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Tomkins Topics

Tomkins' theories applied to various aspects of life and work

Affect and Neuroplasticity

This post cross-references affect theory with the work of a very influential author in the realm of brain science, and concludes that “Tomkins was ahead of the curve in understanding human cognition, especially in integrating disparate areas of science and research with regard to what are now fundamental questions in neuroscience.” – Editor

Republished from Tomkins and Doidge: human being theory and neuroplasticity.

by Duncan Lucas, February 21, 2014

Norman Doidge is a practising psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, but he is also an award winning writer and poet with an early post-secondary education in the classics and philosophy before turning to psychiatric medicine. That dualistic education in the humanities and sciences gives him a hybrid mind not dissimilar to Silvan Tomkins, who held degrees in playwriting, philosophy, and psychology. In 2007, Doidge published The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.

The Brain is about the ‘hot new’ area of brain science known as neuroplasticity. While Doidge’s book is populist, he has done proper research, so the science behind the book is solid. While Doidge covers a range of neuroplastic issues outside of ‘affect theory’, those issues are nonetheless implicated in much of the discussion, and it would be very illuminating to map Tomkins’ work onto this Doidge book, and to then expand additional research from there. What struck me is the degree to which much of the argumentation around the biochemistry of neuroplasticity in the brain resonates in remarkable ways with Tomkins’ conception of ‘the affects’ as the biological foundation of humans’ emotional lives. I want now to look at a couple of cross-referenced examples.

Increasing and decreasing affect density, a function of neurotransmitters

Here’s one little sample of how Tomkins and Doidge’s work might be mapped together. A core issue for me in the following excerpt is Tomkins’ positive affect pair, excitement (increase) and enjoyment (decrease), and adaptations to emotionally induced neural patterns as per neuroplasticity. Doidge is discussing the effects of the neurochemicals dopamine and oxytocin: “Whereas dopamine induces excitement, puts us into high gear, and triggers sexual arousal, oxytocin induces a calm, warm mood that increases tender feelings and attachment and may lead us to trust” (119). This coincides, as I read it, with Tomkins’ suggestion that the affects are the more general motivational system for the organism, over something such as the more specific sex drive. Dopamine aids in amplifying the triggering signal, which could be sexual, but could equally be an infinite number of other potentially exciting stimuli. Oxytocin, on the other hand, a neurochemical, maps nicely onto Tomkins’ suggestion that the affect enjoyment-joy indicates a decrease in neural firing as one settles into the contentment of post-stimulation. Doidge shows no indication of ever having heard of or read Tomkins, and Tomkins certainly does not appear in the works cited.

Phantom limb as “image”

Here’s another example: Tomkins’ fourth volume is focussed on his conceptions around cognition, the “duplication and transformation of information” as the subtitle indicates. A most telling passage, for me, in all of Tomkins’ writing was this sentence, which became the inscription for this blog: “The world we perceive is a dream we learn to have from a script we have not written” (AIC 4:239). At a certain level, this is Tomkins’ entire theory in compression. In part, the excerpt indicates that cognition involves a process of assembly, disassembly, reassembly of information when percepts are transmuted as and into neural patterns, which happens with equal power when we sleep-dream as when we are conscious. (I must say here that this account of the Tomkins passage is utterly incomplete, but is focussed to illuminate the following ideas from Doidge.)

In chapter seven, “Pain: the dark side of plasticity,” of The Brain that Changes Itself, Doidge enters into a discussion of phantom limbs and the work of Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, a doctor researching phantom limb phenomena. The context of the following excerpt is a discussion about pain and phantom limbs, “body image,” and a question such as, how is it possible to feel something that does not exist? “But as phantoms show, we don’t need a body part or even pain receptors to feel pain. We need only a body image, produced by our brain maps. People with actual limbs don’t usually realize this, because the body images of our limbs are perfectly projected onto our actual limbs, making it impossible to distinguish our body image from our body. [The next line is the one that struck me with regard to Tomkins’ dream.] ‘Your own body is a phantom,’ says Ramachandran, ‘one that your brain has constructed purely for convenience’” (Doidge 188). In volume Four of Affect Imagery Consciousness, Tomkins writes this: “The reality and stability of the phantom limb we regard as evidence that what is normally perceived is a centrally innervated image, guided by sensory input but also by memory, which operates on an internal feedback principle of matching both sensory and relevant memory information to produce a report that is in varying degrees similar to and different from the sensory patterns and memory patterns by which it is guided” (AIC 4:250-51).

The more I read Doidge’s book, the more convinced am I that Tomkins was ahead of the curve in understanding human cognition, especially in integrating disparate areas of science and research with regard to what are now fundamental questions in neuroscience.

Works Cited:

Doidge, Norman (2007). The Brain that Changes Itself. New York: Viking Penguin.

Tomkins, Silvan S. (1992). Affect Imagery Consciousness: Duplication and Transformation of Information. Vol. 4. New York: Springer.

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