The seventh basic emotion circuit that was found by Jaak Panksepp (see prior posts) is what he, unfortunately, calls the “panic” circuit. He calls it that because of the panicked reaction of young animals who are separated from their mothers. I prefer to call it by its more appropriate and descriptive name, the Attachment Circuit. Panksepp describes the distressed cries of animals – identical to the distressed cries of separated young, which are evoked by the stimulation of a particular neuronal circuit in the brain. The distress is caused by separation. The resolution of the distress is caused by reunification. Panksepp’s work confirms what has been argued by attachment therapists like Dr. Sue Johnson – the co-developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy. We have a deep and biologically determined need for connection. When that connection is threatened, we become distressed and anxious. When we become distressed and anxious, we are inclined to react automatically. This is the painful dance that we see in the distressing cycle we almost always observe with couples who are in conflict. Brent Atkinson, a marital therapist and author, has created an entire approach to couples therapy based on Panksepp’s work. Atkinson repeats that individuals are overtaken by the intensity of their emotional reactivity. This is precisely the same kind of description that Sue Johnson uses to describe how a couple is overtaken by the force of their cycle. Imagine, when both people’s brain circuits are firing so fast and strong that they are swept up into the maelstrom, seemingly without any control – at least not until they are helped to s….l….o…..w it down and realize when they, themselves, are being overtaken by these strong, automatic, emotional discharges in the brain. The belief of emotionally focused therapists is that once we are able to slow it down and gain awareness of our process, we can create safety for ourselves and our partner. That’s at least what goes on in my office, anyway.
Research neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, has been studying the anatomical basis of emotions for many years. It has been a challenging task for many reasons. For one, the scientific community has not been in agreement as to what comprises an “emotion” – whether they exist at all and, if so, how to describe them. Another question is raised by those who claim (passionately I might add) that emotions are environmental and not inherently physiological. This is not what Panksepp has found. In fact, he has been able to identify 7 different brain circuits which correspond with discrete emotional responses. Further, he provides us with extremely reasonable ideas about the evolutionary basis for the development of each of these emotional circuits. While he freely concedes that there may be more to be discovered in the future, those which he identifies at this stage are:
- Seeking: This is the drive to explore the world – to gain stimulation and sustenance from the environment. Interestingly the nerves’ receptors for the neurotransmitter which is most associated with this behavior (dopamine) are severely compromised or destroyed by the use of drugs such as cocaine, which explains the incredible lethargy after prolonged use and the need to keep snorting or smoking in order to maintain a baseline of alertness.
- Rage: Panksepp found that anger is a primary emotional experience, as it is put into service when the animal is being constrained. It is a natural reaction to the experience of being cornered and, indeed, his representative picture is of the hissing cat backed into a corner. This is different from the anger we often describe as our reaction when a lover hurts our feelings or betrays us. The difference is interesting and worth further thought and discussion.
- Fear: This is a basic self-protective mechanism. Our brain is programmed to protect us and get us the heck outta there when we are faced with threats to our existence. It’s the old “our ancestors split when they saw a saber-tooth tiger roaming close-by.” What Panksepp also observed, interestingly, was that when this circuit was chronically and continually activated, the organism lapsed into a state of anxiety – which, then can be defined as the low level, continuous expression of the fear circuit.
- Nurturance: This is the classic maternal care circuit. When it is stimulated, the body produces a load of oxytocin, which has been called “the cuddle hormone.” It is also true that this circuit is activated, and we are bathed in oxytocin, when we are feeling close and loving to a partner. The evolutionary basis for survival of the species is pretty self evident, here.
- Rough and Tumble Play: Panksepp observed the animals in his lab spontaneously engaging in such play. It is the expression of a physiological need to experience joy. He associates human laughter to the activation of this circuit. The evolutionary value of the play circuit is more speculative, but Panksepp suggests that it may facilitate basic socialization.
- Lust: The drive to seek out and find a mate is perhaps the most fundamental evolutionary imperative. Panksepp describes many, many courting rituals and other behaviors which are reflective of the stimulation of this circuit.
Panksepp has been able to generate these emotional responses, from rage to fear to sexuality, by stimulating discrete parts of the brain with mini-electrodes. This would seem to add proof to his theories. The seventh and final hardwired emotion really forms the basis of the couples therapy I do and I will leave that discussion to the next post.
Listen to psychologists talk and you will often hear about how some behavior or attitude is “hardwired.” It’s a pretty descriptive term – particularly since the brain is an organ characterized by electrical circuits. For another example, just consider the most popular adage among neuroscientists over the past dozen years or so, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” It suggests a certain immutable permanence in ways we think or act. Consider all the incredible identical twin studies in which they are separated at birth and meet decades later to find that they are wearing the same color, are married to women with the same name, pursue the same career and have named their children identically. One great example involves two brothers reunited after 39 years. Each was incredibly fastidious and detailed – compulsively neat and orderly in every respect. They were both completely convinced that their character was a function of nurture rather than nature. The first was asked why he was like that and he replied, “My mother is the reason! She was exactly the same way and I was raised to be compulsively neat.” The other replied, “My mother is the reason! She was so disorganized and such a slob that I had to be this way just to survive.”
Among the researchers who have been studying the brain’s inherent (“hardwired”) character is a man named Jaak Panksepp. His work with animals is incredible. One fascinating observation he shares in his book Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions involves the problem they had with rats who were very distressed and active after their cages were cleaned by a certain lab tech. After some investigation, they found that the tech had housecats and some of the dander was carried with him to the lab. What is fascinating is that these rats were born and bred in the lab. They had never seen a cat in their lives….nor had their parents or grandparents. They had been separated from actual exposure to a natural predator by many generations. Still, they reacted strongly to the scent of the cat. That’s one great example of being “hardwired.” What is even more important for us, is that Panksepp has found that certain emotions are hardwired into our brains. This will be the subject of a later post.
Recently, Huffington Post put a slideshow on their “Divorce” page that was very enlightening. They asked readers to respond with “the moment I knew my marriage was over.” There are over 150 responses in that slide show and, boy, do they range far and wide! Yet they do tend to fall into a discrete number of set categories.
One category is the “I just woke up one morning and knew.” That’s a hard one to work with, as I often liken the decision that the relationship is over to a campfire (appropriate image for the Northwest). At the end of the night, after staring at a brilliant, dancing flame hovering over intense, glowing embers, we turn in – and upon awakening, sometimes the logs are still there, charred, but partly intact. If you lift one up you may see a bit of life that, if blown upon intensely enough, will start to smoke and a flame may emerge. However, other times, it may have rained overnight and in the morning, we emerge from our tent to find a dead fire. No amount of effort will revive anything. The fire is simply……gone. That’s like the woman who responded, “when I took my wedding ring off and couldn’t bring myself to put it back on.”
There’s another category which Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy calls, “relationship traumas.” Infidelity is, of course, a leading (and searing) relationship trauma. It is difficult, but by no means impossible, to heal from this, but that’s another story for another day (post). There are others, however. Some people responded that they were facing a health crisis and their spouse was unresponsive or disappeared. An example is, “The moment I knew was when I went into the hospital for emergency surgery and nearly died. I was in the hospital for 6 days. He didn’t visit once. I got no calls and all of two texts. People I barely knew at least called.” Others describe an incredibly demeaning statement or attitude, like the one respondent who said, “”when I was picked for a prestigious conference in NY – he didn’t congratulate – asked who would watch the kids.” Others relate statements made by their partner that just floor them, like one who replied, “When he said he’d divorce me if I went to console my best friend (who is like a sister) after the passing of her mother.” For sure, these are all blows and there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done if the marriage can overcome the trauma of one spouse’s sense of utter abandonment at a moment of deepest need. Yet, when I read these kinds of posts, I don’t automatically think, “Well that marriage is over!” Actually, that’s the way I found myself responding to many of these posts. Many of the wounds that people describe are sharp and deep and they absolutely need to be talked about. Honest remorse and forgiveness are necessary and entirely possible, but, again, I don’t think people are able to do this on their own – or for that matter in an office of a couples counselor who acts as an umpire and decides who is right and who is wrong. It’s really fascinating and heart-full work. That’s why I love it so.
Many years ago, John Gray, made a mark (and a gazillion dollars) with his hugely popular Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Between its hardcovers (and I recall it being in hardback for a long, long time – well after most personal growth/self help books had gone into paperback) Gray talked about the many fundamental differences between men and women. For years after its release, I listened to experienced marital therapists dismiss him and his book as overly simplistic. While there may be some truth to that, I think it’s hard to ignore the reality that the two sexes do seem to process the world differently……as a general rule. There are always going to be exceptions to these rules, but some things do seem to be gender related. One example is the way women often prefer to talk things out. If something has happened in her life, she wants to be able to talk it through, being pretty confident that she can come up with a solution herself as she airs out the experience. He, on the other hand, likes to drive for solutions. Any problem raised is an invitation to come up with a solution. When one person interacts with the other, the solution-seeker may get frustrated by the continued recounting of the problem, while the problem-discusser is frustrated by the other’s quick-cut to a solution. It feels like she’s being shut down. Well, we are lucky to have this problem described and solved in a two-minute YouTube video. If you have not seen this yet, enjoy.
As the New Year dawns there are those among us who are now facing the deepest question and ultimate personal challenge. Do I stay in my relationship/marriage or do I leave? The uncertainty is hugely destabilizing – but then, how can it not be, with so much on the line and no clear answer? I want to share a conversation I had recently with a man seeking couples counseling to get out of his marriage (to get help breaking the news). He was sure that he wanted out, but when he talked about the reasons he had come to this conclusion, I kept thinking to myself, “Wow! I’ve worked successfully with couples to overcome that issue.” I often tell couples I am counseling, who are in distress, that when people get swept up in their continuous cycle of conflict and frustration, if left to their own devices, they will probably blow apart. I realized in the conversation that I feel pretty confident about helping distressed couples turn a corner to reconnect and deepen their bond. So I asked him, “If I could tell you with complete confidence that if you worked on your marriage with me you could reconnect with your partner and have the kind of relationship you long for….would you want to do that with this person?” I have asked that question before and sometimes I receive an answer along the lines of, “I’m excited about that….though doubtful.” That’s something to work with…even if the person is very doubtful. However, if you sleep on that notion and conclude that you don’t want to have that with this particular person, even if it can be achieved, that seems like a pretty telling answer.
In a way, it’s a “trust your gut” question. I have written an earlier post about the divorce decision and viewing it as an impermeable barrier that, once you cross it, you really can’t return. This is another view of the question from a different angle. Asking yourself the question above may help you know. I hope this is of some small help because I know the limbo of uncertainty is a dreadful place to be.
Fox News is again awash with outrage over the “War on Christmas.” The latest installment has Megyn Kelly proclaiming that Santa Claus and Jesus are indisputably white. While I am hard pressed to have sympathy for anything broadcast on Fox, I must admit to a sadness that “Merry Christmas” has morphed into “Happy Holidays.”
I’m Jewish and as a kid I loved Christmas. I believed in Santa with all my might and when told he was fictional, my little heart broke. I was in a choir and year after year I experienced great joy in singing those lovely carols about the silent night and three kings of orient. Christmas was a time of joy all around me. There was honest good will and magic was in the air. It wasn’t a solstice celebration or the big holiday at the end of the year (that coincided with Hannukah). It was Christmas. Christmas is the holiday of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s character transformation and the vindication of the goodness of James Stewart’s George Bailey. Of all the holidays in the calendar, Christmas is the only one that celebrates man’s essential kindness, charity and warmth. It is the holiday which honors the birth of the Prince of Peace, and, indeed, peace permeates our homes and spirits. So I am inclined to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.” ( And while we are at it, how about Bill O’Reilly and his comrades shower those of us who secularize the holiday with a little “peace and good will toward men.”)
Those of us who have suffered with depression isolate. We cannot bear contact with others. It’s as if our brains are exquisitely sensitive to touch. Nobody can understand the depth and the utter truth of our dark, endless despair. When we are in an intimate relationship the complications can magnify. We can’t really isolate. In the depth of a depressive episode, we maintain such a focus on our horrible inner pain that the very notion that we have an impact on another is hard to fathom – well, we easily see ourselves as a burden on others – but we don’t understand the depression as something other than ourselves. Depression is an illness that challenges the relationship. It is not the depressed person who challenges the relationship. A good web article on this subject may be found here: Depression and intimate relationships My wish for all depression sufferers who struggle in your marriages is that you embrace the reality that this darkness is not you and that with treatment you can come to know that the pain is not permanent – it can pass and you can recover a life that allows kindness, peace and joy to touch your heart. Having a loving partner who will join with you is among your greatest gifts.
Michelle Wiener Davis is one of the stars of the psychotherapy circuit. She has enjoyed a long, and well-regarded, career as a couples therapist. Back in the early ’90′s she came up with an approach to salvaging frayed marriages, wrote a book called “Divorce Busting” and a cottage industry was born. Among her excellent insights was the notion of the “walk away wife syndrome.” I love it because it so accurately describes a dynamic I have seen in my office many times over the years. It works like this:
A woman in a marriage or intimate relationship is feeling disconnected from her partner. This distance is extremely lonely. She will reach out to him, trying to get him to understand her distress. He doesn’t get it, in her view. Over time, she becomes frustrated and even a bit desperate. This incredible, and legitimate, need she experiences may never be acknowledged and touched. She may become more critical in her distress. He just withdraws.
Then one day, it happens. She decides she is done. She says to herself, “I am leaving when ________________.” Fill in the blank – “when I get a job”….”when the last child is out of the house”….”when I finish school.” Sometimes it might be, “when I find another man.” Once she has made that decision, though, she stops being so angry and frustrated…..because she….is…..done. The criticism stops. Things overtly are more peaceful around the house. He, of course, thinks he has died and gone to heaven. Friends as how his marriage is and he’ll say, “Great.”
Then the even she has waited for occurs. And with that, she leaves. He is shell-shocked. “What happened?” he asks. “How could this happen? We were doing so well.” As Weiner-Davis notes, this may be the first time he really, really gets the level of her desperation. He understands what he needs to do. However, usually it’s too late. She has moved on emotionally. She is done fire that represents her emotionally commitment to this relationship is extinguished. It is over. She has walked away.
Back when, in the early part of the last century, lawyers’ Code of Ethics required “zealous advocacy” in support of a client’s cause. This historical roots for this demand can be found in this excellent article in the American Bar Association’s Litigation magazine. It is often said that such aggressive and intense commitment to one’s client’s interests, only, may have a place in the world of criminal defense (and a few other places) the world of divorce is a poor forum for this kind of “my client and no other” myopia.