As a kid, I kept secrets from my older sister and most everyone else. One secret I can clearly remember involved seeing her standing bare-naked outside my bedroom listening at the stairwell to the loud argument erupting downstairs. My mother and her boyfriend were slurring their way through another drunken scream-fest. Andrea presumably thought I was sleeping, but just as the yelling had awakened her, it woke me as well. I remember staring, excited and transfixed by her naked, 16-year-old breasts. This is the first time I’ve ever disclosed that incident.
Another secret I kept from her and everyone else was how broken-hearted I was when my mother threw her out of our house and I didn’t see her again for seven years. Seven years turned out to be too much time for severed trust to transform into full repair. We were all victims. There was no one to blame.
Had I known only a few of the ways secrets impoverish the brain, especially secrets that involve a broken heart, I would certainly have disclosed those two long before now.
A Collection of Rival Territories
In 1909, Korbinian Brodmann, a German neuroanatomist took a close look at the human brain and decided that, based upon the different cell types present and the various thicknesses in different layerings visible under his microscope, he could divide the brain into 43 distinct areas. He did this and assigned numbers to each – a map we’re still using today. Like the struggle for real estate that takes place in the Middle East, these different brain areas rival one another for empire-building and expressive dominance (I’ve written at length about what a despotic bully the left hemisphere can be, for example). As many brain researchers will attest, it’s often a war zone in there. More benevolently, if a visual area goes unused for an appreciable period, it will frequently find itself peacefully annexed and appended to hearing and/or motor areas.
Your Own Private Neuro-Gaza
Much like the struggles in the Middle East, secrets operate to pit one part of the brain against others. The part of my brain that knows secrets are divisive and stress-generating – the orbitofrontal cortex – wants to have this condition resolved. Another part that realizes perhaps how messy and complicated and even more stressful disclosing the secret might be, wants to keep everything under wraps. What to do?
David Eagleman, is an irrepressible assistant professor who studies brains at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. You may have seen him on various talk shows or making the Youtube lecture circuit talking about things like neuroscience and ethics and neuroscience and law (I believe one day we will take neuroscience into the courtroom in a big way. When we do we will discover that current authoritarian courtroom procedures are cruel and unusual punishment that end up doing further damage to defendant’s already seriously compromised brains).
Anyway, Dr. David also has a lot to say about the adverse impact on our brain of keeping secrets. First of all, secrets long-kept raise the level of stress hormones in the brain and body. Since the brain greatly dislikes high stress hormone levels, one part of it will continually vote against the part of your brain that wants to keep the secret…raising stress hormone levels even higher.
Anita Kelly, a psychologist at Notre Dame has studied secret-keepers for many years. Here’s what she has to say by way of summarizing her research: “Quite simply … secretive people also tend to be sick people … I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that being secretive could be linked to being symptomatic at a biological level.” Which makes sense if we subscribe to the theory that high levels of stress hormones compromise the immune system. Considerable research makes that theory useful to subscribe to: if we want a good guideline for remaining healthy, don’t keep secrets.
Confession and Apology
The Catholic Church has long practiced the Sacrament of Penance, also known as Confession. At the level of our neurophysiology, confessing our trespasses, secrets and sins and then doing something deliberate and heartfelt as penance, can serve as an effective stress hormone reduction process (as does living human lives by the Ten Commandments, coincidentally enough). It’s a good thing.
Another good thing is The Apology Page that teachers, Stephen and Ondrea Levine have created. It’s an anonymous Internet Sanctuary where you can post anything you care to concerning regrets, guilt, fear, unkindnesses, amends, mistakes – unskillful actions of any denomination – and Ondrea has promised to read each and every one. Simply reading some of the apologies others have made on the page can soften our feelings of isolation and shame.
Finally, here’s another secret I’ve been keeping for way too long: in the 70 years my sister Andrea was alive, I never once told her how proud of her I was, and that … I loved her. Ann, I know how much you had to overcome to be the force for good you were in the world … I love you.