Moulton Lava

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Location: New England, United States

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Unkenschnupfen

Among all critters, there are some who are more skittish than others, and have a more active fear response.

Among the many mechanisms of fear response, the one that I find most intriguing is the Bombesin-mediated fear response. Bombesin is a neuropeptide originally discovered in the skin of the Fire-Bellied Toad, Bombina Bombina. It's a vaso-constrictor which mediates such responses as goose-bumps (goose-flesh), horripilation (hair-raising or bristling), that spine-tingling sensation, and the feeling that one's skin is crawling. Bombesin is the neuropeptide of the cold sweat.

Bombesin is also a Gastrin-Releasing Peptide that acts on the gut to suppress appetite and to suppress the urge to urinate or defecate. Skinny kids (especially those exhibiting Anorexia) are likely to be reacting to Bombesin-induced or Bombesin-mediated reactions to stress.

All of these responses are designed to aid the critter in hiding out from predators and avoiding detection by any and all measures.

By shutting down the normal food-processing metabolic processes, the metabolic wastes are not passed out of the body by normal means, and so the toxins build up in the blood. In Bombina and related amphibian species, these toxins are concentrated and exuded through glands and pores in the skin, giving the creature a noxious fetid odor and nasty, repugnant taste. In you ingest this slime, you get 'Unkenschnupfen' -- an uncontrollable sneezing fit.

The underbelly of these creatures are painted bright red, orange, and yellow. The yellow variety, Bombina Variegata, is called the Yellow-Bellied Toad. The bright colors are a warning to predators that they are nasty tasting and toxic. As a last resort, Bombina will exhibit the so-called Unken Reflex in which it stiffens and curves its spine inward to expose the brightly colored underbelly. It will even flip over on its back to maximize this unmistakeable display.

Humans, of course, inherit all the classic defense mechanisms of our ancestral species, including Bombesin-mediated responses and even the Unken Reflex. If an infant is held by a stranger ("no kin of mine"), it will sometimes arch its back in the Unken Reflex. The obvious solution is to pass the infant back to its own mother, who can comfort and nurse it. A few years ago, I was holding a friend's baby and he exhibited the Unken Reflex. His mommy understood he wanted to be nursed — a function I obviously could not perform.

The alternative solution to the Unken Reflex is to reprise the famous scene with the Pillsbury Dough Boy. You just gently poke the toady little urchin in the belly. This will make it giggle and generate a surge in Oxytocin, which is exactly what the kid wants.

What's odd is when a Pillsbury Belly Poke is perceived as a Act of Terror. In that case, there may be some kind of pathology in the kid that reflects an undiagnosed trauma from early infancy. One way to tell is to smell the kid's skin. If it smells skanky, there is probably a persistant fear-response associated with excess release of Bombesin.

The German word for 'toad' is Unken. It's etymologically related to the English word 'uncanny', meaning "that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar."

This connection comes to us by way of Sigmund Freud, who wrote a 1919 essay on this subject.

If you translate 'uncanny' back into German, you get 'das unheimliche' which literally means 'unhomely', but which is usually understood to mean the opposite — 'homely'.
We glean this from Freud's 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche...

Freud observes, back in 1919, that almost nothing had been written on the uncanny in relation to aesthetics, although he refered in passing to Ernst Jentsch's 1906 essay "The Psychology of the Uncanny".

Freud mirrors Jentsch's approach to the subject: after an initial concern with the etymology of the uncanny, he collects "all those properties of persons, things, sense impressions, experiences and situations which arouse in us the feeling of uncanniness", then relates these phenomena to the "primary narcissism" of early childhood and "primitive" cultures.

The opening section of the essay examines the etymology of the word 'uncanny', firstly through Greek, Latin, French, Spanish and English definitions, then through a lengthy consideration of the German words 'heimlich' (homely) and 'unheimlich' ('unhomely'). Loosely related to heimisch (native), heimlich can mean familiar, intimate and cherished, but its other definitions shade into apparently opposite significations, such as weird, concealed and secret: "Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite." Linguistically, what is heimlich can thus become unheimlich, and for Freud this ambiguity is a constitutive feature of the "special core of feeling" that characterises the uncanny.

The unrevealed secret bears an uncanny resemblance to our own unrevealed secrets. The odd, the weird, the spooky, the mysterious is not so odd or homely after all, for we all know it equally well as the mokita that no one ever speaks of — the squeaking skeleton in the closet.

Listen to the whiny plaintive mating call of the Yellow-Bellied Toad, Bombina Variegata...


And compare that to the slightly more aggressive call of the Fire-Bellied Toad, Bombina Bombina...


Freud goes on in his 1919 essay to provied a lengthy analysis of uncanny experiences drawn from literature, fairy tales, personal experience, clinical cases, metapsychological theory and anthropology.

As above, so below.
_______________________________

Twig Walkingstick advises me that the Toady-Goady Man takes his moniker from the Poison Pen Toad, Dissoglossidae, known for lashing out at its prey with its tart-tipped tongue.



I could have poked you better
    Didn't mean to be Unken
You know that was the last goad
    On my pen.

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