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Reflections on meaning and disconnection

I think it was about three weeks into our trip when I noticed that the feeling of something-not-quite-right had crept into my mind. I could not understand its meaning. We were still in Rio de Janerio at that point, truly one of my favourite cities in the world. The vibrancy of the place is unparalleled. Sugar Loaf mountain and its surrounding siblings give the city a dramatic, utopic kind of feel. Our apartment backed straight onto a piece of jungle, complete with toucans and marmoset monkeys. The people from Brazil are often described as open, energetic. There is music and dance all over the place and the beach culture, with its bustling trade of caipirihinas, grilled cheese skewers and 25°C waters is a blast. This is the travel of glossy magazines. Why, at such an early stage in the trip, was I feeling distinctly un-holiday like?

Mish found the news disconcerting. Understandably. At first we put it down to the heat. December in Rio can be suffocatingly hot and unfortunately the air-conditioner in our otherwise extremely welcoming apartment did not function very well. 35 degrees Celsius with 80% humidity. There were days when we felt too hot to do just about anything. I felt like even my thoughts were stifled. Its funny how things change as one gets older. I remember being in Rio around the same time when I was 7 years younger. I remember the constant stream of perspiration running down my face as we walked the streets. But at the time it didn’t feel like persecution, the way a swarm of mosquitos buzzing around your head might. Or perhaps its just my rose-tinted memory..?

Humid days in Rio de Janeiro - the botanical gardens.
Humid days in Rio de Janeiro – the botanical gardens.

In any event, research does show a link between excessive heat and negative effects on the body and mind. For instance, cortisol levels tend to increase in response to too much heat. Cortisol is known commonly as the “stress hormone”. It prepares the body for “fight-or-flight” and high levels of it indicate that one is feeling under duress. If you’re feeling “stressed-out” chances are you have elevated levels of cortisol. A couple of studies also show that the ability to think-straight is impaired by too much heat, particularly on attention-demanding tasks that require you to focus and concentrate. Its not surprising that my thoughts felt stifled.

But in truth, I don’t think that the heat was the whole story. My preoccupation with the temperature was probably just a symptom of something else. Other studies have shown that when your mood is wonky, your ability to cope with heat-related discomfort is compromised.

For the first few weeks of the trip, I was intoxicated by the prospect of freedom and endless opportunity. We could do anything. We could head off in any direction we chose, budget permitting, and at the end of it all we could settle anywhere. I felt like shackles were being lifted. Innocent shackles, that make you feel grounded and familiar in your home town, but which, if you really securitise them, also lay down a trajectory for you that spells out the rest of your life. Commitments and expectations… flowing out in benign and unintentional ways from well meaning sources, but which can leave you feeling trapped. Without even knowing it. Far from home, when I realised that the possibilities were infinite, it felt like soaring through the sky, weightless. You may not be surprised to hear that this sort of feeling is associated, in part, with extremely high levels of dopamine in the brain, its activity unencumbered by the pressures of the work-life routine. This feeling is not unlike the euphoric enthusiasm that the drug, cocaine, is said to elicit.

Nevertheless, this phenomenon soon gave way to a feeling of disconnect – not being able to speak any Portuguese, the language barrier became a glass box in which I found myself, and with it, the harrowing feeling of vulnerability when the reality of living abroad without my much-valued support network set in.

I say, “support network,” but what I mean is my “value network”. The things in life that I’m deeply connected to and which enrich my daily experience. Things like family and close friends, routines and structure, and also the familiarity of a place that gives a town or city the feeling of being “home”. All these things contribute to a meaningful life.

Now I do not mean to imply that travelling is devoid of meaning. Obviously, with the expansion of one’s “horizons”, that’s quite the opposite. I think that our trip coincided with a time in my life when the phrase, “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” resonated with me. Having spent the past 4 years as a PhD student, often alone at my computer feeling like I was treading water (in a different sort of box), I suppose what I was needing was to put down some roots.

Giovanni, AKA Bo Bo, my writing partner.

Roots, meaning and the gathering of moss… what can the science of psychology tell us about such human existential experiences?

It is commonly believed that the need for meaning is a fundamental human motive. Our subcortical brain is equipped from birth with the machinery of emotion, and emotional feelings provide us with basic meaning for events from which they are elicited (eg. The rudimentary meaning of a “spider” is acquired because spiders activate the amygdala and make us feel scared. Spiders mean badness). So why all this preoccupation with the need for meaning? Meaning flows from the brain in every instance.

It is quite likely that the “desire for meaning” speaks more to the idea that as intelligent creatures, humans have to understand themselves in order to develop a strong sense of identity, which then acts as a kind of “lens” through which the world and its complexity can be interpreted. Essentially, we develop our identities through self-associations. “I like to travel. I am a student of psychology”. Studies have shown that the process of ‘associating’ is regulated by dopamine in the “orbital frontal cortex” (OFC) and the “basal ganglia”.

The orbital frontal cortex - a banana shaped region in the front of the brain.
The orbital frontal cortex – a banana shaped region in the front of the brain.

If you can imagine a small banana resting in the front of your brain, behind your eye sockets as if cradled by an imaginary basket, that’s the OFC. It is very easily injured from the brutal impact of car accidents and these patients often have a hard time listing words that are associated in meaning. The basal ganglia are ancient structures, that we share with organisms like lizards, which are involved in the learning of movements.

A theorist called Kurt Goldstein came up with the term “self-actualisation” to describe the yearning to acknowledge and realise one’s full potential. But it was the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow who often gets credit for the term and the renowned humanist Carl Roger’s believed that psychological well-being depends on “man’s tendency to actualize himself, to become his potentialities.” Ironically, to “find oneself” is a process that travelling aboard is often thought to serve. But there I was, abroad, feeling disconnected from any of my “potentialities”.

Volcan Lanin, Argentina
Me at the foot of Volcan Lanin in the national park in Argentina. I’m contemplating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as we cross at the border post into Chile..

Our potentialities are developed through the activities we enjoy, the skills we master and our “practices” (habits and structures of day-to-day life, often in the form of work). The theory of “embodied cognition” argues that this could be so because the mind understands the world in terms of the kinds of actions we can perform in it. We think in terms of doing. Thus, at the heart of any kind of sense-making process is the need for purposeful interaction. But this is only one piece of the puzzle. Most of the time we do not undertake these practices of “actualization” alone. We surround ourselves with other people and together we get things done. Even if that is just finishing off a bottle of wine. We cooperate and we bond. This ‘togetherness’ of actualizing-practices is probably what we need as human beings to feel a healthy dose of meaningful wellbeing.

Research from the field of affective neuroscience shows us that human bonding provides a most potent form of well-being. When you feel a sense of warmth and geniality towards a friend, that feeling is the work of a brain hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin evolved to make sure that groups of associated individuals would cooperate with each other, provide support and nurturance despite the obvious competition that group-living affords. Feeling “connected” to someone has a lot to do with the activity of oxytocin. When you feel connected, you feel rooted. If there is lots of oxy, the world feels like a giant embrace, each meaningful interaction with another person a validation of life itself. Your internal compass is working and its pointing you in the right direction. Scholars have reflected on how the fractured lifestyle of modernity has eroded many of the human cultural traditions that give meaning and the feeling of purpose to life.

Freud was not alone when he famously said that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness”.

Our wedding day in the Western Cape
Us formalising our love and connection through the bond of marriage.

To return to the topic of this post, I suspect that my feelings of “something wrong,” which began to float about in my mind not too long after arriving in South America, had to do with feeling detached from the world around me… of missing loved-ones and feeling purposeless once the vacation period had lapsed. The heady delight of day-time beers and meandering through exotic streets began to lose its wholly gratifying charm. There was the nagging feeling of wanting to create something, to be apart of something. Not just travel.

But we are not passive bystanders to our circumstances. And certainly we need a reality check if we’re grappling with such feelings on a year-long “vacation”. If we can understand it, we can change. That is the basis of psychotherapy, isn’t it? So while being in a foreign place can make you feel disconcertingly boundless, it is not a sentence. For me, a lot of the change had to do with accepting this aspect of travel – that it is, in many ways, an exercise in “zen” – accepting the slower, less structured pace of life. But I also needed to attend to some un-finished business – a PhD dissertation to be precise – and make a concerted effort to recognise meaning and life’s lessons in my everyday encounters. In this way, you’re never in limbo.

And to end, a poem.

DARK PINES UNDER WATER Gwendolyn MacEwen  1972

This land like a mirror turns you inward

And you become a forest in a furtive lake;

The dark pines of your mind reach downward,

You dream in the green of your time,

Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for,

Although it is good here, and green;

You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,

You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper

And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper

In an elementary world;

There is something down there and you want it told.

Monkey Puzzle trees in the Santuario el Cani, Chile.
Monkey Puzzle trees in the Santuario el Cani, Chile.

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