Neuroscientist Katalin Gothard is searching for a “switch” in the brain that would induce positive emotions. She believes we don’t have to fall back on primal negative responses, which is often our default tendency. Focusing on potential danger is good for survival, but not for emotional well-being.
Gothard, a professor of physiology, studies Rhesus monkeys’ emotional behavior because those primates’ cognitive abilities are closest to humans’ — the way they think, solve problems and relate to one another. “They have a society similar to ours,” she says.
But monkeys don’t have the ability to speak, don’t have abstract thoughts and don’t understand the concept of future as humans do. They appear selfish, shortsighted, reactive and more prone to aggression, yet they still show signs of empathy and fairness.
“Monkeys show you a mirror that takes some reckoning to look into. It’s an interesting mirror. It aligns us up with the rest of the primates and forces us to acknowledge the limitations of our brain — but it also shows the enormous improvements in cognition afforded by relatively small differences between the monkey and human brain.”
Because of humans’ superior brain, Gothard says our species should be able to overcome the basic and nearly automatic emotional tendency to respond with fear.
While a fear response was necessary as humans evolved and served the species well, “We should be past it.” The default part of our brains, she says, makes us aggressive, tribal, competitive, to draw lines.
“Fear has such a powerful survivor role in all species. But rarely do we really have a reason to be fearful.”
Gothard earned a medical degree and had several years of training in neurosurgery in her native Romania. During medical school, “I had a taste of the diversity of human suffering. I always thought there is a layer of our psyche, a layer of our mind that can cause suffering that is larger than any other physical suffering that I have seen.”
But she was not satisfied with practicing medicine. She wanted to find answers that weren’t in the textbooks. Her friend and mentor, the mathematician Marika Neumann, told her, “You have to write the books.”
At that point, “I knew I had to be a scientist.”
During medical school, she had met UA Regents’ Professor John Hildebrand at the International Brain Research Organization conference in Hungary. And in the 1980s, Gothard was witnessing human-rights abuses being carried out by a totalitarian regime.
She passed along information about the persecutions to Hildebrand, and one of her tapes was intercepted. She was caught by the regime in July 1989 and interrogated.
“I was not sure I would even survive” the ordeal, she says.
She left Romania following the fall of the dictatorship in December 1989 and came to the United States by way of Hungary to become a graduate student at the UA in neuroscience, under Hildebrand’s tutelage.
Gothard’s initial doctoral work at the UA was in the hippocampus of rats, the area of the brain responsible for the processing of long-term memory and spatial navigation.
But after hearing Yale University brain researcher Patricia Goldman Rakic speak about her work with monkeys, Gothard says, “I had that moment in life where I had to follow my heart” and move her focus to monkeys.
Finding the way to reach our human potential is not a matter of pushing a hypothetical “button” in the brain. There are multiple elements in each individual that account for who each of us is.
“We carry with us an enormous history.”
The factors affecting humans and triggering their emotional responses range from the life events of the individual, the family, the nation, the tribe and even the history of our species, to one’s physical condition, nutrition, sleep, stress and more, Gothard says.
“We always put the blame on something out there in the environment because we don’t know what’s happening in our inner world. Understanding ourselves, our emotions, is key to escaping the gravitational pull of reflex-like reactions to external events. But understanding ourselves is a huge task.”
What Gothard learns from working with monkeys is “the incredibly rich transactions that go on all the time between us without any exchange of words.” Her interactions with the primates involve eye contact, gestures, proximity and rewards and the judicious timing of reward and withholding rewards. She and her team train monkeys with few words, yet they build relationships based on trust and reciprocity.
For years she has observed the monkeys’ negative reactions to one another and to humans. But her work is changing dramatically.
“I’m not interested anymore in what happens in the brain when you are fearful, angry, anxious or depressed. Now I want to work on what happens in your brain when you feel open, connected, vulnerable, yet trusting,” Gothard says.
For the next five years, Gothard will be working with pairs of monkeys to find “brain states associated with the most positive experiences — when monkeys form social bonds through reciprocal grooming.”
She will monitor their brains as they touch each other and when she touches them, and their behavior suggests that they understand the positive affect in that touch — and they become comfortable and trusting.
Gothard’s premise is that, “There must be a switch in the brain that we can turn on, some mechanism, some way of elevating ourselves” above the primal negative reactions.
“I’m done with the dark.”