Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Adaptive Functions of Nonadaptive Emotion Responses

Entry for 7 Dec 2017: FEAR Conference on Brain, Behaviour and Society in Aarhus

Sandwiched between my November Scottish work period and my December California work-and-holiday-period, I’ve just been to a fascinating and challenging two-day conference hosted by the University of Aarhus Institute for Advanced Studies (AIAS).  I found this conference fascinating because it was by the far the most multidisciplinary scientific meeting I’ve ever been to.  I also found it challenging, for exactly the same reason:  The scientific disciplines featured ranged from cellular biology and neurophysiology on one end of the spectrum, to political science and even history and theology at the other extreme, with many gradations in between.  Along this spectrum, I would have to put myself somewhere in the middle.  What all these folks had in common was an interest in understanding fear and anxiety at multiple levels and from different angles.

I’m pretty sure that the work that I’m going to find most useful going forward is that of the largest group of folks in the middle of that continuum: A collection of experimental field biologists/ethologists/neuroscientists, who are essentially doing animal psychology on animals ranging from racoons to South African birds to snails.  These folks, most notably Liana Zanette, Mike Clinchy, Dan Blumstein, and Tom Flower, do naturalistic field research on predator-prey interactions in wild animals, which is a natural place to study fear.  They use a range of relatively new methods such as camera traps (think motion-sensitive or sound-activated CCTV for spying on animals), battery-powered portable speakers (for scaring animals with the vocalisations of predators), and robotic pseudo-predators.  Related to them are more lab-based neuroscientists like Ken Lukowiak and Cornelius Gross, who use new, elegant technologies such as optogenetics to turn particular sets of brain neurons on and off at will, in order to study their behavioural effects and to trace neural pathways.

I found this work, in itself, to be fascinating, and because I read Science News regularly, I felt I was able to follow it pretty well. It also helped in conversations over meals to be able occasionally to ask for translation of the more obscure jargon terms.  So on first approach I loved being drawn into the world of field biology/ethology, which deeply resonated with the young boy I had once been, fascinated by strange animals and the adventure of field work.

However, this work is actually important for Emotion Focused Therapy and our understanding of how human emotion processes function and can go awry, even when they are doing exactly what they are evolved to do. Over the two days, I was able to see many useful connections. This group has identified persuasive analogues for several important clinical/EFT phenomena: 

First, Liana Zanette & Mike Clinchy, from the University of Western Ontario (now rebranded as Western University), have developed an analog for PTSD by subjecting prey animals (eg, chickadees, racoons) to predator stress, created by intermittently playing predator sounds in the immediate vicinity of birds or smaller mammal further down the food chain.  Played repeatedly and predictably over time, this creates chronic stress in the animals, including behaviours that resemble many specific symptoms of PTSD, such as hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response and loss of appetite. Most strikingly, they have shown that these stressed animals have higher mortality rates and fewer offspring; even more strikingly, this increased mortality and lowered reproductive success is passed on their offspring, and also affects species below them in the food chain. 

Yesterday before I left to catch my bus back to Billund Airport, I had one more relatively brief visit with Liana and Mike at breakfast.  They wanted to make sure I got their main message: Trauma-induced chronic fear/anxiety -- which EFT refers to as Primary Maladaptive Fear/Anxiety – is from an evolutionary point of view, not maladaptive but fundamentally adaptive:  By motivating constant vigilance, this reaction to stressful or even traumatic predator exposure increases the probability of not being killed by those predators.  They argued that falling victim to a predator instantly reduces the individual’s chances of survival to zero.  Our emotion system evolved the ability to overgeneralise from single traumatic events because this has survival value, especially in predator-rich environments, which until recently were quite common. As Mike said this morning, this tendency purchases maintenance of life at the cost of quality of life.  Mike and Liana wanted to know if I had heard anything in these two days that was going to affect how I work with clients.  Of course, it’s hard to know exactly with new ideas, but I told them I thought it might.

One thing for sure, however, is that it’s going change how I talk and write about emotion response types: From an EFT point of view, we assume that by and large Primary Adaptive ERs are more adaptive than the others, and that the broad goal of therapy, both within and across sessions, is to help clients reduce Primary Maladaptive, Secondary Reactive, and Instrumental ERs while at the same time increasing Primary Adaptive ERS.  However, it’s now clear to me that all four types of emotion response distinguished in EFT theory evolved because they had useful functions and survival value, especially in social units or groups:
Primary Adaptive Emotion Response (ER): This is what the emotion evolved for in the first place, eg, danger => fear => flee/freeze.  This is our first, natural and specific emotional response to a particular situation.  Note that in a given situation, our first, most natural response to a situation does not always provide the best way to get our needs met; eg, violation in the form of abuse by a powerful/unsympathetic other => anger => increased danger of further/worse harm.
Primary Maladaptive ER: Predisposes us to develop quite general, long-lasting learning from single traumatic episodes, “because I can’t afford to wait for a second chance”; increases sensitivity/strength of response to danger, but also anticipation of possible danger => anxiety => pause/orient/prepare.  In fact, “generalised primary emotion response” might be a more accurate term for this kind of emotion response.
Secondary Reactive ER: Gives us the ability to respond in complex ways (such as inhibition/interruption) to our emotion responses; eg, violation => anger => fear of possible damage to relationships => partial inhibition of anger allowing time to develop more nuanced useful responses
Instrumental Emotion Display: Gives us the ability to influence others, behave appropriately, or preserve relationships even when we are not feeling the relevant emotion; eg, danger from manageable adversary (eg, mountain lion or bully) => instrumental anger display to intimidate.  Drongo bird (South Africa) example (from Tom Flower): Opportunity to steal food => give danger alarm cry to scare or distract the other.  This works bests where the instrumental emotion display is the expected response or, failing that, where the other lacks the ability to detect the true emotion, or can’t afford to get it wrong.

The implication of this analysis is that the judgement of adaptiveness requires more than just identifying the type of emotion response; some further consideration of two kinds of context is required:  First, the emotional context of our key needs in the situation; second, the interpersonal context of others’ likely responses to our emotion responses.  Taking these further factors into consideration requires a fairly high level of emotional intelligence, both awareness of the range of our important emotions in the situation and reasonably accurate simulation of others’ likely reactions to our emotion responses.

This is why in EFT we don’t talk about maladaptive emotions (except when we are speaking carelessly), but only about maladaptive emotion responses:  This emotion response was useful originally, in the presence of danger, but isn’t here and now, in this particular situation.  Liana and Mike’s research suggests that the tendency to form overgeneralised, automatic fear responses is deeply embedded in us in an evolutionary sense, and research by others (such as Cornelius Gross) indicates that it is very likely to be mediated by the limbic system (especially the amygdala and the hippocampus).

To conclude, when a client with PTSD presents with a stuck feeling of constant fear of being revictimised that is causing them a lot of emotional pain and ruining their ability to get on with important life projects (as in the video I showed at the conference), it is clearly not true that their fear has always been maladaptive. It’s also the case that their continuing hypervigilance and strong response might very well be adaptive in some situations in their current life, more adaptive than a more relaxed view. Thus, it is only in particular situations, in which the person finds themselves unreasonably afraid when they and others’ carefully assess that this is not the case, that we would be justified in concluding that the person’s emotion response of fear is maladaptive, because it doesn’t fit the current situation. However, the fact that they have this response is completely natural, understandable and in the broad evolutionary sense adaptive.