When Does an Emotional System Guide Your Behavior?


Bowen and the gorilla

Photo: Murray Bowen, MD and a very smart gorilla  around 1987

Is it possible or even probable that we can learn about our own emotionally oriented, automatic behavior?  Can we get a clue from observing other social species? Can they show us what it is like when you only feel your way through life?

Can other mammals use thinking to overcome a feeling response?

Does reflection enable humans to self regulate?

Are we the only species able to think about our feelings?

Do we humans gain a little bit of freedom by being able to think and reorganize our feelings?

How do we know when we are outside the stimulus-response world?

Can reflecting on our feelings allow us to be a bit more separate from the controlling ways of the emotional system?

We saw in Jack Calhoun’s experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), how mice interacted poorly under conditions of overcrowding.

Calhoun’s early experiments with rats were carried out on farmland at Rockville, Maryland, starting in 1947.[6]

While Calhoun was working at NIMH in 1954, he began numerous experiments with rats and mice. During his first tests, he placed around 32 to 56 rodents in a 10 x 14-foot case in a barn in Montgomery County. He separated the space into four rooms. Every room was specifically created to support a dozen matured brown Norwegian rats. Rats could maneuver between the rooms by using the ramps. Since Calhoun provided unlimited resources, such as water, food, and also protection from predators as well as disease and weather, the rats were said to be in “rat utopia” or “mouse paradise,” another psychologist explained.[7]

Following his earlier experiments with rats, in 1972 Calhoun would later create his “Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice”: a 101-inch square cage for mice with food and water replenished to support any increase in population,[8] which took his experimental approach to its limits. In his most famous experiment in the series, “Universe 25”, population peaked at 2,200 mice and thereafter exhibited a variety of abnormal, often destructive behaviors. By the 600th day, the population was on its way to extinction.[6]

They seem to live in a stimulus-response universe. Their interactions determine their health. Crowding conditions created too many frustrating interactions and the mice lost the ability to recognize one another as individuals, reproduce, cooperate and care for the young.

The plight of the mice resulted from relationship problems, not a lack of food and water. The increasing numbers of animals in a small universe led to population crashes. By restructuring the physical environment Calhoun forced the animals to notice each other, and to cooperate in order to drink water.

With this change in the environment the animals could tolerate eight times the social density. Jack Calhoun observed that animals could create meaningful social roles when they had to figure out how to cooperate with one another to obtain water.

Rats, mice and chimpanzees are all mammals that share an inability to think or override their feeling oriented guidance systems. They are wired to respond quickly to threats. The mice had to rely on the thinking of an innovator like Jack Calhoun to figure out how to organize their relationships.

A thinking brain can impact survival. The inability to see the big picture and to think rationally, what I call relationship blindness, may be a mammalian vulnerability. The early ancestors of humans also needed to respond to threat and developed quick reflexes to survive. Those in small tribes could react quickly to a simple decision – friend or foe? And so our very human brain evolved to confront short-term phenomena.

Like most mammals, for thousands of years humans too have lived and died in the moment. As a result, the brain orients and perceives in a narrow range. What is coming at me now? Whose fault is this? Humans could not easily understand systems. For millennia, for example,humans thought the earth was the center of the universe, not understanding the earth was being influenced by the solar system as it traveled around the sun.

As human society has became more complex, various mental skill sets were developed to slow down these stimulus-response reflexes, allowing individuals to think longer term, like “How do I survive the winter and get along with the people in this village?”

As population has increased, there has been an increased need to develop greater awareness of the environment to slow down our automatic reflexes and thereby manage relationship dynamics reduce stress and make better long-term decisions.

Ten thousand plus years ago agriculture forced humans to do more thinking, to learn how to reflect and create different ways of behavior rather than simply following along with the group. As the population grew it required humans to use more thinking about the distant future. It also required that individuals be more of a stand alone self rather than operate as part of the togetherness group. (see Julian Jaynes)

Since there is no Jack Calhoun to think of a better way to force us to cooperate we must learn to engage more of a thinking response to challenges. The brain begins to do this by observing the traps of stimulus-response feelings and begins to adapt to changing conditions through trial and error efforts. (see Jack Panksepp)

Understanding what it means to be an “I” has taken many mysterious paths. (See Douglas Hofstadter) Mediation may have been one way that humans began to withdraw energy from a pure feeling response to reduce complexity and gain insight into phenomena.

Over time more and more people learned to withdraw energy from the stimulus feeling response world to think and reflect. Indian artifacts point to the origins of “tantric” meditation which 5,000 years ago allowed individual members to slow down their reactivity and increase their ability to reflect. (http://www.how-to-meditate.org/)

In addition to learning how to alter one’s brain state, increasing population leads to role diversification as humans began to expand into towns, cities, nations and finally a human community on planet earth. We learned from Jack Calhoun that our mammalian brains make us vulnerable to social breakdowns. The early failure of social bonding in Calhoun’s mice was due to poor interactions and a lack of gratification resulting in greater emotional blindness and high contact rates with the young animals who were no longer being protected by their mothers.

Calhoun noted: “High contact rate further fragments behavior as a result of the stochastic social interactions which demand that, in order to maximize gratification from social interactions, intensity and direction of social interactions must be reduced in proportion to the degree that the group size exceeds the optimum.”

The optimum group size for Calhoun’s mice was 12 individuals resulting in a 50/50 chance that each interaction might be positive. If it was negative and one was not gratified they might withdraw and be frustrated. But if they could reflect on and think about the encounter and possibly learn from it, the animal was more creative in their next encounter. Frustrating interactions in a small social group often lead to creativity. We know all to well, however, that an increase in frustrating interactions may lead to destruction of relationships and/or of the individual as well.

Bowen described differentiation of self as a method to reorganize the brain and to be able to think carefully about ones behavior and the principles that are guidelines for defining a self. You could think about differentiation as a process of recognizing self separate from the other while being able to recognize self in the other. At one end of the spectrum people cannot see self as separate. Others are threatening all the time. They are subject to heightened emotionality. At the most mature end of the spectrum, there is great knowing and management of self while relating well to others and their differences with respect and compassion.

The effort to be more separate and not take sides while still being in good emotional contact with others creates a very different emotional system, one that is driven more by managing self and less

by the emotional push and pull of the group. Differentiation allows an individual to think and override automatic habits. If one can see the tricks of the emotional system for what they are, automatic behavior, one can stand-alone and not be manipulated by relationship signals. As one has greater ability to perceive and to think about relationship signals one has a better ability to choose how and when to interact.

Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky have all written and spoken about the basic social instincts in various species of mammals. By looking at their behavior it’s easy for us to identify with these animals as we experience these basic emotions: affection, love, betrayal, mistrust, the need for domination and the fear of being dominated.

How has man altered these basic social templates? Bowen thought that by using our thinking to act differently in relationships we had begun to separate more of our thinking system from the overriding commands of the emotional system. Bowen thought it possible that differentiation of self could influence evolution.

Differentiation can lead us to more thoughtful social interaction as we stand-alone on our principles and avoid being tricked by the emotional system as best we can. The possibility is that seeing the emotional system operate on all of us offers the possibility that we can have other social roles that that will give us a place (or in Calhoun’s terms a social role) in the system.

For example a creative person might like to work alone but the family objects and is critical, and calls him or  her crazy. If one person in the family can not join in and react and if the person can relate to others and manage self, the creative person may have a chance to play a useful role in the family and in society.

Or consider that the family emotional system can program an individual to be an over or under responsible oldest. By seeing the family process one has the ability to redefine self to others rather than to blindly follow  the programming.

Knowing self and the system would be more important than giving up self to go along with the social pressure from others. Therefore defining self becomes a way to create various social roles for self in any number of social systems.

Murray Bowen described a way of managing relationships and separating out using the knowledge of triangles. “Put a stranger into the system in place of the child. After a brief time the stranger will  either become programmed into the familiar patterns of the triangle, or he will withdraw—also a predictable response to triangles.

Put a family therapist with knowledge of triangles into the triangle in the place of the child. The parents will make predictable moves designed to involve the therapist into the triangle with them. If the therapist can avoid becoming “triangled,” and still remain in constant emotional contact with the parents over a period of time, the relationship between the parents will begin to change.”

“This is the theoretical and practical basis for much of the family psychotherapy in this theoretical- therapeutic system, in which a family is considered to consist of the two most important people in the family, together with the therapist who constitutes a potential triangled person. Theoretically, a family system can be changed if any triangle in the family is changed, and if that triangle can stay in meaningful emotional contact with the others. Practically, the two spouses are usually the only ones

who are important enough to the rest of the family and who have the motivation and dedication for this kind of an effort. The second way to modify a triangle is through one family member. If one memberofatrianglecanchange,thetrianglewillpredictablychange. Andifonetrianglecan change, an entire extended family can change. Thus, an entire family can be changed through one family member, if this motivated family member has sufficient dedication and life energy to work toward his or her goal in spite of all obstacles. The “change” mentioned here is not some superficial change in role or posture, but is deeper and more far-reaching than the change generally associated with most therapeutic systems.”

Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 246). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Other References:

  • Stress in the Animal Kingdom: What We Can Learn
  • Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, By Frans de Waal
  • Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, Jul 2, 1999 by James H. Austin
    • Used for $4.89 here.
  • I AM a Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstader
    • Used for $1.89 here.
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Aug 15, 2000 by Julian Jaynes
    • Used for $1.26 here.
  • The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)Sep 17, 2012 by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven

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