In Jan Martel’s wonderful prize winning novel, The Life of Pi, Pi Patel, the eponymous hero, is shipwrecked in the Pacific and shares a lifeboat for 123 days with a fully grown adult Bengal tiger.  At first he is terrified and spends his time on a raft connected by long rope to the lifeboat, then as weeks go by he decides to train the tiger by a combination of punishment  and reward.  If the tiger transgresses into his territory, Pi blows his whistle loudly and rocks the boat to make the animal sick.  But he also keeps his charge well supplied with meat and fresh water.  Eventually he establishes dominance over the dangerous beast and can regulate its fear and aggression at will, but at the end of their journey the tiger just disappears into the Mexican jungle with never a backward glance.  It is a wild animal.

 

Martel gives such a wonderful practical description of how Pi and Richard Parker, for that was what the Tiger was called, managed to survive in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean for so long, that you could almost forget that it wasn’t true.  The book is an allegory, but for what? 

 

As I read it, it made me think of the relationship between the major components of the emotional brain; the primitive emotional reactor (amygdala and cingulate gyrus) – the  wild animal housed in the base of the skull and the emotional regulator or trainer (dorsolateral orbitofrontal cortex), situated in the mezzazine of the skull behind the forehead and above the eyes.  The amygdale reacts to threat or stress by generating fear or anger.  The orbitofrontal cortex puts this reaction into context with reference to its extensive database of previous emotional situations and selects the most appropriate and creative response to resolve it.   

 

When we are born, the regulator doesn’t exist.  The circuit board is there but it’s not wired up.  The emotional regulator develops out of experience and continues to rewire itself throughout life. 

 

Infants are like baby tigers, just a mass of very primitive reactions, hunger, discomfort, fear, anger.  Their response to all of these situations or events is to emit a penetrating alarm signal, which summons the parents to sort out the problem.  But with appropriate training using a combination of reward (smiles, enthusiasm) and prohibition (No!), the emotional circuitry of the orbito-frontal cortex becomes organised so that it is able to anticipate what might happen and keep the tiger in his lair beneath the tarpaulin.   

 

But sometimes this training is imperfect – unbalanced.  If in the infant isn’t checked sufficiently and boundaries set, the orbitofrontal cortex is not sufficiently programmed to keep the reactor in check.  This can result in behaviour that is risky, impulsive,  thrill seeking, aggressive and doesn’t quite appreciate the consequences.  For an appropriate description of this see my blog on Captain Kirk flies too close to the sun (August 2nd) or  How do you solve a problem like Amy (August 1st).   But if on the other hand, there is too much restriction, this results in fear, repression and inhibition and a very restricted life.  See Narrative Therapy; changing life scripts (September 21st).             

 

But if this emotional collaboration is programmed well enough, if experience during childhood has provided sufficient containment plus the essential opportunity to explore and experiment for oneself, it will tame the animal within us.  It will equip us  to live productively and peacefully within society without over-reacting and causing damage.  But good-enough programming does not mean that we should all float around in hazy pink emotional cloud of peace and contentment, like the flower-power hippies of my not-so-misspent youth.  That would be so irritating!  No, there will be flash points. We are fundamentally animals.  There will be stimuli that cause the reactor to boil over, but engagement of the regulator will put things into context, consider the consequences, limit the reaction and channel the energy to creative resolution and activity. 

 

But if something happens that makes the tiger within us feel it is in mortal danger, then it can throw off the leash, disconnect from the regulator and will not re-engage until all the anger is spent and it feels safe again. There is no point in trying to reason with somebody who has lost it.  They can’t reason.  The rational part of their brain is off-line.  They are like children.  Not for nothing do we sometimes accuse people of behaving childishly.  They are.  All we can do is treat them as if they were a child;  hold them, sooth them, rock and stroke them until the terror has passed.  Can you imagine the umpire coming down off his chair and hugging McEnroe.  But that’s what he needed, because he was a toddler and ‘could not be serious’.     

 

Fear and anger are the same emotional response system.  People lose it when they feel terrified, out of control.  Alcohol increases the possibility of losing it, because it releases the reactor from inhibition.  Sleep deprivation,  an overwhelming sequence or combination of stressors, and inadequate containment during infancy, can also make this much more likely because these all sensitise the reactor, twisting the tail of the tiger in our lifeboat.  It is also much easier to lose it if your adversary is a stranger, such as a line court judge, or during road rage, battles between rival football fans or military conflict.  It is tempting to assume that the only way men could engage in hand to hand conflict, was by working themselves up into such a pitch of terror that it completely disconnected their thinking brain.  If they stopped to think, they would be dead.    .         

 

If, however, what happens is so outside one’s experience, so threatening to ones’ sense of reality, then the orbitofrontal cortex does not have the resources to put it into any kind of context.  In situations of severe trauma, such as rape, physical or sexual abuse, killing another person, an accident that threatens life, kidnapping, torture, being awake but paralysed during an operation, the unprocessed memory continues to excite the reactor as if it was still happening.  This induces such a prolonged and extreme state of emotional arousal, causing extreme irritability, panic, hypervigilance, sleeplessness, obsessive thoughts and flash backs.  These are the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  The tiger is on the rampage and the trainer is powerless to stop him.  

 

A wounded tiger is so dangerous.  It’s animal brain sees everything as a serious threat to its life and it overreacts.  Talking does not help.  You cannot reason with a wild animal. All you can do is to remove it to a safe place, allow it peace to rest and provide water and nourishment.  And with the tiger in your brain, you must first calm it down by being in a safe place with somebody you trust, by hugging, rocking, singing, holding, eye movement desensitisation, meditation or tranquillisers such as propranolol.   Only when calm is achieved, can you attempt to bring the regulator on line by focussing on how you are feeling now and what you can do to relieve tension.  Simply tapping on acupressure points (EFT) can be remarkably effective.  Music, writing down what happened, talking to somebody warm and soothing, whom you trust, while maintaining a state of relaxation, can all help to process what happened and let the tension go and with it the memory of what happened.   

 

Pi survived so long with Richard Parker because he was able to form a trusting bond with him. You have to learn to love your tiger especially when it threatens to misbehave.   

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