Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Contours of Fear: Language, mental states, and the brain

Day 27 of my 30-day challenge--inspired by a TED talk--to share on fear.

Speech act theorist John R. Searle, in exploring mental states (i.e., psychological states), mentions several including belief, fear, hope, anger, and desire (Intentionality, 4). A couple of points regarding mental states are of interest. They are directed or aimed toward something:

• I have a belief or hope in . . .
• I have a desire for . . .
• I am angry at . . .
• I have a fear of . . .

Also, language derives from mental states. To demonstrate, I borrow from Searle’s taxonomy on the five primary ways in which humans use language (from Expression and Meaning):

1. Assert: ‘It is raining.’ The speaker’s corresponding mental state is a belief that it is raining.
2. Direct: ‘I order you to listen.’ The speaker’s corresponding mental state is a desire for you to listen.
3. Commit: ‘I promise to come see you tomorrow.’ The speaker’s corresponding mental state is an intent to come see you.
4. Express: ‘ I apologize for stepping on your toe.’ The speaker could have a number of corresponding mental states including remorse and guilt for stepping on your toe.
5. Declare: ‘I nominate you.’ The speaker has no corresponding mental state.
5a. Assert declare: The judge says, ‘I declare you guilty.’ The judge has a corresponding mental state of belief that you are guilty.

Knowing that language and fear are realized in the human brain makes me wonder what the connection is between the two. Experience has taught me that excessive worry impacts my ability to recall words, thereby limiting my use of language. This calls for an inquiry into the various types (modes?) of fear.

The most common type, it seems, is a general fear of the unknown or known. Based either on perception or reality, general fear pops up and disappears from moment to moment.

Next is a fear that produces a call to action. Productive fear is a motivator to do something, to change the circumstances, to make a difference.

Of interest to me is chronic fear. It is perhaps the most difficult to manage because it is possible for a host of other mental states like grief, sadness, anger, hopelessness, despair, and blame to accompany it. It affects one’s ability to focus and to formulate thoughts and sentences. It can lead to stress, long-term struggles, and health problems.

For me, it’s been two plus years since the onset of chronic fear. It came on suddenly, originating from circumstances I had no control over. I couldn’t bear the thought of something being seriously wrong with my baby. To this day it is difficult to accept the fact that my son has an incurable tumor condition.

Out of my struggle I’ve grown curious about the neurological components of the brain with respect to language and persistent fear. It seems that chronic fear intercepts certain functions in the brain. I notice a direct correlation between what I’m thinking and the intensity and longevity of my fear. The psychological impact results in feeling trapped or stuck. The bodily impact results in fatigue, overloaded senses, physical pain, and extra effort to accomplish mundane tasks.

Right before, during, and after my son’s brain/skull surgery, for instance, it took extra effort just to pump milk, go to the bathroom, shower, pick out something to eat, make a phone call, or have a conversation.

Chronic fear has its paralyzing effects. In the face of circumstances that cannot be changed, I freeze. Coming across a cougar in the mountains, a pack of wild dogs on a trail, a whale near my canoe in an inlet of water, or features of NF1 on my son’s body, I freeze.

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