Sunday, November 8, 2015

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Or can we do a better job sensing how we are really feeling?

I just finished the book The Tale of the Dueling Neuroscientists by Sam Kean which Kenny bought for me and surreptitiously snuck in my luggage. I really enjoyed it. It did a great job of explaining the various parts of the brain and also what happens if something goes wrong with one part of the brain.

The most interesting one, in my opinion, was CapgrasSyndrome where patients believe that their loved ones have been replaced by “doubles” kind of like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 

What happens is that the brain has two ways of recognizing faces, one conscious that recognizing this person is someone you know etc and the other subconscious that goes directly to the emotional centers of the brain. These people have a problem with the subconscious communication that results in a sense of strangeness to people that they should have an emotional response. To compound problems they also have problems with their right hemisphere communicating with the left and this results in the left brain coming up with plausible explanations for why who they’re seeing doesn’t elicit the response they know they should be experiencing. Thus the body double.

This even happens to the patients when they look at themselves in the mirror and many people have to cover up mirrors because they fear being attacked. Kind of reminds me of beta-fish.

Side-bar: If you don’t know this trick, put up a mirror in front of a beta-fish(i.e. a Japanese fighting fish) and it will see itself and think it’s an enemy and will try to attack it.

Okay back to Capgras. In addition to the obvious scariness of this for the patients, it’s also sad for their loved ones who are now treated with distrust or apprehension(Not always though: Kean uses an example of one Capgras patient whose sex life increased because his wife’s body was" electrifyingly new every few weeks"). 

Originally this was thought to be a psychological issues and often attributed to schizophrenia. However, it was  soon discovered that patients had corresponding brain lesions that appeared to be eliciting this odd delusion. And it was also occurring in many patients who were otherwise fully functional: their memory, motor function, speech, humor and even their emotions were all intact. Even if the patient talks on the phone to their loved one they will have that emotional connection but as soon as their vision kicks in and they have the conflict between conscious and subconscious perception: they start back with the body double thing. 

This is a rare and mysterious disease, but I’d argue that many of us spend a good portion of each and every day not recognizing ourselves. (I know that wasn’t the smoothest transition, but hey! Give me a break. ) In this I mean that how our body is responding to our environment, how we unconscious respond to sensory cues and stimuli, and the stress we allow our bodies to be exposed to all happens without our knowledge. As mentioned above, the brain is very good at coming up with stories for why we are the way we are.

So as you’re walking along and you smell something that reminds you of that time when you got in a fight with your friend, you may all of a sudden become angry. But you’re likely not to attribute it to that memory but come up with a story for why you are upset(maybe the car that just cut in front of you). The same thing can and does happen with our bodies. We may be standing hunched over the sink for 45 minutes and then all of a sudden our back starts hurting. Do we attribute it to that action? Oftentimes no. We attributed it to our “bad backs”. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard: oh I’ve got degenerative disk disease that’s why my back always hurts. Well… first of all, I doubt that it always hurts. It’s very easy to say that but most likely there are many parts of the day where there is no pain. Secondly, this is a convenient story that confirms their feelings without really getting at the root of the problem, which may be bad body mechanics, muscle imbalance, over-(or under) doing things etc.

In both of these instances, we experience a sensation and then our mind comes up with a story for it. If we can become cognizant of these feelings, and cut off those stories(or at least create a more empowering positive story), we may be able to avoid blowing up at our friends or catastrophizing our pain and creating persistent problems that don't need to be occurring.

Update: apparently this is called the Lazarus theory and researchers have concluded that “thoughts appear to act as fuel that stirs up the emotional fire and leads to a prolongation of the episode”. So evidence does support that we experience a physiological experience and then the stories we tell ourselves is what creates our emotional response....

It all goes back to mindfulness and getting to know our bodies and minds better. That way when we experience something it's not so frighteningly new to us. 

Until next time,


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