Recently I heard an interview of famed cellist Yo Yo Ma by Tavis Smiley talking about his musical collection, Playlist Without Borders. During the dialogue Yo Yo actually turned the tables and asked Tavis an interview question. As I recall, it was something like: “Imagine you’re at the end of your life – what are you most jazzed about that’s unfolded between now and then?”
Tavis gave what I consider the Healthy Brain-Connected-to-Heart Answer: “I’ve continued to work on myself to increasingly express kindness, empathy and love in the world.”
To my mind, this is essentially the mark of an increasingly healthy, integrated brain. This is where we are all ideally going to end up neurologically-speaking, if we play our playlist right. And believe it or not, neuroscience has a pretty good idea of the integrative circuitry that needs to increase in size and connectivity, and pretty much where that increasing bandwidth and deepening connectivity needs to unfold.
Much like the fiber network for the Internet has been built out, our fiber network needs to be expanded between the emotional, limbic structures buried deep in the brain, and the prefrontal parts. That would be at the “Third Eye” area of Bindi fame, right in the middle of your forehead. In order for that area to become “certified for occupancy,” an interesting shift needs to take place. That shift is documented in this research by Judson Brewer and his colleagues at Yale.
Here’s the way it seems to work, self-centered thinking and self-referenced concerns are mostly associated with the rear areas of the cingulate cortex firing electro-chemical action potentials and lighting up the posterior part of the cingulate cortex (or PCC).
This bridging area is far removed from the Bindi area (the PreFrontal Cortex or PFC), consequently Von Economo neurons, some of the neurons with the longest wires (axons) extending from Cell Central, aren’t sufficiently long enough to make it all the way to the PFC. They come up way short.
What’s required instead is wiring from the bridge circuitry in the front of the Cingulate Cortex (the Anterior Cingulate Cortex or ACC) be built out. What’s necessary to build that area out? Well, the evidence isn’t fully in, but preliminary results show the Resonance Circuitry between the Limbic Structures through the ACC over to the PFC lights up most strongly when … we’re most focused on being a help to other people. If you’ve been reading this column for awhile, you know that I’ve been preaching the research news that altruism grows the brain in beneficial ways for several years now. And we’re beginning to finally understand precisely how this works to change the brain.
But you don’t have to take my word for it, go out into your own community and do something kind for someone else. Pay attention to how you feel, especially after the initial waves of anxiety subside. I’m guessing the massive hits of dopamine bathing your reward centers will be all the “scientific” validation you’ll need.
Top Five Regrets of the Dying
Bronnie Ware is an Australian palliative care nurse. She learned a few things about playing playlists and harmonizing dissonances hanging out with people at the end of life. Here are five of them that deliberately addressing might work to help harmonize dissonances in your own life:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not a life others expected of me.
This was the most common regret. When people realize that their life is almost over, it becomes easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had honored only a small number of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made, most often dictated or influenced by others.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the work treadmill.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep the peace. As a result, they settled for an emotionally mediocre existence. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
We cannot control the reactions of others. Although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases an unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often patients would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common regret. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is often a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called “comfort” of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to themselves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life.
So just imagine: what’s unfolded between now and the end of your life that you’re super-jazzed and have no regrets about? That’s a question I’m asking each of you reading this blog. Feel free to respond here in the Comments section, or feel free and happy to send me a private email.
ANOTHER REMINDER: Dr. Liz Adams and I will be offering a weekend in Narrative Medicine at Bastyr University. You can find the details HERE: The Art and Practice of Narrative Medicine. For those of you NOT in the Seattle area here’s the promised online offering, which, for many reasons, will be limited to 12 people on a first come-first served basis.