Emotional systems

We don’t just have emotions, but emotional systems, evolved to help us meet our needs. All life forms need to move away from danger and towards food, and our ways of doing this have evolved in a complex way. These systems can cease to meet our needs in times of particular stress, and the answer is hearing and valuing what our emotions are telling us.

First is the Seeking system. It finds the resources we need, both basic such as food and shelter, and more sophisticated needs such as learning and challenge.

The Safety system moves us towards safety and away from danger: either through fear of the dangerous thing or attraction towards the safe space. Fear, even chronic anxiety, may be a sane response to a particular situation, rather than a disorder. As Steven Moffatt wrote for Doctor Who, “There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you could run faster and you could fight harder. You can jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a super power!” Fear protects us, related to our situation and our level of control.

In an apparent anxiety disorder, what danger is present or has been present that the system stays in survival mode?

The Assertiveness system allows us to compete. We speak up with a strong voice when our needs are not met. I note that some people are more assertive than others, and ascribe this in part to status and pecking order: people of higher status are affirmed for being assertive, people lower down are criticised, attacked or subverted.

The Feels good system makes you feel good when you get what you need. So it interacts with all the other systems.

The Care system motivates you to care for your partner and offspring, so they may grow and flourish.

We are social animals, and our Connection systems help us work together with other people and symbiotes such as dogs.

Finally the Play system encourages us to learn new skills before we need them, through play.

I took this from Jessica Bolton’s article on Mad in the UK. It is a great way for a layperson like me to understand the concept, and Dr Bolton applies these systems to her experience of the Covid-19 response. She got them from the work of Jaak Panksepp and his 2012 book The Archaeology of Mind. However Wikipedia names Dr Panksepp’s “primal emotions” as ‘PLAY’, ‘PANIC/GRIEF’, ‘FEAR’, ‘RAGE’, ‘SEEKING’, ‘LUST’ and ‘CARE’, and Frontiers in Neuroscience, an academic publication, in 2019 named them as SEEKING, CARE, PLAY, and LUST on the positive side, whereas FEAR, SADNESS, and ANGER belong to the negative affects. I feel an “Assertiveness system” is more complex than “RAGE”, and “LUST” might map either to the Seeking system, the Care system, or the Connection system. It seems more of a difference than translation. “SADNESS” might be a negative correlate of the Feels good system, but is only a part of it.

Frontiers maps the primal emotions onto the five personality traits: Agreeableness correlates positively with CARE and negatively with RAGE. Its concept of Emotional Stability suggests that rage, fear and panic/sadness show low emotional stability, but I would say they are healthy in their place.

I feel liberated by my acceptance of sadness. It seems to me I can know what I desire, better, if I know what I mourn. If I accept I am sad about loss I know what I want. If I cannot admit sadness then I cannot admit I wanted what I have lost. I can only leave sadness behind if I accept it. I don’t feel particularly sad, now. On Monday I went to the supermarket, and as I was thinking about going I felt very sad. I thought, well, yes I feel sad and I might listen to a Shostakovich symphony later, but now I have to go to the supermarket. So I did, and in the afternoon the feeling had gone.

Aphantasia: having no mind’s eye

I have no mind’s eye. I can’t visualise things in memory or imagination.  This blog is about the experience of being trans, where some people find me viscerally disgusting and others are fomenting fear and anger against people like me. And still, it is alienating to hear people talk about how strange people like that (aphantasiac) are. It is a good thing that All in the Mind on Radio 4 should report on it, to help people understand others’ differences, but I now feel frustrated and sad- while also delighted to hear the voices of people who share this. I am here! Hominem scias!

On the programme someone commented It’s “only been known about for four years”. Well, I have known about it all my life. I have had to imagine what a mind’s eye is like, which I think is a greater leap of- the word is image-ination, but I can imagine, I assure you. I have told people about it, and they have not understood. I hate the word “Aphantasia”- I googled “phantasia meaning” and find the Greek word is usually translated “imagination”.

I have always avoided painting and drawing as much as possible, because I cannot imagine an image before committing it to paper. Instead I write verse: here I do not conjure up images, but sensuous experience. Does it do anything for you? My family as animals together, I wrote: you might create a picture, but for me it is a sense of togetherness unmediated by words, like a hug.

Unmediated by words-

I am good with words. Dysphasia is as frightening to me as blindness. On Radio 4 people like me at a conference reported my own experiences. One reads novels. Her friend said that was like a movie playing in his head, and she thought that sounded really cool, but for her it is just the words. Like an audiobook, the words play in my head. I don’t know if an audiobook conjures images for you, but for me it is just the sound of the words. Yet I know Dorothea Brooke and Elizabeth Bennett like real people- I have no idea what they look like, but know what they feel and desire. I had that conversation with my father as a child. He knew how many novels I read, but still could not understand how I could experience them without visualisation, and my impression now is of him finding this weird and sad.

So, letting words go, in meditation and immediate experience, is a way of touching emotion directly, inner experience as well as outer perception. I have done lots of guided visualisations too, and can use them to access the unconscious, just not in pictures.

On the radio, they said it is hard to come up with measurements so “we can only really ask people what their experience is”. Um. When I close my eyes, I see dark- or bright light shining through my eyelids. It makes sense to me that there might be gradations of this experience, or levels of skill in visualisation. Brain activity does not necessarily correlate to conscious experience. I do not know my unconscious experience, without hard work in excavation, or it just coming to mind.

And I have tried to visualise something: on the radio a CGI artist was asked to visualise a sphere, I tried a beach, the sea, the sky- two straightish lines, three colours. Like him I tried it for a week without success.

This experience blew my mind at the time, and is still intensely memorable. As it means so much to me, it might delude a researcher into thinking my usual experience different. I was driving home through the city, and I thought I could go — or I could go — . Not by Manchester Road or Featherstall Road, but-

I was thinking without words, and that was utterly strange to me. I only thought in words. I fantasised, planned, remembered in words. It wasn’t like seeing, really, but when I read of blind-sight, not seeing an image but knowing what is there, when someone has a healthy eye and optic nerve but brain damage causing blindness, it seemed it was like that. I know what’s there. I don’t see it. In dreams, I know what’s there- I don’t remember seeing anything, though I suppose I might. A nightmare must be more terrifying if like a movie. I know how the bookshelves are arranged in the living room. I know the colour of my Oware board, and its curve.

I have a good mind’s ear. Elgar could look at a score and hear an orchestra in his head. I can hear an orchestra playing a piece I know, and sight-sing a short, single-line phrase. I tried to imagine something I had not heard- a solo violin playing the National Anthem- and found this difficult, though having done it I can repeat the exercise. Like as if I have laid down a memory and can replay it.

On All in the Mind Claudia Hammond, who I am sure is more empathetic than that, played the presenter’s game of being the ordinary person, saying this is all a bit strange isn’t it. Her guest Catherine Loveday, a cognitive neuroscientist from Uni of Westminster, explained rather well:

For most of us, remembering is so wrapped up in the visual experience that it’s hard to imagine how someone can remember if they’re not visualising something but obviously people can, we know that congenitally blind people can still have memories, and if I think back to my holiday in Wales I can still have lots of other memories other than the visual thing, I can think about what I was smelling, what I was thinking about, what I was hearing and saying all of that comes back so we can still have memories without visual elements to them but about a third of people who have aphantasia also have significant memory problems.

And still it’s from the point of view of the Normal person. That Normal person may understand, though feel vaguely pitying. I was really excited to hear the programme trailed- at last! The experience of people like me! I still feel that delight, in hearing my fellow aphantasiacs, though I wish it did not need mediated through the perspective of the Normals- people who are Normal in that way, at least.

I would like a mind’s eye. It would be great to play a movie in my head. I am sure I would still retain all the ways of thinking, imagining and remembering that I have now. Possibly I have developed them because of the lack, but possibly I would have developed them anyway.

Hominem scias, I wrote, as if you would understand it, in order to alienate you if you don’t, so you may get something of the feeling I had listening. It is from the motto of the Royal Life Saving Society, Quemcumque miserum videris, hominem scias: whomsoever you see in distress, recognise in him (sic) a fellow man (sic). Educated people may do a bit of Latin, but I would not expect anyone to read the phrase if they did not know it, as I could not myself.

I learned another name for something that happens to me. Bright light makes me sneeze. People either say, Oh! Yes! Me too! if it happens to them, or express incredulity if it doesn’t, because it sounds ridiculous to them.

It’s called a “photic sneeeze”, or an Autosomal Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst.

There’s a village in Argyll called Ardrishaig, with the emphasis on the second syllable, to which the only possible response is “Bless you”.

Avoiding transition

-Doctor, I am a trans woman. I want to transition, and I want your help and support to do that: I want testosterone suppressants and oestrogen, and I may want surgery at some time, I have not completely decided on that.

-Many people transition, and find it makes them happier and better adjusted. You can certainly transition. Why do you want to?

-I knew there was something wrong before I went to school, and when I went to school I worked out what it was. I was a girl, and I am a woman. I did not feel as the boys felt. I did not want to play with the boys. Now, I do not like to be with the blokes. I much prefer being with women.

-What does it mean to be a woman? When you say you are a trans woman, what is it that you are?

-I am feminine, by which I mean I am sensitive. I have strong feelings, and I like to express them. I am good at reading the feelings of others. I loathe conflict, and like reconciliation. I want people to be happy. I have a strong aesthetic sense: I love beauty, and enjoy flower arranging.

-I wonder if that could be a description of a man. Have you ever heard Alfred Brendel play Beethoven, or Maurizio Pollini, Chopin? Can you hear the strong feelings, the sweet yearning gentleness, expressed there? Or have you seen the paintings of Henry Raeburn or Allan Ramsay: there is strong feeling. The painters well those passions read, which yet survive on the living canvas. Both painted women as well as men. As for wanting people to be happy, Jesus would not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick. Jeremy Corbyn, always speaking out for peace- is he not a man? Or Carl Rogers, who founded person-centred counselling? Why is being a man so difficult for you? What does it mean to be a man?

-Rudyard Kipling’s If. The Scout Law. Self-reliance. Rationality. Preferring things over people, rationally organising. Relishing conflict, and overcoming.

-These are difficult for anybody. If all around are losing their heads, and only one is keeping his, are the others not men, or not real men, or what? What should they do? Give up their Man card? Can you think of anyone who is like that? It seems to me your difficulty is not with being a man, but with your idea of what a man should be.

-Well, in my case I want to transition. I am happiest when I am Clare, and when I go back to being Stephen it is horrible.

 ♥♥♥

The lightbulb must want to change. By the time you see the gender psychiatrist, you know who you are, and what you need. No-one goes to the psychiatrist because they might be transsexual. Now, years afterwards, I am well aware of the breadth of male and female emotional expression and rationality, relish for conflict or desire for reconciliation, interest in things or people. I can value my gentleness. Now, with the new concept of gender-schematic, I can see that imagining some concept of manhood separate from my own gifts and inclinations is poisonous rather than idealistic, pointless and harmful, and while one might escape it into transition it would be so much better to escape it into appreciation of onesself as a rounded human being.

As for “femininity”, women are not all like that, and to some extent neither am I. So often in a group, the trans woman is the only one in a skirt, the cis women are far more spirited than our passive ideal. One sees that “femininity” is often oppressive. Equality is better than subordination- By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: the very being and existence of the woman is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband, wrote Blackstone (quoted by Rebecca Solnit). Concepts of femininity might be closer to who I am than the concept of masculinity I grew up with, but still require me to deny parts of myself. It seems such a long way round to self-acceptance.

People will continue to transition. Many people are satisfied with the result of their operations, and others’ dissatisfaction as well as my own goes with poorer results- pain, and lessened sensitivity. If I advise people not to transition, that may fall on deaf ears. Yet there are better ways to health. How to unpick the desire? I do not advocate conversion therapy, but self-acceptance: yet acceptance of body as well as character. “Why are you so unhappy?” might be a good question.

On trans rights, having transitioned I am entitled to be treated as a woman. So are any others who go through this. It is hard enough to be trans, without the covenant we have with liberal human rights, by which we are members of the acquired gender, being overturned.

A gender non-conforming child

In “Roseanne”, the main character’s grandchild, Mark, is gender non-conforming. He paints his nails and wears skirts to school, and yet he claims firmly that he is a boy. Roseanne tells him he has to pick his battles in life, and he says this is important.

Roseanne Barr is openly transphobic: “Women do not want your penises forced in their faces or in our private bathrooms. Respect that FACT.” Forcing a penis in someone’s face without consent is a disgusting image, and shows the visceral disgust she feels for ordinary people going for a pee. The producer consulted Lori Duron, whose son is like that; both the real and fictional families support their child.

So we have two groups of AMAB children: “3G” males, by genes, gonads and genitals. Both groups dress and present feminine. One group insist that they are trans, they are girls, and want called by a girl’s name and to be treated as the girls are treated, including access to the girls’ locker room, which makes all the conservatives angry and frightened. The other group insist they are boys, and insist on their right to present as they wish, which may contravene gendered school uniform rules. That is a huge difference between two groups of children who superficially seem very alike. What could cause it?

One possibility is that they are genuinely different, even though we might not have the language to describe the precise nature of the difference. The trans girls are innately trans. The cis boys are not stereotypically masculine and want visibly to spurn “masculinity” but are not trans.

Or, perhaps the social pressures on them are different. It depends on what they tell people, and what people tell them, and in what circumstances. Then, the slightest difference in treatment might push them down these radically different paths. They don’t know the right words, they just know what they want- to express themselves as girls do- and exploring what that might mean with adults pushes them one way or the other.

Or they could have different personalities. Both groups are challenging convention, but in different ways. I hate challenging convention, myself, I just want to fit in, and calling myself a woman seemed a way to fit in as best I could.

A recent meta-analysis of studies of gender transition shows benefits from surgical and hormonal treatment for gender dysphoric individuals: Among the positive outcomes of gender transition and related medical treatments for transgender individuals are improved quality of life, greater relationship satisfaction, higher self-esteem and confidence, and reductions in anxiety, depression, suicidality, and substance use. Yet this Boy-group does not want such treatment, and to tell them they were trans against their will, far worse to foist medical treatment on them, would be unethical. Many people can relate to the idea that sterilisation is bad for a person, to be denied even if they crave it.

We cannot make deductions about one of those groups from the experience of the other. Just because Lori’s son insists he is a boy, does not mean that the trans girls are. Just because he does not want medical treatment does not mean they should be denied it. We just don’t know. We can’t have a control group, of people who want transition and are denied it, to prove transition improves anyone’s situation. Possibly, he would have claimed to be a trans girl, in different circumstances: and if he claims to be one, then he is one, for there is no other way of knowing who is trans.

My solution for this is to make it less fraught. By the time either group has gone to school in a skirt, they have worn down intense resistance from family and friends, and shown they are willing to face standing out in a way often deliberately shamed. It takes courage and determination. If boys in skirts were no big deal, playing with dolls, whether every day or only some days, we could find what they really want.

Looking to the future

Why think about the past? It won’t change. Think about the future! Memories of the past are only of use to help predict the future. In the New York Times, psychologists advance the theory of “Prospective psychology”- the brain is focussed on predicting the future, and thinks about it three times more than the past. Memory is a tool for predicting: three different parts of the brain recall, when, where and what happened, and are rewritten- even altered- each time you remember them. A memory might be made happier if you have more trust in the future, or harsher otherwise. It is amended to make it more relevant to now.

They describe a problem- should you accept an invitation from a colleague? You could think it through methodically, but instead you intuitively empathise with him and your future self if you accept or reject it, and decide quickly. This is fast and slow thinking.

They say depression does not come from past trauma and present stress, but from skewed visions of what lies ahead. You overestimate risk, predict failure and rejection, and fail to imagine positive outcomes. “Depressed people”- I- withdraw socially and become paralyzed by exaggerated self-doubt. It is always eerie to read about yourself.

We consider the information which will be useful to us. Animals were more interested in unfamiliar experiences than familiar ones, because they want to understand future options and possibilities. Considering the future is the brain’s “default” mode, and in breaks in current tasks, we shift to working on that. We will all die, but few spend time thinking about that because we can’t do anything about it.

I learned very young that I am worthless, and that all my instincts are wrong. I then had years of ghastly experiences at work, where I was under threat I could not combat, and in fights I could not win. I was bullied, made to doubt myself even more, and then trashed, repeatedly.

So what I have been doing here is a patient re-evaluation of myself. I am a good person. I like myself. I mean well. My desires are good, and their fulfilment worthwhile. My desires and characteristics are not what I have been taught they ought to be. I am loveable. This patient reimagining- This, not That, will make me happy, This is who I am, This is how people see me- is necessary as a foundation for going out into the World, imagining a worthwhile goal and a route to its achievement, and taking that route. And my fast thinking often leads to wrong, over-pessimistic conclusions, because it is based on false understandings- they hate and despise me therefore I had better not go there.

Unfortunately bad experiences in the present reinforce my pessimism. Getting kicked out of Wellingborough Quaker meeting makes me think everyone hates me and I will never work out how to be winsome. And the news is dreadful: the Tories are likely to win the next election, and continue attacking out-groups- immigrants, benefit claimants, queers may be next- as a way of consolidating their power. They are enthusiastically working to damage the economy and the 99% with Brexit and job prospects get poorer.

The future has never seemed real to me. If I can survive the next couple of months, I am happy as I can be. “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” has always been meaningless. I remember looking at a welfare rights worker, older than me, with the council, and thinking, it will be like now, but slightly worse. I can accept intellectually that a pension is a good thing to have, say, or imagine myself as an old person- seeing them walking unsteadily, seeming so weak, creeps me out- but it does not seem real to me. I don’t know how this is for others. For me it is all about surviving now.

And still, there are possibilities, and trust and respect for myself might help me see them.

New York Times, We aren’t built to live in the moment.

Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of the strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom.

Appearances

Can we perform psychological experiments on you? Oh, OK. After the exhibition of Elton John’s Modern photographs collection, I am wandering down through The Switch House past their seventh floor where the space for participative experiences is open, so I wander in and am given tasks to do. I like the idea of helping, of doing something interesting, of balancing myself against a task.

I look at pictures made of black patches on a white background. Some are moderately clear, some unintelligible, some become clear after they are named. The male and female lions, their noses touching, seemed to be random spots until the caption told me what they were. Some still appear to be random spots after the caption is revealed. How certain are you that you see the outline of the thing pictured?

Are these samples real or artificial hair? Two samples are straight, two waved, two heat-treated into tiny tight curls. I look at them, feel them, close my eyes to concentrate on the feeling, feel them with my lips for a more sensitive feel, scrutinise the ends, and still get two out of three wrong. How did I make the decision? he asks. I tell him I am pleased, as I wear wigs.

With four others I consider pictures to decide whether they are valued at more or less than £3000. The most expensive, we thought was a worthless daub. How certain are you, of your own judgment, and of the consensus? Not certain at all.

Last, I look at portraits by Lucien Freud, and am asked how much they move me. I move the indicator left and right with cursor keys. I only see the picture for a fraction of a second, and the indicator disappears quickly after. My heart rate is monitored, the woman says to see whether I am a heart or head person, how my heart rate shows arousal contrasting with my conscious assessment. “Is that too tight for you?” she asks as she straps it to my thumb. “Please make sure you can keep it still, as it responds to movement.” I rest it, relaxed, palm upwards, on the table. It was not too tight, and I felt an after-image of it in my thumb for hours afterwards.

My conscious assessment has to be so rapid it is pretty instinctive, but I notice that these portraits are young or old, and I am concerned how I might appear. Am I more moved by young women, and is that facile of me? I do not want to be facile. I decide to claim to be moved by some men, and some older people, then worry that as some of the portraits are repeated I am inconsistent…

After, the attractive young woman- post-doc age, I feel, rather than undergraduate- explains that some of the pictures were timed to appear as my heart beat, and some between beats. Do I respond to how my body is in the moment of seeing, or more cerebrally? “You are unusual“- she twinkles, this is a good thing- in being in between, sometimes moved by the heartbeat, sometimes not. We discuss the self-selecting sample. Usually she works with undergraduates, who spend longer performing tasks, and get paid. Here, the volunteers are in an art gallery.

Why should I care how I appear? They have a note of my age and gender, and have video’d the proceedings, but it’s a few years yet before AI and data-storage is good enough to make it worthwhile to identify me, analyse the data and add it to a file on me. I hope. H, who put me up, was horrified. Her mother had always been concerned about appearances, and she found this repressed her true self, which she liberated as soon as she could with the ardour of a rebel. I tend to feel I am unduly self-conscious about how I appear. I will not see these people again. How I appear has a great effect on how I am treated, even though decent people are accepting not judgmental of appearance.

To a great extent, it is how I appear to myself- though that is a way to judge how I appear to others, I could also notice their reactions more. If I wanted to game the system, I failed, as sometimes I responded to my beating heart- not controlling my appearance I might be even more self-conscious about it.

Appearance is such an all-consuming thing- voice, dress, movement, body-language, wig; and who I am, how I am with others, eye contact, touching, attention… in the moment, having been confused and not getting my desired sense of performing well and above average, and being inspected in a way I did not fully understand, I was self-conscious.

Fair use of low-res picture, to illustrate the article’s subject.

What emotions are

Is consciousness a bad thing?

In recent articles, the New York Times and NY magazine distinguish activity in the brain, concerned with threat, from the experience of fear.

For NY magazine, consciousness divides humans from all other animals. No others are conscious. Animals have instinctive, defensive behaviours like fleeing or freezing. Human beings have a range of responses diffused through the brain which together go with consciousness of anxiety or fear.

In studies of patients where the link between the hemispheres was severed, as a last chance treatment for epilepsy, Joseph LeDoux saw that consciousness creates explanations or ideas about behaviour. For example, the right hemisphere alone is shown a cartoon, and laughs. The left hemisphere creates an explanation: “You guys are so funny”. Listening to talk radio in the night, I am unaware of the gaps when I doze off: my conscious experience is of a continuous entertainment, which is of course what it should be. Put that way, consciousness is a bad thing, deluding me into false explanations of my experience; yet some of my experience is explicable, and I consciously consider my behaviour through more and more sophisticated explanations.

When a human perceives danger, the brain readies the body for action. The human becomes aware of feeling fear if the brain is conscious of its own activity, and has the ability to conceptualize all of that, to label it linguistically, and to integrate it with thoughts and memories. Having the concept “fear”, the brain sees certain responses as fitting that concept.

The unconscious responses and the conscious feeling are distinct phenomena, in different parts of the brain. Nothing gets in the way of truth as much as language does, says LeDoux, though language is the only way to communicate scientific evidence. Communicating feeling without language is possible, consciously and unconsciously.

Lisa Feldman Barrett is an academic psychologist, rather than a journalist communicating how much of the interview he has (mis)understood. We experience anger and other emotions as clear, identifiable states of being… Every alleged emotion region increased its activity during nonemotional thoughts and perceptions. Well, is any thought truly non-emotional? One may experience fear without an amygdala, so my casual use of words such as “hypothalamus” or “limbic system” is inaccurate. Perhaps I am best to stick to the words “heart” or “gut”. I read of reptile brain, mammal brain, human frontal lobe- then read that even simple vertebrate brains have a similar hind-brain/ mid-brain/ fore-brain structure.

A single brain area like the amygdala participates in many different mental events, and many different brain areas are capable of producing the same outcome. Emotions like fear and anger, my lab has found, are constructed by multipurpose brain networks that work together….emotion words like “anger,” “happiness” and “fear” each name a population of diverse biological states that vary depending on the contextYou might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.

Types of “Anger” might be distinguished, and wordsmiths have made a start: cold or hot, for example. So my conscious understanding increases.

Ingres, Venus Anadyomène