The Anxious Mind
October 2, 2009 6:16 PM   Subscribe

Understanding the Anxious Mind. A good article on the psychology of anxiety and how an anxious temperament at birth can ebb and flow during one's lifetime. [Via]
posted by homunculus (22 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
They didn't test the babies "at birth". They tested then as "infants," but the ages are not specified. Note how "they" consider the anxious temperament "hardwired," rather than taking into consideration the effects of the particular mother-infant bond. Neurology in, attachment theory OUT!
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:40 PM on October 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Look could someone post some spoilers or a synopsis? The topic kinda makes me nervous...
posted by sammyo at 6:56 PM on October 2, 2009 [6 favorites]

But in people born with a particular brain circuitry, the kind seen in Kagan’s high-reactive study subjects, the amygdala is hyperreactive, prickly as a haywire motion-detector light that turns on when nothing’s moving but the rain. Other physiological changes exist in children with this temperament, many of them also related to hyperreactivity in the amygdala. They have a tendency to more activity in the right hemisphere, the half of the brain associated with negative mood and anxiety; greater increases in heart rate and pupil dilation in response to stress; and on occasion higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine.

But having all the earmarks of anxiety in the brain does not always translate into a subjective experience of anxiety. [...] It’s all in the context, the interpretation, the ability to divert your attention from the knot in your gut.

There you are! No need to be distressed, baby nineteen!
posted by winna at 7:14 PM on October 2, 2009

While I appreciate that there's an experimental protocol to be followed here, I kept wondering if any help was tendered to those kids most likely to be in need of it. As someone with high anxiety levels myself, I couldn't help thinking there was a bit of exploitation going on here, valuable though the science is. On the upside, LSD research may be making a comeback.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:22 PM on October 2, 2009

Good article, but if I knew this Doctor Kagan I'd be very, very worried that maybe I was Baby 19. Then I'd be worried that other people would read the article and somehow figure out that I was Baby 19.
posted by k8lin at 7:51 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Heh, I like the illustrations.
posted by delmoi at 8:00 PM on October 2, 2009

They tested then as "infants," but the ages are not specified.

The article says, "He recruited infants who were just 4 months old..."
posted by knave at 8:33 PM on October 2, 2009

With cynical promises of glory, no doubt! "Sign here, kid, and we'll teach you how to walk." And then it's all banging your head against the edge of the table, tripping over and getting a boo-boo... Early childhood development is hell.
posted by No-sword at 8:48 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

but the ages are not specified.

They are specified, 4 months.
posted by delmoi at 9:40 PM on October 2, 2009

So the article speculates near the end, 'An anxious temperament might serve a more exalted function too. “Our culture has this illusion that anxiety is toxic,” Kagan said. But without inner-directed people who prefer solitude, where would we get the writers and artists and scientists and computer programmers who make society hum?' This was largely my reaction, that anxiety is just one facet of, as they call it, the "high-reactive" personality, a type which clearly may have many benefits in terms of creativity, energy, and perceptiveness. Yet despite that grudging final hypothesis, the bulk of the article discusses this type in remarkably pejorative terms -- a group who by their account makes up 15%-20% of the white middle-class (ie, the most secure) population.

Just a few examples:

"a baby who essentially fell apart when exposed to anything new"
"the amygdala is hyperreactive, prickly as a haywire motion-detector light that turns on when nothing’s moving but the rain"
"exaggerated response to stress"
"inhibited children"
"[the amygdala's] rampant firing"
"The low-reactives were the classic easy babies, the ones who take unfamiliarity in stride"

Yet the experiments described seem to prove none of these things. The "high-reactive/inhibited" children are identified because they "were in constant motion, kicking and moving their arms fitfully, furrowing their brows, arching their backs or crying if they were really upset" during a 45-minute battery of stimuli including loud noises and alcohol swabs put to their noses. Is that an over-reaction, or a reasonable alternative to babies who "gazed contentedly throughout"? They are faster to press a button after seeing a threatening face, while other types aren't -- but outside of the lab, a threatening face is a fairly salient stimulus. And the best one: they are shown blue or green screens, with a surprise puff of air possible only during the blue screen (they are told). But without any warning, the scientists also play a loud noise once, and the low-reactives are startled less when the noise was played during the "unthreatening" green screen, whereas the high-reactives are startled equally whichever screen was showing before the noise. "They stay on guard, anxious and wired, even when the situation is not threatening." But why should they have believed the "not threatening" green screen, when lo, the psychologists did indeed play a loud, much more startling noise during it.

They say that the high-reactives have significantly thicker prefrontal cortexes -- a trait that in most other circumstances would immediately be interpreted as have higher pre-frontal capacities -- and then speculate that this is a reaction to over-anxiety, trying to quell it, whereas the simpler explanation is that anxiety leads to more neural exercise and hence capacity -- a capacity that could extend into all sort of other domains besides anxiety-control. I'm not saying I believe that to be the case, necessarily, just that, were they not predisposed to interpret high-reactivity as a negative thing (as it clearly is to parents of such babies), the positive neural interpretation would be the immediate one. And indeed Mary is an accomplished ballerina and at Harvard -- not something you achieve through "conscientiousness and self-control" alone.

Towards the very end, the author says "Still, while a Sylvia Plath almost certainly won’t grow up to be a Bill Clinton, she can either grow up to be anxious and suicidal, or simply a poet." Only an uncritically low-reactive magazine writer would imagine that Plath could have been a poet without the anxiety.
posted by chortly at 10:07 PM on October 2, 2009 [11 favorites]

Fascinating read, in my opinion. I sometimes wish I'd gone with psychology or neuropsychology instead of English Literature. (Even if there is significant overlap, at least in my opinion.)
posted by Scattercat at 10:14 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

While I appreciate that there's an experimental protocol to be followed here, I kept wondering if any help was tendered to those kids most likely to be in need of it.
For the children who need help grappling with their fears, some psychologists try to intervene early, with programs that give worried children tools for quieting the scary thoughts in their heads. Kids are often taught the same skills that anxious adults are, a variation on cognitive behavior therapy, designed to stop the endless recursive loop of rumination, replacing it with a smart, rational interior voice. In a way, it’s teaching anxious people to do what non-anxious people do naturally.
It doesn't say that the psychologists involved in the study intervened in that way, though.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:09 AM on October 3, 2009

So the day when I was strapped to all the meters, well, I just happened to have a turd stuck sideways and I was a bit grumpy. Then they popped that Winnie the Pooh mobile over my head, and though I squirmed, squealed, and pushed, it still would not dislodge. This only made my difficulties worse.

Apparently I have the classic signs of an Anxiety Disorder and was placed on Lexapro™ at the age of four months. Thank you, Science. I'm Glad Someone Cares™.
posted by eegphalanges at 5:29 AM on October 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

From my experience, when it comes to hiring new workers in my business (metal fabrication) I always hire the quiet, unassuming applicant over the outgoing, self confident guy any day. I've found the better workers are the ones who are less social and get satisfaction from a job well done whereas the outgoing ones tend to be constantly bullshitting with other workers when they aren't snorting coke in the bathroom.
posted by digsrus at 5:29 AM on October 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

So where is the science that makes a pathology out of being stupid, loud, and boorish?

I don't buy the generalizations in this article. I have never feared novelty, rarely flinch at loud sounds, and took many dangerous risks playing as a child. I was extremely strong willed, seldom cried, and so indifferent to my mother she thought I was going deaf. So how come I identified with Harlow's monkeys the first moment I saw them on PBS at a young age? Why did I crave sleep as the only relief from the knot twisting in my belly all throughout high school?

Are they really looking for "high-reactive" or just plain ol' introversion? Are they seeing suspicion, annoyance, and disgust in babies at the prodding of scientists and labeling it as fear? Why is being oblivious to your surroundings, oblivious to the consequences of your actions, and oblivious to the emotional state of everyone around you considered the default state of humanity?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 9:17 AM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

This article is maddening in its imbecility.

"Not every brain state sparks the same subjective experience; one person might describe a hyperaroused brain in a negative way, as feeling anxious or tense, while another might enjoy the sensation and instead uses a positive word like “alert.”

None of those words mean anything. Brain state? Hyperaroused? Alert? How can anyone know that the "brain state" that two people are describing differently is the same? These words are so vague that the researcher has to resort to Jungian terms in his descriptions. "The persona can be controlled, but the anima often cannot. " Oh my God.

"Overreactivity in the amygdala" = anxiety. No one knows what the amygdala does, or how it does it. All we know about the amygdala is geography. Saying something occurred in the amygdala is like saying something occurred in Arizona.

These babies had an innate temperament, but to attribute any coincidence between them as babies and them as 20 is folly. "Temperament, it turned out, tended to be stable over those five years, at least in children who started out at the extremes." That's supposed to be evidence that the temperament is biological, e.g. stable. Why would stability be evidence of physiology? Is the fact that babies drastically altered their height evidence that it wasn't biological?

But more importantly, the kids were raised by parents. Parents don't parent the way they want, they parent in reaction to the kid in front of them. In other words, their temperament altered the manner in which they were parented, and it's a good bet that the parenting fostered that same temperament.

My problem isn't with the researchers or their study, nor do I have any doubts that genetics is highly relevant. My problem is that when theory is written up in the NYT, it becomes FACT, it becomes the default understanding. It doesn't matter that the NYT explains it is a theory; what matters is that if the science appears in the popular press, it must therefore have been established. This bias, this cultural fashion, then permeates everything in society.

"In the longitudinal studies of anxiety, all you can say with confidence is that the high-reactive infants will not grow up to be exuberant, outgoing, bubbly or bold."

With confidence?

"Still, while a Sylvia Plath almost certainly won’t grow up to be a Bill Clinton, she can either grow up to be anxious and suicidal, or simply a poet."

Look at the construction: "a Sylvia Plath... can grow up to be anxious..." The article completely reverses its own logic just to preserve identity. We like the comfort of rationalizing our limitations on biology, but who we are is entirely up to us.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 12:16 PM on October 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

So, one example of one baby doing something he was hoping to find=viable scientific theory?

I know this woman, Cora Lation, but she's not sure if Baby 19 is hers.
posted by tzikeh at 12:30 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm all double-thumbs-up about public discussions of anxiety and depression, so I found it interesting in that way. Partly for the normalising effect it has (sometimes less effective than more if the rhetoric is prejudicial, as chortly noted), partly because I usually find descriptions that let me make a bit more sense of myself.

Teenager Baby 19 mentioned a bunch of feelings I'm really familiar with, and which even after counselling and medication I still have trouble treating as 'just symptoms' if they occur. The anxiety in crowds, of saying the right thing or not, of worrying about what everone else is saying/wearing/drinking, makes it really hard to stay in those situations for long. Everything seems incredibly loaded with meaning, and the weight of it means I have to get out of there. And then worry about having left.

Going over how this stuff is not so meaningful, whether with a counsellor or in your own head (again and again again again...), is so much easier if there's a little bit of a societal buffer. If you think other people have read articles like these, or have seen ads like the ones John Kirwan did on depression, the anxiety has just a little less to hold on to. And, you can read and watch these things yourself and get a better grip on your own mental state.

So it's helpful to read about the experiences of people like Baby 19, and the paragraph starting 'anxiety is not fear, exactly' is good because it fills in a gap in another idea I've heard: depression is about things that have happened, anxiety is about things that you think are going to happen. Pretty simplistic, but when I'm low I need simple tools so I can make the more complex ones.
posted by Dandeson Coates, Sec'y at 1:47 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

a haywire motion-detector light that turns on when nothing’s moving but the rain

This really rang true for me. This article has its flaws, but when I'm in an anxious state, it's really helpful to remind myself that it is, at base, brain chemistry. Feeling guilty and self-conscious about being anxious just compounds the problem. The more that I accept that this is how I am, the better I'm able to treat it with medication and behavioral changes.
posted by desjardins at 2:12 PM on October 3, 2009

They tested then as "infants," but the ages are not specified.

The article says, "He recruited infants who were just 4 months old..."

Exactly. Like 4 months of an infant-mother bond means nothing?

What an idiot, to assume that the anxiety of a 4-month-old is "hardwired." Has the man never read Beatrice Beebe/Dan Stern/Frank Lachmann etc.?

Kagan was the head of my clinical psych. program a bit after I graduated. Psychology is so compartimentalized, that's part of the problem. Kagan is a researcher, not a clinical psychologist.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:54 PM on October 3, 2009

The article is horribly badly written (for example, the journalist appears to forget that he has already mentioned the thick cortex/thin cortex results a few paragraphs earlier), yet I must wonder whether I may not be one of those repressed high-reactive types. I was an anxious child who has grown into an outwardly relaxed, but finicky adult. On the other hand, it may be just that Kagan is just playing the same old game of suggestion that horoscope writers and mediums excel at: give a broad, fuzzy enough definition, and watch everybody identify with it. I'm certain that his research results are completely worthless unless thay have been collected under ridiculously strict protocols. Anxiety is very easy to trigger by an experimenter, even unconsciously.
posted by Skeptic at 3:05 AM on October 4, 2009

The article is horribly badly written
Horribly badly, huh?
posted by joe defroster at 12:41 PM on October 5, 2009

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