Posts Tagged ‘flooding’

The Neuroscience of Extinction

March 12, 2020

This post is based on a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest on Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. The process of overcoming a learned fear is called extinction. It involves the brain structures that were discussed in earlier posts on this book (amygdala, prefrontal cortex (PFC), and hippocampus). To extinguished a fear-conditioned memory, a person must be exposed to the fear-inducing stimulus in a safe environment, and the exposure needs to last long enough for the brain to form a new memory. The new memory conveys that the fear-conditioned stimulus is no longer dangerous in the present environment. Brain imaging suggests that extinction may involve a strengthening of the capacity of the PFC to inhibit amygdala-based fear responses.

One therapy, flooding or direct exposure, requires prolonged exposure to the memory of the traumatic event. The therapy consists of “extended exposure to moderate or strong fear-producing cues. In their imagination, patients are asked to recount the traumatic experience with eyes closed and in as much detail as possible, describing sights, sounds, smells, and sensations, as well as what they were thinking and feeling. These sessions are recorded, and the client listens to the recording repeatedly on subsequent days. In the in-vivo component, clients “gradually confront safe situations that evoke moderate levels of anxiety and then follow up with confrontation of more fearful situations.

As extinction involves new learning, and the protein molecule known as the NMDA receptor is critical to learning, Barbara Rothbaum and colleagues gave the NMDA receptor partial agonist D-closerine (DCS) with exposure therapy. DCS is a drug that activates the NMDA receptor which then enhances learning of the new memory. This study supported the conclusion that these treatments fostered the desired extinction. Unfortunately, this type of treatment has not always resulted in success, but the prospect of augmenting extinction-based therapies, like prolonged exposure, with medications that affect learning is positive.

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) also involves confronting fear. It uses the Socratic method of teaching, in which the teacher poses questions and the student, by answering them, learns new ways of understanding. CPT focuses on emotions such as anger, humiliation, shame, guilt, and sadness, which trauma survivors often experience in addition to fear and anxiety. It is not uncommon for trauma victims to believe that they could have done something to prevent the traumatic or acted more heroically to minimize harm, even if in reality such actions would have been impossible. They tend to blame themselves and to imagine that others blame them as well. For example, a crime victim may have unrealistic beliefs such as, “I shouldn’t have gone to the ATM that night.” A therapist using CPT asks questions aimed at helping the patient to arrive at the more realistic conclusion that he or she could not have predicted that a robber would chose that particular ATM on that particular evening, and that the fault lies with the thief, not with the victim.

One does not necessarily have to undergo therapy to transform or extinguish a fearful memory. It takes courage, but one can try to confront the fearful event and through repetitions extinguish the fear. So the best response to falling off a horse might be to get back on.

Censored

June 26, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an important and highly relevant book by Margaret E. Roberts. The subtitle is “Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall.” This book is of special interest to HM. A number of summers back HM was privileged to participate in a month long workshop on the effect of new technology on two countries: China and Iraq. The workshop included intelligence professionals, technology professionals, linguists, and experts on these specific topics. Why they were interested in a psychologist like HM was not clear to him, although it was a most stimulating month, and HM hopes he was able to make some contributions.

This book makes clear the sophisticated means that China uses to control information in the country. These were vaguely understood from the workshop, but Dr. Roberts brings them into clear view.

“China has four million websites, with nearly 700 million Internet users, 1.2 mobile phone users, 600 million WeChat and Weibo users, and generates 30 billion pieces of information every day. It is not possible to apply censorship to this enormous amount of data. Thus censorship is not the correct word choice. But no censorship does not mean no management.” Lu Wei was the Director, State Internet Information Office, China, in December 2015. As the former “gatekeeper of the Chinese Internet” Lu Wei stresses in his epigraph that the thirty billion pieces information generated each day by Chinese citizens quite simply cannot be censored.

So China as developed what is termed “porous” censorship. Dr. Roberts writes, “…most censorship methods implemented by the Chinese government act not as a ban but as a tax on information, forcing users to pay money or spend more time if they want to access the censored material. For example, when the government ‘kicked out’ Google from China in 2010, it did so simply by throttling the search engine so it loaded only 75% of the time.” So if you want to use Google, you just needed to be more patient. China’s most notorious censorship intervention that blocked a variety of foreign websites from Chinese users could be circumvented by downloading a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Chinese social media users circumvent keyword censoring of social media posts by substituting similar words that go undetected for the words that the government blocks. This makes content accessible as long as you spend more time searching. Newspapers are often instructed by censors to put stories on the back pages of the newspaper, where access is just a few more slips of the page away. This technique is termed “friction” for creating friction that seriously slows, but does not eliminate, access to the information. Porous censorship is neither unique to China nor the modern time period. Iran has been known simply to throttle information accessibility and make it slower during elections.

The Russian government also uses armies of online bots and commentators to flood opposition hashtags, and make it more difficult, but not impossible, for people to find information on protests or opposition leaders. This technique is termed “flooding.” Essentially users are flooded and drown in information.

Conventional wisdom is that these porous censorship strategies are futile for governments as citizens learn quickly to circumvent censorship that is not complete or enforced. Conventional wisdom is wrong. Many governments that have the capacity to enforce censorship more forcefully choose not to do so. Using censorship that taxes, rather than prohibits, information in China and in other countries around world is done as a design choice and is not an operational flaw.

The trade-offs between the benefits and costs of repression and censorship are often referred to as “the dictator’s dilemma.” One form of the dictator’s dilemma is when the government would like to enforce constraints on public speech, but repression could backfire against the government. Censorship could be seen as a signal that the authority is trying to conceal something and is not in fact acting as an agent for citizens.

Another form of the “dictator’s dilemma” is that even if the dictator would like to censor, by censoring the autocrat has more difficulty collecting precious information about the public’s view of the government. Fear of punishment scares the public into silence and this creates long-term information collection problems for governments, which have interest in identifying and solving problems of governance that could undermine their legitimacy. Greater transparency facilitates central government monitoring of local officials, ensuring that localities are carrying out central directives and not mistreating citizens. Allowing citizens to express grievances online also allows government to predict and prevent the organization of protests.

What could perhaps be considered a third “dictator’s dilemma” is that censorship can have economic consequences that are costly for authoritarian governments that retain legitimacy from economic growth. Communications technologies facilitate markets, create greater efficiencies, lead to innovation, and attract foreign direct investment. Censorship is expensive—government enforcement or oversight of the media can be a drag on firms and requires government infrastructure. Economic stagnation and crises can contribute to the instability of governments. Censorship can exacerbate crises by slowing the spread of information that protects citizens. When censorship contributes to crises and economic stagnation, it can have disastrous long-term political costs for governments.

So “porous” censorship is much more efficient than heavy handed control of virtually all information by inducing fear in users.

Intimate Enemies

March 17, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Intimate enemies refers to married couples having marital problems. Marital therapists have long noted that by the time a couple finds their way to a therapy office they are in this pattern of engage-withdraw with the husband complaining about her “unreasonable “ demands and outbursts, and the wife lamenting his indifference to what she is saying. In effect, there are two emotional realities in a couple, his and hers. The roots of these emotional differences, although they may be partly biological, can also be traced back to childhood, and to the separate emotional worlds boys and girls inhabit while growing up. One study of children’s friendships found that three-year olds say about half their friends are of the opposite sex; for five-year-olds it’s about 20%, and by age seven almost no boys or girls say they have a best friend of the opposite sex. Until teenagers start dating, these separate universes intersect little.

Boys and girls are taught very different lessons about handling emotions. In general, parents discuss emotions—with the exception of anger—more with their daughters than with their sons. Girls are exposed to more information about emotions than are boys; when parents make up stories to tell their preschool children, they use more emotion words when talking to daughters than to sons. When mothers play with their infants, they display a wider range of emotions to daughters than to their sons; when mothers talk to daughters about feelings, they discuss in more detail the emotional state itself than they do with their sons—though with the sons they go into more detail about the causes and consequences of emotions like anger.

Two researchers who have summarized the research on differences in emotions between the sexes, Leslie Brody and Judith Hall, propose that because girls develop facility with language more quickly than do boys, this leads them to be more experienced at articulating their feelings and more skilled than boys at using words to explore and substitute for emotional reactions such as physical fights. They note “boys, for whom the verbalization of affects is de-emphasized, may become largely unconscious of their emotional states, both in themselves and in others.

At age ten, roughly the same % of girls and boys are overtly aggressive, given to open confrontation when angered. However, by age 13, a telling difference between the sexes emerges: girls become more adept than boys at artful aggressive tactics like ostracism, vicious gossip, and indirect vendettas. By and large, boys simply continue being confrontational when angered, oblivious to these covert strategies. This is just one of the many ways the boys, and later men, are less sophisticated than the opposite sex in emotional skills.

Harvard’s Carol Gilligan notes that differences between boys and girls at play point to a key disparity between the sexes: boys take pride in a lone, tough-minded independence and autonomy, while girls see themselves as part of a web of connectedness. So boys are threatened by anything that might challenge their independence, while girls are more threatened by a rupture in their relationships. Deborah Tannen pointed out in her book “You Just Don’t Understand,” these differing perspectives mean that men and women want and expect very different things out of a conversation, with men content to talk about “things,” while women seek emotional connection.

A psychologist at the University of Texas, Ted Huston, who has studied couples in depth, observes, “To the wives, intimacy means talking things over, especially talking about the relationship itself. By and large, the men don’t understand what their wives want from them. Huston found that during courtship men were much more willing to spend time talking in ways that suited the wish for intimacy of their wives-to-be. But once married, as time went on the men—especially more traditional couples, spent less and less time talking in this way with their wives, finding a sense of closeness simply in doing things like gardening together rather than talking things over. Men tend to be somewhat Pollyannaish about the state of they marriage, while their wives are attuned to the trouble spots.

There are implications of this emotional gender gap for how couples handle the grievances and disagreements that any intimate relationship inevitably spawns. Specific issues such as how often a couple has sex, how to discipline children, or how much debt and savings a couple feels comfortable with are not what makes or breaks a marriage. Rather, it is how a couple discusses such sore points that matter for the fate of their marriage. Simply having reached an agreement about how to disagree is key to marital survival; men and women have to overcome the innate genre differences in approaching rocky emotions. Failing this, couples are vulnerable to emotional rifts that eventually can tear their relationship apart. These rifts are far more likely to develop if one or both partners have certain deficits in emotional intelligence.

John Gottman,a University of Washington psychologist, runs a laboratory that analyses the emotional glue that binds couples together, and the corrosive feelings that can destroy marriages. Couples conversations are videotaped in his laboratory and then subjected to hours of microanalysis designed to reveal the emotional currents at play. This mapping of the faults lines that may lead a couple to divorce makes a convincing case for the crucial role of emotional intelligence in the survival of a marriage. While couples talk sensors record the slightest flux in their physiology, a second-by-second analysis of their facial expressions detects the most fleeting and subtle nuance of feeling. After the session each partner comes separately to the lab and watches a video tape of the conversation, and narrates his or her secret thoughts during the heated moments of the exchange. Dr. Gotten is able to predict which couples will divorce within three years with 94% accuracy.

There are important differences between complaints and personal criticisms. In a complaint, one person states specifically what is upsetting, and criticizes the other’s action, not the person, about how it made the person feel. “When you forgot to pick up my clothes at the cleaner’s it made me feel like you don’t care about me.” This is an expression of basic emotional intelligence: assertive, not belligerent or passive. But in a personal criticism the grievance is used to launch a global attack on the person. For example, “You’re always so selfish and uncaring. It just proves I can’t trust you to do anything right.” This kind of criticism leaves the person on the receiving end feeling ashamed, disliked, blamed, and defective—all of which are more likely to lead to a defensive response than to steps to improve things.

The two arms of the fight-or-flight response each represents ways a spouse can respond to an attack. The most obvious is to fight back, lashing out in anger. That route typically ends in a fruitless shouting match. But the alternative response, fleeing, can be more pernicious, particularly when the “flight” is a retreat into stony silence. Stonewalling is the ultimate defense. The stonewaller just goes blank, in effect withdrawing from the conversation by responding with a stony expression and silence. Stonewalling showed up mainly in marriages that were heading for trouble; in 85% of these cases it was the husband who stonewalled in response to a wife who attacked with criticism and contempt. As a habitual response stonewalling is devastating to the health of a relationship: it cuts off all possibility of working out disagreements.

Gotten uses the term “flooding’ for the susceptibility to frequent emotional distress: Flooded husbands or wives are so overwhelmed by their partner’s negativity and their own reaction to it that they are swamped by dreadful, out-of-control feelings. People who are flooded cannot hear without distortion or respond with clear-headedness; they find it hard to organize their thinking and fall back on primitive reactions. They want things to stop, or to run or, sometimes to strike back. Flooding is a self-perpetuating emotional highjacking.

The technical description of flooding is in terms of heart rate rise from calm levels. At rest, the women’s heart rates are about 82 beats per minute, men’s about 72. Flooding begins at about 10 beats per minute above a person’s resting rate; if the heart reaches 100 beats per minute (as it can easily do during moments of rage or tears), then the body is pumping adrenaline and other hormones that keep distress high for some time. The moment of emotional highjacking is apparent from the heart rate: it can jump 10, 20, or even as many as 30 beats per minute within the space of a single heartbeat. Muscles tense; it can seem hard to breathe. There is a swamp of toxic feelings, an unpleasant wash of fear and anger that seems inescapable. This is clearly a dangerous point for a marriage.

Men are the vulnerable sex. Women, on average, do not mind plunging into the unpleasantness of a marital squabble nearly so much as do the men in their lives. Husbands are prone to flooding at a lower intensity of negativity than are their wives. More men than women react to they spouse’s criticism with flooding. Once flooding, husbands secrete more adrenaline into their bloodstream, and their adrenaline flow is triggered by lower levels of negativity on their wife’s part; it takes husbands longer to recover from flooding.

Men are more likely to be stonewallers and women are more likely to criticize their husbands in their assumed roles as emotional managers. There seems to be a fundamental incapability here. So what can be done?

In general, men and women need different emotional fine-tuning. For men, the advice is not to sidestep conflict, but to realize that when their wife brings up some grievance or disagreement, she may be doing it as an act of love trying to keep the relationship healthy and on course (but there may be other motives here). When grievances simmer, they build and build in intensity until there’s an explosion: when they are aired and worked out, it takes the pressure off. But husbands need to realize that anger or discontent is not synonymous with personal attack—their wives emotions are often simply underlines, emphasizing the strength of feelings about the matter.

Men also need to be on guard again short-circuiting the discussion by offering a practical solution too early on—it’s typically more important to a wife that she feel her husband hears her complaining and empathizes with her feelings. Neither party should make personal attacks.

When discussions or arguments become heated, it might be wise to agree to break off the discussion or argument now, and to resume it at a later time.