My heart often doesn’t see very well. Some days are better than others. Some days I wake up, eye myself in the mirror, and my heart-brain echoes the Adam Sandler refrain: “What the hell happened to me?” Other days, I wake up smiling and the man in the mirror is ready to unself-consciously engage, full of possibilities and appreciation for the world. In my mid-thirties I found myself troubled by a growing suspicion that my neuro-cardio chemistry played havoc with my view of the world, most often without any mid-moment awareness. I now strongly suspect that high levels of cortisol and adrenaline worked to deeply distort my world perceptions – and mostly not in a good way. These fear-stress chemicals are not my friends in twenty-first century America, when chances of a saber-toothed tiger leaping out of the cherry tree in my back yard to eat me alive are slim to non-existent.
It’s an Inside Job
I first began to notice this distortion phenomenon with significant others in my life. For example, when she was a young teen, some days my daughter would show up as Princess Summer-fall-winter-spring. Other days, I would inexplicably find myself face to face with Chief Thunderthud. And my perceptions would usually have little to do with her outward behavior. Instead, something in me fueled this distortion – namely, I suspect, glucocorticoids running wild. When I’m calm and rested and under the compassionate, relaxing influence that many natural empathogens (love hormones) provide, I really prize and appreciate the person looking back at me in the mirror. And those closest to me as well.
A wild and winding life path has taught me why not everyone sees the world through the same grumpy, often misanthropic eyes that I do. Unlike me, people well-cared for as children tend to show up as positive, people-loving sorts, often deeply in touch with love, truth, beauty and meaning. They grow up as Kids Who Care, kids who see clearly with the eyes of the heart. In her new book, The Philosophical Baby, Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, examines many of the elements that go into raising kids imbued with such a world view. It begins much earlier than most of us realize, pediatricians and parents included. “When it comes to imagination and learning, prefrontal immaturity allows children to be superadults,” is how Gopnik describes such early capacities. This imagination and learning are making an appearance rather late in my life. Fortunately.
Counterfactual thinking is what lies at the root of imagination. Gopnik describes it as “woulda-coulda-shoulda thinking” and it’s something very young children are quite good at. It’s a way to make causal connections that give imagination its logic: “I would be able to fly if I could get big winds lift me up.” Explore and evolve creative possibilities from that wishful fantasy and you evolve to today’s Boeing Dreamlifter with a takeoff weight of over 800,000 pounds!
But counterfactual thinking, is something I’m not very good at when my system is flooded with glucocorticoids. Few of us are. I tend to hold a narrow focus and creativity is nowhere to be found. In addition, at times when I see things out in the world that disturb me, there’s little awareness in the moment that perhaps it’s my own neuro-cardio physiology that needs adjusting. I need to get myself relocated to different environments, inside and outside.
One Central Learning
One thing I would decree as a Central Learning for myself at this late date goes something like this: whenever I’m upset for any reason that is not the result of an immediate threat to my life, I have work to do. And my work is to find ways to restore my neurophysiology to levels that allow my natural empathogens to kick in so they can do their job. In other words, doing the work of moving away from fear-based thinking, and returning to creativity and counterfactual thinking. It is precisely such work that holds the possibility of growing and strengthening the eyes of the heart.