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I am sitting at the back of a meditation hall at a children’s camp just north of Malibu in Southern California. It is 9:40 AM, on a warm May morning. Approximately 200 students are here, waiting to hear a dharma talk by a revered Buddhist teacher. This weekend, six hundred people – triple the current number – will flood this small, oceanside arroyo for a Day of Mindfulness.

I have read many of this teacher’s books as they have been published, and I have practiced the meditations. I am at this five-day retreat to gain direct experience of this teacher whose prose and poetry I find inspiring for its clarity, gentleness, and elegant, simple grace. But today, for this talk, the teacher is ten minutes late.

And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen …

Presently the teacher arrives, ushered through a side door by a brown-gowned entourage. As the teacher ascends the small stage at the front of the hall, we all stand and bow, palms together, hands before our faces. After returning our bow, the teacher’s helpers place what looks like a small electronic recording device in one jacket pocket and attach a microphone to the lapel. They repeat the process with the other pocket. Then a third device goes on top of the one in the first pocket and a second microphone is attached back on the first lapel. This twenty-first-century ceremony is performed without a word. Finally, after some additional equipment is adjusted and it is determined that the video camera is operating properly, the presentation is ready to begin. But first, two children who have been sitting at the front of this gathering, girls of nine or ten, are permitted to leave the hall and go outside and play.

Dr. Kathy Speeth

Dr. Kathy Speeth

Throughout these preliminaries, I am practicing two mindfulness exercises. The first, called Evenly Hovering Attention, was taught to me by the daughter of two Gurdjieff students, Dr. Kathleen Riordan Speeth. In this exercise, my head slowly swivels and my eyes survey an arc of approximately two hundred degrees as a I take in the whole panorama around me. The practice is to observe mindfully, as best one can, without judgment. A very difficult practice in fact, for my mind is perpetually distracted. It asks, for example: “Why are those two children here? Why are they now allowed to leave? And why are there only two? Are they the teacher’s?”

The second mindfulness practice is one taught to me by a student of the legendary behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner. I have a loose rubber band around my wrist. From time to time as I feel myself becoming drowsy, I stretch the rubber band with my thumb and forefinger and snap it against my wrist just hard enough to get my own attention.

Violating Expectations

The room is hot on this Wednesday morning. Two hundred people are too many to stuff into this hall – the sign at the front of the room says, “Maximum Capacity: 153” – and our collective body heat is oppressive. This particular dharma talk is to introduce the first of the “Fifty Verses on the Manifestation of Consciousness.” Less than half an hour after the talk begins, I scan the room and find exactly the opposite being manifested. The majority of the people present are either slumped on their chairs, benches or zafus (cushions), chins on their chests and their eyes closed, or else they are staring straight ahead, transfixed in a manner my daughter used to demonstrate at those infrequent times she was allowed to watch TV.

“Do not worry about falling asleep,” the teacher tells us. “Better to fall asleep than to try to use intellect to grasp these teachings.” Immediately, my antennae go up. Wrist-snapping is no longer necessary. I have heard this exact same assertion before: from Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Werner Erhard and Baba Muktananda. From several of these notorious, abusive teachers, these exact same words, in fact.

At a Dharma Discussion later that same evening, I present my experience and my concerns to a panel I assume are this teacher’s Senior Students.

290928_1“During the talk I found myself growing sleepy and I felt as if I was being hypnotized. The room was hot and crowded. And I had to do a lot of work to stay awake. Now, it troubles me to be attending a talk that purports to invite me to manifest consciousness – to wake up, as it were – while in fact I am being put to sleep.”

My concerns are met with the following responses: “Well, you just fell asleep.” “The teacher told you it is better to fall asleep than to try and use your intellect.” “The teachings are very important, but sometimes very difficult for the western mind to understand.” When it starts to become clear that I (and apparently others in the room) am not satisfied with this response, I am reluctantly asked to elaborate on my experience.

“The teacher was talking very slowly, very softly, repetitively, with long pauses in between. From time to time they would sing verses that sounded unintelligible. I could not understand them. It felt like a hypnotic trance induction. Whether you are aware of it or not, these are many of the same elements used to induce a trance state. And it was not just me. When I looked around the room people either had their eyes closed completely, or they were staring straight ahead, glassy-eyed, transfixed and unmoving.”

To this elaboration I receive a single short reply: “Go and talk to Senior Student X. He is a hypnotist. He can tell you all about hypnosis and trance.”

I elect not to talk to Senior Student X. My experience is my experience. My perceptions are my perceptions. They are, in fact, based upon extensive reading, research, discussion, and real-life training. Senior Student X will only confirm my experiences and perceptions or offer me evidence or argument for them being incorrect.

A Molehill Out of a Mountain

So what’s the big deal about one more dry, incomprehensible lecture experience? Who among us hasn’t been put to sleep in some of the finest university lecture halls in America?

This country has a history of well-meaning and genuine spiritual teachers being surrounded by eager American students who soon coalesce into an extensive, dynamic, growing community. Too often, one day members of such communities do wake up, do manage to manifest consciousness – too frequently to a group dynamic and an organizational pattern that they were completely unaware had been abusing and exploiting them – perhaps like the frog who started out in the pot of lovely, cozy, lukewarm water.

The next day I participate in an outdoor walking meditation. I feel like it’s being led by a kind of Pied Piper. As it comes to an end, I can’t help but notice the long, dark shadow that stretches out behind the teacher, a shadow not unlike any participant at this retreat might cast on this sunny day. But on this day, I am particularly curious about only one. It may turn out that this teacher’s shadow awareness is sufficiently clear and integrated that its harmful aspects never become manifest in this dynamic and expanding community. In that case, it could fall upon the senior members of the community to act out this harmful side, in much the same way children frequently act out the shadow of the “Model Parent” in dysfunctional nuclear families. This pattern has been replicated in at least a dozen notable spiritual groups that I can readily recall.

On the back of the pickup truck I drove to this retreat is a bumper sticker. It reads: “Is it best for the children?” It is a verbal template that Alice Walker has suggested be applied by decision-makers in government, schools, businesses and other organizations. Is it best for the children to purport to teach them to manifest consciousness, to pay attention, to wake up, through methods that, inadvertently or deliberately, put them to sleep? I have the same trouble with that approach that the people of Hamelin Town had. It is decidedly NOT best for the children.

Originally published in The Whole Earth Review under the title “My Difficulty with Dharma Talks.”

Earlier this year a friend whom I greatly admire and respect – let’s call him Justin – received notice that his landlord had sold the house he was living in and Justin would have to move out. Surprised by the notice, Justin didn’t have the thousands of dollars he needed to immediately move into a new place, mostly because the landlord refused to return his cleaning and security deposit until after he moved.

I could tell Justin was seriously stressed by this situation and too proud to ask to borrow money from me, so I took the initiative and offered to lend him the amount he needed to relocate. Reluctantly, he agreed to accept my offer and promised to pay me back in full within 45 days.

Well, you can probably guess what happened. The 45 days came and went with no word from Justin. No money, either. Another two weeks passed – still no word. I sent an email asking what was going on? Then a message to his voicemail. Nothing.

Starving My Feedback Loops

Interestingly, while I was certainly concerned about the money, what I was thinking about most was what I knew was happening to Justin’s brain. Not to mention, my own. And it wasn’t pretty. Below is a graphic illustration of how neural networks develop in children. They continue to develop this way as well in adulthood, only much more slowly and with significantly greater complexity. Unless, of course, they don’t, for example when adults stop learning.

Neurons Connecting

What primarily drives the increasing numbers of connections in the brain are feedback loops. And what we know from the attachment literature is that the most powerful feedback loops – the ones that most predictably produce Secure Attachment – are most often the result of Contingent Communication. I’ve written a LOT about this kind of serve-and-return relationship requirement over the years, mostly because of how powerful a network enricher contingent communication actually turns out to be.

Except for when it isn’t. Which is what unpaid debts essentially end up being. People break off contact and the feedback loops stop. It’s not unlike a death. The serve part takes place when the loan is granted, but without the return part – the promised payment actually being made – little growth and connectivity results. Rather, just the opposite happens, in fact – disconnection. Impoverished networks comprised of cells that look more like the first three networks in the illustration above are the often the result when positive, loop-closing feedback fails to follow. It’s one reason prison’s use solitary confinement as punishment (which I have little doubt the Founding Fathers would today consider cruel and unusual punishment. Many in prison have already suffered more than their share of grief and loss).

Neural Impoverishment

Network impoverishment is what happens when money promised doesn’t get repaid. The result is often stress and shame and avoidance on the part of the borrower. It’s not all that great on the lender’s neurophysiology, either (I literally had a pain in my ass for three months as a result of a compressed sciatic nerve). This only adds to the impoverishment of the neural network. And we know how bad that is for the network from the many posts I’ve written about how acute and chronic stress sever the adherence proteins necessary to keep the network from unraveling. But an impoverished network is only one adverse consequence. There are others.

It Actually IS What You Think

One of the great gifts that Jill Bolte Taylor gave us in writing about her stroke and recovery through the eyes of a brain scientist, is her account of how language and implicit memory work hand in hand – mostly how our Silent Witness observes everything we say, think and do and then goes to work to make up a narrative about what it observes. What kind of story do you think Justin’s Silent Witness went to work and made up about him? Let me take a stab at authoring it for you.

Silent Observer“Justin is a guy who owes money and doesn’t pay it back (the Silent Witness is very careful and accurate with pronouns. It prefers the third person, too). Justin’s word can’t be counted upon. Justin doesn’t answer the Big Brain Question for himself or his friends. Justin doesn’t understand the enormous benefit to him of Irrational Commitment or the network-building power of feedback loops.”

The Brain Embodies the Narrative

Each of those thoughts unfortunately, rarely makes its way into full blown consciousness. Defense Mechanisms go to work and keep them under wraps. But they remain alive and unwell, buried in the unconscious, consigned to the depths of implicit memory. Justin’s body, however, is fully aware of the messages, from the stomach to the heart to the adrenal glands. And those kinds of unconscious, implicit actions, thoughts and observations – to the extent that they add to Justin’s allostatic load – all have serious somatic impact. 

How Best to Borrow Money

  1. Make your word your bond. Be extremely careful and discerning about the promises you make.
  2. Agree to a payback schedule that has a 90%+ probability of being met. This is essentially what Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize in Economics for doing with his Grameen Bank. He started people off who had the money networks of a three year old and incrementally grew them into responsible adulthood one small graduated, contingent loan loop at a time..
  3. Consider the promises you make to be like the Irrational Commitments that healthy parents make to their children from before birth – healthy parents will do everything in their power to keep the promises they make to their children. Do likewise with the promises you make to adult children.
  4. If circumstances arise that prevent you from keeping your word – keep the feedback loop operating. Don’t break off communication. Broken feedback loops are as bad as broken promises. Maybe even worse, because of the pains in the ass they correlate with.
  5. Find sterling role models to help you work to become Brilliantly Sane in the handling of your own financial affairs.

A confession: I have a hard time keeping up with my own brain. Since I discovered my brain buried at the root of so much of the dysfunction in my life about 20 years ago, I’ve been learning more and more about how it works and paying ever-increasing attention to it. The only problem is that it’s really a challenge to keep up with. And I don’t just mean keep up with the 300,000 peer-reviewed neuroscience studies published every year. I mean keeping up with the changes that take place in my own brain day in and day out, sometimes minute by minute – often painful, limbic-hijacking, emotionally overwhelming changes.

Don’t Bring Canines to a Dog Fight

Take one morning last month, for example. I was working in my home office when I heard my wife out in the kitchen using her command voice on Bodhi, our English Golden Retriever. She was ordering him to stop growling at Abby, the Bernese Mountain puppy who was edging in on Bodhi’s breakfast. My wife commanded him once, then twice more. Suddenly all hell breaks loose – Bodhi attacking loudly, wife screaming, Abby squealing in great pain.

Two dogs grin against each other

I dash into the kitchen to find Bodhi with his jaws clamped around Abby’s throat, my wife futilely attempting to separate them. I immediately jump into the fray, whapping Bodhi smartly on the nose several times. But he refuses to release Abby; she continues to scream. Amidst this chaos she manages to bite my hand and draw blood.

Unable to separate them – adrenaline cranking – I pick Abby up off the floor. It’s then that I notice that Bodhi doesn’t actually have her by the throat. Instead, his first lunge at her has hooked his canines around her collar. In her attempt to get away she has apparently flipped a 360, which ended up wrapping her collar tightly around Bodhi’s canines, leaving him unable to release her. But now Abby’s collar has turned into a tourniquet that is slowly strangling her.

Once I clearly understand the problem, I drop Abby and pick up Bodhi. Abby’s weight then pulls the collar down off of his teeth and frees her. 15 minutes later, both dogs are roughhousing playfully with a chew toy, the incident apparently fully forgotten.

I, on the other hand, am left with a nervous system still overloaded with a stress cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol and who knows what else, trying to restore homeostasis more than a half hour later.

Witnessing Dog Trauma Drama

After the dog drama was resolved, the observer part of my brain watched transfixed as that unremitting flood of stress hormones generated all kinds of afflictive thoughts and emotions: “Bodhi has to go. He’s out of control.” “These dogs are more than my wife and I can handle.” “The house would be much calmer and cleaner with fewer dogs and no cats. We’re their prisoners.”

On and on such stress-generated thinking continued, until I did the thing that brain science has taught me almost always works to calm me down: I moved my body. It’s not for nothing that every single cell in my brain eventually traces a route that terminates at a muscle (or that exercise reduces MS symptoms). I leash Bodhi up and off we go for a long walk around the Dog Park.

Moving and Shaking

Knowing that a primary regulatory function of the brain is to regulate arousal, and that the majority of its cells are designed and dedicated to moving the body has given me a new-found appreciation for the close connection between body, mind and thinking. And movement. I do my worst thinking under stress and some of my very best out on the log trails that crisscross all over Whidbey Island. I’m reminded of Steve Jobs’ practice of regularly insisting on taking many of his meetings walking.

And that’s only one good thing to know about my brain. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for less than 299,000 others, even if they are a true challenge to keep up with.

Also, feel free to share this story with other dog owners in your life. And your own scary dog stories here.

Finally, what kind of disorganized brain could really get rid of a dog like this?

Berner Puppy

And now, lest I forget, here’s another Enchanted Loom offering for your rapid viewing enjoyment on Diane Ackerman’s lovely exploration, An Alchemy of Mind.

The Dark Side of Highly Sensitive People

by Sally Mynewskin*

I work with a lot with Highly Sensitive People in my private psychotherapy practice. I have two very different perspectives on them.

(When I am finished with this article I expect to get a lot of unhappy, critical responses.Years ago I would not have written this article. I didn’t want to take the crap I expect to get. Yes, a part of me is an HSP. But because of my evolution, I have toughened my hide and am jumping into the pit and bracing for blowback).

What You See and What You Get

A Ultra-Sensitive-bannerPerspective 1: Indeed HSP folks are creative, artistic, friendly, misunderstood and under-appreciated. Their inward reflections and thoughtfulness adds a lot to the understanding of human dynamics. And the world would be emotionally and intellectually poorer if they didn’t exist. So a tip of the hat to the contributions they make to marriage, family and society.

But there’s a definite dark side to an HSP.

Perspective 2: Their hypersensitivity makes HSPs really difficult to live with. They are rarely direct with their wants and needs. They pout when don’t get what they want. They hate conflict and disagreement, so they don’t speak up or negotiate effectively. ​They give lip service to change as long as “We can be nice to each other.”

They hope their minds get read so they don’t have to assert themselves to get what they want. They are often passive aggressive.  

They feel abused when raised voices happen during normal marital disagreements.

I Don’t Want to Hear It

When they show up in couple’s therapy and I give them feedback or insights into their own contribution to their marital mess (believe me, there is never an innocent participant in marital distress), they get testy, defensive and howl that I am picking on them.

If I soften my feedback so they can handle it, they miss the point and merrily believe they are innocent and the partner is the real culprit for the mess the marriage is in. I have to edit what I say to walk the thin line between insight and confrontation, while offering tools and teaching communication skills.

20qgdgpAnd they don’t really believe they need or want to be taught better communication and negotiation skills – which means being more assertive – which may lead to tension and disagreement. For HSPs such change is to be avoided like a pit of rattlesnakes. 

So, to recap. HSPs are misunderstood (which is what most of humanity thinks as well) and under-appreciated (also, which most of humanity believes), and they do make insightful, creative contributions to the world in many, many fields.

But they can be a pain in the ass to live with.

We Need to See Someone

What happens if one HSP marries another HSP? I can only speak for those that show up in my practice. They enter therapy with one of two major complaints:

Their kids are in trouble or underachieving.

Or…

They describe their marriage as stable but boring. There is no passion. They want more passion in their marriage but do not want to do anything that may arouse a strong emotion in their partner. ​Trying to get them to create some energy in their relationship so it has more life is like trying to start a fire underwater​.

HSPs see the irony. There is little passion without strong self-definition. But they do not want to tolerate the tension for the sake of a more alive marriage.

That’s all for now.

Comments are welcome. But please be gentle.

* A pseudonym

Earlier this summer I went out into the garden and began removing the sucker stems from our tomato plants. Sucker stems are those small, pesky branches that grow at a 45 degree angle between the main stalk and large stems. While I’m not a botanist, I’m imagining that this pruning becomes an energy-channeling intervention that allows the tomato plant to concentrate its energy and maximally deploy nutrients in the service of actually growing tomatoes.

Well, it turns out that the brain has its own natural “sucker” pruning process. It’s called apoptosis (the second “p” is usually silent. Why scientists don’t simply remove that second “p” in the service of letter energy conservation, I have no idea). How the brain mostly determines which sucker stems in its network need to go away is pretty straightforward – if little traffic (action-potentials) ever travels down that road, best to remove it and “apop-tow” it off to the waste removal plant.

Pruning goes on constantly in the brain; renovation makes things happen. Learning is the antithesis of pruning. Learning grows new branches and new connections. Unlearning is what happens with apoptosis. Organic unlearning allows us to forget things non-essential for effective living and make space in the brain for new learning.

Learning How to Addict

Now here’s where things get really interesting.

a Ice cream MagnumBecause of the way neuro- transmitters generate pleasure, the basic structure of the brain is biased towards addiction. For example, I have a “sweet tooth.” What that really means is that my brain and body are addicted to sugar. Being addicted to sugar, my brain fires action potentials over and over again across the same circuits all in the pursuit of satisfying my addiction. Repeatedly activating the same circuits builds and recruits additional wiring as I go online and order Goetze’s Chocolate Cremes, Wiley Wallabee Australian Black Licorice, or Chewy Original Caramels from The Lovely Candy Company. Yesterday, Emmybear, the Bernese Mountain Dog and I made a special trip up to the Goose Grocery to buy three Magnum Double Caramel Chocolate Ice Cream Bars. I didn’t share even a single bite with her. A large part of my week is spent researching and exploring new and novel ways to feed my addiction. That said, a powerful way to think about addiction is … accelerated learning!

Turns out there’s a significant opportunity cost in pursuing such extreme and focused learning called addiction, however. One way that cost shows up in my brain is in the form of apoptosis – all the circuits I’m no longer activating that I was previously – like interests in sports, or income generation, or relationship-building – all those circuits are beginning to weaken from disuse. Eventually, many of them will simply be cleared out of the network due to concentrated inactivity.

That’s the good news. Addiction concentrates the network much like clearing suckers grows robust tomato plants. But there’s even better news.

Mindset Makes It Happen

Once I get myself into a skillful Neuro-Sucro-Dental Treatment Program (and the crucial word here is skillful), and actually unravel my neural Sweet Tooth Network, now my brain has tons of open space, much like a developmentally delayed child possesses. a spacious neural networkMy brain has now been set up to burst into full bloom and make huge developmental leaps that I most likely would never be otherwise ready for in this lifetime! That’s one reason so many drug network-remodeled addicts end up being involved in or running treatment programs. Had they not suffered from and surmounted the addiction, their developmental trajectory may very well have taken them off to corporate America fully satisfied with working in a cubicle somewhere.

If you want find out more about why addiction is not a disease or a moral failing, and about this developmental delayed-learning model of addiction, I wholeheartedly suggest you buy and read former drug addict neuroscientist Marc Lewis’s recently published book, The Biology of Desire. Feel free to start by checking out my Enchanted Loom review of it HERE.

Why HSPs Need SUDs

A number of years ago I took a volunteer job with a community service agency that I thought would be great fun. At the same time that I showed up, so did a woman my daughter’s age. When the director of the agency introduced me to Carolyn and told her that I was a neuroscientist, I immediately noticed her eyes grow wide. Pupils in the eye dilating can mean any number of things, and it’s happened to me often enough upon people finding out what I study that I don’t lend too much significance to it. Any interest a person might show I don’t take personally. dilated_pupils_by_korneraMostly I expect it’s interest in what they might find out that can help them live their lives with increased happiness, satisfaction and well-being. Instinctively, on some level many of us know that neuropsychiatrist Bruce Perry is right: “We’re all fundamentally in the brain change business.”

Over several months Carolyn and I got to spend increasing amounts of time together working for the agency. As people will do, we shared bits of our personal history with each other. It was no surprise to me when one day Carolyn identified herself as “an intuitive,” nor when she self-identified as an HSP – a Highly Sensitive Person.

Healing Searching for a Happening

When, later on she felt safe enough to confide in me that she was also had a history of incest and rape, I wasn’t surprised either. What I was surprised by, was how genuinely happy Carolyn mostly seemed to be. By day. But HSPs are often highly sensitive for good reason – usually an amplified need to detect and assess threats in the world around them.

By night, things for Carolyn were much different – not so joyous and light. She frequently suffered nightmares and insomnia and had trouble with environmental toxins and a wide variety of foods that she was allergic to. She also had difficulty sustaining relationships of any duration. When I asked her once what strategies she used for repairing relationship ruptures, you can probably guess her answer: “None.” Essentially, once she had a disagreement with someone, she wrote them off for good. Needless to say, loneliness was a recurring theme in Carolyn’s life.

Safeguarding Safety

Learning all this about Carolyn, and knowing what I know about trauma and the brain, I began to consider how I might help her after she specifically asked me to. In an attempt to come up with something that might be useful when the inevitable rupture of our friendship showed up, I thought it might help to introduce her to SUDs.

I first learned of the SUDs (Subjective Units of Distress) Scale when I worked with people as a grief counselor. Essentially it’s a way for caregivers to find out how much subjective pain people immersed in the end-of-life trajectory are in. We ask them to give us a numerical rating of their pain on a scale of 1-5 or 1-10. We can agree ahead of time what number will necessitate receiving more medication.

For people who’ve suffered trauma that may have been accompanied by “speechless terror,” a SUDs scale of 1-5 is a better fit, since it only requires holding up one hand. With Carolyn I explained that anytime I say or do something that disturbed her, all she had to do was hold up one hand and show me five fingers. Whenever I saw that I will either stop talking, lower my voice and/or move away from her. Then, as her distress begins to subside, she can show four fingers, then three or any other indicator she’s able to in order to regain control and successfully emotionally regulate herself.

An Unqualified Unsuccess

I wish I could say that the use of SUDs was an unqualified success. It wasn’t. The first time Carolyn had need to use it with me in response to what I thought was an innocuous comment, I wasn’t near her. I made it in an email. Email is a terrible medium to try to address and resolve emotional issues. a_hand_drawing_a_hand____by_eduardosouza-d1uciwxAll the many cues we unconsciously take from face-to-face interactions are missing – body language, facial expression, voice tone, etc. What often happens is email can trigger a traumatic memory and flood our system with stress hormones, which the brain then associates with the sender, overlaying past trauma onto the present – all outside our conscious awareness. After she received my email (explaining how the brain stores trauma from the past and overlays it onto the present!) Carolyn immediately refused to have any further contact with me.

Needless to say I was sad and confused by what had happened, and deeply disappointed that our experiment didn’t turn out anything like I had expected or intended. Since then though, I have had opportunities to introduce and used SUDs with other HSPs quite successfully. The single thing I changed was that I introduced it with several low arousal experimental practice sessions immediately afterward and included suggestions about what to do when you’re triggered by an email: send back a picture of The HAND! And do your best to stay in some kind of contact. That is afterall, how brain cells work best.

So, after many decades neuroscientists have finally gotten around to constructing a “femunculus,” the female version of a model that shows the amount of cortical network the brain devotes to various body parts. Until 2011 all we had was the male homunculus to marvel at …

homunculus

What’s quite striking (not in this representation, but in the femunculus) is it offers up a possible explanation for why any number of people in my circle seem to own more than a small number of shoes. A great many more.

These Boots Were Made For More Than Walking

I genuinely appreciate a good pair of shoes. About once a year I splurge when an email arrives from Skechers announcing a 30% off sale and buy myself a new pair, usually a lightweight, slip-on loafer. I wear them for everything from hiking to logging to landscaping. For dress occasions, I have a pair of Josef Siebel shoes that my sister bought me for my birthday about 10 years ago. And that’s pretty much it for me sadly when it comes to shoes.

Other people (who shall go nameless) whom I know, have as many pairs of shoes as there are days in the year. And every month the number keeps growing. What in the world could be driving such behavior? I think the femunculus may provide an answer: Zapposthesia!

Zapposthesians of the World, Unite!

In some subset of the human race – especially among those artistically inclined – a well-documented condition is known as synesthesia (8 times more women than men in the UK report having it, for some reason).

UW brain scientist, Eric Chudler, over at Neuroscience for Kids, has this to say about synesthesia:

Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight. Another form of synesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). Therefore, synesthesia literally means “joined perception.”

Synesthesia can involve any of the senses. The most common form, colored letters and numbers, occurs when someone always sees a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet or number. For example, a synesthete (a person with synesthesia) might see the word “plane” as red or the number “4” as purple. There are also synesthetes who hear sounds in response to smell, who smell in response to touch, or who feel something in response to sight. Just about any combination of the senses is possible. There are some people who possess synesthesia involving three or even more senses, but this is extremely rare.

Synesthetic perceptions are specific to each person. Different people with synesthesia almost always disagree on their perceptions. In other words, if one synesthete thinks that the letter “Q” is colored blue, another synesthete might see “Q” as orange.

Some scientists believe that synesthesia results from “crossed-wiring” in the brain. They hypothesize that in synesthetes, neurons and synapses that are “supposed” to be contained within one sensory system cross to another sensory system. It is unclear why this might happen but some researchers believe that these crossed connections are present in everyone at birth, and only later are the connections refined. Adult synesthetes may have simply retained these crossed connections from childhood.

So, what might all this have to do with Zapposthesia, which I’m defining as … orgasmic shoe-buying? Well, what do you notice when you look closely at the femunculus below?

Femunculus Jpeg

It turns out that all the female sexual organs are located right next to the brain wiring for … the feet! Much of the way synesthesia gets its wires crossed is with brain structures in close proximity. Wires are much easier to cross when they don’t have to travel long distances (In fairness, the penis too is wired close to the feet in men as well).

How do we truly know what’s driving the shoe-buying in your life? Only a photopleysmograph knows for sure!

On another note, for a look at the latest Enchanted Loom featuring Jill Bolte Taylor, click HERE.

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