Neuroplasticity and a dog’s guilt

 

So let’s tie the dog story in with that thing about neuroplasticity, the previous blog essay. Recall that according to the likes of Daniella Schiller, retriggered memories can be ‘reconsolidated’, that is re-scripted or deleted if, during a critical period, a subject is given either a protein-blocking agent, or is presented with new data that contradicts a conditioned response. Other researchers Gorman and Roose interpret that the timing of interventions must therefore exist in proximity to reactivation of traumatic material, as the Schiller experiments imply.

Skeptical analyst Richard Tuch challenges this finding, suggesting that the material of analytic patients is too complex to be modified by such behavioral techniques.

So let’s look at my shaggy dog story and identify the different elements that seem relevant to the issue: the CS or conditioned stimulus; the conditioned response, or CR; the observed outcome of an informal effort to reconsolidate. To recap: a car rolls down a slight incline, bumping into another car because…well, we’re not sure why, but it seems as if a dog had something to do with it. You see, a taciturn Doberman had been sitting in the driver’s seat at the time of rolling, so I speculate that the animal had inadvertently dislodged the car’s emergency brake, thus sending the vehicle on its way. When the owner (not ‘driver’—the distinction was important to her) appeared minutes later, she seemed concerned, but more defensive than, say, remorseful about the accident, or relieved that the misadventure hadn’t caused more harm.

My friend, another therapist, tried to intervene on this latter point, timing his explanation of averted consequences about as proximately as was possible to the accident, the putative trauma. But was it the trauma? What actually happened in this scene, and did it lend itself to things like reconsolidation of new data, contradicting a conditioned response and so on. It didn’t appear so. As I’ve previous written, the woman in question appeared to bristle at my friend’s sober counsel, rejecting it on what I sometimes describe as ‘process’ not ‘content’ terms. Meaning, her response—‘I don’t need to be counseled’—seemed not so much a rejection of an observation (the ‘someone could have been hurt’ truism), but rather of my friend’s prerogative to make the point, regardless of its validity.

In this instance, it seemed important to consider not only the timing of an intervention, or even the nature of the intervention (a confrontation versus, say, an empathetic overture) but firstly, to consider what exactly had been stirred in the woman. Not that I’m feeling critical of my friend—what he said was necessary for someone to say—I’m merely interested in a different phenomenon. By my passive and thus detached observation, it seemed from the outset that the woman was far from horrified by the disastrous possibilities of her car rolling down a hill. Initially at least, there was no sense that she would thereafter feel afraid to get in her car, or park it elsewhere, or even leave her dog in the car unattended. Immediately, she seemed more concerned with the matter of blame: whether she was being cast as the driver versus the owner; whether she’d be held responsible for the apparent damage to the vehicle her car and dog had lightly struck. If I were to guess I’d say she was embarrassed at being the center of negative attention, the object of suspicion, perhaps ridicule, due to the absurdist nature of the scene. Her backstory—or trauma, if you like—likely had little to do with car accidents, much less tragedy, but rather a memory of public humiliation, entailing a dressing down by righteous figures, perhaps more commonly male. That’s my guess.

And so it seemed that my friend’s intervention failed—partly because of its timing, I suspect (she might have been open to instruction later)—but more pertinently, because the experienced and therefore salient trauma material was not contradicted by the intervention, because it did not constitute ‘new’ data in the sense that is being discussed. If the negative memory is about humiliation and blame, then the CS—being criticized, especially by a man, or a stranger—perhaps reconsolidated old data, rather than introduce a cautionary tale about driving or concern for others, the putatively intended ‘new’ data. Therefore, a CR—defend oneself—was readily enacted and was, if you like, reinforced by the ensuing interaction, though in my opinion, the woman’s reaction was inflected more by her projections than by reality, which again, analysts would cite as complicating factors which…wait, I think I know what you might be thinking.

Are we over-thinking this?

If you really think this then you should probably stop reading my blog, and don’t even bother with my books, because you will often think this of me. Anyway, I wonder if the woman will re-visit this episode, perhaps talk it over with someone she trusts; someone who might, in turn, instruct her as my friend did, to which she might say, “That’s what this guy said, who saw what happened”—in response to which an astute and curious listener might begin a different process, introducing a new layer of data. See, that person might ask, “And what was that like? Did it stir anything up for you?”

 

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