the hypertonia or spasticity that is seen in some cases of partial paralysis (or paresis).
Immediately after first feeling the sensation on the bridge of my nose I remembered that I had been struck over the head with a weapon in a fight in high school in this exact same location. The blow had shattered my nasal bone in several places and must have affected the nearby musculature and nerves. I realized that somehow this damage is still affecting me and that I couldn’t do anything to curtail it. I wondered how long I had been frustrated or burdened by this constant tension without realizing where it was coming from. I knew that I had an ongoing personal problem with psychological stress but I never guessed that it had such a simplistic physical anchor. Now that I had finally brought conscious awareness to the sensation of the tension I was determined to arrest it.
At this point I had been lying supine for over an hour and it took another full hour to develop some voluntary control over this muscle. For the first few several minutes I could not control it at all. I eventually “found” the muscle by trial and error. Actually, I first had to learn to clench the muscle before I could learn to relax it. Slowly, after several minutes of clenching I began to develop a sense for what it feels like to relax it. Interestingly, every time I actively tightened or relaxed the muscle, the patch of scar tissue on the bridge of my nose would tingle and feel numb. This was the exact same tingle and numbness that I have felt accompanying other examples of nerve damage. If you have ever had a deep tissue cut or wound where a nerve has been damaged then you know this feeling. It often indicates that the cortex is relearning how to control or receive feedback from an area of the body whose nerves have been damaged . My control over the flexion and relaxation of the muscles in my nose was feeble and imprecise at first. It got better, but every time I relaxed it I felt the numb and tingling sensation. I believe that nerve damage to this area was wholly responsible for over a decade and a half of unremitting wincing which in turn led to persistent anxiety.
Another issue that I think may have been involved is the following: The impact damaged my nasal muscles and nerves and gave my face a general dull, inattentive look that I tried to make up for by keeping my nose and eyes muscles tight. Especially in social situations I attempted to compensate for the hypotonia, in an effort to bring some life and energy back to damaged facial expressions. I think this made my social interactions neurotic and frenzied. Coincidentally, this kind of damage also happened to my cat, Niko. The little guy was tracking a bird’s nest and was pecked in the forehead by a protective mother bird. For at least a month Niko’s face looked dull and inattentive because his brow muscles were lax. The muscles or nerves must have been damaged because his eyes looked dull and tired even when I was trying to play with him. After a few months his eyes returned to their former state. Luckily, unlike me, Niko didn’t try to compensate for the damage, but he sure did look funny (and less attractive overall) for several weeks.
After a few weeks of working with the muscle every day I have gained enough control of it so that whenever I am alone it remains in a resting state. Interestingly though, every time I find myself in a social situation I have a tendency to flex this muscle and it causes social anxiety. It seems that having this muscle flexed became an integral component to the way I used my face socially. In fact, at this point, many of my social facial expressions cannot be expressed authentically or completely if I do not flex this nasal muscle. It seems that my entire facial repertoire has been built around this nasal flexion and when I relax it during a conversation, looks of concern, knowing glances and social smiles just do not come out properly.  I am now relearning how to make social expressions without the muscle and it is a slow but steady process. I used to flex this nasal muscle when I modeled or reenacted social interactions in my imagination. I would do this on a daily basis in the past and it was usually very stressful. Now I am able to relax, at least whenever I am alone, and this has brought renewed calm to my life as a whole. I am very grateful because I feel confident that I have been able to pinpoint the source of a good deal of my anxiety and neuroticism. I feel a little bit like I have a new lease on life because I have overridden a previously unconscious burden. Now I find that if I inhibit facial tension, it is actually difficult to become stressed. I think that this must be true of everyone and I wish to encourage people to master their emotions by becoming aware of and learning to subdue their negative expressions.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Interview Questions About Autism

The following is a transcript from an interview that I did about autism regarding the solitary forager hypothesis. The questions, formulated by ecologist Nelida Pohl, were really thoughtful and forced me to think carefully about the issues involved.

- First of all, how do you think an evolutionary perspective on autism could eventually help with developing new treatments? Are there any examples of other conditions whose evolutionary signature has helped elucidate new medical approaches?
Right, this is a difficult question to answer. Most theories in “evolutionary medicine” have helped to elucidate the problems conceptually but have not yet done a great deal in informing medical treatment. These theories have shown practical utility in predicting and treating the evolution of pathogens in terms of virulence, resistance to antibiotics and the subversion of a person’s immune system… but haven't done a great deal yet for specific, human diseases. Understanding why certain human disorders arise can encourage researchers to look at particular solutions and to disregard others. The “heterozygote advantage” theory of sickle cell anemia makes perfect sense and is embraced by virtually everyone, but has it really informed treatment strategies? Eventually such theories should allow scientists to identify and zero in on particular cellular and molecular pathways. How can the present evolutionary approach help with autism? In my opinion, the way it can help the most is through comparative biology. It will be interesting to see if oxytocin receptor distribution in the autism brain matches that in the brains of solitary animals. If so, it will be important for scientists to compare the relative distributions of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in different animals to determine which areas in the autism brain are not affected enough by these neuropeptides so that they can target these specific areas. Other species have found myriad ways to reduce social contact for adaptive purposes, and understanding how this is accomplished should provide much insight into psychopharmacology or even gene therapy for autism.
I also have a suspicion that autism, aside from the heritability, is to some extent an example of phenotypic plasticity and a predictive adaptive response. There are many of these in nature and they allow an organism to use specific early environmental cues to influence their behavioral strategies. You may have seen examples of this in the insects that you study. I think that cues indicative of social attenuation can program autism to some extent, but I can't prove it. Evolutionary theory would help in this regard. It would cause geneticists to completely reinterpret the epigenetic contributions to autism and to look for the molecular pathways that change gene expression resulting in the alternate behavioral strategy.

- What types of activities should be offered to autistic children in order to stimulate them properly?
I think that autistic children should be more motivated by pleasure and positive reinforcement to explore their social options and overcome social fears. I think that touching, cuddling, rubbing, talking and eye contact should be a parent’s priorities. I believe that with “proper stimulation” the sky is a limit for autistic people, just like it is for neurotypcial people. I personally believe that the majority of autistics can be "transformed" into Aspergians given the proper "brain training." Only in the last few decades have people been working towards findings way to assimilate individuals with autism and help them to express their potential. We have to better customize educational paths for them, influencing them to like certain things, get better at certain tasks and become knowledgeable about certain domains – the potential is there. Many people with autism may not be able to support themselves financially at this point in our society, but spiritually or intellectually they are our equals in my mind. Think about this, almost all neurotypical people think about the same kinds of things. Relative to our world, ruled by social concerns, their thoughts are highly original and abstract. We are just now beginning to understand what kinds of lives people on the autism spectrum can lead and how they can find outlets for their abilities. Autism advocacy will gradually become the documentation of successful autists as more and more people with autism surprise us with new formulas for being successful.
As to what activities should be offered to autistic children… I imagine that it sounds inhumane to many people to use food as a reinforce as my article implicitly suggests. Food is not a reinforcer for modern people but would have been for prehistoric people, even children. Most neurotypical children are motivated to learn by what they imagine is going on in the minds of others. They want to appease or please their parents, they want others to be proud of them or impressed by them… It is difficult to have these feelings and difficult to use these as motivators without having complex theories of other minds. I think that the main issue in autism is refocusing an autist’s interests and motivations and this is difficult to do without doing it through either their theory of mind or food. I think that this will be a difficult but not insurmountable obstacle for cognitive/behavioral psychologists. If a parent can increase the attachment and bond between them and their autistic child, I think the child will act on the theories of mind that they create. 

- Would you say then that autism is not really a disease but a more complex evolutionary condition? And how would such a change in focus affect autistic people, their families and care givers?
I think that it is unlikely that it is a coincidence that individuals with autism have their brains wired up like other solitary foraging mammals. But yes, what we know as autism is not all disease and not all adaptive. It is a mixture of phenotypes lumped together by clinicians. I think that the solitary forager hypothesis represents reality but even still there is a ton of grey area because the modern, clinical picture of autism reflects many different things with different causes. Some issues, unrelated to natural selection for solitary foraging, mimic autism, and are lumped in with autism by the psychologists and psychiatrists making the diagnoses. All of the studies on autism are done on this heterogeneous group. I think it is a big mess that won't be entirely sorted out by geneticists for a good amount of time.
I think that, if proven true, they hypothesis should positively affect focus in autism advocacy. In my mind it shows that they are functional and not broken. I also think that it further establishes them on a social continuum with other humans instead of painting them as aberrant.

- Where should anthropologists concentrate their efforts to find evidence for early human solitary foraging? How would the evidence look like?
This is very difficult to answer. Even in the most remote areas hunter-gatherers are influenced by modernity. They do not have large ranges, there are not many of them, they may not be sufficiently profiled psychologically for us to identify foragers that are on the autism continuum. There are, however, always examples of brief periods of solitary foraging. Modern day hunter-gatherers want to be alone sometimes, just like all of us, but they haven’t been known to split up completely for long periods.  This may simply reflect the fact that they live in environments that can support large groups and that they supplement their natural resources with supplies from nearby civilizations. In the evolutionary past, there would have been periods and environments where groups would have been forced to split up due to low food density and dispersed as opposed to clumped distribution. There is not much study on this, and it is not clear if these condition have been shown to exist in modern foraging environments. But, as the article cites, research has shown that similar factors do tend to break up human groups. 

- And finally, are you planning on continuing this study? If so, what next? And if not, what should researchers (anthropologists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, medical doctors etc) be looking for next?
I have a ton of other theories that I am writing up now. I am currently writing an evolutionary interpretation of the stress cascade and my own take on working memory and consciousness.  I would like to work on autism more, but may not do it right away unless I can find some collaborators.
I think that genetic evidence is a few years away still but the comparative biology and neuroscience is much closer. There is not a good deal of research on social instincts that makes comparisons between species. I think that comparative studies in the next few years could establish, in a reasonably firm way, whether or not the brain changes in autism are actually examples of strategic programming, shared with other animals.  

Also, check out this interesting news story about a boy with autism that was lost in the woods. The article was sent to me by friend and physics student Paul Calhoun.

The article starts out like this...

"It's hard to know exactly what was going through 8-year-old Robert Wood Jr.'s mind as he wandered for five days through the woods in Hanover County, but it's possible that aspects of his autism helped him survive as much as they contributed to his disappearance. Educators familiar with Robert say his quiet determination and lack of self-awareness may have carried him through."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Brain Basis for the Continuity of Thought

If we could pause your mind at this instant and look carefully inside your brain, we would see that some brain cells are active and others are inactive. How long these neurons continue to fire after we unpause your mind is determined by how much input they are getting from other active neurons. If they are not being sent more than the requisite number of messages from their peers, they slow down or turn off.   Some of the currently active neurons will remain active for only a few milliseconds, others for large fractions of a second and others for several seconds. None remain active indefinitely, but rather they each persist for different durations. The pattern of activity in the brain is constantly changing, but because some individual neurons persist during these changes, particular features of the overall pattern will be conserved over time. In other words, the distribution of active neurons in the brain transfigures gradually from one configuration to another, instead of continually changing all at once. I believe that the persistence of certain neurons allows the temporary maintenance of mental imagery which is a central hallmark of consciousness and working memory. I also believe that this persistence lends continuity to the train of thought.
Six years ago I was waiting at a bus stop wondering how my mind is different from that of other animals. I realized that my thoughts can extend further in the sense that I can carry a complex concept out to its logical conclusion. I can take more information with me through time before I lose it and forget what it was I was just thinking about. Psychologists agree that working memory, or the ability to preserve information and perform manipulations on it, is more highly developed in humans. Influenced by the various lengths of different pine needles on a Douglas fir at the bus stop, I concluded that human thoughts were somehow “longer.” But if thought has a length associated with it, then it must have a beginning and an end too. I wondered for a while if thoughts really do begin and end, and if so, on what time scales. I now believe that it is possible to answer these questions using the reasoning in the previous paragraph.
Thoughts have length in a sense, but thoughts do not have a clear beginning or an end. Thoughts are “longer” in humans because they are composed of elements (that correspond to individual neurons, or neural assemblies) that remain active for longer periods than they do in other animals. Our large prefrontal cortex and association areas keep some neurons online for several seconds at a time, whereas in our pets, for example, most neurons remain active only very briefly. So it is not that individual human thoughts are longer, it is that our thoughts are composed of elements that remain coactivated for longer. The neurons that persist stop and go at different intervals. It is not the case that all of the neurons that persist turn on and off simultaneously. In fact, the beginning of the activity of one neuron will actually overlap with the tails of others. The neurons act like racecars that join in and drop out of a race intermittently. Their behavior is staggered, insuring that we continually have a cascade of cognitive elements that persist through time. Thus there is no objective stopping or starting point of thought. Instead, thought itself is composed of the startings and stoppings of huge numbers of individual elements that, when combined, create a dynamic and continuous whole.
Sensory neurons in the back of the brain do not usually remain active for long. It is the anterior, association areas, especially the prefrontal cortex that contains neurons that stay online for seconds and even minutes at a time. These neurons, by remaining active, can mete out sustained signaling to other neurons, insisting that the representations that they code for are imposed upon the processing of other neurons that are firing during their span of activity. This is why the prefrontal cortex is associated with working memory, mental modeling, planning and goal setting. The longest, most enduring element or neuron would correspond to what the individual is most focused on, the underlying theme or element that stays the same as other contextual features fluctuate.
Thought changes incrementally during its course. We picture one scenario in our mind’s eye and this can often morph into a related, but distinctly different scenario. Our brain is constantly keeping some elements online whether they are representations of things that are concrete and tangible or abstract and conjunctive.  I think that neural continuity as described here is an integral element of consciousness and may be a strong candidate for the “neural correlate of consciousness.” Philosophers and neuroscientists have identified many different elements of brain function (thalamocortical loops and reentrant cortical projections) and attempted to explain how these may lead to conscious experience. I think that the present concept of “continuity through differential temporal persistence of distributed neural activity” is instructive and I even feel that it is the core aspect of conscious experience, qualia and phenomenality.

Read the full article that I wrote on this topic here:

Figure A shows two time points and the change in activation over time. Undoubtedly the longer the separation in time between time one and time two, the fewer reactivated elements. Figure B shows the time course for eight hypothetical neurons. Note how some remain activated for longer than others and that they overlap frequently.