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Ideas and Interests

Augustin de la Pena, 'The Thinker'.
Psychophysiology is the study of the interrelation of “mental experience” with bodily processes, and vice versa. For example, what changes in bodily/physiological processes such as brain waves, heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension accompany an “interesting” versus a “boring” experience? What changes in mental state accompany the initiation of vigorous exercise? How do reports of dream experience following awakenings from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep differ from dream reports following awakenings from non-REM sleep? What changes in physiology accompany paying attention to a repetitive stimulus/activity such as one’s breath or “counting sheep.”

A developmental psychophysiologist by academic training, my primary interest is how the way we pay attention to the world changes as we gain experience and knowledge about the world, and how the changes in our attention correlate with: the degree of interest and/or sense of “meaning” we experience; various bodily, behavioral, or physiological parameters during wakefulness and sleep; development of various age-associated bodily and psychologically-expressed disorders/diseases; and our expression of creative activity/thought.

I suggest that as we go through life and become increasingly familiar with the world, we begin to pay attention to our environments in an increasingly efficient but more automatic/robotic manner. Owing to our increasing experience with/knowledge of the world, we become more “intelligent” and “sophisticated” about the world than formerly. We increasingly know how, where, and when to look for information in our environments in a manner that maximizes efficient accomplishment of the tasks at hand. As we continue to accrue experience with and knowledge about the world, more and more of the world appears to be predictable and ordered; we increasingly find ourselves “sleepwalking”/on “automatic pilot” through much of our day(s), and being able to accomplish our routine tasks and responsibilities without having to pay conscious, effortful attention to the world or to what we are doing.

The increased efficiency in our ability to analyze and organize stimuli (i.e. our increasing “analytic/rational intelligence”) has survival value, in that our increasingly sophisticated ability to process task-relevant information in our environment allows us to more efficiently detect and respond to changes or to novel stimuli in our environment(s) that might herald the presence of new threats, dangers, or opportunities for action in our environment(s). The increased efficiency of our information processing increasingly enables us to accomplish many routine tasks relatively “unconsciously, and we don’t have to allot much of our conscious attention to them. The result is a “freeing-up” of our conscious mind for use in informationally-challenging/threatening circumstances and environments and/or to engage in “creative” activities and thought.

The disadvantage of our increasing experience with/knowledge of the world is that previously-experienced stimulus configurations and contingencies (including the stimuli from previously-performed activities) provide us with a steadily decreasing amount of information/stimulation, which we experience as decreasing interest to the previously-encountered stimuli and/or activities. This is because increasing experience with our day-to-day world results in more and more of the world being in the mind, in the form of “memory” and/or “mental maps/models” of the environment. The result is a gradual lowering of the “intensity” of our consciousness in previously-encountered environments, which we experience as “increasing boredom”, “decreasing interest”, and/or decreasing “meaning” in our lives.

In my view, as we go through life and accrue knowledge about the world, the mind/brain attempts to rectify its increasing boredom/decreasing interest-meaning by calling into play one or more of a variety of mechanisms: increasing our degree of physical and mental activity, including changing our environments frequently, as in the wanderlust of tourism and/or the hyperactivity of workaholism; engaging in violent, confrontational activities; increasing the degree of brain excitement generated during rapid eye movement (dream) sleep periods and/or during nonREM sleep periods (walking, talking, etc.); and/or becoming more “creative” in the mental and physical spheres.

With respect to sleep mechanisms, the intervals of increased sensory information flow during REM sleep (e.g., nightmares, REM Sleep Behavior Disorder) and/or nonREM sleep (sleepwalking, sleeptalking, etc.) act in compensatory, homeostatic fashion to help rectify the low intensity of our waking consciousness (i.e. our boredom/depression). However, in providing such high degrees of excitement for the brain relatively soon after falling asleep, they effect the early morning awakenings and difficulty returning to sleep that are typically seen in chronic boredom and/or depression. With respect to “increasing creativity”, our creativity can be expressed in novel behaviors and thoughts during our waking hours, as well as in the development and expression of somatic, behavioral, and/or mental processes we term “disorder/disease.”

In my book The Psychobiology of Cancer: Automatization and Boredom in Health and Disease (Praeger Publishers, New York, 1983), I reviewed a broad range of literature, and synthesized support for the idea that some types of cancer (and associated pain/sensory stimulation) might be conceptualized as yet another bodily-expressed sensory information-control mechanism by which understimulated (“bored”) bodily structures (including the brain and non-CNS structures) regulate a higher level of sensory information flow for themselves, thus helping to mitigate/regulate their “information underload/isolation” and “boredom experience.” In the book, I extended the argument to a variety of other bodily-expressed disorders (some types of hypertension and inflammatory/pain syndromes), as well as to a variety of behavioral (hyperactivity, violence, stimulant drug abuse), eating, gender-identity, and sleep complaints/disorders.

The book suggests a number of empirically-testable hypotheses, as yet not subjected to formal, systematic empirical investigation. The proffered perspective and conceptualization helps to order/explain literally hundreds of observations and empirical findings regarding carcinogenesis in adulthood epithelial tissue. A few of these: why breast cancer is relatively high in nuns, in unmarried and sterile married women, in the hind teat of dogs, in Caucasian women (and why Caucasian women of the North San Francisco Bay Area have the highest rates in the world); why the incidence of breast cancer is relatively low in Hispanic females, is diminished by prolonged nursing (provided that lifetime lactation exceeds thirty-six months); and why remission or control of breast cancer can occur upon administration of male hormones/anti-estrogens.

Similarly, my conceptual approach can explain correlational and epidemiologic findings indicating that: height, weight, Black race/African American ethnicity, and a relatively low frequency of ejaculatory episodes in males show positive correlations with risk for the development of prostate cancer, and why female hormones or blockade of male hormones can effect control of some varieties of prostate cancer. The approach can explain why Blacks/African Americans are more likely to develop skin cancer in those parts of the body that are typically covered by clothing or in the unexposed parts of the body such as the sole of the foot, while Caucasians and lighter-complexioned individuals are more likely to develop skin cancers in parts of the body that are exposed to sunlight.

Other observations and empirical findings explained by my conceptual approach: increased incidence/risk of development of cancer with increases in phylogenetic and ontogenetic development (as well as why there is a secondary peak of cancer during childhood in humans); decreased incidence/risk in some subtypes/varieties of schizophrenia, mental retardation, “stress” conditions, personality disorders, brain lesions, and endocrine disorders; and relatively high risk/incidence of carcinogenesis in other subtypes/varieties of the same conditions; increased incidence of carcinogenesis in athletes and individuals evidencing superior physical fitness and general health relative to non-athletes and those of lesser fitness/general health. The book has garnered many positive reviews, some of which are listed on the Reviews page of this web site.

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