Saturday 22 May 2010

Botox and Being

I started to write this blogpost a few weeks ago, prompted by a post on Derren Brown’s site. A nap and a chronically low metabolic rate intervened, but I don’t want to let the post go because it’s an interesting subject. So even I’m a little behind the curve with this one, I hope you still enjoy.

Can Botox diminish your experience of emotion?

“Anyone going in for botox is probably gnawing away at themselves from within with repressed rage at unfairness of the passing of time anyway” offered Journojulz in the comment section.

The entry had been filed under ‘Interesting Theories’ by Abeo and he provided a link to Neurophilosophy blog which discusses an experiment done by David Havas of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, due to be published in the journal Psychological Science.

Our experience teaches us that emotional states go from the inside out – just observe how your shoulders slouch when you’re depressed.

But do they also go from the outside in – can a facial expression or body state contribute to an emotional one?

Broadly put, the point of the Havas experiment was to test whether the ability to experience emotional states was attenuated by the paralysis of the corrugator supercilii, the so-called "frown" muscle of the face.

The media may have, in fact, over-hyped the results - who’d have thunk it?

Here are some hyperlinks to the hyperbolae:

The Metro’s: Botox ‘could also damage your social life and emotions’,
The Times: it could ‘cost you your friends’
New York Daily News: Botox may kill your wrinkles, but it could also cost you your social life
More from them
... and the Express ‘How Botox Freezes Out Friends’

The paper itself (curses - I can’t get hold of a copy, but here’s a quote from it) concludes: that Botox “selectively hinders emotional language processing”.

But an article on the NHS website does a nice job of drawing attention to the experiment’s limitations and concludes:

Overall, it is questionable whether these findings … can be interpreted to imply that a volunteer’s emotional processing was different before and after treatment. What is more certain is that this study does not provide evidence that people who have Botox will lose their friends, as many media reports have implied.

Countering the calamitous, Botox has also been proposed in the past as a therapy for depression by cosmetic surgeons. The reasoning is the same: if you can’t express anger facially, it’s harder to feel it emotionally too.

Looking like a scrotum has never been one of my ambitions. But the reason all this interests me is not the effects of an incipient beauty therapy upon my relationships and social life (although all this Botox talk has made Mr. Jourdemayne suggest I get some in my jaw muscles) – it’s that I’m interested in the issue of the integration of body and mind.

The idea that your body informs your cognitions is not new. As most of the blogposts on this story pointed out, the notion has a distinguished champion in the form of Charles Darwin who wrote:

"… the free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it...[whereas]...the repression...of all outward signs softens our emotions. He who gives way to violent gestures will increase his rage; he who does not control the signs of fear will experience fear in a greater degree; and he who remains passive when overwhelmed with grief loses his best chance of recovering elasticity of mind.
These results follow partly from the intimate relation which exists between almost all the emotions and their outward manifestations; and partly from the direct influence of exertion on the heart, and consequently on the brain. Even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.."

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

The idea has been revisited regularly by psychological luminaries such as William James.

So to what degree are our minds dictated by our bodies – our psyches dictated by our somas.

Richard Wiseman’s ‘59 Seconds’ (p 182) gives a good account of Brad Bushman’s experiment in which he investigated the effects of contrasting behaviour - aggressive and contemplative - upon mood and recovery, after a frustrating experience.

Bushman’s results suggest that, no matter what your hippy therapist told you, acting out may not be so good after all. Management of the stance may lead to management of the sentiment. Who says a stiff upper lip is such a bad thing?

Paul Ekman is a professor of Psychology at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California Medical School. Probably his most notable claim to fame is the co-development of FACS – the Facial Action Coding System – which describes the combination of muscle contractions which produce expressions, revealing emotions.

Practical applications of FACS have included the observations of ‘micro-expressions’ – revealing and fleeting moments of muscular change before the conscious mind takes over to present a more composed fa├žade - and understanding expressions of pain in those unable to express themselves verbally. FACS has obvious applications in law-enforcement and Ekman has worked with the CIA and FBI, among others.

While Ekman and his co-author Wallace Friesen were going through the painstaking process of codifying each twitch, they reached the ‘anger and distress’ section.

“It was weeks before one of us finally admitted feeling terrible after a session where we’d been making one of those faces all day” he remembered (p 106). Ekman and Friesen’s expressions were dictating their moods; physiology was creating feeling.

Later experiments with a colleague named Robert Levinson confirmed the very real physiological consequences of pulling faces, as did a German study where people had to either hold a pen in their lips (impossible to smile) or between their teeth (impossible not to) while they watched cartoons.

I think there’s evidence that goes even further – that our conscious minds will work to create a rationale for the physiological feedback they receive.

In an experiment done in 1974, researchers compared the reactions of two groups of men to being given the phone number of an attractive researcher who had just conducted a survey with them. One group had only just crossed a fear-inducing high bridge; the other group had crossed the bridge but been allowed time to recover from any physical reactions such as a raised heartbeat. The men who were still in the throes of nervousness followed up the phone call far more than the calm group.

They, at some level, appear to have ‘rationalised’ their heightened physical state to attraction. They had misattributed their physical state.

Perhaps we’re really not as good at consciously establishing the source of our states as we think. Perhaps management of our thoughts and physiology is the simplest intervention in mood.

This is perhaps the key difference between traditional psycho-dynamic therapy and the modern humanistic approach.

So it seems that our bodies do contribute to our sense of self more, perhaps, than we are accustomed to thinking. Freud thought that: "The ego is first and foremost a body-ego. It is not merely a surface entity, but is in itself a projection of a surface."

In ‘The Disembodied Lady’, Oliver Sachs described the case of a woman who had suffered a severe neuropathy. Different nerve fibres serve different functions, and ‘Christina’ had lost the ones which provided ‘proprioception’, a sense of where her body was in relation to itself.

Sachs described proprioception as the sixth sense – one upon which we depend for an integrated sense of self, but of which we are normally unaware. We so take for granted the very concept of embodiment that it is hard to imagine Christina’s handicap in a way that it isn’t as hard to momentarily imagine blindness of deafness. From the more commonplace inability to balance without looking to the more abstract loss of sense of self (she described herself as ‘pithed’), Christina’s attenuated body sense affected her whole experience of being.

‘Blimey’, I hear you say, she gone a bit off topic on this one. Where’s the spells and the vampires?

But I find mind/body issues incredibly fascinating because of the dualistic models of many religions, their insistence that we are composed of at least two elements, one physical and one ethereal. (Of course, several religions have even more than two elements to being: the Ancient Egyptians had a Ba, a Ka, a Ren, a Sheut and an Ib as well as the body; Zoroastrianism has an urvan and a fravashi as well as the body).

Despite being one of the developers of empiricism in the modern era, Descartes was an adherent of dualism, regarding the body as a kind of machine. At least he allowed for the influence of the body upon the mind, traffic flowing in both directions. This was unusual at the time.

But Descartes would probably be surprised at the degree to which modern techniques and psychology have revealed that our bodies drive our minds, often without us even knowing it.

Which means his most famous utterance ‘Cogito ergo sum’ ("I think, therefore I am") has different entailments in modernity than when he created it.

Descartes believed that the mind interacted with the body at the pineal gland. The non-physical soul could act in this world through this connection with the body.

But what if we say, as many scientists do, that the mind is what the brain does. In that case, our thoughts are still the creation of a physical organ, an organ which is undoubtedly affected by other mundane physiology such as hormone levels, experience of pain and the subtle effects of arousal from walking over high bridges.

These two aspects, mind/soul and body of our being are nowhere near as discrete and inseparable as some traditional religious thought would have it.

Our sense of self derives so strongly from our body sense that I would be hard to see how we could survive as ourselves without our bodies. Would we feel ‘pithed’, like Christina?

If there’s an ethereal afterlife awaiting us, I think we can say for certain that it will be a profoundly different existential experience than our earthly one. It seems we are our bodies - more than we know.

* Dutton, D. G. and Aron, A. P.
"Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Thursday 20 May 2010

Sorry, Dear Reader, for such a prolonged absence.

It turns out that the remaining half of my thyroid gland (the other half retired to an incinerator in Hammersmith hospital years ago) has been, like an inadequately viagra’d octagenarian, been pumping away to diminishing returns. I’m glad the doctor spotted it (albeit very eventually) because I was starting to think it was normal to cry at adverts and regret waking up. Also, my arse had started to look like a reflection in a fun house mirror.

Oddly enough too, I became scared to leave the house without ventolin. I gave a talk to a lovely bunch of people at SitP Oxford, all the time wondering if I was going to keel over of hypoxia. It turns out that there may well be a link between asthma and hypothyroidism in some people.

My new familiar got the blame for the allergies/asthma (she moved in five weeks ago), and was on the verge of being sent back on the same broomstick she rode in on.

However, since the thyroxine dose has gone up (by a lot, BTW), the asthma, the extra weight & the bleak outlook have largely gone. In just three weeks! The cat has stayed.

So enough of excuses. The blog has recommenced!

Last night, a group of Jack of Kent's supporters went to Church House, Westminster for the announcement of the 'Orwell Prize' awarded for political writing.

For those of you who have been on Sabbatical to the moon, Jack of Kent was shortlisted in the 'blogging' section, along with Hopi Sen, Laurie Penny, Madam Miaow , Tim Marshall and Winston Smith

Despite all our crossed fingers (do you know, I don't think that works) Jack didn't win. But I know I'm not the only one who thinks he did brilliantly to get as far as the shortlist. Here are a couple of piccies.

Jack of Kent and Kenan Malik

Night Jack and Jack of Kent

BTW, the winners were:
Book: Andrea Gillies 'Keeper'
Journalism: Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday
Blogging: Winston Smith

New post on Botox on the boil - keep visiting. J x