April 9, 2013
Joseph LeDoux’s opinion piece in The New York Times, “For the Anxious, Avoidance Can Have an Upside,” is an interesting essay that—like so many reports of neuroscience research in the mass media—miseducates the public.
Here’s the formula, as I see it. Take a phenomenon of human social life—in this case, social anxiety and responses to trauma and stress. Present some pre-neuroscience results of lab experiments on animals and generalize these results to human beings. Then present current research that shows where and how the brain accounts for the behaviors in question and again generalize—this time not from animal to human, but from brain to living being-in-the-world.
The topic is social anxiety and the types of avoidance people and rats exhibit in the face of perceived danger. There’s what’s called active avoidance and passive coping, as when rats who receive an electric shock paired with a sound will then freeze whenever they hear the sound again, or when people “with social anxiety problems” avoid social situations. Then there’s what’s called proactive avoidance and active coping, as when the sound is turned off when the rat makes any kind of movement at all and gradually learns (through the use of what psychology calls negative reinforcement) that the sound is not a threat, or when people develop strategies, like breathing or relaxation techniques, that make being in social situations tolerable. In the case of both rats and people, it’s better to be active and take control of what’s stressing you out.
At this point you may be thinking, as I was, “Huh?”This is common sense” (folk psychology, if you will). Not to mention that conditioning has the topic of the first chapters of Psych 101 texts for the past 75 years.
Apparently, what makes the rat experiment and its generalization to humans worthy of being recycled is research showing that different parts of the brain do different things and that “the active coping response, proactive avoidance…requires that the information processed in the input region be redirected to a different output controller in the amygdala, one that engages goal-directed actions.” All this, apparently, to justify this conclusion:
“When avoidance prevents one from dealing with life, it is maladaptive. But when avoidance is proactive and part of active coping and agency, it helps the person control the accelerator, brakes, and the track switches. It is a useful adaptive activity.”
I might not have stopped to share my thoughts on this essay (or even to give it any thought) if it were not about avoidance. Because what struck me as a peculiar irony of the essay was the author’s apparent unawareness of his own avoidance—an avoidance of the social in the scientific path he was taking to social anxiety.
I’m all for learning everything we can about how our brains work and discovering/creating the value this new learning can have. But to use brain research as somehow explanatory of the incredible complexity of human life, to reduce the pain of social anxiety a particular person experiences to internal information processing pathways is silly, dangerously so. It’s silly and dangerous in the way that reductionistic science has always been. In the way that psychology has for a century avoided the fundamental socialness of human life by going inward instead of outward, and by distorting who we are in order to explain us—instead of embracing who we are in order that we might be empowered to go beyond who we are.
As a step in this direction, we could locate what the experts are calling social anxiety in the broader culture and the way people live their lives, ask ourselves how it came to be that people can be afraid to talk to one another, that loneliness can be someone’s life companion, that we are seduced by the knowers of the world even though they’ve failed us time and time again, that it’s become harder and harder for more and more people to see and seize upon possibilities for creativity and growthful transformation of their lives, and that trying to avoid uncertainty in an uncertain world makes us crazy. Let’s continue studying the brain—by not relating to it as if it doesn’t reside in the social world we’ve created.