15 November 2011

Thinking with my Gut

I have been practising mindfulness. It's an attempt to get my 'noisy' thoughts under control: I seem to have a 'wordy' brain and the crosstalk can get intrusive to the point where my thoughts sometime feel like the reception of a badly-tuned radio.

Mindfulness can bring odd sensations to the surface. One that has been strengthening is the notion that I have been thinking with my gut. It feels like my gut is contributing to the neural 'interference' and that there is a corrosive 'looping' of disquiet between my gut and my brain. Conversely, a conscious effort to relax my gut during meditation seems to quieten my thoughts.

Gut neurons are much underestimated. Your gut contains a quantity of neurons approximately equivalent to that of a cat brain. It seems perversely brain-centric (and I've certainly been guilty of this) to assume that our total emotional state stems entirely from the limbic system, but it's somehow hard to imagine how our gut might contribute to our state of mind. But contribute it does, and strongly. The 'enteric nervous system', as it is known, is a network of neurons with a complex and quite independent circuitry all of its own. It is entirely capable of sending signals up to the 'head brain' as well as receiving 'afferent' (incoming) signals.

So where in the system does the disquiet start? Perhaps that's a redundant question. Who's to say that feelings of anxiety, upset or depression must always start in the brain then feed into the enteric nervous system. Maybe, at least sometimes, we start with an uncomfortable gut and that feeds into the loop a message that something is wrong or 'out of kilter', leading to general disquiet throughout the system. I am trying, for my own reasons at least, to see the problem as not starting at any specific point in the system: it doesn't really matter where it started - if it has become a loop of corrosive thinking and feeling then it needs to be calmed in order to restore balance.

I think that the mindfulness practice helps to reveal the action of these interacting systems. The partial sensory deprivation bubbles these other, more subtle, cues to the surface. But what to do if your gut feels anxious? A command and control strategy seems inappropriate: I don't want to instruct my gut to behave, I just want to regain equilibrium. There's no easy way to visualise how one might go about mediating the 'dialogue' between the brain and the gut but I am fairly confident that this is something that will come to me in time if I keep up the mindfulness practice. The smooth muscle of the gut wall does seem to respond to gentle persuasion but being able to frame that persuasion at will does not come easily to everyone.

We hear a lot about serotonin because of its involvement in feelings of well-being (or of depression where levels are too low). Antidepressants such as Prozac are part of a class of drugs known as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). But many are not aware that serotonin is predominantly a neurotransmitter of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. You are having literal 'gut feelings' and scientists are using this fact to try to control your emotions. There is some evidence, however, that the effectiveness of these drugs declines over time as receptors become 'desensitised' and begin to revert to their former states.

We're also well used to hearing of people taking 'stomach pills' such as Losec or omeprazole. These drugs are PPIs (Proton Pump Inhibitors) and are highly effective at inhibiting acid secretion in the stomach. These are powerful drugs but we tend to take them for granted and I wonder about their potential effects on the ability of the enteric nervous system to find its own comfortable level of secretion in harmony with the brain.

I'm fortunate that I've never had to take antidepressants, or indeed PPIs. I sometimes find my mental 'noise' unsettling but it is not distressing to the point where I would consider medication. I have a pervasive feeling that a state of prolonged equilibrium should be possible if I work at it. This may just be wishful thinking but it is a type of wishful thinking that my gut seems to approve of.

04 February 2011

A Leadership of Empaths

I wrote, a while back in a post called 'Cognitive Democracy', about the idea of intensive psychological evaluation of political candidates in order to find out their true motivations, before they ever have a chance to gain power.

My proposed barrage of tests was something of a blunt instrument in that the specifics of the testing methods were a little ill-defined. My interest in the subject of empathy has now led me to think that the ability to empathise is one of the main defining characteristics of an emotionally-rounded human being. Perhaps, then, scientific evidence of this ability in a given individual should form the core of the "fitness for Office" evaluation.

The definition of what constitutes true empathy may be a human construct but the faculty to empathise is formed of real structures in the brain. It seems odd for me to have to point this out, as it seems self-evident. But empathy strikes many as a woolly concept, too mired in Freudian psychobabble and gender stereotyping to take seriously as a measure of worth. Regardless of these outdated views, progress towards a scientific understanding of the 'mechanics' of empathy has moved on apace.

I remember being fascinated and delighted to find out, a few years ago, about the existence of what became known as 'mirror neurons'. These are a class of neurons that fire both when an animal is undertaking a given action itself and when it observes that action being undertaken by another. Scientific opinion on the role of mirror neurons in empathy, is divided. But it's clear why scientists might form such a hypothesis. If we see another creature, particularly another human, experiencing physical or emotional pain it's likely that the overall strength of our resulting mirror neuron firing can be correlated with the strength of what one might call our 'empathic response'.

In summation of the above, this hypothesis suggests that if we have trouble 'mirroring' the feelings of others then we have may be unable to sustain a coherent 'theory of mind' about them and, therefore, may be unable to relate to them as thinking, feeling entities in their own right. This brings to mind Kant's 'Categorical Imperative': "The second premise is that conduct is "right" if it treats others as ends in themselves and not as means to an end (the "Second Maxim")".

But I didn't intend this to meander off into philosophy. The point is that empathy is not a philosophical construct but a physical reality. In the above example it follows that if your mirror neurons are few in number you may find yourself physically unable to empathise. Even if the mirror neuron hypothesis is not completely correct it is still the case that we now have scientific methods for measuring empathic response. Recent studies, such as this one undertaken at Columbia University, have mapped the brain regions involved using functional MRI. As Dr Michael Mosley found in his recent BBC series The Brain: A Secret History, discovering via fMRI that your empathic response is weaker than you had led yourself to believe, can be an uncomfortable experience.

It's interesting to note that, as well as regions of the parietal and premotor cortex, some regions responsible for the control of our own emotional responses, were involved. This could be interpreted as an indication that the empathic response is a highly evolved one, bearing little relation to the 'gut emotional responses' of 'old brain' areas such as the amygdala. I like to think of empathy as the ability to emoting with your new brain, rather than your old one. In fact being an 'amygdaloid' (a potential term for an amygdalocentric person) might strongly mitigate against the development of a healthy empathic response.

So we now have the tools to identify individuals with weak empathic response. What are the implications of this and how do we use the knowledge responsibly? I would argue that not using it to test those who seek great power, would be a dereliction of duty. In this scenario we have the ability to get closer to the core of an individual's 'theory of mind'. Not to humiliate them by peeling away their mental defenses but to understand them more clearly, in order to see that what some may perceive as a strength is actually a weakness. I would like to think that treatments could be developed in order to help such people to relate to their world in a fuller and more fruitful way.

Humans lacking empathy may be wandering in a dark and terrible place: They exist in a world that they cannot understand, separated from the rest of humanity, deluged by a continuous flow of the apparently meaningless emotional outpourings of others. They cannot understand that the ability to empathise enriches our lives and allows us to see the similarities between ourselves and others, thus enabling us to dream of richer things than power and privilege. But perhaps these thoughts never even cross their minds.

Those that can empathise strongly with the plight of others less fortunate than themselves, and can turn that emotion into positive action, are a healing force in the world. Those that cannot empathise need help, not power.