If you’re like me, most of you probably have at least a mild case of ODD – Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It seems to be a built-in cost for pursuing freedom, independence and autonomy. Not ODD all the time, but often enough. For me these days, it often reactively emerges when I watch the silly stuff that’s supposed to pass for “governance” by our elected officials.
But if I tell the truth, I’ve been pretty oppositional and defiant since I was a kid. I was on a first name basis with Bob, the district Truant Officer – the odds of me showing up at school on any day were about 50-50. I got expelled the first time in fifth grade for stomping 30 foot high profanity in the new snow on the hill behind the school. In high school I was given the Kid-With-the-Most-Days-Absent-But-Still-Graduating Award. I never bothered with the SATs, and I had absolutely zero interest in college.
In kindergarten 98% of the kids recognize themselves as creative and by the end of high school they morph into 98% who don’t. That kind of school system – as international educator, Ken Robinson points out in his TED Talk, viewed almost 28 million times – is something any healthy kid with half a brain is smart to be defiant and oppositional about. Or else that’s pretty much what they’ll end up with: half a brain! Much less in fact, at least where creativity is concerned.
In addition to finding school pretty stultifying, I also found New England culture pretty rigid, authoritarian and repressive – a deadly neurological combination in my experience. To my young brain, it was like the collective congregation of excitatory neurons in the brains of the people living there had all unwittingly turned inhibitory. Not a lot of life energy pulsating there in my world. So as soon as I was done with school, even before I legally turned 18, I left New England and hit the road for California. It was 1964.
That move had its ups and downs. If New England was constricting and rigid, Los Angeles showed up at the other extreme. It was there I got introduced to sex and drugs (I was already corrupted by rock and roll); one time I ended up at a “private night” at Disneyland high on LSD. Mickey, Goofy and Pluto have never been the same for me since. Disneyland turned out to be anything but a Small World Afterall.
Glass Half Smashed
It was in Los Angeles I realized that on the Glass-Half-Empty/Glass-Half-Full Continuum, I often tended to show up ODDly on the empty side. My brain just loved a juicy Doomsday Dystopia Scenario.
I say “my brain” loved it, because I recently came across some yummy new research that clearly implicates it, and not me for my ODD world view. It turns out that when you grow up in an especially dangerous and oppressive neighborhood, stress hormones go to work building out structures in the body and brain required to help you manage things in the ‘hood. Adrenaline and cortisol make the brain powerfully imprint memories of trauma and threat onto the network in order to be able to steer clear of similar dangers when they show up later down the road. In other words, you become “street smart.”
But those smarts come at a cost, and it’s a high one at that. My brain and yours have a finite capacity for resource allocation. If we allocate resources to insure safety in the “low-income” areas, e.g. the limbic structures, and build up the fear and trauma memory centers, we are neurologically mandated to reduce the resources we allocate to the “uptown” neighborhoods – the higher order cognitive centers corresponding with the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Those would involve things like kindness, compassion, altruism, creativity, generativity and such. The inner world of an ODD-fellow too often shows up as just the opposite of those things.
The Bad News is Not All Bad
Fortunately, through the grace of evolutionary design, the brain is “plastic.” It operates in a constant state of change and flux, doing its best to adapt to whatever environment it finds itself in. Place it in Disneyland on drugs and it will adapt to that Magic Kingdom. Place it in a safe, stimulating environment with other healthy brains and it will begin to trim down structures like the habenula, which is constantly on the alert for and trying to predict nasty life events. It’s an unhappy habenula which tends to make me oppositional and defiant and makes my glass frequently show up half empty (and that jack-of-all brain parts also turns out to be responsible for making me a couch potato! Which makes sense, since there’s usually little danger found in my living room with me curled up on the couch).
And now we both know what our work in the world is – it’s to create environments and relationships that will allow us to dismantle the fear/stress wiring and increase the kindness, compassion, altruism, creativity, and generativity wiring; to take on the task – clearly at odds with the dominant world culture – of increasing the wiring of love.