My Brain at The Dentist

The last time I was in a position to have a professional take small power tools to my teeth you could still buy a gallon of gas for around $1.50.  So, yesterday as I walked into the dentist office, after noting that the smells and sounds hadn’t changed a bit, I was acutely aware of my body’s readiness to eclipse Usain Bolts’ Olympic 100 meter dash record.  I was so anxious I knocked three different items off the receptionist’s desk, due in no small part to the pinhole tunnel vision I was experiencing.  After the third item dropped to the carpet I confessed to being “a little nervous,” to which the receptionist offered the verbal version of a Hallmark card, “I’m sure it will be fine.”  This remark, surely spoken in kindness, had the desired effect of calming me down, but not because it offered genuine comfort.  Instead, I unwittingly converted her gesture into something workable – patronization, and with just a small delusional nudge I had an antagonist.

With little to no conscious intent I had moved out of ‘flight’ and into ‘fight’ mode. Although the ‘fight or flight’ response to high stress has the same neurological starting point, once a direction is selected, other parts of the brain are activated to resolve the issue. Upon entering the office I was experiencing a rush of cortisol, the primary stress hormone in the body and its primary target was the part of the brain called the amygdala.  For all its complexity the amygdala processes fear and prompts the body to react but must interact with other parts of the brain and outsource for more sophisticated stress responses.  This is where the receptionist enters the story, and unbeknownst to her, my story.

In this type of stressful situation the amygdala quickly gets to a point of demanding results – in evolutionary terms, the threat must be addressed immediately.  I’d committed to being there so flight was off the table, and since generalized fear has no form to do battle with, my automatic response was to fabricate an enemy.

Fortunately, I won’t be billed by the dental office for so efficiently illuminating one of the core elements of my story, but they could be justified in doing so.  A combination of terror and simple reassurance had brought me right back to my childhood dinner table where mockery and cruel banter were the weapons used to crown conquerors and thrash victims.  Any vulnerability or observable desire for comfort significantly increased the likelihood for victimization, so I and my trusty brain adjusted accordingly, generating well-travelled neural pathways between areas of the brain that perceive and assess threat, and those required for effective mobilization against it.  At the dinner table, language, wit and memory of the soft spots of family members were essential; while emotional presence, kindness and reflectiveness were liabilities.

Although the receptionist was never made aware of her antagonistic status (specific language was put to my sarcastic retort but it remained in my mind) I had pulled up a dining room chair for her to occupy.  “…we never experience a person as totally new but as some blend of our expectations, implicit schema, and who she really is.  This mixture of the past and present in everyday life results from the fact that implicit memory (usually unconscious and demonstrated via attitudes, beliefs and behaviors) processes are faster, automatic and guide explicit memory and conscious experience” (Cozolino).

From the creation of an enemy to fantasizing about her neutralization in service of reducing my anxiety, all took place in few seconds.  The consequence of allowing this transference response to go unchecked is the reinforcement of the dark premise that states: anger and cruelty are the best means of addressing high anxiety and creating safety.  To the degree that language, truth and care are not applied to the explicit memories of harmful, traumatic experiences, the brain will rely almost solely on implicit memory when something in our present experience triggers significant anxiety or fear.

A day later I labor – with clean teeth – under the responsibility to tie this particular implicit memory schema to the explicit memories of mockery, cruel banter and shame.  This labor relies heavily on the hippocampus as it is the primary hub of explicit memory. The task of addressing harmful transference responses relies on us inviting and even cajoling the sometimes unruly amygdala to interact with the hippocampus while the prefrontal cortex mediates and guides.  A gross oversimplification, but each of these parts brings a crucial element to the process of editing stories in a way that changes how we perceive and interact with those around us in the present.  The amygdala supplies the emotional punch, the hippocampus provides the context (the scene) and the prefrontal cortex the capacity to rearrange the story and guide the reordering of neural pathways.

My heart hurts and my brain aches with growing pains as I work to reroute major neural highways.  The work includes engaging the particularities of specific dinner scenes: words spoken, tonality, facial expressions, body positions, smells, tastes, etc. to allow for a fuller context in which amygdyllic activity can be felt and understood.  Without going any further with the story however, the probability of simply re-experiencing harm is high.  The beauty of time travel (remembering) in this regard is that it enables us to bring kindness and care into scenes, which in this case serves to break up the automatic response to a threat like mockery.  Grief is then allowed in and when nursed can invite comfort that needs no victim.

Although the work is in progress, speculation based on past goodness that I have known, offers truer, richer forms of comfort that provide relief and a greater awareness of who I am written to be.  Even as I write that, memories of sinking into my wife’s gentle touch while in significant pain or sharing tears with a friend on my behalf, move up in the neurological order as memories to be accessed to ground me and speak truth in high anxiety moments.

In a month I return to the dentist to have a molar hole drilled and filled with silver…I’ll let you know how it goes.


Trapper is a graduate of The Seattle School and a member of The Allender Center Teaching Staff.