Travel & the Brain

Little Corn Island and the Psychology of Ambivalence

Little Corn Island is paradise. Or is it? Ambivalence is not an uncommon travel experience and in this article I’ll explore its meaning and neurochemical basis in the brain.

I was coming down with the flu the day we headed off for the Corn Islands, 2 lonely land masses, one big, one small,  about 70 kilometers off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. These islands, formally called the Mosquito Coast, were a British protectorate from 1655 until 1860. They remain a world-apart from mainland Nicaragua, having only been reclaimed by the country in 1894. You’ll get by speaking English here, but its spoken Caribbean style. You’ll need to listen closely.

Alison and I were on the mid-day flight. Mischa was to join us a few hours later. When it was time to board, I discovered why the flight had booked up so quickly – it was a dinky aircraft with space for only 12 passengers, which brought back memories from when I was 6 or 7 years old and my dad’s friend flew us from Johannesburg to the Okavango Delta in Botswana.


Fat-headed and nerves a bit jumpy, I felt removed from reality as I watched the clouds envelope the plane. I wasn’t willing to acknowledge my percolating thoughts of a crash. But, safely on the ground, playing cards to pass the time until Mish’s arrival, it began to storm and as my eye caught the smoke from a shouldering refuge heap, my heart skipped and then raced ahead in panic. Did his plane go down!? No… moments later there he was, striding our way, wet from the rain and laden with luggage but giving no indication of his own clammy and turbulent onboard experience.


It is no small task getting to Little Corn island. You have to be invested in the journey and cast aside the memory of several passengers who tragically drowned in 2011 during the crossing from Big Corn to Little. The boat – a panga which, true to its name, whips you along, crossing the ocean as if it were a chopping board. Alison and I were in merry spirits. Mischa was not as impressed, cradling his bag of music equipment as if it were a newborn. After 25 minutes, we arrived.

The island is beautiful in a rugged sort of way. The coastline alternates between coconut palmed, bleached, sandy beaches with brilliant turquoise waters, and other more bedraggled sections that are heavily eroded. At some points, the cliff face is over 50 meters high with thrashing seas below. The interior is all dark earth, swamps, rotting mangoes and mosquitoes thriving in the dampness underneath a canopy of almond and banana trees.

Otto's beach, Little Corn Island
Otto’s Beach, Little Corn Island. By far the most enchanting beach on the island. Sadly its dominated by a luxury (though in fairness, understated) resort.

Certainly, it’s a real escapade just getting there (Alison’s journey, for instance, went like this: Cape Town via Dubai to New York, to Managua via Miami, and finally on our toy plane to the islands, and one boat ride later). I expected my encounters on Little Corn to inspire a menagerie of tales. The isolation, tropical terrain and minimal infrastructure (no cars, for example, but plenty of freshly caught lobster) is the stuff of Robinson Crusoe-esque fantasies and I had anticipated a rush of associations that would find their way quickly to my page. But it was not like this, my mind felt suspended. I would move ahead with an idea and then come to a halt and retreat, feeling conflicted about it and then scrapping it all together. Impressions would come and then vanish, I felt stuck like the island itself, hemmed in by the vast pressures of water that encircle the land.

Little Corn Island

A psychoanalyst might say that this response reflects something deep and meaningful about my experience of the place, and that if I interrogate this response, I can learn something important about the undercurrents to which my unconscious mind was reacting.

Something incongruous is happening on Little Corn… there is an ominous undertone that doesn’t quite fit with the story that is sold in countless travel blogs. Perhaps it was the weather, the rainy season with its sky that never quite lost its blanket of grey… or the prim but closed-up houses of expats who visit for only a few months of the year, houses that stand in stark contrast to the more rustic homes of the locals. We met several young Americans who are now permanent residents of the island. I was fascinated by their relocation and envied their carefree spirit but this seemed at the cost of disengagement from reality. Or maybe I’m just being cynical…?

As an outsider, it is hard to understand what life on Little Corn is really all about. If you talk to the locals, you might get a sense. Dubious drug money, for instance, hotels as the front. I felt unease at a story recounted to us by a local restaurant owner, about a young man from Portugal who she took in after the hotels had shut their doors on him, fearing his skeletal body was a sign of AIDS. She was a kind and warm soul but her words spoke to a weariness that I saw (or thought I saw) in the people, a hum of disgruntlement towards the changing landscape of life that seems to be an inevitable run-off of tourism.

Local and foreign, these are two currents on the island that collide subtlety into each other as if the rhythm is strained by a sense of ambivalence on both sides. Locals needing tourism from an economic stand point but resenting the disturbance to the fabric of life. Foreigners pouring in for their own piece of paradise, an asylum from the chaos of city life that doesn’t always measure up to the imagination.


Otto's beach, Little Corn
Ali and I are Otto’s Beach, Little Corn.

As far as travel goes, ambivalent feelings are part of the package. Most destinations have their low-lights and high-lights and this tends not to cause too much distress. But when there is “conflict”, that’s where the problem comes in, when it is not a case of the bad on one hand and the good on the other but the same experience that evokes both positive and negative reactions. That is conflict. Little Corn is an idyllic place. Remote and undeveloped with panoramic views that recede into infinity. But instead of openness, I found it claustrophobic.

Ambivalence and Mental Entrapment in the Brain

Ambivalence is “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone”. Most research points to ambivalence as being an aversive experience. For example, depression is linked to the number of ambivalent network ties a person has and people who are in ambivalent relationships tend to be more susceptible to health issues like coronary heart disease, possibly because of the increased stress that ambivalence carries. The aversive nature of ambivalence is amplified when your decisions and actions don’t reflect this internal state of affairs. For instance, being in a relationship with someone for whom your feelings are mixed.

In the brain, a structure called the anterior cingulate cortex tends to light up when this feeling arises. This same brain region activates when it’s hard to make a decision and one feels conflicted about the best way forward. Like being physically trapped, ambivalence, therefore, can be an uncomfortable experience because it is a type of mental entrapment.

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the frontal part of the cingulate cortex that resembles a "collar" surrounding the frontal part of the corpus callosum.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the frontal part of the cingulate cortex that resembles a “collar” surrounding the frontal part of the corpus callosum.

Indecisiveness is trapping and unpleasant because humans have a strong, over-riding desire for consistency – in behavior – but especially between behavior and attitude because this coherence is self-assuring. Its the stuff of identity. When you have a clear understanding of your values and needs, and your actions support this position, ambivalence tends to decrease, there are no contradictions. The world and your place in it makes sense. Making decisions feels “safe”. We can move forward with ease.

I suspect that this desire for coherence in behavior and attitude is so valued because most of the time it’s pretty hard to know exactly what it is that we want. A vast portion of our mental life remains unconscious to us. We have all sorts of desires and needs that we aren’t always ready or willing to accept and they remain below the seat of conscious awareness. It is probably this fractured nature of the mind, the conscious and the unconscious, that drives the need for consistency in what we do and what we truly feel.

Ambivalence & Cognitive Dissonance

Ambivalence, especially when your immediate actions seem to contradict some aspect of your underlying feelings, can be so unsettling that the mind tends to find a way of “rectifying” the situation. Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance states that when people find themselves doing something that contradicts the way they feel about it (their attitude towards the act), instead of changing the behavior, a person might change their attitude. For example, if you are a smoker and believe that smoking is bad for your health, instead of quitting, you might adopt the argument (without being conscious of the attitude change) that secondary smoke is impossible to avoid and just as dangerous, so it’s a futile task to attempt quitting. Once your attitude has changed, a sense of consistency between action and attitude is restored.

In essence, the theory of cognitive dissonance is just a fancy way of talking about justification, but it’s important in that it shows us the extent we’ll go to avoid ambivalence and how our unconscious mind sometimes tricks us into sustaining unhealthy behaviors.

Cognitive dissonance
In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency in order to mentally function in the real world.

Ambivalence, Oxytocin and Self-Confidence

Interestingly, a recent study demonstrated that oxytocin, the so called “love hormone”, is able to reduce the neural response to ambivalence. In this particular study, participants were administered oxytocin through a nasal spray, from where it is able to enter the brain. The results from fMRI brain scans showed decreased activation in the anterior cingulate cortex when participants had to make difficult trade-off decisions in moral dilemmas (for e.g. “What would you do if…”). In essence, oxytocin presumably took some of the angst out of making these types of tough calls.

This “angst” – what is it about? Matters that involve morality are notorious catalysts of distress and ambivalence because we’re forced up against thinking about ourselves in relation to others. What will they think of me if I do this? Will I be looked down upon, will I be shamed? Fear of being judged, of “losing face” is something most people work very hard to avoid because we have a built-in, hard-wired emotional system in the brain for monitoring social attachment. In particular, the anterior cingulate cortex is a key structure in the brain that lights up in response to loss, especially social loss, like if you’ve been socially ostracized, because as far as loss goes for human beings, social status and belonging rank up there with what we value most.

What this suggests, is that participants administered oxytocin experienced less of a sense of loss while they had to evaluate situations that affected other people. While the hormone did not influence the judgement per se, whatever the person decided, oxytocin appeared to have downplayed the risk of losing face and imparted more self-assurance, more confidence. This is an uncommon fact, but several studies indicate that oxytocin increases self-confidence.

Perhaps this is why we find it easier to make difficult decisions together with other people? Not only do others take on some of the responsibility, but being close to others in affectionate ways increases levels of oxytocin. So the next time you have a tough call to make, get intimate with your partner and then revisit the decision…