Mind over Matter July 22

Neurology-based advice for a spouse who craves physical affection and a chastened chatterbox

Dear Dr Ash,

I’ve been married fifteen years and feel fortunate that my husband is as passionate as when we first met, despite the physical changes that come with age and two children. I should be purring like a cat, but the problem is he shows little or no affection outside the bedroom. I get a quick hug on my birthday and Christmas, but otherwise he keeps physically separate. When I get home after a hard day I long to be wrapped in comforting arms, but he always dodges the moment and I end up cuddling the dog instead. He’s also undemonstrative with the children, even though I – and they – know he loves them dearly. This isn’t something I feel able to discuss with friends, since unlike most of them I’m utterly spoilt for orgasmic bliss. Nor can I broach it with him. Where would I start? He hates discussing feelings. But I miss that tender day-to-day affection. My mother has diagnosed the classic middle-class, British-male problem of him being sent away to school at seven. But is it that simple? And can he (or I) change?

Lonely in Lancaster

Dear Lonely,

One summer, many, many years ago now, I travelled from my home in rural Ohio to live with a family in France as part of a foreign exchange. Before we left, we were given a few preliminary classes in which we were taught a few basic greetings and useful phrases, briefed on French traditions surrounding family life, then packed off onto our transatlantic flights. Eventually I found myself at the train station in Angers, and when I stepped down onto the platform my lovely host mother Nicole rushed forward to greet me. I was a bit taken aback when she kissed me on both cheeks, just as she was taken aback when I threw my arms around her in a big hug. What was casual to each of us was intimate to the other, and for years we have laughed about the fact that both of our first impressions were that the other was unusually, even pathologically, loving. It is surprising that something as fundamentally human as touch can be so dependent on culture.

But there is no doubt that, cultural variations notwithstanding, British children of a certain era and class were poorly served by an overly mechanical method of raising children. The wealthy elite in post-war Britain held that, as long as the nutritional needs of children were met, scientifically-run, rational institutions could provide a better upbringing for them than their mothers. A brilliant researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr Harry Harlow, put this controversial theory to the test in the 1950s with a series of famous experiments. He separated baby monkeys from their mothers and provided them with surrogate maternal puppets. The puppets were either covered with soft, comforting wool, or made from cold, bare wire but equipped with a bottle of food. He found that the babies overwhelmingly preferred the soft and comforting puppet, only visiting the bare wire puppet when they absolutely needed to feed. Furthermore, babies who had access to the soft puppet showed a greater ability to adapt to their environment and cope with stressful noises, while babies with access only to the wire puppet either hid or remained motionless, ultimately becoming emaciated and ill. Harlow’s methods seem incredibly cruel now, but his conclusions were compassionate: that physical contact, comfort and love are as essential for development as food and water.

Today we know that raising children is not just a matter of inputs and outputs, and that every child needs to feel loved. Modern research has taken us further still, demonstrating that physical touch, even in adults, lowers blood pressure, reduces heart rate, and protects against the toxic effects of stress hormones. The evidence is so overwhelming, in fact, that if we could package the effects of a hug into a pill it would be a Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough. Your need for non-sexual, physical affection is not a whim or an accessory in an otherwise fulfilled life, but an essential requirement for your health and the health of your children.

Your husband probably knows he is unable to provide what you need, but he won’t know what to do about it. Until our culture recognises that for generations we have systematically traumatised and deprived children by subjecting them to institutional upbringings, we will not be able to heal the wounds those children bear. You can make a start in your own family, though. First, recognise that your husband was separated from his mother too early in life, that this was not his fault, and that it has probably left him lacking in certain emotional skills. Demonstrate physical affection to him in small ways: a gentle touch on the back or simply standing close to him. Focus your efforts on giving rather than receiving – the mental and physical health benefits will be the same for you no matter what. Over time, your husband may learn how to use small amounts of physical touch; and even if he doesn’t, you will have changed the culture around touch within your family – a much more healthy legacy to leave for your children.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

Dear Dr Ash,

I come from a family of talkers and storytellers. When we all get together we habitually talk over and interrupt each other. While that makes for rowdy fun and games at clan reunions, I’ve noticed the habit spilling into the rest of my life – I tend to talk too much and too loudly even when meeting up with a friend. I now give myself a stern pep talk before a rendezvous: to listen quietly to the other person for the evening. But usually after ten minutes I can’t resist launching into an anecdote and then I’m off, following up with another and then another. Later I feel mortified and take a vow of silence, but never stick to it. I even talk to my plants when watering them, and sing to the dog on walks. I fear I’ve become just like my mother, who wakes every morning with an urgent need to discharge her thoughts on life, the world and Putin in a two-hour monologue. Is compulsive chatting a gene or learned behaviour? Is there something I can switch in my brain to stop me being too prolix?

Garrulous of Greater Manchester

Dear Garrulous,

I’m feeling a bit slow this morning, having had a particularly lively and cocktail-fuelled dinner with friends last night. In this rather fragile and contemplative state I am reminded of a beautiful poem by Jeffrey McDaniel called The Quiet World. The author imagines a fictional time in which the government, “in an effort to get people to look into each other’s eyes more,” limits each person to using 167 words per day. The draconian restriction turns into something profoundly beautiful when the poet and his long-distance lover, having exhausted their daily speech quota, listen to each other quietly breathing over the telephone. It is a delicate and moving reminder of the subtle beauty one can find in silence.

Last night I had a very different view on the subject. After that first cocktail or two, the volume of our little group rose so much that even the sounds of the Glastonbury festival throbbing up the valley from our house became marginal background. The disinhibiting effect of alcohol on the brain echoes the point you’ve made in your letter: that it takes restraint for many of us to stay quiet, and that when restraint weakens nearly all of us become inveterate chatterboxes. In extreme cases, when speech becomes unnaturally rapid and frenzied, doctors call it “pressured”. This apt term describes the build-up of a drive to speak more and more, faster and faster, making less and less sense over time.
Pressured speech is one of the warning signs of mania, and it’s a deeply uncomfortable state for both the speaker and their audience. I don’t think you’re anywhere near that level of pressure, but perhaps it is this hint of a feeling, that what should be funny and chatty is tipping over into something compulsive and driven, that has prompted you to write.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how and why the brain generates speech pressure in the first place. At first glance one might assume that speech is primarily about communication, but clearly cocktail party banter has a very low rate of information transfer. Instead, scientists who study speech in social situations find that most speech is foremost about establishing some form of intimacy. We talk about the weather, or politics, or we ask about each other’s children not because we really care but simply in order to exchange oxytocin. Social speech involves turn-taking which, if it’s successful, establishes rapport. Shared laughter triggers the release of endorphins in deep brain structures, producing feelings of well-being and safety. Even the excited, overlapping hypomanic speech you’ve described can produce feelings of mutual trust and understanding if everyone is participating equally. Your desire to speak likely reflects your enjoyment of these social feelings more than it reflects any great need to tell stories.

And this I think may be your way forward. Find other ways to get your endorphin kick – other ways to create rapport and social bonding. Learn to communicate with all your faculties, not just with speech: notice yours and others’ body language, vocal tone, and all the rich and subtle details of non-verbal communication. When you feel the pressure to speak, tune in to that feeling too and try to notice if your speech takes on an air of frenzy. Building awareness of these things should help you change your habits, and at the very least will stop you speaking for long enough to give your audience a chance to jump in.

Finally, adopt this change in moderation. Attempting to reduce speech pressure by applying yet more pressure is like trying to stop a sneeze – the more you focus on it, the more it wants to come out. My advice is that, for the most part, you come to terms with what sounds like a charming aspect of your personality. Your talkative nature suggests that you are energised by the company of others, which is probably what draws them to you. Finding peace, with yourself and your own inclinations as much as with anyone else, is often the first step towards enjoying silence.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

Dr Ash Ranpura is a neuroscientist and clinical neurologist. He qualified in medicine and general neurology at Yale University and the Yale-New Haven Hospital, and trained in cognitive neuroscience at Queen Square, London

Life

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