Category: Angst

Computers on the Brain

Business Logo for Psychological and Neuropsychological IssuesIt is not uncommon for psychologists to draw parallels between the modern computer and the ancient human brain.  Nearly all the people who read this article will do so with the use of a computer.  The computer allows the rapid categorization and transformation of symbolic information.  The information is symbolic since it does not contain the actual perceptual information of the event, but a representation of the information encoded into standardized symbols.  The symbols must be standardized, or the information could not be shared with others.  The symbols must also have the capacity of accurate storage, or the computer would only be useful on an intermittent and spontaneous basis.

The ancient brain processes sensory information in a symbolic fashion, as well.  It does not store holograms of what we see, smell, hear or touch, but encodes the information in proteins.  Recalling the information encoded in proteins allows categorization and association of the symbols removed from the actual event.  The human brain uses standardized sounds to communicate its symbols, otherwise the information could not be shared with others.  The storage of symbolic information must be fairly accurate, or the human could not learn to operate effectively within a given environment.

Both the brain and computer have an architecture specialized to encode and process information, yet there are differences.  There is no real equivalent of software in the human brain, as the physical architecture of the brain is altered to meet and master novel tasks.  Current computers cannot alter their architecture at this point in their development, but small alterations of software can radically change the type and method of information processed.  Neurotransmitters provide the closest parallel to computer software.  Their respective levels in different areas of the brain may favor and flavor the information processed.  The current understanding of neurotransmitter action does not allow for the sweeping changes possible with computer software.   The human brain exists in a dynamic flowing relationship with the environment, whereas the computer was designed to be an assistant in this relationship.

Currently, mental illness is most often viewed as a biological defect; similar to a diseased heart or lung.  Computer scientists might regard schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as faulty hardware, and depression, anxiety and angst as buggy software.  Similarly, psychosurgery has been used in the past to treat schizophrenia, and current psychiatrists modulate neurotransmitters to control depression.  The former deserves  little comment, and the latter has met with limited success.  Neuroscientists and psychiatrists have beaten the drum of biological mental illness for decades.  They have attempted changing the computer architecture in schizophrenia, and the computer software in depression.  The analogy tends to fail at this point, though, largely due to the negligence of a very important relationship.

The analogy breaks down due to the dynamic relationship between humans and the environment.  A person’s environment, especially their social milieu, may profoundly alter neurotransmitter levels.  Chronic stress is now known to cause actual alterations in the way genes are expressed.  Put another way, the environment alters the hardware and software of the human brain.  The brain evolves over a lifetime, whereas the computer is largely a static entity, such that the computer/brain analogy is always inexact.  To ignore the environment in the treatment of mental illness is similar to ignoring the road while driving a car.  Altering the brain’s software, without altering the environment, is to ignore a major difference between computers and people.  Social relationships may be an architect of human dysfunction, but also a foundation upon which we build our happiness.

Anger Management

Business Logo for Psychological and Neuropsychological IssuesThe word “anger” is strangely intimidating.  It is not uncommon to observe someone in a rage, yet deny they are angry.  A common response is “I’m just frustrated.”  Most people do not want to be labelled as angry, and refuse to label themselves as such.  Labeling another person as angry is rarely taken as a friendly gesture.  It is typically interpreted as an accusation.  Even if the intention is centered on the welfare of the other person,  the response is to deny or escalate.  It is difficult to imagine a friendly way to qualify someone as angry.

A professor once told the author “We are all angry, it is a question of when and where it is displayed.”  This quote portrays anger as a universal human phenomenon.  The perception of anger will change based upon the situation in which it is displayed.  Heads will be more likely to turn at an art gallery than at a sporting event.  Cultural and socioeconomic factors will alter how people perceive and interpret anger in other people.  Overt displays of anger may be tolerated in Rome, but eschewed in Milan. Tooting the car horn is almost expected in Manhattan, but it is an invitation to fight in Chicago.  Displays of anger in the upper classes are often viewed as indicative of low class behavior.  There is greater acceptance of angry behavior in the lower classes than those above.  Displays of anger in the upper class may lower one’s status, yet the same display in the lower class may elevate one’s status.

The physiological response of anger is often triggered by failed expectations.  Modern call centers often trigger anger by failing to provide an easy interface, a timely response, or a person who speaks the same language.  Since we are paying for a good or service, there is an expectation of a timely and coherent response to our questions.  Most people expect their children to be cooperative and do well in school.  When they fail parental expectations, anger or sadness is the result.  We expect significant others will support us and not betray our confidence.  When they fail to meet these expectations, anger or sadness is the result.  Consider the experience of being abandoned by someone you love.  Thoughts of the good times will engender sadness.  Thoughts of the bad times will engender anger.  Anger is often preceded or proceeded by sadness.

Is the lowering of one’s expectations the way to rid oneself of anger?  Not really.  Decreased expectations of others and oneself will decrease the occurrences of angry reactions.  It will not rid oneself of anger.  To rid oneself of anger is not possible, or even desirable.  Appropriate anger may change the behavior of oneself or others in a positive fashion.  Having no expectations of one’s children will decrease discord, but it may also breed sloth and disrespect.  Accepting substandard services from a company will be easier than arguing, but may cost the person additional money and reinforce the company’s poor performance.  There is a delicate balance between expectation, anger and acceptance.

Perhaps the acceptance of anger is best exemplified by a story.  Many years ago, the wife of a Russian diplomat overheard an American woman decry the anger expressed by American males.  She turned to face the American woman.  She explained that all the angry young men left their warm beds to fight Napoleon, and none came back.  When Hitler threatened to destroy her country, the angry young men left their warm beds to fight once again, and none came back.  She cautioned the American woman.  The next time the she heard a bump in the night, perhaps the American woman would appreciate these angry young men.  Said another way, do not be too quick to condemn all angry reactions.  There are positive and negative aspects to all human emotions.  The consequence(s) of an emotional display may be more important than the particular emotion displayed.

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