Satirical and otherwise ironic comments on psychology, from the idiot who brings you 'Dr. Mezmer's Psychopedia of Bad Psychology' (500+ pages of stupidity) and 'One Track Minds, The Surprising Psychology of the Internet', available at amazon.com and for free a scribd.com. Also visit my new blog at vbsneworleans.blogspot.com wherein I take on bad technology.
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Friday, July 02, 2004
The Last Self Help Guide You'll ever need
The Last Self Help Guide You’ll Ever Need.
You know you need self-help when you plan on doing one thing, and inexplicably end up doing something else. Sweet reason seems a simple enough thing to adhere to, but we generally don’t, and there’s the rub. Motivation then is a matter of doing the reasonable thing, not just doing anything. So what’s the secret to getting motivated and staying motivated? Look to the TV infomercial, talk show, or self-help section in the local book store, and you will find some movie star, self educated guru, or credentials laden psychologist who has just the solution for you! Its all a matter of summoning just the right inspirations, aspirations, or to do lists. It another words, that extra motivation you need is just a matter of word play. Just get the words right, and your brain will respond as obediently as a slobbering puppy.
Of course, another way to go about it is to understand how our brains actually work, which seems hardly a necessity because after all we think we know how we go about making decisions. The brain of course is simply a computing device, and if you’re not going from A to B on time, then you need only add a little inspiration to rev up the will power, sort of like adding gas to an engine. Of course, nature has a hand in it too, and we have an abundance of genetically dictated needs and drives that set the course of our behavior.
In other words, we are guided by a reason that is represented by the perceptual events that we sort out using the metaphorical language of common sense. We are also guided by instincts that represent nativistic or genetic sensitivities that determine our attraction to objects ranging from hot dogs to hot blondes. These sensitivities however act on behavior through the activation of specific neuro-chemicals that originate in the mid brain, and are felt as cravings or desires. Thus we get hungry, lusty, or thirsty, and are impelled to act because of the feelings that reflect our cognitive interpretation of sub-cognitive neuro-chemical processes.
The problem of course is that the motivational cues provided by neuro-chemical events can be entirely at odds from the motivation cues provided by our past experience or learning. We can easily note this from common experience, when our hunger leads us to choose a super-sized value burger meal rather than that simple salad that reason would otherwise prefer. Similarly, we may lust for the girl next door yet be conscious of the results of infidelity, and thus be similarly conflicted.
The reason we cannot easily choose between burgers and salads or a roll in the hay and a day in divorce court is that the cues for behavior in such instances have entirely different origins, and are on the whole incommensurate. So rather than making the hard choices, and suffering the attendant anxiety while we do so, the better option is to simply avoid or suppress the cues that lead to that craving to begin with, a task that we are on the whole pretty good at doing.
For example, we can curb our desire to eat fattening foods by not stuffing our refrigerators with the stuff, by not going to the store hungry, or by developing patterns of behavior or habits that act as cues, such as eliminating snacking by eating only at prescribed times. Similarly, we can eliminate the temptation of extramarital affairs by avoiding places that we can meet extra women.
When we think of drives, we normally think of the usual suspects, such as hunger, thirst, and lust, and our personal tactics for self control accordingly reflect our awareness of the unreasoning power of the neural events that they embody. On the other hand, when we think of needs, such as needs for achievement, power, security, and so on, we at root think of such things as primarily under the purview of reason. The problem though is that the core elements of our rational values have an essential component that is also very much a drive. To understand this unrecognized drive and its neural basis, we must go back in time a little, say about twenty million years, and describe a day in the life of our common ancestor, a ferret.
Ferrets of course, are survivors, as we wouldn’t be here without them. Every day our ancient ferret ancestor woke up to a world it pretty much understood, or at least remembered. Thus the ferret knew where to find its nest, food, and its mate, and it knew the routine to stalk and eat food, raise baby ferrets, and so forth. But from moment to moment, its world was never quite the same. A baby ferret may run off, a predator may lurk about, food may appear in unexpected places and amounts. Since most of what the ferret experienced was pretty well represented in memory, to survive it had to continually be on the look out for events that didn’t match what it expected. So to ensure its very survival, it evolved a sensitivity to unexpected changes in its environment. Thus, when it encountered unexpected changes that had some importance or salience, it would become alert, aroused, and more likely to remember those changes. Moreover, it would seek out circumstances that provided positive unexpected changes or discrepancies and avoid those discrepancies that were negative. This sensitivity is expressed by the release of the neuromodulator dopamine, a neuro-chemical that sparks attention, gives an appetitive value to behavior, and if it occurs in high and sustained amounts, feels good. This foraging instinct or ‘seeking’ response is common in all mammals, including the mammal otherwise known as homo sapiens. However, for us, this instinct is expressed by the positive discrepancy that we perceive in the things we do and is denoted by the objects (money, cars, houses) we seek. The foraging instinct served the ferret well, and it continues to serve its human descendents, who still have to somehow ferret out an existence in an even more rapidly changing world.
Events that have high discrepancy generally involve events that have sustained positive and unpredictable results, and represent gambling, gaming, sporting, or creative pursuits (see my flow articles on this site for more on this). However, discrepancy is also commonly intrinsic in the little things we do during the day, the common distractions the fill our day with choices and their unintended results.
For example, in our workaday world we may consider it perfectly reasonable not just to perform one’s daily labors, but also to be distracted by a personal conversation on the phone, to check email or the stock market report twenty five times a day, to read the newspaper, or pursue any number of useless distractions. After all, they keep us alert, animated, and interested. Nonetheless, we don’t do those things because they are primarily right and reasonable things to do, but because they stimulate us. That is, we indulge in such ‘time-wasters’ because of the attractive and positive discrepancy that they offer. Thus in our daily routine, we rotate between choices that are guided by distractions (discrepancy) that have a value marked by bio-chemical cues (dopamine), and other reasonable choices that are due to prior learning. The result of this is a series of dilemmas little different from the daily conflicts we have between a hamburger and a salad, when we are perpetually conflicted by two very different types of cues that derive from two very different parts of the brain.
So what’s a nice brain to do? Obviously there are no ready decision rules at hand to decide between the apples and oranges choices represented by these two very different sources of value, with the result that we get pretty tense and frustrated about it. The more distractions that are put into the mix, the more frustrated we become, and more often than not we leave work tense, exhausted, and tired. Thus, job stress may be seen as not just as a reaction to a demanding boss or a punishing work schedule, but rather as the end result of a persistent confrontation with a class of peculiar choices that we have no mental mechanism to solve.
So how do we fix this problem, and eliminate this pervasive type of stress? Simple. The first thing to do is to perform a mental inventory of those behaviors we do during the day that represent so-called distractions, and are justified mainly because they are stimulating to do. This encompasses idle conversation, reading email, watching TV, reading magazines, surfing the web, etc. Then, move them to a special preset time, such an an hour or two around lunch and/or in the evening. Then do activities that are mainly reasonable, and not primarily stimulating (these are also called work). If you still feel tense, just sit and do nothing, or in other words, take a time out. Whether on the job or at home, the principle apples. Like the proverbial lunch hour, by establishing special times to do events that have distinctive motivation (i.e. neural) origins, those contrasting motivations will not clash, and you won't go all a twitter because of it. Because you don’t have a conflict between incompatible motivators, tension cannot arise, and you will notice that your muscles will begin to relax. You will find that you will get your work done, act reasonably throughout the day, feel totally relaxed, and still have time for all those distractions that were driving you to the brink during the day.
You will feel good.
You will have self control.
You will be much happier.
And that dear reader is the only self-help procedure of any real consequence that you find on my site. It is of course wildly counterintuitive to hold that daily diversions are a primary cause of stress rather than a remedy. I use it daily with success, however, I’m still not quite sure if I am quite human, so my experience doesn’t really count. However, your own experience does, and that’s important. One good thing about this procedure is that I do not have to cite 4,000 references to obscure journal articles to make my point, or worse, coax you to understand them. The procedure either works or it does not, and if it does, its effects will not be minor but profound.
This procedure is different from other self help procedures because it doesn't refer to any mental inner person or force, but rather to the fact that human motivation is a composite of simple interactive neural systems that can be in principle be understood, observed, and managed. In particular, the well worn concept of drive, if extended to the most trivial diversions that populate our daily lives, can provide a new perspective on how we go (and don't go) about our affairs. Of course, the extension of drive to moment to moment choices that encompass our daily behavior has been replaced in the last decade or so with a new operative term call 'discrepancy', or more broadly, discrepancy theories of reward or reinforcement. Rooted entirely on the latest research in neuroscience, discrepancy theories will I believe dramatically change the face psychology in the coming years. It's ramifications are broad, from the practical procedure I have just elaborated to the philosophical (see: The Method Behind My Madness) to the psychological (see: Flow: A Reverent Explanation) to a reconsideration of the nature of psychological science itself (see Behavior and It's ism's)
But it still may all turn out bad, and I will be ready for the satire part, even if it's about me.
For more on the neuro-psychology of discrepancy theory, the following article explains it easily from the example of a nickel slot machine!
For you scientific types that have little patience for Mezmerian irony, here's a no nonsense and rather boring take on what I just said.
Radical Relaxation: A New Procedure for the management of stress
Our daily stresses, are more specially, the events that elicit muscle tension (as opposed to relaxation) are in the popular as well as academic lexicon of psychology attributed to simple and rather Pavlovian processes. Namely, a stressor (nasty boss, crying child, impending deadline at work etc.) occurs and the body reflexively becomes tense. Tension has historically been defined as reflecting a 'fight or flight' response, or an artifact of our evolutionary past, where we were constantly primed to escape from prehistoric predators and perhaps prehistoric spouses. Similarly, the antidote to a stress response is popularly considered to be the 'relaxation response', a natural and equally reflexive response elicited by focused attention (Benson, 1974).
This dichotomy is neat, simple, and is in accord with common sense and scientific study. It is also wrong. If for the state of theoretical clarity muscle tension is used as a proxy for the rather incoherent term stress, then a strong case may be made that muscular tension is mediated by learning, and primarily occurs not because it is a knee-jerk reaction, but because it has a practical function.
Somatic responses from muscular tension to visceral responses to neurochemical production do not just occur as mere reactions to stimuli, but are strongly mediated by experience, and in particular occur because they 'do' something. In particular, our basic decisions are facilitated by somatic responses that are shaped by learning. This widely accepted somatic marker hypothesis, postulated by the neurologist Antonio Damasio (1994), holds that changes in somatic or bodily states increase the accuracy of decision-making processes by biasing an individual towards one course of action. Furthermore, these changes recur because their results (namely a good decision) have been successful. In other words, our 'gut' feelings, whether originating from muscle tension or actual feelings in the gut are critical for our everyday decision-making, and recur because they do positive (or positively reinforcing) things.
Thus, following the somatic marker hypothesis:
Tension occurs because it facilitates choice.
Relaxation occurs when there are no choices or few choices to be made. (see note)
From day to day, choices that confront us are considered to be purely rational. Thus, the reason we feel anxious is that we don't have enough information to easily mediate choice. So, because we don't have the knowledge about how to do a job to please a fickle boss, avoid a deadline in time, or write a proposal to make an important sale, we become necessarily anxious or tense. At other times however, decisions are not rational and involve choices between value that is mediated by information and value that is mediated by other somatic events. As examples, when we taste a steak, smell a rose, or see a pretty face, the neuromodulator dopamine is produced that fixes attention and bestows an appetitive value on behavior (i.e., it feels good), thus making steaks, roses, and pretty girls more important. This clash between reason and 'temptation', whether the temptation is food, flowers, or sex, elicits tension not because we do not possess information that allows us to choose, but rather because two incommensurable processes determine value that cannot be rationally compared. The first being learning and the second being the 'drive' like characteristics of neurochemistry. In other words, it's hard to choose between God and mammon because the former makes sense rationally, but the latter makes sense because it feels good.
To eliminate the drive like temptations that elicit tension, we can merely avoid them and thus avoid the resulting bad feelings. However, avoiding the stressors of our workaday world is rarely possible. Thus, although the temptation to eat can be avoided by avoiding the sight of food, we cannot avoid making critical decisions at work. The result of this is that coping skills are emphasized in stress management, since only the ability to appraise properly our complex environment can eliminate the confusing and stressful choices that the world presents to us.
It is implicitly accepted that the decisions we make in our daily lives involve a rational consideration of options that can have inescapable stressful consequences, and that only in highly circumscribed occasions can mere avoidance be adopted as a strategy to reduce stress. However, contemporary neuroscience is presently demonstrating this common sense position to be wrong, with implications that will alter the procedures employed to alleviate stress.
Food and sex acquire 'drive' like properties in large measure because of the production of neuro-chemicals or neuro-modulators that enhance the incentive to pursue them. However, this neurological basis for incentive motivation has been presently extended to nearly all the decisions we make each moment of our lives. In particular, neuromodulator production is stimulated not just by primary motivators like food and sex, but also by abstract properties of the environment that mark the prediction error or discrepancy that attends decisions. Prediction error is defined by the moment-to-moment discrepancy or surprise that occurs when events do not turn out in the manner that we predict. If prediction error is high, positive, and sustained, as in gambling, creative, and gaming pursuits, we feel good, comfortable, and sometimes euphoric. Similarly, if prediction error is negative, dopamine production is reduced, and we often feel depressed, sad, or lethargic.
In our workaday world, the common distractions that keep us from our jobs do so not because they are reasonable, but because they also denote high degrees of positive discrepancy. Checking email or the stock market repeatedly, idle conversations, reading magazines etc. all reflect behaviors that embody high and positive prediction error. Thus many of the choices made during the day involve not decisions between rational acts, but rather choices between rational acts and acts that achieve value through other somatic events (i.e. dopamine) that can in turn be avoided.
This leads to a simple and easily tested premise. Muscle tension or stress occurs not only because of a need to decide between rationally appraised options, but also because of a need to nonconsciously decide between options whose value stems from contrasting neurological sources. In other words, daily distractions that are not rational but affective in origin are a major cause of stress, and to reduce stress these latter causes must be avoided.
If stress is often due to a contrast between incommensurable determinants of value, then it can be reduced by literally avoiding temptation, especially minor temptations. This latter point is critical, since the continuing possibility of engaging in 'minor' diversions (reading a newspaper, having an idle conversation, checking stock quotes) are generally considered to be a palliative to stress rather than a proximal cause of stress. This latter conclusion, which is contrary to conventional wisdom, can be easily tested through the following simple procedure:
Take an inventory of those events both large and small that are chosen because of the novelty or discrepancy they denote. Then move them to a set time (e.g. around lunch or in late evening) when they only can be performed. Only the remainder of possible events can be performed, namely events that a primarily rational in origin. If not, then you just sit, or in other words take a time out. The time out, which is nothing more than resting, will result in muscle relaxation. The key however is that when you resume activity, relaxation will be sustained because all 'distractions' large and small have been for the most part avoided.
This procedure is not especially novel, but its guiding presumptions and scope are quite new. Above all, the easy testability of this procedure and the premises that derive it is its virtue. Whether not it is correct only time and practice will tell.
That is, relaxation occurs not because of some vague attentional stimulus, but rather when our muscles are not doing anything, and there is no nonconscious reason for them to do anything. This hypothesis was validated by the work of the psychologist David Holmes (1984, 1985, 1988). In a systematic review of the literature of meditation, Holmes demonstrated that the effects of meditation were nothing more than muscle relaxation and that focussed attention was not its cause, but rather the resting that attended following meditative protocols.
The following procedure and its attendant explanation diverge in four ways from the conventional wisdom of stress control.
First, muscular tension is not a reflexive process that is initiated by discrete 'stimuli', but is rather a covert operant or 'coverant' behavior that occurs because of a non-conscious appraisal between response options that have incentive value derived from similar or different neurological sources.
Secondly, relaxation is not a response, but represents a literal resting state wherein the musculature does 'nothing'. Therefore, relaxation 'training' involves the arrangement of settings that do not nonconsciously signal muscles to tense.
Third, in the long term, muscular tension can be increased by taking a time out to do 'something' rather than a time out to do 'nothing'. That is, to avoid a difficult decision at home (e.g. mowing the lawn) or at work (e.g. do a difficult report) by pursuing some diversion (e.g. watching TV, checking email, chatting) actually sets the groundwork for more stress by introducing behavioral options or choices (i.e. distractions) that an individual must choose between in the future.
Fourth, a bio-behaviorally informed procedure for stress control is indirectly a procedure for self-control, or the ability to make and keep to rationally informed decisions. By being able to isolate, control, and understand the affective variables that distort decision making through their indirect influence on muscular tension and their intrinsic and non-rational hedonic value, our decisions will more fully cohere with a rational calculus of value. This will in turn mitigate other emotional events such as feelings of depression that may follow from a perceived inability to predict and control our personal behavior.
Benson, H. (1974) The Relaxation Response. New York: Harper Collins
Damasio, A. (1994) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon
Holmes, D. (1984) Meditation and somatic arousal reduction. A review of the experimental evidence. American Psychologist, 39(1): 1-10
Holmes, D. (1985). To meditate or rest? The answer is rest, American Psychologist, 40(6), pp. 725-731.
Holmes, D. (1988) The influence of meditation versus rest on physiological arousal: a second evaluation. In Michael A. West (Ed.) The Psychology of Meditation, Clarendon Press-Oxford
And the Journal articles:
The McGuigan-Damasio Hypothesis: The Coverant of Tension
"The human mind is the functioning only of systems of the body. As those systems selectively interact through neuromuscular circuits according to cybernetic principles, they generate cognitive processes (the contents of mind, some of which we can verbally report) and program behavior, both overt and covert, to accomplish our purposes."
F. J. McGuigan (1997, p. 368)
"To ensure body survival as effectively as possible, nature, I suggest, stumbled on a highly effective solution: representing the outside world in terms of modifications it causes in the body proper, that is, representing the environment by modifying the primordial representations of the body proper whenever an interaction between organism and environment takes place."
Antonio Damasio (1994, p230)
A Mind Experiment
Consider a simple mind experiment. On New Year's night, John decides to shoot a skyrocket from his backyard. As he lights the fuse, his muscles tense and are primed to propel him out of trouble, and in a split second he turns and runs away to safety. Being fully in control of the situation, he feels neither panicked nor fearful, and the activity of his gross musculature, namely the act of running, is the major behavior of note. In this situation, it would be absurd to claim that running is an instinctive response to a lit fuse, or that his behavior displays concomitant neuro-physiological responses that are reflective of fear or panic. He simply runs away because he consciously and nonconsciously perceives that is it the proper thing to do. Or in other words, he runs away because his behavior has a functional utility, or 'operates' on his environment.
Now consider another mind experiment. On the next day John returns to work. His working day is, as usual, confronted with myriad choices that determine his successes and pleasures of the day. He may have to decide upon which reports to work on, how and when to work on them, and weigh the different implications of many other workaday decisions. He will also continually decide upon the diversions, from checking email to chatting with coworkers that will provide pleasurable interludes to work, yet nonetheless interfere with the prompt completion of work. The need to make constant choices, or to think, will of course take a toll. Doubtless, he will return home tired and 'stressed out' because of the accumulated tensions during the day.
The similarity of John at play and John at work is that both incur changes in the musculature. These muscular changes may be different in type, as in their molar (as in John running away) or molecular (as in John getting tense) representations, but since they involve the same somatic events, they are not different in kind. However, this does not restrict common assumptions at to the etiology or origin of these changes. In the former case, it would be absurd to say that his behavior is instinctive or that it reflects an emotional 'flight or fight' response. However, in the latter case, the micro-behavioral activity of the musculature is commonly attributed to instinctive or reflexive mechanisms, and is conceptually bound to a host of other concurrent physiological neurological and physiological changes that represents aspects of the 'flight or fight' response, namely fear, anger, or panic.
It is not difficult to see the cause of an attribution of reflexive mechanisms to explain muscular tension, since the micro-behavioral activity of the musculature is often non-consciously perceived and has results that are at best obscurely apparent. However, the development of more powerful tools and methodologies has permitted the observation of the micro-behavioral activity of the musculature as well as the corresponding neural events that initiate, integrate, and are modified by somatic events. These methods have been implemented in over forty years of research that demonstrated unequivocally that the activity of the musculature is critical to thought.
The McGuigan-Damasio Hypothesis
Although investigations of the neuro-physiology of muscular tension derive from numerous researchers, the pivotal work both conceptually and empirically on this topic owes primarily to two individuals: the psychologist F. J. McGuigan and the neurologist Antonio Damasio. McGuigan's (1976,1978,1997) corpus of research focused on the neuro-physiology of muscular tension, whereas Damasio (1994) emphasized in his work the neurology of affect, which included the micro-behavioral aspects of the musculature.
The convergent conclusion derived from the work of both McGuigan and Damasio, or what I call the McGuigan-Damasio hypothesis, is that the micro-behavioral activity of the musculature provides non-conscious information that is perceived linguistically in the brain (or as McGuigan called it, an allographic code). This information enables an individual to choose between alternatives prior to their conscious consideration. In other words, muscular tension occurs to expedite thinking processes by allowing an individual to automatically parse between alternatives and acts to somatically 'mark' choices. It is thus functionally equivalent to a covert operant or coverant behavior.
The idea that muscular tension acts as a somatic marker (Damasio) or coverant (McGuigan) to enable thought is in marked contrast to the commonly held view that tension occurs as a reflexive or 'respondent' behavior. Nonetheless, in spite of the overwhelming evidence in favor of the McGuigan-Damasio hypothesis, it continues to be ignored by the overwhelming majority of practitioners of stress management. As I will argue, the reasons are not so much do to prejudice or ignorance as to sheer pragmatism.
Pragmatics of Stress
Although the empirical and conceptual elegance and power of McGuigan and Damasio's work has been critically hailed and acknowledged, it ironically (and perhaps shamefully) has not been incorporated into a theoretical foundation for procedures for the control of stress. Our daily stresses are still attributed to instinctive 'flight of fight' mechanisms, with the common inclusion of the hoary cliché of prehistoric ancestors running from mastodons as a rationale for the genetic, reflexive, or hardwired inevitability of our daily tensions.
This conceptualization of muscular tension as being a mere reaction to stressors remains prevalent because it is still conceptually easy for a layman to attribute micro-behavioral nonconscious events to evocative Pavlovian 'stimuli', and also because present procedures do not impel an acceptance of a true bio-behavioral explanation. That is, one can still use stress control procedures without having to make a commitment to or even have an understanding of the true etiology of muscular tension.
Stress management is a pragmatic discipline, and explanations have lower precedence to effective procedures. Indeed, if procedure is not compromised, simple and wrong explanations for stress are to be preferred to more complex and correct alternatives that involve a thorough rooting in the neuro-physiology of learning. Thus, one can believe that stress is a mere unconditioned reaction and still engage in procedures that provide its remedy. However, if procedure requires the adoption of new explanation, then explanations must radically and rapidly change. As will be demonstrated, the acceptance of correct explanations for stress is dependent on procedure.
Concepts and Procedure
Our daily lives represent a surfeit of options, different modes of behaving from which we must continually choose. Generally, we do not deliberate or choose between the vast majority of response options that fill our day. We go to work the same way, do our work and pursue our pleasures the same way, and put our pants on one leg at a time. However, we are continuously faced with equivalent choices that do require us to weigh options rapidly while insuring that our choices remain optimal. When two near equivalent options are consciously or nonconsciously perceived, muscular tension will occur to mark the value of one choice or another, and thus expedite decision.
When options are near equivalent, muscular tension occurs briefly, nonconsciously and effectively to drive choice in the proper direction. However, when options are equivalent, then tension may not only arise, but be sustained and rise to the level of consciousness. This sustained tension is perceived as stress, and begins to impede rather than facilitate choice.
The solution to this harmful not to mention painful aspect of stress is to reduce the likelihood of 'difficult' choices one is forced to make. This may entail acquiring non-conscious information, conscious information, or merely avoiding events that confront us with such choices. Thus, by learning skills such as driving a car, swimming, etc., we are provided with the nonconscious information that eliminates the stressful choices such behaviors may entail. Similarly, by acquiring conscious information such as using time management procedures, cognitive reframing, psychotherapy etc. we can deliberately order events or reinterpret the informative content of events to eliminate difficult choices. Finally, by avoiding the circumstances that cause stress, whether through wisdom (e.g. deferring a skydiving lesson) of mere procrastination (avoiding the preparation of your income tax) we can eliminate stress by simply avoiding difficult choices.
For all of these procedures, an explanation of stress that reduces muscular tension to a mere reaction to discrete stressors is not obviously incompatible to the procedures themselves. However, this changes if we consider the non-rational choices that must be made between events that have different neurological sources.
When we think of value, we conceive of options that have a rational origin. But this of course is not true, as value is also determined by nativistic or innate sensitivities or drives that are consciously perceived, and by abstract elements of our environment that escape conscious appraisal. For the former, the genesis of muscular tension is easy to conceive. Thus one can easily be frustrated when confronted with a neurochemical source of value (looking at a pretty girl, a ham sandwich, or a glass of beer) and a competing rational source of value (staying faithful to one's wife, keeping to a diet, embarrassing oneself by getting drunk). Oftentimes we can avoid them, but never can we suitably rationalize them, for the simple reason that they represent incommensurate sources of value. However, a core premise in modern learning theory is that abstract elements of our environment represent an equally powerful and innate source of value. These elements are enfolded under 'discrepancy' theories of reward (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993; Schultz, 1998; Berridge, 2001) or reinforcement that attribute value to novel elements of our environment that represent contrary or discrepant events that were heretofore unpredicted. Discrepant value is embedded in many of the events that we pursue during the day, from watching TV to chatting with friends to accessing our email. By experiencing or merely contemplating the imminent experience with such events (or in other words, 'looking forward' to them), we become aroused and alert, and are tempted to veer from more rational courses of action, like working.
The prevalence of diversions, and the fact that we are often conflicted by them is a major source of tension. Thus to avoid them we do our work in confining areas such as workplaces, and away from places that provide ample distractions (e.g. at home). Nonetheless, we do not absolutely segregate all diversions that may exist, and may attribute rational value to taking time to talk with a friend, check email, and other events. That is, when tired or bored at work we often take the time out to do something rather thannothing. By taking a time out to perform some diversionary act rather than taking a mere time out itself (i.e. resting), we non-consciously set up future choices of a similar nature that are not so rationally justified. In other words, we create future optional choices that we must decide between, and thus become correspondingly tense. So by surrendering to diversions any time during the day, we ironically justify their choice for any time during the day. The resulting preponderance of options thus sets the groundwork for continuous muscular tension or stress. Thus workaday stress may not be as much due to an abundance of demands set upon us by an impersonal world, but rather to an abundance of conflicts that are unintentionally arranged by an individual himself.
The absolute segregation of diverting events to set times of the day will result in a significant reduction of muscular tension because it reduces significantly the conflicting choices one has available during the day. This concept, called radical relaxation, derives directly from the idea that tension derives from difficult or incommensurable choices that may have similar or different sources of neurological value. Reduce the incidence of these choices, and relaxation follows by default. By segregating to set times of the day behaviors that have novel or discrepant value, our behavioral options are reduced to performing rational acts or to do sit and do nothing, or take a time out or rest. Thus by reducing options, we reduce conflicting thought, and by reducing conflicting thought, we reduce the somatic event of muscular tension that occurs to aid us to decide which way to go.
By reducing conflicts of stimuli or 'ideas' rather than such events themselves the cause of muscular tension is referred to cognitive rather than reflexive principles. Relaxation thus is achieved through controlling conflicted thinking, not thinking or perceiving (e.g. paying attention, as in meditation) per se. This new interpretation of muscular tension overturns prevalent thinking in stress research that has reduced tension to simplistic reflexive causes, but more importantly provides a new perspective on stress management procedures, and suggests better and more decisive approaches to stress management that have the saving grace of being easily testable. The latter point of course is the point, and only future research and trial can prove it true.
Berridge, K. (2001) Reward Learning: Reinforcement, Incentives, and Expectations, The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, (3), Academic Press, New York
Damasio, A. (1994) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Avon: New York
Donahoe, J.W. & Palmer, D. C. (1993). Learning and Complex Behavior, Needham Heights, Ma. : Allyn and Bacon
McGuigan, F.J. (1976) The function of covert oral behavior in linguistic coding and integral information processing. In Kurt Salzinger (ed.) Psychology in progress: an interim report. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 270: 57-89
McGuigan, F.J. (1978) Cognitive Psychophysiology. Principles of Covert Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall Inc.
McGuigan, F.J. (1997) A Neuromuscular model of mind with clinical and educational applications, Journal of Mind and Behavior, 18(4), 351-370
Schultz, W. (1998). Predictive reward signal of dopamine neurons, Journal of Neurophysiology, 80(1), 1-27
The Relaxation Response: A Bio-behavioral Interpretation
The ‘relaxation response’ is a popular and widely accepted technique for relaxation control that embodies core principles of meditative practices. However, the explanation for the effectiveness of this technique does not stem from or cohere with contemporary neuro-psychological principles of learning derived from the observed activity of the human brain. An alternative explanation for the relaxation response and meditation is provided that is derived solely from these principles, and demonstrates theoretically and through practical procedure that the effects of meditation are the product of simple bio-psychological processes of incentive motivation or learning.
In contemporary psychology, muscle relaxation has commonly been interpreted as the end product of reflexive mechanisms that are activated by obscurely defined mechanisms of attention. These interpretations have an ancient lineage, and their psychological representation as ‘meditation’ has had a long and exhaustive history as a topic for empirical investigation in psychology. The fact that selective focusing on simple stimuli or cognitive precepts (e.g. mantras) correlates with relaxation is undisputed, but has been historically confounded by additional claims of additional mental benefits (e.g. unique states of consciousness) that supercede the bounds of conservative empirical inquiry. Extensive surveys of the critical literature on meditation (Holmes, 1984, 1988) have demonstrated that the dependent variable for all meditative protocols is no more than generalized muscular relaxation. However, the correlation between focused attention and relaxation has continued to imply an underlying causal relationship. Nonetheless, the neuro-psychological connection between focused attention and relaxation has never been empirically demonstrated, and has been explained instead by wholly inferred neurological linkages between discrete attentive states and relaxation that are equivalent to Pavlovian stimulus-response (or S-R) bonds. That is, a ‘relaxation response’ (Benson, 1974) occurs as a reflexive response to concentrated or focused attention, and is the physiological opposite to the ‘flight or fight’ response that is embodied as anxiety or stress.
It is the position of this article that S-R explanatory mechanisms for the somatic effects of meditation are false, and that relaxation is not dependent upon discrete Pavlovian-like attentional stimuli, but rather upon indiscrete processes of learning that cohere with modern neuro-psychological models of incentive motivation. This new model for the ‘relaxation response’ is easily testable and refutable, and suggests strong procedures for behavioral or self-control.
The Non-Response of Relaxation
A common view in psychology is that relaxation is a behavioral response, but this is not in principle true. Relaxation is not a response, but is rather a term that denotes the relative inactivity of the striated musculature (McGuigan, 1976). That is, relaxation merely entails that the musculature (which is comprised of more than a thousand separate groups of muscular fibers) is for the most part not doing anything. However, if the steady state of relaxation (as opposed to getting relaxed, which by virtue of a changing response topography is a behavioral event) cannot be a response because it is the antithesis to a response, the empirical focus must shift to why the diffuse micro-behavioral activity of the musculature, or muscular tension occurs from a standpoint of the neuro-psychology of learning.
The critical issue in meditation is whether selective or focused attention is a necessary independent variable that co-varies with a dependent state of relaxation, and whether attention should actually be used in the first place as an independent variable. In his survey of the meditation literature Holmes (1984) concluded that it does not, and that relaxation can occur as just as surely and effectively by simply sitting and resting. A more telling criticism is that ‘attention’ is not a thing nor can it be used as such, but is rather a taxonomy for the conscious and nonconscious neural processes that underlie conscious choice (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993). This is underscored by the fact that motivational processes in contemporary neuroscience are not described in S-R terms as reflexive mechanisms that require discrete and molecular antecedents and consequents, but in the molar language of cognitive expectancy or incentive (Berridge, 2001). Hence, the very language of stimulus-response as an explanatory framework for meditative states does not cohere with neurally based models of incentive motivation or learning as presently conceived.
Two Factor Theories of Incentive Motivation
Contemporary neuro-psychological models of incentive motivation posit the integration of two learning processes that are different psychologically and also in terms of distinctive brain mechanisms (Berridge, 2001). These processes represent cognitive act-outcome expectancies or ‘likes’ that are mediated by specific neo-cortical regions (Balleine and Dickinson, 1998), and incentive salience 'wants' that are mediated by the mesolimbic dopamine system and its forebrain targets (Dickinson et al., 2000).
The first process, or cognitive associative learning, is decision-making that derives from procedural knowledge that represents act-outcome expectancies. This knowledge may be represented verbally or consciously, but it may also be latent or nonconscious, and may be mediated non-verbally by the non-oral musculature (McGuigan, 1978). Muscular tension has been hypothesized to provide a nonconscious ‘allographic code’ (McGuigan, 1976) that is linguistically interpreted in the brain, and conforms to associative learning principles. Thus, we literally albeit nonconsciously ‘think’ with our musculature, a notion that has achieved common currency in contemporary theories of emotion (Damasio, 1994). Applying this model to muscular tension, it follows therefore that relaxation will occur when conscious or nonconscious information is not available that would otherwise be embodied by muscular contraction, or when such conscious or nonconscious information is suppressed or inhibited. For example, a student would sit still if there were no distractions that would otherwise cause him to move, or he may sit still because a teacher’s threat of punishment may cause him to ignore or suppress such distractions. Similarly, relaxation may occur through the avoidance of distractions (as in taking a vacation to a remote beach resort), or it may occur through the alteration or suppression of distractions (as in ignoring, reframing, or suppressing distracting thoughts and perceptions).
The second process, or Pavlovian incentive motivation, represents decision making that comes from knowledge derived natively or instinctively from abstract properties of information as represented by its relative predictability. This knowledge is represented non-verbally by the affective or hedonic value that derives from the release of neurochemicals (dopamine) that modulate global areas of the brain. This process mediates the predictive expectation of a reward signaled by a stimulus, and teaches new predictions by signaling deviations from the expected (Montague et al. 1996, Schultz, 1998). In other words, human beings are instinctively or natively sensitive to surprises or discrepancies in their environment that represent variances from what they have come to predict.
Associative learning is a critical explanatory component for the widely accepted notion of the 'somatic marker' (Damasio, 1994). A somatic marker is an automatic somatic signal governed by the laws of learning or through instinct that enables an individual to parse between alternatives prior to their rational or conscious consideration. Somatic markers encompass affective events such as hormonal (hunger, thirst) or neuromodulator (excitement, depression) activity, or the activity of the viscera (gut feelings) or musculature (muscular tension). In particular, muscular tension as a somatic marker may be construed to be functionally similar to a covert operant, or ‘coverant’ (Homme, 1965) in that it indirectly operates on behavior by directing choice, and is governed by nonconscious information. According to this model, muscular tension occurs as a somatic marker that expedites decisions between two choices prior to their conscious consideration. Thus, tension occurs because it is critical to rapid and efficient decision-making. Nonetheless, as will be argued, muscular tension may also be indirectly influenced by Pavlovian incentive motivation.
Associative learning and Pavlovian incentive motivation represent entirely different yet continually present neurological sources of value that result in ends that may be additive or be at cross-purposes. For example, the act-outcome expectancies that fill our workaday lives generally entail predictable relationships between means (work) and ends (a paycheck). But the relative predictability of work may be interspersed with unexpected or ‘discrepant’ events that may cohere with and enhance the aims of work (e.g. praise from a boss, completing a work task more quickly than expected) or be incoherent (e.g. checking email, reading a newspaper, gossiping) with doing a good job. Moreover, an individual may be stimulated or ‘primed’ by the mere modeling of such events, such as expecting an imminent raise or coffee break. In other words, the cognitive representation of positive future events will also stimulate will also stimulate by virtue of the continuing virtual uncertainty of those events.
When conscious or nonconscious procedural decision rules governing alternative means-ends expectancies (i.e. applying logic or reason to make a decision or resolve a problem) are not known or are partially known, then in keeping with a somatic marker hypothesis, muscular tension may occur to drive decision in one direction or another. Thus we may become ‘on edge’ when making critical life decisions. However, another and more prevalent source of tension or stress occurs when one must choose between two different and incommensurable neural sources of value. In other words, the priming of behavior (pleasurable alertness) as measured in the affective or hedonic value of certain choices may co-vary with the procedural or cognitive rules for decision-making. In our daily lives, priming occurs constantly to influence choices that co-vary with the procedural rules of behavior. That is, we know that diverting or discrepant behaviors are available at anytime. Thus we are often diverted or ‘tempted’ to engage in idle conversation, check email, read the newspaper, etc. because of the novelty or discrepancy these events entail. The continuous ‘choice-choice’ between decisions mediated by different incentive factors signals muscular tension that ultimately expedites decision. However, if an individual chooses an end that has affective or discrepant value, or in other words, ‘surrenders to temptation’, then that temptation will recur as a continuous prime for future behavior. So, by taking a time out to converse about the weather or sports, the option to do such diversions remains present throughout the day, and will continue to arouse attention, divert behavior, and elicit other somatic events (i.e. muscular tension) that will expedite that diversion. In other words, by surrendering to temptation, the temptation remains constant, and so do the discomforting somatic events that we call muscular tension or ‘stress’. So ironically, by taking time out in a stressful day to perform some diversion, we actually accentuate tension.
The Pragmatic Science of Stress
In sum, contemporary neuro-psychological models of incentive motivation posit separate neurological sources of incentive value, whereas the somatic marker of muscular tension occurs through associative learning to expedite choices between sources of incentive value. Following this logic, the somatic marker of muscular tension occurs not because of a discrete stimulus event or ‘S’, but as a coverant or psychosomatic behavior that helps to mediate decisions between different stimulus event-stimulus outcome expectancies (S-S*). These S-S* expectancies denote the weighing of separate but exclusive means-end relationships (e.g. which fork on the road to take), or they may denote different sources of neurological value. Thus, by deciding between the road to God (logical goals) or mammon (temptation), one must weigh different ‘logical’ and ‘affective’ sources of value that at root cannot be logically compared.
The fact that human incentives do not have a unitary neurological source is ironically not contrary to the common sense heuristics that humans have always used to explain their behavior as well as control stress. Indeed, to master stress is to master the skills that enable one to predict with much greater reliability the proper course of action. Thus, one becomes less nervous about driving cars, dating, or doing income taxes when the skill sets are mastered that enable one to predict outcomes like a good night kiss or avoiding an IRS audit. Humans are also well aware of the unreasoning power of ‘affective’ events, and reduce the ‘priming’ or temptation to perform them by circumscribing in time the events that they can or cannot do. Thus we set aside certain times where we can eat, gossip, watch TV, etc., knowing full well that tension would surely occur if we were continually primed to veer from our present more constructive behavior.
If we take this latter behavior to an extreme, when nearly all priming variables or ‘primes’ are sharply reduced, we have meditation. Thus, by avoiding all conflicting cognitive alternatives, a resting state or state of inactivity follows because we are not deciding between those alternatives (i.e. thinking) with our minds or with our musculature. By crowding out other cognitive activity, repeating a nonsense word co-opts the need to think or the awareness of thought, and by not thinking, relaxation necessarily follows.
The Conflation of Affect and Attention
The primary flaw in a stimulus-response model that attributes relaxation or other affective states to focused attention is that it conflates the separate neural processes governing affect and attention. If focus is conservatively defined through the modulatory or activating processes for global states of the brain, then rehearsing a nonsense word or mantra will cause less neural activity than rehearsing say a role from 'Hamlet'. However the degree of cortical activation does not in any way co-vary with affective experience, and indeed cannot do so since affective experience is not rooted in a neo-cortex that is in fact enervated (Panksepp, 1998). Rather, it is the content or computational quality of that activation that matters, and how that content interfaces with lower or midbrain systems that do modulate affective experience. Thus one may be focusing on a stimulus or narrow range of stimuli and report a range of affective experiences from panic to ecstasy. For example, an individual running from a predator or focused on completing an income tax return on time may be acutely focused on a means of avoiding the bite a lion or the IRS, yet would feel anxious rather than relaxed. Contrariwise, an individual may be focused on creating art, scaling a mountain, or performing a delicate surgery and feel ecstatic. This final example bears witness to the fact that tasks that challenge an individual to the limits (but not surpassing those limits) of his capability, or a matching or demand to skill, will result in a high degree of prediction error that reflects the moment to moment uncertainty that a critical goal (e.g. artistic inspiration, staying on the mountain, losing the patient) will be attained or lost. Indeed, these ‘flow’ states (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), which are also incorrectly attributed to focused attention, are actually instantiated by high levels of dopamine release derived from continuously perceived prediction error. This fact has been confirmed by fmri studies (brain scans) of individuals in flow producing situations such as gambling, creative pursuits, etc. (Fried et al. 2001, Koepp et al. 1998).
Popular Psychology and Therapeutic Method
As these examples attest, the substitution of a neuro-psychology of affect with a psychology of metaphorical inferred processes ungrounded to the actual workings of the brain in ‘action’ has resulted in widely accepted psychological constructs (flow, meditation, etc.) that unrealistically account for human behavior. In particular, in popular psychology neuro-psychological accounts of behavior are noticeably absent, and are replaced by discrete mental objects (e.g. pride, will power, self-esteem, focused attention) or metaphors for causality that follow hydraulic, computational, or other vitalistic schemes. That this mentalistic thinking scarcely coheres to how the mind actually works has been an impediment to a true understanding of behavior (Panksepp, 2000) and as it must logically follow, the development of effective procedures that may predict and control behavior.
The explanatory principles of meditation are case in point. Meditation, whether transcendental meditation or the ‘relaxation response’ are effective because they presume causal relationships between relaxation and a mode of thinking (i.e. nonsense words, mantras) that is nearly eliminative of thinking. But this premise is false, for it is not thinking but conflicted thinking that is at the root of muscular tension. Thus the end result of meditation, namely relaxation, can occur by reducing the style rather than the content of cognition, and may be easily demonstrated through an easily replicated procedure.
Tension of course cannot be eliminated in our daily lives because we live in an uncertain world. Thus, informational sources of conflict cannot be absolutely avoided, as we must all anxiously face the uncertainties of death and taxes. However, conflicts between ‘affective’ and ‘logical’ choices can be avoided, and in our workaday worlds they are generally not because we often cannot conceive of how they may lead to stress. Indeed, taking a time out to check email, gossip, read magazines, watch TV, etc. are looked as a palliative for stress rather than a cause. Ironically, by doing the opposite, and avoiding for preset hours during the day all possibilities of engaging in events that have some novel, discrepant, or otherwise affective value, relaxation will naturally follow since a major source of conflicted thinking is eliminated. So if the alternative for doing logical acts is doing nothing at all, or in other words ‘a time out’, one has only to weigh the logical alternatives of doing something or doing nothing, choices that are far easier and less stressful to make since affective value is left out of the equation.
'Fight or Flight' and Psychological Truth
The 20th century has been labeled the ‘Age of Anxiety’, yet for the affluent classes of the modern world, the number and severity of threats to life and limb are far less than the dire events from pestilence to war that confronted our ancestors. A more persuasive case may be made that the modern age is not characterized by more pernicious threats to life and property, but rather by more pervasive choices, bad and good, which continually impact every facet of our lives. In other word, modern stressors are not characterized by more threats, but more options. Perceived threats of course are different in kind from perceived choices, and so too it may be argued are the somatic events they elicit. For example, strong emotional reactions such as fear, rage, anger, etc. are the significant emotional components of the 'flight or fight' response that do engage (Panksepp, 1998; Ledoux, 1997) reflexive mechanisms, as individuals must be able to immediately prime their behavior for fight or flight. However, stressful stimuli in general do not involve threatening situations, but rather events that provide a necessity to choose between optional responses that are for the most part unthreatening. The somatic responses that may be elicited from such choice-choice options, namely muscular contraction, do not include the hormonal and neural responses that are characteristic of more primal emotions such as anger and fear. Indeed, a case may be made that muscular contraction does not represent an emotion at all, since it does not differ in kind from voluntary muscular activity (running, talking), but only in terms of its micro-behavioral characteristics that render it intractable to conscious observation. That is, just as voluntary movement of the gross musculature is not emotional in itself, the same conclusion must be applied to subtler muscular activity that is controlled as well (albeit non consciously) by the same cognitive processes. If this is the case, then the 'flight of fight' response so commonly identified by psychologists with stress is wholly inapplicable to the type of stress reactions (i.e. muscular tension) that is elicited by non-threatening situations, and refers the subject matter of stress to elements of human conditioning or learning.
A learning based perspective on stress has the benefit of drastically simplifying stress control procedures by providing an explanatory model that engages observable conditioned behavior rather than metaphorical or otherwise inferred events. Thus muscular relaxation may be controlled by avoiding information (meditation, time outs, vacations), changing or suppressing information (reframing, positive thinking, psychotherapy), and learning how to perceive information. The last example implicates progressive relaxation, which entails the progressive relaxation of different parts of the body as a means of learning how to perceive the proprioceptive stimuli that permit the discrimination and control of relaxed states.
This new taxonomy for stress engages modern bio-behavioral learning theory (or less strictly, a radical behaviorism) and the rapidly accumulating neuropsychological data that are presently raising it from the status of theory to that of empirical fact. Nonetheless, because neuro-psychologically informed models for stress, and indeed for all psychological phenomena are new, they have not been as of late persuasive or even of passing interest to the vast majority of psychologists. If this is to change it ultimately must be through reasons pragmatic as well as theoretical or empirical. In other words, the explanatory schemes that we accept are forced upon us not only because of the simplicity of their logic and the empirical evidence that supports that logic, but also because of the effectiveness of the methods those schemes entail. Thus we must accept and understand biological theories of disease, of quantum mechanical explanations of the universe, or of the evolution of the human genome not just because the empirical facts point to them, but also because the technological features of our world depend upon them. The studied ignorance of bio-psychological accounts of human nature near universally displayed by present day psychologists is no different from that displayed by the clergy who rejected Galileo’s offer to look through his telescope at the true nature of our solar system. But this unreasoned stubbornness will disappear, not with the plaintive logic that a despairing Galileo offered to his critics, but with the unstoppable power of method that is entailed by the truth.
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