Earlier this year a friend whom I greatly admire and respect – let’s call him Justin – received notice that his landlord had sold the house he was living in and Justin would have to move out. Surprised by the notice, Justin didn’t have the thousands of dollars he needed to immediately move into a new place, mostly because the landlord refused to return his cleaning and security deposit until after he moved.
I could tell Justin was seriously stressed by this situation and too proud to ask to borrow money from me, so I took the initiative and offered to lend him the amount he needed to relocate. Reluctantly, he agreed to accept my offer and promised to pay me back in full within 45 days.
Well, you can probably guess what happened. The 45 days came and went with no word from Justin. No money, either. Another two weeks passed – still no word. I sent an email asking what was going on? Then a message to his voicemail. Nothing.
Starving My Feedback Loops
Interestingly, while I was certainly concerned about the money, what I was thinking about most was what I knew was happening to Justin’s brain. Not to mention, my own. And it wasn’t pretty. Below is a graphic illustration of how neural networks develop in children. They continue to develop this way as well in adulthood, only much more slowly and with significantly greater complexity. Unless, of course, they don’t, for example when adults stop learning.
What primarily drives the increasing numbers of connections in the brain are feedback loops. And what we know from the attachment literature is that the most powerful feedback loops – the ones that most predictably produce Secure Attachment – are most often the result of Contingent Communication. I’ve written a LOT about this kind of serve-and-return relationship requirement over the years, mostly because of how powerful a network enricher contingent communication actually turns out to be.
Except for when it isn’t. Which is what unpaid debts essentially end up being. People break off contact and the feedback loops stop. It’s not unlike a death. The serve part takes place when the loan is granted, but without the return part – the promised payment actually being made – little growth and connectivity results. Rather, just the opposite happens, in fact – disconnection. Impoverished networks comprised of cells that look more like the first three networks in the illustration above are the often the result when positive, loop-closing feedback fails to follow. It’s one reason prison’s use solitary confinement as punishment (which I have little doubt the Founding Fathers would today consider cruel and unusual punishment. Many in prison have already suffered more than their share of grief and loss).
Network impoverishment is what happens when money promised doesn’t get repaid. The result is often stress and shame and avoidance on the part of the borrower. It’s not all that great on the lender’s neurophysiology, either (I literally had a pain in my ass for three months as a result of a compressed sciatic nerve). This only adds to the impoverishment of the neural network. And we know how bad that is for the network from the many posts I’ve written about how acute and chronic stress sever the adherence proteins necessary to keep the network from unraveling. But an impoverished network is only one adverse consequence. There are others.
It Actually IS What You Think
One of the great gifts that Jill Bolte Taylor gave us in writing about her stroke and recovery through the eyes of a brain scientist, is her account of how language and implicit memory work hand in hand – mostly how our Silent Witness observes everything we say, think and do and then goes to work to make up a narrative about what it observes. What kind of story do you think Justin’s Silent Witness went to work and made up about him? Let me take a stab at authoring it for you.
“Justin is a guy who owes money and doesn’t pay it back (the Silent Witness is very careful and accurate with pronouns. It prefers the third person, too). Justin’s word can’t be counted upon. Justin doesn’t answer the Big Brain Question for himself or his friends. Justin doesn’t understand the enormous benefit to him of Irrational Commitment or the network-building power of feedback loops.”
The Brain Embodies the Narrative
Each of those thoughts unfortunately, rarely makes its way into full blown consciousness. Defense Mechanisms go to work and keep them under wraps. But they remain alive and unwell, buried in the unconscious, consigned to the depths of implicit memory. Justin’s body, however, is fully aware of the messages, from the stomach to the heart to the adrenal glands. And those kinds of unconscious, implicit actions, thoughts and observations – to the extent that they add to Justin’s allostatic load – all have serious somatic impact.
How Best to Borrow Money
- Make your word your bond. Be extremely careful and discerning about the promises you make.
- Agree to a payback schedule that has a 90%+ probability of being met. This is essentially what Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize in Economics for doing with his Grameen Bank. He started people off who had the money networks of a three year old and incrementally grew them into responsible adulthood one small graduated, contingent loan loop at a time..
- Consider the promises you make to be like the Irrational Commitments that healthy parents make to their children from before birth – healthy parents will do everything in their power to keep the promises they make to their children. Do likewise with the promises you make to adult children.
- If circumstances arise that prevent you from keeping your word – keep the feedback loop operating. Don’t break off communication. Broken feedback loops are as bad as broken promises. Maybe even worse, because of the pains in the ass they correlate with.
- Find sterling role models to help you work to become Brilliantly Sane in the handling of your own financial affairs.