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If you’re like me, most of you probably have at least a mild case of ODD – Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It seems to be a built-in cost for pursuing freedom, independence and autonomy. Not ODD all the time, but often enough. For me these days, it often reactively emerges when I watch the silly stuff that’s supposed to pass for “governance” by our elected officials.

But if I tell the truth, I’ve been pretty oppositional and defiant since I was a kid. I was on a first name basis with Bob, the district Truant Officer – the odds of me showing up at school on any day were about 50-50. I got expelled the first time in fifth grade for stomping 30 foot high profanity in the new snow on the hill behind the school. In high school I was given the Kid-With-the-Most-Days-Absent-But-Still-Graduating Award. I never bothered with the SATs, and I had absolutely zero interest in college.

ODD KidIn kindergarten 98% of the kids recognize themselves as creative and by the end of high school they morph into 98% who don’t. That kind of school system – as international educator, Ken Robinson points out in his TED Talk, viewed almost 28 million times – is something any healthy kid with half a brain is smart to be defiant and oppositional about. Or else that’s pretty much what they’ll end up with: half a brain! Much less in fact, at least where creativity is concerned.

Expanding Contractions

In addition to finding school pretty stultifying, I also found New England culture pretty rigid, authoritarian and repressive – a deadly neurological combination in my experience. To my young brain, it was like the collective congregation of excitatory neurons in the brains of the people living there had all unwittingly turned inhibitory. Not a lot of life energy pulsating there in my world. So as soon as I was done with school, even before I legally turned 18, I left New England and hit the road for California. It was 1964.

That move had its ups and downs. If New England was constricting and rigid, Los Angeles showed up at the other extreme. It was there I got introduced to sex and drugs (I was already corrupted by rock and roll); one time I ended up at a “private night” at Disneyland high on LSD. Mickey, Goofy and Pluto have never been the same for me since. Disneyland turned out to be anything but a Small World Afterall.

Glass Half Smashed

It was in Los Angeles I realized that on the Glass-Half-Empty/Glass-Half-Full Continuum, I often tended to show up ODDly on the empty side. My brain just loved a juicy Doomsday Dystopia Scenario.

I say “my brain” loved it, because I recently came across some yummy new research that clearly implicates it, and not me for my ODD world view. It turns out that when you grow up in an especially dangerous and oppressive neighborhood, stress hormones go to work building out structures in the body and brain required to help you manage things in the ‘hood. Adrenaline and cortisol make the brain powerfully imprint memories of trauma and threat onto the network in order to be able to steer clear of similar dangers when they show up later down the road. In other words, you become “street smart.”

But those smarts come at a cost, and it’s a high one at that. My brain and yours have a finite capacity for resource allocation. If we allocate resources to insure safety in the “low-income” areas, e.g. the limbic structures, and build up the fear and trauma memory centers, we are neurologically mandated to reduce the resources we allocate to the “uptown” neighborhoods – the higher order cognitive centers corresponding with the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Those would involve things like kindness, compassion, altruism, creativity, generativity and such. The inner world of an ODD-fellow too often shows up as just the opposite of those things.

The Bad News is Not All Bad

Habenular Structures

Fortunately, through the grace of evolutionary design, the brain is “plastic.” It operates in a constant state of change and flux, doing its best to adapt to whatever environment it finds itself in. Place it in Disneyland on drugs and it will adapt to that Magic Kingdom. Place it in a safe, stimulating environment with other healthy brains and it will begin to trim down structures like the habenula, which is constantly on the alert for and trying to predict nasty life events. It’s an unhappy habenula which tends to make me oppositional and defiant and makes my glass frequently show up half empty (and that jack-of-all brain parts also turns out to be responsible for making me a couch potato! Which makes sense, since there’s usually little danger found in my living room with me curled up on the couch).

And now we both know what our work in the world is – it’s to create environments and relationships that will allow us to dismantle the fear/stress wiring and increase the kindness, compassion, altruism, creativity, and generativity wiring; to take on the task – clearly at odds with the dominant world culture – of increasing the wiring of love.

This week I’m taking a vacation of sorts. I’m going to let someone else fire the heavy action potentials. Two people actually: Tami Simon, Sounds True founder, interviewing Jill Bolte Taylor.

Jill Bolte Taylor & Mom

Jill Bolte Taylor & Mom

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile and finding it useful, this interview is definitely worth slowing down and savoring. If you were taking this blog for course credit, I’d require you to read this piece several times and then collaborate with two other people and write a 10 page paper on it!

Tami Simon

Tami Simon

Or even better – move it out from behind the protected walls of the Academy into the larger world and develop a project that creatively applies and demonstrates what you’ve learned …

Bringing Grace and Balance to Your Brain

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Note: Many thanks to all of you who signed up for the second, up-dated go-round of the Social Neuroscience Training which begins this Saturday. It looks like a magnificent group and I expect a grand time will be had by all.

Last week my brain threw up the spontaneous, random thought: “You’ve been in the human potential, suffering-reduction business for more than half a century!” That pulled me up short, since I rarely feel that antiquated. Then I thought it might be fun to make a list of all the “growth opportunities” I actually have direct experience with, or that I’ve studied in depth. So I did. Here’s the list that I’ve come up with so far:

Human Potential Practices

What’s It All About, Markie?

In addition to both the number and variety of things I’ve exposed myself to over the years, what’s of most interest to me is … where I’ve landed. Paraphrasing child trauma psychiatrist Bruce Perry, “If you’re in the human potential-suffering reduction business, first and foremost, you’re in the brain change business.” And that is indeed where all this personal exploration has currently led me – to exploring and understanding yours and my own brain (and its body connections) as they operate in our everyday social world. (Not to mention the way trees – which we human energy beings are completely dependent upon for life – operate in much the same way as my brain does. This short video explains those parallels quite clearly).

Almost every single process and practice on that list has, at its most fundamental level, the goal of either temporarily or permanently changing the distributed network that comprises my brain and body in order to improve its capacity to process energy and information. What most of those practices are attempting to do – usually unwittingly or indirectly – is take my current processing capacity – for the sake of metaphor let’s say my brain operates at a 3G operating capacity – and transform it into a 4G, 5G or 200G processing capacity (G stands for “Generation; 3G transmits bits and bytes at a highest rate of 200 kilobits per second; 4G transmits at a highest rate of 1 gigabit per second; 200G is currently beyond my capacity to imagine. That’s probably when we begin to instantly teleport living beings). The brain too, transmits bits and bytes (byte = 8 bits) in the form of 1s and zeros – meaning action potentials that either fire and transmit electro-chemical charges or else they fail to. It offers up a steady, massive, multiple stream of on/off, yes/no activity.

Brain with axons extending

Perilous Is As Perilous Does

What’s additionally remarkable and stands out most clearly as I look over the list above is that for almost everything on it, my interest and engagement in each discipline or practice emerged mostly organically. It was just me doing the best I could to repeatedly ask and answer The Two Perilous Questions. For example, I’ve written two previous posts here and here about how repeated ungrieved losses eventually drew me to become a longtime, volunteer grief counselor. Before that, I was enrolled in a Ph.D. psychology program at UCLA when a supposedly “chance” meeting with Marilyn Ferguson, author of The Aquarian Conspiracy pointed me to a start-up graduate school in transpersonal psychology (Sofia University). I traveled to the Bay Area for an information interview, intuitively felt it was a much better fit for me in both size and curriculum than UCLA, and immediately applied. A third example: my interest and involvement with EMDR came about when, on a walk together, my friend Katy Butler (Knocking On Heaven’s Door) told me about an interview with Francine Shapiro which she conducted for the Psychotherapy Networker. She was effusive about how she had been cured of longtime pain associated with a childhood trauma in a single session. This kind of rapid suffering-reduction was something I wanted to know more about.

The Be-All and End-All Brain ~ Not

My developing interest in neuroscience is much more tempered than it used to be. What neuroscience has taught me is that the brain and body are NOT all that matter and NOT all that life boils down to. On the contrary. The very complexity and extraordinary workings of brain and body parts – seen and unseen – convince me that there is much more to life and living than most of us ever consciously suspect. The research field and the tools of neuroscience simply provide a context and a process by which to construct creative hypotheses and systematically test them out. And repeatedly make mind-blowing discoveries like these and others that I’ve written about over the years.

It’s a sufficiently robust, complex and mysterious place for me to be spending the remaining days of my life. Please feel free to join me.

Time Is Moving

Last Call: If you rightly suspect that learning how your brain works will make it work better, now’s your last chance to register for the unique and entertaining Social Neuroscience Training which begins next week. Click HERE to see if it resonates.

time counter

Shortly after I completed my terminal graduate degree, it was time to put it to use. I was 42 years old and had been a homebuilder for almost 25 of them. But now the body was tired and needed to cut back on the rough and tumble work of daily construction. But what to do next? I didn’t have any interest in following the traditional trajectory and becoming a job superintendent – telling other people what to do has never been something my brain and body much resonate with – so that was out. I didn’t care to become a developer/producer. Too much stress and I couldn’t see where the juice might be for me in that role. Besides, I had a newly-minted Ph.D. that would let me work as a clinical psychologist. But the unfortunate truth was … sitting in an office all day long listening to people’s problems and trying to help, didn’t get the juices flowing either.

The Next Step of the Journey

“You really should put your degree to work,” friends and family consistently reminded me, as if I somehow forgot to remind myself. All the time and money and study should be put to the best use possible, right?

What to do? While pondering this question, one day I happened to spy a small help-wanted ad in our weekly newspaper. The ad was for a maintenance man position at a Stanford Think Tank. Stirrings small, slight and quivery began moving in me. I’d driven by the think tank sign at the bottom of the hill on the edge of campus thousands of times over the years: Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. “I’ve always wanted to see what’s up the hill behind that security gate,” I thought. I decided to go up on the pretext of applying for the job just to take a look around.

CASBS

And so I did. And it was fabulous, gorgeous, breathtaking. The private think tank sat high on a hill overlooking the main campus and all of Silicon Valley. Deer foraged along the sides of the hill. Rabbits, raccoons and Hooty, a huge white owl, were openly in residence. And most surprisingly, the people were relaxed, engaging, fun. The interview done, I considered it a successful, information-gathering adventure.

And by the time I got back home there was a call on my answering machine offering me the job.

There’s a great line in one of the Indiana Jones movies. Harrison Ford is deep underground in a cave when suddenly he hears rustling and hissing. He holds his torch down into a deep pit. “Snakes,” he says. “It HAD to be snakes.” The equivalent for me was: “Self. It had to be a job offer requiring me once again to get over myself.” And then the “shoulds” started showing up, desperately trying to tout me off taking it. “There’s no way you can thrive in that job.” “Think of the lost opportunity costs.” “You’re SO overqualified for that job – you’ve managed crews and built multi-million dollar homes.”

“I can quit in 6 months,” I rationalized to myself. Bill Kreutzmann (one of the two Grateful Dead drummers once held the job years before) didn’t keep it forever. Long story short, I ended up taking the job and staying there 10 whole years. It turned out to be the perfect place, with the perfect people to begin an extended, informal, self-directed post-doc in social neuroscience – something that wasn’t even on my radar at the time I applied. Over those ten years I got to see how Nobel Prize winners, Guggenheim recipients and MacArthur Fellows live and work up close, day after day (hint: they grew up in environments that wired their brains very differently than yours and mine; most have an extraordinary, developed ability to maintain laser focus for decades. For example, Eric Kandel studied two neurons in the California sea snail … for 30 years!).

Word Damage

But my conscious mind with its army of “shoulds” would have had me decline that hidden opportunity had I not listened to the “still, small voice.” And in my estimation, that’s what makes “should” the most brain-damaging word in the English language. Let me explain further.

When you open up a human skull you see a collection of brain cells approximating 17 billion (69 billion more are contained in the cerebellum). That collection of neurons makes trillions of connections which are absolutely unique to everyone of us. Not only that, but many of them are in a constant state of flux. Here’s how science writer, Bob Berman tries to help us understand that complexity:

Your Neural Net on Life

Your Neural Network on Life – Imagine it in constant, dynamic flux

The brain … is the crown jewel of our nervous system. It has 86 billion neural cells and 150 trillion synapses. These are its electrical connections, its possibilities. This figure is nearly a thousand times as great as the number of stars in the Milky Way.

The number of brain neurons is impressive. To count them at the rate of one a second would require 3,200 years. But the brain’s synapses, or electrical connections, are beyond belief. Those 150 trillion could be counted in 3 million years. And that’s still not the end of the matter. What’s relevant is how many ways each cell can connect with the others. For this we must use factorials. Let’s say we want to know how many ways we can arrange four books on a shelf. It’s easy: You find the possibilities by multiplying 4×3×2 — called “4 factorial” and written as 4! — which is 24. But what if you have 10 books? Easy again: It’s 10! or 10×9×8×7×6×5×4×3×2, which is — ready? — 3,628,800 different ways. Imagine: Going from four items to 10 increases the possible arrangements from 24 to 3.6 million.

Bottom line: Possibilities are always wildly, insanely greater than the number of things around us. If each neuron, or brain cell, could connect with any other in your skull, the number of combinations would be 85 billion factorial! This winds up being a number with more zeroes than would fit in all the books on Earth. And that’s just the zeroes after the 1, the mere representation of the number, not the actual count. The brain’s connection possibilities lie beyond that same brain’s ability to comprehend it…

So, anytime we’re operating under the direction of a “should,” whether it’s internally generated or externally imposed, there’s a high probability that we’re honoring neither the complexity, the uniqueness nor the incipient emerging needs of our own personal neural network. To fully understand the workings of our brain or the universe, it doesn’t look like any of us really has enough … brain power. While at the same time, it seems like a “creator” must, and does, and without “shoulding” on herself. And in my experience, she rarely uses words – she tends to use small, slight, quivery feelings instead. Best to ignore “shoulds” and instead pay increasingly, ever-close attention to the tender stirrings.

I can’t recall a single time I’ve tuned in over the last few months when weather hasn’t been a front page story on the nightly national news – tandem tornadoes, baseball-sized hail, furious flood-waters, drought-generated forest infernos – the world’s wild weather is in a significant transition phase, promising only to get wilder. As I watch these news accounts I can feel my breath stall and my body tighten as I imagine the stress of suddenly being homeless, with all my worldly possessions destroyed in a heartbeat. I could simply decide to stop watching such accounts, but as systems thinker, Margaret Wheatley once reminded me: those people had the great misfortune of having to live through the actual suffering. The least I can do is manage my hyperarousal sufficiently to bear respectful witness in the aftermath.

The More Things Change, The More Things Change

Below is a heat map showing how we can anticipate things to unfold going forward. As the temperatures go up, as this research suggests, we can expect both the number and the severity of weather events to increase.

US HEAT MAP

We know from many other studies that the stress of poverty adversely impacts the brain. I would argue that the recurring, implicit stress of possibly having your house flooded, burned to the ground or blown away – or to have that event actually happen – adversely impacts the brain as well. Losses that we helplessly and inevitably suffer end up disorganizing the neural connections in the brain. Usually the disorganization is only temporary. Once the loss is over and integrated, the brain eventually returns to previous functioning. But what if, like war in the Middle East, the threat remains ever-present? What if changing meteorological reality is in the process of becoming a constant, subliminal threat to our safe survival?

If you offer a healthy child the free choice between living in a temperate, safe, predictable climate, or one where oppressive heat, humidity, wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes could come crashing through your life on a moment’s notice, few of them would choose the latter after the novelty wears off. But that’s exactly what adults choose in the wake of overwhelming environmental events. The title from an old Bob Dylan song comes to mind: “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.” Rampant weather might just turn out to be that train. In an attempt to deal with the train that is climate change, organizations like the International Transformational Resilience Coalition have come into being. Part of their mission is to proactively prepare for things to get worse and to help people build resiliency skills ahead of time. Without that advance training, it’s going to be very hard to make skillful decisions in the midst of a crisis.

The brain is organized and constantly changing in order to do what it can to help us survive and deal with the environment that surrounds us during the days of our lives. Like the constant stress of living in poverty, unpredictable, dangerous weather imposes a stress load on our bodies and our brains. When threats recur and are unpredictable, the emotional, limbic structures of the brain are favored for growth and connectivity, often at the expense of the cognitive centers. We need all the resources we can put together to be able to act fast in dangerous environments. Not only that, but there’s a significant opportunity cost for having to rebuild your life over and over – that cost is all the things you’re not doing and not able to do that you might otherwise prefer to be happily engaged in were it not for weather stress.

The Rainfall Theory of Female Brain Development

A Supercell Preparing for Work

A Supercell Tornado Preparing for Work

So, that’s the situation in America. But weather also affects neural development in other countries in other ways. In poor countries, the amount of rain that fell during your first year of life affects your education, your health and even how much money you can put your hands on – if you are female. Below is an edited account from reporter, Aaron Retica describing this weather-related research:

Dry times are hard times in poor countries, especially for girls, especially in postwar Indonesia. In 2000, for example, rural women between the ages of 26 and 47 who were born in areas with 20 percent higher rainfall than normal the year after they were born were more than half a centimeter taller than their luckless (and drier) counterparts. These women also went to school for 0.22 grades longer and had more assets. That means a year more of schooling for every five girls in those rain-enriched areas. And for every five girls in an area with 20 percent less rainfall than usual, a year of school was lost. Men showed no rainfall effect either way.

I would argue that the coming climate challenges are going to be much harder on women in all World cultures than they are going to be for men. A safe and secure home is a powerful arousal-regulatory mechanism for many women – safe, secure places are important bases for raising children who will survive. I think it’s a good idea to begin building resiliency practices long before we need them. I personally have chosen the Geography Cure – moving to a temperate (at least for n0w) offshore island in Puget Sound. Unfortunately, island size and groundwater limitations preclude the whole rest of the world from moving here. But there’s still plenty of room on neighboring islands in the Sound. Welcome, one and all.

You would think that jumping out of an airplane 2 1/2 miles above the earth would be a crazy, dangerous thing to do. But you would be not only wrong, but wrong on any number of counts.

Statistically, you’re more apt to be injured on the way to the airpark than you are jumping out of the plane. Not only that, but you’re more likely to be stressed for a much longer time than it takes you to return to earth, and … you don’t feel anywhere near the same sense of exhilarating relief when you do finally reach your destination.

Jumping On an Impulse

A couple of weeks ago my friend Rebecca was here visiting. On the plane ride up from Texas, she made the decision that she was going to do a tandem skydive. I volunteered to chauffeur her (chauffeuring is a great, relatively safe way to do reconnaissance ahead of any jump I might want to do :-)).

When we got to Skydive Snohomish, we discovered that even though it was housed in an old airplane hangar, the office was immaculate – a place for everything and everything in its place. There were 10 laptops arranged on a table just so to be used for registering; there were four lines of cushioned folding chairs set in straight rows for viewing the preliminary instructional video; the carpet where clients would be laying, practicing their “freefall” posture was spotless.

One reason that cleanliness is next to Godliness is because it sends an unconscious, neuroceptive message to the body and brain – this is a safe place. People have the time to pay close attention, to care. When you’re jumping out of an airplane at 13000 feet, you want people caring and paying close attention. Cleanliness also has the implicit ability to help us regulate our stress hormones, which, as you might suspect, are already in quite a heightened state before we even walk through the school’s front door. Cleanliness also helps to reduce crime as the New York Transit Police happily found out (see here).

Care-taking

As I sat on the clean, new sofas in the waiting area, I watched as the tandem divers began arriving. They were mostly male and each had their own locker where jumpsuits and parachutes were neatly stored. They unceremoniously changed into them, bought an energy drink from the vending machine, and then sauntered purposefully out to the staging area.

Packed ParachuteOut in the staging area I watched as the first jumpers landed on the grass without incident. Each instructor then gathered up his chute and brought it back to the packing area where they began meticulously repacking it, arranging the small pilot chute which releases first and pulls out the main canopy. Then they precisely folded the main canopy, followed by all the suspension lines gathered up and wrapped with rubber bands around the perimeter of that packed canopy. A chute carelessly repacked could end up being your last.

Caring Makes It Happen

Throughout the two hour experience, client care and service were unquestionably at the top of everyone’s priority list. From making sure all questions were answered, to assuring each person that their safety and well-being were paramount, to personally fitting each jumpsuit, goggles and helmet. After landing, debriefing and removing and putting away the equipment, a personalized DVD of the jump, complete with a picture of the jumper on the DVD cover free-falling at 12000 feet was already prepared.

Much of our growth and development in life is about managing risk well. It’s about caring for ourselves and the others in our circle with the same care as a skydiving school does. It’s about identifying The Places That Scare Us – as Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron reminds us – and doing whatever we need to do in order to turn towards those places, rather than away. Over and over again. It’s about letting go of the person we are, and being open to the possibility of becoming the person whispered inner impulses continually invite us to become.

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