Where is a History of Feeling?

An interesting book review highlights the relationship between experience and brain chemistry among its other items.  On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail suggests that one common theme through history is our desire as human beings to alter our moods and feelings.  And what I find interesting is that the emphasis is on mood and feelings rather than a more cerebral cognition.

This binary disconnect between cognitive thinking and emotion can sometimes be summed up like this, I suspect.  I think, therefore I am.  I feel, there fore I am ALIVE.  Emotion trumps cognitive thinking over and over again in terms of strength in our overall sense of awareness.  We exist to feel in profound ways and the great religions of the world have gone into sometimes exquisite detail on the “heart” and its management.

There have been many intellectual histories written that trace the development of ideas.  Ideas grow, change, and evolve as mental models frame and reframe around core concepts.  Emotions, moods and feelings remain much more constant over time.  Anger, love, hatred, and so forth remain from generation to generation, culture to culture.  What changes is how we allow ourselves to express them.  As Star says:

“Our very synapses are shaped by experience and education from before birth to the time of death. The brain of a monk does not resemble the brain of a soldier or a taxicab driver. An impulse to swoon in distress or erupt in anger may be innate, but Victorian women were quicker to faint at the sight of blood and Southern men are faster to react to slights than women or men in many other places. These predispositions can be passed on from generation to generation without any alteration in anyone’s genes, and yet they are readily seen as aspects of our nature. In a way, they are. “Culture is wired in the brain,” Smail writes, and “cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences.”

It would be interesting, I think, to see a written emotional history comparable in scope to the great intellectual histories.  They may exist (and if anyone knows of a good recommendation please post).  Smail’s book would to a subset of that category as he focuses upon the more narrow subject of our pursuit of mood altering technologies.  But he brings up important questions relative to our continuing efforts to come to grips with both our thinking and feeling selves.

Link: I Feel Good

Creativity is indeed kind of “Spacey”

Take six jazz musicians and put them in MRI scanners.  Add special plastic keyboards so that they can jam together (itself a feat in these confines) and see what happens.  When this experiment was performed recently some interesting things were observed.

Inhibition switches off.  Self-expression switches on.  Sensory awareness is heightened.  Specific areas of the brain controlling these functions either shut down or powered up.  It was much the same type of pattern that happens when we enter a dream state.

It certainly mirrors my subjective sense of what happens during my own creative flows.  Story-telling switches on.  Feelings intensify.  And at flow’s end there is the often surprising realization that hours have gone by.  Check it out at the link.

Links: Creativity puts the Brain in a Dream-like State, Associated Press

Is Anger Related to Brain Structure?

A very small and experimental study among adolescents in Australia suggests that the size of the amygdala plays a part in the expression of anger – at least among teenagers (which suggests that a tired teenager is even worse.)  The authors of the study, a joint research project conducted by the University of Melbourne, Australia and the Oregon Research Institute in the United States, state that  their findings suggest that mood behaviour and the ability to control it during family interactions is related to brain structure.  In essence, they found a positive relationship between the duration of aggression and the size of the left and right amygdala, though it was only significant on the left-hand side.

So what does this mean?  Does it excuse angry outbursts followed by rationales, such as, “I can’t help how I’m wired?”  Hardly.  But it might offer an additional physiological reason for the variability in individuals and their “anger quotients.”  And if that’s the case, then it becomes one more bit of understanding about the brain and how it functions that can help coaches craft better strategies and tools for anger management.

Links:  Teen Anger and Brain Size; An Abstract of the Original Study ; Children and other Impulse Behaviors