I was looking for something a friend had asked me for today and found, in a very unlikely place, an envelope that included my first grade picture, first grade report card, second grade report card and others.  Against my own wishes, I scanned them in and post the links to them here.  I really can’t say at this moment what the point of this even is.

What I did discover, as mentioned in the link for my first grade report card, is that I was absent 23 days in my first grade year of school.  I was not a sickly child, and even if I had missed a few days here and there for normal childhood sicknesses, 23 is a lot of days.

What is confirmed for me here is that my mother kept me out of school throughout my childhood on occasions when she was in a beating, abusive frenzy.  Part of me says today, “Well, I don’t want to even know that little girl.  I don’t want to know anything about her.  She was not me.”

Yes, she was me.  Yes, I am she.  Obviously what she/me experienced is what this blog is about.  But I don’t want to think about any of it today.  Not one single part of it except to scan in this information and post the links.  Not particularly helpful to anyone, I don’t expect, but it will have to do.


The other thing that’s been on my mind today was a dream I had last night that I actually remembered having this morning when I woke up.  I died in my dream last night.  I don’t remember how I died, or the actual dying itself.  But first in the dream I was alive, and then later in the dream I was dead.

I find it interesting that the whole dream took place at the home of the woman who found my mother dying in her shabby motel room in 2002.  This woman, I call JV, first met and befriended my mother when we moved to Alaska in 1957, and was the only person that maintained a relationship/friendship with my mother over all those years.

JV was strong enough in some unusual way to stay my mother’s friend for 45 years.  In my dream I was with a group of friends and family at JV’s house when I died.  Nobody could see me then but her.  I could see everyone else.  JV didn’t act like anything had changed, even though I knew she knew I was dead.  I’m not going to worry about the ‘meaning’ of the dream — just having it and remembering it is unsettling and strange enough.

So for now, I will go do my 45 minute walk-jog and then do simple things, like eat supper.  I wish everyone well — and I’ll be back here perhaps more chipper tomorrow.  (PS – I hit ‘publish’ for this post and my Firefox crashed.  Glad it saved the post FIRST!)


*Age 5 – kindergarten 1956-57

*Age 6 – 1st grade report card 1957-58

Just turned 6, too-old eyes, puffy from crying

*Age 7 – 1958-59 2nd grade report card

*Age 9 – 1960-61 4th grade report card

*Age 10 – 5th grade 1961-62

*Age 11 1962-63 6th grade class picture

*Age 11 – 1962-63 6th grade report card


Well, this does come to mind:

I used to remember my dreams.  Now I remember remembering the dreams.

Years ago I belonged to a circle of women who met with the elder Grandmothers to learn about teachings.  One time I traveled to a Canadian reserve with some of these women to visit our Grandmother elder, Mary.  I brought Mary some tobacco so I could ask her about a dream I had a few days before.

Mary accepted my tobacco.  She sat across the living room from me on her couch, staring down at her shoes while I talked.  I told her my dream about the group of Native American men that stood talking among themselves on the sidewalk across the street from where I stood talking with a group of women.

Suddenly I looked down at my palms and saw each of them had a hole in it I could see through.  Shocked, I turned to my friends and showed the women, “What happened to me?” I asked them.  “What can we do about this?”

None of the women had a clue.  As I looked up I saw the most handsome young man with long black hair glistening down his back crossing the street toward me, looking straight into my eyes.  When he reached me he gently took each of my hands into his, one at a time, raised them to his lips and blew his breath through each hole, never taking his eyes off of mine.

When he released my hands, the holes were gone, and the man turned and sauntered back across the street without saying a word.  Oh, I was in LOVE!  I wanted to follow him more than anything, but the women restrained me.

“Oh, no, Linda, you can’t go where the men are.  The men have men things they have to do.  We women have our women things we have to take care of.  Stay here.  You cannot go to be with that man.  Leave that man alone.”

So, I didn’t follow him.  I dutifully stayed with the women, glancing across the street now and then, until finally I saw him get into his car and leave.


At no time while I was telling Grandmother Mary about this dream did she move a muscle.  She did not look at me for a few minutes after I had stopped talking, either.  I sat, barely breathing, waiting for her profound interpretation of what this dream might mean.  Finally, Mary shifted her weight, turned toward me and said with the straightest of faces, “Well, honey, all I can tell you is this.  Next time you have that dream about that man, you call me.  I’ll help you get into his trunk.”

The whole room lit up with her laughter.




What if a single research key exists that fits into the lock that will open the door for me to find out what was REALLY wrong with my severely abusive Borderline mother?

I used to think that if I could name one single fact about my mother that allowed her to so terribly abuse me from birth and for the next 18 years of my childhood, I would say that my mother lacked a conscience.  Search as I might, I cannot actually find anyone who can begin to say exactly what ‘conscience’ is let alone where it might physically reside in a person’s body-brain.

Today I am beginning to understand that there is another word I can use to think about what my mother did to me.  My mother completely lacked the ability to feel compassion for me.  Compassion, it turns out, IS an aspect of human beings that does seem to be connected biologically, physiologically, neurologically to very real systems in our body-brain.  I like that.  I can learn about this.

The most fundamental human do-good, be-good system in our body is evidently our vagal nerve structures.  Before I present my informational links for today, I want to first present this single piece of research that shines a clear, bright light on what might be the very system within my mother’s body that was – most simply put – unable to help her not to harm me!


Borderline personality disorder and emotion regulation: Insights from the Polyvagal Theory


Marilyn A. Austina, Todd C. Riniolob and Stephen W. Porges (2007)

References and further reading may be available for this article. To view references and further reading you must purchase this article.


The current study provides the first published evidence that the parasympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system differentiates the response profiles between individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and controls.

Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), a non-invasive marker of the influence of the myelinated vagal fibers on the heart, and heart period were collected during the presentation of film clips of varying emotional content.

The BPD and control groups had similar initial levels of RSA and heart period. However, during the experiment the groups exhibited contrasting trajectories, with the BPD group decreasing RSA and heart period and the control group increasing RSA and heart period.

By the end of the experiment, the groups differ significantly on both RSA and heart period. The correlation between the changes in RSA and heart period was significant only for the control group, suggesting that vagal mechanisms mediated the heart period responses only in the control group.

The findings were consistent with the Polyvagal Theory [Porges, S. W. (1995). Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage: A Polyvagal Theory. Psychophysiology, 32, 301–318; Porges, S. W. (2001). The Polyvagal Theory: Phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42, 123–146; Porges, S. W. (2003). Social engagement and attachment: A phylogenetic perspective. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1008, 31–47.], illustrating different adaptive shifts in autonomic state throughout the course of the experiment.

The BPD group ended in a physiological state that supports the mobilization behaviors of fight and flight, while the control group ended in a physiological state that supports social engagement behaviors.

These finding are consistent with other published studies demonstrating atypical vagal regulation of the heart with other psychiatric disorders.


Brain and Cognition
Volume 65, Issue 1, October 2007, Pages 69-76
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: Developmental and Clinical Perspectives

Marilyn A. Austina, Todd C. Riniolob and Stephen W. Porgesc, ,

aDepartment of Human Development, University of Maryland, College Park, College Park, MD, USA

bDepartment of Psychology, Medaille College, Buffalo, NY, USA

cDepartment of Psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago, Psychiatric Institute, Chicago, IL, USA





LISTEN HERE (scroll down their web page for title)

Dr. Moira Gunn talks with UC Berkeley Psychology Professor, Dacher Keltner and the editor of Greater Good magazine, Jason Marsh, about how humans are naturally programmed to be good and what separates those who are from those who are not.

Interview with the authors Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh ABOUT —

The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith (Paperback – Jan 4, 2010)

Book Review

The short, accessible essays…underscore empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, happiness, trust, and apology…. A readable digest of current work in positive psychology for a general audience. (E. James Lieberman – Library Journal )

Book Description

Leading scientists and science writers reflect on the life-changing, perspective-changing, new science of human goodness. In these pages you will hear from Steven Pinker, who asks, “Why is there peace?”; Robert Sapolsky, who examines violence among primates; Paul Ekman, who talks with the Dalai Lama about global compassion; Daniel Goleman, who proposes “constructive anger”; and many others. Led by renowned psychologist Dacher Keltner, the Greater Good Science Center, based at the University of California in Berkeley, has been at the forefront of the positive psychology movement, making discoveries about how and why people do good. Four times a year the center publishes its findings with essays on forgiveness, moral inspiration, and everyday ethics in Greater Good magazine. The best of these writings are collected here for the first time.

A collection of personal stories and empirical research, The Compassionate Instinct will make you think not only about what it means to be happy and fulfilled but also about what it means to lead an ethical and compassionate life. 25 illustrations.

See all Editorial Reviews



Today I scanned the next chapter in Dr. Dacher Keltner’s book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life on Compassion.  I initially purchased this book out of my interest in what Keltner had to say about the human neural circuits that appear to have evolved specifically to help us live a good life in the world having to do with the Polyvagal Theory, or the vagal components of our nervous system.

It is here in his chapter on Compassion that Keltner begins to talk about this vagal nerve system (and about its direct connection to our immune system).  Please take a few moments to read this.  I present this chapter for discussion and educational purposes – please follow the active book title link above to purchase your copy:





I was born into a sinister world that is the opposite of the one Dr. Dacher Keltner seems to be considering as the REAL world in his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.  I was born into one of those infant-child abusing homes that forced me to grow and develop in a universe that was “upside-down, backwards and inside-out from safe, secure and normal.”

As I explained in yesterday’s post, I don’t believe Keltner.  If people are “born to be good” as Keltner suggests, how is it possible that so many people can turn out to be so bad, including my mother and all severely abusive infant-child caregivers?

I suggest in contrary to Keltner’s beliefs that humans are born with all their human abilities to choose between “being good” and “being bad” intact.  I then still further believe that even when infant-childhood is ‘good enough’ some people still prefer to choose to do bad.  I also believe that some people, like my mother, suffer from enough deprivation, trauma and harm during their earliest brain growth and developmental stages that the ability to consciously choose between doing bad and doing good is removed from them.

In a very literal sense I can agree with Keltner that my mother was BORN to BE good.  She had that capacity within her at the moment she was born.  But it’s a far cry and a very long shot to believe that she KEPT this ability.  I do not believe that she did.

So next I have to consider that I believe DOING good and BEING good are two entirely different things.  Can a person still be innately GOOD even though they actual DO very bad things?  Was Hitler innately good?  Was my mother?

I am not equipped to consider what are probably spiritual questions like the innate goodness or badness of people.  I believe enough in the supremacy of God to say that this level of judgment does not belong to human beings.  I do not believe that humans can ever have enough of the right kind of information to assess the innate worthiness of anyone.

And because this is true, I cannot judge Hitler any more than I can judge my mother or anyone else.  I can, however, keep my eyes and my mind completely open in my thinking about the goodness or the badness of human activities.  Keltner’s premise that humans are “born to be good” tells me nothing useful about the real world we all have to live in.  It is either a philosophical assertion or a spiritual topic to consider the innate ‘beingness’ of humans.

I therefore have to revise my own thinking as I read the words Keltner wrote in the second half of his chapter on teasing because I see this fundamental difference between “born to be good” versus “born with the capacity to choose to do good or bad.”  If something happens during infant-child development that changes this ‘capacity to choose to do good or bad’, the stage is set for all hell to break loose.  I know this as a FACT, as do all severe infant-child abuse survivors.  There is nothing in Keltner’s book that would suggest to me that he is one of these survivors.

It seems to me that his not being a severe infant-child abuse survivor lets him think about the good actions of humans as if they are a given.  I know the opposite to be true.  Anything good my mother accomplished in her life seemed to be as much of an unconscious accident as was all the bad she seemed able to do without conscience.

The true value of Keltner’s writings to me is that here I am for the first time beginning to define the goodness that was missing in my mother’s life, and therefore was also missing in the childhood she provided for her children.  I am beginning to see, as I have written in my previous posts about Keltner’s book, that the goodness that was missing in my childhood was equally as harmful to me as was the presence of the badness.

I will also say here that I have an additional piece of important information about Keltner’s book that my blog readers don’t.  I see that his chapter after the topic of teasing is about touch.  Oh, I can assure you, knowing that touch is the next topic Keltner presents has given me pause in my reading.  If I don’t let myself become completely clear now in this current topic of teasing, as it relates to my own version of reality from 18 long, long years of all kinds of severe abuse from my mother, I am in for big trouble when it is time for me to think about what I know about the perils of touch.

At the same time I expect to uncover all kinds of information about the goodness of human touch in Keltner’s next chapter, I have no confidence that my own reality is going to be discussed in his words.  Now that I see that Keltner is describing a fairy tale world where only human goodness is possible, I can see that he is simply ignoring the perils that exist right along side of the goodness he is presenting as the ONLY reality.

If Keltner cannot begin to think about how terribly BAD what he calls ‘teasing’ can actually become, if he cannot even mention how the aspects of teasing that involve words can actually HURT people, how can I have any confidence that he will be even the least bit sensitive to the realities of people who have survived not only the horrors of severe verbal abuse as well as the horrors of the physical abuses related to touch?

As I presented through links in my post +THE ‘TERROR-ABLE’ CONSEQUENCES OF INFANT-CHILDHOOD VERBAL ABUSE, spoken words along with all the sounds that accompany them, can reach out and touch even the fundamental construction and operation of the human brain (and body) and change it –permanently.  The people who have to live for the rest of their lives with one of these changed brains will know things about the bad side of humans that Keltner does not seem able to even begin to imagine.

I have found that reading his words at face value would only be possible if I deny my own reality.  I had to wait until the force of my own doubt within me became so powerful, loud and obvious that I could no longer pretend that I agreed wholeheartedly with Keltner that humans are “born to be good.”  I have a second filter in place as I read his words on teasing that Keltner does not have.  He filters teasing through what is good about humans.  I also add the filter of reading his words knowing what is bad about humans.

Whether or not everyone takes their first newborn breath in a state of ‘being good’ or not is outside the range of my concern here.  I believe newborns are born with the capacities of doing good and of doing bad, both extremes existing on a continuum of human’s possible behaviors.  If, as Keltner asserts the capacity to smile, laugh and tease is hardwired into our human body as a part of our species’ genetic makeup, his logic falls short by the time he gets to his description of teasing.


Research has confirmed that both genuine smiles and genuine laughter involve brain regions in specific ways so that these actions cannot be faked.  If they cannot be faked, they are therefore immune from being tampered with.  Teasing appears to be a much more advanced activity; one that Keltner mentions is not fully operational in humans until we reach about ten-and-a-half years of age.

So many body-brain-mind-self critical developmental stages of been reached and passed through already by the time we reach this ‘age of teasing’ that we cannot possibly exempt teasing abilities from the influence that all the experiences a child has already had prior to this age from the end result – how this pre-formed child operates in the social environment.

As I have already written, by the time my mother reached this age of ten-and-a-half, I believe something was already so changed about her that there was no hope that the full-blown expression of her brain-mind-self changes was not going to erupt in terrible tragedy down the road of her life.  I can see and sense these changes being present in the stories I have that she wrote at this age.

By the time my mother was ten years old she was already an accident waiting to happen.  The fuse of her explosive potential had already been lit.  As I read what Keltner next says about the topic of teasing, I can see all the places within this context where the potential of humans to harm others resides.  Teasing is at best a risky business, even though Keltner seems intent on ignoring this fact.


The entire framework that Keltner uses to describe teasing rests on the assumption that the ability to participate in sincere, coherent verbal thinking and communication has developed within a normally-formed brain-mind.  Keltner states:  “What gives the tease the playful genius of the jester’s satire are systematic violations of Grice’s maxims.”  (page 153)

GRICE'S MAXIMS OF COMMUNICATION, page 152 of Keltner's "Born to Be Good" book
(remember these are the same maxims used to assess secure and insecure adult attachment) -- page 152 from Keltner's "Born to Be Good" book


What Keltner does not say is that having the ability to ‘systematically violate’ these rules of speech rests on a person’s ability to use them systematically in the first place.  There will be corresponding changes in a person’s ability to even think ‘systematically’, let alone communicate with others systematically in accordance with the degrees of developmental brain changes that have happened in a person’s early infant-child traumatic environment.

Keltner does not address how traumas in the early brain developmental stages can plant the seeds of badness within some infant-child abuse survivors.  He does not talk about how these seeds can sprout and turn into twisted, distorted patterns of social interaction.  I can see the fertile soil in the field of teasing behaviors and motivations that create the dangerous conditions that can lead to abuse.

Keltner is using two powerful examples of human interactions in his description of teasing:  play and war.  He writes about “the art of the tease” without considering the harmful extremes that are the opposite of what he chooses to describe here.

The art of the tease lies on the spectrum Keltner refers to as ‘playful genius’ that operates according to identifiable principles that are systematic violations of Grice’s maxims – exaggeration, repetition, and rule of manner (directness and clarity).

Keltner:  “A first principle is exaggeration, which marks the playfulness of the tease by deviating from Grice’s maxim of quality.  Teasing can involve copious detail, excessive profanity, or an exaggerated characterization….  We tease with dramatic and exaggerated shifts in our pitch – we mock the plaintiveness of another with high-pitched imitations, and the momentary obtuseness of another with slow-moving, low-pitched utterances….  We tease by imitating, in exaggerated form, the mannerisms of others….”  (pages 153-154

I read in this paragraph a description of the potential for harm contained in verbal abuse.  What words would we use to describe the opposite of ‘the art of the tease’?  What is the opposite of ‘playful genius’?  I know what the opposite sounds like.  I know what it feels like.  The opposite end of this artful, playful genius of ‘good’ teasing is the use of these characteristics of exaggeration in verbal abuse.

I think of my mother’s abuse litany, of the verbal record of her distorted remembrances of the so-called crimes I had committed from the time I was born that she wielded against me while she beat me over the years of my childhood.  Her verbalizations about me were always extremely distorted exaggerations.  To say my mother was dramatic would be a terrible understatement.  To say that she mocked me would also be a massive understatement.

Keltner continues about the first deviation of Grice’s maxims used in teasing:  “Repetition is a classic element of the tease, and violates the rule of quanitity.  If a friend says you are a really good neck rubber, you blush with pride.  If she says you are a really, really, really, really outrageously fantastic neck rubber, you are likely to bristle a bit, recall questionable massage techniques – the use of your elbows and your nose – you’ve experimented with, wonder what her point is, and rise to defend yourself.”  (pages 154-155)

Here, in his own words, Keltner is making reference to the potential for danger and harm that exists on the teasing spectrum.  It doesn’t take much effort to imagine what turning up the volume on making someone “bristle a bit” or “recall questionable” or “wonder what her point is” or “rise and defend yourself” would feel like to a victim of verbal abuse.

Those of us who have been victimized by verbal abuse know what this repetitive distortion of Grice’s maxim on quantity sounds like.  If the verbal abuse was coupled with physical attacks, which it most frequently is, we know what it sounds and feels like when the rhythm of the words is matched to blows.  “I HATE you, I HATE you, I HATE YOU, you horrible, HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE child!”   Up goes the volume, up goes the pitch – or down into a threatening animal growl as every word resounds with a violent blow of attack.

Keltner continues about the second deviation of Grice’s maxims used in teasing:  “Repetitive formulaic expressions rhythmically placed within social routines signal teasing.  These linguistic acts are a reliable part of the quotidian [occurring] life of healthy families. Parents have been known to short-circuit their children’s mutinous reactions to their dinner with repetitive, formulaic expressions (“here’s your dog food”) to make light of, and preempt, their prickly objections.”  (page 155)

OK, And I would ask Keltner, “And how do these “repetitive formulaic expressions rhythmically placed within social routines” operate in unhealthy families?”  What happens when ‘making light’ turns into a distorted, sinister ‘making dark’?  Do we still call this teasing?  Those of us with verbal abuse experience know these devious patterns do actually exist.  Does Keltner know this fact?

Keltner continues about the third deviation of Grice’s maxims used in teasing:  “We violate the rule of manner, or directness and clarity, in innumerable ways to tease.  Idiomatic expressions – quirky nicknames and relationship-specific phrases – are a common element of teasing, zeroing in on idiosyncrasies and potentially problematic characteristics of the target.  We violate the rules of manner with several vocal cues, including sing-song voice, loud, rapid delivery, dramatized sighs, and utterances that are either louder or quieter than preceding utterances.  And of course there is the wink, the very emblem of off-record indirectness.  The wink violates the sincere and truthful orientation of direct, straightforward gaze, and recognizes an audience to the side, thus signaling that all is not what it appears to be.”  (page 155)

My mother had ‘an audience to the side’, a whole family of terrorized witnesses to her terrible attacks of rage against me.  But I can assure you, I don’t believe my mother had the capacity to wink.  ‘Quirky nicknames’ used in verbal abuse attacks might replicate the patterns of benign teasing techniques, but there is nothing ‘quirky’ about them.  They are devastating indictments against the very core of the self of the victim.  Again, read the above paragraph with verbal abuse in mind, and there will be no possible way to doubt that verbal abuse does not make use of these exact patterns of teasing activity that Keltner is describing here.

Keltner next puts these three characteristics of teasing together:  “With exaggeration, repetition, and idiomatic phrases, with elongated vowels and shifts in the speed and pitch of our delivery, with tongue protrusions, well-timed laughs, and expressive caricature of others, we violate the maxims of sincere communication, all in the service of teasing.  We provoke, on the one had, but artfully signal that nonliteral interpretations of the provocation are possible.  We signal that we do not necessarily mean what we say, that our actions are to be taken in the spirit of play.”  (page 155)

My, oh my, whose version of play is Keltner describing here?  The first image that comes into my mind is of a cat at ‘play’ with its prey.  What is the experience of this so-called play from the mouse’s point of view?

This again brings to my mind the absurdity of Keltner’s proposal that humans are ‘born to be good’.  He is denying one of the fundamental aspects of our species:  We are predatory mammals!  Under what circumstances might a cat’s ‘play’ with a mouse not end with the mouse being D-E-A-D?  One, if the cat is a completely inept hunter, or two, if the cat is not one single bit hungry.

My mother operated fully from her predatory nature.  She was an adept hunter of powerless me, and insatiably hungry.  She violated these ‘maxims of sincere communication’ all right, but she was absolutely sincere in her violations.  To any objective bystander, my mother must have looked all the world like an ‘expressive caricature’ of a rage-o-maniac (a very convincing one!).  She provoked the powerless, and was an extremely skilled signaler of ‘nonliteral interpretations’ that she unfortunately literally believed herself.  And she expertly signaled that she DID mean what she said, and that her actions were to be taken in the ‘spirit of play’ that any predatory animal would demonstrate with its soon-to-be-shredded into unrecognizable dinner and devoured prey.

Keltner ignores this entire destructive end of the teasing behavior spectrum as if it does not exist.  I am left stepping out into thin air when I read his next paragraph.  Nowhere does he present any platform to stand on for those of us who personally know how terror-able the ‘bad’ end of the ‘good’ teasing continuum can be.

Keltner continues:  “When we tease…we frame the interaction as one that occurs in a playful, nonserious realm of social exchange.  When done with a light touch and style, teasing is a game, a dramatic performance, one filled with shared laughter that transforms conflicts – between rivals in a hierarchy, romantic partners, siblings finding separate spaces – into playful negotiations.  It is in artful teasing that we lightheartedly provoke, to discern one another’s commitments.  It is with artful teasing that we convert many problems in social living to opportunities for higher jen ratios.”  (page 155)

If I had not already carefully constructed my own platform from which to read this paragraph of Keltner’s, I would at this point be completely lost in my attempt to connect what he is saying to my own experience.  At the same time I can intellectually understand what he is saying, I also know that there is nothing about his description of teasing in this paragraph that was remotely a part of the 18 years’ experience I had living with my mother.

Keltner has set up the stage in this paragraph upon which only dramatic performances of GOOD teasing, as he defines it, can be enacted.  In Keltner’s pretend fairy tale Disney World vision of what good teasing is, he has completely obliterated from his view the reality that bad teasing exits.  Because he is ‘the expert’, am I supposed to believe him?

As Chi Chi Rodriguez, played by John Leguizamo so eloquently put it in the movie, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995),  “I don’t THEENK so!”  What am I REALLY supposed to understand about Keltner’s description of teasing?  He is not making the distinction here between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teasing.  Is he saying ‘bad’ teasing does not exist?  What can I make of this?

When we tease…we frame the interaction as one that occurs in a playful, nonserious realm of social exchange.  When done with a light touch and style, teasing is a game, a dramatic performance, one filled with shared laughter that transforms conflicts – between rivals in a hierarchy, romantic partners, siblings finding separate spaces – into playful negotiations.  It is in artful teasing that we lightheartedly provoke, to discern one another’s commitments.  It is with artful teasing that we convert many problems in social living to opportunities…

My interactions with my mother occurred in an extremely hurtful, deadly serious ‘social realm’ that did not include exchange – unless my terror and pain in response to her can be considered what I ‘gave back’ to her.  Hers was the opposite of ‘a light touch’.  Her actions were the opposite of ‘style’.  Hers was a predator-caught-the-prey ‘game’, and it was certainly a trauma-drama performance.  There was never shared laughter and correspondingly, no transformation of conflicts into playful negotiations.  Nobody ever had any opportunity to negotiate anything with my mother.  There was no lightheartedness in my mother’s home.  Lightheartedness happens in safe and secure attachment relationships.  My mother provoked responses of terror.  Her entire being enacted her unconscious commitment to resolve her inner torment she did not even know she had.

Therefore, according to Keltner’s definition of teasing, my mother was not teasing.  This could seem confusing to me because what she did to me followed a distorted pathway through the same Grice’s maxims alterations that Keltner states allow teasing to happen in the first place.  If Keltner could at least admit that BAD teasing is as real as GOOD teasing is, I could make better sense out of his chapter.  As it is, I feel I have to read his words backwards in a mirror as I seek to understand what I KNOW is true:  Bad teasing in the form of verbal abuse uses the same processes that benevolent, benign good teasing does – only uses these patterns in malevolent ways.  I have suffered too much to pretend this fact is not true.


I assure you I would not be putting this much time and effort into trying to understand Keltner’s writings if I didn’t believe there is some important information here that can help those of us who have suffered greatly from severe verbal abuse understand something we need to know about this crime.  I am determined to get through the remainder of Keltner’s chapter on teasing in this post, no matter how long it takes me to do it.

I have progressed to the point where I understand that the real truth is that all the human brain-mind processes that go into making the tease happen are the same for both good teasing as they are for bad teasing (verbal abuse).  I think of this now as a teasing factory.  Teasing comes out of the same factory: The different versions of teasing are the different versions of the product this factory produces most clearly related to connection between people and community.  What Keltner says next is about this factory.

Keltner continues:  “The philosopher Bertrand Russell argued, “The fundamental concept in social science is power, in the same sense that Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.”  Power is a basic force in human relationships.

“Power hierarchies have many benefits.  Hierarchies help organize the collective actions necessary to gathering resources, raising offspring, defense, and mating.  They provide heuristic [educational], quick-decision rules about the allocation of resources and the division of labor (often favoring those in power).  They provide protection for those involved (and peril to those outside the hierarchy).

“Alongside their benefits, hierarchies are costly to negotiate.  Conflicts over rank and status are very often a deadly affair….  Given the enormous costs of negotiating rank, many species have shifted to ritualized battles.  Displays of strength are exchanged in symbolic, dramatized form, and rank is negotiated through signaling rather than costly physical engagement…..which is a much better alternative than direct combat, injury, and an increased probability of death.”  (pages 156-157)

These words are important enough that the deserve a second reading.  My mother’s self was disorganized as a direct consequence of having been mis-formed in an unsafe and insecure early attachment environment.  Her disorganized self was then not organized adequately within the larger social context.  Her Theory of Mind did not form normally, meaning that her ability to understand these ‘rules about the allocation of resources’ that Keltner is describing did not operate normally.

My mother could not take a normal place in the human power and resource hierarchy from the time she was a very tiny child.  Her ability to mentalize and to think in representational, symbolic terms was not formed correctly.

Keltner continues:  “In humans, teasing can be thought of as…a ritualized, symbolic means by which group members negotiate rank.  Teasing is a dramatized performance clearly preferable to the obvious alternative – violent confrontations over rank and honor….  Teasing [is] a ritualized status contest.”  (pages 157-158)

Artful teasing is, according to Keltner, “a battle plan for the merry war.”  (page 166)  My mother never knew a ‘merry war’.  Hers was a literal one.

Keltner returns again to the difference as he sees it between teasing and bullying:  “…the heart of bullying has nothing to do with teasing.  What bullies largely do is act violently – they torment, hit, pin down, steal, and vandalize.  This has little to do with teasing.”  (page 167)

Keltner is contradicting himself here.  There’s a big difference between his statement “the heart of bullying has nothing to do with teasing” and “This has little to do with teasing.”  “Nothing” is not the same thing as “little.”  Keltner next writes – finally — that indeed there are ‘lighter’ and ‘darker’ versions of teasing as he talks about “artful teasing” versus “teasing that goes awry” (all bolding in type below is mine):

The more subtle matter we confronted is the paradox of the playground.  Scan a playground of any grammar school for fifteen minutes and you’ll see the full spectrum of teasing, its lighter, playful side as well as its darker versions.  Children have an instinct for teasing.  It emerges early (one British psychologist observed a cheeky nine-month-old mocking her grandmother’s snoring with a delightful imitation).  As with adults, teasing can instigate and mark deep friendship.  At the same time, teasing can go horribly awry.  The teasing of children with obesity problems, for example, has been found to have lasting pernicious [exceedingly harmful] effects upon the target’s self-esteem.

What separates the productive tease from the damaging one?  Data from our studies yielded four lessons about when teasing goes awry, lessons that can be put to use on the playground or in the office.  A first is the nature of the provocation in the tease.  Harmful teasing is physically painful and zeroes in on vulnerable [sic] aspects of the individual’s identity….  Playful teasing is less hurtful physically, and thoughtfully targets less critical facets of the target’s identity….  The literature on bullies bears this out:  Their pokes in the ribs, noogies, and skin twisters hurt, and they tease others about taboo subjects.  Not so for the artful teaser, whose teasing is lighter and less hurtful, and can even find ways to flatter in the provocation.

A second lesson pertains to the presence of the off-record markers – the exaggeration, repetition, shifts in vocalization patterns, funny facial displays.  In studies of teasing we have found that the same provocation delivered with the wonderful arabesques of our nonliteral language, the off-record markers, produced little anger, and elevated love, amusement, and mirth.  The same provocation delivered without these markers mainly produced anger and affront.  To sort out the effective tease for the hostile act, look and listen for off-record markers, those tickets to the realm of pretense and play.

A third lesson is one of social context.  The same action – a personal joke, a critical comment, an unusually long gaze, a touch to the space between the shoulder and neck – can take on radically different meanings when coming from foe or friend, whether they occur in a formal or informal setting, alone in a room or surrounded by friends.  Critical to the meaning of the tease is power.  Power asymmetries [lack of proportion] – and in particular, when targets are unable through coercion or context to respond in kind – produce pernicious [destructive] teasing.  When I coded the facial displays of the twenty-second bursts of teasing in the fraternity study, amid the laughter and hilarity I found that over 50 percent of low-power members showed fleeting facial signs of fear, consistent with the tendency for low power to trigger a threat system – anxiety, amygdala hyperreactivity, the stress hormone cortisol – which can lead to health problems, disease, and shortened lives when chronically activated.  Bullies are known for teasing in domineering ways that prevent the target from reciprocating.  Teasing in romantic bonds defined by power asymmetries takes the shape of bullying.  The art of the tease is to enable reciprocity and back-and-forth exchange.  An effective teaser invites being teased.  [my note:  This paragraph has obvious implications in regard to the context between parent and infant-child where abuse takes place, as well.]

Finally, we must remember that teasing, like so many things, gets better with age.  Starting at around age ten or eleven, children become much more sophisticated in their abilities to endorse contradictory propositions about objects in the world – they move from Manichean, either/or, black-or-white reasoning to a more ironic, complex understanding of the world.  [my note:  remember the Borderline difficulties with dichotomous thinking and with ambiguity]  As a result…they add irony and sarcasm to their social repertoire.  One sees, at this age, a precipitous twofold drop in the reported incidences of bullying.  And this shift in the ability to understand and communicate irony and sarcasm should shift the tenor of teasing in reliable fashion.  [my note:  Or not, as in the case of my mother.]”  (pages 167-168)


Interestingly, Keltner concludes his chapter on teasing with a reference to the lack of teasing abilities among children with the autism-spectrum disorder of Asperger’s Syndrome.  I saw myself more clearly described in this part of the chapter than I did in any other part of it.  While I don’t have Asperger’s, I do seem to share some of the typical emotional-social brain characteristics of this ‘disorder’ thanks to the brain changes I experienced as a direct consequence of my mother’s abuse of me during my early developmental stages.

Keltner refers to “the disinterested disregard for others” that is part of the “unusual social style” of Asperger’s:

What proves to be difficult for Asperger’s children are the tools of social connection….eye contact, gentle touch, the understanding of others’ minds, embarrassment or love, imaginative play with others, greeting smiles with smiles, antiphonal laughter.  And teasing, as revealed in a study I conducted with my friend and colleague Lisa Capps.  If teasing is a dramatic performance, one that requires nonliteral language, where affections, conflicts, commitments, and identities are playfully negotiated, this should be particularly difficult for Asperger’s children.  They have difficulties in imaginative play, pretense, taking others’ perspectives, and the elements of the tease, in particular nonliteral communication.

In our study we visited the homes of Asperger’s children and their mothers, as well as the homes of comparison children and their mothers.  We then had them tease each other with the nickname paradigm.  Our children were 10.8 years old, on average – the very age that children’s capacities for multiple representations and irony come on line and teasing transforms into a pleasurable social drama.  Our comparison children described experiences of teasing that had many positive flavors, in which they navigated the connections and moral notions of preteen life.  The Asperger’s children, in contrast, recounted experiences that were largely negative, and made little reference to connection and community.  When we coded the brief teasing exchanges between parents and child, we found out why.  Asperger’s children were just as hostile in their teasing of their mothers as comparison children, but they showed none of the nonliteral gems of an artful tease – exaggeration, repetition, prosodic [rhythm and tone] shifts, funny facial expressions, imitations, iconic [symbolic] gestures, metaphor.  These difficulties with the tease, we also found, could be attributed to the child’s difficulties with taking others’ perspectives.”  (pages 171-172)

Right here, from my point of view, is an intergenerational consequence of trauma passed through infant-child neglect, abuse and maltreatment to children that do not have Asperger’s but who still end up without an adequate Theory of Mind:  We have “difficulties with taking others’ perspectives” that Keltner describes here.  These abilities originate in the foundational emotional-social limbic brain that is formed differently in both autism and in severe infant-child abuse survivors.

As a result, both my brain and my mother’s share in common some of the experience of this Asperger’s child that Keltner refers to in the last sentences of his chapter on teasing:

“As one of our young Asperger’s children said:  “There are some things I don’t know so much about….  Teasing is one of them.”  Absent teasing, the Asperger’s child misses out on a layer of social life, of dramatic performances where affections are realized, rules are defined, conflicts are hashed out, all in the lighthearted rhetoric of nonliteral language.  They miss out on what teasing gives us:  shared laughter, playful touch, ritualized reconciliation, the perspective of others – a life beyond parallel play.”  (page 172)


It is this stage of parallel play that I don’t believe my mother ever passed out of as a young child.  My mother never learned the difference between her world of pretend and the bigger world of reality that included real other people.  Parallel play is the developmental stage between ages 2 – 6 that happens before cooperation and negotiation with others can take place.  My mother missed this empathic developmental stage because something went terribly wrong in her development through abuse and neglect well before the age of two.

The end results of my mother’s changed brain-mind development included her inability to participate in the prosocial realm of productive, artful teasing that Keltner describes.  My mother grew in the opposite direction.  The months and years of my mother’s childhood that she spent in solitary play in a room full of dolls did not prepare her brain-mind for human social interactions.  I don’t believe she had been given what she needed before she ever entered that room, and as a result, she could never really leave it.  Everything she ever did to me, including her verbal abuse of me, was a consequence of this fact.


This post should give rise to some very serious thought for those who seek to alter the course of abusive parenting practices.  For the truly early-childhood-damaged parent, simply applying ‘rules of good parenting’ in the form of helpful parenting techniques and related information probably amounts to adding a cute band-aid to the wound created when a limb is amputed.  Parents who came out of their infant-childhoods being as wounded as my mother was are nearly without hope of ever being adequate parents.  We have to know there are circumstances where this fact has to be accepted.





The sad truth is, I cannot blindly agree with Keltner that humans are “Born to Be Good.”  If we eliminate the bad and try to only keep the good about humans, we are eliminating the whole realm of ambiguity that defines us as a species.  I know that kind of thinking.  It was my mother’s.


I recognize that I might have troubles with the murky gray regions of ambiguity in human relationships because of being raised by my Borderline mother who allowed no ambiguity whatsoever to exist in her world regarding me.  I was not allowed to be a human child.  I was evil from before I was born (the whole trying to kill her in labor thing, sent by the devil to accomplish this sinister act).

Not having normal experiences or non-threatening experiences within the realm of ambiguity did not allow me to learn (in my growing body-brain) how to negotiate my way around in Grayville, that marginal land where the boundaries and borders between what might be happening are more unclear that what IS definitely happening in real time.  There was no “might be” space in my mother’s universe.  There was only the space of “This is the way things are because I say so.”  My mother lived in a world of absolutes that she defined, irregardless of any other person in her universe.

I bring this up because I am finding it very difficult to understand what Keltner is saying about teasing in the second half of his chapter (in his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life).  His writing about the ambiguities within the teasing social realm is ambiguous!  Does he mean to be this obtuse?  Or is it that I am so uncomfortable myself with ambiguity that reading what he is saying about the invisible line between legitimate teasing as a GOOD thing and illegitimate teasing that crosses this borderline and becomes bullying as a BAD teasing thing seems impossible for me to find?

Do normal people with normally built prosocial brains simply intuitively and distinctly know the difference automatically?  I am confused.  I must have a need to sort Keltner’s information into black and white categories of “this teasing is good” and “this teasing is bad.”  In fact, I thought I understood Keltner to say earlier that bad teasing is simply not teasing at all, it is bullying.  So, which is it?  Is bullying teasing or is bullying NOT teasing?  Is there both good teasing and bad teasing?  Is their right and wrong teasing?  Or is teasing, by definition, only teasing if it is good and right so that bad and wrong teasing is something else all together?

I hate being in Grayville.  I am tempted to scrap my project, entirely skip the remaining half of Keltner’s teasing chapter.  I am as uncomfortable with reading Keltner’s chapter on teasing as I am with the experience of being teased itself.


From what I can tell, teasing as a good, right aspect of human behavior is not something normal-prosocial brain people ever have to think about or question.  Bullying, on the other hand, remains a chronic problem within human social interactions of the playground, in the workplace, even in people’s homes.

Do teasing and bullying exist as two separate branches of a single trunk of human relational abilities?  Are they completely separate trunks?  Do they exist as aspects of a single trunk?  Personally, as I read Keltner’s reading, although he might be one of the world’s expert researchers on the subject, I cannot tell the difference.  I wanted him to tell me.  I wanted to know for sure.  Am I missing something here, or is he really as confused about the issue as I am and is just misleading me by telling me that anyone can really tell the difference – and know the truth?


I returned back to Keltner’s chapter on laughter because he is saying that both genuine laughter and teasing are related to a uniquely human ability to play.  He states:

“The thesis that laughter represents a critical evolutionary shift in hominid evolution is not as far-fetched as one might imagine.  It is a point that evolutionists…have made.  The laugh might rightfully lay claim to the status of tool-making, agriculture, the opposable thumb, self-representation, imitation, the domestication of animals, upright gait, and symbolic language – an evolutionary signature of a great shift in our social organization, accompanied by shifts in our nervous system.  What separates mammals from reptiles are the raw materials of laughter – play, and the ability to communicate with the voice.

“More striking is how human laughter differs from that of our primate relatives…  Human laughter…is stunning in its diversity and complexity:  It is a language unto its own.”  (pages 124-125)

Well, first of all, Keltner’s list of evolutionary landmarks is disturbingly out of order.  Why did he choose to place “the opposable thumb” after “tool-making” and “agriculture?”  Why is “the domestication of animals” listed before “upright gait?”  This unsettling presentation of human evolutionary advances is further confused by the mention of human “symbolic language” abilities in the same paragraph where he is defining what “separates mammals from reptiles.”

His writing is escalating my confusion.  He is not giving me confidence that I will be able to trust him as the expert on such a delicate topic as how teasing is not related to abuse if I have to decipher his mish-mash of historical information about human laughter so that I can translate any of this information into something that makes logical sense to me!  I don’t like to have to work this hard to understand what this man is saying!

How can I trust him to disambiguate the ambiguous topic of the ambiguities of teasing?  How can I hope to repair some of my own problems with both ambiguity and teasing?  Uh-Oh!  Is Keltner in danger of toppling off of his expert-on-the-topic pedestal?


One of the uncomfortable qualities of ambiguity is doubt.  There is a cost in being able to entertain doubt.  Doubt seems to be one of those run-on experiences that cause many people to desire, “Get to the POINT, already!”  What can we constructively make out of doubt?  In my body, doubt is a state that needs resolution.  It is an open ended invitation to figure something out and get on with life as usual.

My ongoing discomfort with a state of doubt seems to be related to trauma in my experience.  Ongoing trauma does not in itself offer either solution or resolution.  Ongoing trauma leaves people in a state of needing to transition into something better and safer and more known.  The unknown conditions of trauma are connected in my body to the unknown conditions of the 18 years of trauma I experienced with my mother.  I hate doubt!


I am going to allow myself to go back to the place in Keltner’s writings on laughter where I first encountered my doubt that he was going to answer my personal question about where the line is drawn between true human prosocial interactions and those that are abusive.  This is what I found that led up to my first moment of doubt.  Keltner writes about laughter something that is his lead-in for his discussion about teasing:

“Laughter is not simply a read-out of an internal state in the body or mind, be it the cessation of anxiety and distress or uplifting rises in mirth, levity or exhilaration.  Instead, laughter is also a rich social signal that has evolved with play interactions – tickling, roughhousing, banter – to evoke cooperative response in others.  The laughter as cooperation thesis brings together scattered findings in the empirical literature….”  (page 135)

“Perhaps laughter is the great switch of cooperation.  It is a framing device, shifting social interactions to collaborative exchanges based on trust, cooperation, and goodwill.”

“This theorizing, though, it in need of a bit more precision.  We cooperate in many ways – through gifts, soothing touch, compliments, promises, and acts of generosity.  Laughter must be associated with a more specific brand of cooperation.”  (page 136)

This all sounded fine with me the first time I read Keltner’s words, but the very next paragraph is where doubt began to enter into my consideration of Keltner’s thinking.  What he says in this next paragraph on laughter is dropped like a pile of you-know-what on the sidewalk and then left there.  Nowhere in the remaining pages of his chapter on laughter does Keltner ever go back and talk about the very important idea that he drops into his chapter here.  Nowhere does he actually come back to talking about how BAD laughter relates to GOOD laughter on the human laughter continuum.  He states here:

“Counterexamples to the laughter as cooperation hypothesis readily leap to mind.  Bullies routinely laugh at their aggressive acts of humiliation….  Some torturers at Abu Ghraib were heard to laugh at their victims.  Thomas Hobbes wrote that laughter is the “sudden glory” produced by “the apprehension of some deformed thing in another” that makes people “suddenly applaud themselves” – a view that does not surprise given his portrayal of a dog-eat-dog world.  Clues to a more precise conceptualization of laughter are found in its origins – in how play and laughter emerge in children, and what is being achieved, socially and conceptually, in the process.”  (page 136)

The very title of Keltner’s book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, of course suggest to me that this author might take a very biased look at human behavior.  Knowing this, I ignored and excused this last paragraph the first time I read it.  Yes, Keltner goes on in his writing taking great pains to present this “more precise conceptualization of laughter” as it can be grounded in origins in play.  BUT!!!!  How can he simply turn away from the very BAD aspects of laughter he just presented and pretend that they do not exist?  Never again in his chapter on laughter did he return to talk about what he just said in his words here.


The first time around I simply ignored this inconsistency and read on.  But I carried my own doubt along with me.  Now I have reached a point in trying to understand what Keltner is saying about teasing where I can no longer allow my thinking to blithely follow along this author’s pathway.  For me, as a severe infant-child abuse survivor, I need to know what Keltner is not saying about the dark side of human nature that seems to be conveniently amputated from this text.

Keltner might as well be saying, “The dark and bad, hurtful, abusive side of humor, laughter and teasing does not exist because I am going to make it go away.  I am going to ignore it.  I am going to drop this turd of truth onto the sidewalk of my writing and then turn away and leave it to feed my readers’ doubts.  But I am not going to give them any useful information about this dark side.  I don’t have to.  I’m the expert and this is, obviously, my book.”

Well, at this point I am going to let my doubt shine.  Keltner’s pattern of separating the dark from the light here — of brandishing the gleaming sword of higher purpose in the good side of human nature while he banishes the bloody sword of how humans can also terribly and darkly wound and hurt one another – is resonating within me with my personal knowledge of how my mother incorporated these same patterns of thinking into her Borderline brain.

If I take the light of my own doubt out and use it to clarify what my experience is with Keltner’s words, I know that I recognize Keltner is splitting an archetype of wholeness into good versus bad so that he can ignore the bad.  The side of human nature that Keltner presented in his paragraph (above) is not minor or insignificant, and it does exist.

My mother’s psychosis split the whole archetype of good and bad in this same way.  I was assigned the not human bad and evil half of the archetype.  I could do no good, no right.  My mother assigned the other half of the archetype to my sister.  She suffered under the punishing weight of not being allowed a childhood, or even to exist in her own right as a human being, because my mother projected out onto her all goodness.  My sister could do not wrong.

So what my doubt is telling me is that I have been down this road before.  There is nothing ambiguous about this fact.  For 18 long and terrible years I lived in this reality.  I was dumped like a turd onto my mother’s sidewalk from the moment I was born.  She then continued on to form a life (distorted as it was) with all my siblings without me in it.  She only turned toward me with her continued rage-filled, violent hatred and let me know she would rather that I didn’t exist at all.

My mother could not tolerate any of her own badness to exist inside of herself.  So she accomplished a similar magical act that Keltner does.  She also banished badness.  She simply projected all of hers out onto me.  I was the demon.  My sister was the angel.  My mother wanted to keep the goodness.  She wanted to destroy the badness.  Keltner seems to be doing the very same thing.  He keeps the goodness and vanquishes the badness by simply ignoring it and pretending it does not exit.


No wonder my thinking got all tangled up as I tried to decipher the second half of Keltner’s chapter on teasing.  My doubt has been telling me the truth, and just because what I know is not contained in Keltner’s thinking does not mean that he has left this truth out of his book.

Keltner dances around the truth throughout the entire rest of his chapter as if he is trying to make his way around a thousand active vipers.  For every step he takes in his made-up world of all human goodness, he has to step over and around the unspoken truth that within the realm of teasing the bad and hurtful potential of human nature is just as present as the goodness.  If I dare to say it, the problem with ambiguity, with the ambiguous realm of human nature, lies within Keltner’s writings and certainly not solely within me (or within my mother).

I am reminded of the profound and simple Hans Christian Andersen children’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Go figure!  Reading Keltner’s book while allowing my doubt to remain buried in doubt itself is nothing more than allowing myself as a reader to participate in Keltner’s delusion.  There’s a technical term for this:  Participation Mystique.  I will no longer participate in Keltner’s world of illusion.  Been there, done that with my mother.

Keltner is probably no more aware of his deceptive thinking than my mother was.  M. Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, offers the most straight forward explanation of the good that doubt does for us that I have ever seen.  Doubt is our internal warning that we are in the presence of the deception of a lie.  Peck does not hesitate to connect the presence of a lie with the presence of evil.  I don’t have to go that far, personally.

What I do know is that without my taking this detour today to let the light of my doubt show me the truth of my own experience while attempting to read and understand the second half of Keltner’s chapter on teasing, I would simply not be able to read another word of his book at all.  I will not follow along with Keltner’s words, dancing over the poisonous vipers of what is ALSO possible for humans just because Keltner seems to be hell bent on ignoring it.  I will not participate with him in his version of dichotomous thinking.

Humans are NOT “born to be good.”  We are born to hopefully be able to make choices between good and bad.  We are supposed to have the full potential to accomplish both.  Because of my 18 years of abuse from my mother I have my own reasons to doubt that all humans end up being equal in the conscious choice department.  But that exploration is ongoing for me.

What is important to me today is that I have MYSELF introduced the Grayville potential of ambiguity into my thinking about Keltner’s thoughts on teasing.  Now that I see he eliminated ambiguity from his own thinking by splitting off the bad, and now that I can include ambiguity in my own thinking as I read his split keep the white, throw out the black-world thoughts, perhaps I can yet learn something else from this book after all – other than the fact that this man seems to follow thought patterns that are very much like my mother’s were.

I don’t have the luxury of being able to lull myself into believing the bad in humans does not exist with equal potential as the good.  I will not dance blind and asleep in the vipers’ den.  I know the truth, and no verbal magical sleight of hand denial of the bad side of human nature, even if done by an ‘expert’, is going to convince me that humans are “Born to Be Good.”

That may be true in the fairy tales, but in real life we have to consider the reality of choice.  If choice is removed from a person such as I believe it was from my mother in her childhood, then we are left with the very worst of what a human being CAN do.  I know vipers.  I was raised by one.  Some people can choose to be vipers.  Some people seem to turn into vipers by accident.  But I will not pretend that these people do not exist, as Keltner seems to want to.




The absence of goodness and of prosocial interactions (like teasing) in my childhood home of origin impacted me equally with the presence of my mother’s abusive badness.  The presence of abuse in infant-childhood tragically turns a little one’s entire universe upside-down, backwards and inside-out from safe, secure and normal.  The more I study about the good side of being human, the more I realize that it isn’t just the presence of abuse that is so damaging.  The absence of goodness astronomically multiplies the impact that the presence of badness has on developing offspring.


I return again today to the chapter on teasing in Dr. Dacher Keltner’s 2009 book’s (Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life).  Non-child abuse survivors can probably read Keltner’s information on teasing without having to first think about verbal abuse.  Infant-child abuse survivors, however, can easily bring memories of verbal attacks into their thinking about teasing.

Keltner’s writings about smiling and laughter didn’t present me with the same challenge as the one I face when he moved on to teasing.  Smiles and laughter are by nature not verbal, although they very often happen within the varied verbal arenas people participate in with one another.  Teasing, from the human perspective, often involves the use of words.  Infant-childhood verbal abuse survivors can well remember how words can slice, dice and shred the innocent into greatly wounded tiny pieces.

Because verbal abuse is so harmful to the developing infant-child, it can make it even more important for survivors to follow Keltner’s descriptions about what teasing is, and what teasing is not.  He begins his chapter on teasing by presenting us with the image of the famous peacock’s tail.  This tail is often referred to scientifically in terms of how it is a ‘reproductive fitness indicator’ because it is a high cost item for the peacock to present.  The healthier the tail, the more resplendent its appearance, the healthier the peacock is – which simply means that this bird has had enough resources available to it within its environment to produce a tail that is closest to the ‘best possible tail’.

If the peacock’s tail is shabby and forlorn, however, that tail indicates that there were not enough resources in the environment for this peacock to create a ‘best possible tail’.  The shabby-tailed peacock could not afford to make a better one.  Allusions to the quality of the peacock tail’s display are often transferred to considerations of ‘mental illnesses’ as those genes exist toward the gifted end of the human continuum of abilities.  The more creative, say, or talented a person is, the more likely they are to be at higher risk for developing negative complications if their earliest environment was malevolent rather than benign.  The continued presence of human giftedness and ‘mental illness’ is thought to relate to ‘reproductive fitness indicators’ because of the high cost that giftedness carries with it to ‘end up right’.


Although perhaps they might not seem as dramatic as a peacock’s tail in terms of being obvious and visible reproductive fitness indicators, the presence or absence, as well as the quality of humor and happiness ‘displays’ such as genuine smiles, laughter and teasing do reflect to other people both our individual fitness and the fitness of the early environment that builds the circuits and pathways into the brain that allow humor displays to happen in the first place.

Unlike physical prowess or musical and artistic giftedness, the presence of humor-related abilities is directly tied to our prosocial brain.  Ongoing early unsafe and insecure attachment experiences deplete our human prosocial brain abilities.  The continued absence of humor – call it happiness – directly signals humans that unfortunate early circumstances deprived the brain of its ability to establish all the prosocial (safe and secure attachment) regions and circuits a brain needs to process happiness information on both the personal and the social level.


Keltner tells his reader at the beginning of his chapter on teasing that no matter how well-built and flourishing a peacock’s tail might be, there is another aspect to the tail that is not so often mentioned.  When a male peacock meets a potential mate, the first thing he does is turn his tail’s display away from the female.  This is the teasing interaction in a most basic and simple form.

The male is testing the female’s interest and intention.  If she turns and walks away, obviously no matter how resplendent the male’s tail is, the female is not impressed.  If, however, the female pursues a ‘relationship’ with the male, she will move around toward the head of the peacock and a ‘relationship’ can continue.  As Keltner notes, if the female shows no further interest once the male has teased her by turning away, “he has acquired critical information about her lack of commitment.  He can factor this information into his decision about whom to mate with and whom not.”  (pages 146-147)

Of course humans are far more complicated than peacocks are, yet we also use a wide array of nonverbal signals as cues in our communications with others.  Most simply put, no matter what our original genetic makeup might have been, the conditions of attachment in our earliest body-brain developmental stages moderate and modulate our abilities to both send and receive our species’ signaling cues.  Teasing is one of these cues.

Prosocial actions happen to signal cooperation in an environment of plenty.  Antisocial actions signal competition in an environment of scarcity.  Unsocial actions communicate an absence of social interactional abilities that are most closely tied to an early environment of nothing at all – or isolation.

Keltner states about teasing:

“The importance of provocation and teasing in our social evolution is suggested by how pervasive teasing is in the animal world….  Sexual insults are as reliable an occurrence in human social life as food sharing, greeting gestures, patterns of comfort, flirtation, and the expression of gratitude.”  (page 147)

“The perils of teasing are patently clear.  “Just teasing” is invoked as a last defense by the grammar-school bully and the incorrigible sexual malfeasant at work.  But what they are referring to with the claim “I was just teasing” upon closer inspection is not teasing at all but aggression and coercion, pure and simple.  Bullies steal, punch, kick, spit on, torment, and humiliate.  They don’t really tease.  Sexual predators grope, leer, and made crude, at times threatening, passes.  They’re pretty ineffectual flirts.  In contrast, teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke others.  We turn to the playful provocation of teasing to negotiate the ambiguities of social living – establishing hierarchies, testing commitments to social norms, uncovering potential romantic interest, negotiating conflicts over work and resources.”  (page 148)


As I’ve already described about genuine smiles and laughter, both scarce and nearly missing entirely from my childhood home, so also was teasing missing along with any other safe and secure display of playful behavior.  What was present was my mother’s unremitting bullying actions toward me, and her near complete malevolent control over everyone else in her household.

There was no joking or kidding around in my mother’s monkey house.  We all lived under her malevolent reign of terror.  We were not ‘vaccinated’ as Keltner describes.  We were poisoned.  Our home was not a practice ground for developing prosocial human interactional abilities.  Our home was a practice ground for one thing:  how to survive a childhood with my mother.

Keltner delineates the social nature of teasing:

“The consensus was [in the scientific world] that teasing is “playful aggression.”  Clearly, though, teasing does not equate to all kinds of playful aggression.  Unintended playful aggression – accidentally elbowing a fellow train passenger’s nose while you’re hustling money with your imitation of Harp Marx – is clearly not teasing (at least I hope you don’t think so).  More general references to play are ambiguous.  Many forms of childhood play, such as role playing (children acting as princesses or ninja warriors), roughhousing, highly structured playground games like tag or four square, and the ritualized jokes and conversational games that fill the air of school buses – are not teasing.  The same is true of many forms of adult play:  We tell amusing stories, exchange playful repartee, and josh around in ways that are not teasing.

“…[M]y colleagues…and I defined a tease as an intentional provocation accompanied by playful off-record markers.  We referred to provocation instead of aggression because a tease involves an act that is intended to provoke emotion, to discern another’s commitments.  The provocation is evident in the content of the verbal utterance or some physical act, like a poke in the ribs, the proverbial pinch of the cheek, or a tongue protrusion.  The tease, in a funny way (and I’m not teasing), is like a social vaccine.  Vaccines are weak forms of pathogens (for example, small pox) that, when injected, stimulates the recipient’s immune system – the inflammation response, killer T cells that recognize the dangerous pathogen, bind to it and kill it.  The tease seeks to stimulate the recipient’s emotional system, to reveal the individual’s social commitments.

“The more mysterious element is what is unsaid in the tease.  This family of linguistic acts we called off-record markers.  These are the nonverbal actions that swirl around the hostile provocation and signal that it is not to be taken literally but instead in the spirit of play.”  (pages 150-151)


I found it fascinating that what Keltner writes about next in his chapter on teasing is directly connected to expert assessments of adult attachment.  Keltner uses the same Grice’s Maxims as rules for sincere communication that adult attachment researchers use to measure safe and secure versus unsafe and insecure attachment patterns.  Keltner presents the four simple rules governing the ability to converse coherently as follows:

“Sincere communication, according to Grice, involves utterances that are to be taken literally.  These statements should adhere as closely as possible to four maxims….  Statements should follow the rule of quantity – avoid the Strunk and White catastrophes of being too wordy or opaquely succinct.  Statements should be relevant and on topic and avoid meandering into digressions, irrelevances, or stream-of-consciousness flights of fancy.  Finally, in honoring the rule of manner, statements should be direct, clear, and to the point….”  (page 151)

Adult attachment researchers have discovered that disintegration in the ability to follow these simple four rules of sincere (coherent) communication is a direct sign of insecure adult attachment.  The more the rules are broken, the more unable an adult is to tell their life story in accordance with these rules, the more certain it is that early relational trauma was present during the adult’s early body-brain developmental stages.  The lack of the ability to tell a coherent life story is the number one signal that an adult insecure attachment ‘disorder’ exists.

Keltner is not making this connection in his writings, but from my point of view, if a person cannot follow these rules in the telling of their life story, and therefore have an insecure attachment pattern built into their body-brain, they will not be able TO BREAK THESE RULES APPROPRIATELY in order to participate in appropriate teasing interactions.  The presence, absence and quality of appropriate teasing abilities might well be a very simple way to assess how pro-socially a person’s body-brain was built from the start of their life.  (I, for example, am extremely unskilled and uncomfortable in the teasing arena!)

How can we intentionally break rules that we do not inherently understand in the first place?  The more I examine what Keltner says about teasing, the more I think about the connection between having a discomfort with teasing that parallels a discomfort with ambiguity in general.  A Borderline Personality Disorder brain does not seem to be able to process ambiguous information in anything like an ordinary way.  It seems very probable to me that insecure attachment, lack of the ability to tell one’s life story according to Grices’ Maxims, the inability to regulate emotion, the inability to tolerate ambiguity and the inability to participate in the teasing arena are ALL related disabilities within the Borderline condition, disabilities that are anchored within the Borderline body-nervous system-brain-mind-self.  I know they were for my mother.

One cannot use what one does not possess.  Nor can one give away what they don’t have in the first place.  My mother’s disabilities created the environment within our childhood home that, in turn, robbed my mother’s children (especially me) of being able to obtain healthy prosocial interaction abilities, either. Thus the consequences of unresolved trauma, including insecure attachments to self and others, are built into the body-brain of offspring and tumble down the generations.


Keltner continues in his explanation of how genuine insincerity is intentionally communicated through teasing:

“When we intentionally violate Grice’s maxims, we signal that alternative interpretations of the utterance are possible.  We say “this” with our words, and “not this” with violations of Grice’s maxims, pointing to other possible meanings of our utterance.  We signal “not this” by resorting to obvious falsehoods or exaggerations of the truth (which violate the rule of quantity).  We can provide too much information, for example in systematic repetition, or too little information, thus violating the rule of quantity.  We can dwell in the irrelevant to violate the rule of relation.  And we can resort to various linguistic acts – idiomatic expressions, metaphors, oblique references – that violate the rule of manner and its requirements of clarity and directness.

“As important as sincere speech is to our social life, so too is this realm of nonliteral communication.  Our brief utterances can take on the opposite meaning of what the words denote (irony, satire).  We can connect disparate concepts in communicative acts that leap beyond narrow literal denotation (metaphor).  We can endow our utterances with multiple layers of unbounded, aesthetically pleasing meaning (poetry).  (page 152)

Keltner’s words make me think about my suspicions that part of what was wrong with my mother’s brain was related to her not having transitioned successfully out of her childhood stage of magical thinking.  That stage is when a child learns  about what is real and what is not, about multiple and varying ways that other people have of experiencing the world, and about negotiating a developing self comfortably and cooperatively in an ever expanding shared social world.  That is what forming an appropriate Theory of Mind is all about, and my mother didn’t get one.

My mother never learned how to negotiate conflict.

I can easily stretch my thinking about what Keltner is saying about the rules of sincere coherent communication and how we break those rules in certain ways for certain reasons to also include what Keltner says next about polite speech as I think about my mother.  Verbal abuse, any verbal abuse, is NOT teasing and it is NOT polite speech.  Never once in the 18 years of my childhood, did my mother treat me politely!  Child abuse is inconsiderate and rude!

Sure, she knew how to practice polite speech as a part of her public persona, but within the confines of her own domain, politeness was not remotely her concern.  As I already described in my post on Keltner’s description of embarrassment, my mother’s lack of this ability was evidently tied back in its roots into her problems with Grice’s maxims related not only to teasing, but also to polite speech.

Keltner writes.

“The relevance of Grice’s maxims to teasing, ironically enough, is revealed in linguists Brown and Levinson’s 1987 classic, Politeness.  Brown and Levinson carefully document how in the world’s languages speakers add a layer of politeness to their utterances when what they say risks embarrassing the listener or themselves.  Politeness is achieved through systematic violations of Grice’s four maxims.

“Consider the simple act of making a request.  If someone asks you for the time, or directions, or to pass the rutabagas, or not to talk so loudly during the previews, that act is fraught with potential conflict.  The recipient of the request is imposed upon and risks being revealed as incompetent, boorish, or disinterested in social conventions.  The requester risks being perceived as intrusive and impolite.  To soften the impact of requests and other potentially impolite acts such as recommendations, or criticism, people violate Grice’s maxims to communicate in more polite fashion….  We break the rules of sincere communication to be polite.  Equipped with this analysis of nonliteral communication, a careful examination of the tease reveals that teasing and politeness are surprisingly close relatives.”  (pages 152-153)

It is not surprising, then, to find that the lack of teasing and the lack of politeness in my mother are connected.  I suspect these abilities to also be distorted or missing in all severely abusive parents.  (I am not talking about the hundreds of ‘social rules’ my Boston-raised mother enforced such as putting our knife down and switching hands every time we cut a piece of meat on our plate, keeping our elbows off of the dinner table, or brushing our hair before we ever showed up at the table in the first place.)


I have only made it half way through Keltner’s teasing chapter here today.  There is certainly enough information here to provoke some insightful thought about ourselves, those we know, and about the conditions in our childhood home – especially if abuse was present.

I feel like a social anthropologist, carefully brushing away tidbits of clay to reveal patterns in my mother’s antisocial interactions that I’ve never specifically thought about before now.  A human being might be more than the sum of their parts, but taking this close a look at some of the parts my mother was missing helps me to more clearly see more of the whole picture of who she was – in large measure according to what she was missing – a prosocial brain with its matching abilities.



from Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD
If you have BPD, do you find yourself sometimes creating obstacles to your own success? Some people with BPD describe this kind of self-defeating cycle– just as they get close to success, they sabotage it. Maybe you quit therapy just as you are making progress, or a job when it looks like good things are happening. Does this pattern describe you?
In the Spotlight
Don’t Give Up! Reasons to Stay in Therapy
Research shows that about 47% of patients with BPD leave treatment prematurely. Before you make a decision about dropping out of therapy, however, here are some things to consider.
More Topics
BPD and Your Career
Is the self-sabotage factor affecting your career? Do you jump from job to job? Learn more about BPD and career choices.
Maximize Your Time in Therapy
Here are some things you can do to make sure that you are getting the most out of therapy.



I have no doubt that our human species participated in dance and music long, long before we had the ability to use words in speech.  I also know that as a newborn infant I could first experience the terrorizing sounds of my mother’s trauma ‘music’ and feel how she physically treated me through her trauma ‘dance’ long, long before I could begin to comprehend what a word was.  Those earliest experiences with my mother affected how my brain developed.  I want to go back now and specifically try to heal my ‘infant’ musical brain.


If someone explained to me, for example, that the reason I couldn’t walk as well as others was because my feet had been bound tightly from the time I was very small, and the bindings were not removed until I was a teenager, I would be able to make that connection.  I understand what feet have to do with walking.

I took the ability to send and receive spoken word communication and to think in words for granted all of my life until two years ago.  After the shocking stress of being diagnosed with advanced, aggressive breast cancer, and then after following through with all the radical treatments, including chemotherapy, that have saved my life, I now have a different understanding of my own speech related processes.

I understand now that my brain did not learn to process language normally.  I understand that somehow I was able to continue forward in my infant-child development and all the way into adulthood without anyone, my self included, recognizing that my mother’s severe verbal abuse of me had changed the way my language processing abilities developed, and thus changed the regions of my brain and their operation that language-processing abilities rely on.

What I know about myself now post cancer and its treatment is that what I really did from the time I was very, very small was create the equivalent of a house of cards within my brain that gave me the illusion that I processed spoken language in the same way that other people do.  Chemotherapy’s affect on my infant-child abused brain on many levels was that it erased most of the post-critical windows of early development abilities I had ‘learned’ to use so that I could get along in the world.  In other words, chemotherapy erased my memory of how I pretended to be normal.

My language processing abilities were not spared.  I see the image of a beautiful (and believable) brilliantly colored and intricately designed paper Chinese lantern that represents the ways I managed to incorporate enough of how regular people interact with one another in verbal ways so that even I was fooled into believing I was no different from others.  Yet my experience with cancer and its treatment has been that a soaking rain has disintegrated the fragile paper structure of pretending I was ‘OK’.

I am left with a barely flickering candle of what normal human verbal-social interactions are supposed to be like – and none of the extraneous trappings.  By finding the developmental brain research and by trying to understand it, I am learning that the balance of information processing between the two hemispheres of my brain has been altered.  Not only did my right emotional social limbic brain not develop normally, but neither did my left brain (as a right-handed person).

With the secondary (later learned) structure of my language processing abilities wiped away, I am left with the experience of what my primary language processing abilities are really like.  It is only now that I am beginning to gain willingness to look behind the illusions of normalcy for myself that I am beginning to understand what my mother’s extreme verbal abuse of me from the time I was born did to me.

At the same time I consider myself fortunate to be living in the period of human history when understandings about the intricate workings of the human brain are being discovered.  I am fortunate also to be living at a time when I can find related important information in my own world through the internet.  In some strange way that I cannot pinpoint or name exactly, I also realize that my having cancer, being treated for it, and still being alive – now with this NEW information about the way my brain REALLY processes language combined with access to new brain discovery information – is giving me the fantastic opportunity to combine my personal story of surviving severe infant-child abuse with new-found awareness of how early verbal abuse impacts a young brain during its critical-window periods of rapid growth and development.

I am the living, breathing, walking, talking, hearing, listening result of my mother’s incredible infant-child severe abuse experiment.  I don’t suffer from anything as blatantly obvious as having the consequence of bound feet.  I suffer from the invisible, internal, brain structural changes that her abuse of me created.  At the same time I don’t have any understanding of what brain regions look like.  Words used to describe them are foreign to me, and most of them I cannot form my mental tongue around enough to grasp what these words even sound like!

But understand them I must because I am out of the loop of normal social interactions, home alone with an invisible 100% disability that frankly enrages me and causes me great sadness.  Not only did my right brain not learn how to read ‘social cues’ or facial expressions normally, my left brain did not grow in such a way that verbally expressed words are connected and associated with the underlying expression of emotion and intention of the speaker in normal ways.

If I were to be given the choice between two gifts, one being a platinum jewel studded necklace worth millions and the other being the information that research such as Dr. Martin Teicher’s presents about how early abuse changes the brain, I would not hesitate to accept the latter.  Most unfortunately my body-brain knows within its every fiber what Dr. Teicher is talking about when he writes the following:

The study on verbal abuse is the first to be published, though the overall hypothesis on distinctive sensory damage has so far panned out when the unpublished work is also considered.  The findings of this study “set the stage for what we’re seeing in the other ongoing studies—that sensory systems are vulnerable,” said Teicher.   “The brain is probably suppressing the development of sensory systems that are providing adverse input.”   That is, children’s brains seem to “turn down the volume” on abusive words, images and even pain.   The result is diminished integrity in these sensory pathways.

At the same time I know it wasn’t JUST the “deleterious effect of ridicule, humiliation, and disdain on brain connectivity” that changed the way my brain grew its language abilities.  In fact, I suspect I would be far better off today if the development brain changes I suffered from my mother’s verbal abuse of me had at least WAITED to happen once I even understood what ridicule, humiliation and distain even were.  Because my mother’s hatred and abuse of me began at the time of my birth, my body-brain had to change its development from my very beginnings.

My suspicion is that dissociation began to find its way into my body-brain development during the first interactions I had with my mother.  As a result, my body-brain has NEVER stored memory in an ordinary way.  Because of this fact, I have what is probably an unusual ability to both remember things I should not remember and to NOT remember things that I should.  Repeated patterns of abusive interactions, which began at my birth, formed themselves into my body-brain in such a way that dissociation itself became a superhighway of connectivity rather than the desired patterns of association.  I can remember my mother’s interactions with me well before I reached the age of words.

This is true because I was born into an infant world that was about as different from normal as it could possibly be.  I didn’t forget these patterns of interactions with my abusive mother from birth, either.  They built the body-brain I have as they built themselves INTO the body-brain I have.  There’s nothing unusual about this fact, either.  ALL of us have the patterns of our earliest interactions with our infant caregivers built into us – because they BUILT us.

When an ordinarily-built person encounters a group of strangers, how they interact with them on all levels, including verbal exchange, happens through a remembering of their earliest caregiver interactions that built them.

I find that I am surprised by the next thoughts that entered my mind as I wrote this last sentence.  My mind is telling me that I thought I’d made progress as I came to understand that interactions between people, including verbal ones, could be looked at as if they were mostly on one of a continuum or the other.  I thought that continuum was about prosocial interactions or antisocial interactions.  Now I realize that I see another entirely different continuum that exists in its own right as an entirely different way.

People like me, who suffered enough severe abuse from birth, operate in our human interactions on this other continuum.  I suspect that the Austic brain shares the features of this continuum, a continuum that simply shows the degrees of unsocial interactions our brains were built with.  The unsocial brain has a different set of rules than does a brain that includes on the ends of its continuum degrees of prosocial or antisocial abilities.  The unsocialized brain is based in its foundational construction on dissociations rather than associations.  It is a brain built from social isolation and ‘maternal deprivation’.


As I mentioned above, I had no way to know that I had a dissociational unsocialized brain until my experience with cancer and its treatment erased all the secondary human social interactional abilities that I had somehow learned far later, and far down the road from ‘normal’.  They could be erased and ‘forgotten’ because they were secondary and not primary.  Now I am left with two ongoing parallel experiences.  I experience myself with my unsocial brain at the same time I remember when I could ‘act as if’ I had a socialized brain.  But I do not believe I can ever get back the secondary socialized brain I had before cancer.  That brain, with its complex set of secondary (learned) patterns of ‘normal’ human interactional abilities has vanished as certainly as a paper Chinese lantern in a hard rain.

Because I live with this unsocial brain I can say that two simultaneous experiences I know about first hand are (1) I do not receive or process sensory information normally, and (2) I have a fundamentally altered sense of time – and therefore of timing.  While these two aspects of the way my brain formed affect every experience that I have, they create the most difficulty for me as a human being in my relationships with others.

Words become words in any language we might speak because we can recognize where each one starts and where it ends.  Next, we understand the agreed upon meaning that each word refers to.  If we listen to a language that is not our own, we do not recognize word starts and stops, nor do we understand their meanings.

I now recognize for myself that I don’t actually have a first language at all.  The language that I began to learn from the time I was born was a language purely of emotion.  Not only that, but the first language I learned was about extremely overwhelming SOUND coupled with physical pain caused by brutal and violent motion.  My mother didn’t wait until I had the advanced mental abilities formed into my brain that would have let me begin to comprehend what the words “ridicule, humiliation and disdain” might actually mean.

The associations being made in my infant brain were that the sound, the feel, the look of my mother threatened my existence.  I believe my body knew this fact profoundly.  My mother’s roaring, screaming voice were coupled with (associated with) the look of her distorted, contorted, twisted, wide-eyed, wide-mouthed psychotically violent hate-filled face.  The sound of her, the look of her face, were coupled with (associated with) the rage-dilled steely hard grip of her hands, with her pinches, slaps, thumps, slaps along with the heavy thundering stomp of her feet.

So why would I be surprised now to find that the actual words that fall out of people’s lips are far from being my first concern?  Why would I wonder now why there is often a great distance of time between when those words fall out and when I can actually make any logical sense out of them?  Why would I wonder that my verbal interactional space is slow and loose and broad and wide with ill-defined edges rather than being tight and clear and succinct and efficient and FAST?

Language spoken by other people (all but those I am closest to and most safe and secure with) is about how the sound of that person first affects me.  What they actually say means very little to me at all.  If there is stress for me in the interaction, often I can watch a person’s lips move without hearing the sound of their words at all.

Listening to spoken language happens for me mostly in the realm of courtesy and consideration, not because I am comfortable with it – or even need it myself.  I am always concerned on my most fundamental levels with assessing information for threat and risk of harm and for another person’s TRUE intentions.  That level of meaning is, for me, nearly completely divorced from the actual words a person rattles out of their mouth.

It can, therefore, take me a very long time to understand others’ questions and to respond to them.  There is often a wide blank dissociational pause in the conversation while I work very hard inside of myself to negotiate this human social space.  Even though I try hardest to determine intention and risk of harm, at the same time I did not build within my brain the normal capacity for reading nonverbal social signals.  I now completely understand that social verbal interactions with others are exhausting for me, and that I do not do them well.


That leads me to the next step in my own thinking.  At 58 years old I am now approaching my own logical conclusion.  I probably had developed within me what might be a supremely musical brain.  This suspicion brings to my mind the writings of Daniel J. Levitin about the human brain and music.  It makes me think about the writings of Arnold H. Modell on the human mirror neuron system as he describes how the essentials of human movement might be best described in terms of dance from before we are born.  It also makes me want to include what Dr. Dacher Keltner says about the brain stem connection between laughter and later-developing human verbal language (Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life).

How strange it might seem to think about my mother’s profound abuse of me from birth in these simple terms:  The terrible and terrifying noise and sound of my mother was her music toward me.  The terrible and terrifying, traumatic movement of her was her dance toward me

If we suspend all the intellectual concepts we are tempted to apply in our thinking about newborns in interaction with their mothers – as they begin to happen to all of us from the moment we are born – and begin to understand that it is the patterns of our mother’s music and of her dance that are impacting our developing body-brain, perhaps we can begin to think in terms of a different kind of medicine that might help in our healing.

About a year before I ever knew I had the cancer, I experienced something that actually scared me.  I had bought myself an electric guitar.  One day I decided to give myself permission to play with it for as long as I wanted.  Four hours went by as if they were four minutes. After I put the guitar backing its case and walked away, I realized that my mind was full of music.  Not words, just patterns of notes and rhythms in ongoing streams without beginning or end.

What scared me was that I could not alter this flow of musical patterns  for nearly 48 hours except when I consciously forced myself to focus momentarily on some other action.  – notice the stop sign ahead of me when I was driving, or going through the actions to make a pot of coffee or a piece of toast.

At that time I was committed to my developmental brain studies and to my writing.  I decided not to let myself return to that level of music involvement because I believed it would interfere with my ‘work’.  Well, many thousands of hours and probably millions of written words later, I am making the decision to pursue an experiment with myself.

I accept that I will not be able to achieve the kind of mastery over guitar technique that I want or need, so I am making the very big decision to pull $519.95 out of my pitiful total savings of $1,800 and buy myself an electric piano.  I am choosing to spend that (to me) very large chunk of money because I am beginning to understand that allowing myself to think in music might be the single best medicine I can provide for my brain.  I am also purchasing and Audiogram so I can record myself thinking and go back and follow my conversations with myself – and between my brain hemispheres.  (The more perfect-pitch and consistent sound quality, the better)

I don’t have a history of musical study.  I cannot (yet?) read music.  But the more I come to understand that this last subject I am considering in my studies, how my mother’s verbal abuse of me FIRST affected my brain-body development as a dancing-musical human being, the more profoundly I am beginning to understand that at no time in my life have I actually been ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’.  I was not built that way.

So if wordless music and dance is the human first language, and if it is the language that continued to build my brain far into the stages when patterns of prosocial verbal speech should have taken over my associational brain patterns, then I think it’s time I gave myself permission to think and speak in my own first language.

Who knows?  Maybe I can go all the way back in the very structure of my brain and rewrite and overwrite what was put in there by the monster from the very beginnings of when I could listen to sound.  Maybe I will find my own first and primary language.  Maybe I will create it.  I will certainly be able to express it.  Of that I have no doubt.

NOTE:  Although this might seem to be an unrelated topic, it is not.  When I was 13 and in 8th grade, I was able to discover in PE class that I was extremely gifted in playing basketball.  If ever I was to know what living in a state of perfect magic is like (other than what I expect to experience now with music), it was the experience of gliding around a basketball court with many other bodies while being oblivious to their existence as real physical objects.  There were only three objects on the full and busy court:  My body, the basketball, and the hoop.  I never took aim.  I never thought.  And I never missed a shot, not even if that shot took place halfway down the court, over everyone else’s head.

As an out-of-shape 58 year old I don’t expect to ever experience the magic of that game as it was for me when I was 13.  I know it was a related ability to autism in some way I don’t quite understand.  Part of how it happened was because I lived in dissociated space where self consciousness did not exist.  I fully expect to be able to recreate that space in the privacy of my own home, hooked to a perfectly tuned electric piano keyboard through head phones.


I was going to present today a study of these three brain regions that Teicher talked about in his article, Cutting Words May Scar Young Brains, but evidently there were other things I needed to write about.  When I think about his other article, Abuse and Sensitive Periods, from my post +THE ‘TERROR-ABLE’ CONSEQUENCES OF INFANT-CHILDHOOD VERBAL ABUSE, I realize that I already know the truth of what he is saying even if I can’t yet literally understand the specific brain region information he is also writing about.  Right now it is more important to me to get my electric piano keyboard ordered and on its way.  The rest of this study can happen later.

Among those who [solely] experienced parental verbal abuse, three statistically significant disturbed pathways emerged:

— the arcuate fasciculus, involved in language processing;

—  part of the cingulum bundle, altered in patients with posttraumatic stress disorder and associated with depression and dissociation; and

part of the fornix, linked to anxiety.  The degree of disruption of the normal flow correlated with the severity of abuse.





My topic is loneliness.  It is that life-long recurring state of isolation and aloneness that has never left me for long.  I live with it now nearly constantly.  I want to learn more about my aloneness because I have no more hope that it is ever truly going to leave me in this lifetime.  At times my aloneness attacks me, gripping me in a death lock and does not let go.

I  returned this weekend to an event that happened to me 23 years ago when I was nearly 36 years old that I suspect holds a key to something I need to learn about myself.  At this age I had been gone from home nearly 18 years, the same length of time I had lived in my mother’s abusive home.  Eighteen years seemed like a long, long time.

I read my age 34 journal, and have transcribed much of my age 35 journal.  I was looking for the date that this event I wonder about happened.  I found the date, but I wrote nothing about the event itself, so just now had to recall it from memory.

This event can be singled out as an important one for me that I have never understood, but it belongs to the story of my life.  In the story of my life I found myself for over 30 years being attracted to Native American teachings.  In the journal I transcribed today I pulled out the dates that came to be related to my first introduction into Native American ceremony.  I have not attended any kind of ceremony for the past 15 years, and do not anticipate ever attending one again — but that is a whole different story.

Yet as I read what I wrote at 34 and 35, I was again reminded of those years of being a recently divorced single mother of three children in the far north country of northern Minnesota, on welfare, in poverty, struggling to find a way to find myself in spite of every choice I had ever made that created the situation I was living in.  I obviously knew by then about the seriousness of the infant-child abuse I had experienced — but I had no idea how to connect what had happened to me with who I was, or what any of it really meant.

I could not recognize that so much of what I struggled with was due to very real brain-mind difficulties that were a consequence of an entire infant-childhood of severe abuse.  Those difficulties are still with me, but at least now I recognize them for what they are and realize that most of them have always been permanent.

NOTE:  Of the $336 our family received in AFDC grant per month, the state received $290 per month in child support from my ex-husband for his two daughters.  The state paid the difference of $46.  He paid his support faithfully, and as a result we also received an additional $50 check from the state every month as ‘incentive pay’.  In the nearly 25 years since my son was born his father still owes the bulk of his child support, none of which was paid during the years I raised his son alone.  We also received medical coverage and around $100 per month in food stamps.  In time the county allotted me five hours a week of paid respite day-care for my extremely active baby.  I doubt I could have kept the family together without this help.


These two links travel to this part of my story.

A slice of my life for the year between my youngest son’s 1st and 2nd birthday:

*Age 34-35 (August 1986 – August 1987) First Sweat Ceremony

The story of one July night:

*Age 35 – Bear Butte and the circle around me (1987)




It is becoming clear to me that I will not be able to approach the topic of ‘teasing’ until I so some serious thinking about verbal abuse in general and about my own infant-childhood experiences with my mother’s severe (from birth) verbal abuse of me.  I have been avoiding this subject until now.  It is going to be an extremely painful one for me to approach and consider.

Research on how all forms of abuse infants and children experience can change the way their brain develops is beginning to specify which brain regions are most susceptible to change during particular time-frames of development.  Because my mother began to abuse me from birth, I suspect that everything about how my brain developed was affected, including the regions of my brain that process verbal information.

Some links are presented below to information related to brain changes and infant-child abuse.  I realize that all this information does is to begin to build the frame of the scaffold I need before I can personally think about verbal abuse.


February 20, 2009

Cutting Words May Scar Young Brains

Parental Verbal Abuse of Child Appears to Damage Cerebral Pathways

Sticks and stones may break bones, but harsh words may damage a child’s brain. New work from HMS researchers suggests that parental verbal abuse can injure brain pathways, possibly causing depression, anxiety and problems with language processing.”

Word Power
Principal investigator Martin Teicher, HMS associate professor of psychiatry at McLean Hospital, became interested in the effects of parental verbal abuse 25 years ago.   A patient of his showed all of the signs of being traumatized as a child, but the only form of maltreatment she had been exposed to was parental verbal abuse.

Later, in 2005, Teicher’s research revealed that parental verbal abuse has the same negative psychiatric influence as witnessing domestic violence or experiencing extrafamilial sexual abuse.  His latest study, which shows that verbal abuse damages specific brain connections, is part of a strategy to isolate different types of abuse, including witnessing domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse and harsh corporal punishment, and to examine the specific effects of each on the developing brain.  The researchers designed this strategy around a hypothesis that all of these will act as stressors that produce similar responses in the brain but along different sensory pathways, said Teicher.

The study on verbal abuse is the first to be published, though the overall hypothesis on distinctive sensory damage has so far panned out when the unpublished work is also considered.  The findings of this study “set the stage for what we’re seeing in the other ongoing studies—that sensory systems are vulnerable,” said Teicher.   “The brain is probably suppressing the development of sensory systems that are providing adverse input.”   That is, children’s brains seem to “turn down the volume” on abusive words, images and even pain.   The result is diminished integrity in these sensory pathways.

“This is the first evidence of the potential deleterious effect of ridicule, humiliation, and disdain on brain connectivity,” said Jeewook Choi, first author and visiting assistant professor of psychiatry from South Korea.”

Among those who [solely] experienced parental verbal abuse, three statistically significant disturbed pathways emerged: the arcuate fasciculus, involved in language processing; part of the cingulum bundle, altered in patients with posttraumatic stress disorder and associated with depression and dissociation; and part of the fornix, linked to anxiety.  The degree of disruption of the normal flow correlated with the severity of abuse.”   PLEASE READ FULL ARTICLE HERE

There’s an incredible photograph at this link showing these three areas of brain changes!

two people who show the same symptoms of depression today may be treated the same. Yet one condition may stem mostly from genetic susceptibility and the other mostly from exposure to childhood adversity. Though the two patients may appear to have the same disorder, “different brain regions or structures may be involved,” said Teicher. “Each may need a very different kind of therapy.”

Teicher and his team are now working to identify sensitive periods when specific brain structures are most susceptible and, if possible, to find ways to reverse the damage.

For now, however, the most important message of this work may be the awareness that parental verbal abuse is damaging. “People hear that spanking is bad, so they stop doing that and become more verbally abusive,” said Teicher. “It turns out, that may be worse.””



The Effects of Verbal Abuse on a Fetus


Parental Verbal Abuse Affects Brain White Matter

By dr teicher


Abuse and Sensitive Periods

By dr teicher

Research from my laboratory, and from other labs here and abroad, have shown that exposure to childhood abuse is associated with alterations in brain structure and function.  This research has largely focused on brain regions known to be susceptible to the effects of stress, such as the hippocampus.  We have recently expanded our knowledge regarding the potential adverse effects of abuse by publishing the first preliminary data indicating that the neurobiological consequences of abuse depend on the age of exposure (Andersen et al 2008).


The brain is molded by experiences that occur throughout the lifespan. However, there are particular stages of development when experience exerts either a maximal (sensitive period) or essential (critical period) effect. Little direct evidence exists for sensitive or critical periods in human brain development. Based on differential rates of maturation specific brain regions should have their own unique periods of sensitivity to the effects of early experiences such as stress.


Within the same group of subjects there were marked differences between regions in the stages of greatest vulnerability.  The hippocampus was particularly sensitive to abuse reported to occur at 3-5 and 11-13 years of age.  In contrast, the rostral body of the corpus callosum was affected by abuse reported to have occurred at ages 9-10, and prefrontal cortex by abuse at ages 14-16.


Childhood abuse has been associated with vulnerability to a host of psychiatric disorders and behavioral problems. Based on the present findings, there may be different abuse-related syndromes associated with particular stages of abuse and specific regional brain changes.

Identifying sensitive periods may also provide insight into key ages at which stimulation or environmental enrichment may optimally benefit development of specific brain regions.”


This information comes from the “A Healthy Me” website.

Yelling at Children (Verbal Abuse)

By Benj Vardigan

“…current research shows that verbal abuse of children can be just as destructive emotionally as physical and sexual abuse and puts them in as much risk for depression and anxiety.”

What is verbal abuse?

• How common is verbal abuse?
• What are signs that a child is suffering from verbal abuse?
• Does verbal abuse do any long-term harm?
• Why can’t I seem to control my temper?
• What can I do to avoid verbally abusing my child?
• What can I do to prevent someone else from verbally abusing my child or another child?
• What if I see a stranger verbally abusing a child in the supermarket or at the park?


From the Find Counseling.com website –

“Child Abuse: An Overview” was written by C. J. Newton, MA, Learning Specialist and published in the Find Counseling.com (formerly TherapistFinder.net) Mental Health Journal in April, 2001:
Child Abuse: Just One Story
Child Abuse Introduction |   Signs of Child Abuse
Child Abuse Statistics |   It’s Under Reported
Effects of Child Abuse on Children: Abuse General
Effects of Child Abuse on Children: Child Sexual Abuse
Injuries to Children: Physical and Sexual Abuse
Effects of Child Abuse on Adults: Childhood Abuse
Effects of Child Abuse on Adults: Childhood Sexual Abuse
Definition of Physical Abuse |   Signs of Physical Abuse
Definition of Sexual Abuse |   Signs of Sexual Abuse
Definition of Child Neglect |   Signs of Child Neglect
Definition of Emotional Abuse |   Signs of Emotional Abuse
Abusers |   Pedophiles
Child Physical Abuse and Corporal Punishment
Treatment for Child Abuse
Costs to Society
State Child Abuse Laws
Nationwide Crisis Line and Hotline Directory
National Non-Governmental Organizations and Links
U.S. Government Organizations and Links


Psychiatric News July 7, 2006
Volume 41 Number 13 Page 28
© American Psychiatric Association

  • Clinical & Research News

Parents’ Verbal Abuse Leaves Long-Term Legacy

By Joan Arehart-Treichel


Here is a website devoted entirely to the subject of VERBAL ABUSE:

ARTICLE:  Verbal Abuse and Children
by Patricia Evans –
Provides information particularly to parents


From The Parent Zone.com website:

What Are The Effects Of Verbal Abuse On Children?


This article is one of the ground breaking research papers about how child abuse changes the development of an infant-child’s brain.  This paper is excluding research about how abuse changes the development of the right emotional limbic brain.  It is focused on LEFT BRAIN changes, and presents a ‘preliminary’ study about altered patterns of development in right handed children who do not end up with the usual left hemisphere dominance.  (EEGs are not able to detect the kinds of right brain changes child abuse causes).

This 1998 article is presenting the hypothesis that verbal abuse might be one of the powerful influences that changes how the hemispheres develop in relation to one another with the end result being that information is not processed ‘normally’ by either hemisphere and is not transmitted between hemispheres ‘normally’, either.

Preliminary Evidence for Aberrant Cortical Development in Abused Children

A Quantitative EEG Study


J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 10:298-307, August 1998
© 1998 American Psychiatric Press, Inc.

Yutaka Ito, M.D., Ph.D., Martin H. Teicher, M.D., Ph.D., Carol A. Glod, R.N., Ph.D. and Erika Ackerman, B.S.


Here is another excellent presentation about child abuse written by Dr. Bruce Perry (1997), Incubated in terror: Neurodevelopmental factors in the ‘cycle of violence.’


The development of dissociation in maltreated preschool-aged children


Johnson et al 2001

Abstract – Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York State Psychiatric Institute, NY 10032, USA.

Childhood verbal abuse and risk for personality disorders during adolescence and early adulthood
Comprehensive Psychiatry, Volume 42, Issue 1, Pages 16-23

ABSTRACT:  Data from a community-based longitudinal study were used to investigate whether childhood verbal abuse increases risk for personality disorders (PDs) during adolescence and early adulthood. Psychiatric and psychosocial interviews were administered to a representative community sample of 793 mothers and their offspring from two New York State counties in 1975, 1983, 1985 to 1986, and 1991 to 1993, when the mean ages of the offspring were 5, 14, 16, and 22 years, respectively. Data regarding childhood abuse and neglect were obtained from the psychosocial interviews and from official New York State records.

Offspring who experienced maternal verbal abuse

during childhood were more than three times as likely

as those who did not experience verbal abuse

to have borderline, narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, and paranoid PDs during adolescence or early adulthood.

These associations remained significant after offspring temperament, childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, physical punishment during childhood, parental education, parental psychopathology, and co-occurring psychiatric disorders were controlled statistically.

In addition, youths who experienced childhood verbal abuse had elevated borderline, narcissistic, paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal Personality Disorder symptom levels during adolescence and early adulthood after the covariates were accounted for.

These findings suggest that childhood verbal abuse may contribute to the development of some types of Personality Disorders, independent of offspring temperament, childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, physical punishment during childhood, parental education, parental psychopathology, and co-occurring psychiatric disorders.


The region in the primate brain that contains mirror neurons corresponds in our human brain to the region, Broca’s area, that processes speech (see page 184 of chapter reference below).  Think about the impact of all forms of adult interactions with infant-children — especially during the rapid-growth brain developmental stages — as you read the following:

“Relational” Mirror Neurons and the Concept of Representation

“Mirror neurons respond only to intentional motor actions. This is the first evidence that there is an area in the motor cortex that can respond specifically and only to goal-directed, relational actions.”  (page 183)

“When mirror neurons are activated, there is a very tight, precise correspondence between a specific motor action and neuron firing. For example, if a neuron responded to an object held between the fingers, it would not respond to the same object held by tweezers. Self-initiated actions and the individual’s perception of the identical action performed by another evoke the same neural response. So it can be said that the monkey’s brain (and ours as well) is intrinsically relational.”” (page 184)

“The discovery of mirror neurons suggests that certain actions may be represented in the mind because they trigger a neural link between self and other. This representation of the other’s action by means of mirror neurons is direct and immediate and does not require any intervening symbolic code or a mental language, as there is an instantaneous mapping from self to other and from other to self. Mirror neurons support ecological theories of perception in that there is an innate coupling between the self and the other: we respond to directly perceived qualities of the other’s intentionality; we do not require coded information.”  (page 185)


in Imagination and the Meaningful Brain (Philosophical Psychopathology)By Arnold H. Modell (2006), The MIT Press


“Scientists who use advanced imaging technology to study brain function report that the human brain is wired to reward caring, cooperation, and service. According to this research, merely thinking about another person experiencing harm triggers the same reaction in our brain as when a mother sees distress in her baby’s face. Conversely, the act of helping another triggers the brain’s pleasure center and benefits our health by boosting our immune system, reducing our heart rate, and preparing us to approach and soothe. Positive emotions like compassion produce similar benefits. By contrast, negative emotions suppress our immune system, increase heart rate, and prepare us to fight or flee.”

READ REST OF ARTICLE HERE:  We Are Hard-Wired to Care and Connect by by David Korten




When I turned the next page after the chapter on laughter in Keltner’s book my first reaction was aversion.  This isn’t the aversion of disgust I would feel if someone handed me a white china plate with a serving of dog turds in the center of it.  It’s more the aversion I would feel to continuing down a path once I saw a large diamond back rattler stretched across it.  It’s like the aversion I would feel should I be asked to step up on stage to join a chorus line of showgirls scantily dressed and overly plumed in Las Vegas, or should I be asked to sing the national anthem from the center of a pro football stadium in front of thousands.

That’s a strong negative reaction to the single word that appears at the top of Dr. Dacher Keltner’s 2009 book’s (Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life) next page as the heading for his next chapter:  Teasing.

I am experiencing the ‘freeze, hide and flee’ half of the fight/flight stress reaction.  There’s no ‘fight’ for me here except for the fight I am experiencing inside my self about facing my fears by plowing through a topic that obviously makes me feel completely uncomfortable.  I am presented with a challenge here to which I respond with feelings of incompetence and un-confidence.  I KNOW I am an unequipped gladiator in the arena of normal human teasing.

It is only because of my commitment to reading Keltner’s entire book and to learning about my self as the severe infant-child abuse survivor that I am that I marshal my courage and willingness to pay attention both to the information that Keltner presents and to my own difficulties with it.  I know from my experience of aversion to the topic that there is something important here I need to understand.  I know from the start both that I am not going to like what I find here, and that what I find will reflect a truth about how the severe abuse I experienced from birth changed me into someone who is different from the person I could have become had this severe abuse not happened to me.


Because my experience of severe infant-child abuse contained very specific, unusual, uncommon and unique patterns, I have found myself falling through nearly every single crack in the ‘psychological’ theories about how child abuse can affect adult survivors.  Because my abuse began at birth, I have had to learn that ‘recovery’ of abilities I supposedly ‘used to have’ before severe trauma happened to me is not possible.  My journey of healing is mostly about what I can uncover and discover connected to what was done to me rather than to recover anything.

I have to connect-the-dots of the information I uncover and discover about being myself in the world in far different ways than non-early severe infant-child abuse survivors might get to.  I cannot take for granted even the most basic facts about what it means to be a member of our social human species.  This is mostly true because my mother didn’t just use one massive club of abuse against me from the time I was born.  She had a second massive club that she wielded over me equally:  extreme social isolation.  Being bludgeoned from birth and for the next 18 years by one of these clubs would have all but obliterated me.  Being attacked on all fronts by a combination of the two clubs has made me into a person who very nearly fits the description of a nonsocial species of one.

I am left having to uncover and discover more of what is uniquely different about me from others than what is similar or the same.  Yet I was born a member of a social species.  Everything that is different for me happens according to categories of experience that I share with all others.  It’s just that within each of these categories of possibilities about what it means to be human and what it feels like to be human, I experience patterns of being-in-the-world that are different for me than for nearly all others.

As I encountered my aversion to Keltner’s chapter heading on teasing it didn’t take me very long in scanning the next pages to understand that the topic of teasing is about one of these socially-human categories.  Although Keltner does not make the obvious connection between teasing and attachment patterns, I do.  In fact, the connection is more than glaringly obvious to me.

I suggest that a clear appraisal of our competency of interactions within the arena of teasing activity can show us the kind of social brain we have.. At the same time this appraisal can tell us about the kinds of infant-child interactions we had with our earliest caregivers while the foundation of our emotional-social brain was built from the time of our birth.


At the same time that I now want to turn to Keltner’s actual presentation of information on teasing, I am experiencing one of my own inner reactions I wrote about earlier in the week.  I hear that warning:  “Do not enter.  Past this point all angels fear to tread.”  I realize that if I cross this line, move past this point, I am at risk for inviting in The Furies.

At the same time I realize there is a second sign posted beside the first.  This one reads, “You cannot get there from here.”  I don’t even have time to consider what this second sign means before I notice a third one that reads, “What is true for most others is absolutely not true for you.”  Oh!  And a fourth sign!  “If you choose to follow down this pathway you must understand that none of what you will find here can be taken personally.  Whatever you are missing in regard to teasing did not come about through any fault of your own.”

If the presence of all those signs aren’t warning enough that I better consider carefully what I am going to choose to do next, I see a flash of yellow through the trees and underbrush just around a curve of the pathway ahead of me.  I walk toward it and see yellow crime scene plastic ribbons strung across the pathway and wound around the bushes on both sides of the pathway into the forest as far as I can see.  At the same time I see a gleaming silver pair of giant scissors lying on the ground in the center of the path right in front of the tape.

I am standing here thinking about this carefully.  What might the repercussions be for me if I pick up these scissors, snap through that yellow tape and continue forward down this pathway?  What might the ramifications be of gaining conscious knowledge about something my body already knows but has no words to describe?  Would I rather be skinned alive than uncover what I am going to discover about myself in this body-brain in this lifetime should I carefully read this chapter?

Believe me, readers.  This is turning into a really long pause here…….  There are more than a few parts of myself I have to consult with before I can make this decision.


One thing I know today from the information Keltner presents in his book on this topic.  True teasing in the human social arena is NOT about aggression.  If there is aggression present, it is not teasing.  There is not supposed to be anything terrible — ‘terror able’ — about teasing.   Obviously, for me, there was in my “Something Wicked This Way Comes” version of a childhood.

I should not be surprised, given the continual reign of my mother’s verbal abuse of me (included within her unending repertoire of violence), that her so-called teasing was extremely vicious, hurtful and WRONG — from the time I was born.




The wind is back at dawn today, roaring around my house like a drunken clan of Cyclops giants.  The tall pine in my neighbor’s yard is dancing a wild, frenzied jig in fast motion.  The wind is trying to rip the leaves off the plum tree before they even come out.  The giants are bellowing at me down the water heater chimney in the corner of my kitchen.

The sky grows lighter with the sound of birds perched in the twigs of the quince tree above their pan of water outside my kitchen window.  The light is all gray today.  It seems to be within the clouds across the sky, even in all directions, masking the outlines of the mountains, yet here and there in the west the clouds are outlined with the faintest tints of peach, ecru and tan.

It looks like a day to stay indoors.  My cold has thickened and settled, making me feel feverish and queasy.  Sneezing, I watch droplets of rain appear on the outside of my window.  I am grateful for this roof and these walls of shelter (thinking about my study last weekend about the precuneus part of the brain and its connection to our human sense of shelter and to the self).  Protection for the body of the self and for the self of the self.

I am not so tough that I can’t appreciate these advantages I have being only one of billions who have so much less to keep them protected from so much more.  Without these protecting walls of shelter around me right now, without this sturdy roof, without some source of heat, I would experience this coming day differently.  It strikes me as I read a little more of Dr. Dacher Keltner’s 2009 book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, about laughter that the presence or absence of laughter seems to correspond to the nature of the protection we have inside our self for our self.


Keltner and his colleague, George Bonanno, designed a long-term study to examine how laughter operated among 45 adults who were grieving for the loss of a much loved spouse who had died within the previous six months.  Here again Keltner does not include any assessment of previous traumas, child abuse or maltreatment, or to degrees of secure or insecure attachment.  By not collecting this information from his participants, he missed the opportunity to learn about how the presence or absence of laughter during a time of personal storms is directly connected to the nature of the sheltering protection a person has for their self.

Yes, he found that laughter appears as a resiliency factor in human grieving.  Yes, laughter appears to be a ‘fitness factor’ that corresponds to the ability to transcend one’s losses so they can flexibly resolve their traumas and move on into the next stages of life.  But I resist the intimation his writings leave with is readers, that there is plainly something innately superior about those who can laugh in the midst of their grief compared to those who cannot so easily access laughter’s power to heal.

My bet is that those who entered into the rooms of Keltner’s experimental laboratory to complete his interviews and have their most minute reactions critically examined brought with them the condition of the shelter of their self built within them through critical developmental stages of their infancy and childhood.  Those who were early traumatized were most likely to have soggy cardboard boxes to live in, if that.  Those who benefited during their development by being given good strong walls and a good strong roof, doors that sealed out the storms and tight, solidly placed windows of course had the corresponding ability to access their laughter within.

What did Keltner and Bonanno find among their 45 participants?

“Measures of laughter (and smiling) predicted reduced grief as assessed at six, fourteen, and twenty-five months postloss.  Duchenne laughter while talking about their deceased spouses were less anxious and depressed, and more engaged in their daily living, for the next two years.  Just as important, people who showed more anger were observed to be experiencing more anxiety, depression, and disengagement from daily living for the next two years.”  (page 142

These researchers continued to study how these grief-triggered reactions appeared in the body of their subjects and observed the following:

“…George and I went on a search for further evidence in support of the benefits of laughter.  Why did laughing while talking about the deceased partner relate to increased personal adjustment?  What we observed were findings very much in keeping with the laughter as vacation hypothesis.  Our first analysis looked at how bereaved individuals’ experience of distress tracked one physiological index of arousal – elevated heart rate.  The bereaved individuals who laughed showed similar heart rate arousal as those who did not laugh.  But whereas our nonlaughers’ feelings of distress closely tracked increases in their heart rate, our laughers’ feelings of distress were decoupled from this physiological index of stress.  Metaphorically, laughers were taking a vacation from the stress of their partners’ deaths, freed from the tension of stress-related physiology.

“We then transcribed their conversations and identified exactly what the bereaved participants were talking about when they laughed.  Here again, data suggest that laughter is not a sign of denial of trauma, as widely assumed, but an indicator of a shift toward a new perspective enabled by the imagination.  We coded participants’ references to several existential themes related to bereavement – loss, yearning, injustice, uncertainty.  We also coded for insight words that reflect a shift in perspective, phrases like “I see” or “from this perspective” or “looking back.”  Our participants who laughed were most likely to be talking about the injustice of death – the unfair termination of life, the difficulties of raising a family alone, the loss of intimacy – but they engaged in this discourse with perspective-shifting clauses.  Laughter was part of these individuals’ shift in viewing the death of their spouses.  It was a portal into a new understanding of their lives.  A laugh is a lightning bolt of wisdom, a moment in which the individual steps back and gains a broader perspective upon their lives and the human condition.

“Finally, our data speak to the social benefits of laughter.  Our bereaved individuals who laughed reported better relations with a current significant other.  They more readily engaged in new intimate relations.”  (pages 143-144)


I believe that Keltner and Bonanno missed the most important fact that it wasn’t the presence or absence of laughter itself that mattered most in their study.  It was the presence or absence of a safe and secure attachment system, built into these individuals through the nature of their earliest caregiver interactions during their body-brain developmental stages, that either enabled laughter to exist as the resiliency factor it is, or did not.

Laughter is obviously connected to the benefits this research describes.  Yes, it does have the power to modulate the physiological stress response in the body.  Yes it indicates “a shift toward a new perspective enabled by the imagination” because it is a signal of fitness that reflects the conditions of the environment an individual was formed in, by and for.  Yes, laughter is included in autobiographical narratives when it appears in “perspective-shifting clauses” that are part of the telling of a coherent, continuous life story that is most likely to happen for a safe and securely attached-from-birth person.

Transitioning between contrasting mental states, processing information in insightful ways, being able to obtain shifts in perspective, having a “portal into a new understanding” of one’s life, having the capacity to experience “a lightning bolt of wisdom, a moment in which the individual steps back and gains a broader perspective upon their lives and the human condition” all are possible because of safe and secure attachment patterns built into a person’s body-nervous system-brain-mind-self from the start of one’s life.

And of course having these abilities, which stem from a safe and securely built body-brain, means that such a person will have the capacity also to report “better relations with a current significant other” and will be able to “more readily” engage “in new intimate relations.”


This research is describing the differences between those who have and those who do not have the insurance-policy benefits of safe and secure attachment built into their early developing body-brain.  The presence or absence of laughter is the internal and external signal that clearly indicates the nature of a person’s attachment system.  Our attachment system is itself a signifier of the quality of the world that built each of us in our beginnings.

Our attachment system is about the quality of the protective structure within us that contains our self.  If I had to try to recover from this cold I have outside in the cold wind and rain of today, rather than trying to recover within the adequate home I have that keeps those stormy elements away from me, I would not be likely to recover as well, as quickly, or maybe even at all.  That’s just plain common sense.

So why do we continue to so stubbornly refuse to accept that the conditions of our inward attachment system that directly formed the who and how we are in this world don’t have an equally powerful influence on how we respond to and recover from the trials and tribulations, the storms that happen to us along the pathway of our lives?

If the presence of laughter signifies the existence of a safe and secure inner protective structure for the self, and its absence signifies that this inner protective structure is not safe and secure enough, then I know more about the meaning of laughter in my own life and in the lives of others.  Just as I would want to improve the physical structure of my dwelling if the rain was pouring in the roof and my siding was blowing off, I want to improve the structure surrounding my self.


It is with this new “light of understanding” about the powerful signifier laughter is of the conditions of my inner shelter that I will share with you something that made me laugh so hard yesterday my sides literally hurt.  I haven’t laughed like that for a long, long time.

Our rural town weekly newspaper always includes a page called “The Police Beat” where the past week’s 911 calls are presented to the public.  I happen to live in this unincorporated outskirt town of 700 people that I found mentioned in the news yesterday.  I was trying to read this entire piece from start to finish over the telephone to my daughter last evening without laughing.  I couldn’t do it:

Jan. 7

A Naco woman reported a large green half snake half something else was in her bathroom.  By the time deputies arrived, the creature was gone.

Of all the descriptions Keltner has presented (above) about laughter, it is his mention of how laughter is “an indicator of a shift toward a new perspective enabled by the imagination” that most caught my attention.  I thought to myself, “Hey!  I can do THAT!”

Reading this report from the sheriff’s call yesterday captivated my imagination.  The words in that report created for me a playground for my imagination – as I suspect it will yours.  Now, thanks to reading Keltner’s book combined with my own insights, I understand more than ever before the critical place that laughter has as a signifier of human well-being.

I will pay ever more close attention to finding the large and often very small places that humor, smiles and laughter might be hidden around me in my life – even if they are hidden in the words of a paper about something that first appeared in someone else’s bathroom – and then did not.  Now I understand more clearly that my attachment system, my home of my self in the world, will be better off for every instant of genuine laughter I can find.

Human laughter, older than words, might well be the most important language we have.  It tells the stories of the better side of life.  In laughter we share both the oldest and best of who we are and what we know.  In the presence of genuine laughter we are most present in the present because in its embrace we are most completely safe, secure and free.