Pressing the right buttons

I'VE always been fascinated by what happens in the brain in various day-to-day emotional states, like when our "buttons get pressed" when something or someone activates our psychological complexes.

More than 100 years ago, Carl Jung, the famous psychiatrist who developed psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud (you may have seen the film A Dangerous Method), found a way to map people's complexes by giving them a word association test. He would ask his patient to respond as fast as possible with the first word that came to mind in response to a stimulus word he would read from a list.

Most responses were fairly bland and neutral and predictable. A stimulus word like "black" would usually yield a response like "white", "cat", "dog", and so on. But just occasionally, the patient would encounter a word whose association was emotional, usually painful, and taking a long time to respond. Thus "green", instead of yielding a bland associative response like "red" or "tree", would produce some humming and hawing, and "those bastards, they'll destroy the economy".

Clearly a complex had been triggered in that patient, and Jung would then invite them to explore the reaction further. My colleagues and I were lucky enough to gain access to a powerful functional magnetic resonance (FMRI) machine at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane and we repeated Jung's word association test with 12 normal subjects to see their brain responses when complexes were activated.

We find that, in each hemisphere, a circuit gets activated that involves mirror neurones (how we think others might feel), the insula (how we ourselves feel), and the cingulate gyrus (how we track the difference between what we expect and what actually happens). This, of course, is the famous "resonance circuitry" that the eminent US child psychiatrist, Dan Siegel, describes as responsible for mindfulness (self-awareness) and empathy (awareness of the other).

With our subjects, in the grip of a complex, activating their "resonance circuitry", an "internal other" gets activated, at odds with their usual sense of self. But much more interestingly, the left hemisphere takes over almost completely after the first three seconds, in an attempt to deal with things.

But that just results in a stuck state. The complex never gets dealt with properly. What is needed is to hang in there, and this can be done either in therapy or in meditation practice. Our complexes are windows of opportunity for growth, if only we can resist the left hemisphere's hegemony. I strongly recommend Iain McGilchrist's The Master and his Emissary if you want to find out more about the difference between left and right brain function.



 Prof Leon Petchkovsky is a local psychiatrist, brain imaging researcher and Jungian psychoanalyst. He is also an Adjunct Professor with the University of Queensland.

Topics:  opinion

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