Neuroscience essays

1) Neuroscience essay – published in NAAP News (Summer 2011 issue):

Was Emily Dickinson a Neuroscientist?
Neurobiology: How It Relates to Psychoanalysis and to Our Sense of Being a Human.

by Inna Rozentsvit, M.D., PhD

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You are nothing but a pack of neurons.’” (Francis Crick)

Preparing for a talk, “Neurobiology of Destiny OR Neurobiology is Destiny,” a few years ago, I discovered a beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson, “The Brain”:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease, and You – beside.

The Brain is deeper than the Sea –
For, hold them, blue to blue, –
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For, heft them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

Through this poem, Emily Dickinson was able to transcend many bridges, and not only to modern American poetry. For many decades, even centuries, we “designated” neurologists and neuroscientists to be in charge of the Brain; psychiatrists and psychologists – in charge of the Mind; poets – in charge of the Soul; and philosophers – to ponder upon what it means to be Human. Driven to learn as much as possible in our specialties, we came to the realization that it is not really enough to be good in just what we are “designated” to do, and that to succeed, we need to cooperate (remember the Prisoner’s Dilemma?). That is how, despite all resistances, new paradigms have emerged in science and in all spheres of our lives. One of them was in drawing on the understanding of the neurobiological roots of everything – from politics, national security, trade, finance, and economics to memory and learning, our sense of “being a human,” feeling ourselves flourishing, “good enough” parenting, and “holistic” health.

In clinical mental health practice, learning about neurobiology of the psyche helps us to better understand ourselves and our clients’ conditions – including disorders of personality, intellect, self, attachment, emotions, social adjustment, sexual identity, reality testing, addictions, psychological trauma, and many others. So, what is neurobiology? When Sigmund Freud said, “Anatomy is destiny,” did he really mean “Neurobiology is destiny,” considering that our knowledge and our professional lingo had changed through the past century? Very likely so. Neurobiology is a collective word for all neurosciences: neuro- anatomy, physiology, histology, pathology, physiology, chemistry, endocrinology, imaging, psychology, as well as neurology, psychoanalysis, computational neurobiology, and many other disciplines contributing to our knowledge about brain-mind-soul interactions.

Another paradigm (or rather paradigm shift) had emerged in science and everyday life, from a desperate need of different professionals to learn from each other, to cooperate, and to engage in transdisciplinary explorations rather than in individual specialty-based research, or even in an inter-disciplinary (team-based) approach. In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote: “The historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, scientists during revolutions see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet – where familiar objects are seen in a different light, and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p.111). Should psychoanalysts worry that neuroscientists will claim an authority over “mind matters,” since brain and mind are so interconnected and since neuroscience has more “evidence-based” research? Definitely not. We should open our minds and learn from each other. Neuroscientists offer “broader views of behaviors that were previously considered entirely psychological in origin…(while)… psychoanalytic theory is challenged … to provide important questions for further research. … (T)here is no danger that mind will disappear” (Cooper, 1985).

2) Neuroscience essay – published in NAAP News (Fall 2011 issue):

The Neurobiological Basis of Thanksgiving, or Neuroscience of Giving and Receiving

by Inna Rozentsvit

“… (G)iving liberates the soul of the giver.” Maya Angelou

“Generosity is not giving me that which I need more than you do, but it is giving me that which you need more than I do.” Khalil Gibran

“Any act that I do for myself will take me to mortality and any small action that I do for others would take me to immortality.” Dr. Gururaj Karajagi

Were they special, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Princess Diana? Yes! They had giving hearts and generous souls. But what particular structure or ingredient of these hearts and souls would determine their superb giving abilities? Recent discoveries in neurobiology provide some answers: human brains (not hearts) are hard-wired to receive more pleasure from giving than receiving.

With the rise of neurobiology, functional MRI (fMRI) machines and their masters have become the heroes of our times. These fMRIs use a special (also safe and non-invasive) blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) imaging signal to provide a high-resolution report about specific and dynamic brain activities. The technique enables neuroscientists to look inside the normally functioning (i.e., not drugged or operated on) and interacting brain. Because of the fMRI-based neurobio-revolution, we know that “medial prefrontal regions … are considered essential for mental state attribution and self-reflection, [while] … anterior temporal lobe represents abstract social semantic knowledge; [and] only activity in the superior anterior temporal cortex … correlates with the richness of detail with which social concepts describe social behavior” (Zahn et al., 2007).

To summarize, fMRI technology helps us to understand our Selves, our behaviors, emotions, and social constructs. It has helped me, personally, to do so. During conversations with colleagues, I had proposed that giving is more pleasurable than receiving, and that giving-over-receiving is very natural to human beings. I was then “diagnosed” as being a “masochist,” a “pleaser,” or even having an “altruistic personality disorder.” None of these felt like an “aha” moment, but there was no scientific proof of my propositions at that time, until recently. Dr. Jordan Grafman and his colleagues from the Cognitive Neuroscience Division of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) used fMRIs on volunteers who played computer games involving receiving and giving, and earning money for real-life charities while doing so. When people received money, dopamine-producing areas were activated (the same as in drug-, food-, and love-craving situations), and this was expected. Some unexpected findings were that the “mesolimbic reward system is engaged by donations in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained. … Medial orbitofrontal-subgenual and lateral orbitofrontal areas, which also play key roles in more primitive [i.e., hard-wired] mechanisms of social attachment and aversion, specifically mediate decisions to donate or to oppose societal causes” (Moll et al., 2006). Dr. Grafman found that even when altruistic choices are made over selfish ones, more anterior prefrontal cortex areas are recruited; meaning that we perceive more reward when we give than when we receive! This is all despite all our previous assumptions about evolutionary “selective advantages of selfish traits” (Baschetti, 2007). Besides, giving activates some areas of the brain which receiving does not – areas of the “cuddle” hormone oxytocin, which is released when we are feeling attachment; it is also called a “hormone of trust.”

Neuroscientists from NINDS also discovered that when people were making decisions about high-cost donations, their prefrontal cortex area (which is also involved in decision-making and in moral reasoning) was activated. Since this area is not developed as much in other species, neuroscientists found this charitable brain activity to be specific to humans. Since the volunteers made all donations anonymously, the factors of mere reciprocity, as well as expectation or seeking approval or recognition, were ruled out. Their brains registered pleasure merely from the act of donation. Dr. Grafman concluded also that charitable behavior is a learned one, as it characterizes more evolved brain area (cortex), and this is why children (with their still-evolving brains) would usually choose receiving over giving (NINDS, 2006).

Another piece of valuable information came from the fMRI group at Duke University: posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), known to respond to goal-directed actions of others, is activated in the brains of people making charitable donations, which meant that “altruism is associated with an increased neural response to agency” (Tankersley et al., 2007). The pSTC area was activated the most when the volunteers were involved in “watching” sessions, where the charities were receiving the winnings (it was mostly true for those who do charitable work in real life). Thus, Dr. Scott Huettel from Duke University concluded that altruism might have evolved from a low-level brain task of attributing what’s happening to others, and from the perception of goals and intentions of others (Stimson, 2007).

The neurobiology of giving has just started to gain recognition, and I believe that we will see more of it in the years to come. So I am joining Dr. Grafman in the conclusion that giving and donating is “only going to support our own brain’s evolution. It’s good for the species – donate.”

“Life without thankfulness is devoid of love and passion. Hope without thankfulness is lacking in fine perception. Faith without thankfulness lacks strength and fortitude.
Every virtue divorced from thankfulness is maimed and limps along the spiritual road.”
[John Henry Jowett]

3) Neuroscience essay – published in NAAP News (Summer 2012 issue):

Neurobiology of Generosity

By Inna Rozentsvit

“The true meaning of life, Wesley, is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” (Nelson Henderson)

“One day …Bob May gave me some advice: ‘You never lose for being too generous’. I was impressed because Bob is a winner.” (Martin A. Nowak)


We live in generous times. Millions of dollars are donated to various social causes and to unrelated people, who might never meet each other in their life time. Are we hard-wired for generosity or is it a learned behavior? Is it contagious? Can we imagine it being pathological? It seems that our answers will differ depending on what we are, professionally and culturally (given that inter-personal and gender-based variations are taken out of equation). Overall, generosity is perceived as giving to others at costs to oneself.  As social philosopher Adam Smith stated in his greatest book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790): “How SELFISH soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Can this pleasure be pathological?

First, it is important to really distinguish generosity from altruism. Generosity involves more of the ability of sharing with another person some material and non-material possessions, and it is a social phenomenon; while in altruism, selflessness and putting the interests of others above one’s own interests are the most prominent characteristics, and denial of one’s own needs (which can be considered pathological in certain circumstances) is more feasible there. The earliest reference to pathological generosity (PG) in psychoanalytic literature can be found in Hilda Lewinsky’s 1951 article “Pathological Generosity.” As per Lewinsky, giving in PG originates from “oral and anal fixations,” as a reaction to “greed for love,” which cannot be satisfied through sadism, and as an “illusion of ultimate reciprocity.” She compares PG with unconscious technique of “homoeopathic magic.”

My search for neurobiological correlates of generosity and PG brought to light the following.

Studies of neuroeconomists Zak, Stanton, and Ahmadi (2007) and neuropsychiatrists Bora, Yucel, and Allen (2009) concluded that humans are “routinely” generous (while being generous means in their terms as “offering more than the other expects”), and that generosity is routed in empathy (by the principle ‘what fire together – wire together!’), and that it is an expression of their “human affiliative behavior.” They also suggested that neuropeptide/ neurohormone oxytocin (OT) is intimately connected to generosity, since OT significantly increased generosity in the subjects of their research. Those who had an infusion of OT were 80% more generous in splitting money with a stranger, in comparison with those injected with placebo. It is interesting to note that in the same study, OT did not have such an effect on unilateral (altruistic) money transfer. Although this type of studies did not gain “final” conclusion about all the factors involved in generosity, all interpersonal variations included “emotional identification with another person” (or empathy), altruism, and influence of OT (with OT being a twice stronger factor than altruism).

Another group of neuroscientists (Moll, Krueger, Zahn, Pardini, Oliveira-Souza, and Grafman, 2006) used functional MRI (fMRI) technology to investigate charitable behavior, which included anonymous material sacrifice while endorsing or opposing societal causes based on moral beliefs.  In this study, fMRIs showed that “the mesolimbic reward system is engaged by donations in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained.” This study also showed that the areas of more primitive mechanisms of social attachment and aversion (located in orbito-frontal areas) are involved in decisions of supporting or opposing societal causes, while the anterior portions of prefrontal cortex are involved in altruistic choices. As the editors of the Science Daily put it, “…‘joy of giving’ has an anatomical basis in the brain – surprisingly, one that is shared with selfish longings and rewards.”

Some of the recent studies do describe different sorts of PG, mostly related to impulsive-compulsive phenomena of “excessive and inappropriate philanthropy” in patients treated with dopaminergics for Parkinson’s disease, as in the study by O’Sullivan, Evans, Quinn, Lawrence, and Lees (2010), described in their article “Reckless Generosity”. Similar dopaminergic mechanisms of pathological (or “reckless”) generosity should be suspected in patients with various manic conditions, with out-of-control impulsive behaviors.

Overall, neuroimaging and other neuroscientific experiments in the roots of voluntary giving (generosity) and PG are still to find the golden recipe of this phenomenon, but today, we know for sure that it involves neurobiological pathways which process empathy, emotions, and social information, as well as primitive (or evolutionary early) mesolimbic (mid-brain) dopamine-based reward system; and oxytocin, the hormone of trust, perspective taking, mothering, and bonding. We also know from the same studies that generosity makes people happier. Maybe in return, the pursuit of happiness makes us more generous, as these two processes regulate each other..? This is still to be investigated.

4) Neuroscience essay – published in NAAP News (Fall 2012 issue):

Neuroscience of Empathy

By Inna Rozentsvit

“…in its’ arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” (J.K. Rowling)

“Let us treat men and women well;  Treat them as if they were real; Perhaps they are.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

In recent years, especially with the introduction of functional MRI (fMRI) technology, the socio-psychological phenomenon of empathy became the center of attention for neuroscientists. Today, everyone agrees that this phenomenon is pretty complex and that it should be looked at from a multi-disciplinary platform. Although this approach is the most efficient one, its potential downside could be the confusion of tongues between the collaborators of different educational backgrounds, with virtually imminent lingo biases. These biases include the general views on empathy as something very positive (which allows people to feel connected, supported, and helping others – by understanding what they are going through) or something controversial and even negative (as it can cause the “over-identification” with the client and be an obstacle in the analytic situation).

Empathy can be described as the ability to understand and to share the emotions of others, or the ability of putting oneself in the other person’s mental shoes, while there is a definite distinction between the self and the other during this experience. In the new MIT Press book “The Social Neuroscience of Empathy,” editors J. Decety and W. Ickes describe some perceptions of empathy as the “emotional contagion,” as “projection of one’s own thoughts and feelings,” and as a “fundamental aspect of social development.” Empathy is thought to involve not only emotions/feelings, but also observation, memory, and reasoning.

Modern neuroscientific discoveries show that “sharing of emotions of others is associated with activation of neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion” (T. Singer and T. Lamm, University of Zurich). Their research also revealed that although this activation seems first to be just “automatic,” empathy overall is not a pure automatic mirroring of other people’s feelings, but rather it can be moderated/ adjusted/enhanced or otherwise, depending on such factors as inter-personal relationships between the involved parties, adoption of the perspective of the other person, contextual appraisal, etc. They show that empathy involves “information sharing” (bottom-up information processing), perspective taking, and executive control to modulate one’s emotions (top-down processing) through very specific neural pathways that interact with each other.

British psychiatrist specializing in Autistic developmental spectrum disorders, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, proposed a new view on empathy as the measure of our human and social abilities (he even equates evil to “empathy erosion”). On the Bell curve distribution, a minority of humans will have the highest degree of empathy or the lowest (zero) degree of empathy, while the majority will be somewhere in-between. Dr. Baron-Cohen introduces another factor when evaluating the pathology of empathy, the “cruelty factor.” People with zero degrees of empathy, and cruel, are defined as zero-negatives (e.g. those with Borderline PD, Psychopathic/Antisocial PD, and Narcissistic PD). Those with zero degrees of empathy, but no cruelty (zero-positives), would usually be in the Autistic spectrum (like Asperger’s disorder). Their brains process information differently, and while these people are lacking social tools, their strength is in attention to patterns and details, which leads to giftedness and often innovation.

Neuropsychiatrists (like Drs. Baron-Cohen and Thomas Lewis) see empathy as a complex psychological process with different components (emotional, cognitive, metacognitive; biological and social). Insecure attachments (due to neglect/abuse), studied first in young delinquents by John Bowlby, are the environmental factors contributing to low/zero empathy. The genetic pool of young teens with conduct disorders/ low empathy shows low activity of MAO-A gene (as per Caspi). Other genes associated with low empathy conditions are: CYP11B1, HSD17B2, GABRB3, etc. Also, studies showed that higher testosterone levels in the amniotic fluid during pregnancy is associated with significant difficulties for these children (when eight years or older) in reading faces (which is one of the measures of empathy). Recent studies at Utrecht and Cambridge Universities also supported the idea that the influence of testosterone is responsible for low empathy states (and inability to “mind-read” the social cues in “normal” adults).

The neurobiological “center” of empathy was discovered with personality changes (not language/memory/reasoning, but severe problems with socialization and empathy) in the famous patient Phineas Gage (1848). A metal rod pierced through his Ventro-Medial-Prefrontal Cortex (VMPFC) (as later found with fMRI by Dr. Hanna Damasio and others) and changed his life forever. Further, neuroscientists discovered the whole network/circuitry for empathy. It includes the Dorso-Medial-Prefrontal Cortex (DMPFC), Orbito-Frontal Cortex (OFC), Anterior Insula (AI), Somato-Sensory Cortex (SMC), and others. With the help of fMRI again, they found that in personality disorders, empathy circuits are underdeveloped or low-functioning. From the neurobiological perspective, empathy is a process, which involves covert modeling (of the feelings/suffering of others), as well as imaginative projection (located in Posterior-Superior Temporal Sulcus, PSTS) via the “mind’s eye” through space/time/identity, which allows later taking the perspective of “another.”  Empathy also involves the ability of adjusting the balance between self and others (through frontal cognitive areas).

Empathy is also an evolutionary and a social process. Studies on monkeys who refused to pull the chain (associated with availability of food) when they had learned that it was also associated with pain induced to other members of the group, speaks volumes… In one of his lectures, Dr. Baron-Cohen said: “Empathy can save the world.” I agree. Otherwise, as Mark Twain said once, “By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity – another man’s I mean.”

5) Neuroscience essay – published in NAAP News (Winter 2012 issue):

Neurobiology, Creativity, Madness, and Their Vicissitudes 

by Inna Rozentsvit

If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman. ~ Plato

The phenomenon of creativity has always puzzled humanity. Historically, reactions to creativity have run through a wide gamut of emotions (everything from envy to awe) and behaviors (from witch-hunts to naming cities, universities, and even generations after a creative soul). People of various social, economic, educational, and professional backgrounds have tried to find the ingredients that make a person creative. What do we know about this so far?

Looking through the literature published in the mental health field, we’ll find a lot of associations between creativity and “madness.” And it is true that creative “madness” has become a norm, an attribute of many great creative minds.  Just to recall a few are Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Byron, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Vincent Van Gogh. Lord Byron once said, “We of the craft are all crazy.”  Creative “madness” is very much cherished by many creative minds themselves, as it is adored and romanticized by the rest of us. When “under the influence” of creativity of another, we sometimes feel “mad” ourselves.  Just listen to Robert Schumann, read Virginia Woolf, or watch Charlie Sheen! Although psychoanalysts are puzzled and fascinated by creative minds, many creative minds try to stay away from psychoanalysts, and for one simple reason: they do not want to be “normal,” lose their creativity, and become “dull and boring.” Can they really lose creativity?  What can neuroscience tell us about it and about creativity in general?

First, we need to define creativity, to eliminate confusion of tongues. Scientists dedicated to the field of creativity define it as production of something novel/original/unexpected, and which is useful/adaptive/appropriate (for the task) (Feist, 1998); and it is “grounded in ordinary mental processes” (Boden, 1998; Dietrich, 2004; Ward et al., 1999; Weisberg, 1993). In recent years, some groups of neuroscientists (Kaufman et al., 2011) looked into de-constructing the creativity puzzle by evaluating the creativity of “non-human animals.” They insist that there is a 3-level model of creativity for all. The first level represents recognition of novelty (as a cognitive ability, based on hippocampal functions) and novelty seeking (based on dopamine system’s function). The second level is called observational learning, which includes a wide range of activities ranging from imitation to the “cultural transmission of creative behavior.” This level depends on cerebellar and cortical functions. The third level is the innovative behavior, which relies on the pre-frontal cortex and/or a balance between the right and left hemispheres (and not right hemispheric preference as it was assumed in the past). Kaufman et al. (2001) proposed an interesting view of the levels of creativity process as a spectrum rather than a hierarchy. This means that mastering each level is not necessary to achieve creativity.

With the help of new imaging techniques (like Positron Emission Tomography (PET), Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT), and functional MRI (fMRI)), neuroscientists have finally abandoned the theory of “brain centers” for a newer model of neural circuitry and relays. They determined that the prefrontal cortex is the main relay for creative thinking, and not a “seat for creativity,” as it was suggested in the pre-functional imaging era (Camfield, 2005). Neuroscientists utilize other modes of investigation, like electroencephalography (EEG) and evaluation of personality traits (e.g., “Openness to Experience” scales), as well as looking into patterns of heightened visual creativity (or at-new appearance of creativity) in people diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) (Camfield, 2005).

Advances of cognitive neuroscience led to discoveries that novelty is generated through (1) deliberate or (2) spontaneous modes of thought, which involve (3) emotional and/or (4) cognitive types of information. Combinations of (1) or (2) modes of thought with (3) or (4) types of information produce four basic types of creativity: 1) deliberate mode-cognitive structures (relies on knowledge and “nimble” prefrontal cortex); 2) deliberate-emotional (instigated by “frontal attention network,” but using memory stored in emotional structures, like amygdala, cingulate cortex, and other, more complex structures); 3) spontaneous mode-cognitive structures (often produces the “Eureka” experience, originating from insights from associative unconscious thinking, and involves basal ganglia); and 4) spontaneous-emotional (produces epiphany/revelations/religious experiences) (see Dietrich, 2004).

It is suggested that there are no “pure” types, and in most people, creativity represents a mix of the four. In the meantime, it seems that insights gained during psychotherapy session are best represented by the deliberate mode-emotional structures type. We can postulate that insights based on deliberate mode of operation in relation to structures of basic emotions (e.g., amygdala) are limited, and probably represent our psychic defenses. In the meantime, there is no limitation of deliberate direction of neural processing from prefrontal cortex to more complex (social) emotions. This involves taking in consideration personal and societal values, and possibly represents the super-ego mechanisms of neural processing.

The spontaneous mode-cognitive structures type of creativity presented itself when Newton watched an apple fall and discovered gravity. It presented itself when Einstein imagined himself on a ray of light and came up with the theory of relativity. This type of creativity is known to drive “thinking outside of the box” and “creative thinking,” which itself is utilized for impasse situations by “relaxing the constrains,” whereupon one would remove the problem from the conscious process to allow the subconscious and unconscious neural processes to drive the solutions to consciousness as “pop-up” ideas (Dietrich, 2004).

Of course, all of us can imagine the spontaneous mode-emotional structures type of creativity as being represented in the arts and literature; e.g., in William Blake’s: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright…,” or Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” or Maurizio Cattelan’s contemporary art images shown recently at the Guggenheim Museum. When emotional structures are activated, they bring to consciousness signals (memories) that were impressive to our body in the past. This in turn activates the need for creative expression, which is not domain-specific, and does not require any specific knowledge, though it might require skills (painting, music-writing, etc.). It seems that people who utilize mostly this type of creativity feel this connection to “madness” (or emotional imbalance), which brings them (or not) to a psychotherapeutic situation. Mild-to-severe psychopathology (depression, bipolar disorders, addictions, personality disorders) is observed in 25-31% of composers, 30-38% of painters, and 30-35% of writers, in comparison with 7-10% of controls (Andreassen, 2006; Jamison, 1993; and Post, 1994). “Creative rush” known to people with this type of creativity display symptoms similar to hypomanic state: hyperactivity, hyper-ideation, loose associations, hyper-concentration, pressured speech, etc. (Everitt & Robbins, 2005; Tobena, 2006). This is understandable because we know today that the creative drive is fueled through the dopaminergic system (as are hypomanic states), and it can be related to abnormalities in the temporal area (anatomically). Inversely, creative blocks are related to low dopamine drive and/or dysfunction in the frontal lobe (Flaherty, 2005). Further investigation of this type of creativity (spontaneous mode-emotional structures) will possibly bring us closer to understanding early object relations, which are also based on spontaneous circuitry (like Bion’s linking) involving basic emotional memories and our bodily and psychic reactions to them. Although neuroscientists make significant advances in building the “database” for creatologists, transdisciplinary explorations (including psychoanalysis) are required, including psychoanalysis, to complete the task.

6) Neuroscience essay – published in NAAP News (Spring 2013):

Neurobiology of parenting: Love at or before first sight?

by Inna Rozentsvit

Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it. Because if one thing goes wrong or anything goes wrong, and usually something goes wrong, then you are compromised as a human being. You’re going to trip over that for a good part of your life.” – Maurice Sendak

How much do parents matter in child’s life? What roles do they play? Is it enough just to have two fairly good human beings as parents for any particular child not to be “compromised,” as Maurice Sendak put it? If parents do matter – does their innate (genetic) or their ‘environmental’ (interaction-based) influence matters the most (in terms of same-old nature-nurture dilemma)?

Ronald Fairbairn, Harry Guntrip, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Rene Spitz, and Rolando Toro (just to name a few) would not be considered immediate collaborators, but this group has one uniting identifier: they understood (each in their own way) that one’s genetic pool gets excited, turned on and off, and modified by interaction with the “other”. In the first months and years of our lives that “other” is/are our parent(s). Winnicott (1958) famously said that “there is no such thing as a baby”, and also that the baby only would know about him/herself by looking in the mother’s eyes like in the mirror, and finding his/her reflection there.

John Bowlby’s attachment theory was “a new type of instinct theory” (Bowlby, 1969) – theory of relational bonds as a primary human instinct (Schechter et al, 2009). Attachment is not the same as “bonding”. Attachment describes the “secure base” function of the parent, which is not the same and not substituted by the parents’ role as caregivers, playmates,  teachers, or disciplinarians. The function of attachment is being “activated” when child’s feeling of security is threatened by pain, trauma, illness or any other threat or fright. Child develops a behavioral response to each particular caregiver depending on the caregiver’s way of responding to child’s need for protection; and by age of 6 months, there can be identified one of these four responses:

Quality of caregiving Child’s Strategy Type of attachment Psychological Problems
 Sensitive,Loving OrganizedSecureProtective against them!
 Insensitive,Rejecting OrganizedInsecure-avoidantAdjustment problems
Insensitive,Inconsistent OrganizedInsecure-resistantSocial & Emotional disorders
 Atypical,Atypical DisorganizedInsecure-disorganizedMore severe psychopathology

[Note that: A) ‘organized’ means predictable by the child; B) ‘atypical’ means “frightened, dissociated, sexualized or otherwise atypical”(Lyons-Ruth et al., 1999); C) most ‘atypical’ caregivers has some sort of unresolved mourning, trauma, or abuse; D) disorganized behavior looks ‘bizarre or contradictory’ – the source of the child’s security is also the source of his/her frustration and fear.]

Today we know that attachment is a powerful predictor of the child’s future emotional and social well-being (Benoit, 2004). Sensitive and loving caregiving fosters “organized and secure” attachment, which serves as a protective factor from socio-emotional problems further in life. About 40% of general population display insecure attachment patterns (such as avoidant and resistant), and this explains the enormous amount of people who develop adjustment disorders and socio-emotional problems by their teenage years. Also, about 15%  of children from “typical” and 85% from “atypical” caregiving environments display bizarre and hostile behaviors by age five; dissociative and internalized symptoms by mid-childhood; and severe psychopathology later in life.

Fairly recent series of animal studies (which used at least two different types of trauma in early life) proved that early-age abuse (especially from parents) causes social behavioral dysfunction in early life and depression in adolescent life. If early stress happens in unpredictable manner, this causes heightened anxiety rather than depression, while brain pathology shows abnormal development of the amygdala (set of subcortical nuclei involved in processing emotions and affective behaviors; a part of the limbic system) (Raineki et al., 2012). Parental rejection (especially paternal) is a focus of the International Father Acceptance Rejection Project, which discovered that rejection activates the same areas in the brain as physical pain, however “unlike physical pain, … people can psychologically re-live the emotional pain of rejection over and over for years” (Rohner, 2012).

Functional MRI studies (which visualize neuro-structural changes even without measurable behavioral ones)  showed that interacting networks and pathways of hippocampus, amygdala, insula, and orbito-frontal cortex are involved in maternal behaviors (Leckman, 2002; Leibenluft, 2004; Nitschke, 2004). In the mean time, electrochemical reactions of parental behaviors involve neurotransmitters and hormones, such as oxytocin, prolactin, vasopressin, kisspeptin, cortisol, and serotonin (Basten, 2009; Nelson, 1998). Oxytocin is increasingly produced in the woman’s brain when pregnancy is coming to term. It is a very unusual hormone; scientists believe it is responsible for developing trust, ability to love (unconditionally) and for loyalty to one’s mates. Animal studies suggest that it plays role in social behaviors, in raising babies, and in sustaining long-term relationships. In some women, oxytocin produces an euphoric state, despite the pain and the hard work of labor.

Fathers also get a boost of oxytocin when they interact with their babies. Mammalian studies showed that paternal care (assistance with birth, thermoregulation, licking, protecting, food sharing) promotes their babies’ survival and growth (Zeigler et al., 2004). These paternal care behaviors are related to previous parental experience and to hormonal changes (high prolactin, testosterone, and cortisol levels) way before their babies are born (Zeigler, 2000; Schradin & Anzenberger, 2002). So, taking a leap of faith, we can say that  fathers feel love to their babies before first sight, as the flow of loving connectedness in the mother-child unit changes their mind and their being – another proof that mind-to-mind connections shape minds!

7) Neuroscience essay – published in NAAP News (Fall 2013 issue):

Not Guilty by Reason of Brain Damage? Neurobiological Underpinnings of Violence

– by Inna Rozentsvit

“The Roots of Violence: Wealth without work, Pleasure without conscience, Knowledge without character, Commerce without morality, Science without humanity, Worship without sacrifice, Politics without principles.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

When Noam Chomsky said, “See, people with power understand exactly one thing: violence,” was he correct?  Is it about power? Actually, violence and aggression are two phenomena that became a part of our daily social and professional life. That is why understanding the neurobiological origins and the mind-brain interactions related to these is so important.

The consensus of one of the multi-disciplinary  conferences  involving experts in neurology, psychiatry, neuropsychology, trauma surgery, nursing, evolutionary psychology, ethics, and law (Aspen Neurobehavioral Conference in  2001) stated that: 1) Aggression can be adaptive, but violence is an aggressive act characterized by the unwarranted infliction of physical injury; 2) Violence can result from brain dysfunction, although social and evolutionary factors can contribute; 3) Neurobiological findings in violent brains are: frontal lobe circuit dysfunction, altered serotonin metabolism, and heredity.

Our brain, the material construct of our mind,  works as a powerful electro-chemical network-based organ, which is amenable to changes, positive and negative, because of its main three mechanisms – neuroplasticity (a life-long process triggered by constant changes in our external and internal environment), biofeedback (works on 24/7 schedule), and neurointegration (very much based on the “wire together, fire together” concept).

The frontal lobes  (especially the orbitofrontal cortices ) normally act to regulate (or put the “lid” on, as Hughes and Baylin, 2012 put it) our limbic impulses (mainly from the amygdalae, which is involved in processing memories and emotional reactions like fear and pain). Another brain structure, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), is important in recruiting other brain regions in response to conflict (Davidson,  Larson, & Putnam, 2000).

Violence can occur as a result of a dysfunction of the fronto-ACC-limbic network related to aggression and its regulation – when the “bottom-up” drives from the amygdalae cannot be tamed by the “top-down” processes from the frontal lobes and related structures (Craig et al., 2009; Hoptman et al. 2002; Siever, 2008; Voineskos et al., 2010).

Brower & Price (2001) found that frontal lobe lesions were associated with a 10% increased risk for violence and criminality in comparison with the rest of the population. Penetrating (like in the famous 1848 case of Phineas Gage) and non-penetrating traumatic brain injury (TBI) and dementia (especially fronto-temporal dementia, FTD) are associated with an increased risk of violence.

Another interesting finding is about the right brain pathology, which  is associated with loss of moral behavior and affiliative traits such as warmth and empathy (especially  in FTD) (Sollberger et al., 2009), and sociopathic behavior (Mendez, 2010).

Today, we can distinguish two types of violence: a) affective, impulsive, and  purposeless, which is typical of acquired sociopathy (as in the famous case of Phineas Gage) and related to orbitofrontal injury seen on structural imaging (Brower and Price, 2001); and b) predatory, premeditated, and  instrumental – this is typical of antisocial personality disorder and  is associated with orbitofrontal and amygdala dysfunction (Glenn and Raine, 2008).

Raine et al. (1998) studied 9 affective murderers, 15 predatory murderers, and 41 normal controls with PET scans. Both types of murderers had increased activity in the right amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, and midbrain, but only affective murderers had decreased prefrontal cortical activity. The study showed that right limbic activation produced negative affect: Affective murderers have little control and act impulsively; predatory murderers exert control and commit premeditated murder. Later studies also supported dysfunction of the right hemisphere.

Regarding the role of neurotransmitters – we know now that serotonin inhibits violence, and catecholamines (like dopamine and norepinephrine) may enhance it (New et al. , 2004). Dopamine and other dopamine-agonists (used in treatment of Parkinson’s disease) can trigger pathological gambling, aggression, and hyper-sexuality (Driver-Dunckley et al. , 2003). Testosterone may influence aggressiveness, but it is rather associated with dominance (Glenn & Raine, 2008).

Some violent people have impaired impulse control because of altered brain functions (in frontal lobe- limbic system circuits), and they are unable to act by the rules they have learned. Sapolsky (2004) even suggests that in cases of violent crime, the insanity defense – not knowing right from wrong – should be expanded to consider the possibility of impaired volition (Filley et al., 2001).

Should we consider the defense “My amygdala did it?” This is still open for discussion.