Monday, July 10, 2006
The Freeze Response
Is there a connection between witnessing, classic depersonalization, and Taoism’s stirring up of animal-like behavior in the name of spiritual cultivation? Yes… maybe…
Two Cambridge University psychiatrists, M. Sierra and G. E. Berrios, have argued that we are “hard wired” for depersonalization. (Biological Psychiatry, 1998. 44: 898-908). To support their claim Sierra and Berrios offer two lines of evidence: 1. the experience of people with temporal lobe epilepsy and 2. the “evolutionary view,” which states that depersonalization is a “vestigial brain response” to life-threatening events.
I’ve already mentioned depersonalization and temporal lobe epilepsy. And I’ve already written about how neural circuits for religiosity seem activated during this disease. (See, June 4th post, "Artist, artifact and Aberration.") It is the second argument, the evolutionary view that I’d like to look at now. This view states that:
“…depersonalization is an adaptive mechanism that combines opposing reaction tendencies, the one serving to intensify alertness and the other to dampen potentially disorganizing emotion.”
This sentence brings to mind the first physiological study published on TM. It was discovered that TM produced a state of “restful- alertness.” This was viewed as new and rather paradoxical. “Alertness” reflects a physiology settling towards the wakefulness that is Pure Consciousness. The “restful”-ness has become the classic attribute and sales point for meditation as an anti-stress physiology. That is, meditation dampens the autonomic nervous system as measured by skin resistance (to an electrical current) and pulse rate. Curiously, it appears that depersonalization has a similar effect upon the autonomic system as it dampens the “disorganizing emotion.”
Serrios and Berrios point out that during the course of evolution, animals required two kinds of behavior during times of danger. One circuit linked the brain to the adrenals. This circuit sends an alarm that evokes the physiology of the fight or flight response. It cranks up the system for a shot of adrenalin. The animal was ready to either run for its life or fight to the death.
The medical literature is full of articles that describe how modern man has evolved past the fight or flight response. Today, most of the perceived threats in our environment: honking drivers, irate bosses, deadlines, etc. are not optimally addressed by either running away or fighting tooth and nail. None-the-less, the fight or flight physiology is triggered, as we stand there trying to behave maturely. What we get is high blood pressure, allergies, and a host of modern stress diseases.
What’s largely lacking is appreciation of a second neural circuit we have also inherited for survival. Sierra and Berrios argue that even in the jungle, fight or flight is not always the best response. Sometimes, an animal dare not move a muscle. Survival demands freezing: immediately. Don’t move, but remain very alert until more information is gathered or the situation changes.
So, there is another neural circuit responsible for the “freeze response.” This circuit is also our part of animal heritage and if Sierra and Berrios are correct, it is now used to create and sustain depersonalization. This is what evolution does. It takes an old neural circuit, changes it a bit and voila, we have a new behavior. So, from freeze response of animal evolved the human depersonalization. Now I wonder, from depersonalization can or are we evolving a circuitry for witnessing?