Even his pulse was impulsive. — Mike Baldwin
Satiating impulses is an anxious brain’s way of feeling assuaged as it seeks pleasurable reinforcement and assurance of survival. Symbolic or “synthetic” forms of achieving spontaenous feelings of control (e.g., pathological gambling, impetuous shopping, eating, trichotillomania, substance use, kleptomania, and excessive internet use) are often pursued to increase arousal while avoiding the vulnerability of intense anxiety. In fact, the reward centers of the brain that innervate pleasure-based neurotransmitters (dopamine, glutamate, opioid peptides) are the same neuronal pathways innervated during all impulsive (unplanned reactivity) or compulsive (repetitive and ritualistic) behaviors. In addition, deep-seated memory associations galvanize urges and involve a complex interaction between biology and the environment. To make matters even more complicated, the multifarious bells and whistles of modernity easily allow for the development of impulsive propensities to be externally stimulated. Consequentially, what keeps dysfunctional behaviors locked in a holding pattern are dissociative features that become engaged when cues for stress reach a certain threshold. A spaciotemporal discontinuity (dissociative event) emerges prior to impulsiveness when the brain’s capacity to feel good is no longer concerned about the long-term prosperity of the body. In other words, the body’s role in pleasure-seeking behavior is only a means to an end, and whatever happens during the period of indulgence is simply collateral damage.
From a neuroanatomical perspective, the brain’s inferior frontal gyrus turns out to be quite inferior when it comes to deterring impulse control—as opposed to its prefrontal cortex counterpart. Furthermore, poor governing in the cortical regions of the brain may result in “striatal recklessness.” Not surprisingly, studies have shown that children who demonstrate low aptitudes for delayed gratification tend to exhibit impulse-control problems in adulthood, and biological propensities for developing pathological impulsivity are invariably manifested given the right environmental triggers. Other forms of psychometric research based on self-report have been used to assess biological, psychological, and behavioral correlates in adults.*
In order to course correct for high levels of behavioral temerity requires what has been described by philosophers of embodiment as a phenomenological vector.¹ A phenomenological vector is basically some culturally available stimuli that allows one’s behavior, embodiment, and sense of self in relation to others to shift. Positive feedback loops, just like negative feedback loops, depend on environmental reinforcements. Acknowledgment of maladaptive behavior is necessary, but not sufficient. Acceptance, however, should be an action rather than just a realization. Unfortunately, the symbolic remediation of a former trauma through impulsive or compulsive behavior can be alluring when attempting to mitigate the impact of conflicting emotions in the wake of cognitive dissonance (e.g., compensatory adaptation for loss aversion). However, the price paid for succumbing to the seduction of false empowerment is an opportunity cost incurred in lieu of authentic empowerment. After all, unabashed self-indulgence is eventually confronted by the law of diminishing returns.
A mind in the grip of impulsivity or compulsivity is preoccupied with moving towards pleasurable reinforcement while forcing the host to defer accordingly—even if it means a sacrifice to the overall well-being of the organism. I once heard it best summarized by a client who said, “My mind seems to have a mind of its own.” Indeed. What does the mind need to feel a sense of reasonable satisfaction before it commits treason on the body? Jacques Lacan would tell us to focus on what is actually available and sustainable rather than being overwhelmed by the unattainable or unrealistic objects of desire. For Lacan, the symptom, or in our case the impulse, represents the “awareness of lack,” and desire is expressed by symbolic displacement. The relationship between desire and perceived need is what creates the relentless momentum of unfulfilled yearning; yet that which is perceived to be lacking may be dangerous when realistically fulfilled (just ask Leland Gaunt). Don’t let the mischief-maker of impetuousness determine your fate in lieu of your ability to flex the faculties of better judgment.
Dedicated to my friend and former colleague Valri Bromfield.
1. Leder, Drew. (1990) The Absent Body. The University of Chicago Press.
* The Barratt Impulsiveness Scale (BIS-11; Patton et al., 1995) is a questionnaire designed to assess the personality/behavioral construct of impulsiveness.