I, Trigger

In August, the Dean of my alma mater, the University of Chicago, sent a letter to its freshmen nixing trigger warnings and such. The ban hit the headlines , provoking lively debate ("PC or not PC?") in comment-land. Lively, but unfocussed, because "trigger" is a looking-glass word. Besides, the issue goes much deeper. To nudge the conversation toward clarity, I offer my personal experience, not with triggers but as one.

Imagine this. I'm talking with people I've never met before, say at a college reception. They're all articulate, accomplished: a sociologist, a biologist, a psychologist, and a historian. "What do you do?" someone eventually asks me politely. I say "Mathematics" and they all start trembling. Not in awe, but in fear. Their eyes brim with tears. And then, one by one, they confess. "My algebra teacher was wonderful but geometry made no sense to me." Or "I loved math up to sixth grade, but after that, I was blocked." Or "My brother was good at it." Or "I wanted to be a doctor but I failed calculus."

Their confessions perplex me. I'm neither a therapist nor a priest. Should I have warned them that my answer might upset them, and offered them earplugs? Or smiled politely and said, "That's all right, dear, you have other talents?" No. As a staunch UC alum I challenge them: "Why are you telling me this? "

Silence. I push on: "When you meet a violinist, do you turn pale and say you couldn't play a note!? When you meet an economist, do you blush beet red and stammer that you dropped the course?" No, they admit, they do not. "So why do you confess to me?" They laugh nervously, then steer the conversation back to their own terrains.

What's going on? It seems I've rung a bell -- the school bell. Let's ponder the metaphor. The English have rung bells from time immemorial so I looked up "ring, v " in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, expecting to find a long and interesting history. But no! The metaphor is just eighty-four years old! Here are the first two entries under "c. to ring a bell : to awaken a memory":

1934 A. Huxley Beyond Mexique Bay. Why should the Local Pavlov have
chosen to ring just those particular bells which happen to be rung?
1933 L. Thayer Counterfeit iii. Wait a second, Ray... Why does that name ring
a bell with you?

Why did this metaphor emerge when it did? What happened just about then, besides the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, and the first sighting of the Loch Ness Monster? Here's one: Ivan Pavlov's work on conditioned reflexes was diffusing to the English-reading public.

The famous Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) won the Nobel
Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904 for his work on mammalian digestive systems. But the bell that rings when we hear "Pavlov" isn't a stomach rumbling, it's the literal bell he used in his later work on dogs. As the Nobel Foundation website explains to children,

...he struck a bell when the dogs were fed. If the bell was sounded in close
association with their meal, the dogs learnt to associate the sound of the bell with food. After a while, at the mere sound of the bell, they responded by drooling.

Maybe that's it! People who quake when they learn what I do are conditioned! Not to drool at the sound of a bell, but to tremble and weep at the sight of a math teacher! Think about it. Year after year, children stress out on timed tests. Decades later, when they meet me, stress-behavior kicks in reflexively.

Nonsense, you may be thinking. These adults are grown up; they got over that long ago. But maybe they haven't. Maybe they can't. I wasn't surprised to learn, from the OED , that Aldous Huxley made the Pavlovian connection. He was interested (to say the least) in drugs and visited physicians who studied them. My father was one such doctor but don't I think Huxley paid us a call. Dad worked in the Addiction Research Center at the Narcotic Farm, a federal prison/hospital near Lexington, Kentucky. The Narcotic Farm was indeed both prison and hospital: inmates served time on dope charges, but they were also there to be cured. After detox, they were counseled and taught useful trades-farming, carpentry, and so on-to prepare them for clean, productive lives on the outside. Yet most of them returned one, two, or even ten years after their release, addicted all over again. The relapse rate was ninety per cent.

What is relapse, and why is it time-independent? Dad, a disciple of Pavlov, thought
addiction might be a form of conditioning. Just like in dogs, but with drugs instead of food, and syringes instead of bells. Indeed, ex-addicts were cured if they didn't go home again. They didn't relapse in new lives in new places. But, hanging out with the old gang even for a day, or setting foot on the old street corner, brought on the old craving full force. I learned about conditioned reflexes at the family dinner table; what I know about that science, I learned then. But, naive though I must be, I'll put it out there anyway: I trigger relapse!

With this insight, I'll take another tack next time. I won't warn or soothe or challenge my weeping interlocutors. Instead, I'll invite them all -- the sociologist, the biologist, the psychologist, the historian, the violinist and the economist -- to join forces and work together to understand triggers in addiction, PTSD, math anxiety, literature and much more. That's a conversation for a college.

Note: This blog draws on my essay "Bells and Whistles," in P. Casazza, S. G. Krantz, and R. D. Ruden, I, Mathematician, II, COMAP, Bedford, MA, 2016.