When I was in my early forties I bought a piece of property that had a run-down, 100 year old barn on it. The plan was to restore the barn to its former structural glory and then live in it. But building and zoning regulations turned out to make that project financially prohibitive; the barn would have to be torn down (Note to Self: Check zoning and building regs before signing future real estate purchase agreements).
My initial impulse was to hire a guy with a bulldozer and a dump truck and have the thing razed in two days for a couple thousand dollars. But sitting one day out on the two foot by three foot oak beam that spanned the whole second story, I thought, “What a waste of some beautiful raw materials.” Then I got the idea to put an ad in the Palo Alto Weekly to see if anyone might want to dismantle that barn and recycle those materials. Jonathan did.
Since I was in no rush to remove the structure – I needed to draw and submit all new plans to the building department – Jonathan had four whole months to take that barn apart piece by loving piece. First he took several hundred pictures, then as he pulled each peg and each nail, and numbered each board, he piled them on his flatbed trailer and hauled a dozen truckloads of barn up to his property in the Santa Cruz mountains. Two years later I went to visit and was proudly shown the barn fully, and soundly restored … as an actual barn in beautiful working order.
Barn as Brain-Body
Carl Jung claimed that buildings often show up in dreams (waking and sleeping) as symbols for the psyche. And in fact, the brain is constructed in very much the same fashion that buildings are: piece by piece over some period of time (in case you were wondering about the shortest amount of time ever taken to build a whole house, including foundation, interior sheetrock, trim, painting and landscaping, it’s … 2 hours, 59 minutes, 29 seconds!). Brains, however, take a lifetime to build and they are perpetually in the process of being remodeled. And that’s a good thing.
In much the same way that kitchens and bathrooms serve as the starting point for most home remodeling, two important processes that drive the brain’s remodeling activity are the “No” Circuitry and the “Reward” Circuitry. The No Circuitry is closely related to the prefrontal cortex’s primary job of initiating and managing Executive Function. We need circuitry that operates like the CEO of a business; circuitry that can easily say “No” to all the things that don’t ideally serve us over the long run in the great scheme of life. And we need that circuitry to be sufficiently strong so that No really means No – it’s essential for shaping and maintaining our Ordo Amorum. It’s a primary parental function to help us build our No Circuitry. Here’s one example – my mother repeatedly warned me to stay away from people who weren’t going to be good for me or to me (of course, I didn’t listen). But eventually I did learn the truth of the need for that bit of neuro-discernment – in any moment, some people are just not a good match for my personal psycho-spiritual developmental trajectory. Best to spend my time with people who are.
The Myth of Introversion
Where the relational Reward Circuitry is often most in evidence is when the brain is developing in childhood. If kids spend time with other kids and have a great time, what gets activated over and over again is the Reward Circuitry. These are the circuits in the brain that most often release endorphins, dopamine and serotonin – the feel-good brain molecules. Over time our brain associates feeling super good with being around other people, and an extrovert is born.
But if other people initially show up as threats early in our lives, then neuroception (threat detection without awareness) tends to insure that we won’t be spending much time around other people, since they build out neurons in our fear center and don’t make us feel very good. And thus an introvert is born (obviously many more factors than just this go into the formation of a whole personality).
But neither end of this spectrum needs to remain permanently fixed. We can actually grow brain cells and connections in the Reward Circuitry in response to other people. How? By finding non-threatening people we don’t become neuroceptively high-jacked around and begin to spend more and more time with them (this is actually one way that introverts manage to acquire mates).
To learn more about brain remodeling and the acute need for it, let me offer you this challenge: cancel your next therapy appointment, or the Netflix movie you’ve rented, and instead, spend the hour listening to this recent talk by Bruce Perry on Empathy Endangered. In the talk he describes why it’s essential to repair much of the damage that was done in childhood to the social brain of many of us. I think you will end up more than a little hopeful, excited and ready to wholeheartedly take on the brain rebuilding process.