As someone who has been painstaking in my desire to avoid labels and category classifications, since I believe they contribute to “the illusion of separation,” for professional reasons I have nevertheless decided to temporarily relent and come up with something to call myself. The moniker I have finally settled upon is: transpersonal neurobiologist. Turns out I’m the only such creature currently on planet earth. Do a Google search (You’ll have to disregard my colleague Jamal Granick if your search turns him up. When I contacted Jamal about the label, he had no idea he was one).

So what is a Transpersonal Neurobiologist? Very simply it’s someone who studies both Transpersonal Psychology and Neurobiology and tries to weave them together into some sort of coherent, meaningful, useful body of knowledge.

Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal Psychology, while first introduced in the early 1900s in a lecture by William James at Harvard, evolved mostly in the late 1960s as a natural progression of the research findings of Abraham Maslow, who was primarily interested in peak human experiences. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the field:

tumblr_m0v0012byM1qap9uuo1_500.gifTranspersonal psychology is a sub-field or “school” of psychology that integrates the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology. It is also possible to define it as a “spiritual psychology.” The transpersonal is defined as “experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos.” It has also been defined as “development beyond conventional, personal or individual levels.”

Issues considered by transpersonal psychology include spiritual self-development, self beyond the ego, peak experiences, mystical experiences, systemic trance, spiritual crises, spiritual evolution, religious conversion, altered states of consciousness, spiritual practices, and other sublime and/or unusually expanded experiences of living (It also investigates aspects of dying and death). The discipline attempts to describe and integrate spiritual experience within modern psychological theory and to formulate new theory to encompass such experience.


Neurobiology, on the other hand, is a pretty mainstream, rigorous science. Here’s how MIT scientists thinks about it:

neurobiology.jpgNeurobiology is geared towards understanding how the remarkable diversity in neuronal cell types and their connections are established and how changes in neurons and their connections underlie learning and thinking. A number of groups are identifying and characterizing genes involved in specifying neuronal cell fate in vertebrates and invertebrates. Others are analyzing molecules involved in guiding axons to their correct targets. Additionally, efforts are underway to understand the physiological and biochemical changes in neurons that are involved in learning and memory, and the changes underlying neuropathology.

When I put the two together, what I find myself most interested in is how structural and developmental vulnerabilities of the human body and brain operate in ways that prevent us from attaining our highest human potential. It’s kind of like left brain and right brain attempting to weave both study categories into some sort of a coherent whole. Out of this attempt will hopefully come insight into how the structural vulnerabilities of the body and brain end up contributing to much of the pain, suffering and chaos in the world. Few of us appear to be as fully “operational” as we might be and a transpersonal neurobiologist would argue that it’s not our fault – we’re not to blame. But we’re still on the hook for doing what we can to make things better for ourselves and everyone else. It’s called being an imperfect human being in an imperfect world. And it’s good to try and do our own work with as much kindness, understanding and compassion as we can muster.

Next time you hear the terms transpersonal neurobiologist think, “Oh, that’s someone who studies how structural and developmental vulnerabilities of the body and brain contribute to human suffering. And then tries to do something positive to address them.”

In that positive regard, here’s a new Enchanted Loom review of the recent book on creativity entitled, The Runaway Species. What to do when you find out we are one.


A number of years ago I read a research account by Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia investigating reincarnation. An esteemed psychiatrist and academic department chair, his explorations felt to me to be of the same caliber of courageous inquiry as those of University of Connecticut psychiatrist Raymond Moody. Moody collected and published the accounts of people who reportedly died and came back to life in his book, Life After Life. Not exactly the rigorous research favored to further a scientific career. Stevenson investigated and published more than 3000 children’s anecdotal accounts documenting details of lives purportedly lived in other times and other places. Some of the accounts are quite inexplicable and surprisingly compelling.

Mosaic_of_Justinian_I_-_Sant'Apoilinare_Nuovo_-_Ravenna_2016.pngFrequently, past lives show up as part of a religious tradition. Pre-Justinian Catholics apparently believed in reincarnation, and in the Quran, Allah says, “Everyone shall taste death. Then unto us you shall be returned.”(al-‘Ankaboot 29:57). Hinduism and Buddhism both put forth doctrines related to reincarnation, but Buddhism makes a more refined distinction in using the term rebirth. Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, is said to be the 14th successive reincarnation of a single spiritual leader in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition.

Brain-based Evidence

Neuroscience esearchers like Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin and Andrew Newberg at Penn have scanned the brains of dozens of people who have dedicated large parts of their lives to meditative practice, in this case, people involved in spiritual traditions. On fMRI brain scans, Buddhist monks’ and Franciscan nuns’ brains show up remarkably different than people with no history of such practice. Long-term meditators have increased amounts of neurons in the insula and the auditory and sensory cortices. They also have more neurons in the frontal cortex, which is critical to working memory and executive functions. Other areas as well show up differently. Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar documents these additional neuronal differences as well:

  • The primary differences, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self-relevance.
  • The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
  • The temporo-parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
  • An area of the brain stem called the pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
  • The amygdala, the fight-or-flight part of the brain, which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
  • The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

It’s All About the Network

If we think of the brain as essentially an energy and information-processing network, then the more nodes and connections between nodes there are in that network, the more energy and information that network will not only be able to generate and process, but also store and retain. Think of the brain’s network as a 3G smartphone with 16 gigabytes of memory subsequently upgraded to 5G with 64 gigabytes as the result of longtime meditation practice.

In a lovely Eulogy by a Physicist, Aaron Freeman uses The First Law of Thermodynamics to remind us that matter and energy are constants in the universe. The heat of who we are and the energy of who we are has nowhere to escape to after the body can no longer sustain it. Our heat and energy goes off into the universe where it becomes “just less orderly.”

Unless it doesn’t. Unless, the growth, connectivity and integration that turns our 3G-16 Gig energy and information-processing brain and body into a 5G-64 Gig energy and information-processing brain and body, somehow manages to keep significant portions of its liberated elements coherently connected. Possible? Possibly.


There’s an interesting teaching in Tibetan Buddhism called The Six Yogas of Naropa. They speak about what happens to our animating energy after the body can no longer sustain it …

The dying process culminates in the appearance of the radiant mind of clear light. For those individuals who had gained mastery of the bardo yogas in their lifetimes, the true nature of this fundamental radiance is immediately recognized, as the Tibetans say, like a child being returned to its mother’s lap. At that very moment of recognition, the dying practitioner is liberated from the cycle of birth and death. In most ordinary cases, however, the dying individual is generally unfamiliar with the mind of clear light, and is thus unable to recognize it. Consequently, he or she is propelled with little or no control into the bardo state of becoming, which leads eventually to rebirth in a new existence.

Might that “general unfamiliarity” be mitigated by extensive meditation practice or other integrative practices that transforms the nature of our living network’s energy and information-processing capacity? Might such transformation then allow for the simple recollection of having taken up residence in a former body at a previous time? It might be much like our ability to recall significant, memorable personal experiences in this body/brain’s lifetime. If the networks are compromised by dissociation, repression and denial circuitry keeping things under wraps, then we simply have little or no memory of such earlier experiences. But what happens if all those compromised networks are fully activated and radically integrated? What happens if “network optimization” results? Might we then have (re)built the capacity for recalling previous incarnations in subsequent births?

Here’s a recent podcast interview I really resonated with: Pain+Reflection = Growth. You’re going to have to actually click on the link to find out who’s interviewing and who’s being interviewed. Beyond pain and growth, however, there was a very compelling discussion about operating organizations as Idea Meritocracies.

First though, let’s get clear about what an Idea Meritocracy actually is. Here’s the formal definition:

An Idea Meritocracy is a decision-making system where the best ideas win out. To have a real Idea Meritocracy, people need to do three things:

1) Put their honest thoughts on the table for everyone to see;

Increase-innovativeness-By-shaping-managerial-perceptions-of-their-environments_knowledge_standard2) Have thoughtful disagree- ments in which there are reasonable back-and-forths in which people evolve their thinking to come up with better decisions than they could come up with individually; and

3) If disagreements remain, have agreed upon protocols that get people past them in idea-meritocratic ways.

While an Idea Meritocracy doesn’t have to operate exactly in any particular way, it does have to by and large follow those three steps.

The notion of an Idea Meritocracy sounds lovely and wonderful in principle, and has apparently worked well for some successful organizations in the world. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what might be going on in the underbrush?

Living into the Questions

I’d love for my brain and body to be able to operate within an Idea Meritocracy. But I have a lot of questions and concerns first. Like, what happens when people constantly dismiss or ignore my ordinary ideas and then my best ideas? What if it doesn’t feel safe to put my honest thoughts on the table because I have a history of being abused for telling truth to power? What happens if your “reasonable-back-and-forths” seems completely unreasonable to me? How does the tone of voice such ideas get communicated with distort my ability to accurately hear meritorious ideas? How does my trauma history also distort such ideas? In short, how does an Idea Meritocracy operate to regulate our own and other people’s adrenal glands and the 99% of the world our senses take in unconsciously?

Overriding Impulses

One thing neuroscience makes clear is that acute or chronic levels of stress hormones prevent us from doing our best thinking. They literally inhibit the prefrontal parts of the brain needed for complex thinking. We can’t do our best creative thinking when our livelihood might be hanging in the balance, or when a hurricane might be hurling palm trees past our office windows. Neuroception requires that our environment feel safe.

firefighter.jpgI recall once volunteering at a workshop for firefighters to do a posture demonstration. The leader instructed me to “plant your knees firmly.” Momentarily confused, I simply bent my knees, since the more common phrase is “plant your feet firmly.” “Stand with your knees straight,” the instructor corrected. Off to my right however, I heard one firefighter whisper to another, “And he has a PhD!”

That workshop environment immediately became unsafe.

No Idea Meritocracy would successfully flourish there. Not only because of the disrespectful whispers, but because there were no protocols in place for recognizing and addressing such behaviors, bringing them out into the open without shame or blame, and working them through to satisfactory resolution and integration. I’m sure the firefighter who whispered did so completely ignorant of the unsafe dynamic he was partly responsible for creating. I could have confronted the offender, but without an organizational structure and understanding that we have all agreed to address behaviors that undermine safety in the workplace, together with the leadership necessary to insure it happens, it is unlikely that doing so would have led to a healthy outcome.

Inside Job

Recognizing these kinds of organizational limitations, I am finally left to do my best to cultivate an Idea Meritocracy inside my own body, mind and brain. I can put my honest thoughts on the table by telling the truth – speaking to what disturbs me – to myself: “That snide comment was uncool. It hurt my feelings. I took a risk to volunteer and got ambushed as a result. I’ll be steering clear of that firefighter in the future.”

I can also challenge my disturbed reaction: “That really wasn’t a comment about me. It was an unskillful expression of his own lack of self-confidence and likely limited education. As a firefighter, he most likely has a good heart when he’s not feeling the need to attack other people out of his own insecurities.”

Finally, if I encounter that person elsewhere, under different circumstances, we might have a constructive conversation that could lead to apology, repair and a close connection. Ideally. In a world increasingly filled with working Idea Meritocracies.

Until then, how about an Enchanted Loom on The Neurobiology of Fair Play. Seems appropriate enough, doesn’t it?

Possibly. The CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase thinks so. I’ll tell you more about his perspective in just a bit.

I’ve been struggling the last few years, trying to wrap my brain around what Bitcoins actually are. For years now, all I’ve known is that they are alternative money, a “crypto-currency,” whatever that is. That, and the fact that wild swings in value periodically flash as news headlines across my computer screen (one Bitcoin has gone from being worth $4969 at the end of August to $3923 as I write this first draft. But one “coin” is projected to be worth $25,000! in five years. Or zero, if you believe James Mackintosh at the Wall Street Journal. Which makes it seem like a pretty unstable, unpredictable currency, crypto or otherwise).

Here’s what Wikipedia says Bitcoin is:

Bitcoin.jpgBitcoin is a worldwide crypto-currency and digital payment system called the first decentralized digital currency, since the system works without a central repository or single administrator. It was invented by an unknown programmer, or a group of programmers, under the name Satoshi Nakamoto and released as open-source software in 2009. The system is peer-to-peer, and transactions take place between users directly, without an intermediary. These transactions are verified by network nodes and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain.

Besides being created as a reward for mining, Bitcoin can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services. As of February 2015, over 100,000 merchants and vendors accepted Bitcoin as payment. Bitcoin can also be held as an investment.

I’m not so sure crypto-currencies are going to end up being the blessing Nakamoto intended them to be. All inventions and interventions have unintended consequences. Look what smartphones are doing to our collective prefrontal cortices. As you might guess, it’s not good.

Public Money vs. Private Government

One challenge with Bitcoins is that governments don’t necessarily like to be disrupted out of the money game. And they have the power and resources to do something to and about people who try to edge them out. Take China, for example. They recently decided to shutdown all trading and exchanges in Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. That took a big bite out of the value of your Bitcoins overnight, and it didn’t matter whether you were Chinese, Japanese or Congolese. Large overnight devaluations of the money in your crypto-wallet are not good for the brain. Nor are extended wifi or electrical outages. There are many places on South Whidbey where we have no cell phone service, thus we would have no ability to exchange Bitcoins. And in the winter, power has been out for more than a week sometimes. You need the internet and the power grid working to exchange Bitcoins. Except as collector’s items, there are no real Bitcoins to exchange.

The brain and body experience such outages and loss of power as neuroceptive threats and raise our baseline stress levels. Raise them even more because we have no access to Bitcoins and stress levels will be elevated even more. Raised baseline stress levels generate enzymes like MMP-9 that degrades neural connections by severing adherence proteins that keep the network together. Rarely good to lose important connections on any level. When money’s involved, even less good.

Don’t Chop Down My Merkle Tree


Merkle Tree

Bitcoin sits on a computer platform called a blockchain. Blockchains simply structure data as an ordered, linked list of transactions. The blockchain is often visualized as a vertical stack, with blocks sitting on top of each other. At some point the blocks branch off. As more and more stacks of data blocks branch off, they become a tree, like neural network assemblies in the brain. A summary of the data contained in each block in all those branches is called a Merkle Tree. Merkle Trees can never be “chopped down” because they are part of a distributed network. The complete data set is stored in various places all across the whole network. Who would ever chop down a Merkle Tree? Hackers is who. The people who stole all your Equifax data. And where there’s a will, there’s a way.

At some point in time (2140), bitcoins are scheduled to cease being “mined, minted or printed.” That’s a fascinating prospect. Will they even be in use in 2140? It’s a coin toss. While bitcoins might eventually end up in the dustbin of history, I seriously doubt that blockchain technology will.

Currencies are basically stores of value or measures of exchange. We need them to keep economies working. As a useful means of exchange, here’s a four-minute, day-in-the-life account by a reporter who tried to live on Bitcoins for 24 hours. It took a Herculean effort, but he did manage to make it through the day. Based on his experience, I don’t need the hassle or the stress. That may change, as Bitcoin becomes more stable and more familiar – new technologies necessarily take time to achieve widespread adoption – but it’s probably not a new tech quite yet ready for prime time. At least for my brain.

Not There for Me

Why? Because my biggest concern about Bitcoin right now is that it will turn into a “bit-con” and end up answering The Big Brain Question with a loud and profound, “No.” Which is essentially what J. P. Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon thinks, not once, but twice: “One of the central selling points of crypto-currencies is negated when someone creates a brand new Bitcoin knock-off. That makes it so a coin’s creator can own the most with little effort, while everyone else scrambles for a decreasing slice of what’s left — a classic attribute of a pyramid scheme.”

In case you weren’t sure, pyramid schemes are the exact antithesis of a “Yes” answer to The Big Brain Question. And they’re particularly damaging because they exploit one of our brain’s most structural vulnerabilities: the need to be genuinely, authentically and heartfeltedly supported and cared for. Don’t count on Bitcoins to keep you warm on a cold winter night.

In his book Destructive Emotions, Daniel Goleman reports the existence of – get this – 34,000 emotions of various shadings and subtleties. I believe many of the afflictive varieties come into existence as a consequence of the movement of stress and threat-detection glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids and other substances secreted by the adrenal glands. The main reason I believe this is through direct experience, and of course, a little bit of evidence-based research. Those adrenal secretions often dictate how much energy and information the network assemblies in my brain can fully process at any one time. In my own case – under significant stress – it’s not very much.

Unless I train and practice; unless I learn to recognize and identify many of the shades and subtleties of my emotional life – a language spoken by every sentient being on planet earth, even trees and roses. It’s a language we would all do well to become profoundly conversant with. UK neuroscientist Susan Greenfield considers emotions to be “the most basic form of consciousness.”

Practice Makes Pluperfect

If I were to make two simple suggestions for where to begin improving every area of my life, first obviously would be to learn the language of emotion. Unfortunately, there’s no App for that. We have to interact with real people and pay attention to them and ourselves and attentively monitor how we feel. Here is a list to start with that places emotions into three categories: soft, moody and intense. See if you can begin to imagine what and where you might primarily feel them in your brain and body. Not easy, right? Feelings truly are a foreign language for many of us. But imagine if we had been deliberately trained in this language from before birth? Imagine how intense and rich our lives would be as a consequence of being able to deeply feel and experience so much more of the world around us than the less-than-one-percent most of us currently only experience.

AdrenalThe second suggestion would be to become a master at AMP … Adrenal Management Practice. Or as my daughter once explained to me, “You can’t let your adrenal glands make you their bitch!”

If you’re like me, I rarely have any idea how high or low the levels of stress hormones are in my body during any part of any day. Unless something is really surprising or overtly threatening, my awareness of stress hormone levels is either high or “off” (In actuality, they’re never truly fully off until we’re dead).

The Central Challenge

Of course, in the pursuit of learning the language of emotions and practicing skillful adrenal management, we will necessarily come face to face with yet another structural vulnerability of the brain. The brain loves pleasure and hates pain. If Patrick Henry were alive today, he might well have declared, “Give me a DOSE or give me death!” DOSE, in this instance refers to Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins. But the constant pursuit of pleasure those secretions produce and the determined avoidance of pain results in many of us becoming seriously out of balance, since many of those 34,000 emotional states operate on the painful side of the feeling ledger. And when we’re out of emotional balance, we’re untrustworthy. What to do?

Hurricane House.jpgThe answer: titration. Little steps for little feet. Little openings into Big Heart. An occasional toe-dip into the world of suffering, pain and loss. For example, we might watch short news clips of people having to move to temporary shelters after Hurricane Maria has blown their house to bits. We might wonder what it would feel like to be them. We might read a Huffington Post or NY Times account of people burdened with unexpected tragedy or loss and see if we can connect with empathic states inside ourselves that might emerge if we were in similar difficulties. We don’t have to spend large amounts of time in such states, just brief intentional excursions in the service of expanding our emotional “vocabulary.”

Retreat to the Street

Buddhist Teacher and Zen Peacemaker, Bernie Glassman invites his students to do Street Retreats where “trained leaders support you in living on the streets for one, two or more days and nights, experiencing first-hand interdependence through practicing Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness and Taking Action. While having nothing, you will witness the bounty that is available and the unexpected ways it appears. Always with your group, you will meditate together, share in council, go on begging rounds, walk across town, checking in at a local soup kitchen etc.” As someone who has lived on the streets at different times in my life, if you take up a similar exploration for yourself, I have little doubt you are sure to come away with considerably expanded emotional bandwidth – a deep, rich, colorful, new emotional life awareness. But also, some real pain.

Finally, this blog wouldn’t be complete without a relevant Enchanted Loom. Here it is – Susan Greenfield’s, A Day in the Life of the Brain.

*I was kidding about no App for that. Here’s one now: Universe of Emotions.


First, a picture depicting how your brain turns itself into reality …

Brain Developing

The process begins when the zygote (fertilized egg) develops sufficiently to give rise to the neural plate, a key developmental structure that serves as the foundation for growing the whole brain and the extended nervous system. Cells in the neural plate begin to lengthen and narrow as neural folds raise each side of the plate up and move them together, forming the neural tube, a process known as neurulation.

But here’s the important part, operating throughout the whole brain development process: signaling proteins aid in differentiating the cells and tissues destined to become what we call a brain. Signaling energizes differentiation and proliferation, tells progenitor cells to become progenitor cells, stem cells to become stem cells and Cajal-Retzius cells to become Cajal-Retzius cells (proliferation). Cajal-Retzius cells produce the signaling glycoprotein Reelin, the primary driver of positioning and migration accomplished by cell-to-cell communication – in other words, feedback loops. “Migrate to this position and let me know when you get there so I can stop signalling.” In other words … Contingent Communication. Another term for Contingent Communication is Collaborative Communication. All the elements the neural plate gives rise to are in constant collaborative communication through the whole brain (and body) development process.

Collaboration Makes It Happen

Contingent Communication is involved every step of the way, from migration to aggregation to axon proliferation to synapse formation to neuronal death (apoptosis). Brains don’t get built without it. Cells don’t die and become removed from the brain without it. In case you’re wondering, here’s how Wikipedia describes cell death and how the maintenance crew gets called to dispose of the dead cell bodies:

Phosphatidylserine(s) are actively held facing the cytosolic (inner) side of the cell membrane by the enzyme flippase. However, when a cell undergoes apoptosis (dies), phosphatidylserine is no longer restricted to the cytosolic side by flippase. Instead scramblase catalyzes the rapid exchange of phosphatidylserine between the two sides. When the phosphatidylserines flip to the extracellular (outer) surface of the cell, they act as a signal for macrophages to engulf the cells.

Contingent Communication makes life (and death) and cleanup afterwards happen at our innermost fundamental level. It also makes dreams happen at the outermost fundamental level.

My Main Dream Driver

I have a dream to reduce suffering in the world. I will personally be a huge beneficiary if suffering is reduced in the world. So will all my friends and family, and by extension, most everyone the world over. truth-of-suffering-web.jpgThat dream is what eventually led me to study neuroscience. By closely observing my own behavior and the behavior of other people, over time it became clear that much of the suffering in the world is a direct result of structural vulnerabilities and limitations inherent in the body and brain. If I want to reduce suffering in the world, it might help to introduce people to a few of those vulnerabilities and limitations. By understanding them, we can begin to increase the probability that they don’t stand in the way of us making our best dreams come true.

Here are some brain-based practices I believe we all would be well-served to take up in the service of striving to make our dreams come true.

  1. We have to understand our brains are vulnerable and have limitations, at different times more than others. We have to incorporate that understanding and develop creative workarounds. For example, without training, few of us think clearly under excessive stress. Don’t make important decisions after someone close dies, or if you’ve just gotten divorced. Or you’ve just lost your job.
  2. We have to learn and practice the three elements of Contingent Communication. And practice. And practice. And practice. You can find the three elements here.
  3. Our best work is often done together with members of our tribe that we strongly resonate with. My mother often repeated the observation that “many hands make light the work.” Many hands, all working to make a common dream (like building a whole, massively integrated brain) come true, exponentially increase the probability.
  4. We would be extremely well-served to develop an Adrenal Management Practice (AMP). The adrenal glands “produce hormones that help the body control blood sugar, images.jpgburn protein and fat, react to stressors like a major illness or injury, and regulate blood pressure.” A few activities to start your AMP might include: Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean meat, avoiding junk food, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. Not really news, right?
  5. We absolutely need to develop some personal intentional practices for keeping our bodies (and by extension our brains) functionally fit. Most of the neurons in the brain are dedicated to moving the body. If you keep them active and firing into old age, those brain cells will do their part in keeping the foundational structure of the neural network in good repair. Whatever we do to benefit one part of the network often positively benefits the whole network. At the heart-to-heart level as well.

What’s a Killeen Brain you want to know, right? Well, you can recruit a friend or two and attend a class that a colleague and I have been co-creating for the last year – When Health Practitioners Become Healers – and find out that and much, much more, or … you can keep reading and find out a little more.

Listen Up!

A decade into the 21st century I designed and offered a class intended to teach aspiring clinical and counseling psychologists listening skills. I’d been success- fully training volunteer grief counselors such skills for a number of years, and it was clear to me that when it came to listening, many accomplished professionals didn’t know what they didn’t know. And the result was that they really sucked at listening, while at the same time being totally unaware victims of The Dunning-Kruger Effect. If you polled any of them, the would have assertively proclaimed themselves above average.

Listening-ear-heart.jpgAt the conclusion of this first course offering, every single one of the 24 students agreed that they had no idea how much there was to know about listening, aspects and elements – fine granularity – that they had absolutely no clue about. From the way brains filter and distort people’s stories when the listener is under stress, to the way painful stories can close down a listener’s cognitive functioning, to the way the brain makes up definitions for words it doesn’t really know the meaning of and pretends it does (e.g. take the word specious – do you really know what it means? Click on it for the actual definition and find out for yourself). As one student put it: “Trying to improve listening skills without practice or knowing what to practice is like trying to learn the piano without practicing or knowing about notes, keys, rests and stops.”

With that experience in hand, along with the high ratings of the students, I met with the department chair to talk about offering the class again for the subsequent semester. Turns out, for many specious reasons, the chairman gave me a thumbs down. Needless to say, I was surprised and disappointed. I thought about badgering and pressing him, but not for long. That would represent … Idiot Grit – continuing to persevere and push on with something that promised little chance of success. No, instead what I did was take the offering to UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz Extension where the course found a welcome home for many semesters.

Creatively Embracing Killeen Brain

So what is Killeen Brain and what does it have to do with my success or failure as a teacher of listening skills? Simply this: when I repeat a task over and over – teaching a class, writing a blog, walking the dog – my brain accommodates and acclimates. The same brain cells operate over and over again for repeated activities. Little new neural pathways grow or make new connections in novel ways. The brain quickly gets tired of the old same old, same old. In protest, it will very often turn me away from teaching, research and writing about listening and toward one alluring distraction after another. In other words, it will grind down my grit and produce … Killeen Brain.

I’m not a bad person because the world is full of juicy enticements that I can’t resist. And neither are you. Killeen Brain is a result of my neural networks having structural vulnerabilities. I’ve named this particular vulnerability after Peter Killeen, a behavioral neuroscientist at Arizona State University. Here’s how one writer describes this particular interest-diverting brain vulnerability:

If we grossly simplify the process, it looks like this –


Professor Peter R. Killeen

After 12 seconds of effort, your neurons are running on empty. They first look to glial cells for lactate, a readily used sugar. If glial cells can’t find lactate, they look for glycogen, which they store up at night and later convert to energy.

If your neurons can’t find lactate or glycogen, they get exhausted––enabling other parts of your brain to call for attention. It’s sort of like your brain is a super–excited third–grade classroom: The star student––that is, whatever you’re trying to focus on––will get most of your attention. And if the star student got enough to eat and enough rest, it can be called on periodically throughout the day. If not, other excitable parts of your brain will get your attention. Then your mind will start to wander.

My brain needs novelty. So does yours. Without it, energy stores necessary for operating my neural network on familiar tasks, quickly become depleted. In order to revitalize, I need to activate other networks that are fresh and powerfully energized. The Gritty Way to do that, however, isn’t to simply turn away from listening research, writing and teaching completely; it’s to look and think about listening and listening skills in novel ways with new eyes using strongly energized available neural networks. The result for me: three wholly unique and challenging listening classes, six different listening books (a seventh is in the works – Naked Listening, and – just for fun – this free listening poster I made last year. It’s been 15 years of continuing to try and spread the Listening Gospel. Are you listening for how important the need is for each of us to develop true listening grit? To realize that often, what’s IN the way IS the way?

Coincidentally enough, this week’s Enchanted Loom reviews one of my own best, best-selling listening books, Noble Listening. Click HERE and be surprised at what you don’t know you don’t know! 😉