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Greeting the Season

Look at these images:

Feel anything? If you do, what you are feeling may be the Vague Stirrings of your amygdala.

The images are from the Eyeswhite Project, an experiment conducted at the brain imaging laboratory of Paul J. Whalen, PhD. Subjects were shown a series of faces, all with neutral expressions. Before each of those faces, they were also shown a brief glimpse (too brief for them to actually be aware of it) of one of the two images above. Afterward, the subjects reported that they had seen nothing out of the ordinary -- just a series of faces exhibiting neutral expressions. But brain imaging of the subjects showed that on those occasions when the neutral face was preceded by the "scary eyes" image above, the subject's amygdala lit up.

Studies of this sort show that the amygdala is still responsive to fearful faces, even when subjects do not know that these expressions have been presented.  These data suggest that this ability is probably so important to the human condition that it has become highly automated.

Okay, I don't know if it works for you, but when I look at the images above my eyes go directly to the "scary eyes". I glance rightward, briefly, at the "neutral eyes" but my gaze is immediately pulled back to the "scary eyes". I can't say I can't take my eyes off them because I can, but if look at the images, the only one my brain seems to care about is the set of eyes on the left.

This has been a very strange and upsetting Holiday Season for me. Raw. Unpleasant. Diffuse. I'm not Scrooge so much this year as I am Marley, I think. Only I lack the kind of purity that Marley was blessed with, the clarifying simplicity that comes of spending seven years in the grave.

I discovered these images this morning and the "scary eyes" image immediately struck me as my Christmas Card to myself. It's pure. I look at it and I can feel myself, literally, inside my brain. It doesn't matter that the overriding emotion is uneasiness. The uneasiness is the direct and unmitigated response to a stimulus outside myself. I'm here in this world. I can feel it.

Merry Christmas to me. Finally.

Time to go buy some people some prezzies.


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