A tale of two person interaction, highlighting core affect/emotions between people.
| ‘Why do you read this book so much?’ Sasi asks me.
‘Because it’s very good darling - its fantastic food for thought’ I reply.
‘I like the smiling mother and baby on the cover,’ She tells me, ‘but the title, “Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self - The Neurobiology of Emotional Development”, by Allan N Schore,’ she adds, shaking her head and wrinkling her nose.
‘It’s about how you maintain your organism, darling.’
‘Really!’ Raised eyebrows and a twinkle in her eye, underline her very playful nature and why I am so besotted with her.
‘No sweetheart, your organism, not your orgasm,’ I say laughing.
‘Perhaps those smiling faces remind me of you darling’ I tell her.
Sasi beams now, one of those effortless and orgasmic smiles that affects in me sensations of joy. Not without hooking you up to some sophisticated virtual machine could I really convey the wonder of Sasi’s smile and how it affects others, how do I give you a sense of its essence, the pure innate joy that is so often free from adult simulation or muscular constriction. She smiles with all the innocence of a happy and delighted three year old, and it feels like a whole body reaction from deep within her, not just the passing comment of facial expression that many adult smiles often are. Sasi is a force of nature as some have commented, her effervescent vitality is contagious, infecting all who come within sensory range.
‘How do they remind you of me?’ She asks, fishing for compliments now.
‘Because a smile is like magic darling, just like you; the smile of innate joy is a vitality affect for both the giver and receiver,’ I tell her and Sally indicates confusion with a shake of her head and squinting of her eyes, as if to say ‘What?’
‘Well, when you smile, facial muscle actions send signals to neurons in your brain simultaneously changing the flow and temperature of blood through your head, and your nervous system gets an active chemical surge with all sorts of hormones released making you feel good - it’s what’s called a vitality affect and that’s why smiling is orgasmic.’
‘Because it’s magic, sounded better,’ Sasi tells me with a mimicked yawn, causing me to hold the book up and explain that the smiling gaze of a loving mother is vital to the positive maturation of her young baby’s brain, which goes through its most important postnatal growth and maturing process in the first three years of life. Positive affective states, such as the affect/emotion of elation, which a mothers smile evokes are vital to the growth of neural networks in the brain and the autonomic nervous system reactivity that will unconsciously guide her offspring through the experience of life.
‘It’s about the feedback fired neurons in your brain, darling’
‘Feedback fired neurons! - Sounds like a Chinese noodle dish,’ Sasi exclaims, hands held up to her face as she makes slant eyes at me,
‘Oor you wan feedback fired neurons wid you sweet an sour pork?’
‘Its as good as chicken soup for the soul,’ I tell her with a shrug of the shoulders.
As the new field of ‘affective neuroscience’ explains, early affect experiences, such as the triggering of innate joy, which is the initial neuronal spark to the emotion we call elation, become imprinted in neural networks and nerves, setting up patterns of sensation expectation that will generally last a lifetime. Science now understands that postnatal brain growth and maturation is experience dependant, setting up patterns of unconsciously expected sensation experiences which become autonomic self fulfillment.
‘Huh!’ Says Sasi.
‘Darling, your early life experience was so full of innate joy and excitement, so full of happy smiling faces and predominately positive affect experiences, that the innate affects of joy and excitement burst from you at the slightest provocation, such is your unconscious expectation of sensation response to any perceived positive experience.’
‘Huh! Huh!’ Sasi mumbles shaking and nodding her head alternately.
‘You know how they say that up to 95% of our motivation is unconscious - well science is coming to understand the unconscious as an affective state triggered by feedback to the brain - just like the confusion my poor explanations affect in you’
‘See! Its always your fault,’ she says beaming again, and I try to expand my explanation.
‘The innate affect of joy, as a sense of fun is triggered in you with any kind of positive feedback.
‘I see!’ Says Sasi, raising her eyebrows at my continued intellectualizing, before adding.
‘So you want to write a self help book based on what this book has taught you?’
‘Yes, and Stephen Porges “Polyvagal Theory”, amongst others.’
Two weeks after that conversation I sit down to write and meet a familiar response, something inside me resists my conscious intent and I feel held back, even though I think I know what I want to say having rehearsed these ideas in my head while walking, driving or doing anything else that is not actually writing. Now that I’m here though, needing to perform the writing action I inexplicably hold back, I seem to freeze as the words just won’t come with my mind feeling like it’s stuffed with cotton wool. I just can’t think what this state is, it’s like some alien force inside me and when I’m over emotional it even feels like I’m possessed, it’s so frustrating how I can‘t control this reaction. I begin to ponder if this hesitant state can really be my instinctual nature, inner biological processes which defy my conscious intention, my rationalized wants?.
Do you ever have the feeling that something holds you back; something beyond the power of your mind prevents you from getting what you want? Do you sometimes acknowledge a cycle of self defeating behaviours, annoying bad habits that you sort of understand but can’t quite find a why for?
Try to picture my situation here, I’m sitting at my desk holding a pen, thinking that I want to write the opening paragraphs of a book, yet for some unknown reason I can‘t or won’t begin. In rational and objective terms it’s simple enough, I’ve read and re-read dozens and dozens of books and have been bringing myself to this point for half my life. I’ve given myself the time and the space to concentrate on writing, yet each time I try to start, something deep inside defeats me. I get stuck in the very processes that I want to write about, such as how my evolutionary layered brain and nervous system stimulates this unconscious response. The autonomic nervous system could easily be described as the mind below the mind, the hidden motivator of all those bad habits and patterns of behaviour we find so hard to change. Our autonomic nervous system is responsible for the famous fight/flight response that we’re all aware of, although less well known are the freeze/fright instinctual reactions to threat. In evolutionary terms, our human freeze/fright responses such as surprise and embarrassment, shock and fainting are inherited from our mammalian ancestors who can automatically feign death as a last resort when faced with inescapable mortal threat. Ancient survival patterns of behavior in freeze/fight/flight/fright are controlled by small groups of neurons firing deep within the ancient reptilian layer of our triune brain, stimulating these innate survival reflexes through our autonomic nervous system.
After such conceptual musings I make a start again, writing a few paragraphs before reaching a point where I’m facing inner sensations and how to write about them. In this instant I become mindlessly numb putting down my pen and standing up, I feel an urge to walk, a sense that movement will allow me to think the moment through, and why I’ve torn up so many pages with angry disgust, dismissing them as over rationalized dribble. At least disgust is a innate reaction, I say to myself, suddenly drawing in a deep breath as a realization dawns.
Expectation! Is what I fear, I fear being seen, being judged, even by readers I will never meet and my rationalizations are the way I deal with this unconscious fear, so that I avoid it, avoid feeling it. It’s a shame reaction, I say to myself, visualizing the numbness of mind and the vacant stare at the blank page as an unconscious protective urge. I see it as my mind below the mind, and picture it as the deeper reptilian layer of my triune brain implementing a passive reaction, an avoidance of the slightest possibility of those dreaded shame sensations that had cut me to the core as a child. I tell myself I hold an unconscious expectation towards engaging with people, a deep fear that they will always shame me. I laugh, thinking, here I am in the 21st century and an evolutionary ancient part of me is acting like I’m stuck in the primal forest. For me the innate survival fears of ancient rain forests have been replaced by a forest of human faces.
‘I have nothing to fear,’ I shout out loud, angry that I should struggle so much to get over this lifelong fear of people. All my plans, all my preparations, the study, the training, the endless reading, all the self development work and I’m still getting bogged down in the same old mire. Only a few weeks ago I was speaking in front of eighty odd people and now I’m left wondering if that was all pretense, like the postured pretense of an actor on stage, it was simulation - simulated affect, I say to myself. I think about the theories and concepts I’ve read, how the autonomic nervous system matures along with the developing brain in the first three years of life. How early experience affects the neural development of the brain and sets up the habitual level of autonomic nervous system reactivity, determining our unconscious approach or avoidance responses to both the internal and external environments. I accept that early experience becomes unconscious reactive expectation to both environments and how an organism will habitually respond. My own childhood Asthma illustrates such unconscious responses to internal environment as I habitually constrict chest muscles and the depth of my breath as a defense against an expectation of coughing spasms. I walk on feeling lost and defeated, telling myself that at my age it’s utterly hard wired in my brain and nervous system and I feel like abandoning the whole project. ‘You don’t have the talent to write a book anyway.’ I shout towards a cloudy sky.
I continue walking trying to get a feel for this unconscious protective urge inside me, remembering a weekend workshop on Hakomi Therapy, how the therapist acknowledged the protective power of a persons resistance to talking about his feelings. He asked the man to find the area inside that he sensed his resistance was coming from and to try to visualize it, then encouraged him to accept this as his protector. The man continued his mindful state trying to sense an image of this force within and came up with a picture of an old fashioned ogre. After a period of respectful acknowledgement of his protective ogre there was a very visible shift in the man’s posture and attitude, we all watched as his defences dropped away allowing him to approach his inner sensations. That was two years ago now and of coarse I saw the process and acknowledged it at that time, I’m aware of the possibility yet perhaps I hadn’t really felt it back then, only paying lip service to awareness.
‘Its is your protector,’ I say out loud, ‘your autonomic protector, your survival instinct.
‘Come on David,’ I hear myself say, ‘don’t stay in your head - feel it!’ Suddenly I drop to my knees as the old familiar shudder sends waves of unpleasant sensation down my spine.
‘My God!’ I shout out, feeling like I’m shrinking, like I’m dissolving into a pool of dirty water. I try to stay with the feelings, I want to know what this is once and for all, and an awful freeze sensation seizes my shoulders running down my spine.
‘How can this be protective,’ I shout out with this image of dirty water flooding my mind. I had thought I was over this stuff, it hasn’t happened for years now. A scene from my childhood came to mind, a scene of physical and emotional abuse that I could not escape. I’m not sure about the affect of the physical abuse, but the emotional abuse, the rage in his voice and the hate in his eyes; somehow they threatened me with annihilation more than his blows did. My innate animal instinct would have been to run back then or to show my own anger and rage, yet that would have enraged him even more, no flight, no fight and no escape so hence the first of my lifelong shudder reactions. What do you do when your nurturing protector is a predator?
‘Is this the seat of my defensive over reactivity towards people?’ I say out loud.
This thought has come to mind before, although perhaps I have never allowed myself to feel the depth of sensation before, and right now I can’t believe how strong this shudder reaction is and the awful sensation of dissolving to water is quite frightening.
Feigning death, I whisper to myself, remembering the evolution of the autonomic nervous system. This urge, this pulse of electrochemical energy, as neurons fire in my brain should follow it’s evolutionary path, as my nervous impulse is stimulated to produce freezing to the point of fainting. A vestige of millions of years old mammalian survival reflex, when faced with overwhelming mortal threat as mammals feign sudden death as the last resort to survival. We humans inherited the same nervous system capacities in the dual sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our autonomic nervous system, also known as the stress response system. Human responses like fainting are vestiges of the earlier mammalian response of feigning death through a sudden and massive surge in the parasympathetic branch, acting as a brake on the heart after high sympathetic activity. The parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is known as the rest/digest or conservation/withdrawal branch compared to the sympathetic fight/flight aggression branch, and in situations of threat it plays a part in a freeze/fight/flight/fright sequence of possible survival reactions. Being scared stiff is actually an unconscious parasympathetic mediated “fright” response, probably designed by evolution to present your body as a non threat or as dead meat. There is footage on the internet of a guy who has fallen into a large hole in the ground, a hole he helped dig to trap a bear. We see him flailing away with a bamboo stick trying to fend of a curious bear and of coarse the bear just bats the stick away with effortless ease. Suddenly the guy drops to the bottom of the pit and lies there motionless, leaving the bear with no active object to attract innate interest and in a short while the bear turns and walks away. How did the guy know what to do to save himself? Perhaps his conscious mind didn’t but his body certainly did and as Jake Sully tells us in the movie Avatar “you have to trust your body to know what to do.”
Perhaps I should have fainted that day, at the height of my fathers predatory behavior, I should have allowed the impulse to conclude it’s biological intent? Instead my response was the first of a lifetime of shameful freeze sensations. Musing about that day I suddenly think of the movie “Sliding Doors” and wonder what affect my fainting would have had on my father back then, and would I have been spared this freeze reaction that has haunted my life. Was that really the foundation stone of my prey like responses to other people, unconsciously sensing them as larger more powerful animals? I sit back on my heels in a prayer like posture, closing my eyes to feel the shudder with all it’s emotional associations to the sensation of shame. As it inevitably returns I shrug my shoulders violently to the left, impulsively shaking it off as I rise to my knees saying a silent thank you to this protective urge. For several minutes I sit there muttering silent tributes to this freezing animal instinct, with it’s clear intention to save me from a sense of overwhelming threat. I accept the unwanted freeze reaction as biology, an unconscious instinctual reaction to an unconsciously perceived threat, while looking around at the same time, physically showing my senses there is no threat now. I feel a calm start to return as my hyperactive nervous system slows, and I begin a deep breathing routine by deliberately tilting of my head upwards to overcome the wind pipe constriction of a head unconsciously lowered in shame.
As always with this deep breath work I feel an unfamiliar calm and increased sensation in my limbs, in my fingers and toes, my skin tingles as I sense an expanded awareness of the surrounding environment. I’m surprised to the point of mild shock at how tense my muscles have been, I let out a deep sigh realising anew that I need to constantly remind myself to relax this autonomic state. With my equilibrium returning I walk back home contemplating the experience and hopefully a deeper acceptance of my shame freeze as a biologically protective urge, one I should stop beating myself up about. Back at my desk though the blank look at the blank page resumes with my head lost in a reverie about mammals feigning death and innate affects.
‘Hello,’ says a honey sweet voice from behind me. I start to turn as warm sensations mingle with rising excitement and there she is, Sasi with the million dollar smile. I’ve never seen any adult smile with the whole body, pour popping sense of joy Sasi does. It rises up through the very fiber of her being and the affect on others is wonderful, transformative, utterly irresistible and contagious to the point of infecting all in her presence, she is such a joy to be around.
‘Hello beautiful,’ I say, gazing up at her, instantly transformed from a state of concerned thinking into an overall state of warm delight. Sally blushes at the intensity of my loving gaze and giggles.
‘Stop it!’ She says, changing the mood by frowning at the blank piece of paper.
‘Going well I see,’ she quips.
‘I can’t get started darling, can’t seem to bring it out of my head onto the paper the way I talk about it.’
‘Your avoiding,’ Sasi reminds me, ‘When I complain that your not here with me, you rattle of dissociation theory and in the process become present.’
‘Sure! I can tell you why I’m not present, because you remind me I‘m in that state.’ I plead to her.
‘Your nervous system activity is too high and your stuck in an unconscious and simultaneous active and passive avoidance trying to flee when you can‘t, which is why you spend half your life in your head.’ She was looking at me with a sweet yet demanding, ‘just get over it - will you!’
‘You forgot the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts,’ I tell her.
‘No darling! That’s why I gave you a pathetic look.’
‘Why don’t you dialogue it?’ She tells me, ‘Write it up as a conversation, like the ones you bore me with.’ Elation exploded inside me and I rushed to give her a big heart felt hug. Sally did a heel spin scolding me to write as she moved away, although the wiggle in her hips signaled delight with her intervention. Suddenly I was energized by this short interaction, like a little toddler’s re-union with their mother, face shining with delight as emotional energy is re-fueled. As Sasi’s footsteps fade I return to write without hesitation, I’m mobilized now, secure in my purpose, my thoughts flowing as my hand moves across the page.
So was it the friendly banter or the brilliance of her smile that transformed me, or was it the communication between our eyes that activated innate excitement and spurred me to action. When two people look into each others eyes, two brains communicate directly, there is a deeper level here, well below the level of our rather shallow externally oriented object perception. Pre-verbal regions of the brain signal each other directly when we share well attuned, unashamed eye contact. As we look into a persons eyes we connect to their brain state, and they to ours, well below thought, below the level of mind we communicate biologically, neurologically, electrochemically, a kind of brain neuronal eye-fi connection is established here. Consequently, prolonged gazing into each others eyes evokes the most intimate and intense emotional states known to human beings and underlies the magical, fused feeling known to lovers. Eye to eye contact transmit’s a preverbal communication at speeds one hundred times faster than thought, a thousand times faster than speech. More importantly for humans the eyes and the facial smile are vital for our health and well being, vital metabolism and immune system functions are aided by the positive emotional states triggered in such organic, systemic interactions, as positive affective states feed of positive affective states in feedback stimulation loops, those feedback fired neurons in your brain.
When the two hundred muscles of the face form a smile and eyes make direct contact a state of mutual enjoyment is aroused within, the temperature and flow of blood to each brain increases, allowing the vital metabolism of oxygenated blood and nutrients to supply our brains with energy. Chemical hormones are released in states of mutual enjoyment when humans smile at each other, and individual immune systems are enhanced by the simple receipt of a smile. Even more vital, the human face forms a third branch of the autonomic nervous system, the deeper layered mind below the mind. Without well attuned facial contact with other people, without proximity and touch we automatically fall back onto the more primitive responses of our tri-layered brain and autonomic nervous system.
Without good social contact we fall back on our freeze/fight/flight/fright survival reflex responses, like the shame freeze my objective mind had only managed to prolong until I accepted the reflex action as innate instinctual response. Whether angry or irritable, sullen or withdrawn, we are operating largely through the mind below the mind and our older freeze/fight/flight/fright, innate responses. This is predator/prey, autonomic animal logic; this is the autonomic nervous system which acts independently of our conscious awareness, well below the level of conscious control. The postnatal maturation of the brain is affected by and dependant on environmental experience, particularly our experience with adult human brains. Early experience sets the base line activity of our autonomic nervous system, establishing a sensitivity to threat which can be hyperactive in some. In the human animal, early experience establishes a level of survival reactivity, ranging from individual patterns of negative sensation avoidance, up to healthy group inclusion and positive sensation seeking. The range of sensations excited within a young child’s nervous system become the unconscious expectation of its responses to most of life’s events. These basic survival behaviors directly influence health and happiness and are little influenced by wealth or IQ.
‘Finished yet?’ says a familiar voice.
I deliberately ignore the sound and wait for a second helping of it’s wondrous texture, while privately bathing in the arousal of delicious warm sensation suddenly affected within me.
‘Darling!’ Sasi says, increasing her volume yet retaining an innate sweetness. Even before I turn to greet her I feel my sensations rise higher, a lightness fills me, a warm glow invades me with such positive sensations that words are inadequate as a true description. How can I describe how she sets light to this chain reaction of electrochemical activity, the neurons and nerves that now fire this changed state within my brain/body?
‘Sorry darling, I was thinking about innate affect.’
‘And who is she!!!’ Sasi exclaims.
‘You are darling, you are,’ I say, catching her perplexed look.
‘Your smile is one of pure innate joy darling, and the innate affect of joy is the instinct of your being that always triggers an instinctual, innate joy in me,’ Sasi blushes before asking me to explain further.
‘There are nine innate affects you see, instincts if you like, and innate joy is one of them, they are hard wired instinctive reactions to life, they are the biological flints that spark the whole range of complex human emotions.’
‘What do you mean - flints?’ Asks Sasi, squinting her eyes and wrinkling her nose.
‘You know how anger feels hot like fire, well a small number of neurons are triggered to fire inside your brain, which stimulates the emotion you feel as anger and then the history of your life and the current circumstances will determine how intense and how long that particular sensation of anger lasts.’
‘What happened to the flints?’ Asks my smiling lady, just a little sarcastically.
‘That small number of neurons are the flint, they fire for perhaps a second or two, then fire again depending on the external circumstances and your internal sensations, they are the innate affect that spark the emotion we call anger.’
‘An innate affect lasts for only two seconds? - Believe me when I do get angry its for a lot longer than two seconds,’ Sasi tells me.
‘I know darling, I’ve felt it and what I love about you is how pure your emotions are, they’re closer to innate, instinctual responses than any adult I’ve ever known.’
‘That better be a compliment or your in trouble,’ She jokes.
‘Perhaps in the future they will find better language for this stuff, how innate affect works through our triune brain and nervous system, how it’s triggered by feedback through the senses like the innate joy I sense in your smile - darling!’
‘The last bit‘s sexy, but the rest,’ Sasi says poking her tongue out in a simulated vomit.
‘I guess a feedback-stimulated-response or an innate affect, doesn’t sound very sexy, maybe I should invent sexier words.’
‘I think I understand a little,’ She tells me.
‘But what’s a triune brain and how are my nerves triune?’
‘Your brain has three evolutionary layers that stimulate three kinds of autonomic nervous system activity, passive, active and social’ I tell Sally. Explaining how neurons firing in our frontal cortex, the newest and highest layer of the brain, is currently stimulating our social nervous system, a third branch of the autonomic nervous system.
‘How do you feel right now?’ I ask Sasi.
‘Ok! - Why?’
‘Because the higher layer of your brain and the social branch of your nervous system are active right now and that’s why you feel good - I think.’
‘So?’ She responds.
‘Well if people can bring this knowledge into everyday awareness, they can develop better control over their behaviours, their actions and reactions.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Because you don’t feel the need to darling,’ I say.
‘When you were a baby, positive innate affects were triggered so often, that your nervous system is imprinted with an unconscious expectation of positive sensation, your whole body posture has a tone of joy about it which others unconsciously react to, your early life experience has become an unconsciously expectant reality, for you life just works.’
‘Wow! I’m not sure I get that!’ Sasi says.
‘Triggered innate affects and nervous system reactivity, unconsciously shape our reality, motivating everything we do like the innate affect of interest - excitement triggered in feedback loops between us now.
‘We’re just talking to each other darling, where’s this innate affect thing, I don’t feel that at all,’ She says, looking confused.
‘God your stupid,’ I say in a contemptuous tone, glaring at her. Instantly I notice a flash of anger cross Sasi’s face and almost simultaneously her eyes lower, her head drops and her shoulders slump in response to this forceful rebuke. I smile as broadly as I can and reach for her thigh, squeezing gently to make a tactile comment. She gives me a hurt look, seeking my sympathetic response, and I purse my lips and lower my forehead to hers.
‘That’s innate affect darling,’ I whisper and Sasi takes a deep breath before speaking.
‘I felt so angry, and something awful inside,’ she tells me.
‘It was the innate affect of shame, your not used to experiencing it in such a deeply negative way.’ I explain how I think she felt a rapid shift from happy social engagement at the highest level of brain and nervous system response. Instantly shifting down to the middle limbic layer of the brain as innate anger mobilized the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Then dropping down further to the passive layer of the brain as innate shame was activated through the parasympathetic, immobilization branch of the ANS.
‘But why did I feel shame like that?’ Sasi asks.
‘Because I’m someone you can’t attack or run away from, you needed a different type of response,’ I tell her.
‘I felt like a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs,’ she tells me, pouting her lips in mock hurt and amazing me with her simple, yet spot on interpretation of this instinctive mammalian response.
‘How are you feeling now?’ I ask.
‘I hate you, but I sort of get it.’
‘You understand that you had no conscious control over those reactions at all?’ I ask her.
‘I think so, but that shame thing felt really awful, like something got inside me,’ she says with an involuntary shiver that saw my old shudder sensation respond in sympathy.
‘You probably haven’t experienced shame in that way before,’ I say, ‘I used it in an unhealthy way to dominate you, I’m sorry darling.’
‘You bastard! - Why did you do that?’
‘It was an intuitive reaction darling, I couldn’t think of a better way to give you a sense of innate affect, I’m sorry it was absolutely the wrong thing to do.’
‘That’s the way it was for with you, wasn’t it?’ Sasi tells me, seeming to understand the historical context of my outburst.
‘So shame is an innate affect too?’ She asks.
‘Yes, and just like it did for me as a child, it created a sub-dominant reflexive response in you to limit my attack.’
Shame is one of nine innate affects, which are; interest - excitement, enjoyment - joy, anger - rage, fear - terror, disgust, dissmell, distress - anguish, surprise - startle and shame - humiliation. This form of description shows their range of intensity, except for disgust and dissmell which are a different kinds of innate affect. Innate affects evolved through millions of years of reptilian and mammalian existence, all the way up to higher primates like us.
‘I’m part reptile!!!’ Sasi shrieks.
‘Especially when your being a lounge lizard darling,’ I say with a smile and a wink.
‘What do you mean?’ She demands, and I explain how the reptilian layer of our brain stimulates the parasympathetic branch of our ANS to help us rest and digest, help us to withdraw and heal and passively avoid harmful situations. All our avoidance behaviours are stimulated in this way, under a generalised heading of conservation/withdrawal or immobilization in aid of the organisms survival.
‘If this autonomic thingy evolved through reptile and mammal evolution, why don’t they just call it the animal nervous system, I can relate to that,’ Sasi tells me.
‘Well it’s a bit more complicated than that, darling.’
‘Then un-complicate it darling! All these gobbledegook words like sympathetic, parasympathetic, hyper and hypo, mobilization, immobilization and conservation/withdrawal, just write something people can relate to,’ she demands, eliciting a nonplused shrug of the shoulders from me.
‘Why don’t you teach me more about innate affects, only try to make it a little less boring and more affective,’ she tells me, nodding towards the bedroom with a wink and a laugh.
Sasi has been asleep for more than an hour now as I sit up in bed thinking about how to write this self help book. Where and how to start and how to make it interesting and helpful in a practical way, I can hear Sasi telling me to cut out the gobbledygook. The thought of her makes me smile and I gaze at her sleeping body, watching the rhythmic rise and fall of her breathing. It makes me self conscious about my habitual shallow breath and I wonder what part its playing in my tensed concern as I worry about writing. I marvel at how deeply relaxed Sally is with the old “slept like a baby” adage coming to mind as I notice her hands, how her fingers are almost straight where they touch the sheet, while mine are curled up half way to a fist as if I’m ready for a fight. My legs are crossed and held tight against each other as if to stop me from running away. As I ponder my state our cat come sauntering into the room and watch her deep rhythmic breathing, marveling at how relaxed she seems, yet knowing she will be instantly alert to anything unexpected. I remember Sasi’s comment about the animal nervous system, "good point darling, good point!" I can feel my childhood conditioned muscle tension, my braced readiness to unseen danger, reflecting the early experience affect on my autonomic nervous system, it feels like its fighting itself. There is a primitive pattern of overactive sympathetic nervous activity, till I’m exhausted enough for parasympathetic rest and digest. Yet the rest is always inefficient as sympathetic activity remains high, holding me tense even as I dream.
I wonder if I’ve ever slept as soundly as Sasi does, if I’ve ever slept like a baby and I picture the early hours of her life, securely cradled in the arms of a relaxed mother. I think about that foundational experience, the first cry of distress and how it was soothed, I see it right now in the depth of her breathing, her relaxed posture and I’ve always seen it in the innate joy of her glorious smile? I’m reminded of her comment on Allan Schore’s book about affect regulation, how she likes the picture of a mother and baby on the cover, "you have no idea how crucial those first three years are, darling," I think to myself. How important the innate affects of interest - excitement and enjoyment - joy are to the early postnatal development of the brain and autonomic nervous system. How those early affective states, largely evoked by interaction with mother become lifelong personality traits.
The book cover of “Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self”, shows a mother and baby sharing a smiling gaze, as the mother affects a state of elation in her child. Positive, affective states like elation help to promote good brain tissue growth, establishing neural networks in the brain and conditioning our autonomic nervous system, and the foundation of our essentially reactive personality. I sit up straight and start my deep breathing routine, tilting my head back slightly, incredulous at how much difference this slight adjustment makes. It feels like the volume of oxygen intake is doubled as my habitually tight stomach muscles automatically release and my diaphragm extends. I laugh out loud at the thought of this conscious attention to what Sasi does without care or concern.I focus on relaxing my facial muscles, especially my jaw and the muscles around my eyes, I let my tongue go limp in my mouth and my lips automatically part as I relax more. All this reduces the internal feedback to my brain and my incessant thinking slows down in rhythmic tune with my breathing. After a few minutes I involuntarily stretch my limbs just like the cat and the feline next to me, yet there is simultaneous fear. Why does feeling relaxed disturb me, I wonder, why does it make the mammal in me feel expose and open to attack? I look around, physically showing my senses there is no danger here, then slowly I sink into the unfamiliar luxury of relaxation, a deep sigh invades me as I think of the years it’s taken me to find the clues to my autonomic nervous system state, to come back down into my body, no need to escape into my head anymore.