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someone i loved once
gave me a box full of darkness.
it took me years to understand that this too,
was a gift.

~ mary oliver

mary oliver

mary oliver

A key piece of my social neuroscience training explores how little sensory information our workaday senses consciously take in (roughly 1%) if we don’t pay deliberate attention to sight, smell, sound, taste, or touch. Often participants are surprised to discover that the amount we take in is so small. Afterall, our eyes seem to see everything on the highway we need to in order not to crash, and our ears hear everything that our significant other says to bring home from the Goose Grocery, and we easily smell the deodorant or shampoo he or she uses. Nevertheless, all we need do is watch a short video like this one by Professor Richard Wiseman and his Color-Changing Card Trick to realize both how much our senses actually miss in any moment and how much more we might be able to take in with training and practice.

I would argue that one of the purposes of significant relationships in our lives is to increase our sensory capacities. Especially awareness of those things that live in the depths of implicit memory – the deep repository where lives our own personal box of darkness. It contains vast amounts of information that our senses have taken in unconsciously, mostly direct or perceived threats to our survival. They live in the tissues of our brain and our body as what I tend to think of as states of chaos – unintegrated, dissociated stressors that we have had to build physical and psychological defenses around. Mostly in response to … Adverse Childhood Experiences.

As Villanova psychologist Tom Toppino suggests: “What we know influences what we see?” And if what we know is an early life of adversity, writ large and small, much of our later life would be well-served by doing our best to come to terms with that early life (for a stirring confession of how we can end up being very successful in the outer world, while our inner world remains disorganized, joyless and painfully chaotic, read this brief account by Michigan pediatrician, Tina Marie Hahn).

Why It’s a Joy to Be Hidden, But a Disaster to Not Be Found

British developmental psychiatrist Donald Winnicott speaks directly to the need for the hidden, buried parts of ourselves to be surfaced, seen and in some manner brought to healing resolution (It’s actually one of the purposes I use this blog for – as Narrative Medicine). Jesus said much the same thing when he supposedly warned: “If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” At one level, Jesus is talking about ACEs untreated, alive and unwell in virtually all of us (none of us escapes childhood unscathed).

Toxicity Rising

How do we know when a significant relationship is bringing forth buried trauma, searching for the possibility of healing? Simple: we pay attention to our adrenals. If they’re flooding us with adrenaline and cortisol and that’s showing up in our body generating feelings of anger or fear and there’s no real, immediate threat present (a REAL threat means there’s a real cougar or the equivalent actually munching on our leg, not some painful, dissociated memory surfacing from the past, and not some distant future being disastrously imagined). Paul Tillich once observed that, “The first duty of love is to listen.” What we know from neuroception and hyperacousis research is that listening becomes extremely difficult and distorted when stress hormones are flooding the body and brain.

In addition, many of us have been conditioned by parents and society to wholeheartedly believe that it’s other people who cause us trouble, mostly by what they say and do. What most of us lack training in, which can significantly rewire our brain, is how to skillfully manage what Houston psychiatrist Bruce Perry calls our relational neurophysiology. Much of our own personal difficulties arise in the brain, in the body and in the mind. And that’s where they are most skilfully addressed.

Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Chah

Here’s a quote from Ajahn Chah a spiritual teacher I have great respect for. It’s from his book, Food for the Heart:

“Learn to see that it is not people, places or things that bother us, that we go out and bother them. See the world as a mirror. It is all a reflection of mind. When you know this, you can grow in every moment, and every experience reveals truth and understanding.”

What to Do About that Box?

Over the last fifteen to 20 years, in response primarily to the managed care industry demanding that therapy be brief and effective (one of the few positive benefits?), a great number of (mostly) experimental therapeutic interventions have emerged in the marketplace intended to address the fallout in adulthood from Adverse Childhood Experiences. Few of them are proven and evidence-based. Rather, they have come into being as Thoreau once advised: “It’s perfectly find to build (healing) castles in the air. Next, set to work building the foundations under them.” Here’s a link to the list. Realize that no one therapeutic size fits all, of course, and while practitioners in modalities like EMDR and EFT are busy at work building anecdotal and evidence-based foundations to confirm their benefits, many on this list may be worth experimenting with as a way to begin to open and turn our own personal box of darkness into a gift.

P.S. I’m reprising last September’s Social Neuroscience Training – Taking the Brain to Heart beginning again this September. Click here for details if you think you might be interested in this educational adventure.

Here’s the life-long instruction set in one declarative sentence – Practice keeping your adrenals from closing your heart and making you their Bitch, i.e. temporarily insane.

Right now, as I’m crafting this blog post, I’m sitting in my office and my body is splattered with chronic uticaria (Hives – No. 12 of the 50 most common ways our adrenals kick our ass). Big red random welts that itch like crazy show up daily, here, there and everywhere. When they erupt on my lips I look like I’ve come out on the bad end of a Saturday night bar brawl. On my eyebrow they swell and close one eye making it look like I’ve stroked out. When they swell my inguinal crease, you’ll find me standing around like an on-deck baseball player with one hand or the other perpetually down the front of my pants. This adrenal-generated stress response can be a real pain in the ass, literally.

So, since I know that this condition and all kinds of others often result from piling too much stress on my brain and body, what’s really going on? And more importantly, what might I do to keep it from continuing down this heart-closing, crazy-making path? Excessive stress hormones circulating in the brain and body, invariably impair our response ability.

HPA All the Way

Stress_new_1354041064046The brain and body work together to process stress along something called the HPA axis. HPA stands for Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal. That’s the electro-chemical route that gets activated in response to my wife going in for surgery, for example (which is clearly related to this current hives flareup. She went under the knife, but my body acts as if it’s being cut). My brain works this axis all day long from sunup to sundown. It only becomes problematic when the levels of stress hormones exceed a threshold my body can easily manage. A major problem for me is that I’m not sufficiently tuned in to my body to know when I’ve surpassed those stress levels – when I’ve “jumped the hump.” I very often only find out after the fact, like when I get a headache, or I suddenly break out in hives, or I get a traffic ticket (traffic tickets are usually the result of me not paying close enough attention to the road because I’m off in the clouds thinking about something that’s majorly stressing me).

And the thoughts I think, it turns out, are in reality probably THE major stressors in my life. Only I rarely realize it. I erroneously think the stressors are other people, places and circumstances. Rarely does the Cougar have my Leg, but the thoughts I think end up making my body believe one does. My adrenals generate high levels of stress hormones very much as they would if a real Cougar did actually have my leg. Or a real grizzly bear.

A simple example from yesterday: I’m reading Laurence Gonzales’s excellent book, Surviving Survival. GrizzlyIt’s an account of how the brain and body are profoundly changed in the wake of major trauma and describes the struggles that roughly a dozen people have had to go through in the aftermath. I’m reading about survivors of grizzly bear attacks. As I’m reading, because Laurence is such a compelling writer, I’m actually feeling what it might feel like to really BE attacked by a grizzly bear. Spurred on by the adrenal response in my body, I go on the Internet and find pictures of the actual people who’ve survived these bear maulings. They are not pretty pictures. If my adrenal response wasn’t great enough from just reading the text, the pictures further trigger an increased flood of adrenaline and cortisol. It’s not too long until I actually have to put the book down, leash up the dogs and go for a long, heavy-breathing Discharge Walk.

So that’s one way to skillfully manage my adrenals: exercise.

Who’s Minding the Mind?

Another is to practice minding my thinking. My brain and the world are complex beyond measure. It does very little good to try to plan for millions of contingencies that in all likelihood will never happen. To underscore this tendency, recent email signature displayed Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck asserting:

“Life is not a safe space. It never was and it never will be. If we’ve hit the eye of the hurricane for a year or two, it still can’t be counted on. There is no safe space, not for your money, not for ourselves, not for those we love….And it’s not our business to worry about that.”

So, that’s my job: to realize that my brain, together with the brains of the other 7 billion plus people on the planet comprise networks of unimaginable and unpredictable complexity, and to do my best not to worry about the terrors and tragedies that might befall me near or far on up the road. Rather, I’d be better served to follow Gonzales’s 12 Rules for Surviving Survival, one of which is to think about what’s directly in front of me and to trust that my brain and body are sufficiently resilient to get me through whatever crises may arise – much as they always have; including a grizzly bear managing to board the ferry on the mainland in Mukilteo, make it over here to Whidbey Island, and attack me one day while I’m out walking the abandoned golf course across the street from the house. It will most likely be yet one more opportunity for compassionately ramping up AMP – Adrenal Management Practice.

“Mother Love is one of the most moving and unforgettable experiences of our lives.” ~ C. G. Jung

Many more years ago than I care to recall, I used to follow the real life, comic book adventures of Brother Jud, Polly Morfus, Even Eve, Crescent Dragonwagon and their polyamory Kerista Commune based in San Francisco. Like many others, I was primarily intrigued about the logistics of their structured, rotational sleeping arrangements. While the “free love” commune apparently had a good 20 year run, ultimately, like many good things, they came to an end. The fact that there were generally more women in their community than men, probably contributed to their relative longevity, but not for the reasons you might think.

Poly Morfus

Apart from their sleeping arrangements what remains most memorable about the Keristans is an account that I recall of one of their women members writing about a rape that didn’t happen. In the midst of the attack somewhere in her motor cortex emerged the creative impulse to make a kind and gentle gesture towards her attacker. This unexpected response, in contrast to others so conditioned to recoil in fear and freeze in the face of his aggression, completely pulled the would-be rapist up short. Within a brief time they began a conversation simply as two human beings rather than as attacker and victim. At the root of her attacker’s violent, anti-social behavior, of course lived any number of ACEs. That overused observation that “hurt people hurt people” soon became evident as their intimate explorations unfolded.

Setting Out From a Secure Base

I would argue that this Keristan woman had some special and powerful tools in her toolbox: social neuroscience and secure attachment. Being part of a community of “competent protectors” (no matter their sleeping arrangements) worked to powerfully answer The Big Brain Question for her in a grand positive way. Even had she not been successful in engaging her potential rapist, she would have been able to return to the community and be received by many open, welcoming, loving arms. This is not something always possible or prevalent in today’s often socially isolated, nuclear families. What happens in the wake of Adverse Childhood Experiences often only adds additional, neural network disorganizing adversity.

I would further argue that there was something else at work as well in this story. This Keristan woman was in touch with something I call the Deep Feminine. What is the Deep Feminine? It’s essentially something stored in our brain and body buried deep in implicit memory, probably from our first trimester in utero (although past lives psychiatrists like Brian Weiss might argue such memories begin before that time). Watch the first three minutes of this video showing two cells after conception exploding in a Big Bang of exponential expansion. If this initial rate of growth continued through all three trimesters, the resulting baby would weigh nearly 3000 pounds. Remember though, that the body keeps the score and the brain maintains a record. I would argue that stored unconsciously in implicit memory, without benefit of language, in all of us born to mothers, lives the memory of this ecstatic, explosive unfolding.

Goslings Trailing Konrad Lorenz

Goslings Trailing Konrad Lorenz

Rapture Rupture

The brain is also an association organ, something that Ivan Pavlov demonstrated nearly 100 years ago, and Konrad Lorenz confirmed with his hatched duckling experiments: Whatever shows up in awareness during intense experience, the brain tends to pair and associate together. What’s the first thing babies encounter upon exiting the womb? Something they’re already hormonally and emotionally connected to from their beginning time in the womb: Mom. For better or worse, each of our early beginnings starts from associated encounters with mom. If these early experiences are mostly good, i.e. mom is well-cared for and emotionally and cognitively present and contingently responsive to our needs for comfort and safety, then the inevitable rupture-disconnect gets delayed and the probability increases that we’ll grow up to follow our own lamp light and have the internal drive and external support to be things like artists, entrepreneurs and community organizers. If mom isn’t responsive, then rapture-rupture happens early, and the odds increase that we’ll grow up to be rapists and misogynists and the like.

Fault-free, Blame Free

Obviously the above scenario is generalized and greatly oversimplified and takes little into account of environmental influences. And while mom is a key player in this unfolding drama, she’s never to blame and never at fault. Every mother does the very best in every moment as a parent that her brain and personal trauma history and her own rapture rupture will allow. And remember: she’s trying to skillfully manage something as complex as the whole universe unfolding in her children, often more than one.

But no matter what our associations with mom might be, we all still have the whispered quiverings of initial ecstatic unfolding inside her womb buried deep in our own memory-body and brain. And somewhere within us I would argue, lives a not-quite-forgotten yearning to recapture that blissful, creative unfolding. And for most of us, men and women alike, whether we believe it, or couldn’t care less about what’s buried in unconscious, implicit memory – women hold a powerful key to restoration. One of my favorite neuroscientists, Bruce Perry points out that the problem-solving power of a group is directly related to the number of women in the group. So, if you’re thinking of starting a free love commune, or a community service organization, or a for-profit business, my best guess is your chances of success and longevity will increase if you over-populate it with kind and caring women. And that is truly an extraordinary, under-used hidden power in our 21st century world.

A Note of Appreciation: Sincere thanks to all those of you who elected to click the “Donation” link on last week’s blog. May life’s Action Potentials be with you!

Fair Warning: Reading this blog could surface your own buried, latent aversions to money, especially if you’re one of the 130 million adult Americans who don’t have three months worth of savings to live on.

When I was a kid, I used to deliver newspapers door to door to try to earn a little extra spending money to support the State’s monthly welfare payment (officially known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Operating a paper route in a low (no) income housing project is a suboptimal business strategy: not only did most people not read the newspaper, but they felt little compunction about subscribing and not paying for it. ct_nhrGiven that basic business fundamental, you can imagine how excited I was at the prospect of delivering newspapers at 6AM on a February Sunday morning after a night of heavy snow. It required me to bundle up as best I could and head down to the drop off point and load three canvas bags full of the super-heavy New Haven Sunday Registers (by contrast, weekday papers only filled one canvas bag). To make matters worse, the first leg of the paper route up around Rockview Circle was all uphill. I can still feel the blood drain from my hands and feet just thinking about it.

Ultimately, that paper route provided me, at the tender age of 11, with my first experience in business bankruptcy. Having a business go bust is a pretty difficult adrenal event to manage at any age. It’s especially difficult for an 11 year old. I can still remember dreading the 10th of every month when Mr. Hartle would show up (I still recall his actual name more than a half century later) to receive the money that I was supposed to be collecting from my Register subscribers. I was always literally a day late and much more than a dollar short. Which I hated and which caused my young brain and body great stress. But for some reason, over many weeks Mr. Hartle let me carry a negative monthly balance with him. Until one month when I had no money for him at all, and my balance had become larger than he was willing to carry. Goodbye paper route; so long extra spending money.

Seeing How the Other Half Lives

Walking around the projects every day though, gave me surreptitious entree into people’s private lives. Standing in their doorways while they went searching to try to drum up cash to pay the paperboy, I could see pretty clearly how people lived when they weren’t trying to put their best foot forward. I could also see the kinds of things that they actually did with the little money they had, the physical paper currency. I saw them spill booze and all kinds of half-eaten food on it. I saw them roll up dollar bills and use them to snort coke and heroin. I saw bills sticking out of couch crevices filled with all sorts of human detritus. I watched their unsupervised toddlers put dollar bills in their diapers and then put them in their mouths. Poverty and money seemed poorly matched for each other in many telling ways.

The Science of Dirty Money

So I wasn’t the least bit surprised to come upon this recent NY Times article describing how researchers have discovered over 3000 different kinds of bacteria covering the average bills we carry in our pocket or purse.

The bacteria found on money included Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Helicobacter pylori and Corynebacterium diphtheriae. To make matters worse, they could only identify only about 20% of the non-human DNA they found on those bills because so many microorganisms haven’t even been cataloged in genetic data banks yet. Pretty scary.

Since our brain is tasked first and foremost with keeping us alive, it tends to pay attention to things like bacterial threats. E-coli, Helicobacter pylori and their friends represent a pretty serious threat to health and well-being in my book; also in my brain’s book. Biggy Smalls’ observation, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems” seems right on – many of those problems related to health (including his, where money was indirectly responsible for cutting his life short as the result of a hip-hop war-related assassination).

Poverty Is as Poverty Does

But that’s not all. Read what Columbia University pediatrician Kimberley Noble has to say about my early difficulties with money:

“Socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with a decreased ability to regulate cognition and emotions, a critical aspect of school readiness that predicts grades and achievement-test scores from elementary through high school. Recent work from a number of laboratories has demonstrated SES (Socio-Economic Status) disparities in the neuro-anatomic structure and function of the prefrontal and limbic cortical regions that support these skills. Again, chronic stress has been associated with alterations in the development of this circuitry. Thus, a third pathway would suggest that SES differences in exposure to stress may also operate on prefrontal cortex and limbic circuitry, thus mediating previously described SES disparities in self-regulation.”

ocioeconomic disadvantage is associated with a decreased ability to regulate cognition [ 11-13 , 31 ] and emotions, [ 32-34 ] a critical aspect of school readiness that predicts grades and achievement-test scores from elementary through high school. Recent work from a number of laboratories has demonstrated SES disparities in the neuroanatomic structure and function of the prefrontal and limbic cortical regions that support these skills. [ 19 , 35-40 ] Again, chronic stress has been associated with alterations in the development of this circuitry. [ 29 , 41 ] Thus, a third pathway would suggest that SES differences in exposure to stress may also operateon prefrontal cortex and limbic circuitry, thus mediating previously described SES disparities in self-regulation. [ 19 ] – See more at: http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/#sthash.tEhLevfF.dpuf
ocioeconomic disadvantage is associated with a decreased ability to regulate cognition [ 11-13 , 31 ] and emotions, [ 32-34 ] a critical aspect of school readiness that predicts grades and achievement-test scores from elementary through high school. Recent work from a number of laboratories has demonstrated SES disparities in the neuroanatomic structure and function of the prefrontal and limbic cortical regions that support these skills. [ 19 , 35-40 ] Again, chronic stress has been associated with alterations in the development of this circuitry. [ 29 , 41 ] Thus, a third pathway would suggest that SES differences in exposure to stress may also operateon prefrontal cortex and limbic circuitry, thus mediating previously described SES disparities in self-regulation. [ 19 ] – See more at: http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/#sthash.tEhLevfF.dpuf

The combination of the stress of poverty and in going bust at age 11 and observing all the disgusting things that people did with their money definitely had an impact on my young brain. Not only did they make me dumb and out of control around money, but my brain apparently treated them as threats and stored them away in the deep recesses of my neural evidence locker – the unconscious part of the brain where implicit memories get stashed away. The unfortunate part is that unconscious early experience seems to run the show in my life much more that I would ideally like it to, and not just around money.

 

Donation Link

If you’ve gotten even one small bit of useful information over the years, kindly consider balancing the exchange by donating digitally.

0 1 Bruised Heart

 

Technology innovation is moving really fast these days. It’s hard to keep up. At the Center for Extreme Bionics at MIT, Hugh Herr has developed an external, strap-on, femur-knee-tibia/fibula enhancement. It’s a body-sensing technology that will allow Mom to leap small buildings in a single bound! Start this TED talk at minute 8:00 to see a demo of Mom’s amazing Mother’s Day gift – a new exoskeleton!

What’s an Exoskeleton?

3D-printed-exoskeleton-helps-handicapped-users-walk-again_dezeen_1sq

It could use a little accessorizing.

An exoskeleton is different than a prosthetic. A prosthetic replaces lost body parts. An exoskeleton attaches to and enhances an existing body part. In the video mentioned above we can see how an exoskeleton makes running, dancing, hiking or walking a significantly less stressful event. There is reduced wear and tear on muscles, bones, joints and tendons, while still providing an intense workout that actually turns out to be quite enjoyable.

When we consider from this research - that somewhere between 80% and 90% of the brain’s neural resources are designed and intended for moving the body – anything we can do to modulate and personally adjust the stress involved in that movement provides us with increasing control and flexibility. We might actually get out and do the exercise that almost always makes brain and body feel better. It’s similar to when I ride an electric bike from my friend Liz’s husband’s Seattle E-Bike shop, I can get many of the benefits of bike-riding, but when I come to the huge incline that begins at my street and runs all the way up to the Goose Community Grocery store, I can pedal whatever parts of the journey I care to, and get an electric assist for those parts that are more than my body wants to take on. We clearly need to do something to help the 70 percent of us who are overweight! (I find something DEEPLY disturbing about that statistic. And it’s projected to be 90%!! by 2050 according to Katie Couric in her documentary, Fed Up).

Why Would I Want One?

I’m about 40 pounds overweight in that 70% category. I have to make my brain work extra hard to make physical exercise a part of my daily routine. There’s little ecstatic bliss associated with it. Just getting myself a pair of Hoka One One (Onay, Onay) jogging shoes, which luxuriously cushion my feet, makes me actually look a little bit forward to my daily walks. Add an exoskeleton, one which takes that forty pounds of extra load and transfers them off of my ankles, knees and hips and I’ll be out running through the woods from sunup to sundown! Since, except for the pain and stress involved, I actually like moving my body.

In addition to the physical stress reduction benefits, it turns out that all the Masters of the Universe extol the benefits of walking, as does evolutionary biologist extraordinare, Richard Dawkins in this recently published research claiming great increases in creativity accrue. So who am I to argue with Universe Masters and Exalted Scientists?

Why is It Better Than Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll?

We know that certain kinds of exercise in certain intensities and duration can trigger the release of endogenous (originating within the body or brain) opioids. The so-called “runner’s high” actually does work to release the brain’s own inhibitory neurotransmitter endogenous morphine (endorphins), which produce an altered brain / body state similar to the one produced by exogenous morphine (by I-V drip, for example). exoskeletonWhat makes exercise-released endorphins better is that they are naturally occurring and the more they are triggered and released, the stronger the connections they make in the brain become. With an exoskeleton, it’s all gain and little pain!

Where Can I Get One?

You don’t really have to worry about that. Once they are on the market and manufacturers realize their potential to put people’s brains into altered pleasure states supreme, your Spam folder will have more ads for exoskeletons than it currently has for Cialis, Lipitor and Viagra combined. Not to mention all those coy TV commercials suggesting people of all ages, stripes and colors having wild, freelance exo-skeleton sex itself! And if none of that gets your juices flowing, consider that you can already design and print your very own exoskeleton on your very own handy-dandy 3D printer in the privacy of your own home. Check it out: 3D Printed Exoskeleton.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom!

Last week a friend who made a date to volunteer and come help me re-shingle my roof called to tell me they wouldn’t be coming. They’d made other plans instead. “If I had a check waiting here for $5000, would you come?” I asked? “Absolutely,” the friend replied. “Well, therein lies one part of the problem, doesn’t it?” I responded.

I try to keep the number of people in my life who make promises to me and who then don’t keep them to a minimum. In my own personal Ordo Amorum (those people, places and things I love most), the closer to zero those people are, the better. Somehow though, promise-breakers manage to sneak under my radar and into my world. I guess some part of me wants me to be a bit less rigid about that personal integrity requirement. But truthfully, I generally don’t feel all that flexible when it comes to Relationship Reliability. Must be leftover from all the unreliable people who populated my early childhood. Nevertheless, unless I cultivate compassionate flexibility around this need (which is different from Idiot Compassion), I’m probably going to be in for more than a few disappointments.

Flawlessly Yours

impeccableImpeccable means “flawless.” Here are some related words: consummate, expert, masterly; classic, dandy, excellent, fabulous, fine, first-class, first-rate, grand, great, marvelous, prime, superb, superior, superlative, terrific, top-notch, unsurpassed; completed, finished, perfected, polished, entire, intact, whole; mint, unbruised, undamaged, unimpaired, uninjured, unmarred, unspoiled; exceptional, fancy, high-grade, special; airtight, bulletproof; accurate, correct, exact, precise; inerrant, infallible, unerring, unfailing. Just reading this list, I can feel my body responding, “Yes.” These are exactly the kinds of people I want to hang out with. These are the qualities I want to practice expressing and manifesting in the world myself. I tend to think of impeccability as mindfulness practice with Right Action and Right Speech as its object.

That’s Why It’s a Practice

Here’s the basic problem though. It all arises from my childhood (that again; doesn’t everything?). I’m not impeccable. Never have been. Nor is anyone I know. And that truly is a challenge, for them and for me. In part, it’s a challenge because interpersonal relationships tap into buried implicit memories. The more important the relationship, the deeper the tapping frequently goes. And the deeper it goes, the younger and more vulnerable we were when those memories were laid down. And the younger and more vulnerable we are and become when those (often traumatic) memories resurface, the more our developing brain needs other people to be unfailingly reliable in word and deed.

When people don’t do what they say they will, at best it stems from ambivalence. Ambivalence in other people triggers anxiety in my body and brain, mostly without me realizing it. At the somatic level I am receiving the message that someone I need to or want to be able to count on, can’t be. As my friend Jeanne often reminds me, early in life it’s essential to have our brains and bodies surrounded by Competent Protectors. That’s a basic childhood need, probably well-summarized by The Big Brain Question. It’s a nuts-and-bolts neurobiological developmental requirement. One of my favorite teachers, cultural anthropologist Angie Arrien points out that kids all over the world wail loudly when adults don’t keep their promises. Saying what we mean and meaning what we say is what helps children, young and old grow, sufficient robust connections in body and brain to effectively manage the stress hormones constantly affecting our daily lives. That need doesn’t go away simply because my body grows larger and my brain grows more cells and makes more connections. The need for reliability and consistency is actually an ongoing, lifelong need especially critical depending upon the environments I find myself immersed and operating in. I prefer to operate in social environments surrounded by people who make commitment-keeping a priority. As I do. Except, of course for when I don’t (If I had my druthers, I’d have been born into a family of Navy Seal, developmental neuroscientists! – Note for my next life).

Making Sense of Caring

In her new book Love Sense, well-known researcher and couples therapist, Dr. Susan Johnson goes into great detail about how critically essential to our brains and bodies it is for other people in our lives be present, reliable and accounted for. Here’s what she has to say:

Don't worry, kid. I got your back.

Don’t worry, kid. I got your back.

Ever since social scientists started systematically studying happiness, it has been resoundingly clear that deep and stable relationships make for happy and stable people. Positive relationships also make us more resilient, advance our personal growth, and improve our physical health.

But relationships matter on a grander scale as well. The ways we tune in to and engage with others sculpt the very society we live in. Secure connection with others helps us be open, responsive, and flexible, and that, in turn, makes us inclined to perceive the world as kinder, safer and more malleable. It gives us the capacity to look out and up, to see the broader universe, and take a more active role in it. A civil society depends on connection with and trust in others. (pg. 268)

All we have to do is look up and about us to discover that the society we have surrounding us is too often something less than civil. While changing society is not something I’m especially up for, I can continue to work with my own Impeccability Practice. I can pay close attention and only make promises I have a high probability of keeping – HPPs – High Probability Promises. The Teutonic heritage in me can aim for flawless. And course-correct as needed. Feel free to join me in your own Impeccability Practice.

“The self defines itself in relation to its social environment. When that environment becomes incomprehensible – for example, when familiar people suddenly seem unfamiliar, or vice versa – the self can experience extreme distress or even feel that it is under attack.”

V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain, pg. 274.

Dancing PurkinjesFirst the good news: there’s nothing you actually have to do to get your partner to change their brain. Brains and behavior are changing all the time. Take a look at the Purkinje brain neuron on the left – a variety of new and different action potentials firing day in and day out.

Now the bad news: People with long-time, wide-ranging life experience whom I deeply respect tell me that “relationships are the hardest yoga.” The proof: try getting a partner to change their brain and behavior in ways that you think they should or you want them to. That’s a bit harder network to infiltrate. It’s like trying to train an elephant – they’re really big and really smart and they have their own ideas about what they need and want, mostly unconscious (our Bernese Mountain puppy Ollie operates that way – below he suddenly decided that Bodhi would make a great butt cushion. Welcome to Ollie’s World). That being said, there are people in the world who have learned to enjoy the circus and their endlessly fascinating work as elephant trainers.

Wherever You Vacation, There You Are

When I was much younger and had a considerably less organized brain and body, my wife and I once got into a heated argument during a vacation on the lovely Caribbean island of St. Maarten. The only way I was able to manage in the moment, reactively triggered, dissociated and hyper-aroused as I was, was to flee the scene. I bolted from our cabana room and walked halfway around the island and back. If I didn’t do that, the increasing flood of stress hormones would have taken more and more of my impulse control neurology offline, leaving me increasingly susceptible to unconscious, impulsive behaviors – like massive self-medication or perhaps even physical abuse. Fortunately, my flight strategy worked to reduce my arousal levels … for the most part.

Bodhi as Love SeatExcept for one thing. It didn’t really address and resolve the underlying triggering, traumatic, dissociated memory which the argument with my wife surfaced (in therapy years later, I discovered the triggering incident was a personal violation by someone other than my wife that had happened the day before). Making those later connections and physically replaying the incident so that I was able to direct a beneficial outcome this time in therapy, was the missing integrative piece when it surfaced in St. Maarten. That therapeutic interaction changed my brain for the better. Unfortunately, subsequent repeated trauma-triggering without real resolution took a heavy toll on trust and intimacy over the years long before that healing therapeutic session. Separation and divorce were the unfortunate result.

Significant Other, Change Thyself

So, this is one piece of what makes relationships such a hard yoga. The ways we might need and want our partner to change, are primarily intended to help us manage our own neurophysiology, usually, adrenal-activated hyper-arousal. But the thing is, since we rarely know what might most effectively help our significant other surface and resolve their own personal, dissociated trauma history, the ways we might want them to change are not necessarily going to benefit them in the ways we might think – in any absolute healing capacity.

And working hard to keep the peace doesn’t work, either. Working hard to keep the peace only keeps traumatic memories under wraps. But – and here’s the kicker – given the smallest opportunity, healing always wants to happen. And it frequently initially let’s us know through friction-igniting upsets.

What adds to the difficulty of course, is all too often we overwhelm ourselves and our partners with memories from the past that surface and prove to be both too painful and get left unresolved because they rarely successfully address the underlying traumatic events. Simply surfacing and acting out our pain doesn’t integrate and resolve our pain. What to do?

A Sure-fire Prescription

I wish there really was a sure-fire prescription. Unfortunately, because our early and later lives are so complex and such a preponderance of our traumatic memories live buried in implicit (unconscious) neural networks, each of us really requires unique, personalized “medicine.” However, at this moment in time on planet earth, effective medicine is either hard to come by or out of the price range of most of us. Nevertheless, one prescription with a high probability of success for changing my partner’s brain remains … for me to do what I can to change mine. Any time we try to get others to change so that we can feel better, we run the risk of falling into Hitler’s Dilemma. And we all know the suffering that unskillful agenda potentially perpetrates.

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