War and Dislocation: A Neuroanthropological Model of Trauma among American Veterans with Combat PTSD

About the Author
 Erin P. Finley
•      Ph.D. from Emory in medical anthropology
•      Masters in public health, also from emory
•      Investigator with VERDICT, or the Veterans Evidence-based Research Dissemination and Implementation Center at the South Texas Health care system
•      Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Texas in the Department of Medicine, Division of Clinical Epidemiology
•      Her research focuses on PTSD among veterans and their families. Her work has recently branched out to include the affect of relationship within the military and the American public on PTSD suffers.
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Trauma 
All trauma starts of as “the sensory and perceptual experience of danger.” That danger can come in any form, from some thing sudden and jarring to something constant and repetitive that requires the person experiencing it to always be on high alert. Regardless of the form that it comes in, trauma comes down to two elements: sensation and perception. It is only after the experience that the effects of the trauma begin to emerge. With PTSD both cognitive and neurophysiological changes result from trauma sustain in combat, in the case of this chapter the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. These changes can be seen through the lens of the individuals interactions with their cultural environment.
Trauma is frighteningly common with 60% of men and 51% of women experiencing it, according to the National Comorbidity Study (NCS). That same study put the prevalence of PTSD at 7.8%, not a particularly scary number. However, the more traumas an individual experiences the more likely they are to develop PTSD. Therefore groups like soldiers and refugees are seen to display higher rates of the disorder.
PTSD presents a problem when it comes to research and study. The disorder knows no disciplinary bounds and there are aspects of it that touch anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, epidemiology, psychiatry, social theory, and the humanities. Differing approaches with little to no integration of other disciplines and varying definitions of terms common to the discussion of PTSD, such as trauma and stress, has stunted the study of PTSD. In an effort to assuage the buckshot approach to the study of trauma and the disorder, Finley boiled it down to a six part framework:
1. Cultural enviroment
2. Stress
3. Horror
4. Dislocation
5. Grief
6. Cultural mediators
It is this framework that allows the neuroanthropological model of PTSD to take shape in an attempt to allow the study of trauma PTSD to move forward in a more focused and holistic way
Cultural Environment 
The cultural environment, meaning everything from the historical and political economic to social norms and gender, shapes the experience of the sufferer. Anywhere from 11% to 19% of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with a disorder that has only been a formal diagnosis since 1980. PTSD is clinically significant impairment characterized by three symptoms: hyperarousal, reexperiencing, and numbing or avoidance. It also culturally salient I that is evoke a connection to mental health stigma, the human aspect of war, and veterans loss and benefits.
Stress
A combat zone can require an adaptive change in the sensory perception of one’s surrounding, a neurobiological reshuffling of cognitive tasks if you will. This can be extremely benificial in life-threatening scenarios.  Reaction times have been seen to improve signifigantly in such situations and those abilities have been known to remain with soldier even after returning home. However, it is when this behavior begins to interfere with a veteran’s daily life that problems can arise. That hypervigilance in wartime can cause a fundamental change in sensory perception to the point where an innocuous stimulus can trigger a violent or debilitating response. They become unable to distinguish the relevant information from the irrelevant. For example, grocery stores can become a stressful place because all that some one with PTSD can see is bright lights and large, unruly crowds. They are unable to process the fact that they are safe among the shoppers because they are processing it through the wrong lens. What is harmless in this scenario would mean danger in the one they are still living in.
Here we meet Chris, veteran who was caught in a firefight that he had not been train to deal with. He froze, unknowingly urinated on himself, and proceeded to fire wildly at nothing. He remembers the experience by comparing himself to the unrealistic ideal warrior and that moment is a key component of his battle with PTSD. The immediate, knee-jerk reaction one has to stress and its interplay with the what we are culturally primed believe about ourselves and our reactions is important if one hopes to grasp the full effect PTSD can can.
Horror
The two main components of trauma are actually or threatened death or injury and horror, an emotion so powerful it overwhelms the individual’s cognitive ability. Horror is often characterized by nightmares or intrusive thoughts forcing an individual to reexperience the trauma.
One veteran, Carlos, experienced horrific flashbacks of an instance where a little Iraqi girl was mistaken for a terrorist and was hit with a grenade launcher. She survived, but that is not how he saw her in his memories. It was the disconnect between moral combat and the senselessness of her shooting that caused the persistence of the unrealistic memories.
Dislocation
Veterans can experience dislocation in many forms,  an internal distance from self, from family and friends, or even the world in general. They tend to feel nothing or extremely heightened feelings of anger or anxiety. One theory as to why this is posits that the brain is restructured to the point that when processing information it bypasses the prefrontal cortex, that would allow for higher thinking and consideration, and instead reacts to a perceived threat immediate. In this case the threat would be some thing like a simple disagreement that would normally be quietly resolved. This neuroplasticity can drastically change a person causing a crisis of identity or forming fissure between family and friends if an understanding of PTSD is not had.
Grief
Soldiers rarely get the chance to process their grief in combat, it is their job to go back out as long as they are deployed, regardless of the fact that their friends and coworkers may die around them. There is also a sense of responsibility between these soldiers that could and often does lead to feeling of guilt. Some soldiers are overcome in the field and some make it home before the tears fall. Grief can also be felt from simply coming home, in the difference between life as a civilian and life in a combat zone. Some veterans feel that this creates a barrier of understanding between themselves and the civilians in their lives. That perceived disconnect can lead to an inability of a veteran to talk about their experience, which is a key component of rebuilding relationships post-combat.
Grief is not typically thought of as being part of the PTSD paradigm, as anger is more often the associated emotion and due to the fact grief is an experience in its own right. However the dislocations created, be they internal or external, are a major contributor and require consideration.
Cultural mediators
Cultural mediators are the tools or processes by which the trauma variables can be reconciled  and felt with. They are effective therapies that mainly consist of things like reexposure and reassessment. They allow veterans to grow accustom to there own memories that would once terrify them. They also go back an rationalize what happened. Remember Chris? He now realizes that when he froze, it wasn’t for an any length of time, likely no longer than five seconds and that relieving himself unconsciously was his sympathetic nervous system’s way of attempting to lighten him and give him more speed. He is using these cultural mediators to work through what he previously perceived to be a shameful event.
Mediators may not always present as treatment but more as an acceptable way of expressing emotion. Social support, though it can present in different forms, plays a critical role in lessening the impact of these traumas. The presence of cultural mediators speaks not only to the interconnection of the different variable but also to the fact that they can be changed and that people’s lives can improve.
Neuroanthropological  Model of Post Traumatic Stress Response
This model serves a method of trauma comparison and of the differing approaches to the study of trauma. It also aims to grow a better understanding of the interplay between the different contributing factors as well as the contributing disciplines. It is not enough to simply understand what is happening physiologically or neurologically, there must be an understanding of why.

Toward an Applied Neuroanthropology of Psychosis: The interplay of Culture, Brains, and Experience

About the author

Neely  Anne Laurenzo Myers is an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University.  She received her PhD from the University of Chicago’s department of Comparative Human Development in 2009.  Dr. Myers specializes in psychiatric anthropology and applied neuroanthropology with interests in mental health especially among underserved populations.

Applied Neuroanthropology of Psychosis

The purpose of applying neuroanthropology to psychosis or to mental health more generally is really to understand the interplay between one’s culture, neurodevelopment, and life experiences.  This case study examines how everyday experiences can be integrated into neurodevelopment and lead to psychosis in certain contexts.  Applied neuroanthropology can make improvements on the current recommendations for psychotic disorders by understanding how neurodevelopment during certain life stages and relevant life experiences can interact to affect biologically vulnerable individuals.  Hopefully, new treatments and interventions can be developed to treat people earlier in the course of their psychotic disorder as people in the west typically have a lower rate of recovery than patients in non-western countries.  Another distinct advantage of neuroanthropology is that it can look at psychotic disorders cross-culturally.  By doing so it becomes clear that psychotic disorders do not mean the same thing to people everywhere.  They are experienced quite differently and understandably treated with different approaches.

Introducing Psychosis

While you may not know someone with any type of psychotic disorder it effects around 1% of the global population and even more people experience more mild psychotic episodes at some point in their life.  Psychosis is severely disabling in that the person loses touch with reality, they have delusions, and sensory hallucinations.  You are probably most familiar with the idea that these people hear voices in their head and may talk to those voices.  The voices can vary in who and what they are saying but it can be very frightening.  The patient, family, and friends may become afraid.  The experience is different for every person because everyone has a different brain and for this reason the illness can be very isolating.  I’ve personally seen what psychotic illness can do to a person and their loved ones and it is incredibly devastating and life altering.  Part of this may have to do with the way we view and treat this type of mental illness in this country.  The other symptoms essentially changes the person’s personality and further isolate them from any existing close relationships they had left.  These symptoms include loss of emotional response, little motivation, socially withdrawing, and cognitive problems which can all easily interfere with seeking or adhering to treatment.

This clip summarizes the symptoms of schizophrenia and their impact on the patient and family.

Summary of the Case Study

Dr. Myers spent time at a clinic for psychiatric disabilities in New York where she used a mixed methods approach, including participant observation and interviews, to understand the experiences of a patient named Leroy.  Leroy was in his thirties and had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.  People with schizoaffective disorder frequently have the symptoms of schizophrenia with the symptoms of a mood disorder like depression.  Leroy was also an alcoholic and a felon.  Dr. Myers believed that his neurodevelopment may have been effected by institutional participation and led to the development of his psychotic events.  She detailed his history with psychotic events as well as his beliefs surrounding them.  He had had at least two mild psychotic events as a child.  His Aunt had explained to him that he may be hearing spirits and also told him a story about his birth and that his grandmother thought he might be susceptible to such things.  He seemed to accept this explanation and didn’t have problems for a while because his aunt put something in his water to help.  He explained these ideas to his doctors but they dismissed it completely.  When he was incarcerated he eventually became paranoid.  At some point he ended up serving eighty days in solitary confinement because of disobedience.  His psychotic problems became constant at this point.  He began hearing voices, talked back to the voices, became fixated on things he read in a bible, and ended up being taken to a psychiatric treatment center.  In the center they treated him with anti-psychotics but he felt he was denied the chance to truly face his illness because of this.

Psychotic Disorders: A Neuroscience Perspective

It really isn’t clear what causes Schizophrenia or any of the related psychotic disorders.  The models range from genetic to epigenetic to purely environmental.  The reason for this is that they can see some evidence of the disease in some patient’s brain such as a changing of certain structures or pathways but can’t definitively say it causes the disease.  They can only say it is probably part of the disease.  At this point a mix of genetic predisposition and environmental factors seem like the best explanation.  What has been suggested is that people with Schizophrenia may be biologically susceptible to social stresses and that as these build up they are unable to withstand it and develop psychotic symptoms.  Another idea suggests that is completely normal to experience mild psychotic events during certain stages of neurodevelopment but it only becomes pathological in these supposed biologically susceptible people.  Other models suggest that the reason psychotic symptoms become evident during the young adult years is because of the multitude of social stressors associated with life changes and certain susceptible people cannot handle that and develop psychotic disorders.  Something else that is clear that Leroy was an example of is that certain contexts raise the risk of psychotic illness.  These contexts include urban environments, social disadvantage, adverse life events, and poverty which can all cause prolonged stress.  Which brings us to the last possible explanation which is allostatic overload.  This model suggests that psychotic disorders may result from neural changes due to allostatic overload but specifically due to inflammatory cytokines and glucocorticoids and their effects on the brain.  The cause and mechanism for schizophrenia has yet to be discovered but it is likely a combination of these explanations which include genetic and environmental causes.

Toward an Applied Neuroanthropology of Psychosis

Neroanthropology can be used to better understand how experience is incorporated into neurodevelopment to alter pathways or structures that lead to psychosis.  In Leroy’s case certain episodes in his life (solitary confinement) led to the exacerbation of an underlying issue.  He also came from a disadvantaged background and had previous mild psychotic episodes with certain beliefs about them.  Could this information have been used to intervene and prevent full blown schizoaffective disorder?  We don’t know.  However, continuing applied neuroanthropological research into psychotic illness can provide the insight to answer those kinds of questions.  It can also help us to understand the stages of development, at-risk populations, and biological vulnerabilities that need intervention and what that intervention should look like.  Research experiences like this case study also make it clear that to dismiss the beliefs an individual holds about their illness can be a mistake.  A person’s cultural beliefs surrounding their illness can end up being a vital tool in fighting psychotic disorders.  In the U.S. this could lead to cognitive behavioral therapy as a resource for people who want to try something with or instead of traditional anti-psychotics.

A new form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Facing the voices) to complement anti-psychotics.

A Balancing Act

About the Author

Greg Downey is a professor and the head of the Anthropology Department at Macquarie University in Australia.  He completed his MA and PhD at the University of Chicago, focusing on how skill acquisition leads to biocultural modifications to the nervous system and body.  He spent several years in Brazil doing field research as an apprentice in capoeira, which led to his book chapter Balancing between Cultures:  Equilibrium in Capoeira.

anth_greg_downey_2014
Greg Downey

What is Capoeira?

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art form that combines elements of fighting, dancing, rhythm, and music.  It is sometimes played as a game, a ritualized form of combat that is a constant flow of movement between the two opponents as they react to each other.  No matter what the reason, someone training in capoeira must have or develop a good sense of equilibrium, for this fighting form includes a great deal of flips and inverted postures such as a bananeira (handstand).  The dynamic flow of capoeira, where practitioners must focus on their opponent’s face, is in stark contrast to the static forms of gymnastics, where gymnasts use other visual cues to help them hold each pose perfectly.  The training methods used to obtain balance in these different styles highlights how the human equilibrium system can become enculturated.

Sense of Balance

Over the years, scholars have labeled the vestibular system in the inner ear as the organ of balance.  However, equilibrium is really more of a “sensory system” of many other sensations, such as vision, proprioception at ankles and joints, and pressure perception of feet, which helps maintain equilibrium.

My sense of balance is not all that great.  I don't know how many times I fell down while in the mangroves of Florida.
My sense of balance is not all that great. I don’t know how many times I fell down while in the mangroves of Florida.

Just knowing where you are in your environment will make you better balanced. It is an elaborate synthesis of conscious and unconscious perceptions and compensatory behaviors.  My compensatory behaviors aren’t always up to par, though.  I don’t seem to have a very good vestibulo-ocular reflex, because whenever I go jogging my field of vision bounces as I move, making me have to stare at the ground and possibly run into people. While some athletes have amazing equilibrium senses, I have a hard time walking without tripping.

The Brain in Balance

The plasticity of our equilibrium system allows for it to become encultured.  Not only can we find many solutions to a single balance problem, we can adaptively react to novel stimuli, such as the lack of gravity in space or Dr. George Stratton’s inverted glasses.  This plasticity leaves our equilibrium system open and flexible, allowing it to be trained into different arrangements.  However, long term extensive training, along with cultural and unconscious conditioning, are required to change someone’s equilibrium system.  One change that learning causes in the brain is the ability to ignore irrelevant sensory information and focus on what is important.  A gymnast may focus on a visual point, while one trained in capoeira may focus on proprioception.

Training Equilibrium

While training directly changes the body’s physical ability to move, more subtle influencers also occur.  Forms of training for skills involving equilibrium include social and cultural influences like coaching, aesthetic preference, and specific training drills.  Olympic gymnasts on the balance beam who are penalized for extraneous movements use small ankle based righting techniques, while an untrained individual is more likely to use larger hip movements.  In contrast to gymnasts, capoeira practitioners are not restricted by specific technique forms, and so utilize a wide range of righting behaviors such as curling the body or flailing the legs. While these techniques would be abhorrent to any gymnast, in capoeira it enables dynamic movement and different reaction patterns.  Training behaviors can also enable practitioners to cope with disorienting sensations, such as spinning at high speeds.

My brother and I posing at our dance studio back in the day.
My brother and I posing at our dance studio back in the day.

In my dance classes, we used the “spotting” technique, which involves focusing the head on one point while rotating the body.  This was supposed to help me maintain balance by substituting visual orientation for vestibular information. I can attest to this technique being a cultural factor that is not inherently learned, for after years of dance classes I still had trouble with pirouetting in a straight line.  I never quite got the hang of spotting, so my dance career did not go very far.

Inverted Balance

Balancing while inverted is undeniably harder than balancing right side up.  The upper body has to support the physical burden, the inverted form is more unstable, and the neural system has to cope with the head being upside down and closer to the ground.  To keep a handstand steady, gymnasts often focus on a visual anchor, a stable position on the floor in front of their hands.  Capoeira practitioners cannot utilize this technique.  They have to keep their eyes on their moving opponent while in a bananeira or even while flipping.  Instead of visual cues, they use righting behaviors to maintain balance.  The differences in these strategies makes it very hard to transfer balance ability between these two forms.  As a result, the two disciplines have distinct skill sets and perceptual-motor strategies.  The process of acquiring a sense of equilibrium is malleable and culture-specific.  The aesthetic preferences of a culture influences which movement forms are utilized, which then influences neurological development.  The nervous system is always training to best suit our needs.

My Thoughts

After reading this chapter, I would love to try capoeira myself.  I feel like that style of training the equilibrium system might actually be better suited to my predisposed make-up than the formal dance training I have had that relies on visual cues (or I could just be all around clumsy).  I have a bad vestibulo-ocular reflex, a hard time with the “spotting” technique, and to top it all off a horrible sense of vision in general.  One correlation I have to the flowing action-reaction equilibrium system of capoeira is my experience in white water kayaking.  I paddle down rapidly moving rivers, so there is no static visual anchor for me to focus on.  Instead, my body almost automatically responds to the motions of the current as I fight to maintain upright.  When I am inverted in the water, I rely heavily on proprioception so I can get my arms in the proper position to roll up.  In any case, capoeira seems like an amazing showcase of physical prowess.

Here is a video of some of the equilibrium challenges that face the members of the Alabama Kayak Club, courtesy of the Wasser Bruder (Water Brothers).

 

psych table
A section of the psychtable for this article.

GAME ON: Sport, Play, and Healthy Competition

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about ways of knowing. Different fields prioritize different forms of knowledge. For a field like neuroanthropology, and anthropology more generally, there has been a struggle to define how we should know what we know. Personally, I believe that a healthy dose of both subjective contextual experience and objective neuroscience are necessary for a more complete understanding of phenomena. Leslie L. Heywood also calls for this approach in her 2011 article “Affective infrastructures: toward a cultural neuropsychology of sport.”

Photograph of Dr. Leslie Heywood, borrowed with permission from her website.
Photograph of Dr. Leslie Heywood, borrowed with permission from her website.

Leslie L. Heywood is a true example of the discipline-defying researcher. She holds a B.A. and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Irvine. All the same, her work is infused with a hearty interest in affective neuroscience and physiology. These undercurrents seem to be a direct product of her experience as an athlete and coach. Heywood was a track star at the University of Arizona, earning the title Arizona State Champion in both the 800 and 1,600 meters. She was also ranked fifth in the U.S., held the state record for the mile for over two decades among other achievements.   What I find most impressive about Heywood’s athletic history is that it was not the product of a single passion.   After injury, Heywood transitioned into powerlifting and excelled as a strength training coach. More recently, marathon preparation led her to CrossFit as a participant and trainer.

This passion for an active lifestyle is often reflected in her research (Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Bodybuilding, Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon, etc.). What is also evident in her varied career as an athlete and coach is her willingness to traverse institutional boundaries. Heywood , currently a professor of English at Binghamton University, is a member of the executive committee for Evolutionary Studies. She’s a published poet, editor of Ragazine: http://ragazine.cc/, and guest editor of an issue of Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience (where this article appears!). Now, back to the article at hand!

Personal Website

Curriculum Vitae

Identification of GAPS in research

The goal of every researcher is to produce new knowledge or to look at things in a new and potentially more productive way. The first step is always to identify current gaps in the literature. Heywood notes that while sport sociology focuses on the forest, sport psychology and kinesiology focus on the trees. Furthermore, none of these fields include the idea of embodiment, of lived experience, in their research. Some important factors being excluded from the picture are the social and familial contexts for individual athletes, the complexity of the brain-body-emotion relationship, and the affective consciousness of emotions. Heywood argues that an evolutionary perspective of emotion is more comprehensive than these previous, gap-ridden models. Furthermore, she offers the field of neuroanthropology the first swing of the bat.

Panksepp’s affective neuroscience

Founded by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, the field of affective neuroscience purports that emotions are the manifestation of biological and neural processes, processes that are influenced by the body, environment, and culture. Heywood uses Panksepp’s (1998) “core emotional systems” to understand play. Like the deadly sins, Panksepp lists 7 core emotional systems: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC, and PLAY. Sport mainly involves the SEEKING, RAGE, and PLAY systems. Since SEEKING is a system based on motivation to fulfill an appetite for goods or meaning, it serves as the initiator of other emotional systems. SEEKING involves the hypothalmus and the mesolimbic dopamine system. The system of PLAY is active in the medial zones of the thalamus and promotes safe engagement. The system of RAGE is found in the amygdala, specifically the corticomedial areas, and is connected to the medial hypothalamus by the stria terminalis. RAGE is associated with the system of FEAR/PANIC.

In terms of sport

SEEKING/RAGE in the sport of Put Put.
SEEKING/RAGE in the sport of Put Put.

Two models have predominated our view of sport. The competitive model activates the SEEKING/RAGE systems. In this model, sport is seen as “a means to an end.” In dominant ideology, competition reigns. Few are the victors, which makes winning all that sweeter. No one likes to lose. However, there are those that attach intrinsic worth to participating in sport. Those that “prefer to play for fun” represent the participation model which invokes the SEEKING/PLAY systems.

SEEKING/PLAY in Wake Forest University's Unpredictable Race, 2011.
SEEKING/PLAY in Wake Forest University’s Unpredictable Race, 2011.

Heywood offers a third model termed the “immersive model” which aims at maximizing the positives and minimizing the negatives of the competitive model. Heywood argues that competitive play can promote intra-group bonding and empower marginalized individuals or groups. On the other hand, competitive play tends to worship ability. In my opinion, this obsession with skill is in some ways very similar to our culture’s obsession over body image. The result is the same: an exclusion of the masses. Heywood’s new model focuses on Mihali Csikszentmihályi’s term of “flow.” In a sporting context, “flow” can be described as being “in the zone.” It is a focused attention that can only occur in a safe context. This perceived “safety” is directly linked to the social and familial context of the athlete.

"In the zone" game face.
“In the zone” game face.

Porges’ Polyvagal Theory

Stephen W. PorgesPolyvagal Theory states that mammals still carry remnants of past versions of the ANS. “Neuroception,” what I imagine to be a neural process not unlike a computer scanning for facial or fingerprint recognition, determines what in the environment is safe and what is dangerous. The reaction to this scan is hierarchical in nature. The newest system, evolutionarily speaking, will have first crack at the problem. This social engagement system (SES) involves the ventral vagal complex and initiates pro-social behavior to ameliorate the threat. Still feeling unsafe? The second system, the sympathetic nervous system, comes up to bat and decides to either swing for the fences (fight) or go for the walk (flight). The last system at our disposal is found in the unmyelinated vagus nerve and causes mammals to freeze like a deer in the headlights or play dead.

Pinch of Panksepp, Dash of Porges

The competitive model involving the SEEKING/RAGE emotional systems would be answered by the second-level response “fight or flight.” Evolutionarily, this model would be connected to competition over resources and steeped in our history as predators and prey. The participatory model involving SEEKNG/PLAY emotional systems would be answered by the first response-level response of the SES because play occurs in a safe context. It is here that we can see the influence of an individual athlete’s social and familial history. Past trauma upends a player’s affective balance, making it difficult to squash their fight or flight response. Activity like Panksepp’s “joyous play” has the ability to “right the ship” so to speak and recalibrate an individual’s affective balance. CrossFit may be one such example of this type of play. ‘Running for cause’ is another. To promote immersive play, culture should praise sportsmanship and other pro-social behavior while downplaying the “win-at-all-costs” perspective.

Take-away message

Immersive sport is the best way to experience sport as it involves SEEKING, PLAY, and RAGE emotional systems within a safe context that promotes “flow.” Evolutionarily speaking, the immersive model integrates Panksepp’s core emotional systems with Porges’ understanding of the neuroscience behind affective balance. It incorporates an examination of the specific familial and social contexts of individual athletes as well as the broader cultural neuropsychology of sport. This model states that it is possible to look twice at a situation. Seeing the trees does not prohibit us from viewing the forest as a whole.

Psych Table for this article.
Psych Table for this article.

Does Developmental Religious Ritual or Tattooing Inoculate You Against Later Stress?

In live Tweeting from today’s Neuroanthropology discussion, we were joined online by anthropological primatologists Katie Hinde, Julianne Rutherford, & Amanda Dettmer. Apropos of a comment by a classmate, Lauren Nolan pointed out studies suggesting that prenatal glucocorticoid exposure supposedly programmed those individuals to be more anxious. I thought about the role ritualized stress in the form of speaking in tongues seems to play in exercising (not exorcising) the homeostatic system so that the activation threshold is higher & wondered if prenatal exposure might actually habituate the infant.

To which smarty-pants Katie piped in:

She suggested Amanda Dettmer join the conversation, who provided some awesome sources (off the top of her head, Tweet-ready!).

Katie also wrangled Julianne Rutherford to join the conversation from a plane flying back from China. Miraculously, somehow, Julianne was able to do that.

This gave me some reading to do while I walked the dog. Seriously, technology is wonderful. I looked up the Parker & Lyons work Amanda mentioned, found a 2010 review by Parker available as open access PDF, downloaded it to the vBookz app on my phone, & a robot voice read the article to me while I walked my husky.

The gist of these data is that early exposure to reasonable stress (e.g., temporary separation from mom) is associated with lower stress reactivity later on. A person literally embodies, “I can handle shit.”

And it got me thinking about some of the stress biomarker research we’ve done. We found an inoculation effect in adults getting tattooed. We measured salivary immunoglobulin A before & after tattooing sessions & found those with more tattoo experience had less of a pre-post SIgA decrease. My master’s student Johnna Dominguez is currently writing these data up for her thesis, a presentation at HBA 2015, & a publication manuscript. I wonder, does this inoculation extend to other areas of experience? Is there change in the prefrontal cortical areas observed in the squirrel monkey studies because one knows one can endure the pain of tattooing?

No big deal.
No big deal.

In class the other day, I had students stick their hands in ice water to demonstrate our adaptation to cold & measured stress response using skin conductance. Most found it excruciating & rated the pain rather high. A few of us found it painful but had experienced worse & so did not react in as extreme a way nor rate the pain as high. Was the sensation the same? I don’t know. Maybe plastic changes in our brains based on our previous experiences had moderated our response AND the physical sensation.

Big deal.
Big deal.

I see more tattoo research in my future. Anyone have access to an MRI machine & want to help me stick tattooed people in it?

In my previous research that I mentioned at the beginning, I found that people with more glossolalia (tongue-speaking) experience had lower cortisol on non-worship days than those with less experience, suggesting the culturally moderated stressor of worship inoculates worshippers against daily stress outside worship contexts to some extent. The developmental aspects of the primate studies has me wondering if there is a difference between those who grew up in the church—i.e., experienced the culturally moderated stress developmentally—& those who joined it as adults with regard to how effective the inoculation is. I wonder if that information is in my data…?

Companionship and Art in Mother-Infant Interactions

Colwyn Trevarthen is Emeritus Professor of child psychology and psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh. He originally trained in biology and studied infancy in Harvard in the late 1960s.

The author, in the flesh!

In his talk “Born for Art, and the Joyful Companionship of Fiction,” Trevarthen makes a case for mother-infant interactions as facilitating creativity. Mother-infant interactions take place even before birth, when mothers will speak to their unborn children. This behavior is rewarded when infants recognize their mother’s voice. Subsequent interactions between mothers and their infants are mutually beneficial and have qualities of “communicative musicality,” pulse,” and “narrative.”

These are all qualities of art and require creative collaboration between the mother and infant. Trevarthen doesn’t believe that the interaction was limited to mothers and infants. He believes other family members observed these interactions and reacted positively and creatively, continuing to foster play activity in infants and therefore facilitate further development of creativity.

Trevarthen believes that it was these interactions that ultimately separated us from Neanderthals and gave us the unique ability to produce imaginative art and music, which he believes stems from mother-infant interactions. This makes sense if we think about the neural pruning that occurs in the first few months of life. Interactions between mother and infant during this critical period would strengthen neural pathways related to sociality and creativity that are involved in these interactions.

environ mom infant
Image by me, inspired by research by Zaneta Thayer

Epigenetic factors play a huge role in this transition. The plasticity of the human infant brain creates the perfect opportunity to foster creative innovation during this time. This kind of interaction can only strengthen social bonds within families and communities that participate in these interactions.

There is an online flash activity that I really like that illustrates the importance of the mother’s interactions with her infant. It’s called Lick Your Rats. You are put in the position of a rat mother and tasked with grooming your infant. The more attention you give your pups, the more activated their glucocorticoid receptor becomes, which helps the rats deal with stress more easily as adults. Trevarthen also cites the research that this flash game is based on, so I thought this was the perfect illustration of his point.

lick your rat pups
Try it out yourself! From the University of Utah Health Sciences website

The discovery of mirror neurons in rhesus monkeys is another illustration of how mother-infant interactions could facilitate creative collaboration. Mirror neurons make empathy possible, and therefore make it possible to share experiences. Rhesus monkeys have a very similar developmental trajectory as humans, including the intimate face-to-face interactions between mother and infant that seem to give rise to artistic expression (an outward indication of shared experience and ideas).

I have a few problems with Trevarthen’s ideas. Trevarthen puts a lot of emphasis on the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) that is needed for the ideal development of a human infant. Mismatch theory is very popular and used to explain an abundance of morbidities that we face today. Trevarthen invokes the EEA in order to make a case for increased maternal interaction in a society that has seen a decline in this kind of parenting. He cites that women  who exhibit warm mothering tendencies tend to have a harder time with abstract reasoning, saying that this is the reason many modern women have trouble juggling the responsibilities of motherhood and employment. I don’t know if this is necessarily the case. This may just be a knee-jerk reaction of mine, but this assertion just sounds wrong to me. There are plenty of women I know who have juggled the demands of employment and motherhood expertly. My own mother, who I like to think is very intelligent and hard-working, raised my sister and I working full time and (as far as I can tell) we turned out as developmentally sound as anyone I know.

He also goes on to say that long periods of day care in the first year of an infant’s life are “clearly detrimental.” If we are invoking the idea of an EEA, however, it doesn’t seem to me that daycare should pose much of a threat to the infant’s development, since the idea that children were typically raised by the community seems to be widely held.

It may just be that I have a problem with the idea of an EEA. Mismatch theory sounds nice on paper, and can account for some problems that we have, but typically these problems can be attributed to cultural causes as well (think obesity/diabetes). Culture is also probably the best solution to these problems, since culture is more fluid and can adapt quicker than biology.

Regardless, I think the idea that artistic creativity emerged from the epigenetic influence of mother-infant interactions is genius. Mirror neurons, release of oxytocin and dopamine during these interactions, and the rythmic nature of these interactions all support Trevarthen’s claims. I think it is also important to note that artistic endeavors are an intrinsic part of human nature, and the idea that this ability to innovate and create on a level that other creatures cannot is truly something that sets humans apart.

Feeling Like a Man and Behind Blue Eyes: No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings…..

Benjamin Campbell

Campell is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He obtained a B.A. in Biology and an M.A. in Zoology from Indiana University in 1982 and 1983, respectively. Campbell then went on to earn an M.A. in Anthropology and a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University. Studying both humans and non-human primates, Campbell has an impressive list of publications involving the brain, hormones, and human life history. His work has been mainly in African populations, including adolescent males in Zimbabwe, and the Turkana and Ariaal pastorals.

 

http://www4.uwm.edu/letsci/anthropology/faculty/campbell.cfm

 

Embodiment and Vitality

Embodiment is defined in several different ways in this article. In terms of anthropology, embodiment used to mean “the non-physiological experience of the body.”  Now, however, the focus is less on a mind-body dualism, as the mechanism describing how physiological information is transmitted to the right anterior insula was discovered by Bud Craig. Campbell uses embodiment as a term to “represent the neurophysiological experience of fundamental bodily processes centered around ‘well-being.’” From my understanding, embodiment in this context refers to how one is feeling and thinking related to how well his/her body is doing. Vitality can be defined as the energy resulting from a feeling of well-being.

 

Background

Over the past few decades, studies have shown that an increase in testosterone in hypogonadal men (men with low testosterone) lead to feeling better, increased bodily functionality, and having better sex. Men in industrialized societies tend to have high baseline testosterone levels after adolescence that drop significantly after its peak in their twenties. On the other hand, men in less industrialized societies usually have lower baseline testosterone that stays relatively consistent over the course of their life. While men in Western cultures tend have lowering testosterone levels over the course of their lives, men in subsistence cultures tend to have testosterone levels that fluctuate on a weekly or even day to day basis.

The Experiment

Campbell chose to study men because of the differences in behavior that can be seen by the prescence of different sex steroids (hormones). He also chose to study a group of pastoral nomads in Kenya known as the Ariaal because they have high levels of physical activity, low energy intake, and high disease burdens when compared to men in western cultures. Campbell predicted that higher levels of testosterone would correlate with higher libido, higher energy levels, and a greater sense of well-being among Ariaal men.

Campbell used the World Health Organization’s Quality of Life questionnaire to determine the subjective feelings of the Ariaal men in terms of satisfaction with sex, energy levels, and positive emotions. Campbell then obtained saliva samples for over one hundred nomadic and settled men. After controlling for genetic factors that could interfere with the effects of testosterone levels (DRD2 dopamine receptors), Campbell analyzed the results and determined that his prediction was correct: there is a relationship between levels of testosterone in males and their self-reported well-being.

 

Interesting Cultural Beliefs about Male Vitality

One of the most interesting parts of this article is examining the beliefs about masculinity and embodiment cross-culturally. Campbell notes that from da Vinci to the Turkana in Kenya, there is an often occurring linkage culturally between males’ head, spine, and semen. The Sambia of New Guinea, the Greeks, and the Celts all had/have cultural practices involving the transfer of masculine energy via semen or the head of a slain enemy. This linkage reflects how men see their bodies, but also how their bodies work.

For example, some evidence seems to suggest that the function of the brain and the spine are dependent on androgen in males. Men who don’t have working androgen receptors have testosterone that does not function properly later in life, which causes spinal problems and malfunctions in the spinal bulbar muscles (which are responsible for erections).

Why is this really cool?

If a genetically male fetus is not exposed to or is insensitive to androgen, it will not develop male genitalia. Androgen is responsible for male genitalia.

 

The way certain cultures connect the spine, brain, and male genitalia has a scientific basis! This is awesome!

 

 

TL:DR

Campbell studied how men’s level of testosterone affected their subjective well-being and vitality. In both industrialized populations and pastoral populations, higher levels of testosterone led to higher feelings of well-being in men. Science is still cool.

 

 

 

 

Behind Blue Eyes: No one knows what it’s like to feel these feelings…..

Recently I read an article by Carol Worthman of Emory University entitled “Emotions: You can feel the difference.” The article can be found as a chapter in the book “Biocultural approaches to the Emotions” which was published in 1999 and edited by Alexander Laban Hinton. As I read the article I was taken back to my first year as an undergraduate student sitting in a psychology class concerned with child development. In that class I was first exposed to the work of Jerome Kagan on temperament in infants and the work of Mary Ainsworth involving various types of attachment of children to their caregivers. The more recent work by Carol Worthman builds on these ideas and outlines a process in which an individual’s relationship to the environment is mediated by emotions and how the appraisal of this relationship has an effect on the individual’s mental and physical health. Ultimately, Worthman argues that emotions have a role in cognition and physical well-being.

Worthman begins with a description concerning what exactly emotions are and what they do. Emotions are involved in processing sensory information. Emotions influence the detection of stimuli and the amount of attention given to stimuli. Emotions are involved in learning, memory, and cognitive integration. Emotions also influence the cognitive drive of an individual, affecting motivation, organization, prioritization, and recruitment of cognitive structures. Emotions are also a signal to the self and to others. Emotions affect communication, relations, and self- representations.

Emotion and the brain

Worthman introduces the ideas of Gregory Bateson, formed in 1958, concerning ethos and eidos. Ethos can be described as the affective-emotional landscape characterizing members of a culture. Contrary to this, eidos concerns the cognitive-propositional landscape characterizing working cultural logic of members of a culture. These ideas reflect a Western view of feeling and thinking being dichotomous or Cartesian. In this model, the two realms are mutually exclusive; as emotion increases cognition decreases, and as emotion decreases cognition increases. Worthman suggests that in addition to operating in this manner, there may also be a synergy between thinking and feeling. She suggests that emotions are crucial to preconscious processing wherein they direct attention, and are also involved in memory construction and retrieval.

Emotion influences what is remembered, how it is remembered, modulates the retrieval of information, and ultimately forms a “bridge to the unconscious.” Indeed, most processing of sensory information, including emotions, occurs in the unconscious and is therefore embodied outside of awareness.

Conscious vs. subconscious thinking

Worthman suggests that what becomes conscious is selective and it is emotion that shapes the selection. Consciousness is finite; the brain determines what to pay attention to and what to ignore or place in the background. Emotion plays a key role in selecting attention and prioritizing cognition. Emotions are integral to information processing. And finally both conscious and pre or unconscious information is embodied.

Worthman proposes a “dual embodiment schema” in which culture or the social context has an influence on the body through the process of embodiment and in return the body has an influence on the culture or social context leading again to various forms of embodiment. As Worthman states, “as culture shapes persons, persons shape culture.” The process of this embodiment depends on individual motivation, perception, behavior, and physical attributes. It is the individual’s interpretation of events, not the facts themselves, which constitutes lived experience.

Individual differences in emotional valence and interpretation of emotion can be described as the individual’s temperament. Jerome Kagan was a pioneer in the idea of temperament and described how reactive-inhibited infants are more easily excited, difficult to soothe, and less readily habituated.

Jerome Kagan on temperament

This has also been shown to be true in primates, particularly rhesus monkeys. In research conducted by Suomi (1991) high-reactive rhesus monkey infants were found to be more influenced by rearing conditions than low-reactive infants. High-reactive infants raised by “average mothers” were socially avoidant and low in dominance. Contrarily, low-reactive infants assumed immediate status no matter what were their rearing conditions. It has also been found that rearing conditions exert enduring effects on hormonal stress patterns (Higley et al. 1992).

In conclusion, individual reactivity can be a product of genetic inheritance or of early experience. Long-term effects of early experience may be exhibited only in certain situations. Effects of early experience depend on individual temperament through the interaction of reactivity and the environment. Variation in affective responsiveness influences how information is perceived, evaluated, and acted upon. These ideas constitute a psycho behavioral and biological link. They also illustrate the importance of the individual’s personal makeup and the context or social environment. A person’s inherited genetic biology influences temperament, which in turn influences emotion and how the individual interacts with the environment, which in turn influences mental and physical health, with all aspects combining in a circular feedback loop. I have included a chart created by Worthman below, which was created a few years after the article under discussion. In my opinion, the chart goes a long way towards illustrating these ideas in a visual format.

pic4blog

Greg Batchelder