Saturday, August 16, 2014

What is Metamodernism?

This brief essay comes from Notes on Metamodernism, a blog founded n 2009 by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker (tomorrow I will post a longer intro to metamodernism from these authors), but now home to more than 30 writers from around the world.

The text beneath the title provides as much introduction as one needs to the essay.

What is metamodernism?

Metamodernism is neither a residual nor an emergent structure of feeling, but the dominant cultural logic of contemporary modernity. It can be grasped as a generational attempt to surpass postmodernism and a general response to our present, crisis-ridden moment.

Editorial on July 15, 2010

The ecosystem is severely disrupted, the financial system is increasingly uncontrollable, and the geopolitical structure has recently begun to appear as unstable as it has always been uneven. This triple crisis infuses doubt and inspires reflection about our basic assumptions, as much as inflaming cultural debates and provoking dogmatic entrenchments. History, it seems, is moving rapidly beyond its all too hastily proclaimed end.

Since the turn of the millennium, moreover, the democratization of digital technologies, techniques and tools has caused a shift from a postmodern media logic characterized by television screen and spectacle, cyberspace and simulacrum towards a metamodern media logic of creative amateurs, social networks and locative media – what the cultural theorist Kazys Varnelis calls network culture. [1]

Meanwhile, architects and artists increasingly abandon the aesthetic precepts of deconstruction, parataxis, and pastiche in favor of aesth-ethical notions of reconstruction, myth, and metaxis. These artistic expressions move beyond the worn out sensibilities and empty practices of the postmodernists not by radically parting with their attitudes and techniques but by incorporating and redirecting them. In politics as in culture as elsewhere, a sensibility is emerging from and surpassing postmodernism; as a non-dialectical Aufhebung that negates the postmodern while retaining some of its traits.

What we are witnessing is the emergence of a new cultural dominant – metamodernism.

We understand metamodernism first and foremost as a structure of feeling, which can be defined, after Raymond Williams, as “a particular quality of social experience […] historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period.” [2] Metamodernism therefore is both a heuristic label to come to terms with recent changes in aesthetics and culture, and a notion to periodize these changes. So when we speak of metamodernism we do not refer to a particular movement, a specific manifesto or a set of theoretical or stylistic conventions. We do not attempt, in other words, as Charles Jencks would do, to group, categorize and pigeonhole the creative work of this or that architect or artist. [3] We rather attempt to chart, after Jameson, the ‘cultural dominant’ of a specific stage in the development of modernity. [4]

Our methodological assumption is that the dominant cultural practices and the dominant aesthetic sensibilities of a certain period form, as it were, a ‘discourse’ that expresses cultural moods and common ways of doing, making and thinking. To speak of a structure of feeling (or a cultural dominant) therefore has the advantage, as Jameson once explained, that one does not “obliterate difference and project an idea of the historical period as massive homogeneity. [It is] a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate features.” [5]

These different, yet subordinate features can alternatively be described as ‘residuals’ of days gone by or as ‘emergents’ that point to another day and age. [6] Postmodernism might have passed, it might have “given up the ghost”, but, as Josh Toth rightly argues, to speak of its death is to also speak of its afterlife. “The death of postmodernism (like all deaths) can also be viewed as a passing, a giving over of a certain inheritance, that this death (like all deaths) is also a living on, a passing on.” [6] The spectre of postmodernism – but also that of modernism – still haunts contemporary culture.

Others have started to theorise emergent structures of feeling that might, or might not, become dominant in the (not so near) future. The most obvious examples of such an emergence are all those practices that have become associated with the commons. Several theorists have argued, for instance, that these practices, ultimately, point towards an altermodernity, a future beyond modernity as we currently know it. Whether or not we agree with these visions of the future is besides the point here. What matters is that it is our contemporary culture that enables these visions; or rather, that opens up the discourse of having a vision at all.

Metamodernism, as we see it, is neither a residual nor an emergent structure of feeling, but the dominant cultural logic of contemporary modernity. As we hope to show in this webzine, the metamodern structure of feeling can be grasped as a generational attempt to surpass postmodernism and a general response to our present, crisis-ridden moment. Any one structure of feeling is expressed by a wide variety of cultural practices and a whole range of aesthetic sensibilities. These practices and sensibilities are shaped by (and are shaping) social circumstances, as much as they are formed in reaction to previous generations and in anticipation of possible futures. We contend that the contemporary structure of feeling evokes a continuous oscillation between (i.e. meta-) seemingly modern strategies and ostensibly postmodern tactics, as well as a series of practices and sensibilities ultimately beyond (i.e. meta-) these worn out categories.

The metamodern structure of feeling evokes an oscillation between a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all, between a modern sincerity and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy and empathy and apathy and unity and plurality and purity and corruption and naïveté and knowingness; between control and commons and craftsmanship and conceptualism and pragmatism and utopianism. Indeed, metamodernism is an oscillation. It is the dynamic by which it expresses itself. One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather it is a pendulum swinging between numerous, innumerable poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings towards fanaticism, gravity pulls it back towards irony; the moment its irony sways towards apathy, gravity pulls it back towards enthusiasm.


[1] In Digimodernism. How new technologies dismantle the postmodern and reconfigure our culture. Alan Kirby makes a similar observation concerning the end of postmodernism and the emergence of network culture. Although his book is insightful and provocative, he tends to be wholly negative, ignoring the paradoxes and potentialities of network culture.
[2] Raymond Williams (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 131
[3] See, for example: Charles Jencks (1977). The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. New York: Rizzoli.
[4] Jameson, too, uses William’s conception of a structure of feeling to conceive of his notion of a cultural dominant.
[5] M. Hardt and K. Weeks. (2000). The Jameson Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp, 190-191.
[6] R. Williams, p. 122
[7] J. Toth (2010). The Passing of Postmodernism. New York: State University of NewYork, p. 2

Image: Occupy Wall Street by Aaron Bauer, Creative Commons Licence

What Is Neuropsychoanalysis? - Mark Solms & Oliver. H. Turnbull,204,203,200_.jpg

Mark Solms is the author (with Turnbull) of The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of the Subjective Experience (2003) and is one of the primary architects of the neuropsychoanalysis movement within the psychoanalytic field. Solms is head of the psychology department at University of Cape Town.

There are actually two distinct movements within psychoanalysis that seek to bring the field up to date with the aid of neuroscience and neurobiology - neuropsychoanalysis and interpersonal neurobiology.

Neuropsychoanalysis deals with the dualism issue of brain and mind, inherited from Descartes, though the use of dual-aspect monism, sometimes referred to as perspectivism. In essence, we are monistic - there is only one kind of "stuff," the brain, but we can perceive this stuff in two different ways. One is the neuroscientists' "objective" way - as an object to be dissected, imaged, and otherwise quantified. The other way is to observe "subjectively," from inside a mind, how we feel and what we think. Freud believed that using his "free association" technique would allow psychoanalysis to discover the mind's unconscious functioning.

The other model, interpersonal neurobiology, was founded by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Allan Schore, both of whom were trained as psychoanalysts but have brought that background into the field of neurobiology. Whereas the neuropsychoanalysis school is interested in understanding the functioning of the subjective mind through the use of neuroscience technology, interpersonal neurobiology is more interested in how relationships and experiences shape and structure the brain to create the subjective experience of symptoms, or what the field terms mental illness. Interpersonal neurobiology is relational and intersubjective to neuropsychoanalysis's individual and subjective

What I have posted below is the introduction to a 14-page paper that introduces the central concepts of neuropsychoanalysis. This was clearly an authors' review copy, so there are errors and comments in the margins.

Full Citation:
Solms, M & Turnbull, OH. (2011). What is Neuropsychoanalysis? Neuropsychoanalysis; 13(2), 14 pages (pre-publication review copy).

What Is Neuropsychoanalysis?

Mark Solms & Oliver. H. Turnbull
Mark Solms: Department of Psychology, University of Cape Town, South Africa. 
Oliver H. Turnbull: Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University, U.K.

This article serves to briefly survey the relationship between neuroscience and psychoanalysis (“neuropsychoanalysis”) and, at the same time, to address some of the criticisms that the field has encountered. First, the article reviews the historical foundations of neuropsychoanalysis, including both theoretical and technical questions of whether an interdiscipline is appropriate. Second, the article reviews the philosophical foundations of the field, including the position of dual-aspect monism. Third, the article examines the scientific foundations of the field, with a discussion of whether analytic work with neurological patients represents an optimal point of contact between the disciplines. Finally, the article engages with the issue of what neuropsychoanalysis is not, covering issues such as “speculation versus empirical research,”and the question of whether neuropsychoanalysis represents a new “school” within psychoanalysis.

* * *

The first formal use of the term “neuropsychoanalysis” occurred in 1999, when it was introduced as the title of this journal. Plainly, however, the relationship between psychoanalysis and neuroscience is much older than the term. In the dozen years since the word “neuropsychoanalysis” was first used, it has been employed in a number of different ways, for different purposes, by different people.[1] This article briefly surveys some of this complexity and, in the process, sketches the intended scope of the field. In doing so, it will also address some of the criticisms that the field has encountered in the decade or so since its foundation.

There are two major limitations to this account. The first is that we can speak only for ourselves and thus describe what we think “neuropsychoanalysis” is—and ought to be. Nevertheless, we may claim a certain privilege in that respect, by virtue of one of us having invented the term. Second, we aim to speak only of the absolute basics of the discipline, to address only the foundational issues.

We address the question “what is neuropsychoanalysis?”under four headings:
1. Historical foundations of neuropsychoanalysis.
2. Philosophical foundations of neuropsychoanalysis.
3. Scientific foundations of neuropsychoanalysis.
4. What neuropsychoanalysis is not.

Historical foundations of neuropsychoanalysis

When we speak of the historical foundations of neuropsychoanalysis, we must of course begin with Freud. In doing so, we are also addressing the question as to whether or not neuropsychoanalysis is really a legitimate part of psychoanalysis. The alternative view is that it is somehow a foreign body in our midst, or a deviation, or perhaps even something fundamentally anti-psychoanalytic.

In relation to this question, Freud’s attitude to the issue is of paramount importance. If neuropsychoanalysis is legitimately part of what Freud conceived psychoanalysis to be, it places the interdiscipline of neuropsychoanalysis in a strong position with respect to this “parent” discipline. It was Freud, after all, who invented psychoanalysis. Happily, therefore, Freud’s view on the matter was very clear and also consistent throughout his life. Freud was, of course, a neuroscientist and a neurologist for the first two decades of his professional life (Solms, 2002; Solms & Saling, 1986; Sulloway, 1979). Throughout his later psychoanalytic work, he had a specific scientific program in mind, largely continuous with his earlier neuroscientific work, albeit shaped by the limitations of the scientific methods and techniques available to him at that time (for more on this topic, see Solms, 1998; Solms & Saling, 1986; Turnbull, 2001).

Freud’s program was to map the structure and functions of the human mind and naturally he recognized that these were intimately related to the structure and functions of the human brain. However, as regards the mapping of these relationships, he consistently argued that the brain sciences of his time did not have the tools, in both conceptual and technical terms, necessary for exploring these relationships. He therefore shifted to a purely psychological method—a shift that he reluctantly saw as a necessary expedient. Just a few quotations illustrate this position:
We must recollect that our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably some day be based on an organic substructure. . . . We are taking this probability into account in replacing the special chemical substances by special psychical forces. [Freud, 1914, pp. 78–79]
The deficiencies in our description would probably vanish if we were already in a position to replace the psychological terms by physiological or chemical ones. [Freud, 1920, p. 60]

Biology is truly a land of unlimited possibilities. We may expect it to give us the most surprising information and we cannot guess what answers it will return in a few dozen years to the questions we have put to it. [Freud, 1920, p. 60].
There are many such statements throughout Freud’s work. All reveal, firstly, that he viewed the separation of psychoanalysis from neuroscience as a pragmatic decision. Secondly, he was always at pains to clarify that progress in neuroscience would have the inevitable result that at some time in the future the neurosciences would advance sufficiently to make the gap bridgeable. As one of the quotes above suggests, his rough estimate was that this might happen in a “few dozen years.” That was in 1920.

What were the methodological limitations that Freud encountered at that time? The main neuroscientific tool then available was the clinico-anatomical method, based on the clinical investigation of patients who had suffered focal brain lesions (Finger, 1994)—that is to say, studying how different functions of the mind were altered by damage to different parts of the brain. It was effectively the only method available for studying mind–brain relationships (though Freud’s later years did briefly overlap with early developments in neurochemistry; see Finger, 1994).2 However, Freud regarded the clinico-anatomical method as unsuitable for his purposes, despite having used it himself in his preanalytic work. Best known is his On Aphasia (1891), which demonstrates how sophisticated was his mastery of that method, and of its limitations (for a modern appreciation of Freud’s early neuropsychological investigations, see Shallice, 1988, pp. 245–247).

In that 1891 book on the aphasias and in the papers that he published soon after (Solms, 2001), Freud rejected the clinico-anatomical method, as he made the transition into psychoanalysis. He did so for severalreasons. First, he recognized that the mind is a dynamic entity. It was Freud’s emphatic view, even as a neurologist (Freud, 1891), that the mind was not made up of static modules or boxes connected up by arrows. Instead, Freud saw the mind as comprising dynamic, fluid processes. Second, Freud observed that the mind consisted of far more than consciousness; there was, beneath consciousness, a vast substructure, the workings of which had to be explored and understood before we would ever be able to make sense of the volitional brain.

The aim of psychoanalysis then became to develop a method, and ultimately to derive from that method a theory (and a therapy), that would enable science to explore and understand the dynamic nature and unconscious structure of the mind. It is widely known that Freud then proceeded to use this purely clinical method, free from neuroscientific constraints, from 1895 or thereabouts, until 1939. This pioneering work left us a vast legacy, including a series of theoretical models of the basic organization of the mind, which we now refer to as “metapsychology.”

Some psychoanalysts, misreading Freud, argue that the theoretical work of psychoanalysis must continue to remain aloof from neuroscience forever. We must avoid using neuroscientific methods, no matter how far these advance, and must cling to our exclusively clinical, psychological approach. These are authors who question “whether the study of [neuroscience] contributes in any way to the understanding or development of psychoanalysis as theory or practice . . . whether neuroscience is of value to psychoanalysis per se” (Blass & Carmeli, 2007, p. 34; for a similar opinion, see Karlsson, 2010, pp. 40–64). The proponents of this view appear (fortunately, in our opinion) to form a diminishing minority,[3] but we must acknowledge that there are still some colleagues who believe that psychoanalysis has nothing to learn from neuroscience in principle. (Oddly, however, they do seem to think that neuroscience has something to learn from psychoanalysis!)

Independently of this theoretical—or ideological—question, there remains the technical question as to whether neuroscience has developed sufficiently as a discipline to allow it to make an adequate contribution to psychoanalytic theory: whether the methodological limitations (and related limitations of neuropsychological knowledge that Freud referred to) still remain. Stepping back, it is clear that there have been huge technical and methodological advances in the neurosciences over the last several decades. To offer but the briefest historical summary:

Electroencephalography (EEG) was introduced around the 1930s (Berger, 1929), though it was not fully exploited until after the war. This represented the beginning of a capability, initially rather crude, to measure and observe dynamic aspects of brain activity under changing functional conditions. The later development of event-related potentials (ERPs) in the 1960s (Sutton, Braren, Zubin, & John, 1965; Sutton, Tueting, Zubin, & John, 1967; Walter, Cooper, Aldridge, McCallum, & Winter, 1964; for a recent review, see Luck, 2005) offered substantial advances over the basic EEG technique, by virtue of experimental control and averaging procedures. The recent development of magnetoencephalography (MEG) represents a further substantial advance, allowing us to study the neural dynamics associated with mental events at the millisecond level, with increasing anatomical precision.

In another domain, after the Second World War, there were tremendous developments in neuropsychology, using the lesion method in a new way that adapted its inherent limitations to the dynamic nature of the mind. Alexander Luria, in particular, developed a method known as “dynamic localization” (Luria, 1966, 1973; see Kaplan-Solms & Solms, 2000, pp. 39–34; Solms & Turnbull, 2002, pp. 64–66). This method permitted the investigator to identify constellations of brain structures that interact to form functional systems, where each structure contributes an elementary component function to the complex psychological whole. On this basis, modern neuropsychology has a well-developed understanding of most of the basic mental functions. This applies especially to cognitive functions.

Further enormous technical advances followed the advent of computerized tomography in the 1970s, which made it possible to identify the precise location of a brain lesion while the patient was still alive. This was followed by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). And from the 1990s onward, functional neuroimaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging, fMRI; position emission tomography, PET; and single-photon emission computed tomography, SPECT) made it possible to directly observe neurodynamic processes under changing psychological conditions.

It is now also possible to deliver temporary, short-acting “lesions” to neurologically intact research participants—either through sodium amytal injection (which was first introduced in the 1940s) or through magnetic pulses delivered to the outside of the skull via transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS; which has been readily available since the 1990s). Innumerable other technologies also exist, ranging from stimulation of the cortical surface in neurosurgical operations (Penfield & Boldrey, 1937; Penfield & Rasmussen, 1950), to deepbrain stimulation (Mayberg et al., 2005), through to psychopharmacological probes (Ostow, 1962, 1980), to mention only the most obvious examples.

Even this brief summary demonstrates that we do now have neuroscientific methods that enable us to study the dynamic nature of the mind and to identify the neural organization of its unconscious substructure. Each of these methods has its limitations, as all methods do, and there are undoubtedly many future advances to come—but the landscape of scientific inquiry in this domain has, certainly, radically changed since Freud’s lifetime. For this reason, it seems entirely appropriate to reconsider whether we might now attempt to map the neurological basis of what we have learnt in psychoanalysis about the structure and functions of the mind, using neuroscientific methods available to us today. Freud would, in our opinion, have considered this a welcome and wholly legitimate development of the work that he pioneered, and there has been something of an explosion in the number of books addressing this issue (e.g., Bazan, 2007; Bernstein, 2011; Corrigall & Wilkinson, 2003; Cozolino, 2002; Doidge, 2008; Fotopoulou, Pfaff, & Conway in press; Kaplan-Solms & Solms, 2000; Mancia, 2006; Northoff, 2011; Peled, 2008; Shevrin, Bond, Brakel, Hertel, & Williams, 1996; Solms & Turnbull, 2002).

1. There was a time when “depth neuropsychology” was the term used for the new interdiscipline (Kaplan-Solms & Solms, 2000, Turnbull & Solms, 2003), with reference to Freud’s “depth psychology” (Freud, 1915).
2. “The future may teach us to exercise a direct influence, by means of particular chemical substances, on the amount of energy and their distribution in the mental apparatus.” (Freud, 1939, p. 182).
3. English-Speaking Conference debate, British Psychoanalytical Society, London, 2008.

Elizabeth Loftus - The Memory Factory

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus teaches at UC Irvine, and previously was at the University of Washington and several other schools. Loftus's primary field is the study of human memory.

Her experiments reveal how memories can be changed by things that we are told. Facts, ideas, suggestions and other post-event information can modify our memories. The legal field, so reliant on memories and "eyewitnesses," has been central in the memory research.

An outcome of her work, and the one that has made her most well-known, is her rejection of "repressed memories," generally in the realm of childhood abuse. Her 1996 book, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, helped put a lid on the satanic abuse hysteria of the 1980s and early 1990s. Unfortunately, it also marginalized the reality that trauma memories ARE sometimes repressed.

Loftus has made a LOT of her papers available online for free, a sample of which I will share below the video. She is also the author of Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial (1992).

The Memory Factory

Published on Aug 11, 2014

One of the biggest myths in the history of psychology is that memory is like a video tape that can be played back for everyone to see what "really happened." In this lecture, presented at The Amaz!ng Meeting 2014 in Las Vegas, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, one of the world's leading experts on memory, shows how we all edit our memories from the moment they are formed to the last time we recall them. That editing process is based on a number of emotional, psychological, and social factors that shape our memories.
* * * * *

Here are some of her publications - there are many more at her site (and here).

CLICK ON LINKS BELOW TO SEE or DOWNLOAD SELECTED PUBLICATIONS   (if asked for password just click OK three times)


Friday, August 15, 2014

How Our Brains Can Control Our Emotions (BBC Future)

This is a brief but interesting video from BBC Future on how neuroscientists are trying to decipher our "emotional code" - the ways our brains create and express emotions.

How our brains can control our emotions

Future Thinking | 14 August 2014

The brain’s complicated wiring could help dictate whether we feel happy, angry or sad. Could electrical charges be the answer to help treat mental disorders?
(WARNING: Contains mild footage of animal experiments)

We all know humans have a complex range of emotions – from anger to fear, aggression to happiness. For something so familiar to all of us, it’s amazing how vexing and difficult a problem it still is in brain science.

David Anderson, professor of biology at California Institute for Technology, hopes this will change. He believes his and other researchers’ efforts will provide a much better understanding of what an emotion is in the brain.

It has long been thought that the chemicals our bodies create largely regulate the way we feel, but Anderson thinks it could also be down to the wiring within our brains. His experiments on mice and flies that switch on and off light-sensitive neurons have shown that the neurons that control aggressive behaviour are the same or similar to the neurons that control sexual behaviour. It offers the intriguing notion that the neurons that control sex and violence are intimately linked or overlapping in the brain.

It’s these and other insights in the field that are beginning to uncover how emotions are encoded in the brain. The hope is that these intriguing findings will also provide a better understanding of how an emotion can go wrong in psychiatric disorders like depression, and how we can go about treating it.

  • Additional footage: Shutterstock.
  • If you would like to comment on this video, or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook or Google+ page, or message us on Twitter.

Shrink Rap Radio #416 – Trauma and The Soul with Donald Kalsched PhD


Dr. Donald Kalsched's Trauma and the Soul: A psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption (2013) was one of my Best Books for 2013, and it was the long-awaited follow-up to his now classic first book, The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defences of the Personal Spirit (1996). The unique depth and insight of his trauma model, which is partly Jungian, partly relational/intersubjective (psychoanalytic), partly somatic, and probably some other parts, as well, is innovative and powerful.

My friend Monica also posted recently about Dr. Kalsched - check it out at her excellent blog, Beyond Meds.

Shrink Rap Radio #416 – Trauma and The Soul with Donald Kalsched PhD

Dr. David Van Nuys
Posted on August 14, 2014

Donald Kalsched, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and Jungian Psychoanalyst in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is a senior training analyst with the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts where he teaches and supervises. His 1996 book The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit has found a wide readership in both psychoanalytic and Jungian circles and has been translated into many languages. Dr. Kalsched teaches and lectures nationally and internationally, pursuing his inter-disciplinary interest in early trauma and dissociation theory and its mytho-poetic manifestations in the mythic and religious iconography of many cultures. His latest book Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-Spiritual Approach to Human Development and its Interruption, was published in April, 2013.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thaddeus Pace | Mindfulness Training May Assuage Early-Life Trauma

Via Scientific American Mind.
Dr. Pace studies biological mechanisms linking psychological stress to illness, and novel ways to combat stress to promote optimal health. He is Assistant Professor in the Colleges of Nursing and Medicine (Department of Psychiatry) at the University of Arizona, and also the director of the Arizona Stress and Health Collaboratory (based in the College of Nursing at Arizona). Dr. Pace received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder for his studies on brain regulation of the cortisol response to psychological stress. His work at Arizona explores endocrine and immune system changes in people who suffer from stress-related psychiatric illness, including major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. He has also studied endocrine and inflammatory immune alterations as a result of adverse early life experiences. Informed by this work, Dr. Pace investigates the effectiveness of novel contemplative interventions to optimize psychological, inflammatory immune, and endocrine responses to stress including Compassion Meditation (in collaboration with Dr. Chuck Raison and Emory's Dr. Lobsang Tenzin Negi). He is also interested in novel, natural anti-inflammatory compounds such as curcumin to promote health and wellness. Dr. Pace is the recipient of a NARSAD young investigator award, and his research is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. He is also a 2012 Pop!Tech Science Fellow.
This guy sounds like someone I would like to know!

Mindfulness Training May Assuage Early-Life Trauma

By Thaddeus Pace | August 11, 2014 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

We live in an increasingly stressful world. There’s an aspirational sense things should improve with time, witness the U.S. War on Poverty or the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. But in the last 50 years, many risks, perceived and real, have grown worse: extreme weather, violent conflict, economic dislocation, poverty (especially for children), abuse and domestic violence. Traumatic and chronic stress affects millions. Many become sick and marginalized because of it; others manage to survive and thrive. What explains the difference?

“Resilience” is a popular answer these days. But it’s a buzzword in danger of losing its meaning through overuse. As the need for resilience grows, it’s important to be specific about the term. A new white paper, “The Human Dimensions of Resilience,” of which I’m a co-author, reviews relevant research and proposes evidence-based ways of defining and building resilience. Published by the Garrison Institute, a non-profit that promotes “contemplative” solutions to social and environmental concerns, the paper is intended to advance conversations about our wellbeing.

Intel employees participate in Awake@Intel in 2013, a program that teaches mindfulness techniques to improve performance and reduce stress at work. (Credit: Intel Free Press via Flickr)

Science views resilience as part of the response to stress. Not all stress is bad; short stressors can inspire outstanding performance. But extreme or acute stress can be traumatizing and damaging. When physiological responses to stress like cortisol, adrenaline and inflammation persist even after a stressor has ended, they can undermine mental and physical health. Unchecked behavioral responses to stress can lead to sleep and diet problems. Besides PTSD, exposure to chronic and/or traumatic stress can also lead to other serious conditions including heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, depression and cognitive problems – maybe even DNA damage.

Traumatic stress can undermine and shorten peoples’ lives, especially if they’re exposed before age 18. They’re more likely to have lower achievement and wellness, and experience more illness. “Early life adversity”—experiencing abuse or household dysfunction during childhood—correlates not only with more psychological problems, but also with elevated inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein or higher insulin levels that persist into adulthood. Studies show a strong, graded relationship between early life adversity and risk factors for the leading causes of death in adults.

Resilience can mitigate those effects. Extraordinarily resilient people can thrive in adversity and use difficult experiences as opportunities for growth. But resilience isn’t an inscrutable, innate personality trait you’re either born with or not. It’s likely a spectrum of qualities that people possess in varying degrees that help them survive challenges, shut off aspects of stress response when they’re no longer needed, and return to a pre-stressor, baseline state. As such, resilience is something we should be able to analyze and teach, and anyone should be able to learn.

Buddha has left the building. (Credit: Mindfulness via Flickr)

Studies show contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation, compassion training, yoga, etc. can reduce harmful impacts of stress, and they can be helpful in building resilience. However, recent media coverage gushing over how contemplative practices like mindfulness make you happier, healthier, sharper and richer spreads confusion about how those practices work.

Contemplative practices weren’t invented to fight cancer or boost performance, but rather to tackle big issues like living purposefully and facing death with equanimity. One fundamental skill they build is attention, the simple act of consciously choosing what to focus on instead of letting the mind wander. Having strong attention is an important component of resilience, because it develops a sense of agency and choice in directing one’s thoughts and influencing one’s inner landscape – a powerful counterweight to the sense of helplessness or passivity that traumatic stress can produce.

Colleagues and I recently studied teenagers in foster care in Georgia who were exposed to early life adversity. They were taught a form of meditation called Cognitively Based Compassion Training. After six weeks, the kids who really practiced not only reported feeling better and coping better with anger and stress (“At school, someone threw M&M’s at me and I ignored him. Normally I would have thrown things back and been negative.”). Pre- and post- saliva testing also showed their C-reactive protein levels dropped, which means they actually had less inflammation in their bodies. That suggests increased resilience, because it shows some better functioning and movement back toward baseline.

We recently launched a similar Cognitively Based Compassion Training program in Arizona. The next horizon for research is determining whether kids in such programs perform better in school and generally thrive. Failure to thrive—not taking advantage of the opportunities that arise in life and work—is a symptom of traumatization. Effective resilience building should be able to ameliorate it.

If contemplative practice can help accomplish that for these kids, imagine what it might do for people working in fields with high trauma exposure and burnout risk, like first responders or humanitarian aid and relief workers. For example the Garrison Institute’s Contemplative-Based Resilience Training program designs trainings for aid workers that incorporate meditation, yoga and other contemplative techniques to help them cope with stress, avoid burnout, and thrive in their work. It hypothesizes that more resilient individuals make for more resilient communities, but how and why that’s the case is a subject for another blog.

About the Author: 
Thaddeus Pace, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Arizona. He is also Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the College of Medicine at Arizona and Director of the Arizona Stress and Health Collaboratory. His research explores stress, health, wellness and nonpharmacological, contemplative-based ways to limit stress responses and improve health.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Heidi Hanson - 7 PTSD Feedback Loops

This post comes from the Healing from Trauma blog by Heidi Hanson, many of whose posts are being compiled into a book tentatively called the Trauma Healing Resource Book.

This particular post, which was shared with me by some friends on Facebook, presents some of the essential experiences of PTSD within the context of feedback loops. Based on the experience of my clients, this seems quite useful.

7 PTSD Feedback Loops

by Heidi Hanson

In the book I have been working on, Trauma Healing Resource Book (tentative title), which chronicles my healing journey through PTSD, I identify 7 Feedback Loops that act like quicksand, pulling one further into PTSD even as one desires to find one’s way out. This needs further research, but feedback loops could be one reason some cases of PTSD become chronic.

Note: This article and all articles on this blog are based on my personal experience as someone recovering from PTSD. Much is theoretical material, however it is material I consider worth being studied in depth in a scientific manner at some point in time.

Excerpt from the book:

Definition: The technical definition of a feedback loop is “a system where outputs are fed back into the system as inputs, increasing or decreasing effects.” *

I would define a feedback loop related to human psychology as a group of external life circumstances and internal patterns that keep reinforcing each other, making it difficult to change either the circumstances or the patterns.

Feedback loops can be propelled by internal patterns of thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors, each element stimulating the next.

Negative feedback loops frequently lead to downward spirals, in which case some aspect of the situation worsens slightly every time one or several loops are completed.

Experiences of trauma may lead us to develop mental habits; feedback loops are mechanisms that keep maintaining and deepening these habits. One could theorize that feedback loops contribute to reinforcing specific neural pathways in the brain and to developing chronic imbalances in the nervous system and physiology.

Negative feedback loops lead to what I call a “trauma-based reality.” This is when we perceive all of our reality through a filter created from our past traumatic experiences. The “normal” reality we experienced prior to the traumatic experiences can only be sensed for brief moments.

In the following illustration, the individual is in a room dancing with trauma, and through the windows she can see momentary glimpses of the reality that exists outside of the trauma-based reality.

Book Illustration: Trauma-based Dance Floor
Sometimes, dancing, I catch hints of Life, outside

I have identified seven feedback loops based on my own experiences. I’m sure there are more; there are also variations on these seven, not included here.


1. A Dangerous World Feedback Loop

Synonyms: Magnifying Triggers Feedback Loop, Environmental Triggers Feedback Loop

This feedback loop occurs when we have experienced trauma, and we happen to be in an environment that continuously triggers memories of the trauma. If constantly triggered, we can be reminded of the trauma and automatically feel fear over and over again, which makes the environment around us seem more frightening, and we end up imprinting the idea of trauma more and more deeply onto the environment. Seeing increasingly more danger makes us more likely to experience triggers, and makes the triggers more impactful when they come.

It’s not just the perception of the environment as more and more dangerous that increases the impact of the triggers. Being triggered a lot can gradually increase our sensitivity and raise our overall level of hyperarousal. In turn, feeling more sensitive increases the impact of the triggers.

In this scenario, all levels of danger are perceived as a red alert – there are no orange and yellow alerts; danger is stuck on High setting and only increases from there.

This feedback loop is one reason it is so important to get to an environment that gives some relief from triggers, or change the environment (get rid of furniture, redecorate, put new scents in the air etc.).

If the amount of stress puts the system into immobility more and more frequently, this feedback loop can lead to the Immobility Downward Spiral – getting increasingly immobile e.g. feeling numb, unresponsive, still, paralyzed.

I noticed this Dangerous World Feedback Loop and Immobility Downward Spiral happening early on in my experience of PTSD. This is an illustration that shows how too many triggers can feel like an invasion, or a kind of poison that is constantly being inserted into the brain and nervous system, causing the mind to go into meltdown or immobility on a regular basis.

2. Constricted Reality Feedback Loop / Downward Spiral

Synonyms: Self-isolation Feedback Loop, Resource Avoidance Downward Spiral, Resource Rejection Downward Spiral

Being extremely sensitive and being hit constantly by a wide variety of triggers can also lead to a Constricted Reality Feedback Loop. In this case, each time some life situation is associated with trauma, we may decide to avoid it as well as anything related to it. In the following illustration, we see that this individual’s hypersensitivity to triggers in his community make him cut off his connection, automatically and without thought, to resource after resource, until he is alone in his room, isolated and disconnected from the rest of the world.

Without any resources, it is unlikely he will be exposed to things that demonstrate that his triggers are false – in other words he won’t have experiences that deconstructs the triggers and rewire his brain to re-perceive reality in a new way, for example encountering someone who at first appears to be a perpetrator but is actually a friend, or an authority figure who appears to be abusive and turns out to actually be a resource. In this scenario there is no way for healing to happen because the individual is isolated from all potential resources.

This one is similar to the Dangerous World and Lack of Trust Feedback Loop (#5). They are all ways of illustrating how fear leads to fear, mistrust leads to more mistrust and isolation leads to more isolation, just with slight variations. Dangerous World has to do with one’s perception of danger, Lack of Trust is specifically in relation to other people, and Constricted Reality has to do with isolation from all types of resources in one’s community including places, events, groups, people etc.

Note: click on the image to see a larger version

3. Dissociation Feedback Loop

Being frequently dissociated means for much of the day we are not present in the body.

Some synonyms for this state of dissociation are:
  • space cadet
  • spaced out
  • absent-minded
  • head in the clouds
  • not paying attention
This could lead to accidents which may be somewhat traumatizing. If traumatic, these accidents could possibly lead to further tendency to dissociate.

The illustration for this one may be simple, but being dissociative can create messy problems. Dissociation can lead to small accidents, like stubbing one’s toe; it can also lead to worse incidents, like doing things that are dangerous without knowing it. General disorganization can lead to problems, for example, a woman who is out late and misplaced her cell phone and is looking for it and then gets mugged whereas she would have been at home by that time if she had been more organized. Dissociation is an escape from the present and it may lead to bad decisions due to lack of awareness of details. Underneath dissociation is a wound(s) that causes tentativeness or rejection in relation to being in the body. In order to heal, we need to be committed to our bodies and ourselves, aware of our surroundings and alert to who is doing what with us, to prevent more accidents.

4. Hyperarousal Feedback Loop

Synonyms: Panic Loop

If we are in hyperarousal a large percentage of the time, it means the nervous system is strung tight like a rubber band pulled almost to the breaking point. We may be jumpy, prone to panic, tend to do things too quickly, rush about in too much of a hurry, and act on impulse. Hyperarousal makes it difficult to process information well because it keeps one stuck in a survival level of thinking, preventing access to the higher mind/rational thought. If we are panicking, we are also more easily manipulated by other people. This chaotic fear state could easily lead to getting into bad situations or accidents/injuries. It is possible this could lead to another trauma, which would only increase the hyperarousal.

5. Lack of Trust Feedback Loop

Synonyms: People Avoidance Feedback Loop, Other People Rejection Feedback Loop, Help Rejection Loop

Sometimes, a traumatic experience includes a breach of trust. Trust can be broken within a close relationship, such as with a partner or parent. Trust can also be violated by an authority figure we had confidence in. Sometimes, when we try to seek help with PTSD, we encounter healing practitioners who do not understand PTSD enough to help us, and can even do or say things that re-traumatize us. So, in some cases, we will develop a lack of trust.

Due to this lack of trust we may feel more comfortable spending time alone. Spending more time alone makes us more vulnerable to the symptoms of PTSD, because there is no information coming from outside to challenge the trauma-based reality. We avoid the very people and situations that may have a positive effect on the nervous system.

Not getting the help we need can lead to issues in the following areas:
  1. Triggers automatically create hyperarousal; we do not learn ways to intervene.
  2. We experience more triggers and this leads to more disregulation and hyperarousal.
  3. Disregulation, hyperarousal, fear and anxiety cause confused information processing.
  4. Due to difficulties with processing information we can’t figure out how to escape or change the situation.
  5. Also, triggers lead us to remain in helplessness/immobility/paralysis; helplessness leads to not feeling one has the power to help themselves.
  6. Low self-esteem remains unchallenged; low self esteem from trauma can stop us from seeking help.
  7. When we perceive ourselves in a constricted reality, we may not see what exists outside it.
  8. The level of sensitivity being unintentionally maintained can lead to more experiences of being traumatized by healing practitioners and other people trying to help.
Thus, the lack of trust seems to be justified by many aspects of our experience, and we spend more time avoiding people. Being alone with our PTSD symptoms can lead to experiencing reality as harsh and other people as unhelpful; we continue to avoid people and our reality becomes more and more constricted.

The Lack of Trust Feedback Loop can lead to a Constricted Reality Feedback Loop/Downward Spiral.

6. Trauma Seeking Feedback Loop

Synonyms: Resolution Block Feedback Loop

Peter Levine has theorized that one of the key reasons human beings do not process and release trauma within minutes like animals do is because we have developed a higher brain, the neocortex. The neocortex gives us great advantages such as the ability to think rationally, but it can also suppress the pent-up trauma related energies the system needs to process and release successfully in order to heal PTSD, such as rage and terror.

In the trauma seeking feedback loop, we may get into a situation where there is the possibility for the pent-up energy to completely release once and for all. We may suddenly feel powerful, primitive uncontrollable rage, hatred, sorrow, fear, or shame. But because of the controls we maintain, we do not recognize this as the opportunity it is. Rather, we think something is terribly wrong with us and force ourselves to push the emotions back down, and thus fail to release the pent-up energy. In other words, when the reptilian brain’s instinctive manner of releasing trauma begins, the neocortex or rational mind automatically suppresses it to escape and avoid the powerful emotions. When the experience is over, we have stabilized again but nothing has changed and the system continues to unconsciously seek a way to discharge the trapped life energy and return to a truly non-traumatized state of calm alertness. The system will unconsciously seek out another situation to stir up these powerful emotions, in the hopes that they will finally be processed to completion.

7. Survival Mode Feedback Loop

Synonyms: Problematic Memory Encoding Loop, Arrested in Time Loop, Siege Mode Loop

The seventh feedback loop is the state of being immersed in survival instincts, a perpetual state in relation to the reptilian brain managing an eternal moment of shock and trauma, without ever coming out. This is most likely due to the way traumatic memories are encoded. It creates a kind of life in siege mode, a severe experience of life, a survival focused life. Even if one’s survival needs are met one may feel like life is about surviving in basic ways and not about living/thriving (the higher level needs on Maslow’s hierarchy are not in the picture).

The experience of being in shock becomes a timeless moment, a never-ending moment, from which the body does not re-enter time. It is as if the reptilian brain is telling you you are still in shock and need to survive, dominating your experience and keeping you in survival mode forever. The experience cannot be metabolized, psychologically, by the system, and until it becomes metabolized it is holding you hostage. In order for it to be metabolized, the times of the worst dissociation (shock) need to be integrated in the body and brain/memory in a different way than they were at the time of the trauma. There are theories to the effect that the memory of the trauma needs to be moved from short-term to long-term memory.

So the theory about how this one works is that because going into these memories feels too threatening, the procedure seems complex, one lacks skills and also lacks skilled help, one never figures out how to integrate the moments of the worst dissociation, and so the person remains stuck in time and in survival mode. Sorry this one is not clearer, when I understand it better I will update this section.

One feedback loop I have not included in this article is Learned Helplessness. Learned Helplessness (Seligman) is a kind of feedback loop because if we are in a situation in which we are legitimately helpless, we learn that in those kinds of situations we are helpless. Then, when in a similar situation, we behave helplessly even if we truly have power to act. This reinforces our perception of our self and internal experience (felt sense) of being helpless. And so it continues. Learned helplessness is related to depression; I am not sure the relation to PTSD. In my case, because I was injured I have felt helpless in a lot of situations and I feel much more helpless than I did before. I would have to do more research to understand if this is learned helplessness as defined by Seligman or something else.

When I first found Somatic Experiencing and realized how much of healing PTSD is just about using somatic techniques to calm the nervous system and re-enter the body, I thought it would be a clear road out. I was wrong. I am still falling into these feedback loops on a regular basis, and I’m still trying to find ways to outsmart the downward spirals.There is a lot more work to be done, and my first step is to simply acknowledge that these feedback loops are still here and still need addressing.


Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.