How Much Do You Know About What You Don’t Know?

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Q – How much do you know about what you don’t know?

OK, is this a trick question like, “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”

Actually, it’s a legitimate question. Let me see if I can explain using myself as an example. As many of you know, I suffer from migraine headaches. Many migraine sufferers will experience what are known as prodromes—“altered mood, irritability, depression or euphoria, fatigue, yawning, excessive sleepiness, craving for certain foods (e.g. chocolate), stiff muscles (especially in the neck), hot ears, etc.” (quoting from the above Wikipedia entry)—hours or even days before the actual migraine hits. My prodrome (if it happens at all) is a bit unusual. Allow me to describe it to you.

I’m sitting at my desk at home paying bills (which is enough to trigger a migraine right there). I get out my checkbook. I write the first check and put it in the envelope. Here’s where the fun begins. I now have to subtract the amount of the check I have just written from the current balance shown in my checkbook ledger. I place the check amount under the current balance amount. I’m in good shape because I can see that my current balance amount is larger than the check amount. But when I go to actually perform the operation of subtracting “check amount” from “current balance amount,” I cognitively freeze. I simply can’t do it. And we’re talking about simple subtraction, say, subtract $17.56 from $302.34. I try to reason out the problem. I still know what a number is. The numbers themselves do make sense to me. Conceptually I get what it means to subtract one number from another. No problem there. I even know that I am capable of subtracting numbers and that I have a long history of successfully subtracting numbers (as the many successful subtractions in my ledger would indicate). But, here in the present moment, when I go to actually engage in the process of, say, subtracting a “6” from a “4” (which means I have to borrow from the next decimal place) I can’t do it. How is it possible that I can know so much about the process of subtracting and still not be able to pull it off? Well, turns out there’s a name for this type of prodrome. It’s called Transient Global Amnesia (TGA).

In his 1999 book The Feeling of What Happens—Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, neurobiologist Antonio Damasio describes what someone in the throes of TGA might experience when he writes, “Without a provence for the current placement of objects and a motive for the current actions, the present is nothing but a puzzle.” Interestingly, Damasio points out that even though TGA can reduce the present moment to a state of conceptual confusion, there’s still some impression or trace or “core consciousness” (as Damasio calls it) “for the fact that some knowledge is no longer present” (quoting Damasio). In essence, even during a bout of Transient Global Amnesia, we are able to maintain the ability to know that we don’t know something. Here’s an analogy that might help.

In the world of sedimentology—the study of sedimentary rocks and structures—there’s a concept known as trace fossils. Here’s a quote from the Wikipedia entry:

Trace fossils are a particularly significant source of data from this period [just prior to the beginning of the Cambrian geological period] because they represent a data source that is not directly connected to the presence of easily-fossilized hard parts, which are rare during the Cambrian.

As the quote suggests, prior to the Cambrian (approximately 550 to 480 million years ago), critters did not have hard parts that could be fossilized. Without fossilized hard parts within the geological rock record, it is near to impossible to know anything about a critter. But critters without hard parts are still able to leave traces or footprints within soft sediments as they engage in activities such as burrowing and moving about. It’s these traces that become fossilized and preserved within the rock record. Nothing of the pre-Cambian critter itself remains, but we have access to its traces (e.g., its trace fossils). I would suggest that the mind works in a similar way: we may lose access to so-called hard parts directly, but we may still have access to the traces or impressions these hard parts leave behind.

What this points out is that “knowing” is an emergent property that emerges from many different places in the body and brain to create a gestalt or whole, which we call mind. As Damasio points out, context (say, the context or concepts of mathematics) is processed in a portion of the brain different from that part of the brain that processes procedure (say, the procedure of mathematics). In addition, each area that contributes to the overall process of knowing leaves a trace or an impression on other areas. Even though we may not have direct access to an object (like a number) or a context (like the conceptual system known as mathematics), we may be able to maintain access to some form of impression or trace (or core consciousness) associated with the objects or contexts that are now out of mind. What an experience of Transient Global Amnesia reveals is how much our sense of coherent knowing comes from a very complex process of what’s known as conceptual blending. The idea of conceptual blending is looked at in detail in Fauconnier & Turner’s 2002 book The Way We Think—Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities and will be the focus of upcoming posts.

All this to say that, in my mind, behavioral systems leave traces or impressions or have a core consciousness to them. My guess is that an intuitive person is a person who is more sensitive to and able to more readily tap into these impression traces. As mentioned above, during TGA, I am still able to intuit that I do not know something by accessing traces or impressions. So, what are the implications for Bowlbian Attachment Theory?

In my February 1st, 2011, blog post, I write the following:

The Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment is where the “struggle between the parts” [quoting systems thinker Ludwig von Bertalanffy] of caregiving, attachment, and sex takes place.

I am here suggesting that each of these behavioral systems—caregiving, attachment, and sex—leaves traces or impressions that can be accessed by the other behavioral systems. I’m cheating here because I’m pulling this idea in large part from Damasio’s 2003 book Looking for Spinoza—Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. In Looking for Spinoza, Damasio makes a rather startling observation. Damasio writes, “The first-person accounts of substance abusers contain frequent references to altered changes in the body during the drug highs.” Here are a few examples of these first-person accounts that Damasio provides:

  • There is a pervasive body warmth
  • It’s like the relaxed feeling you get after sex but better
  • It felt like a total body orgasm
  • A body high
  • My body felt instantly warm, especially my cheeks, which felt quite hot
  • There is a mild anesthetic property … and a generalized tingly warm sensation.

Damasio sums up thus: “All of these accounts report a remarkably uniform set of changes in the body—relaxation, warmth, numbness, anesthesia, analgesia [e.g., relief of pain], orgastic release, energy.” Here’s the kicker. This “uniform set of changes in the body” came from the following forms of drug abuse: cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin. (Damsio allows that “alcohol produces more modest but comparable effects.”) Damasio gives us this “bottom line”: “The fact that the effects share a body core is all the more impressive considering that the substances that caused them are chemically different and act on different chemical systems in the brain” (emphasis in original). Translation: even though these different substances act on different parts of the brain, they all leave a common trace that is very body-based (e.g., relaxation, warmth, numbness, anesthesia, analgesia or relief of pain, orgastic release, energy). I’m using Damasio’s rather startling observation concerning the shared body core of substance abuse to suggest that the interaction of the behavioral systems of caregiving, attachment, and sex likewise will have a shared body core. Consider these associations (c-caregiving, a-attachment, s-sex):

  • relaxation – c, a, s
  • warmth – c, a, s
  • numbness – s
  • anesthesia – c, a
  • analgesia – c, a, s
  • orgastic release – c, a, s
  • energy – c, a

The above may in part help to shed additional light on current research that suggests that substance abuse and addiction may be motivated by a desire to get to the body core of  caregiving, attachment, and sex. The above may also help to shed additional light on the thesis that Carole Pistole presents in her 1999 paper Preventing Teenage Pregnancy: Contributions from Attachment Theory (J. Mental Health Counseling, April 1999, vol. 21) (executive summary available). Pistole puts forth the idea that if cravings for attachment and caregiving early in life are somehow thwarted, these thwarted cravings may, 1) influence the later development of the sexual behavioral system, and, 2) cause sexual acting out that could lead to unintended teen pregnancy. Taking a very connectionist view, Pistole suggests that disruptions in the development of the sexual behavioral system may be traced back to disruptions in the early attachment and/or caregiving environments. Pistole suggests that the traces or impressions that are laid down by the attachment and caregiving relational environments early on are later picked up by the emerging sexual behavioral system. According to Pistole’s research, the form and function of the sexual behavioral system that emerges during adolescence may say a lot about the early attachment and caregiving relational environments. Pistole suggests that the caregiving, attachment, and sexual behavioral systems should be looked at as comprising a larger, dare I say “grander,” behavioral system. In truth, it was my read of Pistole’s article that started me thinking along the lines of a Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment (GBAE). Any consideration of attachment must take into consideration caregiving and sex. I’ll end with this quote from my February 1st, 2011, post:

Every once in a while Bowlby would just say something like (again from volume one), “Attachment behaviour is regarded as a class of social behaviour of importance equivalent to that of mating behaviour [e.g., the sexual behavioral system] and parental behaviour [e.g., the caregiving behavioral system].” I could be reading more into it than is there but he seems to be baiting us to ask the obvious question: “I agree that the attachment, caregiving, and sex behavioral systems are all important, but how the heck do you organize them, keep them happy, keep them from fighting with each other, create a harmonious whole?”

Using Pistole’s work as a background, I guess you could say that emerging sexuality in adolescence will let us know something about what we don’t know about our early attachment and caregiving environments.