As made evident by the sub-title of this website, object-relations and systems theory form the foundation of my theoretical framework. This is because, conceptually, the two represent the most basic abstractions of what most theories simply repackage: how things connect, relate to, and affect one another on a cognitive and emotional level. OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: I do not make this statement to be crass or in any way undermine the contribution various developmental theories have made to the field of psychology and the world at large. Quite the contrary, I enjoy and value the various theoretical traditions for their subtleties and nuances. Of course, I would argue that they have become “traditions” for the same reason great works of art are considered “great”; they accurately reflect some fundamental aspect of a universal relative to the human condition. In this way I consider most traditional psychological theories to be expressions or manifestations of various aspects of systemic object-relational dynamics.

Now for the fun stuff. We have discussed emotional imprinting and at least hinted at the importance of early childhood development. Let’s go a bit further. It’s no revelation that a concept of “self” logically requires a concept of “other” from which to distinguish itself.

However, at birth, we have no such concept.

We identify with our sensations, so that if a hungry newborn could speak it would not likely say “I am hungry.” Again, because the concept of “I” requires an awareness of “not I”. It is more likely a hungry infant would simply say “Hungry” and, lacking the conceptual sophistication to do otherwise, experience itself as whatever sensation it might feel at the moment.

It is only as we develop an awareness and sense of other that we develop an enduring sense of self.

As such, that concept of self doesn’t just logically REQUIRE a concept of other, it REFERENCES that other as a MEANS of self-definition. In other words, it is in the nature of the relationship as well as the nature of the “other” that the identity and meaning of “self” is defined. We learn who and and what we are from the quality of our relationships with others.

This is why, developmentally, the first three years of a child’s life are so critical: it is during this period that the most fundamental aspects of our cognitive and emotional framework is developed. We internalize the feedback we are given from others and use that feedback to assign meaning and definition to our most basic emotional functions – the most critical of which is, of course, empathy.

One of the more interesting aspects of this mechanic is expressed in the distinction between abuse and neglect. By definition, abuse typically happens in the context of a relationship – yes, the relationship is unhealthy but it is a relationship, nonetheless. Neglect on the other hand implies a lack of relationship and empathy. Point of interest: statistically, most children who are neglected are also abused, whereas most children who are abused are not necessarily neglected.  Though this may seem a logical contradiction, it is not. The complexity of object-relational development and the human psyche are sophisticated enough to allow such contradictions to coexist in the form of emotional and cognitive dissonance.  While it would be nice if the two contradictory messages cancelled each other out, they in fact perform something of a “double whammy” on psychological development.  Loosely translating the two basic messages:

  • Abuse: I am not worth protecting.
  • Neglect: I am not worth feeding.

Referencing Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs provides a powerful illustration of the differences between the two messages.

Indeed, they are not even on the same level. Eating resides on a lower level of need than physical safety. This provides some insight into why neglect tends to be more damaging than abuse. Additionally, in the case of abuse, there is still a reaction and therefore a relationship. In the case of neglect, there is simply a void. In other words, a sick connection is still better than no connection at all. It is also interesting to note that sexual abuse corresponds to elements on the the lowest level, as well.  OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: This is not to imply that any child neglected or traumatized before the age of three will grow up to be a serial killer. It is simply a generalization about the impact such events have in the context of early childhood development.

These are the basics of object-relations, in a nutshell.

the meat of it

One of the biggest problems people tend to have with a Cannon-Bard-like theory of emotional reactivity is that it can be difficult to grasp (and make sense of) the degree of separation such a framework imposes upon the emotional and cognitive processes. Once we break from a linear, causal cognition/emotion model we face a multitude of questions about the mechanic of how such a system works. One of the more difficult: “If emotional experiences happen in a way that does not necessarily involve cognition, then how do we pull up emotional memory and assigned values of experiences?” In other words, how do we “remember” for example, that something makes us sad if we aren’t pulling up that data through a cognitive process?

As previously stated, it is my intention to argue that emotional and physiological reactions are part of the same system and that differentiating between them is artificial, at best (and downright misleading, at worst). Here is where that argument comes into play. Some things we know about how the body experiences emotional states:

  1. When a person experiences trauma it is recorded on a cellular level in muscle memory.
  2. The cellular changes that take place throughout the body during an emotional response (e.g. a fight or flight response) occur at a rate faster than can be accounted for by our current understanding of the central nervous system (i.e. the cellular changes occur very near the speed of light and therefore cannot be the causal result of any cognitive process).
  3. When a person experiences a traumatic flashback, the entire body responds on a cellular level, just as it did when the original event was experienced.
  4. Muscle memory is recalled, experienced, and utilized at a much higher speed than cognitive memory.
  5. Muscle and cellular memories are much harder to overwrite after they have been stored.

We have long known about muscle memory – how to build and access it. It is a basic foundation of any training program that deals with honing a physical response. Yet it is also more: a way of honing an emotional response. Consider, for example, military combat training. The military utilizes a system of training that is not just physically intense but emotionally intense. It combines the two through a regime of sleep deprivation, deliberate and controlled exposure to mild trauma, repeated execution of combat tactics, etc. to create soldiers capable of functioning under the duress of war.  This training doesn’t just rely on teaching people to function in an environment through practice, it writes into their muscle memory how to respond to the HORROR of combat.  Remember, once muscle memory is written it is much harder to overwrite.  If military training is also a form of combat emotional training, the recorded “controlled trauma” of training acts as a form of insulation against PTSD.  In order for a PTSD response to be recorded, it must first overwrite what was originally there.  In the case of military soldiers, what is already there is their training.

I contend that the mystery is in the meat – that our bodies, on a cellular level, serve as a storage medium for not just muscular and physical programs, but emotional memory as well.  Such an arrangement is only viable, however, if we surrender the notion that our bodies and emotional states are two discrete, interacting systems.  Indeed, we must also move away from the traditional, Western, Cartesian model almost entirely and discontinue our causal distinction between what is physical and what is psychological.  The only way to make sense of what seems to be a growing collection of neurological and physiological discoveries that are inconsistent with the old models, is to apply a systemic model that does not differentiate between the physical and psychological in a linear, unidirectional and causal manner.  And so we arrive at the crux of my supposition:

  1. Emotional memories are stored on a cellular level throughout the body, in a manner similar to muscle memory.
  2. We are able to access these memories in a holotropic manner.
  3. Because emotional memories are recorded in a manner similar to muscle memory, we experience emotional responses with our entire bodies at the same time we experience the psychological “feeling” of the emotion.

contextual wrappers

I don’t think it is possible to overestimate the significance of the fact that emotions are experienced before thought – particularly in regard to emotional imprinting and development.  As infants, every first experience we have is an emotional one.  While there is a cognitive response that accompanies each of those experiences emotional imprinting leads the way. Let me reiterate: emotional imprinting takes the lead step in our development of a cognitive framework.

In many computer programming languages there exists a type of data referred to as “tags” or “wrappers”. (an online dictionary for computing terminology) defines a wrapper as:

Code which is combined with another piece of code to determine how that code is executed. The wrapper acts as an interface between its caller and the wrapped code. This may be done for compatibility… or for security (e.g. to prevent the calling program from executing certain functions). The implication is that the wrapped code can only be accessed via the wrapper.

One of the more interesting features of this definition is that the “wrapped code can only be accessed via the wrapper.”  In many ways, this statement applies to how humans experience stimuli and recall memories.  When we experience an event and our subsequent emotional response, the emotion sets the “tone” of how we experience our cognitive response.  I refer to this “tone” as “emotional context” which, in many ways, corresponds to the concept and function of wrapper code. All thoughts are accessed in terms of some sort of situational and/or emotional context.

And so, in the context of emotional imprinting, we are “primed” to interpret our experiences a certain way.  Let us take, for example, a man who is insecure about his weight.  Such an individual will be more likely (i.e. primed) to interpret certain experiences as threatening than would another person with a less fearful emotional context.  This priming effect of emotional context is the basic mechanic for what clinicians refer to as “projection”.  To continue with our example, his insecurity (an increased emotionally reactive context) sets up a greater probability for miscommunication.  Say, for instance, he receives a verbally ambiguous remark such as “Nice dress.”  And by “verbally ambiguous” I refer to a neutral tone and cantor that implies neither sarcasm nor enthusiasm.  In the absence of such verbal and nonverbal queues the primed emotional context, in this case insecurity/fear, will be most influential.  Thus, our self-conscious cross-dresser would be more likely to interpret a somewhat ambiguous remark as a criticism that the dress he has chosen makes him look fat.

Another slightly less esoteric and more situational illustration of this priming (as apposed to our usual ‘default’ emotional primers) would be how a person reacts to a strange sound right after watching a scary movie. It is easy to imagine that an individual who is not usually alarmed by random noises, could easily become so after watching a horror movie. This is because the emotional impact of the movie sets up a context in which subsequent thoughts are experienced. Thus, a noise that would otherwise be dismissed as the wind, the washing machine, a car driving down the street, or any of a hundred other innocuous sources of sound is more readily interpreted as the lurking of a horribly scarred serial killer with razor blades for finger nails.

emotional imprinting

We live in a culture that values feeling:

  • How do you feel?
  • Do what feels right.
  • What do you feel like doing?
  • How do you feel about the heavy use of pastels in the baby’s room?
  • What’s your feeling about the game tonight?
  • If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
  • Have you experienced any loss of feeling in your fingers or toes since you ate all that arsenic?

Additionally, we have a tendency to look at emotions as something inflicted upon us:

  • She made me angry.
  • How does that make you feel?
  • He made me cry.
  • He makes me feel ugly.
  • You make me feel like a natural woman.

So… we live in a society that emphasizes emotional states but at the same time has a tendency to minimize our accountability for those feelings and, by extension, how we manage them. We require standardized levels of competence in math, English, history, biology, etc. but have no standardized curriculum for teaching children how to manage their feelings.

A couple years ago, my wife and I were sitting in a waiting room. I don’t remember the room, nor do I remember what we were waiting for. What I do remember, however, was the little girl (probably between the ages of 2 and 3) who, at one point during a disagreement with her father about staying seated, held up her fist and said – with the utmost sincerity – “don’t make me hurt you!” My wife and I just looked at each other, quietly horrified.

I really wanted to wonder about what was happening. I wanted to experience confusion and ignorance about where a three year old girl would learn to shake her fist and make threats of physical violence. I wanted to think it was somehow cute and harmless. Of course, we don’t always get what we want. My wife and I both knew: the little girl learned how to express her anger from her parents; she learned that it’s okay to strike another person out of anger; and she learned that doing so was not something for which she had to be accountable – because they didn’t hold themselves accountable when they hit her. They probably didn’t even call it anger, they probably called it “discipline”.

Hurray for emotional imprinting.

to begin with…

The purpose of this site is to serve as sort of a “watering hole” for ideas I’ve been putting together about emotional development, specifically in terms of object relations, NLP, and attachment theory. I must first, however, make a few disclaimers right up front:

  1. I am synthesizing, twisting, and boiling down a multitude of theoretical orientations and will not necessarily adhere to strict object relational theory and/or terminology.
  2. My focus will be almost exclusively emotional development (as opposed to thought) and imprinting and how that framework affects our ability to function.
  3. At this point, due to the conceptually primitive state of my ideas, I may or may not cite references. If, however, during the course of your reading you see uncited material you are familiar with please feel free to point out the source and I will gladly add that citation. My goal is not to take credit for the work of others, but to mull over in an informal manner the integration of several emotional/developmental theories and the patterns I have observed working with clients.

To begin with, I believe we experience emotion before thought. In this vein, I support a modified version of the Cannon-Bard theory of motivation and emotion. The Cannon-Bard theory:

cannon-bard response

I propose some modification:

my modified cannon-bard model

Ok… maybe a LOT of modification.

The original Cannon-Bard theory suggests that first we perceive an event, then we experience an arousal and emotional response simultaneously. Arousal is the reaction of the autonomic nervous system and the physiological changes that take place. One example is the fight or flight response, during which our respiration, heart rate, and certain cellular functions change in response to a perceived threat. Emotion simply refers to fear, joy, anger, love, etc. (later I will differentiate between primary and secondary emotions but for now that is not a necessary distinction). The key feature of the Cannon-Bard model is that arousal and emotion happen simultaneously and precede thought.

While the model I propose is similar to the Cannon-Bard model in that emotion and arousal occur simultaneously (in fact I will later suggest they are part of the same system and differentiating between them may be artificial), I propose a relationship that incorporates timing and influence. Recent neurological studies (the source of which I cannot remember) have confirmed that emotional signals not only travel through the brain faster, but do not have to travel as far in order to register or “impact”. So the “arrival” of thought occurs AFTER emotion simply because the transmission of thought takes longer, neurologically. However, emotion does not causally precede thought in a linear manner because the two are discrete processes. Instead, because it is experienced first, emotion INFLUENCES thought. I use the blue arrow as well as the graphical position of the word “thought” to illustrated this relationship.

To draw upon an example: if you are walking through the woods and happen upon an angry bear, you will experience fear as well as the urge to poop all over yourself (i.e. a fight or flight response) SIMULTANEOUSLY. Only after half a nanosecond or so will you be able to think about what you should do – a decision that will obviously be colored by the emotional state of fear. It is for this reason the arrow points from emotion to thought – because emotional transmissions travel faster than thought and affect whatever thought comes next. As stated previously, this does not mean that emotions control or cause thought, but simply influence it. Additionally, it has long been established and accepted that thoughts can, and do, exercise a powerful influence upon emotional states. Thought and emotion participate in a reciprocal dance of influence, but in the face of any new situation emotion always takes the first step.

Put simply: thoughts and feelings influence each other, but we experience feelings first. The implications of this distinction are critical, particularly in regard to emotional object relations, attachment theory, impulsivity, and mental stability in general.

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