This article will explore the connection between openness to experience, trauma, and mental health problems. Trauma could limit one’s openness to experience and produce impacts on development that requires openness. The timing of a traumatic stressor in one’s life may determine how this event impacts personal growth. PTSD, schizophrenia, autism, and intelligence are explored in relation to trauma.
Let’s begin with an analogy.
Imagine that you try a new kind of food with 20 unfamiliar ingredients and develop an allergic reaction. If this experience was life threatening, how likely would you be willing to consume that food again? Probably not at all. What if you could smell each of these 20 ingredients vividly and you notice one of these ingredients was added to a dish your friend cooked up, would you be willing to risk death to test out your friend’s cooking? Probably not. The problem is that in order for you to figure out which of these 20 ingredients is the true offender, you must remain open and willing to test each of them, one by one, so that you can narrow it down.
This can be a great analogy to the experience of trauma. When something is incredibly painful, your brain will associate the set of stimuli in that experience to the painful outcome. This leads one to avoid all of the stimuli in the set associated to the aversive reaction. One must be willing to engage with the stimuli in order to explore and resolve what causes the pain, otherwise one is stuck with an overgeneralization of aversive reactions and avoidance towards an entire set of mostly innocent stimuli. When the trauma appears to be life-threatening, the willingness to engage with the stimuli in order to explore and pick out the true offender drops to extremely low. Why would you take the risk of ruining your life again? The stress hormone cortisol has been correlated to decreased openness to experience, which supports this idea. Another study demonstrated a decrease in openness in police officers after traumatic experiences in the field. In this article we will use the term closedness to experience to describe decreased openness.
Moving back to the allergic reaction scenario. What if this was the first time trying a new food? The first time coming out of your comfort zone? Would you decide that doing so is too risky and not worth the trouble? This would be even more over-generalized than simply avoiding any products containing the 20 ingredients from the dish that resulted in the allergic reaction. Naivety is a factor at play here.
Let’s analyze this.
If one has tried only food from their own culture and their first other-culture food resulted in serious consequences then they may be unlikely to try other-culture foods again, consuming only their preferred ‘safe’ options for food. If the individual has tried a few other-culture food types from multiple cultures prior to the allergic event, these past experiences will have shown the individual that other-culture food can be safely eaten. If the allergic reaction resulted from the very first time one has consumed the food of a specific culture, the individual may generalize that this specific culture’s food is unsafe for them to eat. If the allergic reaction resulted after having consumed foods of that culture before, the reaction cannot be associated to the entire food culture but instead may associated to that exact dish of food.
As you can see, the level of generalization that would occur would depend on the individual’s previous experience with these categories of food. As one continues to clarify more and more detail, one can narrow down increasingly specific causes of the allergic reaction. This means that prior experience should mediate the degree of generality that fear associations are applied. So more naivety should mean more generalization because there is more foreign information that can be stereotyped into associative packages. For more experienced individuals we could expect that there is less novel information and thus less room for broad stereotypes to form because the known information is already linked to judgments the person has.
Instead of food, imagine you are meeting new people and one of these people assaults you. You could generalize all of the unique and unfamiliar traits of that assaulter as being correlated to the assault behavior. You may find yourself avoiding people who have these set of traits. In reality, this can lead a person to holding prejudices against out-groups who carry the same associated traits and appearance as the assaulter. Even worse, the traumatized individual may begin to avoid people in general, or public spaces or whichever kind of general location associated with the assault event.
Exposure therapy is effective for trauma probably for the very reason that it helps one narrow down the list of 20 ingredients to the exact ingredient of offense. This would open the doors to a whole range of food items that were previously avoided in fear. Exposure therapy is a kind of ‘forced’ openness to experience, in which you are pushed to engage openly with the set of stimuli that are linked to your trauma so that extinction of fear can occur with the stimuli that do not cause pain. By experiencing the trauma associated stimuli with safe outcomes, you override the fear association. You realize that the stimuli is not actually dangerous. The closedness to experience that comes with PTSD can be a detriment to the afflicted individuals life, causing trouble getting jobs, grocery shopping, or any number of problems that result from their avoidance of an overgeneralized set of stimuli. Specifying the precise source of pain can free one from their avoidance prisons.
The increasingly overgeneralized reaction to trauma may especially occur in young individuals who have not yet created a fully nuanced perspective simply due to their lack of experiences and naivety. In the case of the trauma-inflicted youth, the overgeneralization of avoidance to aversive stimuli may produce schizophrenia-like problems and seriously impede the development of the young person. If it is true that our mental flexibility and learning begins to slow down in our twenties, the individual who is held-back due to closedness to experience might eventually find themselves stuck with a more naïve perspective on life, indefinitely. The issues that come with this would be an enhanced risk of trauma related to being socially outcast, failing to get a job, being bullied by family for being a failure, chronic social isolation, and so on.
One of the recent posts on this blog explored how schizophrenics appear to have a reduced functioning psychedelic mechanism, specifically a dysfunction of the 5ht2a receptor mechanism. Psychedelic drugs appear to induce long-lasting increases in openness to experience, even many months after the drug has worn off. The reduced function of the psychedelic mechanisms seen in schizophrenia may predispose an individual to increased risk of becoming trapped in closedness to experience after stressful events and traumatic experiences. The closedness to experience that results from experiences such as stress or trauma could be described as aversion. Interestingly, MDMA’s aversion blocking effects are mediated by 5HT2a receptor activity. In general, drugs that stimulate 5HT2a seem to have anti-aversive effects. They also increase openness to experience, producing long lasting changes of this trait after single doses. We also tend to lose 5HT2a receptor binding as we age and openness to experience is found to be lower in older adults.
Psychedelics are being explored for the treatment of PTSD. It may be that the psychedelic mechanism plays a role in promoting the development of nuance by boosting openness to experience. How this may work: psychedelics may reduce prior conditioning (like trauma) or at least prevent prior conditioning from being a factor in present-moment decision-making. If one is not factoring in their past allergic crisis (or trauma) they may be unafraid of trying the 20 ingredients that were associated to the allergic reaction and thus be able to narrow down a more specific perspective about which ingredients are safe or not.
Individuals with schizophrenia tend to have increased rates of the DRD4 7r gene which is linked to openness to experience. Despite this, low openness to experience was linked to schizophrenia. Researchers have suggested that increased openness experience predisposes an individual to both more positive and negative experiences in general. The openness trait may lead the naïve schizophrenic to exploring strange ideas or conspiracies but once they are bullied or shamed for their ideas, the inability to recover due to the impaired psychedelic mechanism may lead to sudden closedness to experience. If the individual were to discover new information that contradicts their strange ideas, their suffering from the bully experiences would be increased and their fear of being crazy or stupid would be confirmed. The individual could avoid suffering further by avoiding learning anything that contradicts their shamed ideas.
The psychedelic mechanism may play a vital role in child development, functioning by reducing one’s tendency to become avoidant to extremely non-specific sets of stimuli. The brain’s of psychedelic intoxicated individuals seems to mimic the brains of babies. Can you imagine if an infant decided that merely opening its’ eyes was too much a risk because the first time they had their eyes opened they experienced some kind of pain? Could you imagine if an infant over-generalized that all human interaction is bad because the first time they were punished during social interaction left massive scars in their mind? The psychedelic mechanism may be a part of young childhood so that we can remain continuously open as long as it is safe to do so. This can allow continual clarification of our associations and a progressive development in the nuance of our perspectives. It allows the child to not permanently settle into any assumptions and generalizations about how reality operates too early in life.
Can you imagine if a child decided to stop talking completely because talking somehow failed to produce a positive outcome?
The child with mute autism may be partly explainable by a faulty component of this developmental psychedelia state. Like schizophrenia, there is evidence of reduced functioning of the psychedelic mechanism in individuals in those with autism. This could mean that these individuals are especially sensitive to forming hard conclusions about their associative experience, perhaps even very early on, thus impeding their development drastically. Mute autism could be seen as very similar to schizophrenia but where stress sensitivity and aversive experience is so intertwined with the individual’s genes that they become trapped in naivety even at young ages like 1 or 2 years-old.
It’s worth clarifying here that what is considered stressful and traumatic for the individual with autism may not be the same as for neurotypical individuals. For example, autism has been linked to sensory overload, which might pose unexpected traumas and stressors. This is important to clarify because it isn’t necessarily that abusive parenting is involved here, but rather even normal life situations may pose risks.
As an interesting side point, considering the food analogy, individuals with autism have been known to eat the same foods repetitively and be picky about what foods they consume. This may represent the earlier tendency towards closedness to experience where larger generalizations are formed due to having less experiences in general and thus concluding that trying new foods in general is aversive.
Hypothesis: I suspect that the critical period for language development may be mediated by the psychedelic mechanism (5HT2a receptor activity) by increasing detailed sensory awareness that allows one to detect phonemes and also enhance associative learning. Impairments to this receptor’s functioning may increase the difficulty of developing language. There could be fine motor control and sensory awareness of the mouth shape and tongue as to allow conditioning and learning of words, whereas in later life the sensory awareness and motor control is reduced to fit only what is necessary due to the fact that it is so energy intensive. There are likely factors that alter this, such as access to secure resources, wealth, social power and safety nets. Childhood play and development seems to be modulated by stress and security, even the rate at which an individual reaches puberty seems to be affected. It could be that stressors put pressure on one’s ability to expend all of the extra energy being so acutely aware to the fine details of our reality. Adultification may naturally occur due to the presence of stressors.
There was a study on children with autism getting dosed with LSD. This study was cut short during that political chaos surrounding psychedelic drugs in the 60s but almost all of the autistic children showed improvement from daily high doses of LSD.
We’ve explored how low psychedelia may play a role in a few mental health issues by facilitating and maintaining fear conditioning and attenuating fear extinction, but what about hyper-psychedelia in mental health issues?
Mania is a strange case where hyper-psychedelia may play a role (ctrl+F in this link to search ‘mania’, it is at the bottom). For individuals with manic disorders, the issue may not be a lack of openness to experience, but rather too much of it. A resilience to stress and an ability to recover from traumatic experiences and a disinhibited willingness to engage with dangerous and potentially life-ruining situations may summarize the issues that the manic individual faces. For the bipolar manic, they may feel down after the metaphorical allergic reaction experience but they will quickly find themselves willing to try the various ingredients again without hesitation, despite these prior dangerous encounters. The individuals living amongst the bipolar individual will feel anxious that the manic is so willing to take major risks. On the other hand, the bipolar manic would be living in a state of fearlessness and disinhibition. The bipolar individual may be especially good at narrowing down which stimuli are upsetting due to the exploratory behavioral effects of the psychedelia mechanism.
High openness to experience is an observed pattern among individuals with bipolar disorder. D-cycloserine seems to enhance fear extinction and also induces mania, which supports this idea. D-cycloserine functions similarly to the endogenous neurotransmitter glycine at an NMDAr site, which is found to be elevated in manic patients. Together this suggests that manic individuals could in some cases have enhanced fear extinction based on mechanisms involving NMDAr. This makes sense due to their tendency to behave disinhibited and fearless. Bipolar disorder also correlated to enhanced 5HT2a receptor signal transduction, causing increased calcium release (note: NMDAr is a calcium channel receptor). On the other hand, NMDAr antagonists and calcium channel blockers both have anti-manic effects.
Being traumatized may even initialize the pattern of mood swings observed in bipolar disorder by revealing to the individual their capacity to recover from extremely stressful or traumatic events. This may lead to a sense of invulnerability that is only reinforced by each subsequent disaster that their manic fearlessness may lead them into.
Soon, in another article, I’ll cover how serotonin (and the psychedelia mechanism) and dynorphin play opposing roles on openness to experience as a response to perceived abundance or scarcity but that is for another more elaborate article. Essentially those who have the abundance mindset will not hesitate to spend money or engage in more costly behaviors. Sometimes these high-risk high-reward scenarios prove highly satisfying but other times the individual crashes when the cost is too high. The model of bipolar disorder presented here is that even after crashing, the individual will be able to not only recover to baseline, but continue climbing into high-risk taking behaviors again and repeat this cycle.
Fascinatingly, openness to experience is found to be increased in bipolar disorder, decreased in PTSD, decreased in schizophrenia, and decreased in autism. There are also correlations of high intelligence and bipolar disorder, low intelligence in schizophrenia, autism (the autism-intelligence correlation is complex, although is critical to this concept about openness and intelligence portrayed in this article) and also PTSD. Openness to experience also correlates to intelligence. This could mean that being open facilitates the maintenance and sharpening of intelligence, probably through enhancing one’s tendency to self-stimulate, learn, and especially reduce naivety (increase crystallized intelligence?).
Consider what IQ represents: mental age compared to actual age. Consider what naivety means: lacking in experience, innocence, essentially a symbol for low mental age. It would make sense for openness to experience to correlate to intelligence because it facilitates mental age development (mental age in relevance to definition of IQ) by increasing experiences. This could explain the correlations of intelligence and bipolar disorder (again, ctrl F and search mania to find a list of the studies on intelligence and bipolar). On the other hand, if there exists an unwillingness to engage in new experiences due to the fear of suffering that may result from these mysterious experiences, then naivety is maintained. There is research showing that IQ is suppressed when a child is exposed to traumatic experience which could be explained by the shut down of openness and subsequent developmental delay that could follow.
In essence, closedness to experience may lead to a stagnation of mental development as a protective factor against anticipated suffering. Exposure to traumatic experiences may provoke newfound closedness to experience and halt mental development. The outcome may be dependent on where an individual is in development as well as what specific types of fears and avoidances are conditioned into the individual. The younger and less developed a person’s perspective in life is, the more stereotyped and overgeneralized the avoidances will be.
If you are curious how the psychedelics achieve anti-traumatic effects through biological interactions it is worth checking out Psychedelics and Schizophrenia. It seems that dynorphin may hold a key to this puzzle, being implicated in aversion, stress, trauma, and schizophrenia. Dynorphin also blocks NMDAr, which is necessary for fear extinction. Dynorphin increases cortisol in humans, and as previously mentioned, cortisol is correlated to lower openness to experience. Dynorphin’s effects also seem to be antimanic and cognitive reducing. It may be that dynorphin promotes closedness to experience, possibly by releasing cortisol or we may even find that the cortisol correlation with closedness is occurring at the level of dynorphin. Check the Dynorphin section of the blog to read more about this.
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