I learnt about this tract of brain matter while studying for my membership in Animal Behaviour.
In a mentor’s recording on anxiety the words slipped past my ear. I had to replay it several times to make it out and then I googled it. Function Unknown, says Wikipedia. But when I queried her source she pointed me to a scientific paper. Out there in neuroscience La-La land lives a researcher who knows the tract like the lane behind his house. I wonder if he too fell in love with the way the words sound. Latin does that. A language belonging to no one but the body.
Uncinate fasciculus – It is a part of the limbic system that connects the amygdala and the frontal cortex. The wider and more robust your uncinate fasciculus the more control you have over your emotional state. People with flimsy fairy floss connections might tend to be more anxious and not able to think as much before they act.
What has this got to do with Animal Behaviour I hear you asking.
If we give animals things to do that involve cognitive challenge – perhaps working out how to source the food from the food puzzle – they channel their frustration into positive action. They problem-solve and, for animals with emotional problems, where they are apt to react quickly and inappropriately, thinking is a good thing. Just like we encourage young people to think before they act – we can motivate dogs to use a bit more cortex too. Requesting your dog to look at you, to watch, to sit and to touch are all ways to teach a dog to use his brain. When coupled with a reward the dog learns he has control and can predict his future. Having control over your life is powerfully soothing. Having no control, unpredictable encounters and no way to communicate your needs is frustrating and anxiety causing. Think of all the ways in which we make lives unpredictable and frightening for dogs (after all they are a captive species) and you can see why such simple things can make such a big difference.
I think of some of my troubled patients. Little terriers that shake with fear at human touch, pupils so large that irises have disappeared. Some have learnt to approach their fear with snarls and snaps and their success at keeping the scary thing away means they have perfected their timing, increased their speed of reaction. They have been labelled mean and nasty, but what a difference when they are seen for what they are – simply petrified. Their daily encounters with the human world are full of life-threatening fears. Piss-and-poop-yourself-scenarios. No thinking is done in this state. Just reacting. Just surviving and escaping.
Take some time out from your fear. Work to get your food. See you have some control over something you need. This can help. Like list writing for dogs. Organising your thoughts. Getting the washing done. Folding it neatly and putting it away. Jiffing the sink. All tasks done to still the mind. Suduko for dogs.
I attend some of the veterinary camp where the students are being invited to explore their personalities. They are learning about themselves and each other. Maybe it will help them later. They are being asked to work as teams and see another point of view. It’s hard in your twenties. They are being asked to stretch themselves, both emotionally and physically. The introverts are feeling the pressure. I too. Moments of solitude only found in the bathroom, away from the hubbub, bliss. The camp is held in an old detention centre – where lepers where housed. The feeling of institutionalised care fills the pores of the building, is steeped into the jarrah boards. Over lunch I sit with the psychologist who is the key facilitator discussing the brain. Later the students will be scaling walls and using ropes. For some it will be scary. I want to know if she thinks it is good for your brain.
I question the value of flinging yourself from solid into thin air. Why must someone overcome a primal fear? If you’re frightened of heights and asked to climb and then jump, how does this help you? But then I think of the uncinate fasciculus. If you can overcome the fear and the internal chatter that is telling you not to jump, that jumping equals death, and can take control of the glued feet that refuse to move towards the precipice, then maybe you strengthened the uncinate fasciculus. Maybe you have added a neuronal pathway not there before. Jumping from stuff. Feeling fear but surviving it. Feeling buoyed by doing something so unusual and against what your body and primitive emotions are telling you it is safe to do. Is this why?
Does the answer lie in making new neural pathways? I think of the study someone in neuroscience La La land could do – image the brains before and after jumping. See the uncinate fasciculus turn from dirt lane to super highway.