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I have often felt victimized in my life. From being born to a mother with alcohol addiction and an abandoning father with severe, war-induced PTSD from a moral injury, to being raised in poverty on welfare, to getting all kinds of poor direction and guidance through most of my primary developmental years. Early life experiences like these have seemingly provided me with an unconscious bias that ends up with me often feeling “less than.” Or, bizarrely at the opposite extreme – with an inflated sense of “superiority.”

portfolio-featured-katherine.jpgFortunately (and unfortunately) my brain is designed to meet these “environmental” challenges and adapt to them. That’s what brains do – they have this neuroadaptive, chameleon-like ability to operate to some degree of capacity by adjusting to whatever external circumstances they find themselves in. So, for example, when my elementary school, ranked in the bottom 5% of all elementary schools in Connecticut (still, after more than half a century!), turned out to be a very dangerous place to attend week after week, my brain grew in ways that ended up devoting a preponderance of its neuroplasticity to laying down robust threat-detection circuitry. I learned to easily spot dangerous people, places and situations days ahead and miles away. Then I would find creative ways to avoid them. One way was to end up being the kid with the worst attendance record in every public school I ever attended. And when I wasn’t able to skip, I acted out in ways guaranteed to get myself expelled (like the time in 6th grade after a snowstorm when I trudged up and down the hill behind the school in front of the 4th grade classrooms and spelled out the word – F**K. When Mr. Fisher, the principal met me at the bottom of the hill and demanded that I erase what I’d written, I trudged back up the hill and added – YOU!). Mission accomplished.

But when children are required to robustly grow their threat-detection circuitry at an early age, that adaptation comes at a cost – growth and development in other parts of the brain become seriously delayed. The prefrontal cortex is one area that markedly suffers from such delay. I’m pretty sure there is no way during any of my grade school days I would have been able to demonstrate the impulse control required to pass The Stanford Marshmallow Test (I struggle to forego dopamine-activating sweet treats even today!). As it was, I wasn’t able or ready to enroll in college until age 26! And that had to be a junior college.

Learned Helplessness

Over the years I’ve learned to pay creative attention to feeling like a victim. Often what’s being activated in my brain are old connections – early childhood learning rooted in helplessness. Helplessness, is afterall, each of our birthrights from the outset. If we’ve had relatively healthy parents, teachers and other members of the community paying sufficient attention to our organic growth and development, then they’ve set tasks and learning before us intended to facilitate growth that would take us fully onto each succeeding stage of development. For most of the people I know, that didn’t happen very deliberately. And when it did, it was mostly a slapdash, hit-or-miss affair.

buscrash.jpgRather, what happened for me instead is: I want to ride my bicycle through Westville traffic to school and the thought of me doing that calls up images in my mother’s brain of me being splattered by a city bus. Those images then flood her system with excessive amounts of stress hormones which immediately shut down her cognitive reasoning abilities – she’s got few neural resources available to accurately assess bus-splattering probabilities. With her adrenals out of control, the only way she can regulate them is to attempt to regulate me: “No, you will be taking the school bus to school just like the other project kids.” Either I helplessly give in, or I rebel and hide my bike near the school bus stop, keep the bus money, and ride my bike to school – or more often to the New Haven Public Library instead of school – without my mother realizing it. Until, of course, my Report Card shows all those “Days Absent.”

It’s a Good News Week

The good news is that much of the “damage” our brains suffer in childhood, much of the disorganization and learned helplessness mostly results in delayed development. And most of that delay has to do with prefrontal operations, i.e. Executive Functions. Interestingly, much of that “damage” can symbolically show up in relationship to money in our lives. If you look over this list of “symptoms” from Underearners Anonymous (identification provided for non-promotional and informational purposes only; information does, after all, want to be free!), you may see a pretty clear picture reflected pointing to any number of areas where your own brain development has been delayed. The more good news is, it’s never too late to remodel your brain’s Executive Suite. Might developing a healthy, mindful relationship with money serve realistically and metaphorically as a great place to begin unlearning learned helplessness?

While you consider that possibility, you might also take a look at fellow neuro-rebel David Linden’s book, The Compass of Pleasure, newly reviewed on this week’s Enchanted Loom.

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Recently, in my imaginal brain, I invited myself to try a little experiment. I took two different timed tests intended to measure my ability to think straight. One is called the Automated Operation Span task, or the Ospan. Basically, the test had me read some words then add some numbers and then later try to recall as many words as possible. It’s intended to be a way to “measure working memory while keeping track of task-relevant information while also engaging in complex cognitive tasks.” In other words, it’s trying to measure how straight I can think.

The second test was called Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices. Psychologist John Raven developed the test to “isolate my capacity for abstract reasoning and understanding and solving novel problems (fluid intelligence), independent of any influence of accumulated knowledge or domain-specific skill (crystallized intelligence).” In other words he is trying to see how smart I am. Raven developed the test as a way to try to control for cultural and learned biases.

Each Raven Test has the same format: a 3 x 3 matrix in which the bottom right entry is missing, and must be selected from 8 alternatives. Solving Raven’s matrices type problems essentially requires figuring out the underlying rules that explain the progression of shapes. Here is an example that you can try to figure out yourself:

The variations of the entries in the rows and columns of this problem can be explained by 3 rules:

1. Each row contains 3 shapes (triangle, square, diamond).

2. Each row has 3 bars (black, striped, clear).

3. The orientation of each bar is the same within a row, but varies from row to row (vertical, horizontal, diagonal).

From these 3 rules, the answer can be inferred (*See the correct answer at the bottom).

ET – Leave Your Phone Home

So, here’s where the test got interesting. I had to turn my smart phone off and leave it in an adjoining room. Other people who took the test were also asked to turn their phones off, but they could keep them on a table nearby. Who do you think did better on the Ospan and the Raven tests?

Here is Professor Adrian Ward’s discussion of the results: The researchers found that participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and they also slightly outperformed those participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.

The findings suggest that the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand. “We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” Ward said. “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process — the process of requiring yourself to not think about something — uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”

Love Me, Love My Smartphone

The compulsive nature of smartphone usage is driven by many factors. NY Times science writer Sharon Begley cites one driver as FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. In addition, many people compulsively use their phone much like infants use pacifiers – as a way to manage the anxiety that often naturally arises in social situations. Proximate Separation can feel a lot less threatening than interacting with other live human beings.

Prefrontal AjnaBegley suggests that “one reason we often feel anxious if we’re not using every tiny slice of time is that we find it hard — even unpleasant and anxiety-producing — to be alone with our thoughts, as a 2014 study showed. Researchers led by (one of my favorites) social psychologist, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, gave volunteers two options: do ‘nothing’ for 15 minutes or give themselves a small electric shock (which three-quarters had previously told the researchers they’d pay money not to experience). Two-thirds of the men and one-quarter of the women chose the latter, so anxious were they for ‘something to do.'”

“The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself,” Wilson concluded.

Cause for Concern

This finding is of great cause for concern to my tutored mind. When you consider the discovery that long periods of contemplative activities deliberately work to train the discursive mind to single-pointed attention and the way that shows up on an fMRI as massively increased neuron numbers and connections of prefrontal and cross-hemispheric connectivity, it only makes sense that the constant interruption, distraction and addictive allure of “smart” phones would result in diminished Executive Function. Robust Executive Function is precisely what was not available to kids who failed the Stanford Marshmallow Test. Those kids were later found to have struggled in their later lives to a significantly greater degree than the kids who easily passed the test. Executive Function matters. But here’s the even bigger problem – there is currently no app for your phone that has Siri announcing: “Executive Functioning is currently not functioning optimally right now.” And I didn’t even mention the research suggesting that the “iGeneration” which smartphones may be creating, has the worst mental health ever.

One possible hack to caring for your brain: start taking regular “phone sabbaticals.”

*The correct answer to the matrix above is 3.

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“I love you like a fat kid loves cakes.” ~ 50 Cent

I remember the first time I ever felt love that wasn’t wholly driven by the desire to pass on copies of my genes. One thing was clear: it didn’t match anything I’d learned from any love song. I was sitting alone in a room with Serena, a young woman who was explaining to me what it felt like to have her five-year-old son kidnapped and murdered by being burned alive. As you might guess, I had no clue whatsoever what that might feel like. And I told her so. And I started crying as I did – apparently my nervous system did have at least a small clue. Moments later I felt this familiar wave of sweet peace and joy wash over me. It was the feeling I associated with new romantic love, only more intense. But as a trusted confidant, volunteering as a community grief counselor, there would be no romantic relationship between Serena and me. Years later I came to more deeply understand what actually did emerge between us in those moments.

There’s Something Happening Here

suicidal_thoughts-prvA similar experience happened shortly after some friends and I decided to create a grief program to specifically serve young children. Emily was the six-year-old daughter of a troubled father who had committed suicide. Shortly before he did, her father took Emily aside one night and admonished her: “Some day I’m going to kill myself … and it’s going to be your fault.”

Needless to say, this experience would leave a mark on the heart of the strongest among us. On the mind, brain, body and heart of a little six-year-old it had the potential to be devastating. But in our little grief group, joined together with a collection of other kids going through similar struggles, Emily flourished.

One evening, as we were picking up toys together after group, Emily and I were walking hand in hand down the hall towards the storage closet. I felt her little fingers squeeze mine and in the tiniest whisper she asked, “Will you be my daddy?” And there it was – a wash of peace and joy flowing through me together with an uncontrolled flood of tears. “I will be your daddy,” I told her. “But I can only be him on Tuesday nights when you come here and we can spend time together.” That seemed to be enough – Emily gave me a big smile and told me not to cry, reminding me in her own innocent way that grief is, afterall, love facing its greatest challenge.

What SHeart in Stoneerena and Emily and I and grief had managed to awaken in me was “the natural liberation of affection.” It seems to be a state or an experience that many saints and wisdom teachers are intimately familiar with. I’m convinced it is a state that involves a lot more than just dopamine neurotransmitters activating the Caudate Nucleus and the Ventral Tegmental Area. Rumi’s well-known quote points toward the real complexity of such a foundational experience: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself, that you have built against it.” Sometimes life’s great trials can work to remove such barriers. Vulnerable innocence, the kind evoked by puppies, kittens and young children, seems to be one requirement.

It’s Your Neurobiology Singing, Silly.

It’s interesting to me that Rumi deliberately uses the word merely in his celebrated saying. As if seeking and finding such barriers is a simple walk in the park. Not in the least. When I look back at the experiences I’ve described above and try to tease out the commonalities that might have made conditions ripe for love’s emergence, several other things, in addition to vulnerable innocence, seem essential.

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Professor Barbara Frederickson

One is I was intentionally doing my best to be a help to other people who needed and wanted it. I was attending in a state that had a pretty high level of arousal, while at the same time had a pretty low level of fear. I’ve never seen a neurobiological profile of such a state, but UNC love researcher, Barbara Frederickson suggests that its signature is unique.

It’s also a neurobiological body/brain reality I’ve been working on growing for most all of my adult life – my kindness circuitry. From the time I embraced the directive to “provide shelter for people,” to the time two days ago when I built a small soffit extension under the eave of my roof to keep a pesky neighborhood squirrel away from the bird feeder. It was that or set one of the Berners on him. Kindness has also been the motivation for faithfully researching and writing this blog every week for ten years(!), and why I’ve published a half dozen books on improving listening skills.

There’s a Capital I in Kindness

I also apply similar kindnesses to myself. Intimately knowing and understanding the ever-changing realities and limitations of my aging neurobiology allows for authentic self-compassion. And at the same time, I’m constantly putting challenges before myself, such as keeping a commitment to work out several times a week; to learn new things by reading hard books (Alan Shore’s Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self, for example); to start saving for retirement (while simultaneously being gentle and understanding with myself for not beginning 30 years ago!).

Applied love and kindness is good work if you can gain access to it. I whole-heartedly recommend you foresake a few half-loves and go for it. Feel free to write a love song or two along the way.

Before you do though, you might want to check out this Enchanted Loom review of “recovering neurologist,” Bob Scaer’s master work, The Trauma Spectrum. It deeply underscores why seeking and removing the barriers to love can be extremely challenging work.

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When I was 40 years old, my wife and I decided to take a badly needed vacation to Cabo San Lucas over Winter Break. Our daughter was off traveling with school friends and we’d just successfully completed a stressful, complicated property subdivision. We thought this would be the perfect place to spend time alone and get our groove back.

151104203829-russian-plane-final-moments-marquez-dnt-erin-00014922-super-169.jpgApparently, because the airport is situated at the base of a mountain, to insure he had sufficient runway to land, the AeroMexico pilot had to turn a steep bank and then make a rapid, nose-down descent, which he executed very quickly and gave no advance warning to us passengers.

I disembarked the plane with my stomach in my throat, only to be confronted with a swarm of Mexican nationals insisting that I attend a “free” condominium time-share presentation. I paid two of them $20 just to move on and leave my wife and I alone.

But my baseline stress hormone levels had now been significantly elevated. They became raised even higher when the very next day I suffered a severe sunburn even though I spent almost all of my outside time in the shade. And then, that night after we sat down to dinner, I discovered several ugly, dead bugs in my Mexican salad.

Suddenly, there at dinner, a feeling of dread flooded over me, leaving me speechless. My wife could tell something was wrong simply by looking at me, but when she asked me what was going on, I had no words to offer her (thanks to a stress-compromised Broca’s brain area). We left in the middle of the meal and returned to our cabana. When I refused to leave it the whole next day and and the day after that and could not offer her (or myself) any reason why, she suggested we cut the vacation short and return home.

South by Southwest

Another time I was invited to a Native American Green Corn Festival on a reservation just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d never been to an “Indian” Reservation, and so I was completely unprepared for what I found. Essentially, it was a barren strip of land situated next to this surprising, sad trickle of water called … the Rio Grande River. religion.jpgDotting the banks of this sickly streambed were a collection of ramshackle homes that were little more than one room, corrugated metal huts, looking nothing like the peaceful, idyllic reservations portrayed in the movies of my youth. This native community was poorer than the housing projects of my childhood.

When a collection of tribal elders appeared in feathered headdresses banging drums and tamborines, I moved off into a corner of the processional area. I was standing in front of a torn and tattered screen door when a little girl, perhaps two or three, appeared behind it. She was wearing a diaper stained with pee and had brown smudges on her legs. Flies walked across her forehead and her naked chest. She seemed to be completely uncared for.

Upon seeing this neglected child, a great wave of anxiety, similar to what I experienced in Cabo San Lucas, spread through my body. The only way I could think to relieve it was to simply walk away from the reservation without saying anything to anyone (known colloquially as “ghosting” or The Irish Goodbye – an effective, but often confusing self-regulation strategy for friends and colleagues to comprehend). Greatly relieved, I got in my rental car, returned to the airport and flew directly home.

Surfacing Early Trauma Memories

Extensive research suggests that early terrifying experiences take up residence in implicit (unconscious) memory networks primarily on the right side of the brain. These memories essentially compromise the flow of electro-chemical energy and information. In response to overwhelming experiences, our neural networks abruptly inhibit the firing of action potentials in the brain so as to cause the adrenal glands to stop flooding both brain and body with excessive amounts of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. In the amounts generated by life-threatening emergencies, without this safety shutoff, that quantity of stress hormones would do even worse damage than the trauma itself. The lived experience feels like going numb or being checked out – dissociated. But that’s not the end of it.

Yearning for Healing

The brain knows when its functioning has been compromised by traumatic experience. As a consequence it seems to constantly attempt to identify or morph people, places and familiar environments into circumstances where its impoverished networks can be rekindled and activated, ideally for integrative re-connectivity. In both the incidents I’ve just described, that didn’t happen. Abdication (flight) is not integration. Actions that could have served an integrative function might have been the Hakomi method of assisted self-discovery, or a Somatic Experience intervention that resulted in me being able to give voice to the affective experience and move my body in ways now that I wasn’t able to when the original incident took place – i.e. taking “triumphant action.” I have since had such healing work happen and it truly is life-affirming and liberating in ways I would never have imagined. I have thankfully now been free of such “speechless terror” experiences for over a decade.

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I’m ashamed of getting old. I’ve never been old before and I don’t really know much about how best to go about becoming old. So many things I expect of myself that I took for granted ten, five, even one year ago, I find myself often struggling with today.

The ability to hold more than two things in mind at the same time for at least a few minutes is a challenge. So is reading. The longest time I can currently sit and read a book or magazine or academic paper is 10 minutes tops – I hold Neuroenergetic Theory responsible. After 10 minutes I need a break and am not able to return to reading for a good half hour or more. I have to carry a reporter’s notebook with me so I can write down things I want to remember. Then, of course, I forget to look at the notebook. I also forget to remember the research that suggests fast walking might make my elder brain work better.

Inclining the Decline

Physical things are harder as well. Walking more than 45 minutes fatigues me. When I take one of the dogs with me, Ollie, the big Berner pulls me all over the dog park with ease whenever another male dog shows up to challenge him. I’m forced to take him there really early in the morning when no other dogs are around.

3chopwood.jpgI like to cut firewood, load and split it. I’m only good for an hour max at any portion of that process. I’ve had to learn to be hyper-vigilant when using the chainsaw, since many accidents tend to befall the elderly using power tools. Same thing with climbing up and cleaning off the roof. However, I’m determined to stay active and NOT be one of those statistics.

My typing has significantly deteriorated. I used to be able to type full paragraphs and pages without so much as a single misspelling. Now, my fingers hit keys for the wrong letters repeatedly. It’s as if my fingers have a mind of their own. Unfortunately, it’s a dyslexic mind that constantly types letters like it thinks I speak a foreign language.

I’ve always been an early riser, but for the last 10 years or so, 3AM has been my regular wake-up time. Is this normal? Neuroscientists suggest it’s not; that it’s bad for my brain. However, I wake up reasonably rested without using an alarm. What am I supposed to do – try and force myself back to sleep?

Beware the Predators

Scammers prey on the elderly. We can’t think as clearly as we once could. I almost fell for a not-very sophisticated scam only last month. I worked hard to finish the 4th Prayer Pod I’ve been building all winter (after running into all kinds of bureaucratic mishegas, I decided to build them and sell them and give a percentage of the profits to homeless organizations, rather than to try and donate the pods directly).

Curvy Pod FrontWell, I got the pod com- pleted and put it up on Craigslist. Almost imme- diately my wife and I got an email from a “marine engineer” away at sea. He wanted to surprise his father with the pod for Father’s Day. Would we accept payment through Paypal? What could go wrong, right?

Well, on a hunch I went online and looked up “Paypal Scams” and there was the script this “marine engineer” was using, almost word for word. Fortunately, we escaped with only a small amount of time wasted.

Sense and Sensibility

I feel perhaps the greatest shame in the clear deterioration of all my physical senses, most pointedly, smell. Several weeks ago my wife took our dogs out for a romp on the beach. That evening, sitting in the living room she noticed a stink. Only after she pointed it out did I notice it. Her sense of smell has been forever more keen than mine. “The dogs must have rolled in something dead at the beach,” was the explanation we eventually settled on.

In the morning, when I got up the stench was stronger than the night before. It was a cold morning and I was about to take the spring chill out of the house by starting a fire in the woodstove. But then I thought it would be a good idea to let all the dogs out. Then I decided I would first take a shower. It was in the shower that my neural networks finally connected the brain cells that identified the pungent smell permeating the house: it was propane! I immediately jumped out of the shower, went into the kitchen and sure enough – a knob on the gas range was turned on and had been spewing gas into the house for the previous 15 hours. I don’t know if the fuel concentration was strong enough to ignite had I lit the woodstove, but I’m thankful I didn’t run that experiment!

Needless to say, what’s most disconcerting is that I wasn’t able to recognize the smell of that escaping gas immediately. Thankfully, it wasn’t a deadly sensory decline. This time.

And then there’s the subject of Fogey Sex. I think I’ll save that shameful topic for another post. Instead, let me offer up a related Enchanted Loom review HERE – Buddhist psychiatrist, Mark Epstein’s best-selling book, Open to Desire.

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I spend a fair amount of time each week with groups of people. We meet either on telephone conference calls or in person, face to face. The groups meet for various purposes – to explore the way money influences our interpersonal relationships; to inquire into how various structural vulnerabilities in the brain contribute to pain and suffering; exploring any number of ways to turn information into inspiration in the age of info-besity. I greatly enjoy these get-togethers and look forward to them each week. And in most of them I find myself having great difficulty.

Facing Up to Reality

One difficulty I have is with people’s faces. Facial expressions are both compelling and distracting to me. As a result, whenever I’m with a group online, I either don’t put up a picture of myself or else I provide a recent still photo. I also don’t look at the faces of the people I’m interacting with on the screen.

Portraits

There are specific areas of the brain with circuitry dedicated to facial recognition and processing. I suspect my own face processing networks are either very large – faces are like mighty electromagnets the way they draw me to them; or very small – I’m constantly effortfully attending to them in what feels like to an excessive degree. The draw frequently feels like an addiction – I often can’t not look. Evolutionary neuroscience posits that what I’m most looking for are potential threats.

Another reason I don’t show up live in front of a camera on conference calls is because virtually every time I’m on them I find myself yawning repeatedly. Not out of distraction or boredom in response to what people are saying, but out of what feels like a need to stretch my facial muscles and take in more oxygen. I also frequently find my eyes watering non-stop. It’s very much like I’m allergic to talking on the phone. Needless to say, this is all enormously stressful. And interesting! The stress may be the result of hyperarousal similar to that identified in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder which induces them to avoid making eye contact – something I also struggle with and something I have to be very mindful and deliberate about.

Stifling Myself

As a consequence of having so much self-attending to do, more often than not I find it very challenging to track group dynamics and dialogue on the phone, on Zoom or on Skype. As a further consequence I often find myself reluctant to speak up for fear that what I have to say will be off-topic and betray my struggle with attending and tracking.

There is another element involved with this difficulty as well. It turns out that testosterone, in the amounts that get generated during puberty in males – as Louann Brizendine reports in her book The Male Brain – ends up specifically targeting the speech and language centers in adolescent males, pruning and thinning much of that network like a mad gardener. 1192422_940x5311.jpgThe result for many adolescent boys – and especially for me – is that it takes considerably more effort and energy to generate speech than it did only months or weeks before puberty. I very likely have compromised Anomia Networks. With practice, over time, those networks can become restored, as evidenced by many male professors or politicians. But they don’t for everyone, dependent in part I suspect, on a male’s (or female’s) personal prior and subsequent trauma history.

Working Around My Workaround

Recognizing this speaking difficulty for myself, one workaround I’ve developed is to put together presentations that provide me with clear cues and explicit talking points. I then add extensive notes to remind myself of things I want to say that I hope and expect people will find interesting and useful. I also hope they will inspire talking on their end. Having this format allows my threat-detection networks the ability to relax, which, in and of itself permits greater operational access to Broca and Wernicke (my brain’s predominant speech-generating and language processing areas).

Much of my ongoing challenge has been to find workarounds like this. For the oxygen piece, I often exercise before I’m going to be on an extended call. For the eye-watering, sometimes I’ll take an antihistamine beforehand. In an effort to keep my stress levels in the eustress zone, I might do some desk exercises or practice yogic breathing. Essentially, though, what it continually comes down to is: communicating skillfully and effectively in the service of non-self-stifling … takes a LOT of challenging, mindful, deliberate work!

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Years ago I took a two weekend training that had many neurobiologically integrative elements to it. One was a requirement that: “When you give your word, keep it.” That made sense to me, even though I was someone pretty lax in that regard. I didn’t know much about the brain then, or interpersonal neurobiology – how we constantly, consciously and unconsciously affect one another for better or worse.

ipnb-header.jpgDuring the course of that training people repeatedly made promises and then failed to keep them. They promised to arrive on time and they would show up late. They promised to pay attention to the trainer and then repeatedly whispered things to their neighbor. They promised to participate in the exercises and then came up with all kinds of stories about why they couldn’t, shouldn’t, or wouldn’t. It was interesting to notice how, with each of these broken promises, my automatic instinct was to move away from those people. Without me even consciously directing it, my brain and body automatically identified people who made promises and didn’t keep them as “untrustworthy others.”

A great many of us fail to realize that much of our lives is actively devoted to safety-seeking. From the friends we make, to the places we work, the stores where we shop, to the restaurants where we eat most regularly, ideally they all actively operate in ways that consciously or unconsciously avoid triggering our threat detection circuitry. Once a threat-detection circuit gets activated, it’s difficult to disconnect it and turn it off. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the reasons this long-ago training spent so much time working with us on keeping our word once we’ve given it. It makes us dependable, trustworthy, i.e. worthy of other people’s trust. Keeping our word actually turns out to be a lot easier to do than the repair work required after promises have been broken. Unfortunately the work of repairing the rupture that results from unkept promises is something many of us simply never bother to do. This is a mistake.

Interconnected Hydrology

My friend Susan recently sent me the image below from The Nature Conservancy. I was struck by how very much like brain networks all the water basins in the country appear. Not only that, but how connected they all are.

A Water Basin Brain

It’s hard for me not to think of human beings as being interconnected like that. And equally difficult to think that it doesn’t matter when broken promises break connections. Life and energy (and water) is meant to flow. When it doesn’t, this image makes it easy to imagine that serious consequences result.

Say What You’ll Do and Do What You Say

What also comes to mind in terms of keeping our promises is how instructive many wisdom traditions are when it comes to using language. Buddhism, for example, offers the concept of Right Speech, most easily memorable as mindful inquiry by the acronym THINK: Is what we’re saying True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? And finally, and probably most important from a brain-health perspective, Is it Kind? Imagine how trustworthy the world would be if we all walked around with this way of behaving as a personal adrenal management practice?

Circling Averages

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn popularized the notion that we (our brains and bodies) are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. That fits with the tenets of Interpersonal Neurobiology. In my own early life in the housing projects, it quickly became apparent to me that I didn’t really want to spend a lot of time around people who scared me or whom I couldn’t trust. But where to go and what to do to find new people to raise the quality of my social circle?

Growing up, a single mom with four boys – a woman named Edith Labovitz – used to live in the projects. She was instrumental in getting me my first job – delivering newspapers around the neighborhood. One day she just picked up and successfully moved with her four boys from New Haven to Los Angeles. Years later, I would make the same move, and because she was kind and gracious enough to take me in as Son #5 when I arrived in LA, the downward trajectory my life had been on, suddenly changed abruptly. Her only requirement of me: keep every promise I made her. I owe her and her sons a deep debt of gratitude for substantially changing my brain and my behavior at a most vulnerable and critical time in my life.

If you want to powerfully amp up the change process in your own brain and behavior, check out this Enchanted Loom review of the new book, Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst, by Stanford neurobiologist, and Daily Show guest, Robert Sapolsky. It’s been ten years in the making.

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