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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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Human Development: Attractor States

Paul Kiritsis - Wednesday, February 18, 2015


What is an “attractor state?” Neuronal networks (i.e. pyramidal cells in the primary visual cortex) receiving dendritic input from peripheral sources (i.e. the retina) and transmitting to other neural networks (i.e. the visual associational cortex) through axonal connections are called attractor networks. Neuron subpopulations pertaining to the same attractor network feed back to their own dendritic connections through excitatory collaterals, a phenomenon known as positive feedback looping, whilst concurrently deploying inhibitory interneurons to suppress activities in neighbouring neural networks, a complementary phenomenon known as negative feedback looping, respectively. N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors mediate this dyadic excitatory-inhibitory function, allowing the neurons within an attractor network to persist firing at high frequencies long after the application of an external stimulus has been terminated. Under such circumstances dendritic input may select neuron subpopulations into stimulus-specific “preferential states” otherwise known as “attractor states.”

Some physicists and neuroscientists now believe that stimulus-specific “attractor states” encrypt foreground sensory information like visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory experiences along with background perceptual information like particular thoughts, explicit memories, emotions, and rule-based decision making into “quale”, the subjective, qualitative aspects of consciousness which cannot be generalized to the entire human species nor communicated to any adequate and gratifying level by the interpersonal operative mode of semantic language and the intersubjective agency of scientific jargon.

Attractor networks are inextricably linked with two specific conditions–an active or persistent state and a passive or resting state. In the first, novel dendritic input inaugurates high-frequency neuronal firing within an attractor network, whereas in the second the absence of input leads to a stable, resting state characterized by spontaneous neural depolarizations and low-frequency, random-spiking activity. When attractor networks switch to passive or resting phases, it may be inferred that they are roaming their specific state spaces.  In The Developing Mind, Daniel Siegel proclaims that “attractor states” experienced by individuals as stable, self-organizing patterns with cognitive, affective, and behavioural elements initiate top-down firing of particular neural networks which self-perpetuate their own creation. Neurons which fire together, survive together, and wire together, creating an engrained configuration of mind states, a bundle of psychobiological impulses bound together by banal habit. From this perspective attractor network models and “attractor states” may explain why our mental lives continue to constrict in terms of functionality and creativity, at times tantamount with broken records and unconscious automata. Autobiographical histories are peppered with innumerable examples.

Owing to the curious phenomenon of human stupidity, our infamous tendency to sink into the gelatinating masses of ignorance and unconsciousness, most “attractor states” are maladaptive, self-defeating, and detrimental to wellbeing. In 2009 I suffered the greatest humiliation, the unprecedented, non-consensual termination of a five-year relationship initially founded on the empathic qualities of love, trust, safety, and mutuality. The emotional turmoil and excruciating pain attached to it initiated a benthic storm of linguistic rehearsals pertaining to what I might say and how I might react should I be ill-fated as to chance upon this individual out in public. The imagined repercussions evolved to encompass everything from a planned reunion full of pleasant surprises to genuine embraces and brief moments, and from a random roadside shoulder rub pervaded with cold stares to undignified exchanges peppered with snide remarks and diabolical combat. Even after the original stimulus had ceased, repeated inner recapitulations of these mental rehearsals cleaved, associated, synchronized and reinforced a specific configuration of neural processes in my brain, augmenting the likelihood of their activation in the near future. It just so happens that there has been some rigid adherence to these engrained states, and I routinely find myself tossing through the aforementioned possibilities with little to no regard for how I’m actively contributing to the rigid establishment of primitive ego defences which in turn subvert constructive transformation and change.

The probability that an “attractor state” will be activated is contingent on both autobiographical history and environmental circumstances. For as long as I can remember, genuine introversion, reticence, and shyness have pervaded my psychological constitution. While this never hindered my interpersonal and social functioning to any detrimental level, it posed problems in the area of professional oratory and public speaking. This phenomenon has its origin in my formative high school years and has subsisted until the present moment.  Each time I am due to address an eclectic group of people on specialized research topics, I find myself capitulating to cumulative stress and apprehension. Cognitive-affective epiphenomena of sympathetic system activation include reduced focal attention, forgetting important points and major arguments, overlooking cues and mnemonics, and resorting to excessive dictation from related academic and anecdotal texts. What triggers these maladaptive emotional responses is a confluence of reinforced preferential states for fear and flight coupled with a reduced degree of sensitivity to environmental contingencies. Despite professional and psychospiritual evolution, the idea that each proposition for a speaking engagement may be a sun-washed opportunity for inner growth and transformation, the negative emotional appraisals associated with being a public figure are so deeply engrained in state-specific conditions that they automatically sabotage the possibility of constructive novelty and variability. “Attractor states” are like snowballs rolling down a precipitous slope–the more frequent the activation, the direr the consequences.

Another example of an “attractor state” is my notable obsession with the mythology and history of ancient Egypt. After “remembering” my formative fantasy plays incorporating ancient Egyptian themes and paraphernalia in my twenties, I embarked upon an archetypal odyssey of self-discovery through a holistic, all-encompassing, and animistic lens intrinsic to ancient Egyptian myths and cosmology. This intellectual phase involved reading every academic text I could possibly get my hands on and was punctuated with genuine suadades for customs, rituals, and traditions that mirrored my spiritual bent. My principal areas of interest were the eighteenth dynasty which included the transitory rule of the renowned boy-king Tutankhamun; the mortuary temples and temple-complexes consecrated to the cosmic goddesses Hathor an Isis; the primordial state myths involving Osiris, Isis, Horus, and Seth; and the Ptolemaic Period. Ten years later this accrued body of knowledge was observed and interpreted from an esoteric and transpersonal perspective, lending credence to the scientific conviction that states of mind infused with variant degrees of emotional intensity configure and reconfigure across time.       

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