Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ethics and Emotions

The connection between morals and emotions is surprisingly strong. As Joshua Greene wrote in his article, “How (and where) Does Moral Judgment Work?”, emotion is a significant aspect in moral judgment. There is now neuro-imaging and fMRI testing that can support the correlation and studies on pre-frontal cortex damage in children and adults is also discovering the connection between morality and emotions. Antonio Damasio continues his exploration into prefrontal damage by defining acquired sociopathy. Damasio talks about how when there is damage in the prefrontal cortex, there is also emotional disturbance on multiple levels: decreased emotional reactions, compromising of social emotions, poor planning of everyday activities, and poor management o human relationships. There is no disorder in perception, movement, conventional memory, language, and general reasoning ability, only within the social emotional behavior. Why is it that there is this onset of sociopath-like behavior? A section of the prefrontal cortices is meant for making social and moral decisions and also plays a part in acquiring knowledge to create morals. So, morals and ethics have a foundation in the neurological functions that are connected to the genesis of emotions. Like when Damasio was discussing Phineas Gage in his book, Descartes’ Error, Greene also discusses how people suffering from prefrontal damage have social knowledge intact, but are unable to use it within real-life situations. Their basic decision making skills become based on a logic that lacks emotional reasoning.

The amount of damage done on one’s emotional and moral connections also depends on whether or not the prefrontal damage was done during childhood or adulthood. Early prefrontal damage is far more serious than in adult prefrontal damage because children never learn the social and moral rules that they are violating whereas adults do have that knowledge. Adults are able to create emotional signals that can guide the decision-making process based on past successful experiences. Children do not have these memories to rely on, but both children and adults modify the settings of the network as a result of new experiences. Their social behavior becomes impaired because of their lack of moral analysis within social settings because the knowledge of moral norms is completely deficient within children with prefrontal damage.

As Greene says, moral reasoning matters within social contexts and findings within the world of social psychology support that. People evaluate others and apply stereotypes to others automatically based on moral reasoning. When someone is motivated to maintain a relationship and defend their ideas these will bias one’s judgments and help to motivate future reasoning. People are also willing to sacrifice material interests, time and physical integrity in order to defend their societal causes, principles and ideologies. Morality has the ability to promote cooperation and helping but is also capable of creating hostility among individuals and social groups. People are constantly challenging others’ values and ideologies to defend their own moral reasoning in life.

When looking at how those with prefrontal damage are unable to achieve moral or emotional competence within social situations, there is understanding to why they cannot succeed at life. If emotions and morality are connected and influenced by one another, then one cannot succeed in society without them. Morals have to have an emotional connection because we live so strongly by them and morals are created from experiences that we analyze with our emotions. The judgment that takes place within social settings is largely based on what “feels right” or not. How can that be recreated for someone with prefrontal damage? How can someone who has had prefrontal damage since childhood achieve a moral lifestyle? Is there any way to help their memories relearn moral cues if we cannot recreate emotions to support the moral judgments?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Moral cognition and neuroethics

This week’s readings focused on moral cognition and neuroethics. I thought that Greene and Haidt’s article “How (and where) does Moral Judgment Work?” approached the endless and repetitive questions of moral psychology from a clear and progressive prospective. They recognize that the historical view of analyzing moral judgments juxtaposed emotion and reason, and that this is unproductive. Greene and Haidt are continuing to advance the new field of neuroethics, suggesting that both reason and emotion are involved with moral decision-making, but that perhaps emotions engage in a more dominant role, which is opposite of traditional theories. They compare Damasio’s studies of Phineas Gage with more recent studies of similar brain damaged patients, referring to their inability to effectively use ‘somatic markers.’ Although these patients were able to pass regular IQ tests and showed knowledge of social/moral circumstances, they failed at playing the Iowa Gambling Test and their real-life actions proved disastrous. This shows what we have already learned (especially from Damasio): to know is not to KNOW (or act upon), information is not instinct. Green and Haidt write: “Their affective deficits render them unable to feel their way through life, which suggests that normal decision making is more emotional and less reasoned than may have believed” (518).

They also discussed patients with early childhood prefrontal damage who exhibited strong signs of egocentric, immoral behavior. They tested the same as adults except that their knowledge of moral norms was undeveloped because they weren’t old enough to learn and store that knowledge. Were the children’s actions more immoral than the adult patients? If so, does this have to do with the amount of stored moral and social knowledge? If it does, how does that work if the adults with prefrontal damage have the knowledge stored but do not use it—does just having the knowledge make them somehow less outwardly immoral—do remnants of their ‘old personalities’ seep into their everyday decisions even after brain damage occurs? This also raising questions for me concerning sociopaths. I’m assuming Green and Haidt are referring to children who literally had damage done to their brain like Gage, but what about strictly environmentally produced prefrontal damage—is this possible? Assuming that ‘true’ sociopaths come to be from environmental circumstances, do they develop prefrontal damage over time? What circumstances produce this outcome, opposed to other possible diseases and mental illnesses? Greene ad Haidt touch on this when they note that case studies of people who have exhibited violent criminal behavior have been abused as children and/or also have frontal damage. Damasio also touches on this in his article “Neuroscience and Ethics: Intersections.” He refers to adults with brain damage has having ‘acquired sociopathy,’ while early onset patients also have ‘acquired sociopathy,’ but combined with a developmental factor.

An important point that Hauser makes in his article “The Liver and the Moral Organ” is about language. We cannot forget the relationship between culture, environment, reason, emotion, and language. Hauser writes: “We are endowed with a moral faculty that operates over the casual-intentional properties of actions and events as they connect to particular consequences. We posit a theory of universal moral grammar which consists of the principles and parameters that are a part and parcel of this biological endowment. Our universal moral grammar provides a toolkit for building possible moral systems. Which particular moral system emerges reflects details of the local environment or culture, and a process of environmental pruning whereby particular parameters are selected and set early in development” (2). We must also keep in mingd that language itself has divided emotion and reason and morality, but it seems like what we are finally coming to realize, is that these three words and meanings are intrinsicly linked together.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Stress, control and well-being

This week’s readings focus primarily on the degree of impact environment has on both mental and physical illnesses/dysfunctions. To what degree can our emotional and physical well-being be influenced by self-control and environment? And to what degree is it predetermined?
Gross speaks of emotion-regulation and of how people manage their emotions. He is saying that we have the ability to regulate our emotions, to choose our ‘emotional battles’ for what’s better in the long run, and to modulate emotion to “optimize human functioning.” While I agree with him to a certain degree, ideally, I agree with Adler and co. in stating that emotional well-being is largely determined by our perception of control and resources available to us to alleviate our concerns.
Adler and co. believe that well-being is heavily shaped by environmental factors. Socio-economics have an alarming influence on wellbeing. It has been shown that people of lower socioeconomic standing and lower hierarchal positions demonstrate more “mortality and morbidity,” and often have less control and opportunity in ameliorating their situation. Education, living conditions, access to health care, levels of stress and mobility all have an influence on physical and mental health. Thus, poverty and social standing (which is more often than not determined at birth) can strongly determine a person’s predispositions.
It is not to say, that do not have different levels of emotions. Some of us, like Kabbaj’s rats, are HR while others are LH. However, he stresses, “Behavior depends on the environmental conditions, the stressor severity and the animal’s coping mechanisms,” (1010). In turn, our behavior often reflects and is exemplified by neurological blueprints for our behavior, in this case: differing levels of 5-HT, glutocorticoid receptors, decreased D2 receptors and increased D1 receptors.
Just as neurological activity reflects behavior in rats, they do so also in humans. The inability for autistic kids to rely on their intuition and their engagement in slow deliberation may be reflective of neurological structures. In Allman & co’s article, they found that VENS might be partially responsible for the defective intuition that autistic kids often have. They are found mostly in the right hemisphere and may be related to the right-hemisphere dominant social-emotion localization. Here, behavior reflects neurological patterns too the connections of ACC and FI might be irregular in autism).
In the Lerner article, facial displays of emotions (James, Ekman), subjective accounts, and physiological response to stressors are measured. Those who displayed fear had higher cardiovascular and cortisol stress responses, whereas those with disgust/anger did not. Control of the situation and level of certainty affected the subjects’ states (as in autistic kids and socioeconomic discussion). It is, "healthier" to be angry than fearful... (perhaps because one exhibits more perception of control than the other and many disorders are anxiety-based). Who knows.
Kandel discusses how psychiatry, since WWII, has been a “therapeutic art,” and has had little focus on biology. Our gene expression (not template) is highly influenced by life’s forces. Kandel stresses that all psychiatry is biological, resulting in neurological/synaptical changes in the brain’s structure. Thus, contrary to popular belief, genes and brain activity can be ‘learned’, be modified, and be susceptible to social and behavioral influences. Psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacology, together, change the patterns of action and level of neurological activity in our brains. Therefore, the marriage of brain science, psychology and sociology show promising advances in each respective field.
From anxiety to anger to autism to schizophrenia and depression, all behavioral demonstrations have a neurological and structural basis. We need not always rely on drugs, however, because conversation and other stimulating activity changes the nature of the neurological pathways. All articles reflect James’ idea of emotion in one way or another and explain the adaptive, biological drive for emotion and its regulation. Our ‘higher-order’ processes and (i.e. VENS) have developed in relatively recent years and have late emergence in phylogeny and ontology. These neurological developments shape our emotions and are shaped by our emotions.

Emotions, Stress, and Health

The topic of stress, emotions, and their impact on health could not have been more timely. As the end of the semester quickly approaches, stressors are unusually high and many may be finding their emotional thresholds to be wearing thin. However, if you have been able to overcome this emotion/stressed induced paralysis enough to process this weeks readings, you may find yourself armed with a useful understanding of how psychological and social factors affect the way we perceive things and ultimately our health.

Stressors that are for the most part universal are not necessarily interpreted in a universal manner. A specific stressor can induce different types of negative emotions from fear to anger to disgust. The study described in the article “Facial Expressions of Emoition Reveal Neuroendocrine and Cardiovascular Stress Responses” demonstrated that a stressor can evoke different physiological changes depending on how the stressor is perceived. Subjects in this experiment were given stress-inducing tasks. Their facial behavior (expression of emotion) was recorded and assessed using the EMFACS Facial Action Coding System. In order to test for physiological correlates of the stress induced emotions, data regarding the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis (by measuring cortisol levels in saliva) and cardiovascular activity were collected. As the authors predicted, the greater the individual’s facial response was of fear, the greater was the HPA axis and cardiovascular activity. Conversely (this is the part that may be of particular use this time of the year), HPA axis and cardiovascular activity decreased in the individuals that expressed anger or disgust in response to the stressors. In their discussion the authors suggested a future study investigating a possible relationship between facial muscles and the stress response system.

Although through a different approach, the article on facial feedback and race bias (which happened to be published around the same time) actually considers the relationship between facial muscle activation/motor processes and the way on evaluates a stimulus. The researchers sought to understand if different physical conditions could effect one’s evaluation of a stimulus. A very creative and impressive approach was taken to test their hypothesis. Throughout the process, subjects held a pencil between their teeth without letting their lips touch the pencil. Unknowingly to the subjects, holding the pencil in this way forced a smile. Using the concept of ‘the spreading attitude affect’ the subjects were indirectly conditioned. Ultimately, this study demonstrated that certain motor process associated with emotion and affect (i.e. smiling) can influence the way an individual will evaluate a stimulus. I am unsure why they researchers chose to use racial bias to show that we can be indirectly conditioned to assign new meaning on a categorical level. Are they suggesting that we should condition people to overcome racial bias?

The article on socioeconomic status (SES) and health provides another perspective on the relationship between physical state, stress, and health. There is a strong correlation between SES and health throughout the entire spectrum. The authors discuss factors that seem to influence this gradient. In this regard, I found the article to be a bit outdated. (The most recent article in their bibliography was from 1993 and I think our understanding of that factors are a bit different now.) The studies they used to identify a relationship between SES and health considered level of education and level of occupation, but did not take into account lifestyle variables that may accompany occupation (stress, time demands of job, effort reward imbalance, high demands and low control, adverse psychosocial environments –it is understandable how such conditions could induce a state of chronic stress and ultimately take a toll on ones mental/physical health). A number of issues that seem to be critically influential factors in this gradient were not mentioned, or only mentioned as suggestions for the future.

As the article on facial expression and emotion demonstrated a stressor can be perceived in multiple ways, and some ways may be healthier than others. I have spent this semester fixated on the concept of emotion regulation (or controlling one’s emotions). It can be very difficult to maintain a sense of reason when the stressors pile up, so remember, control your anger (and by control I mean make sure you respond with anger, not fear) it is healthier for you…

Monday, April 23, 2007

Response 4.22.07

This week our readings have shed light on human’s ability to regulate their own emotions, and also on the different connections between emotions and health, both physical and psychological. The first article about emotion regulation by James Gross was titled an “Integrative Review” because the author used the pages to stress the importance of the fact that emotion regulation spans many domains and is multi-faceted. First of all, Gross explains the distinction between emotions, emotion episodes, and moods. An emotion, in his view, is a fleeting feeling, generated by an emotional cue, evaluated, evokes an emotion response tendency, gets modulated, and becomes an emotion response. An emotion episode, however, includes “plots”, and “scripts”, and occurs over a generally longer period of time. They include all the events that unfold that contribute to an “emotional scene”. A mood, then, is a seemingly more relaxed, general state, subject to fluctuation. Gross describes moods as being “diffuse”, biasing “cognition more than they bias action”.

Because people spend most of their adult lives regulating their emotions, curtailing them to different social and professional scenes, Gross believes it’s imperative that we understand the intricacies of emotion regulation. Within the psychoanalytic tradition, there are two modes of emotion regulation: “problem-focused” coping, which is aimed at solving the problem, and “emotion-focused” coping, with the goal of decreasing the experience of negative emotion. Both the experience of emotion and their expression may be regulated, and both positive and negative emotions can be regulated. The process can be either automatic or controlled, for instance when someone has learned that in certain social situations or with certain people different displays of emotion are appropriate and others are not, and therefore don’t have to think about regulating them, but it comes automatically, perhaps through conditioned social cues. Gross describes in details the processes of regulation, which occur at different stages during an event. They are: situation selection, situation modulation, attention deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation.

These processes work to change the way people think about their emotional state, and also alter their expression of the emotions they feel. I think it’s important to observe that although we may regulate our expression of emotion, it does not necessarily change our experience of emotion. A lot of cases of depression and anxiety are due to the misalignment of emotion experience and emotion expression.

The Intuition and Autism article by Allman et al described the Von Economo neurons (VENs) which develop in a person between the ages of one to four years old which are involved in our early judgment/intuitive feelings of people and situations. The right hemisphere is specialized for social situations, and it is in this hemisphere where VENs are found. The authors of this article were specifically looking at the effect of a lack of VENs in autistic individuals, whose difficulties include impaired ability to interact in social situations. They believe that VEN development is impaired in autistic children, especially owing to early development period of the neurons.

Eric Kandel’s article “A New Intellectual Framework for Psychiatry” described the evolution of psychoanalysis up until the present, and the different stages and influences it has had since. Psychoanalysis used to have an aversion to neuro science because neuro science was considered to be faulty, and therefore a merger wasn’t considered to be a necessary step. The 1960’s were a turning point for psychoanalysis, however, with the use of pharmacological drugs in conjunction with psychiatric intervention. Kendal’s main point in the paper is to stress the importance of the union between psychiatry and biology, stating that he hopes that in the near future biological and psychiatric practice will so heavily intertwined that psychiatrists will be almost as knowledgeable about the biology of the brain as neurologists. He hopes for a “rapprochement”, where people will realize more fully that “all functions of the mind reflect functions of the brain”, and that there are critical biological explanations and underpinnings for all social actions. He also points to the misuse of scientific/biological information, which is also a very important thing to note.

The Alder et al article about socioeconomic status and health described the overlooked intricacies of SES, and delineated its multi-faceted nature. They described it as a major risk factor, especially when all its factors are taken into consideration. One of the main points made about SES and health was the influence of years of education on health later in life. “The more years of education, the lower is the ratio of observed to expected deaths”. Education is also a factor in the rates of disease. One possible explanation is the “drift hypothesis”, where illness influences SES, rather than SES on illness. This could be an explanation because when someone has a debilitating illness, it may hinder his or her ability to work, which in turn makes it harder to pay for proper health care. Another explanation is that SES affects biological processes that, in turn, influence health status. Along these lines, individual health behaviors also play a role, such as smoking, physical inactivity, poor diet, and substance abuse. The authors also took into consideration the impact of stress on SES and health, noting that generally people with a higher SES encounter less negative events that would generate stress, and also they have more outlets and means of dealing with whatever stress comes about. People with a lower SES generally have less access to social and psychological resources to cope with stressful events, and “thus are more susceptible to subjective experience of stress”.

Lerner et al also discussed the issue of stress in their article “Facial Expressions of Emotion Reveal Neuroendocrine and Cardiovascular Stress Response”. Looking specifically at fear responses and anger/disgust responses, they found that fear displays were related to elevated cortisol (a stress hormone) levels. In anger/disgust displays, however, there were lower levels of cortisol present. When an individual displayed anger/disgust when subjected to a stressful situation, the researchers assumed that the lower levels of cortisol, and lower stress level, were due to the fact that anger and disgust responses are typically associated with asserting control over the situation, thereby reducing the amount of stress felt. In fear, however, the stress level is higher because the individual displaying fear feels out of control of the situation, and therefore holds a pessimistic view of the outcome. In anger/disgust display individuals, the foreseen controllability and/or predictability of the situation reveals a more optimistic outlook.

Emotions and Health

This week’s readings addressed how social and cultural meanings interact with physiology and effect health.

The Neurobiological Bases of Individual Differences in Emotional and Stress Responsiveness tried to understand how the neurochemical substrates of stress effect behavior and temperament in rats. Rats were characterized as either high locomotor response (HR) or low locomotor response (LR) based on their behavior when encountering a novel environment. HR rats generally display more curiosity in new environments and are more likely to self administer drugs than LR. Although HR rats appear less anxious in new situations, they actually release high levels of glucocortocoids during these times. I wondered how the levels of glucocortocoids differed between the HR and LR rats, since it wasn’t made clear in the paper. Interestingly, after being socially isolated for a week HR rats behaved like LR rats in anxiety experiments, illustrating the profound effect of social support on stressful experiences. In general, I was very confused about the role of glucocortocoids in the differences in anxious behavior between the LR and HR. Do glucocortocoids directly regulate anxious behavior?

Socioeconomic Status and Health: The Challenge of the Gradient presented a correlation between socioeconomic status and health. Socioeconomic satus influences nearly every aspect of life, including physical and social environment, education, and health behaviors, which, in turn, affect the biological functions that determine health. Adler et al. also note that the SES gradient is highly correlated with the amount of psychological stress in an individual’s life. Individuals of lower socioeconomic status tend to have greater exposure to more negative experiences and also have less access to coping resources, and are therefore more susceptible to the subjective experience of stress. “Poverty, and the poor health of the poor, is about much more than simply not having enough money…it is also about your psychological interactions with society at large and how readily society registers your existence.” (Robert Sapolsky 1998; 307).

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Feeling of Feeling in Control and its Health Benefits

The overarching theme of the readings for this week is the body/mind connection. Eric Kandel discusses how social experiences influence our gene expression and the very concrete biological results of our gene expression dictate our behavior. James Gross describes the way that emotion regulation is not a top down process but rather a bi-directional process where a well-functioning body and mind fine-tune in response to one another, in the service of meeting an individual’s goals.

One issue touched on in a few of the readings that really caught my attention is the idea of “feeling” in control. This is a feeling we haven’t talked about much so far but the Lerner et al reading suggests that it may play a very important role in how we experience stress psychologically and physically. The Adler et. al. reading proposes that it may be a large factor in the SES gradient, influence our health outcomes. James Gross discusses the concept of emotional regulation, a mechanism for maintaining control of one’s organism.

Individual, interpersonal and cultural/societal dimensions of feeling in control are highlighted by three different readings: 1. The internal feeling for an individual of having an experience of a stimuli and a response to it involves processing responses effectively and being able to respond with her goals and intentions in mind rather than being distracted by her physical or emotional state (as discussed in the James Gross reading;) 2. the feeling in a social sense of being in control as in feeling like one is not afraid of someone pressuring them, that one is not at risk and has choices (Lerner et al;) 3. the feeling of control in a meta-social sense, in the sense of social status--being dominant in one’s social group and having all the necessary resources to see out one’s choices (Adler et. al). [I don’t know if these categories really work but certainly there are different aspects of feeling in control.]

Feeling in control may be key in reducing psychological and physiological response to a stressful situation, keeping in check the toll stress takes on an individual’s body and emotional resources. In “Facial Expressions of Emotion Reveal Neuroendocrine and Cardiovascular Stress Responses,” the authors look at differences in stress reactivity and find that stress is a negative experience that elicits different responses in different people, manifesting different physiological responses. They argue that stress may be more specifically characterized by sub-emotions--in this experiment, fear or anger and disgust. Those subjects who responded with fear were experiencing, they say, a sense of greater risk and of low control and showed more physiological signs of stress, higher levels of cortisol, high heart rates and stronger facial expression than those experiencing anger or indignation. As LeDoux points out, during stressful experiences “weak conditioned fear responses” may become stronger. People who have experienced fears in the past may find that, though unrelated to the current situation, these fears resurface when they are in a stressful situation. On the other hand, subjects who expressed anger and indignation assessed the situation as involving less risk, felt more in control, and demonstrated less intense physiological signs of stress. The authors of this study cite other studies where anger and indignation are correlated with appraisals of certainty and control. Feeling certain and in control in response to a stressful stimuli leads subjects to feel like they are experiencing less risk and so they exhibit less intense biological stress responses. For example, in situations where rats can control when a stressor occurs, they exhibit fewer biological stress responses. As LeDoux describes, the problem with experiencing the stronger stress response is that eventually having high levels of cortisol in one’s system takes a toll and lowers one’s threshold for anxiety disorders and perhaps other conditions. This is an example of Kandel’s idea that our experiences ultimately shape us biologically. In conclusion, the authors suggest future study into how an individual’s pessimistic versus optimistic evaluation may influence affective disorders and health outcomes. This ties these findings to the positive psychology idea of trying to identify what is helpful coping and understand how people can cultivate it.

In “Socioeconomic Status and Health,” Adler’s et. al. discuss the factors that may be behind what they call the SES gradient, the way that higher SES status is associated with better health outcomes. After thoroughly discussing the variables that should be considered and ruling out many, they theorize that “a broader underlying dimension of social stratification or social ordering is the potent factor (p. 1095.)” In the section, “Discussing Effects of Social Ordering, ” they discuss studies of animals in which biological factors that correlate to social status have health implications. They cite studies by Sapolsky, 1989 in which subordinate wild baboons were found to have decreased levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, which is a protective factor in coronary heart disease. Sapolsky has also found correlations between social rank and cortisol levels, gonadal steroids and immune function and other scientists studying an African fish have found similarly different biological development in submissive males. The authors conjecture that responses to hierarchical position may be genetically encoded and “hierarchical position may also have direct effects on physiological processes and neuroanatomic structures which may in turn influence an individual’s biologic vulnerability to agents of disease (p.1103.)” This fits with Kandel’s point that social interactions shape the brain, as social interactions may well be part of what determines genetic expression of traits associated with dominance/submissiveness.

Social status seems in some ways to be a very primal assessment and it appears that some of us care about it more than others. Is status assessed consciously and/or unconsciously? What are the mechanisms of how we make and weigh these assessments and how do they affect us biologically?

Adler’s et. al end their article by pointing out the complexity of intertwined factors involved but write” The concept of individual control over existing life circumstances, for example, might be a higher order variable that synthesizes or renders coherent a number of the factors reviewed here (p. 1006.)” They then conjecture that individuals higher on the socio-economic scale may have “more opportunity to influence the events that affect their lives’ (p. 1106) compared with people at lower levels.

I wonder about all the internal and external factors that contribute to these feelings of control in human beings. Do we feel in control so long as we can get what we want? Does decreasing our experience of “wanting” correlate at all to feeling “in control” ? This idea of being able to tolerate wanting so that in the end we can get what we want involves self-regulation, the way that kids who are able to regulate better are better able to wait for delayed rewards—two marshmallows tomorrow instead of one right now. Do we need to actually be in control in order to feel less stressed? Maybe we can experience the same benefits from thinking that we are in control? Are there things that we can do to enhance our sense of being in control?