Connection has neurologic roots. The Swedish neuroscientist, David Ingvar, using a CAT scan of the brain, found that a perception of pain involved both sides of the prefrontal area working in tandem. When emotional pain is repressed, I would assume the right side is more involved. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the right amygdala tends to swell when there is feeling (Primal Healing, 2006). Thus, disconnected pain is more active on the right side than the left.
It is as though there is a secret underground in the brain where messages are passed back and forth, but on the side that should be aware there is no recognition of them. So the right side “tells” the left side, sotto voce, “Look, I can’t take any more criticism. It means I am not loved.” And the left side says, “OK. I’ll defend you against having to feel so bad. Just don’t tell me too much. Anyway, I’ll twist the criticism by the other person, and make them wrong.” And the left side jumps in immediately and automatically as soon as there is a hint of criticism. “Don’t worry, my right-wing friend, I’ll keep those feelings of feeling unloved and criticized under control even though you haven’t told me what they are.” So the left side acts out the feeling; the act-out is unconscious because the right side feeling is not connected. The left is not yet consciously-aware.
We see this clearly in split-brain surgery (the surgical split of the left and right brains) where the surgeon will feed input into the right brain, but because of the lack of inter-hemispheric connection, the left is forced to rationalize a feeling it doesn’t even recognize. The doctor will feed something funny to the right side while the left laughs and concocts a strange explanation for his laughter: “That white coat you are wearing is very funny.” The fact that the left frontal area doesn’t recognize the feeling doesn’t stop it from manufacturing all sorts of rationales. In brief, the right side input is forcing it to create rationales, as it does in both meditation and neurosis where the disconnection is enhanced. Studies show that in practiced meditators there is a thickening of the nerve tissue in the prefrontal cortex (Lazar, et al., 2005). What this means to me is that meditation is essentially enlisting the thinking/intellectual area to help in repression. The subjective feeling may be relaxation but in actuality it is the result of effective repression. In other words, meditation is a defensive operation to keep feelings down. That is why taking a patient’s word is not always the best way to measure progress in psychotherapy.
When someone says, “You are wrong about this,” or, “You made a mistake there,” the left brain quickly says, “Yes, but the reason I did that was....” The feeling is, “If I’m wrong I won’t be loved by my parents. I must defend.” It is defending against the feelings on the right. “If I’m wrong I will feel useless, like a nothing, not deserving of anything. Not worth being loved.” That feeling of being unloved, I must underline, is already there! The trigger in the present lights it up and swirls the feelings again. One rationalizes because one cannot stand one more bit of criticism and the terrible feeling that it sets off. The left accommodates and does the defending without even knowing why.
Neurosis, in many respects, is a split-brain state. The essence of neurosis seems to be to concoct rationales for one’s behavior, which is driven by unrecognized forces. That is why one cannot penetrate elaborate rationales and explanations for other’s behavior. “Why should I give up drink when it always makes me feel warm and cozy?” said an acquaintance. He had no recognition of the constant tension he suffered. So long as feelings are hidden and repressed, the defenses must remain intact. When the insight/cognitive therapist attacks this defense, trying to dissuade the person from her ideas, it is a vain cause; he has neglected the split-brain effect, which tends to be literal.
Rush Limbaugh, the radio commentator, admits to taking strong painkillers over many years. His ideational brain and rather strange philosophies are anchored to feelings he’s not aware of. There’s no more use in talking him out of those feelings than it would be to try and change his whole history. It isn’t just that he has “unreal ideas,” it’s that his disconnected system forces him to both quell his pain on the physical level with drugs and to dampen his pain with a philosophy that may be at odds with his feelings.
In any effective therapy, it is the connection between the deep right limbic to orbitofrontal areas that will resolve so many of our problems, from anxiety, which is pain leaking through a faulty gating system, to depression, which is pain butting up against rigid, unyielding gates. Why? Because many of our later problems derive from experiences in the lower right areas that never make it to higher level connections. Rather, they continually do their damage on lower levels; chronic high blood pressure is one of many examples. Feelings of hopelessness in depression markedly raise a person’s likelihood of suffering a stroke. Bruce Jonas and Michael Mussolino report that depression is equivalent to suffering from high blood pressure, in terms of risk of stroke (Jonas & Mussolino, 2000). I have found that depression is often accompanied by deviations in blood pressure. They form an ensemble.
Preverbal pains are sequestered like an unwanted guest that we keep in the garage where we store undesirable items we’d rather not look at. What does get through is a vague sense of discomfort and malaise—the suffering part. The undesirable is knocking at the gates (almost literally) saying, “Can’t I come in from the cold and join you?” The system, however, keeps the gates high, implying, “Sorry, but I can’t tolerate all you’ve got to say. Let’s wait for a better day.”
That better day is when we are older, when the critical period is long gone, and we are able to tolerate the previously unacceptable. As adults we have a stable environment, are no longer dependent on neurotic parents, perhaps have love in the present, elements that allow us now to face our childhood. Meanwhile, the brain has done its best to block the feeling, providing detours from the right-limbic information highway heading upwards and leftwards. The blockage is not complete, however, because the feeling drives act-outs. “No one wants me,” becomes trying to get everyone to want her—being helpful, kind, unobtrusive, etc. The feeling becomes transmuted into physical behavior. The energy, which needs connection, has gone to our stomach and created colitis, to our cardiac and vascular system with palpitations or migraines, and to our muscles, making us tense. It may make us act meek and diffident as if no one wants us around. It causes an inability for males to become erect. What we try to do in our therapy is to allow feelings to go straight up the feeling highway to the right orbitofrontal cortex and then to make a left turn to reach their destination.
Connection is always the brain’s prime destination. If we only turn left and never go right, we will never make the connection. I believe the system is always trying for connection, but it gets blocked by gating. Because of the constant push to connect, feelings tend to intrude and disrupt our thinking—hence, the inability to concentrate or focus. Once connected, those diversions will no longer be necessary to drain the energy. The energy always spreads to the weakest link. “Weakest” means a vulnerable area or organ either due to heredity or to damage done earlier in life; a blow to the head in infancy may end up as epilepsy. A history of allergies in the family may result in asthma later on.
Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., Gray, J.R., Greve, D.N., Treadway, M., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B.T., Dusek, J.A., Benson, H., Rauch, S.L., Moore, C.I. and Fischl, B. (2005) Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 16(17):1893–1897
Jonas, B. S. and Mussolino, M. E. (2000) Symptoms of depression as a prospective risk factor for stroke. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62(4):463-471