Saturday, June 20, 2015



Simple Science of Shame

" This state (Shame) occurs in helpless and hopeless stressful situations in which the individual becomes inhibited and strives to avoid attention in order to become 'unseen' (Powles, 1992). Mahler's observations have been corroborated by Beebe and Lachman (1986b), who describe a stress-induced 'inhibition of responsivity in which a sudden total cessation of in infant movement accompanies a limp, motionless headhang". (Schore, A. 1994, p. 204)
Shame Recovery
I have asked several hundred people to tell me about their most embarrassing childhood experience.  The strategies they used to cope with childhood shame has always related to their current life feelings of inadequacy, failure, being bad, worthless or hopeless.  It is my belief each patient’s story of childhood shame needs to inform the beginning stages of psychotherapy. 

As therapists we are working to allow a ‘felt sense of attunement’ with our patients, affect synchrony.  Any deep seated, pervasive feelings of predictable misattunement will require the patient to develop defensive structures, which Winnicott called the “False Self”.  Our job is to make familiar these defensive structures, so the patient can develop new options.  Affect synchrony is missing when a child (or adult) is experiencing shame.  Therapy is a developmental second chance to practice affect syncrony.

Healthy Attachment

Here is a quote from
Schore, A. (2003)    Affect Dysregulation and the Disorders of the Self.
                                                   New York, NY: W.W. Norton, pp.273-4
 “Within mutual gaze episodes of affect synchrony (Feldman, et al., 1999) parents engage in intuitive, nonconscious, facial, vocal, and gestural preverbal communication...provide young infants with a large amount of episodes—often around 20 per minute during parent-infant interactions—in which parents make themselves contingent, easily predictable, and manipulatable by the infant”. (Papousek et al., 1991)

This means Mom and Dad have to know their child is relating to them.  They must do repetitive behaviors with which the child is familiar.  The young infant must know they can influence their parents.  This is especially true in play states of high arousal. In all high arousal states of interest-excitement or enjoyment-joy the child is the most prepared to establish new attachment organizations throughout their body/brain.  The right orbital frontal lobe, the right side of the amygdala and the brain stem are key players in learning new patterns of interacting with others.
The preceding is all the good news.  So how is it we become emotional basket cases?  Many times during healthy development humans can feel quite distressed about themselves and others; adolescence and the terrible twos are major examples.  The two earliest forming and most disruptive feelings or affects are shame and disgust.  Shame is the easier of the two to explain because it develops along-with and through our occipital lobe which also contains the low brain underpinnings of our language abilities.  This allows us to connect words to our deflated feelings.
The well-known effects of shame on during high energy, developmentally mandatory moments are explained below with some quotes from:
Schore, A., 1994,    Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self.
                                                 Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers
“The optimal ‘good enough’ mother (Winnicott, 1971) of the late practicing period is thus one who can tolerate inducing stressful socialization transactions in her infant.” (p. 209)
Shame will only occur when the individual is in a state of interest-excitement or enjoyment-joy; and there is a failure of fulfillment of expectation that the attachment need will be fulfilled. (p.203)
"Shame is originally grounded in the experience of being looked at by the Other and in the realization that the Other can see things about oneself that are not available to one's vision. (Wright, 1991, p.30) (p. 208)
“Tomkins (1962, 1963) notes that shame is activated when one expects another to be familiar but suddenly the other appears unfamiliar”. (p. 244)

Babies are full of high arousal affective states of excitement-interest and joy.  Their behavior cannot always meet the approval of Mom.  When Mom looks disapproving babies demonstrate that they feel ashamed.


This chapter is written to clarify the modern understanding of the relationship between primary affects, such as shame and disgust: and consciousness.  We have now turned neuroscience on its head.  Consciousness is not generated in the cortex and is not inherently perceptual, it is first recognizable affectively.  Our felt sense of being “us” has less to do with cognition, more to do with our feelings and much more to do with our instincts.

I will use and explain many quotes from: Solms, M, 2013, The Conscious Id: Neuropsychoanalysis: London, England.  He concludes this paper by challenging us to determine if this new information will help us better understand the facts we observe.

Black= Solms, M
Red= Maier, B

Ego is defined as ‘external self’.  It is an ideational concept of the individual as the center of the universe.  I will substitute ‘external self, or ‘omnipotent self’ in order to be slightly less vague .

 Id is defined as: “the bodily ‘self’ as an idea, albeit an everyday one.  It is a learnt representation of the self” (p. 15) Therefore I will substitute; ‘the bodily self as an idea, a learnt representation of self’ or ‘internal self’, for Solms’ use of ‘Id’.

Cathexis= concentration of physic energy on some particular person, thing, idea, or an aspect of the self.
Dint=force: exertion.
Biological Valence=wished-for, feared, etc.

“Above all, the phenomenal states of the body-as-subject are experienced affectively. Affects do not emanate from the external sense modalities.  They are the states of the subject. These states are thought to represent the biological value of changing internal conditions (e.g. hunger, sexual arousal).  When internal conditions favor survival and reproductive successes, they feel ‘good’, when not, they feel ‘bad”(p. 7).  There is a mysterious, innate sense in us of our identity.  Solms’ article will help us know it is not knowable.  We can know things about our consciousness which may help us understand our distress and our health.
Affect is an intrinsic property of the brain….vital needs (represented as deviations from homeostatic set-points) can only be satisfied through interactions with the external world……affects, although inherently subjective, are typically directed toward objects: ‘I feel like this about that’ (cf. the philosophical concept of intentionality or aboutness’)” (p. 7).  We are constantly scanning from our innermost out toward our surround.  Our instinctive survival scans are at some level of balance every instant.  As data comes down to this level we may change this state of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sense.  Bodily input arrives; such as hunger and thirst, our internal sense of self automatically can change.
        “The keynote of affective consciousness is provided by the pleasure-unpleasure series, the motor expression of which is approach-withdrawal behavior. Feelings of pleasure-unpleasure—and the associated peremptory actions—are readily generated by stimulating the periaqueductal grey (PAG).  This ancient brain structure is found in all verebrates….ascending from the PAG and into the limbic forebrain, which reciprocally provides descending controls, are various instinctual motivational circuits that prepare mammalian organisms for situations of fixed biological value.  These are known as the circuits for ‘basic emotions” (p. 7). If something attracts us we tend to approach it.  When no pleasure is derived or imagined we pull away and move on.  When the situation matches situations which have benefitted us in the past we approach it.  This emotional sense of pleasure/nonpleasure is coordinated between the limbic system and our brainstem.  In its simplest form, a ‘good’ or ‘bad‘ valence is associated with the situation.

“the basic emotions enumerated  above do not exhaust the range of human affectivity.  What distinguishes them is their instinctual nature. There are whole classes of simpler affects, such as homeostatic affects, which give expression to vegetative drives (e.g. hunger and thrust), and sensory affects, which respond automatically to certain stimuli (e.g. surprise and disgust), not to mention the infinite hybrid forms generated when any of these affects blends with cognition (see Panksepp, 1988)” (p. 7).

       There are two ways in which the body is represented in the brain. One is equal to the ideational concept of the individual as the center of the universe.  Freud would call this the “ego”.  
“The second aspect of the body is its internal milieu. The autonomic body. This aspect is barely represented on the cortical surface.  It is represented deeper and lower in the brain. The structures that represent this aspect of the body pivot around the hypothalamus……..these introceptive structures, too, not only monitor but also regulate the state of the body (homeostasis).  We call this aspect of the body representation the internal body, for short.” (p. 8)  This is Freud’s “id”.

“Recent research demonstrates unequivocally that the corticalcentric view of consciousness (as the seat of the sentient self) is mistaken” (p. 10).  Just because we can think about being conscious with our cortex doesn’t locate consciousness there.  In fact because we can observe that we are conscious helps to prove we are see something with the observing part of our being which is not the thing being observed.

“The state of consciousness as a whole is generated in the upper brainstem… generated in a part of the upper brainstem then called the ‘reticular activating system.’  Total destruction of the exteroceptive structures had no impact on the intrinsic consciousness-generating properties of the brainstem system…all consciousness ultimately derives from the upper-brainstem sources” (p. 11-12). Visa-versa damage to the upper brainstem obliterates consciousness.

“{Cortical removal did not interrupt the presence of the sentient self, or of being conscious, it merely deprived the patient of ‘certain forms of information’ (Merker 2007, p. 65).  Lesions in the upper brain stem, by contrast, totally and rapidly destroy consciousness” (p. 12).

       The cortex contributes representational memory space to consciousness. This enables cortex to stabilize the objects of perception, which in turn creates potential for detailed and synchronized processing of perceptual images.  This contribution derives from the unrivalled capacity of the cortex for representational forms of memory (in all its variety, both short- and long-term).  Based on this capacity, cortex transforms the fleeting, wavelike states of the brainstem activation into ‘mental solids.’  It generates objects” (p. 12).  These ‘objects’ include somewhat static representations of our early care givers and other significant people in our lives.  Judith Herman stated in 2007: “Shame is one’s own vicarious experience of the other’s scorn”. If we feel we are not living up to how we think our parents wanted us to live, we see their scorn inside us. Re-viewing these ‘mental solids’ can help soften the look on their faces.

“To be clear: the cortical representations are unconscious in themselves; however, when consciousness is extended onto them (by attention), they are transformed into something both conscious and stable, something that can be thought in working memory…
      If such encounters are to issue in more than stereotyped instinctual responses, they also require thinking.  And thinking necessarily entails delay.  This (delay) function is rooted first and foremost in the stability of cortical representations, which enables them to be ‘held in mind’.  The prototype for this in Freud’s metapsychology was ‘wish cathexis’, which entails a representation of the wished-for object being used to guide to ongoing behavior…In other words, biologically valenced (wished-for, feared, etc.) objects of past experience are rendered conscious by dint of their ‘instinctive salience’ (which is ultimately determine by their biological meaning in the pleasure-unpleasure series—the very basis of consciousness)” (p.13).  We want to ‘issue in’ more accurate cortical representations of our thoughts about parents.  If they could not take a scowl off their face in real life, we must learn to see the hurt and pain they were feeling which caused them to scowl.  Our ‘guide to ongoing behavior’ becomes our modified images of our caregivers when observed through the rich tapestry of people we respect and trust.  I would call this making meaning in an authentic way.

“biologically valenced (wished-for, feared, etc.) objects of past experience are rendered conscious by the dint of their ‘instinctive salience’ (which is ultimately determine by their biological meaning in the pleasure—unpleasure series---the very basis of consciousness).”(p. 13)
      “Hence the evolutionary and developmental pressure to constrain incentive salience in perception through prediction-error coding (this is Freud’s ‘reality principle), which places constraints on motor discharge. Such error-coding must be regulated at bottom by the homeostatic function of affective consciousness, which determines the biological value of all objects of attention (p. 13). This is a great blessing or a horrible curse.  We inhibit actions as we check in with our mental representations.  If the error we predicted has us being mistreated by people (or dogs) we tend draw people looking to mistreat someone.  Then, we get more and more constrained.  On the other hand, the ‘delay’ allows us time check-in with our realistic self-objects and predict more useful outcomes.  Failing to achieve an imagined useful outcome is far superior to holding yourself back from acting because of shame.

“Freud’s earliest conceptions of the ego (external self) defined it as a network of ‘constantly cathected’ neurons that exert collateral inhibitory effects on each other (Freud, 1895) (p. 14).

“In short, words enable us to think about relations between things both in space and in time.  This greatly enhances the delay-response mechanism and surely defines the essence of what Freud called ‘secondary-process’ thinking (p. 15).  This intermingling of inhibitory effects gives us even more time to process in a healthy way, information that would have in the past fallen into rigid predictable patterns.  We can now be uncertain and curious about judging ourselves, rather than safely prejudged as flawed.

“self unfolds over several levels of experience”(p. 16).

“the internal self…is the fount of all consciousness; the external self…is a learnt representation that is unconscious in itself, but can be consciously ‘thought with’ when cathected by the...abstracted (internal) self, which provides the reflexive scaffolding for the (observing ability of the external self), is likewise unconscious, but can consciously ‘think about’ the (external self)”.
Parentheses are mine to substitute for id, ego & superego. (p. 16)

“the goal of all learning is automatization of mental processes—that is, increased predictability and reduced surprise.  It is the biological salience of prediction errors—mediated by attention—that requires the affective ‘presence’ of the internal self.  As soon as the external self has mastered a mental task, therefore, the relevant associative algorithm is automatized.  This could be the mechanism of repression: it could consist in a premature withdrawal of reflexive awareness (of episodic ‘presence’), premature automatization of a behavioral algorithm, before it fits the bill.  In this context, fitting the bill implies obeying the reality principle.  Premature automatization therefore results in constant prediction-error, with associated release of free energy (affect), and the ongoing risk of repressed cognitive material reawakening attention” (p. 17).  Shame structures become ‘automatized’ early in life before we have enough data to optimally determine their salience.  An outcome of therapy (and also healthy friendships) is to set up behavioral algorithms that obey our reality principles, our beliefs and values.  Shame is experienced when we deviate from our own values.