Reverse engineer your brain

More than 40 years ago, my father wrote a short story called “Dr. Pettigott’s Face.” The eponymous doctor of the story has a theory that pushing the face into happy expressions will make people happy, and has constructed a machine to do this. I remember that for years he had a correspondence with some neuro researcher who was interested in facial expressions because the guy liked the story so much. The title has been a shorthand in our family for people trying to reverse engineer things in weird ways.

The polyvagal theory and some of its implications suggest that there may be a grain of truth in this. The connections between emotion and facial expression are very tight and it’s possible that it “goes both ways”. This story from the LA Times on Sunday is fascinating:

botox for a better brain?

Plate O’ Voles

Today I was looking up information on the web about this vagus nerve stuff and the Polyvagal theory and kept running across information about Prairie Voles and monogamy. This was worth a good laugh partly because it’s a lot of fun to say “monogamous prairie vole”. Apparently the research into the psychobiology of monogamy is often done with these critters because there are monogamous and non-monogamous variants of them with different biology.

So tonight my mother went to the UCI Neurology of Learning and Memory class and the speaker talked about prairie voles, monogamy, the branching of the vagus nerve, and polyvagal theory.

I have vole synchronicity. Who wants some of this lovely plate o’ shrimp voles?

Interesting news from the phrenology ward

Today in a psychotherapy session I was discussing my problems with relationships, and more specifically my lack of intimate relationships. The working theory is that my own emotional life is too intense to communicate to others and that I shut them out in ways I’m not consciously able to control, mostly nonverbal.

This is particularly true if I have an attraction to someone, because my feeling of attraction is tightly coupled with unacceptably strong fear, shame, and self-hatred so that I become exceptionally false and not “present”.

Okay, interesting theory. But what’s the mechanism here? One theory is that the problem lies in the 10th cranial nerve. This is the vagus nerve, which goes to both the gut and the lungs from the brain. The “polyvagal theory” holds that separate branches of the vagus nerve, when stimulated, produce strong and opposed feelings: either you feel very safe, or not at all safe.

This has implications for a number of problems, including some autistic spectrum disorders, PTSD, panic attacks, and social adjustment problems. If the two systems become, as my therapist puts it, “overcoupled”, then it can be impossible to make a serious connection with someone without being overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions. The result is a kind of neural shutdown, which makes people like me seem distant or standoffish when we’re feeling exactly the opposite.

Stephen Polger, the originator of the polyvagal theory, has had some promising results at the University of Illinois treating autism with sound. There are also some suggestions and tips for dealing with these problems in this interview with Polger, which is intended for a lay audience. The other information I’ve found about this so far has been much more technical.

In my own case, since I am not autistic, PTSD, or suffering from panic attacks, the goal is to get the neural function more normal through a combination of neurofeedback, EMDR, somatic therapy, and medication. It’s kind of a science project though, since some of these ideas are very new and raw and will undoubtedly be further refined later.

Elliot Valenstein, the history of lobotomy, and more

“Physicians get neither name nor fame by the pricking of wheals or the picking out thistles, or by laying of plaisters to the scratch of a pin; every old woman can do this. But if they would have a name and a fame, if they will have it quickly, they must do some great and desperate cures.” —John Bunyan

Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness

Interview with Elliot Valenstein on the History of Lobotomy

Elliot Valenstein’s page at umich

The War of the Soups and Sparks, The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute Over How Nerves Communicate, by Elliot Valenstein.