Restoring humanity to life

Spooky Language!

11/4/2017        In the News 2 Comments

Spooky Language!

Chuck Ruby, Ph.D.

In 2001 the late irreverent comedian George Carlin used the phrase "spooky language" to describe the wording of the 10 commandments. I do not cite Carlin in order to debase religious beliefs as he did. I think spirituality and religion can be of immense comfort and contribute to a sense of meaningful well-being for some people. I mention Carlin's comedic use of the phrase only in order to apply it to a recent study by Schmitz and colleagues entitled, "Hippocampal GABA enables inhibitory control over unwanted thoughts". This study claims that brain activity is the key to understanding a person's intrusive thoughts. But the authors of this study use spooky language in order to obfuscate and mislead about what would otherwise be a more simple, yet still difficult, non-disease matter.

This study is peppered with the same spooky language as others reported throughout academic journals and the media that make the ontological mistake of conflating human experiences with the neurochemical happenings going on during those experiences, and of using this language in a way that implies those brain happenings are pathological, while no evidence is ever presented to support that assertion.

The mental health industry is replete with this mistake because it is an inevitable result of the medical model - assuming troublesome experiences are symptoms of brain dysfunction without evidence of such. If this assumption were true, it would make sense to pay attention to brain chemistry and functioning when those experiences occur.

For instance, when a person has a brain tumor in just the right place, she might experience the world differently and act differently than without the tumor. In this situation, neurologists are helpful medical specialists who can address this problem and possibly alter brain chemistry or surgically remove the tumor in order to fix the problem.

This is similar to how a mechanic would identify a faulty car part and repair or replace it. But absent an identifiable broken brain part, this model is inappropriate when dealing with individual experiences of intrusive thoughts. People are not cars and, as far as we know, cars do not have meaningful experiences they can complain about.

Consider just a few examples of spooky language in the Schmitz study and a more simple, straightforward (non-spooky) translation in parentheses:

"Intrusive memories, hallucinations, ruminations, and persistent worries lie at the core of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, major depression, and anxiety." (When people complain of persistent and intrusive thoughts we say they have a disease.)

"These debilitating symptoms are widely believed to reflect, in part, the diminished engagement of the lateral prefrontal cortex to stop unwanted mental processes, a process known as inhibitory control." (When people are experiencing intrusive thoughts, we notice a part of the brain becomes less active.)

"In individuals with schizophrenia, the severity of positive symptoms, such as hallucination, increases with hippocampal hyperactivity, as indexed from abnormally elevated resting blood oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) activity, or increased regional cerebral blood flow, blood volume, or blood glucose metabolic rate." (When the severity of intrusive thoughts increases, we notice another part of the brain becomes more active.)

"Consistent with this view, animal models of schizophrenia show that disrupting GABAergic inhibition in the hippocampus by transgenic or pharmacological manipulations reliably reproduces hippocampal hyperactivity and volume loss, along with behavioral phenomena paralleling symptoms present in this disorder." (When we disrupt the natural workings of the brain it causes problems for the owner of the brain.)

"Together, these findings suggest that a deficit of GABAergic inhibition local to the hippocampus contributes to problems controlling a spectrum of intrusive memories and thoughts, although the pathogenesis of this deficit and its specific manifestations across disorders may vary." (When people experience intrusive thoughts, an area of the brain becomes more active, but we really aren't clear on this.)

"We hypothesized that GABAergic inhibition in the hippocampus forms a critical link in a fronto-hippocampal inhibitory control pathway that suppresses unwanted thoughts." (We think two areas of the brain change in activity level when people experience intrusive thoughts.)

I could go on and on. The point is that spooky language is often used in studies like this in order to mislead the reader into thinking something that isn't true; that being, scientific medical precision about a brain disease. Despite all the medical-sounding words and phrases, there is not one bit of real evidence ever presented that intrusive thoughts have anything to do with real brain health or illness. And, by the way, if such evidence were presented, this wouldn't be a matter for psychiatry. It would be a neurological problem to be addressed by neurologists and other real medical specialists.

All this study shows is that when people are having experiences (intrusive thoughts), their brains are working. The fundamental mistake is in conflating individual experiences with the workings of the brain during those experiences, and claiming that brain activity is therefore pathological.

Perhaps an analogy would help. What if we noticed that when people are lifting weights their level of muscular contraction and innervation simultaneously react in a particular way. Would we then conclude that lifting weights is a disease? Of course not. And we wouldn't say things like, "In individuals with weight lifting disorder, the severity of positive symptoms, such as muscular contraction, increases with motor and sensory cortex hyperactivity, as indexed from abnormally elevated resting blood oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) activity, or increased regional cerebral blood flow, blood volume, or blood glucose metabolic rate." That would be preposterous.

Muscle contraction and changes in the sensory/motor cortex is not evidence of disease and it is not the same as the human experience of lifting weights. Likewise, hippocampal and prefrontal cortex activity is not evidence of disease and it is not the same as the meaningful human experience of intrusive thoughts.

That is another matter completely.


  • I'd rather call it "intrusive thinking". The thoughts aren't disembodied phantoms floating around the mind that interfere with one's thinking. Intrusive thoughts are one's thinking. Yes, I agree the purpose is to escape. It is an attempt to escape the unknowns and uncertainties of living by being hypervigilant in order to be "ready" for whatever comes.

  • I think intrusive thoughts have a purpose. Pay attention! We often do not want to pay attention! On the other hand, an intrusive thought may be an escape. What will it be?

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