In my last post I listed the eight major clusters of psychological disorders, each related to one major basic emotion. Today I wish to relate the clusters to RDoC and in the next post I will relate with other overarching frameworks like the Gray/Erickson’s biopsychological models .

To recap, RDoC specifies five domains that have been determined based on genetic, behavioural and neural data. For the purpose of this post I will limit the discussion to the four domains of  1. negative valence system; 2. Positive valence system; 3 . Social systems and 4. Cognitive systems and will not talk about the fifth Arousal system, which I believe may not be a separate and different domain/ construct.

Each domain as per RDoC matrix has associated ‘constructs’ and ‘units of analysis’. Again, I’ll be ignoring the units of analysis and focusing just on constructs making the RDoC domains; also I’ll be ignoring or omitting some constructs and adding new ones.

Let’s start with the first domain ‘Negative valence system.’ As per RDoC, prominent constructs of this domain are:

  1. Acute threat (fear)
  2. Potential threat (anxiety)
  3. Sustained threat
  4. Loss

I’m omitting ‘frustrative non-reward’ construct from above analysis.

My aim is to show the negative valence system as a threat/loss system sensitive to acute, potential, chronic and actual threat/loss and to map it to the 2 internalizing clusters. Thus I would say the negative valence system is made up of:

-ve valence system (threat/loss sensitive system)

  1. Fear (due to acute threat)
  2. Anxiety (preoccupation with potential threats)
  3. Depression (as a result of sustained threat ; for eg ‘learned helplessness’ model of depression)
  4. Distress (as a result of actual loss/ frustrative non-reward)

Thus the first two constructs of –ve valence system map to fear-anxiety cluster of disorders (phobia, GAD etc); while the other two constructs map to depression-distress cluster (MDD etc)

Extending a similar analogy to the other 3 domains, we get:

+ve valence system (opportunity/ gain sensitive system)

  1. Interest (acute opportunity—initial responsiveness to reward)
  2. Obsession (preoccupation with potential opportunities)
  3. Mania (as a result of sustained real/ perceived opportunities; sustained responsiveness to rewards )
  4. Joy (due to actual gain; reward learning)

Here again the above maps to two clusters of disorders: The first 2 constructs to interest-obsession cluster (OCD  etc) and the last two to joy-mania cluster (Bipolar, psychopathy etc).  

Social system (loss of self-control/boredom sensitive system)

  1. Disgust (arising from Acute loss of self–control (like losing control over bowels) or pangs of boredom leading to loathing one’s self)
  2. Dependence (preoccupation with potential loss of self-control—translating into dependence on others/drugs; also substance use to avoid potential boredom/humdrum life)
  3. Impulsive non-conformity (due to sustained loss of self-control; or sustained need to get rid of boredom/routine)
  4. Anger (due to actual losing control over self or aggression driven by alienation (say, Columbine))

The above maps to externalizing disorder clusters of disgust-dependence disorders (addiction, pathological gambling, etc) and anger-impulsive clusters (anti-social disorder, conduct disorder, ODD, etc.)

Cognitive system (unpredictability/stress sensitive system)

  1. Surprise (arising from acutely unpredictable events/sudden stress which demand immediate attention; attention is the main construct of note here)
  2. Dissociation (arsing from preoccupation with future uncertainty/trauma, leading to compartmentalization/ detachment; cognitive (dys) control is the main construct here.)
  3. Delusional/magical thinking (arising from sustained unpredictiveness/stress leading to “anything goes” style of thinking/correlations; working memory is the construct of note here)
  4. Love /attraction/ infatuation: (due to novelty effect; a case of rose-tinted glasses; the construct of perception/representation is important here)    

The above maps to surprise-dissociation clusters (depersonalisation/ derealisation, absorption, amnesia, etc.) and love-delusional clusters (schizophrenia, psychosis).

It is instructive to note that as per my conceptualisation, the social system is an operant or self-learning system that is used in service of learning about self and one’s actions (agency) and also about other agents or peoples. Operant or Skinnerian conditioning is relevant here. Using this system one learns about the effect of one’s actions and learns how to control them (ones actions/ responses).

Also, the cognitive system is a classical or world-learning system that is used in service of learning about one’s body and the inanimate material world out there, and its contingencies. Classical or Pavlovian conditioning/learning are relevant here. Using this system, one learns about the relationships between different things/stimuli out in the world and learns how to predict events/stimulus.

Also it’s evident that –ve valence system is a threat mitigation system, while +ve valence system is an opportunity maximising system.  To boot,

Functional significance of -ve valence system constructs: Fear (escape acute threat); anxiety (avoid potential threat); depression (disengage with sustained threat and conserve energy (stop fighting)); and distress (accept loss/move on).

Similarly, functional significance of +ve valence system constructs: Interest (pursue acute opportunity); obsession (be on the lookout for/ approach potential opportunity ); mania (have energy to engage with sustained opportunities (keep going)) and joy (learn what works and then repeat!)

Similarly functional significance of self learning/ social system constructs: Disgust (escape acutely toxic relationships/ interactions); (in)dependence (avoid potentially toxic relationships/ interactions); impulsive non-conformity (disengage with sustained toxic relationships/ interactions with the world (act different);  anger (s### happens, so assert yourself)).

Lastly, functional significance of world learning/cognitive system constructs: surprise (attend to acute/ new causal pattern); dissociation (lookout for new potential patterns unencumbered with/detached from past learning (accommodate rather than assimilate)); delusional/ magical thinking (flexibility to interweave contradictions/survive amongst sustained and changing patterns  and love/attraction (notice patterns and keep fitting/doing the tango)

I try to think of these as a new SWOT (self learning/social system; world learning/cognitive system; opportunity maximising/+ve valence system; and threat mitigation or  -ve valence system).

In the next post, I will relate this framework to Gray’s biopsychological model and the BIS, BAS, FFS subsystems and his constructs of Anxiety, Impulsivity, Approach and Avoidance motivations.

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About the Author

Sandeep Gautam

Sandeep Gautam is a software developer and science writer at The Mouse Trap.

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