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For the few of  you who may not know, The Darwin Awards are a tongue-in-cheek honor that originated in Usenet newsgroup discussions around 1985. Begun by Stanford neurobiologist Wendy Northcutt, they recognize individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death or sterilization as a result of their own actions.

Image result for darwin awardExamples of recent Darwin Award winners include the gentleman who thought it was a good idea to try and take a selfie together with a bear in the wild. Or this young man who accidentally shot off his own sausage at the meat counter in an Arizona Walmart. Or these two guys who thought it would be a fun challenge to race up a drawbridge while it was opening in their little Chevy hybrid to see if they could fly on over to the other side. They succeeded in flying over to the “other side,” just not the one they were aiming for. R.I.P.

From a neuroscience perspective, all of these young men were doing their best thinking and taking the best actions the connections in their neural networks would allow in each of those moments. They were all doing their “situational best.” The unfortunate result for each of them turned out to be an “Oh Shit” moment. I’ve had a number of such moments myself over my seven-plus decades. Fortunately, none of them won me a Darwin Award. The primary reason? I believe I learned early on how chronic stress can literally unravel brain wiring.

Situational Best

To do your “situational best” means you realize that your brain contains 86 billion neurons making a thousand trillion (one quadrillion) constantly changing connections. The fact that such complexity is even a little bit manageable is something truly marvelous. Take into account all the out-of-your-control factors—the missed appointment, your partner’s whims, the oppressive humidity—and respond the best you can. In other words, all any of us can do at any time in our lives is our situational best.

Image result for stress

Stress Can Impact Brain Wiring

To do your situational best is to deploy something neurobiologists call response flexibility or fluid intelligence. It often means realizing that when – in the immortal words of “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski – “new shit has come to light,” we have the wherewithal to change our thinking and acting in response to changing conditions. This is essentially an Executive Function. Not all of us have access to it all the time. Robust Executive Function results when lots of wiring from all around the brain somehow manages to congregate and connect together in the PFC (Prefrontal Cortex). Some of us never grow that wiring, which can be profoundly adversely impacted by elevated stress hormones. And some of us are simply delayed in its development (There are activities we can engage in that research suggests can positively impact prefrontal connectivity. Email me at FloweringBrain@gmail.com and ask for the PFC Paradox pdf and I’ll be happy to send it to you). 

Your situational best means doing, to the best of your abilities based on what each given moment presents, whatever your in-the-moment neurobiology will allow. Recognizing the limitations of our brain wiring means that all of us are doing our situational best at all times in every instant. The good news is that in any subsequent instant, our situational best can be even better than the moment before. 

When Our Situational Best Would Have Us Do Nothing

A number of years ago I wrote a blog about a chimney fire at my house a few days before Christmas. My immediate situational best upon discovering the blaze was to simply freeze. In the next moment, though, at the prompting of a Good Samaritan, my situational best became “get a hose, climb up on the roof and spray water on the flames.” That Samaritan’s prompting dynamically changed my brain wiring connectivity in an instant.

Which brings us to The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience: “a more organized brain can help organize a less organized brain.” A corollary of the Golden Rule is that “all of us have the potential to be better and smarter than any one of us.” And any one of us can help any other one of us from ending up an unintended Darwin Award winner. Do your situational best! (As if we can do anything but).

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Brain-Befriending Death

“Love and death are two great gifts in life. Mostly they are passed on unopened.”  ~ Rilke

If you ask 100 people on the street if they’re afraid of death, a great many will directly answer “No.” You might think there are no thanatophobes living among us. And yet, Terror Management Theory researchers know that, whether we consciously admit it or not, our brains and bodies wildly fear death and consistently do everything in our power to turn away from it.

In their book, The WImage result for new twin towersorm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski write, “Over the course of human history, the terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics and science. It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in New York.”

To protect us from the reality that our embodied time here on earth is finite – we all come with an expiration date – Terror Management Theory’s Stephen Cave, a Cambridge metaphysicist, has identified the four edited “immortality stories” below that we regularly tell ourselves and act out in our lives to help our brains and bodies keep our stress hormone levels at least a little bit manageable.

The Elixir Story 

The Elixir Story is the simplest. We want to avoid death, and the dream of doing that in this body in this world forever is the first and simplest kind of immortality story. It might sound implausible, but actually, almost every culture in human history has had some myth or legend of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth – something that promises to keep us going forever. Image result for magic elixirThroughout European history, we find them in the work of the alchemists, and of course we still believe this today, only we tell this story using the vocabulary of science. So 100 years ago, hormones had just been discovered, and people hoped that hormone treatments were going to cure aging and disease, and now instead we set our hopes on stem cells, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. But the idea that science can cure death is just one more chapter in the story of the magical elixir, a story that is as old as civilization. Betting everything on the idea of finding the elixir and staying alive forever is a risky strategy. When we look back through history at all those who have sought an elixir in the past, the one thing they now have in common is that they’re all dead. Listen up, Ray Kurzweil and your merry band of Transhumanists.

The Resurrection Story 

The Resurrection Story stays with the idea that I am this body, I am this physical organism. It accepts that I’m going to have to die but says, despite that, I can rise up and I can live again. In other words, I can do what Jesus did. Jesus died, he was three days dead, and then he rose up and lived again. And the idea that we can all be resurrected to live again is an orthodox belief, not just for Christians but also Jews and Muslims. But our desire to believe this story is so deeply embedded that we are reinventing it again for the scientific age, for example, with cryonics. That’s the idea that when you die, you can have yourself frozen, and then, at some point when technology has advanced enough, you can be thawed out and repaired and revived and so resurrected. And so some people believe an omnipotent god will resurrect them to live again, and other people believe an omnipotent scientist will do it.

Soul Immortality Story

The Soul or Spiritual Immortality Story embraces the idea that we can leave our body behind and live on as a soul. Image result for eternal soulNow, the majority of people on Earth believe they have a soul, and the idea is central to many religions. But even though, in its current form, in its traditional form, the idea of the soul is still hugely popular, nonetheless we are again reinventing it for the digital age, for example with the idea that you can leave your body behind by uploading your mind, your essence, the real you, onto a computer, and so live on as an avatar in the ether. Be prepared to accessorize around the color blue.

The Legacy Story

Related imageThe last immortality story is The Legacy Story, the idea that you can live on through the echo you leave in the world, like the great Greek warrior Achilles, who sacrificed his life fighting at Troy so that he might win immortal fame. And the pursuit of fame is as widespread and popular now as it ever was, and in our digital age, it’s even easier to achieve. You don’t need to be a great warrior like Achilles or a great king or hero. All you need is an Internet connection and a funny cat. But some people prefer to leave a more tangible, biological legacy — children, for example. Or they like, they hope, to live on as part of some greater whole, a nation or a family or a tribe, their gene pool. But again, there are skeptics who doubt whether legacy really is immortality. Woody Allen, for example, who said, “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”

Implicit in each of these stories live our brains, bodies and minds. I’m currently putting together an online presentation that weaves my own learning over 50 years of death studies and teaching, together with my last 15 years of neuroscience study. The intention of the presentation is to help us make friends with death (or at least help us find ways to manage our neurophys- iology) and be able to perhaps turn a little bit toward the reality of our eventual transition. If you’re at all interested email: giftsofloveanddeath@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to notify you when the presentation is ready to explore together.

 

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1. Get the sleep your body needs.

Sleep needs are different for each of us. I once heard the wisdom teacher, J. Krishnamurti proclaim that he needed no sleep whatsoever (if he wasn’t lying, I assumed that he somehow learned to process while awake what most of us need sleep to process and integrate). Timing, length and quality of sleep all influence cortisol levels. Image result for garbage collectionInsomnia causes high cortisol levels for up to 24 hours. Interruptions to sleep, even if brief, can also increase your levels and disrupt daily hormone patterns. During sleep is when the brain takes out the neurotrash. We literally get brainwashed. Lack of sufficient sleep is similar to an extended garbage strike in Chicago, San Francisco or New York. You wouldn’t want to live there for very long.

7. Learn About Adrenal Function

A Impoverished Neurons

Stress Withers Brain Cells

The adrenal glands secrete varying amounts of stress hormones all through the day. Intense exercise, for example, increases cortisol secretion. During sleep secretion decreases. Increased secretion during the day helps coordinate body function to meet life challenges. 

Problems begin when daily stress becomes elevated and chronic with few opportunities for cortisol and other stress hormones to become fully metabolized. Over time, elevated levels of stress hormones can become neurotoxins and compromise brain function. And compromised brain function can then adversely impact immune function and compromise our health and well-being.

8. Cultivate Healthy Relationships

Friends and family are a source of great happiness in life, as well as great stress. These dynamics are played out in our cortisol levels. Cortisol is incorporated in tiny amounts into your hair. The amounts of cortisol along the length of a hair even correspond to cortisol levels at the time that part of the hair was growing. This allows researchers to estimate stress levels over time. Studies of cortisol in hair show that children with a stable and warm family life have lower levels than children from homes with high levels of conflict.

Within couples, conflict results in a short-term elevation in cortisol, followed by return to normal levels. A study of conflict styles in 88 couples found nonjudgmental mindfulness or empathy led to a more rapid return of cortisol to normal levels following an argument.

9. Care for a pet.

Relationships with animal companions can also reduce stress hormones. In one study, interactions with a therapy dog reduced distress and resulting cortisol changes during a minor medical procedure in children.

Another study of 48 adults showed that contact with a dog was better than support from a friend during a socially stressful situation.

A third study tested the cortisol-reducing effect of canine companionship in pet owners compared to non-pet-owners. Non-pet-owners experienced a greater drop in cortisol when they were given canine companions, likely because pet owners had already benefited from the friendship of their animals at the beginning of the study. Interestingly, pets experience similar benefits following positive interactions, suggesting animal companionship is mutually beneficial.

10. Recognize and replace stressful thinking.

State drives story. Stressful thoughts are an important signal for cortisol release.

A study of 122 adults found that writing about past stressful experiences increased cortisol over one month compared to writing about positive life experiences or plans for the day.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a strategy that involves becoming more self-aware of stress-provoking thoughts and replacing worrying or anxiety with a focus on acknowledging and understanding stressful thoughts and emotions. One caveat: be sure your MBSR instructor is trauma-informed. Training yourself to be aware of your thoughts, breathing, heart rate and other signs of tension helps you recognize stress when it begins.

By focusing on awareness of your mental and physical state, you can become an objective observer of your stressful thoughts, instead of a victim of them. Recognizing stressful thoughts allows you to formulate a conscious and deliberate reaction to them. A study of 43 women in a mindfulness-based program showed the ability to describe and articulate stress was linked to a lower cortisol response.

11. Spend time with a spiritual community.

If you consider yourself spiritual, developing your faith can also help improve cortisol. Studies show that adults who expressed spiritual faith experienced lower cortisol levels in the face of life stressors such as illness. This was true even after studies took into account the potential cortisol-lowering effects of social support from faith-based groups. Prayer is also associated with reduced anxiety and depression.

12. Practice Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is a way of reading that few of us were ever taught to do in school. Translated from the Latin, it means: divine reading. Historically, it refers to a way of reading religious scripture or other wisdom teachings. It’s also how many people learn to read poetry. Lectio Divina is not about acquiring information or learning what experts have to say. In the words of Cynthia Bourgeault, “Lectio Divina is about allowing the text to break open and resonate in the authority of your own heart.” I currently have two books I’m in my fifth and seventh readings of in this manner. Email me and ask and I’ll tell you what books they are.

 

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There’s a well-traveled teaching story that many of you have heard, I’m sure. It goes like this:

A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe.

“Better get in, preacher. The water’s rising fast.”Image result for rising flood waters

“No,” says the preacher. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”

Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when another guy zips up in a motorboat.

“Come on, preacher. We need to get you out of here. The levee’s gonna break any minute.”

Once again, the preacher is unmoved. “I shall remain. The Lord will see me through.”

After a while the levee breaks, and the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The preacher is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, and a rescue worker calls down to him through a megaphone.

“Grab the ladder, preacher. This is your last chance.”

Once again, the preacher insists the Lord will deliver him.

And, predictably, the waters continue to rise and he drowns.

A pious man, the preacher goes to heaven. After a while he gets an interview with God, and he asks the Almighty, “Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn’t you deliver me from that flood?”

God shakes his head. “What do you want from me? I sent you one boat, then another, and then a helicopter.”

Clearly, this God is not trauma-informed. S/he doesn’t know jack about Polyvagal Theory. When flood waters are rising, stress hormones can rise to levels that literally immobilize human beings – dorsal vagal shutdown (I can’t tell you how much of my life has been spent in this numb, helpless state, often without me ever realizing it, even today. It used to be called “learned helplessness”). Dissociation, blind faith and magical thinking can often take over. State drives story. We don’t need a God head-shaking because the humans s/he supposedly created come with neurobiological structural and developmental vulnerabilities. We need a God who sends help that wears neon jackets that broadcast “Red Cross,” “God Squad,” or “Divine Interventionist” if that’s what it’s going to take to trust and be able to accept the help that shows up when we most need it. We don’t need paradox, nuance or teachable moments when our brain and body functioning has been compromised by stress hormones. This little crocheted finger puppet does a better job of answering The Big Brain Question in a trauma-informed way than the Gods of many contemporary religions.

Stress Bell Curve

Getting God to Listen

So, how can we each contribute to informing God about trauma? We can start by becoming well-informed ourselves. We can work to become Adrenal Ninjas. We might begin by being more than a little curious about our own neurobiology. We can begin to pay increasingly granular attention to what various levels of stress hormones feel like in our body and brain. With practice we may begin to notice the exact moment our stress levels jump the hump in the bell curve illustration above.

Any number of things can work to elevate stress hormones and catapult us over the top and out of the green Goldilocks Zone of human functioning – an unkind word, thought or deed delivered by ourselves or someone else; a negative judgment, spoken or unspoken, coming from inside or out; an unexpected financial expense; flashing lights in our rearview mirror. Each of these can serve as fruit for the juicer for a personal stress hormone metabolization practice. Metabolization is a biotransformation process by which some substances are broken down to yield energy for vitality, while other substances necessary for life, are  synthesized. Any number of things can serve as such a personal metabolization practice. Tune in next time to learn a dozen ways metabolization can be skillfully facilitated.

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This is our brain on health (Salutogenesis). Its neural networks have evolved to allow us to skillfully process the energy and information of our daily lives. For most of us, much of the time, more network capacity is better than less network capacity.

Purple Network A

This is our brain responding to kindness, compassion and connection.

Purple Network C

This is our brain reacting to the toxic stress of being a despot, a criminal or corrupt politician. Compare it and call it Neurokarma.

Purple Network B

Any questions?

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In Russian folklore there is a word describing a wise or Holy Fool. It’s yurodivy. In Russian culture the yurodivy is a social misfit, primarily because he has direct access to truth with a capital T, and he has little concern about protecting people from hearing or experiencing it.

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Adrenal Glands

Because he or she holds “outcast status,” the Holy Fool could care less about what other people think about them. In other words, he or she is … an Adrenal Ninja. Neither their bones nor their adrenal glands nor their neural threat detection circuitry get activated much in the presence of other people’s opinions, judgments or condemnations. This makes a yurodivy free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question social conventions. The child who declares the Emperor is walking around naked has the sensibilities of the Holy Fool. Many children do, in fact. Just ask parents embarrassed to no end by their small children in polite company.

The Rarity That Proves the Rule

Statistical research says that, relative to the larger population, liars, crooks and con men are rare. A yurodivy sees them everywhere. Most currently, evidence of their operation has shown up in the person of whistleblowers in the U.S. intelligence community reporting on the president making deals with foreign governments that are not in America’s or democracy’s best interests. In terms of the stress and disruption to their life, you can assume that these political Holy Fools are going to initially pay a steep price. Hopefully, time and history will be much kinder to them.

Those of us not born with the ability to stresslessly operate in the world with inherent wisdom, would do well to develop practices of mind, body, brain and spirit to help us become Holy Fools, I think. The freedom to think and speak and act freely has creative, liberating elements to it. From the few times I’ve experienced it (in a chemically altered state, I confess) the freedom which that neurobiological state engendered did indeed feel ecstatic.

Practice Makes Pluperfect

What might such practices look like? From my own research and personal experience, I suggest such practices first have to change our neurophysiology. We need to prune and inhibit Image result for osteocalcin functionthreat-detection circuitry that all too often becomes activated and reacts to threats that are not real in terms of actual harm they can deliver to us – negative criticism on social media, our partner’s momentary expression of anger, our children revealing embarrassing personal quirks about us. Our threat-detection circuitry, our body’s cells, our adrenal glands and our bones all work to flood us with stress hormones in response to far too many contemporary false positives. They respond as if many things are potentially life-threatening that really are not.

Live Wired to Connect

After we give the threat-detection circuitry a good trimming, next we’ll need to develop practices that can increase the connectivity up from there to our prefrontal areas, the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) for one. This is the home where Executive Function 101 mostly establishes its base of operations. Increasing that connectivity primarily means that every time our threat-detection circuitry runs wild generating false positives, we catch it quickly and are immediately able to lower our stress hormone levels. One practice I have that has been working well for me in recent years is to ask many times throughout my day, “What’s operating here – wisdom or ignorance?” Invariably, as soon as the question arises, I already know the answer.

Image result for jester's hatContemplative practices come in many flavors. Asking about wisdom or ignorance in response to many of my daily challenges works for me. But anything we truly love to do can be turned into a contemplative practice that can change up our neurobiology for the better. Violinists, for example, massively grow the connectivity area in the brain that activates the fret-fingering hand. Were they simultaneously to place violin-playing into service as a contemplative practice, that connectivity would almost certainly generalize to other parts of the neural network. 

Another contemplative practice might be juggling. Juggling takes concentration and repetition and cultivates connectivity in the brain while at the same time increasing critical white matter. All you need is a quad-partitioned jester’s hat and your persona is complete.

May your journey towards Holy Foolery be filled with wisdom.

 

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I have a friend who has studied financial markets for more than 50 years and become extremely financially successful as a result. For the last three years he’s been informally offering me the benefit of his wisdom and experience.

Last year I researched and found a company that seemed to fit his investing criteria – low priced with the possibility of one or more catalysts to drive the share price higher. Arcadia Research (RKDA) is an agricultural biotech firm born out of the well-regarded agricultural research department at UC Davis outside Sacramento, CA. Three products (of several) they have engineered are high-fiber, starch resistant wheat (Good Wheat), tomatoes that can be allowed to ripen on the vine and not be damaged during shipment, and drought-tolerant soybeans that can continue to be grown in areas of the world that have been adversely affected by global warming. All positive, pro-social endeavors to my mind.

RKDA

The stock first came to my attention when it shot up from $5 to $66 in March of 2018. I’ve learned the hard way NOT to buy on parabolic price spikes like that, but rather to wait until it sells off and the price stabilizes. I bought my first shares in April at $26. By June the stock had fallen to $7 after they issued more stock that diluted the value of company shares for existing shareholders. By December RKDA was selling for $2.60 after they made the surprise announcement they lost a patent-infringement lawsuit they initiated against an Australian cereal company who had hired away one of their key employees. Needless to say, in 2018 I lost a significant amount of money on this investment.

There’s Money to Be Made

Cut to 2019. In February RKDA shows up on my friend’s radar and he opened a small position after they announced they were going to be genetically modifying hemp. The stock price jumped to over $7. I followed suit, even with my history of losing money with the company. I started buying at $5. The price promptly dropped down to $3, after the company announced another dilutive share offering, ostensibly to raise money to buy a Hawaiian pot/hemp farm (which I didn’t understand, since the company is within an hour’s drive of Humboldt County – the greatest pot-growing locale on the planet). Not understanding this reasoning, and assuming they were just joining the pot-growing craze, I sold a significant portion of my shares at another loss. My friend bought more. He realized that what they’re actually modifying and expecting to increase is the commercial production of hemp, not pot.

Image result for stock chart with lossesAt the end of July, the RKDA stock price suddenly dropped further for no apparent reason. I did some research and discovered the Australian cereal company Arcadia initiated the lawsuit against in 2018 – and lost – has now turned around and filed a lawsuit against them for theft of intellectual property. Company management made absolutely no mention of this fact. Now my trust in management is significantly eroded. I sold my remaining shares at under $2. My friend bought more. Experience has taught him that most corporate lawsuits eventually reach a compromise out of court.

Buy High, Sell Low

Days later, the company announces USDA approval for their drought-tolerant soybeans. The stock price shoots up to over $7. I own no shares, of course. I contact my friend, ask if he’s selling. He tells me he’s buying. So, I buy at $7. The price promptly drops to $5.50. So I sell. My friend tells me he’s buying more. The price immediately runs to $9! So I buy. The price then promptly falls back to $5.50. So I sell. My friend, of course, is buying. Three days later the price runs to over $10 when the CEO of the company resigns and is replaced by the CFO. I buy. My friend tells me he’s selling everything. It’s “tax loss selling season” and these kinds of parabolic moves rarely last more than 3 days.

Through this whole “learning adventure” I managed to lose a significant amount of money. My friend, on the other hand, made more money on this single trade than many people make over the course of their whole working lives. What might we point to that could account, at least in part, for the profound difference? Polyvagal Theory.

Feeling It In Our Bones

One of the central premises of Polyvagal Theory is that “state drives story.” Not only did I have a history of losing money with this stock, but I also have a lengthy history of losing Image result for feeling it in my bonesmoney in the stock market over many decades. When positions go against me, my threat-detection circuitry becomes hyper-active. Stress hormones, activated by adrenaline and cortisol from my adrenal glands, and osteocalcin proteins secreted from my bones, flood my nervous system. My investment now becomes “scared money.” Scared money almost always loses in the stock market.

My friend’s bones and neurobiology work very much in the reverse. When positions go against him, his cognitive capacities do not go offline. Rather, they sharpen significantly and allow him to accurately assess whether he’s being presented with the gift of a “buying opportunity” or not. They also allow him to hold a big picture in mind, unless and until something develops that definitively tells him it’s time to sell and take profits (or sometimes losses).

My work is to continue to do my best to grow similar bone and brain responses, not only to stock market stressors, but to life stressors in general. Wish me luck.

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