Neural Plasticity, Trauma Bonding and The State

Here we are again people, Hi there and thank you for tuning in. I’m Ant Biggs.
This is COW – the podcast, where I try to make some kind of sense out of the world we all think we know,
by applying a bit of critical thinking and questioning everything.
Re-mapping the landscape, one week at a time.

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Anyway, housekeeping over, and straight in to the beef, or the beans, as you will,

I thought I would take a look at the theory of cognitive dissonance. What it means. How it effects us. And how it extends throughout our experience of the political realm, our relationship to the state as an individual.

But to recap on the first episode,

I set out a version of my own personal narrative, where I had become disillusioned, where I had lost hope, and where I had been invited to take a very personal journey.

I’d been picked up and thrown into chaos.

So much had changed at once.

There were no familiar terms of reference. I guess like a film, waking up, in the middle a foreign city, where the street signs are in a foreign language. So much was going on. So much was new.

I wanted to know why. I wanted to know how and it’s pretty hard to know where to start.

Before I do…

I’m conscious that I’m using phrases like narrative and landscape without defining them. For now let’s say that the landscape… It is the world we inhabit, the social and economic world etc etc But it’s a landscape. Like a layer, built on top of the natural world.

It’s a similar perspective when talking of self as a narrative.

But it will all become clear, I hope…

So back to my journey, and to the chaos I found myself in. I found out it has a name.

The life I was leading, did not match the life I was expecting. And I was not even conscious that this was the case. But it was a powerful feeling. I knew something needed to change.

That is cognitive dissonance…

In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (or psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values.

It may be a consequence of a person performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values. It may also occur when a person is confronted with information that contradicts those beliefs..

Thank You Wikipedia…

It was a guy called Leon Festinger who said that to function in the real world, human beings need an internal psychological consistency. And the person who doesn’t have that will become psychologically uncomfortable.

The motivation for the individual is therefore to reduce the cognitive dissonance, by whatever means possible.

That’s a pretty elegant insight into human behaviour. It makes sense of what we all know. We all know the feeling. And it gives us a glimpse of the process which is going on behind the scenes.

Yes the discomfort might be a function of chemical or hormonal imbalance, but it’s being driven by our belief systems! This is about beliefs being weighed against each, compared and contrasted. It’s not the other way round…

Think about that. That’s an important distinction but I’ll come back to that idea later.

Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance has been around for since 1957.

And it gave us a process to look at.

There have been some mind blowing advances in neuroscience since 1957. With advances in technology the field has developed many varied and important branches. These include biological and psychological, cognitive, clinical, behavioural branches… Too many to go into here but it turns out Festinger’s Theory still holds.

For example, In a report from 2009 called Neural Activity Predicts Attitude Change in Cognitive Dissonance people, were subjected to differing levels of Cognitive Dissonance whilst in an MRI scanner. The scan was able to show that activity in one part of the brain directly signalled the magnitude of the discomfort.

That part was the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex is thought to play a role in a wide variety of functions in the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is the control system for our internal organs. It operates through the hormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol etc…

Cortisol and adrenaline are activated when we are subjected to cognitive dissonance.

When cortisol and adrenaline are activated our flight or fight reflex takes over. This is called stress.

In a nutshell, We have deeply help beliefs, almost instinctive truths. And when we challenge those beliefs with new actions, or behaviours, or when we are challenged by new facts, we feel psychological discomfort.

We are put under stress, we experience cognitive dissonance, and there is an increase in hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

We switch to survival mode.

We are pre-programmed, by evolution, to have different modes of behaviour. How and why we can go into another time.

But we are all aware of the health dangers presented by stress,

Today let’s just concentrate on what this does to us.

Why should we be capable of switching to a mode of behaviour that is capable of harming us.

It seems crazy.

Firstly if we can take a lesson from this let’s agree that we just can’t trust evolution to always work in our best interests. It’s a valuable point to bear with us. Just cos it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good.

The point about being able to switch into stress mode though is that it is a reaction to an emergency. This is more about switching everything that you don’t need off so that you can concentrate on the bits you do. This is about survival.

Your immune system is suppressed, you’re heart-rate rises, you swell up, you become resistant to pain. You shut down your immune system for example, for later. And evolution has made sure we do it in the most efficient way available. If that’s a hungry sabre-toothed tiger nearby, you’d be better off staying awake than sleeping off your lunch.

As an efficient response to threat this works. And it is able to work like that because it evolved to be temporary. The point is however that we are not living with tigers and temporary threats any longer. It is far more common that many of us feel threatened on a more permanent basis. And our systems have no chance to reset.

Festinger was aware that the

motivation for the individual is to reduce cognitive dissonance, by whatever means possible.

Whatever means possible, Sounds pretty gung-ho doesn’t it? And guess what… we have developed some pretty robust methods of doing this.

We rely on go to solutions that we have developed, and stored up over our lives for 90% of what we do.

These are our beliefs, they are the accepted facts and the accepted behaviours that underpin our existence.

And they are formed throughout our lives, through copying, observing, and assimilating cultural information.

Our conscious brains are able to select and process information in order to develop these behaviours as habits. 90% as a ball park figure 90% of what we do and who we are, what we aspire to and hold dear, is a product of reinforced neural pathways, our plastic brains. Only 10% is ever conscious! Ask yourself why you are waving to your friend… how did that happen?

These go to habits are called heuristics or cognitive biases. There are lists and lists of recognised cognitive biases. Following the herd for example.

And we will not let them go…

There is an evolutionary reason for this. Look if it hasn’t killed you yet, why would you want to change it?

But in more detail

Psychological research has developed a theory that proposes five main factors as a basis on which our moral framework depends. We can be scored on each of the five.

The five are, Care, Fairness, Authority, Security and Purity.

From an early age we experiment, we judge and categorise the world around us according to these five indicators and we store our experience up through the process of neural plasticity. We store and retain shortcuts to modes of behaviour that we can recall quickly when we are faced with new situations and questions.

This is who we are, morally. How we become who we are. It is our moral outlook.

It is thought that a concern for purity stems from the necessity to know what you are eating.

The basic principle that you don’t know what that berry will do to you so you better leave it alone, That is going to keep you alive.

It turns out that to shut down new experience, or information etc has a strong founding in the need to survive.

So we understand about neural plasticity, cognitive dissonance and cognitive biases.

But do we understand that they won’t always work in our best interests. Counter-intuitive I know but, our got to behaviours, may not always be our best buddy. Similarly our beliefs.

Let’s take a look at an extreme version of this. Stockholm syndrome, trauma bonding.

Named in 1973, Stockholm Syndrome or Trauma Bonding came to be a recognised behaviour where those who has been captured and abused developed protective feelings towards their captors.

In a hostage situation, whether it be at the Stockholm Bank or in a domestic setting, the captive experiences extreme stress. There is a real and protracted threat. Heightened emotions, hormones running riot.

And as in a good cop, bad scenario, a scenario of reach and withdrawal, the captor embodies the threat and the saviour at the same time. At one moment, holding a gun to your head and the next bringing food, blankets or shelter.

Oxytocin, Cortisol, and Adrenaline substances we experience every day go into overdrive.

As victims attempt to reduce the dissonance they desperately reach for a narrative that needs to see the captor as the saviour, not the threat. Over and over they are telling themselves that they are being cared for. And this comes to be expressed in attachment to the captor. The victim in this case might even refuse to escape when the opportunity arises. Or hand back the gun. Understand that to face the alternative would be too horrific to bear.

This is the process of addiction. And addictions come with withdrawal. As we know some habits may never be kicked.

There is similar power within these processes when they are subtle. It turns out that for this kind of bonding to become really strong it is most effective when the captive creates their own narrative.

Essentially a person will hold this kind of narrative more strongly if they have created it themselves. The captor is not attempting to create a bond through force. This wouldn’t work so well.

Another example…

In a psychological experiment from I think the 1960’s a group of children were put into a room, with a number of toys and told they could play with them. All but one. A Steam Shovel.

So some were told they would be punished harshly if they did. The others that the researcher would be displeased. Later they were told that the restriction no longer mattered.

The kids who had been threatened harshly all ran to play with the steam shovel. Those that hadn’t continued to play with the other toys. As Festinger said we are motivated to retain psychological consistency.

The narratives that these kids had made up for themselves remained relevant even though the threat of punishment had been removed.

To recap I’ve attempted to indicate the lengths our minds will go to in order to allow us to feel comfortable with the status quo.

How sometimes with great subtlety and sometimes counter-intuitively we see the same addictive processes working away under the radar.

We have seen how beliefs become internalised and then how we protect them. And how we protect ourselves when facing the challenge of the new.

We have that chemical story of our own narratives. That understanding of how our narratives are formed and retained, and how our brains are in a constant state of plasticity.

And we have discussed how this may be at the same time both good for us and bad for us. We have seen how difficult it becomes, by design, to break from normality.

We’ve seen how a fundamental conservatism, or fear of the new is deeply engrained in our psyches.

Just think group think, or herd mentality, the idea of sticking your head above the parapet.

This is just a fleeting glimpse of what lies beneath the surface. Just an introduction to some of the stuff I’ll be covering in the podcast. Looking at who we are, and how we got here. And trying desperately to step out of line, to become the observer, outside and looking in I’m asking whether we are making the right responses here… because I have a sneaking suspicion we could do better.

Now it might seem that with all of this chemical hormonal activity working on us at the sub-conscious level that we have really no choice in the matter. No ability to change. I am a ball of chemicals, subject to controls I am unaware of and that’s it then. Nothing to be done but accept it… but not so

As I said earlier, it is important to realise that this is being driven by what we believe, not the other way round.

It is our conscious mind that has been experimenting and testing and gathering all of our bits and pieces of experience together.

Only then, through repetition do our brains store them as automatic responses in the subconscious, for quick access.

And this very plasticity of our minds, the plasticity that makes us so susceptible to living all kinds of distraction, all kinds of deception, the plasticity that paints us out as hollow zombies, hypnotised; it also allows, when required, for us to re-programme.

We can. If it is a hero’s journey we are following then perhaps this is it’s ultimate meaning.

So if we can see ourselves as products of our influences it makes sense to understand what they might be..

It is probably not so easy to answer.

Everything we experience is a result of our place within an evolutionary system, where games are played out at every level, micro-biological, social, environmental, and so we are products of all of that.

But let’s take our relationship to hierarchy, for example, which when defined as chemically based systems of social organisation which they can be. we share, with creatures so far removed from us as lobsters.

And as members of a social hierarchy we are sensitised to become acutely aware of our place within it.

Just as we yearn for relationships, for connection and belonging, these are aspects of our relationship with the state. We yearn for leadership. We yearn for order. This is where the evolution of the State has its root.

But it is more than that. There is the notion of the Blue Church, which I like. I first heard it described by Jordan Hall if you would like to look him up.

The Blue Church is essentially an extension of what we might define as the State.

It is the hegemony, the accepted, the mainstream, the media, the structural method by which the status quo is perpetuated.

The Blue Church is the system that takes the child from it’s parent, from it’s family, at birth and attempts to imprint itself in their place as a saviour figure. The white coated doctor, the hierarchical saviour in this case, then makes his appearance throughout our child’s life and is reinforced at every opportunity. The teacher, the headmaster, the policeman, the judge, the journalist, the newscaster, the scientist, the celebrity, the politician, the democratic process…

Repeatedly the entitlement and infallibility of The Blue Church are presented to our young minds so that we develop a dependency towards it. It’s not forced, this is the subtle version.

No one tells us what to think. We are just asked to frame what we think in the right way.

We are presented with daily dramas created to keep us on the hook, no resolution, we are constantly buzzing with stress hormones.

Maybe the argument today is Brexit, NHS Funding. Its Illegal Immigration, or the war on Terror of all things, being used to terrorise us.

Look, if we are presented with an argument over global warming we can take one side or another, even drilling right down to the detail, and we can fight tooth and nail. Perhaps the argument being about race, or freedom of speech, or whether Donald Trump is an accident.

We are presented with a problem, and allowed to react. And we’ve been taught by masters, by example, how to victim blame, how to cherry-pick supporting facts and create distractions.

The harder we fight, the more we are divided, and the further we get from the realisation that ultimately it is The Blue Church, calling the agenda, standing above the law, standing over us all. When all is said and done, whatever it is, we, will expect that the Blue Church fix it!

We are addicted to this way of being. We are incapable of taking responsibility for ourselves. We become like children, robots, co-dependent,
waiting for big brother.

Our relationship with the State comes no doubt with it’s benefits but we are suppressing our ability to act, and to create as individuals. Out of that comes the struggle with dissonance, the stress, the frustration, dis-empowerment and ultimately a reliance on addictive behaviours that endanger our survival. Could this be too high a price to pay?

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