Why Homeless People Freak My Brain Out
by Mark Brady
(Note: A version of this piece appeared on page 12 of the March, 2013 issue of a homeless street paper where I write a regular monthly column).
James is a homeless man who sits rain or shine on a fire hydrant outside an eatery on the west side of the San Francisco peninsula. James looks to be about 40; he never smiles and there’s a never-changing distant look in his eyes. James scares me.
To put it in brain science terms, James’ presence activates several limbic structures (hippocampus and amygdala, among others) in my brain and arouses the neuroceptive wiring (the 10th cranial nerve bundles) in my body in ways that result in great undeniable discomfort.
A Pattern Interrupt
One day I met my friend Jenny for lunch at the eatery. When it was time to leave, Jenny paid our bill and headed out the door closest to James before I could guide her in the opposite direction. I followed on her heels and immediately felt the tension in my body rise as she walked up to James. She smiled at him. James didn’t smile back.
“How’s it going?” Jenny asked. James only grunted. “Okay,” Jenny responded. “What’s your name?” And that’s how I found out James’ name. “James, I’m going to give you $5,” Jenny said. “I hope you’ll spend it in some special way.” She handed over the money.
Jenny’s response to James was enormously instructive to me. She felt not a whit of fear. Meanwhile, I carried an internal state of hyperarousal for several blocks. My internal fight or flight neurochemistry was in full reactivity mode. But what was it about James that was so scary?
What was triggering the smoke alarm in my brain (the amygdala, primarily) and regularly putting my body on red alert was not James at all. It was the thoughts that emerged in response to James that were pressing my panic buttons. In every single moment in James’ presence, I was absolutely safe from him, but not so safe from my own mind and its danger-generating thoughts.
Reining in Wild Mind
Every time in our lives growing up when we were frightened, overwhelmed or prevented from expressing our truest nature, our heart took note through the workings of the 10th cranial nerve and something called the ventral-vagus complex. This is a process called neuroception: the unconscious detection of threat. With that neural note-taking came contraction of something called Heart Rate Variability. Repeated, immobilizing experiences unskillfully discharged, compress heart rate variability – they literally compromise strength of heart. They also tend to make our brains secrete fearful, self-protective thoughts.
Skillfully Working with Fear
As our understanding of the inner workings of brain, heart and body have expanded, an array of increasingly effective healing modalities have shown up on the therapeutic landscape.
Essentially, what these therapies do is release an increased flow of energy and information in the body and brain. Think of it in terms of your cell-phone signal. 3G phones were fine once upon a time; they could make calls and surf the web. But 4G phones allow exponential processing of energy and information. Imagine though, what 10G or 20G phones will be able to offer up in the future!
This metaphor can be applied to the body and brain. The more energy and information we are able to process, the better. One way we accomplish that is by paying close attention to “the places that scare us.” The more we heal – the more we integrate brain, mind and body – the more strength of heart we end up bringing to this party called life.
And for that, we have homeless people like James to thank.
Mark Brady is a brain educator hiding out in the safe confines of Whidbey Island in Washington State. He writes this weekly blog and he is the author of A Father’s Book of Listening and How Parents Screw Us Up (Without Really Meaning To).