The Black Dog
 Home Boy! The Soap Box | The Library | The Links | The Cave 


Calmer Karma

From Men's Health magazine

This is the deal: you've done something piggish, stupid, selfish and insensitive. She's got the hump because of it and thrown several choice words your way, along with various small items of household furniture. You argue.

When at some point you realise you were wrong and apologise. She accepts, gives you a 'but don't ever do that again' parting shot with a flare of the nostrils and you start to feel pretty pleased with yourself.'Hmmm, I got off lightly there,' you muse, and that flare of her nostrils even has you thinking about the possibility of make up sex.

Then, suddenly, from out of nowhere she dredges up a ruck the pair of you had about something years ago. It was the time you forgot to do X or the time she caught you from doing Y. It's got nothing to do with your latest misdemenour.You can't even remember it - but she recalls every detail and is raring to go over it again in all its ugly minutiae. All this when you thought some nookie was in the offing.

What put her in such a foul mood?

Well, science says it's not because she's subconsciously trying to torpedo the relationship. And no matter how much it may seem like it, she doesn't derive a perverse pleasure from fighting either. The explanation is simply this: her limbic and autonomic nervous systems are operating at different speeds.

Aha. I bet you're thinking a) what are Men's Health on about now? and b} even if that explains why she's hurling cutlery at me, how does it help me to stop her doing it?

Well, let's go back to a time to when 19th century William James was speculating about how the brain decides what kind of emotion we're feeling. Conventional science said that when something happens your brain figures out its emotional response - anger, arousal, elation, terror, whatever. Then your brain tells your body how to respond.- increased heart rate, faster breathing, goose-pimples, erection, whatever. These responses are controlled by the autonomic nervous system which is involved in involuntary, spontaneous or automatic bodily functions.

This all seems like an eminently sensible explanation, but then James came up with a nutty idea that turns this on its head. He believed that your body's autonomic response, not your brain, is what determines the emotion you experience.

In James' view, your brain asses the situation so quickly that there isn't enough time to become consciously aware of how you should feel about it. Instead, your brain canvasses your body to see how it's reacting to the outside stimulus. So conscious emotions don't shape your autonomic bodily response, but rather your autonomic response shapes the conscious emotion you feel. Weird stuff, eh? It does seem a bit arse about face - which is what a lot of James' contempories thought of it. They ignored him and his theory for decades which put him in a frightful mood - so he had plenty of material to work on.

Today, researchers believe James' notion about moods to be true in many ways. Your autonomic nervous system may not quite determine the exact type of emotion you're feeling, but it has a lot to do with how strongly you feel - your emotional intensity.

There's plenty of evidence for this, too. Studies on quadriplegics - people without sensation in tehir arms and legs - show a strong blunting of emotion.The same goes for people with diseases that affect their autonomic nervous system. Though they have normal tactile sensations and can experience pleasure, anger and fear like anyone else, they have no involuntary bodily responses. If they're frightened, their hearts don't race amd their skin doesn't get clammy. If saddened, they don't cry. If angered, their muscles don't tense up. And they feel less emotion than normal.

Tests also back up that theory. If you force someone to make a certain emotionally strong facial expression over and over, he'll start to feel an emotion that agrees with the expression. For example, depressed people who are asked to repeatedly make big, booming smiles usually begin to feel better. In an experiment done years ago - before there were laws against this kind of thing - researchers secretly injected volunteers with adrenalin, the main hormone that mediates emotional arousal thooughout your body. What happened? They experienced more intense emotions.


..So back to the argument. You've done the bad deed and she's fuming. Her cortex is thinking 'This was not appropriate behaviour on his part'. Her limbic system is ruminating 'He's a real git, I'd like to strangle him'. Pretty quickly, this also turns into a bodily event for her as her autonomic nervous system triggers her heart to race and her muscles to clench in fury.

Finally, you apologise. For her brain, the event is over with. But her bodily responses are still chugging along. And here the ghost of William James comes to destroy any hope of make up sex. Even though she knows it's over, her heart is still racing and the adrenalin is still there telling her it doesn't feel like anything is resolved. And her mind finds an explanation for these contradictory feelings: 'Hmmmm, I know he apologised but since I still feel agitated there must be something else I'm upset about. Ah, I know, it's that insensitive thing he did years ago..what a sod.

Naturally, there's a gender difference that makes things worse. Consider sexual arousal, which is also regulated by the autonomic nervous system: on average, men become aroused faster than women do. And women stay aroused longer. This explains why after sex she wants to hear sweet whispery things - while all you want to do is order a deep-crust pepperoni and watch the match. ..

Before you lose the rag, take a deep breath or stop and count to 10. You could try making a rule with your girlfriend or wife that you must always argue sitting down - this simple act slows the flow of adrenalin.

Or use the science you just learned as ammunition: discussk this autonomic-arousal business with here so you can both short circuit that stress hormone surge before it takes hold. 'Wait! Put the kitchen knife down and remember what I said about William James'. It may just work.


Click here to return to the healing zone; click here to go home

Click here to go home