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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

30 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Brave Genius: How the Unlikely Friendship of Scientist Jacques Monod and Philosopher Albert Camus Shaped Modern Culture

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“Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”

What makes a good life, a meaningful life, a life of purpose? And how can one live it amidst pain and destruction; how can the human spirit soar in the face of crushing adversity? The meaning of life resides in the answers to these questions, which countless luminaries have been asking since the dawn of recorded time, and which an unlikely duo of Nobel-laureate friends — revered writer, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus and pioneering biologist Jacques Monod — set out to answer during one of the darkest periods of human history, the peak of World War II. In Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize (public library), molecular biology and genetics professor Sean B. Carroll — not to be confused with the cosmologist Sean Carroll, who also authors fascinating works, but of a rather different nature — tells the story of how each of these extraordinary men lived through the terrifying reality of the war and emerged as an exceptional mind of creative brilliance and humanistic genius, a story of “the transformation of ordinary lives into exceptional lives by extraordinary events — of courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, the flowering of creative genius, deep friendship, and of profound concern for and insight into the human condition.”

It was the Occupation of Paris that served, as Carroll poignantly puts it, as the “perverse catalyst” that sparked each man’s genius and propelled them into intersecting trajectories of greatness as they entered each other’s lives.

Jacques Monod’s identity card for the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), in his nom de guerre ‘Malivert.’ (Courtesy of Olivier Monod)

Camus, an aspiring 26-year-old writer working as a newspaper layout designer, and Monod, an “underachieving and, at age thirty, relatively old doctoral student in zoology,” met at a human rights event in 1939. Both had to contort their lives to avoid death — Camus by disguising his identity for security reasons with a false ID under the assumed name of Albert Mathé, and Monod by sending his Jewish wife to safety outside of Paris, also equipped with a fake ID that Aryanized her maiden name; both men joined the Resistance against the Germans, each contributing in his own way — Camus through the power of the written word in his moving editorials for the underground Resistance newspaper Combat, and Monod by joining the French armed forces, where he excelled as an officer and went on to lead the coordination of Resistance activities in the latter stage of the Occupation.

Albert Camus’s false identity card, in the name of Albert Mathé, writer. All of the information on the card -- birthdate, place, parents -- is false. (Courtesy of Collection Catherine et Jean Camus, Fonds Camus, Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence, France)

Odette Monod’s false identification card. Odette changed the spelling of her maiden name, Bruhl, to ‘Brulle’ to conceal her Jewish identity. (Courtesy of Olivier Monod)

But they otherwise had little in common by way of upbringing or professional background. Still, they instantly hit it off and found a kindred spirit in the other. More than that, the friendship sparked an uncommon and boundlessly fruitful cross-pollination of intellectual curiosities, which would come to shape each man’s work and impact on the world. Carroll writes of their special connection:

Francis Crick described Monod in terms that applied equally well to his new friend Camus: “Never lacking in courage, he combined a debonair manner and an impish sense of humor with a deep moral commitment to any issue he regarded as fundamental.” In addition to the special bond of former resistants, Monod and Camus discovered they shared many similar concerns. Over the course of their friendship, those concerns would encompass a broad spectrum of humanitarian issues, including the state of affairs in the USSR, human rights in Eastern bloc countries, and capital punishment in France. Monod gave Camus further ammunition for his indictment of the Soviet Union, an indictment that terminated many of Camus’s friendships with left-wing peers.

Camus gave Monod access to his world of literature and philosophy.

Most impressive of all, however, was the enormity of literary and philosophical works Camus managed to publish during the Occupation, underpinned not by the desperation of a war-torn world and a lamentation of evil but, like Viktor Frankl’s timeless treatise from the same era, by a profound faith in the human spirit and our shared capacity for goodness. Carroll writes:

The terror and cruelty of the Occupation, the slaughter of tens of millions in the war (the second such war in a generation), and the horrors of the Holocaust that were coming to light had made many despair and abandon any hope for the future of humanity. Denial of any meaning or purpose in life — nihilism — was a widespread response.

But Camus vehemently rejected nihilism and took an entirely different path. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus addressed what he contended was the fundamental issue of philosophy — “judging whether life is or is not worth living.” To Camus, the crux of the matter of life was the certainty of death. The practical question that certainty prompted was: How could one live a meaningful life in full knowledge of the inevitability of death?

Camus asserted that by recognizing the reality of the physical limits of one’s life, one attained the clarity and freedom to make the most of life as it is. He reasoned that the logical response to the certainty of death was a revolt against death — a revolt that took the form of living life passionately and to the fullest: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”

Camus’s recipe for living life to the fullest was to do nothing in hope of an afterlife, and to rely on courage and reasoning: “The first teaches him to live without appeal [to religion] and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom … and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime.”

For Camus, even Sisyphus — condemned as he was to rolling his rock uphill each day, only to have it roll back down and to begin again — was master of his own fate. Sisyphus created meaning in his own life by deciding that “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Camus concluded the essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

This “reasoned optimism,” as Carroll puts it, resonated with readers in France as they struggled to heal from the psychological atrocities of the war. Camus, whom his close friend Jean-Paul Sartre described as “an admirable conjunction of a person, an action, and a work,” offered hope amidst hopelessness:

Camus once wrote, “In the depths of winter, I discovered that there lay within me an invincible summer.” Readers in France, and then as his works were translated, millions more readers around the world, responded to that invincible summer. Camus offered a practical philosophy for living without succumbing to nihilism or appealing to religion. In the aftermath of the great calamity, Camus offered the masses a picture of a brighter future for France and the world, an alternative to the cycle of war that had darkened a half century, and that threatened to continue. He offered a choice, as he put it, “between hell and reason.”

While Camus was contemplating the philosophical foundations of life, Monod was shedding new light on the biological. During the 1940s, before the discovery of DNA as the basic building block of life, biology was a budding science propelled by, as Carroll elegantly puts it, “simple but fundamental questions.” Enthralled by the mystery of how cells grow, Monod and his collaborator François Jacob, a nineteen-year-old second-year medical student en route to becoming a surgeon, laid the foundations for our understanding of how a single fertilized egg could blossom into a complex creature — and they did it with extraordinary taste, a concept seemingly counterintuitive and belonging more to the literary world than the scientific, but in fact essential for scientific discovery.

Like Camus, Monod also transcended the boundaries of his discipline to effect broader cultural and political awareness. After the liberation of Paris — the momentous triumph that marked the beginning of the end of WWII, which both Anaïs Nin and Ernest Hemingway recorded with exuberant relief — weapons were replaced by dueling dogmas. Carroll contextualizes the climate:

Soon after the end of World War II, a new war emerged — of ideologies. It was a war between capitalism and socialism, between democracy and Communism, and the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In France, those along the entire spectrum of political ideologies from the far left to the far right vied for power and influence. The Communist Party enjoyed strong support, particularly among the intelligentsia and workers, many of whom looked to the Soviet Union as a model of where socialism in France should be heading.

In the summer of 1948, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, the Soviet head of agriculture appointed by Joseph Stalin, launched a concentrated attack on the science of genetics, pushing for geneticists to be purged from Soviet biology — a kind of “ideological terrorism” that flew in the face of what science knew to be true, propagated by France’s communist-owned newspapers. Appalled and infuriated, Monod eviscerated Lysenko’s arguments in an op-ed that ran on the front page of Combat — the same Resistance newspaper in which Camus had given hope and sanity a voice. Stirred by the incident, Monod was moved to “make his life’s goal a crusade against antiscientific, religious metaphysics, whether it be from Church or State.”

September 15, 1948, issue of Combat featuring Jacques Monod’s critique of Soviet biologist T. D. Lysenko and Soviet science. (Archives of the Pasteur Institute)

Unsurprisingly, given their bond and enormous overlap of convictions, Camus’s influence had a profound impact on Monod, who integrated philosophical inquiry into his biological pursuits. Carroll writes:

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Monod turned to consider the implications of the discoveries of modern biology — how the answers to Schrödinger’s question “What is life?” bore on the question of the meaning of life. He explained his impulse in Camusian terms: “The urge, the anguish to understand the meaning of his own existence, the demand to rationalize and justify it within some consistent framework has been, and still is, one of the most powerful motivations of the human mind.” The opening epigraph of Monod’s resulting, widely acclaimed, bestselling book, Chance and Necessity, was the closing passage from his friend’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

Indeed, receiving the Nobel Prize — Camus in 1957 and Monod in 1965 — while equally deserved, produced radically different responses in the two friends. When news of the philosopher’s award broke, Monod immediately sent his friend a letter of warm congratulation:

My dear Camus,

My emotion and my joy are profound. There were many times when I felt like thanking you for your friendship, for what you are, for what you managed to express with such purity and strength, and that I had likewise experienced. I wish that this dazzling honor would also appear to you, in some small part, as a token of friendship and of personal, intimate recognition. I would not dare coming to see you right now, but I embrace you fraternally.

Jacques Monod

But Camus, who feared such public attention would fuel his critics and indicate that his body of work were complete rather than ever-evolving, met the news of the prize with mixed emotions, oscillating between pride and panic. (A reaction not wholly unsurprising given the conflicted story of the Nobel Prize’s very conception.) In his journals, he noted “a strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy.” Despite his friendships with such intellectual and creative icons as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Orwell, he chose to share his feelings only with Monod, responding in a letter:

My dear Monod.

I have put aside for a while the noise of these recent times in order to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warm letter. The unexpected prize has left me with more doubt than certainty. At least I have friendship to help me face it. I, who feel solidarity with many men, feel friendship with only a few. You are one of these, my dear Monod, with a constancy and sincerity that I must tell you at least once. Our work, our busy lives separate us, but we are reunited again, in one same adventure. That does not prevent us to reunite, from time to time, at least for a drink of friendship! See you soon and fraternally yours.

Albert Camus

But beneath the warm professional support of their friendship, there was a deeper bond that held them together, one of shared purpose. Carroll writes:

Both men were deeply engaged with timeless questions about finding meaningful experiences in life. They were forced to ask, by virtue of the experiences into which they were plunged, the most fundamental questions of all: What is worth dying for? And what is worth living for? Once free, they were compelled to ask: What is worth spending one’s life pursuing?

Brave Genius is an elevating read in its entirety, reminding us that even in a time of profound adversity, it is genius, not misery, that loves — longs for, necessitates, thrives on — company.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Wisdom from a MacArthur Genius: Psychologist Angela Duckworth on Why Grit, Not IQ, Predicts Success

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“Character is at least as important as intellect.”

Creative history brims with embodied examples of why the secret of genius is doggedness rather than “god”-given talent, from the case of young Mozart’s upbringing to E. B. White’s wisdom on writing to Chuck Close’s assertion about art to Tchaikovsky’s conviction about composition to Neil Gaiman’s advice to aspiring writers. But it takes a brilliant scholar of the psychology of achievement to empirically prove these creative intuitions: Math-teacher-turned-psychologist Angela Duckworth, who began her graduate studies under positive psychology godfather Martin Seligman at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, has done more than anyone for advancing our understanding of how self-control and grit — the relentless work ethic of sustaining your commitments toward a long-term goal — impact success. So how heartening to hear that Duckworth is the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur “genius” grant for her extraordinary endeavors, the implications of which span from education to employment to human happiness.

In this short video from the MacArthur Foundation, Duckworth traces her journey and explores the essence of her work:

We need more than the intuitions of educators to work on this problem. For sure we need the educators, but in partnership I think we need scientists to study this from different vantage points, and that actually inspired me to move out of the classroom as a teacher and into the lab as a research psychologist.

In the exceedingly excellent How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (public library) — a necessary addition to these fantastic reads on educationPaul Tough writes of Duckworth’s work:

Duckworth had come to Penn in 2002, at the age of thirty-two, later in life than a typical graduate student. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she had been a classic multitasking overachiever in her teens and twenties. After completing her undergraduate degree at Harvard (and starting a summer school for low-income kids in Cambridge in her spare time), she had bounced from one station of the mid-nineties meritocracy to the next: intern in the White House speechwriting office, Marshall scholar at Oxford (where she studied neuroscience), management consultant for McKinsey and Company, charter-school adviser.

Duckworth spent a number of years toying with the idea of starting her own charter school, but eventually concluded that the model didn’t hold much promise for changing the circumstances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, those whom the education system was failing most tragically. Instead, she decided to pursue a PhD program at Penn. In her application essay, she shared how profoundly the experience of working in schools had changed her view of school reform and wrote:

The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Duckworth began her graduate work by studying self-discipline. But when she completed her first-year thesis, based on a group of 164 eighth-graders from a Philadelphia middle school, she arrived at a startling discovery that would shape the course of her career: She found that the students’ self-discipline scores were far better predictors of their academic performance than their IQ scores. So she became intensely interested in what strategies and tricks we might develop to maximize our self-control, and whether those strategies can be taught. But self-control, it turned out, was only a good predictor when it came to immediate, concrete goals — like, say, resisting a cookie. Tough writes:

Duckworth finds it useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. Each one, she says, is necessary to achieve long-term goals, but neither is sufficient alone. Most of us are familiar with the experience of possessing motivation but lacking volition: You can be extremely motivated to lose weight, for example, but unless you have the volition — the willpower, the self-control — to put down the cherry Danish and pick up the free weights, you’re not going to succeed. If a child is highly motivated, the self-control techniques and exercises Duckworth tried to teach [the students in her study] might be very helpful. But what if students just aren’t motivated to achieve the goals their teachers or parents want them to achieve? Then, Duckworth acknowledges, all the self-control tricks in the world aren’t going to help.

This is where grit comes in — the X-factor that helps us attain more long-term, abstract goals. To address this, Duckworth and her colleague Chris Peterson developed the Grit Scale — a deceptively simple test, on which you evaluate how much twelve statements apply to you, from “I am a hard worker” to “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.” The results are profoundly predictive of success at such wide-ranging domains of achievement as the National Spelling Bee and the West Point military academy. Tough describes the surprising power of this seemingly mundane questionnaire:

For each statement, respondents score themselves on a five-point scale, ranging from 5, “very much like me,” to 1, “not like me at all.” The test takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth and Peterson took it out into the field, they found it was remarkably predictive of success. Grit, Duckworth discovered, is only faintly related to IQ — there are smart gritty people and dumb gritty people — but at Penn, high grit scores allowed students who had entered college with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high GPAs. At the National Spelling Bee, Duckworth found that children with high grit scores were more likely to survive to the later rounds. Most remarkable, Duckworth and Peterson gave their grit test to more than twelve hundred freshman cadets as they entered the military academy at West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the whole candidate score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness, and a leadership potential score. But the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted in Beast Barracks and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s simple little twelve-item grit questionnaire.

You can take the Grit Scale here (registration is free). For more on the impact of Duckworth’s work, do treat yourself to the altogether indispensable How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald Reads John Masefield’s “On Growing Old”

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A poignant meditation on life’s true satisfactions.

Though F. Scott Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896–December 21, 1940) was a man of ample theoretical wisdom on literature and life — from his ideas about what makes good writing to his feisty literary idealism to his heart-warming fatherly advice to a young daughter — he was also one of great sensitivity to the gritty, living experience of language. Here is his exquisite reading of John Masefield’s 1919 poem “On Growing Old” — a sublime meditation on the mortality paradox, found in the altogether breathtaking anthology Sea Fever: Selected Poems of John Masefield (public library):

Be with me, Beauty, for the fire is dying;
My dog and I are old, too old for roving.
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying,
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.
I take the book and gather to the fire,
Turning old yellow leaves; minute by minute
The clock ticks to my heart. A withered wire,
Moves a thin ghost of music in the spinet.
I cannot sail your seas, I cannot wander
Your cornland, nor your hill-land, nor your valleys
Ever again, nor share the battle yonder
Where the young knight the broken squadron rallies.
Only stay quiet while my mind remembers
The beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.

Beauty, have pity! for the strong have power,
The rich their wealth, the beautiful their grace,
Summer of man its sunlight and its flower.
Spring-time of man, all April in a face.
Only, as in the jostling in the Strand,
Where the mob thrusts, or loiters, or is loud,
The beggar with the saucer in his hand
Asks only a penny from the passing crowd,
So, from this glittering world with all its fashion,
Its fire, and play of men, its stir, its march,
Let me have wisdom, Beauty, wisdom and passion,
Bread to the soul, rain when the summers parch.
Give me but these, and though the darkness close
Even the night will blossom as the rose.

The poem rings with particular poignancy in the context of a 1940 letter Fitzgerald sent shortly before his death to his 18-year-old daughter Scottie — whom seven years earlier he had advised not to worry about growing up — in which the author reflects:

Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat [and] the redeeming things are not “happiness and pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.

Complement with Fitzgerald reading Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Science of Stress, Orgasm and Creativity: How the Brain and the Vagina Conspire in Consciousness

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“To understand the vagina properly is to realize that it is not only coextensive with the female brain, but is also, essentially, part of the female soul.”

“The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’” philosopher Alain de Botton argued in his meditation on sex, “the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.” But in his attempt to counter the reductionism that frames human sexuality as a mere physiological phenomenon driven solely by our evolutionary biology, de Botton overcompensates by reducing in the opposite direction, negating the complex interplay of brain and biology, psychology and physiology, that propels the human sexual experience. That’s precisely what Naomi Wolf, author of the 1991 cultural classic The Beauty Myth, examines in Vagina: A New Biography (public library) — a fascinating exploration of the science behind the vastly misunderstood mind-body connection between brain and genitalia, consciousness and sexuality, the poetic and the scientific. What emerges is a revelation of how profoundly a woman’s bodily experience influences nearly every aspect of life, from stress to creativity, through the intricate machinery that links biology and beingness.

Wolf writes:

Female sexual pleasure, rightly understood, is not just about sexuality, or just about pleasure. It serves, also, as a medium of female self-knowledge and hopefulness; female creativity and courage; female focus and initiative; female bliss and transcendence; and as medium of a sensibility that feels very much like freedom. To understand the vagina properly is to realize that it is not only coextensive with the female brain, but is also, essentially, part of the female soul.

[…]

Once one understands what scientists at the most advanced laboratories and clinics around the world are confirming — that the vagina and the brain are essentially one network, or “one whole system,” as they tend to put it, and that the vagina mediates female confidence, creativity, and sense of transcendence — the answers to many of these seeming mysteries fall into place.

Handcrafted vagina embroidery by artist Kira Scarlet

A pivotal player in this mediation is the female pelvic nerve — a sort of information superhighway that branches out from the base of the spinal cord to the cervix, connecting the latter to the brain and thus controlling much of sexual response. But this information superhighway is really more like a superlabyrinth, the architecture of which differs enormously from one woman to another, and is completely unique for each one. This diversity of wiring in the highly complex female pelvic neural network helps explain why women have wildly different triggers for orgasm. (By contrast, the male pelvic neural network is significantly simpler, consisting of comparatively regular neural pathways arranged neatly in a grid that surrounds the penis in a circle of pleasure.) This biological reality, Wolf points out, clashes jarringly with the dominant culturally constructed fantasy of how sexual intercourse is supposed to proceed:

The pornographic model of intercourse — even our culture’s conventional model of intercourse, which is quick, goal-oriented, linear, and focused on stimulation of perhaps one or two areas of a woman’s body — is just not going to do it for many women, or at least not in a very profound way, because it involves such a superficial part of the potential of women’s neurological sexual response systems.

Embroidery from the series 'Lessons from My Mother' by artist Andrea Dezsö

Another key component of sexual experience is the autonomic nervous system (ANS) — the puppeteer of arousal, controlling all smooth muscle contractions and affecting the body’s response beyond conscious control. It encompasses both the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions, and ensures they work in unison. Because arousal precedes orgasm, the ANS first needs to do its own work before the complex pelvic neural network can work its own magic. Wolf writes:

For women, sexual response involves entering an altered state of consciousness. … In women, the biology of arousal is more delicate than most of us understand, and it depends significantly on this sensitive, magical, slowly calmed, and easily inhibited system.

To be sure, Wolf reminds us that it’s not at all uncommon for women to have a physiological response during rape, despite the enormous psychological pain and stress of the assault, but this response is not the same as the transcendent, dimensional orgasm that takes place when brain and body work in harmonious bliss. This also holds true in sexual situations that aren’t as violent as rape but still assault the ANS in one way or another:

If a woman’s ANS response is ignored, she can have intercourse and even climax; but she won’t necessarily feel released, transported, fulfilled, or in love, because only a superficial part of her capacity to respond has been made love to, or engaged.

In fact, the most fascinating aspect of the ANS, absolutely critical yet poorly understood, is that it is profoundly impacted by the mental landscape, steering the immutable interdependence between brain and vagina. The ANS, which serves as the translator between the psychological and the physiological, is thus particularly vulnerable to what psychologists call “bad stress.” (By contrast, the “good stress” many women experience in exciting or mock-dangerous sexual scenarios which they still control can be compelling and pleasurable.) “Bad stress” stems from the perceived lack of safety, and the presence of safety is absolutely essential to catapulting the female brain into the kind of “high” orgasm that is only possible in this disinhibited trance state. Wolf explains:

This biological, evolutionary connection for women of possible ecstasy to emotional security has implications that cannot be overstressed. Relaxing allows for female arousal.

Just as being valued and relaxed can heighten female sexual response, “bad stress” can dramatically interfere with all of women’s sexual processes.

[…]

“Bad stress,” researchers have now abundantly confirmed, has exactly the same kind of negative effect on female arousal and on the vagina itself. When a woman feels threatened or unsafe, the sympathetic nervous system — the parasympathetic nervous system’s partner in the ANS — kicks in. This system regulates the “fight or flight” response: as adrenaline and catecholamines are released in the brain, nonessential systems such as digestion and, yes, sexual response, close down; circulation constricts, because the heart needs all the blood available to help the body run or fight; and the message to the body is “get me out of here.” Based on [research insights], we now know that threatening environment — which can include even vague verbal threats centered on the vagina or dismissive language about the vagina — can close down female sexual response.

This notion that biology conditions consciousness and vice versa, of course, isn’t new. But the research Wolf cites presents compelling evidence that “bad stress,” especially rape and early sexual trauma, can have profound biological effects:

There is growing, if still preliminary, evidence that rape and early sexual trauma can indeed “stay in the body” — even stay in the vagina — and change the body on the most intimate, systemic level. Recovery is possible, but treatment should be specialized. Rape and early sex abuse can indeed permanently change the working of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — so crucial for female arousal; and, if she is not supported by the right treatment, it can permanently alter the way a woman breathes, the rate of her heart, her blood pressure, and her startle reaction, in a manner that is not under any conscious control.

Even more strikingly, some studies have found that elevated SNS activation is linked to a variety of health hazards seemingly unrelated to sexual trauma, including vertigo, motor control and balance issues, visual processing problems, and elevated startle response. In other words, sexual abuse alters the brain in a way that sabotages multiple body systems and damages healthy stress response. Wolf recapitulates the implications poignantly:

Understood in this way, and with this significant evidence, rape and sexual assault, with their attendant trauma, should be understood not just as a form of forced sex; they should also be understood as a form of injury to the brain and body, and even as a variant of castration.

Demonstrating just how strong the connection between mind and body is, Korean researchers discovered that stress and sexual trauma actually affect, on a biological level, the very functioning of the vagina. Studying female rats, they found that “chronic physical stress modifies [sexual behavior] through a mechanism believed to involve complex changes in sex hormones, endocrine factors, and neurotransmitters.” What’s more, they were able to identify the precise biological mechanism responsible for this deep-seated interplay:

Evidently nitric oxide (NO) and nitric oxide synthase (NOS) play important roles in vaginal and clitoral engorgement — helping the smooth muscle of the vagina relax and the vaginal tissues swell in preparation for arousal and orgasm — and these chemicals and their actions are inhibited when females are negatively stressed.

The researchers found that the stressed-out female rats were less receptive and more hostile to their male partners, displaying measurable aggression and irritability, and ultimately refusing to copulate. Stress, it turns out, diminished the female rats’ ability to reach arousal by greatly impairing their genital blood flow. The scientists concluded:

In animal model studies, mental or physical stress increases the level of serum catecholamines, thereby causing vascular contraction, which in turn reduces blood flow and leads to sexual dysfunction. . . . Since stress is concomitant with an increased output of catecholamines in blood . . . it is reasonable to assume that blood flow to the genital organs reduces during periods of stress. . . . [W]e measured norepinephrine as an indirect index of catecholamine level and found that it increased in the stress group and decreased in the recovery group. This result indirectly supports the suggestion that stress affects female genital blood flow.

Most ominous of all was the projection that if such stress levels were sustained over time, the physiological changes they cause would eventually affect the vaginal tissue itself. Indeed, researchers tested those tissues after the female rats were dead and found “biologically measurable changes.”

Women, of course, are not rats, but this only means that the effects of such stress are even more profound. Wolf argues that besides impairing women’s ability to reach orgasm, “bad stress” also affects the overall capacity for joy, hopefulness, and creativity. Unlike rats, humans are also susceptible to forms of abuse beyond the physical — Wolf cites the tragically prevalent cultural tendency to deride the vagina and its owner, embedded even in the slang we have for female genitalia. She writes:

The role of manipulating female stress in targeting the vagina should not be ignored. This behavior—ridiculing the vagina—makes perfect instinctive sense. These acts are often impersonal and tactical—strategies for directing a kind of pressure at women that is not consciously understood but may be widely intuited, and even survive in folk memory, as eliciting a wider neuropsychological “bad stress” response that actually debilitates women.

She cites one particularly unsettling example:

In 2010, male Yale students gathered at a “Take Back the Night” event, where their female classmates were marching in a group, protesting against sexual assault. The young men chanted at the protesters, “No means yes and yes means anal.” Some of the young women brought a lawsuit against the university, arguing that tolerating such behavior created an unequal educational environment. Ethically they are in the right, and neurobiologically they are right as well. Almost all young women who face a group of their male peers chanting such slogans are likely to feel instinctively slightly panicked. On some level they are getting the message that they may be in the presence of would-be rapists — making it impossible to shrug off immature comments, as women are often asked to do. They sense there is a wider risk to them that is being threatened, and indeed there is, but it is not just the risk of sexual assault. If they are stressed regularly in this way, they will indeed depress the whole subtle and delicate network of neurobiological triggers and reactions that make them feel good, happy, competent, and as if they know themselves.

One study termed the complex and lasting effects of such stress, an increasingly recognizable medical pattern, “multisystem dysfunction” — and it can effect such a wide array of physical health issues as higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, hormonal imbalances, and fertility problems. But the most damaging consequences of these physical changes, Wolf argues, are cognitive and psychoemotional:

The female body reacts in the same way to “bad stress” whether the context is the birthing room or the university or the workplace. If the female brain senses that an environment is not safe, its stress response inhibits all the same organs and systems, regardless of setting. Many of the signals that either stoke or diminish female desire have to do with the female brain’s question: Is it safe for her?

So if a woman goes to work or to study in a sexually dangerous or threatening atmosphere day after day, she risks — because of the cumulative, long-term effect of that “bad stress” — having the letting-go, creative “relaxation response” inhibited even outside her work or school environment.

[…]

If you sexually stress a woman enough, over time, other parts of her life are likely to go awry; she will have difficulty relaxing in bed eventually, as well as in the classroom or in the office. This in turn will inhibit the dopamine boost she might otherwise receive, which would in turn prevent the release of the chemicals in her brain that otherwise would make her confident, creative, hopeful, focused — and effective, especially relevant if she is competing academically or professionally with you. With this dynamic in mind, the phrase “fuck her up” takes on new meaning.

[…]

The vagina responds to the sense of female safety, in that circulation expands, including to the vagina, when a woman feels she is safe; but the blood vessels to the vagina constrict when she feels threatened. This may happen before the woman consciously interprets her setting as threatening. So if you continually verbally threaten or demean the vagina in the university or in the workplace, you continually signal to the woman’s brain and body that she is not safe. “Bad” stress is daily raising her heart rate, pumping adrenaline through her system, circulating catecholamines, and so on. This verbal abuse actually makes it more difficult for her to attend to the professional or academic tasks before her.

Cartoon by Emily Flake from 'The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism.' Click image for more.

Yet despite the compelling scientific evidence, the most moving and encompassing point Wolf makes is an anthropological one:

The way in which any given culture treats the vagina — whether with respect or disrespect, caringly or disparagingly — is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated.

Vagina: A New Biography is absolutely fascinating in its entirety. For a less scientific but no less pause-giving take, complement it with The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism, then revisit Susan Sontag on sex.

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