Needful Things

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.


Aversion and its Discontents

Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear. — Bertrand Russell

On July 29, 1999, Mark Orrin Barton of Stockbridge, Georgia killed 12 people and injured 13 more during an extended shooting spree in Atlanta. The shootings occurred at two separate trading firms a day after Barton bludgeoned his wife and two children at home with a carpenter’s hammer. It is believed that Barton, a day trader in the stock market, was motivated by $105,000 in losses over the previous two months. Four hours after the Atlanta shootings, Barton committed suicide at a gas station in Acworth, Georgia during an attempted escape and subsequent confrontation with police officers.

What are we to make of such impetuous and violent behavior that disrupts the lives of so many in such unexpected ways? It seems that shooting sprees have become commonplace in the news to such an extent that these events are normalized and even expected. One doesn’t have to look further than the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting and the Aurora, Colorado theater carnage to discover cyclical trends in reactionary destructiveness. Some will point to the vagaries of mental illness and how this acts as a time-sensitive fuse for the inevitability of such violence. Others focus on problems with weapons accessibility and cultural influences for brutality. However, what are the cognitive dynamics that result in such intense moments of high-lethality behavior? Some tragic events appear systematically planned by obsessive individuals preoccupied with revenge, while other instances of extraneous vehemence seem to indicate acute irrational impulsivity accumulated after weeks, months, or years of coping with stress, frustration, and depression (this is distinct from other forms of refractory mental illness, behavior as a result of brain injury, and symptoms of psychosis such as command hallucinations). In a repress/release mode of reactivity, the dynamics of externalized responses to repression and feelings of being out of control could manifest themselves in suicidal or homicidal thoughts to compensate for a compromised sense of agency. Being social animals, the complexity of daily interactions and interpersonal stressors may result in a person feeling threatened in their ability to communicate effectively, function with prosperity, or survive with integrity.

Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have introduced a concept known as loss aversion that has subsequently been used to understand economics and decision theory (the idea being that people often exhibit a tendency to prefer avoiding losses even more than acquiring gains). This concept may help interpret other types of behaviors that appear impulsive, unusual, or out of character. Some studies suggest that losses of any kind are perceived to be twice as powerful, psychologically, as actual gains. If a person feels threatened or incapable of being in control of certain life variables, there often exists a dominant emotional response (fueled by the sympathetic nervous system, a possibly low-functioning MAOA gene, or aggression-inducing neurotransmitter activity) to redouble one’s efforts in an attempt to compensate for the subjective impact of loss. Even potential or anticipated loss can motivate one to engage in precarious efforts to regain a sense of justice or security. Likewise, suicide, often thought of as an act of “letting go,” could be interpreted as an affirmation and the attempt to regain control with a final response of empowered desperation. Humans have been cognitively conditioned by evolution’s engine of natural selection to avoid pain and move towards positive reinforcement in a variety of contexts. Sometimes, however, even though a person’s ability to biologically survive remains intact, his or her social identity may seem fragmented to such a degree that it feels inexorably damaged. This perception, regardless of its validity, is capable of producing intense emotions of fear and anger that become galvanized and channeled with adverse results because our adrenaline glands are easily capable of overriding the rational judgment and behavioral buffers of the pre-frontal cortex.

How can the intense emotions of loss aversion be avoided? Consistency in communication and expressing oneself through multiple pursuits may help regulate the buildup of negative psychic energy, feelings of helplessness, maladaptive efforts toward escapism, and the anxiety of long-term frustration. As a dynamic system that interacts with a perpetually shifting environment, it’s important to preemptively be aware of our fears and provocations for extreme irritability while focusing on our capacity to adapt in creative ways without succumbing to rigid interpretations of self, attaching our emotional stability to outcomes, or feeling that the interests and mindset of popular culture must dictate our well-being.

What makes us feel irreparably compromised? What makes us feel embarrassingly vulnerable, fearful, and marginalized? What are the necessary values for ensuring a civilized society without the casualties of deprivation, isolation, otherness, and dehumanization? A critical analysis of social constructions, an acknowledgement of interpersonal accountability, and a deeper understanding of loss aversion may illuminate the fragility of human psychology while rethinking what it means to value social sustainability rather than perpetuating the delusion of invincible individualism.

(This article was first published in the NPI newsletter, Spring 2014).