One of Freud’s important theories dealt with what he called a fixation. He posited that when children go through their early stages of development, if they undergo stressful interactions caused by such things as emotional abuse or neglect, they may develop fixations.
When they develop fixations, their behavior becomes blocked in a certain respect. As an adult, the individual tends to exhibit repeating patterns that are the result of the fixation.
When you have a fixation, it is hard to change your behavior toward certain things, even if you get new information. This is particularly evident for example, in phobias.
Let’s say you have aquaphobia—a terror of water—that goes back to a time in early childhood when you almost drowned. You may have many experiences after that, as a child and as an adult, that are pleasant experiences with water, but you remain terrified of it.
You may have a fixation that harks back to being bullied by an older sibling. Later as an adult, this fixation may cause you not to be able to judge whether or not a potential friend might turn out to be a bully, and your learned (fixed) behavior causes you to react to a bullying person in a way that encourages bullying.
A researcher named Ricky Kharawala did a study in which he investigated both cognitive and brain reactions that are connected with what he called “cognitive flexibility.” By cognitive flexibility, he was referring to the ability to update one’s behavior when one receives new information. He knew about research that showed that children who experienced early stressors in their lives tended in their adulthood to suffer from a great many mental health disorders. He wondered whether there was a link between such disorders and cognitive flexibility.
He did an experiment using teen-aged children who reported having suffered from emotional stress in their early childhoods. They were shown objects on a monitor that were linked with reward. Later they were shown the same objects, but they were now linked with punishment.
The children who had suffered from stress in early childhood showed signs of cognitive inflexibility and were unable to update their response to the objects. They also had a control group of children who hadn’t suffered early childhood stress, and they had more cognitive flexibility.
Writing about the result of the experiment with children who had cognitive inflexibility, Kharawala noted, “Their difficulties were especially obvious when they had to change their responses. Once they had learned the links between context, action and outcome, they had a hard time updating and adjusting their behavior when the situation changed – like when an event that had been linked to reward became linked to punishment, or vice versa.”
He and his colleagues then used a technique called “functional magnetic resonance imaging” to measure which areas of the subjects’ brains were active. “When abused teens saw pictures that led to reward, the putamen and anterior cingulate cortex–two regions of the brain that help people learn associations between their actions and outcomes – were less active.” He pointed out that researchers have found similar patterns of reduced brain activity with regard to rewards in people who have psychological disorders such as depression.
What Kharawala calls cognitive inflexibility may be another way of saying the children had fixations. They no longer had the ability to be flexible in their reactions to situations. They didn’t know if something was going to be rewarding or punitive. And they were unable to update their thinking about it, and hence their reactions.
As brain research becomes more sophisticated, we are in a better position to explore the body-mind connections. When we learn emotional responses, they don’t just concern the emotions, but are also associated with brain functioning.
Freud understood this connection and throughout his career was attempting to make psychoanalysis into a science of behavior, not just a form of behavioral art. An art is something that one does without understanding the reasons for doing it. Through science, we understand the reasons and are able to connect all the dots.
So it turns out that people do have fixations, points at which their behavior is frustrated by stress and blocked from fully developing. Confirming this may help counselors and parents learn how to better deal with early traumas.