Growing up poor in the Rockview Housing Projects made every day feel like my safety was at risk. I quickly learned who the most damaged, dangerous people were, and I did my best to steer clear of them. Nevertheless, Bruce Bowler, an older teen from a neighboring project once came upon my friend Donny and me alone out in the woods and decided to make us his slaves for a day. Another time down in the same woods, Charlie MacDuffie wanted to show me how accurate his aim was with a BB gun. He gave me to the count of five to get as far away from him as I could before he began shooting. Cleveland Benjamin once slashed me three times with a straight razor just to show me how sharp it was. Fortunately, I was able to avoid Jocko Mixon, who no one had to tell me was bad news: he ended up doing 25 to life in prison for murdering his girlfriend.
Living Life on Red Alert
Faced with grave threat every day of my life growing up put my nervous system on constant Red Alert. Base levels of adrenaline and cortisol are necessarily raised in order to be able to fight or flee whenever circumstances suddenly demanded either. Because the energy and informational capacity of the neural network is limited in all of us – what we pay most attention to grows the most resources. In my case, I was forced to build out and maintain my limbic structures early. But this developmental focus came at a cost: underdevelopment of the “higher order” structures in my brain, specifically, the anterior cingulate (ACC) and the orbital prefrontal cortex. These structures are critical to massively connect up with the rest of the brain if any of us are going to walk through the world fearlessly with a compassionate heart. Here’s what Pennsylvania University neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has to say about the ACC in the book, How God Changes the Brain:
To bridge the gap between the “old” and the “new” brains, a special structure appears to have recently evolved – the anterior cingulate. It connects our emotions with our cognitive skills, playing a crucial role in emotional self-control, focused problem-solving, and error recognition.
The best way to describe the relationship between your emotional limbic system, your frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate is to visualize an imaginary seesaw. The emotional limbic system, which includes the fear-producing amygdala, has a reciprocal relationship with your frontal lobes and our ability to use logic, reason, and language. The anterior cingulate, which sits right in the middle between the limbic system and the frontal lobes, acts like a fulcrum, balancing your feelings and thoughts. If you get too emotional, blood flows into the limbic system, stimulating alertness, defensiveness, and fear in the amygdala. Just like a seesaw, as activity goes up in the limbic area, activity goes down in the frontal lobes. Thus, when you’re angry or anxious, you stop being logical or reasonable, and your cognitive skills are suppressed.
When the amygdala becomes active, the anterior cingulate shuts down, which allows your reptilian brain to run the show. Empathy and intuition decline, and you lose your ability to accurately assess how other people feel.
On the other hand, if your frontal lobes become active, you stimulate the anterior cingulate, which slows down activity in the amygdala. Thus logic and reason subdue anger and fear. It’s that simple. A strong frontal – anterior cingulate circuit also inhibits anxiety, depression and rage.
It is this modulating capacity of the anterior cingulate that has led neuroscientists to call it “the heart in the brain.” This is the structure responsible for heart-felt sentiments, for compassion- ate expression, for the soft feelings of love. Apparently, thanks to von Economo spindle neurons alive and well in the ACC – which integrate thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and guide us away from negative emotions and towards positive ones – there exists much more than only reptile love in the world.
So, how do we strengthen the ACC-prefrontal circuit? Knowing how the brain works is a great place to begin. Also, recognizing that what “fires together, wires together,” and if you don’t use it, you lose it. It is for this reason that many spiritual traditions urge us to “be the change we want to see in the world.” The more we use the circuitry involved in the Heart in the Brain, the stronger it becomes, the more robust the neurons in those circuits become, and the more we’re then able to use them. The wisdom teaching that says, to those who have, more will be given, is simply stating a neurological truism. But we actually have to do work in the world that truly works to strengthen the heart in the brain. I suspect such work also extends benefits for the heart in the heart as well, perhaps even the 10,000 rpm continuous-flow, non-beating mechanical heart!