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Last month I decided it was time to replace our 28-year-old dishwasher. I’ve probably installed 30 or more dishwashers over my 25 year career as a building and remodeling contractor. Removal and reinstallation is intended to be a pretty simple operation. Step One: Turn off the hot water faucet and disconnect the supply line; Step Two: Loosen the clamp and remove the drain line; Step Three: shut off the electric power and remove the protective metal panel and undo the electrical connections. Pull out the old dishwasher. To install the new dishwasher simply reverse those three steps. Piece of cake. Right?

Well, as a longtime student of Polyvagal Theory and of my own nervous system, and as someone who knows all too well that where plumbing and electric are concerned, if something CAN go wrong it very likely WILL go wrong, I decided I needed to take preemptive precautions. I would phone a friend, someone to help me regulate my nervous system when the inevitable sympathetic, hyper-adrenal response(s) came to call. Because I know that a dysregulated nervous system inevitably begins generating poopy stories that limit creative problem-solving and invariably make a difficult job even harder. Coincidentally, Frank had just bought and installed this very same dishwasher at his own house two months ago!

Step One

In order to get a bit of a head start, I thought I’d begin the process of removing the old dishwasher before Frank arrived. I closed the hot water shut off and began undoing the supply line to the dishwasher. Residual water in the line began leaking, of course, or so I thought. As I continued loosening the connection nut, the water pressure didn’t drop. Suddenly the nut popped off and water began spraying a high-pressure stream all over the sink cabinet. The shutoff valve didn’t work at all! I put my thumb over the spigot to try and stem the flow, but the pressure was too high and the water quickly became too hot to keep touching. Water began running out of the cabinet, all across the kitchen floor. I could feel the dread and helpless feeling of elevated stress hormones immediately coursing through my body. The only option left to me was to resign myself to letting the kitchen flood while I ran out to the well house and shut down the main water line. Then I called Frank and told him not to bother coming over. The kitchen would need a few days to be cleaned up and dry out. So much for Step One.

Step Two and Three

Before I could get to Step Two and Three I needed to get my stress levels back to the left, Allostasis side of the stress Bell curve. Good things rarely happen when we’re caught up on the right Allostatic Load side of the curve.

One thing that helped was my wife mopping and drying the floor and assuring me that the new plank flooring I’d just installed the week before wasn’t damaged. Another thing that helped was taking a long, brisk mindful walk in the woods with our Bernese Mountain Dog, Emma. Suitably stress-reduced, I was once again ready for Frank to come over and help with the new dishwasher installation the next day.

Disconnecting the drain and the electric from the old dishwasher went off without a hitch. But when we went to install the new machine, we discovered that the overhang of the countertop was too low by a quarter of an inch. Of course. We thought of taking the feet off the machine, but elected instead to cut the overhang out of the counter, since it will be replaced once the new base cabinets on order arrived.

The Home Stretch

Next up: connecting the electric. We pushed the new machine into its space, only to discover it was blocked by something preventing us from going the last two inches. After several attempts just pushing harder, we pulled the machine out and finally realized that the electrical wire coming up through the floor to the old machine, was hitting a protective panel on the bottom of the new machine.

Instantly, I could feel my stress hormone levels rising once again because I immediately got the implications: I was going to have to crawl down under the house and feed a wire up in a new location that allowed the machine to fully seat. Earlier that month I had been in that crawl space for the first time in several years, only to discover that rats had dug a hole under the foundation and were now nested all through the underfloor insulation. As you might expect, the prospect of returning to a dark, confined, cramped space filled with rat poop and urine and hungry rats, began to activate my threat-detection circuitry.

What to do? The only thing I could do: bite the bullet. I donned protective mask, gloves, kneepads and goggles and under the house I went, exhaling mindfully as I crawled. With Frank drilling a new hole topside, I was soon able to relocate the wire and exit the crawlspace as quickly as possible. Big outbreath as I exited the access door. From there, the remainder of the installation actually WAS a piece of cake. 🙂

What’s the takeaway here? There are at least three. First is, as I age, I’m discovering that my adrenal glands seem to secrete stress hormones with much more ease and in greater abundance than they did when I was younger. Two is, it’s important to have ways and means to skillfully manage those stress hormone levels. Three is, other skillful, kind, knowledgeable people can help co-regulate us in times of dire distress. As we can also do for them at different times. All for one and one for all nervous systems regulation.

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During my lengthy cancer recovery I became a big fan of certain types of Reality TV shows. From The Profit, to Alone, to Extreme Makeover Home Edition, to Back in the Game, I’ve become pretty hardcore. It’s especially easy to become hardcore with over 700 Reality Shows currently being produced around the world for weekly viewing.

Surprisingly, I’ve only recently found a show that’s managed to broadcast 19 seasons without me: Restaurant: Impossible. The premise is simple and repetitive, Master Chef and successful restauranteur, Robert Irvine visits a failing restaurant somewhere in the U.S. He samples the food, tells the owner it tastes like crap, walks them around the restaurant pointing out defects and flaws like dusty lights, stained carpets and faded upholstery. The owners, already under significant stress, now have it added to. Next Robert has the owner and their staff empty the restaurant to the bare walls. Then he brings in his personal designer and construction people, and in two days transforms the place into an inviting, elegant eatery.

While all that’s going on Irvine takes the owner and head chef aside and teaches them how to calculate food costs and margins, while also teaching them to pare down the menu and prepare a few simple, savory, high-margin entrees. It’s not brain science! Except, as I explain below, it actually is!

Each show ends with Robert walking the owner(s) blindfolded back into their newly renovated restaurant. The response, when the blindfold is removed, is almost universal: The owner(s) put their hands to their face, exclaim, “Oh my God!”, and begin to cry. Depending upon how much I’ve empathized with the owner(s), I find myself tearing up as well. Why? Because Robert has brought The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience – It takes a more organized brain to help organize a less organized brain – to bear, while at the same time answering The Big Brain Question – Are you there for me? – with a resounding “Yes!” In my experience this is a powerful, healing, integrative, interpersonal dynamic.

The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience

Being Ram Dass: Dass, Ram, Das, Rameshwar, Lamott, Anne: 9781683646280:  Amazon.com: Books

Each of us navigates the days of our lives with our own unique neurodiversity and network organization. All of which is dependent upon and conditioned by the world that’s operating all around us and inside us. The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience recognizes this reality along with the importance of a more organized, integrated brain’s ability to help organize and integrate a less organized and integrated brain. Healthy parents, teachers and clergy often function as the former, children and students in the the latter role. This is generally true at the cognitive/learning level, but socially, it’s especially true at the emotional or spiritual level. Noted psychedelic researcher Richard Alpert/Ram Dass details in his autobiography, Being Ram Dass, how encountering a wise man in India completely changed all of his sense perceptions, especially his cognitive mind – evidence of The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience operating at pretty rare integrative levels.

On a more material level, Robert Irvine’s lifelong immersion in cooking and the restaurant business has organized his brain in a much more effective, integrated way than the restaurant owners he elects to help. It is this gift of growth and change that he brings to each of them.

The Big Brain Question

In bringing the gift of his life experience and his organized brain to bear, Robert also answers a fundamental question that at some level we are all looking to have answered positively – The Big Brain Question. I’ve written extensively about the BBQ over the years, especially about how powerful a positive answer can impact a human life. You can review some of those accounts here, here and here.

The thing is, unless we’ve served in the military or trained as tag-team wrestlers, most of us have never been taught about this question or about the human need to have it answered “Yes”, beginning before birth! As a result, few of us go about consciously asking (or answering) this question deliberately for ourselves or others. But when you think about it, isn’t it this the question that underlies the grand Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Ideally, it’s just a more proactive invitation to take more initiative in beneficially “doing” unto the people we care most about.

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When the Heart Has No Teeth

Throughout the first 15 years of my life, my mother’s heart had a dream for me: I would attend MIT and become a civil engineer. I have no idea why that strong wish for me lived in her. As far as I know she didn’t know any civil engineers, nor anyone who ever went to MIT. 

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That’s me – 2nd from the right – in my mother’s psychotic dreams

One morning however, I woke up to discover that my mother’s dream for me had changed. “Last night Tom came and told me not to worry,” she said (Tom was her first husband who had recently died of tuberculosis). “He said that you’re going to play baseball for the New York Yankees.”

This was the form that my mother’s psychotic break from reality took that morning shortly after I turned 16. She had to be immediately committed to the state mental hospital in Middletown, Connecticut. My 14-year-old sister and I were soon placed into the care of our 23 year-old-half-sister – Tom’s daughter – developmentally still a child herself.

While somewhat of a dramatic illustration, I think it clearly points out what I’m describing. My mother dreamed of me being educated and successful. It was probably also a dream she simultaneously had for herself – she was an avid reader – but she lacked sufficient inner and outer network resources to begin putting the foundations in place which would allow such a dream to become reality. My mother’s good heart lacked teeth. Another way to think about it is: the connectivity in my mother’s neural networks was severely compromised by her own childhood traumas (Our father’s own trauma had him abandon our family when I was four and my sister was two).

Over the years I have been fortunate in my life to encounter people whose healing dreams for me not only turned out to be well-matched with my own, but whose hearts had sufficient teeth to help me bring those dreams into reality. I won’t name them all here. You know who you are.

Taking It to Level 7 on the Brain Integration Scale

Most of those toothy angels who periodically appeared in my life had progressed in their own lives through Erik Erikson’s 8 Stages of Human Psychosocial Development and made it to the generativity (rather than the stagnation) side of Stage 7. This is the stage that begins to care about and offer support to the generations following behind it.

Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development

When you look at each of Erikson’s stages, it’s not too hard to imagine there are neural network correlates associated with each of them. If you administered fMRI brain scans to people previously identified at Stages 1-8, I’m guessing you would see specific patterns of network integration that would correlate with each stage. As a general observation, I would posit that it takes more energy and information and network integration to begin thinking about people other than only about ourselves. We know, for example, that the networks are configured differently in people identified as narcissists than in people who easily express high degrees of empathy. Caring for and helping others just seems to be the general direction that healthy, integrated, aging brains want to naturally move. Our brains want to grow our hearts in ways that have teeth.

Sweethearts True

Most of the people I know whom I would describe as good-hearted are true sweethearts. I like spending time with them. I sometimes find myself in that category. Mostly though, I am aware of not having sufficient teeth to provide the help I might want to offer that others may need or could benefit from.

For example, several years ago I applied to be a volunteer member of our town’s local Ethics Board. I would be part of the team that received complaints about town police or public officials committing “actions that are not in the town’s best interests or that have the appearance of impropriety.” My application for the position was rejected and I was given reasons that I felt were specious – one of my references had unproven ethical allegations made against her (making me guilty by association); and the interviewers (all men) didn’t like research I mentioned from MIT (interestingly) citing that groups made up of all men don’t make decisions as wisely as groups with at least a few women members. Instead of taking issue with the decision, I simply meekly accepted the rejection and went on my way. I then made up all kinds of stories about why their decision was “for the best.” In my heart though, I knew I had no teeth, that I had abdicated the pursuit of something I was initially really interested in taking on.

What I know and now regularly practice as best I am able is that: “abdication is not integration.” And if my heart’s going to grow teeth, I have to practice … fighting hard for what I want. It’s even okay to recruit some allies along the way whose hearts do have plenty of teeth: Fellow sweethearts (kalyana mitra) on the journey.

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About a year and a half ago, my brain and I unexpectedly received a “Call to Adventure.” For those of you unfamiliar with elements inherent in the Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey, the Call to Adventure is an invitation to leave the stable, predictable, sane, comfortable Ordinary World, and descend into the unstable, unpredictable, sometimes insane and uncomfortable, Special World.

The Hero's Journey Examples | Stages of the Monomyth Cycle

Being the Hero of my own life that I am, naturally, I refused the call. I clearly remember thinking, “I’d have to be an imbecile to accept that invitation. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Well, 14 months ago, the call came again. This time though, I didn’t immediately refuse it out of hand. I actually gave it some sincere consideration. “I don’t have to dive into the Special World all at once,” I reasoned. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t have to dive in at all. Call refused once again. Offer this Special World Adventure to some other brave soul.

The Supreme Ordeal

A month later the Call showed up a third time. This time though, it showed up together with a friend of mine who’s a pediatric oncologist – the Wisdom Bringer / Mentor on the Hero’s Journey. She took one look at the lump on my neck and said, “You might want to get that scanned. If it turns out to be serious, addressing it sooner is better than later.”

Cancer tumor
Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Naturally, I trusted her advice, but I also verified it with the Medical Director of our local Hospice, also, a friend who’s a retired internist and my primary medical care provider. They all advised that this was probably the time to stop denying the difficulty the lump was causing me with breathing and swallowing and accept the Call, Cross the Threshold, and enter The Special World of Mainstream Medical Cancer Care. 

The lump on neck turned out to be my lymph node doing it’s best to contain the postage stamp sized squamous cell carcinoma that has been growing at the base of my tongue for approximately a year. My first thought upon receiving the diagnosis: “Great! Cancer in the time of Covid!”

Allies and Enemies on the Journey

colonoscopy-s1-what-is-colonoscopy-illustration

It’s pretty much impossible to take the Cancer Journey alone. You will inevitably meet allies and enemies along the way. One enemy turned out to be a gastroenterologist who kept me isolated and waiting for five hours in the prep room before a colonoscopy intended to be sure the cancer hadn’t spread. Already, greatly hyper-aroused, when he finally got around to beginning the procedure I had a bradycardia event and stopped breathing on the operating table. They had to abort the procedure as a result. When I came to and threatened to check myself out of their ICU against medical authority, they gave me a release (along with a bill for my insurance company for $12,000! Thanks for less than nothing).

Although I did my best not to see it that way, another enemy turned out to be the cancer tumor itself. It’s hard not to think of something that wants to spread through your body and shut down all your organs as something other than an enemy. Just the difficulty it was causing me breathing and swallowing was enough to place it on my Enemies List. To grapple with this adversary I had to call on a lot of my neuroscience and Buddhist training.

The Road Back

Well, after four sessions of having a heavy metal (Cisplatin) injected into my veins and 35 radiation treatments later, I’m happy and pleased to report that I have been cancer-free now for nine months! I lost 70 pounds over the course of the treatment, but have managed to gain 15 of them back. Also, some muscle and healthy fat. But most noticeably, I’m finding the connections in my brain are slowly returning to their former live-wired, robustly connected glory. I can sustain concentration and exercise for longer periods and I can engage in research and complex thought operations as I used to. I’m also able to research and write blog posts much as before! If this is my Ordinary World, it’s unquestionably great to be back bearing the boon.  🙂

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Take a look at this 90 second video: Purple Brain Neuron Video. When you get to the end, scroll back to the Start and notice the density and the amount of connections that have taken place over that brief time. What you’re witnessing is the brain’s “live wired” capacity for learning. Anything we wish to master in life – be it the alphabet, or public speaking or generosity, kindness and compassion – is going to require us to grow new neuronal branches making new neuronal connections. We’re going to have to immerse ourselves in learning and practice.

Livewired to Connect

Where I often run into difficulty with something I’m attempting to master is in my tendency to come to it with a conscious or unconscious expectation that I should already possess all, or a great part of the mastery that I’m seeking. Recalling or reviewing that Purple Neuron Video in the paragraph above, illustrates just how silly that expectation is. I can’t have Mastery Networks before I do the study and practice required for building them. It is much like the requirement for learning the multiplication tables.

Speak Up, Man

Several decades ago, I decided my terror at public speaking was negatively impacting my life. Just the very thought of standing and speaking in front of a group of people would send waves of stress hormones flooding through my body. I decided teaching would be the form my public speaking would take. What to teach? What else but … Listening Skills.

Embrace the Pain

My first attempts were dismally painful. So bad, in fact, that several students complained to the department chair who summarily replaced me with another instructor. At that point, my public speaking, neural-network-building enterprise came to an abrupt pause. In order to master anything, most of us will have to go through a “you suck” phase. The hard work is to not be discouraged and stopped by it. It’s not you, it’s your brain!

How might I continue to grow network cells and connections in service to being able to master teaching and public speaking? First, using a linguistic trick (second-person self-talk) I learned from Marcus Aurelius, I asked myself: “What is it about speaking/teaching that makes you so nervous?” Turns out it was two things: not being adequately clear about the content I would be presenting, but mostly fearing I’d be two hours into a 3-hour class and find myself with nothing left to say.

These concerns turned out to be easily addressed. I simply wrote out a choreographed content outline broken down into ten minute increments. For a 3-hour class I would outline four hours worth of material.. I would also have stock exercises I could do with the students in a pinch. In addition, I studied great speeches and compelling presentation structures (like The Hero’s Journey and Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling). You can imagine my surprise and delight after finishing a daylong presentation for UC Berkeley extension months later and having the students spontaneously stand and applaud!

Taking Mastery to the Max

Eric Kandel, MD with Aplysia

I spent ten years on the staff of The Center for Advance Study in the Behavioral Sciences (undercover as the maintenance man). CASBS is a think tank at Stanford University where MacArthur geniuses, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners get invited to come and spend a sabbatical year to write up much of their work in progress. Visiting fellows there are masters at focused, specialized study and learning. Although he wasn’t one, Eric Kandel – who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001- could have been a fellow at CASBS. Kandel spent 30 years (!) studying how two neurons in Aplysia, a sea snail found mostly off the coast of California, learn and remember things. Turns out how sea snails learn and remember things is very much the same way you and I learn and remember things: we grow new neuronal branches and we make new neuronal connections. Sea snails gain mastery the same way you and I MacArthur geniuses gain mastery – by making connections just as you saw in the Purple Brain Neuron Video in the opening paragraph. We are indeed, all live-wired to learn and connect.

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Recently I came across THIS STUDY out of NYU claiming that having a good listener in your life is a net positive for brain health (The study didn’t examine what BEING a good listener does for brain health. A number of other studies suggest being is more beneficial, which makes sense when you consider the greater amount of sensory networks necessarily recruited for listening). Here’s a short TED Talk with 25 million views that explains a lot about why that is so.

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The research above didn’t detail what constitutes “good listening,” but there’s lots of research from the International Listening Association that suggests just hearing the words people speak offers access to only a small part of the message they’re offering (If you really want to go granular on what constitutes truly skillful listening, see The Tao of Listening trilogy below). Turns out you actually have to practice and grow neural network fibers in the temporal lobes and other connected network areas to improve listening skills, much as you might do when learning to play a violin or learning the names for different brain parts. And while I’ve read all kinds of studies assigning some percentage breakdown to verbal versus nonverbal communication (from 33% to 93%), what’s relevant here is that much of the nonverbal dimension is absent on the ZOOM platform.

We can’t, for example, generally see what people are doing with their hands. Is a foot tapping? Are their legs crossed or are they “manspreading?” We can’t see if pupils are dilating or cheeks are flushing. All these elements and more go into in-person communication, even though many of them are only taken in on a subconscious level.

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Last month I posted a TED talk by 7-year-old Molly Wright. Molly argued that her robust neural networks were very much the result of serve-and-return (contingent) communication. Whether you’re 7 or 70, I would argue that such communication is critical for enriched neural network development. While the verbal elements might be available to us on a ZOOM call, most often much of the nonverbal are not. Often, we end up with something Stanford researchers call ZOOM Fatigue. I would argue it’s more than simple fatigue. I would wager that excessive, imbalanced use of the ZOOM platform can result in significant neural impoverishment.

Another factor to consider is that in everyday communication, we’re not able to look at ourselves at the same time as we’re looking at the person we’re conversing with. This distraction tends to fragment our attention, directing it first at the person we’re talking to, and then at our own image. Additionally, how many calls have we been on where the person’s eyes are looking down at their computer while they’re talking to us, making no real eye contact whatsoever (Interestingly, the newest iPhone comes with “eyetracking software” that automatically makes it look like you’re looking at the camera). How do we respond when someone in person makes little eye contact with us?

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TO Order, Email: floweringbrain@gmail.com

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Here’s a 7 minute TED talk by Here’s a 7 minute TED talk by a 7-year-old explaining what contributed to her robust neural networks:

Molly Wright

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I think I’ll let my favorite neuroscientist, David Eagleman, explain it to you directly. Here’s an excerpt from his new book, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

WHAT DOES DREAMING HAVE TO DO WITH THE ROTATION OF THE PLANET?

One of the unsolved mysteries in neuroscience is why brains dream. What are these bizarre nighttime hallucinations about? Do they have meaning? Or are they simply random neural activity in search of a coherent narrative? And why are dreams so richly visual, igniting the occipital cortex every night into a conflagration of activity?

Planet Earth Spinning Half Covered Stock Footage Video (100% Royalty-free)  1006591891 | Shutterstock

Consider the following: In the chronic and unforgiving competition for brain real estate, the visual system has a unique problem to deal with. Because of the rotation of the planet, it is cast into darkness for an average of twelve hours every cycle. (This refers to 99.9999 percent of our species’ evolutionary history, not to the current, electricity-blessed times). We’ve already seen that sensory deprivation triggers neighboring territories to take over. So how does the visual system deal with this unfair disadvantage?

By keeping the occipital cortex active during the night.

We suggest that dreaming exists to keep the visual cortex from being taken over by neighboring areas. After all, the rotation of the planet does not affect anything about your ability to touch, hear, taste, or smell; only vision suffers in the dark. As a result, the visual cortex finds itself in danger every night of takeover by the other senses. And given the startling rapidity with which changes in territory can happen (remember the forty to sixty minutes we just saw in the blindfolded experiment), the threat is formidable. Dreams are the means by which the visual cortex prevents takeover.

Dreams and Karma – Part 1 | Isha Sadhguru

To better understand this, let’s zoom out….During most of the night, there is no dreaming. But during REM sleep, something special happens. The heart rate and breathing speed up, small muscles twitch, and the brain waves become smaller and faster. This is the state in which dreaming occurs. The increased activity in these neurons has two consequences. The first is that the major muscle groups become paralyzed. Elaborate neural circuitry keeps the body frozen during dreaming….This muscular shutdown allows the brain to simulate world experience without actually moving the body around.

There's No Such Thing As a Universal Symbol in Dreams

The second consequence is the really important one: waves of spikes travel from the brainstem to the the occipital cortex. When the spikes arrive there, the activity is experienced as visual. We see. This activity is why dreams are pictorial and filmic, instead of conceptual or abstract.

We theorize that the circuitry behind visual dreams is not accidental. Instead, to prevent takeover, the visual system is forced to fight for its territory by generating bursts of activity when the planet rotates into darkness. In the face of constant competition for sensory real estate, an occipital self-defense evolved. After all, vision carries mission-critical information, but it is stolen away for half of our hours. Dreams, therefore, may be the strange love child of neural plasticity and the rotation of the planet. ~ pp. 45-47

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Humor me and take 1:42 seconds to watch this short video from Harvard’s Center for Child Development before reading further: Serve and Return.

Our brains are live-wired to learn from before birth. Serve-and-return interactions – or contingent communication in developmental science jargon – is how humans learn best. Contingent Communication is the primary driver of secure attachment. And not just for babies, but for humans of all ages. It’s a powerful nervous system integrator. It enriches human neural network connectivity.

Serve and No Return

But what happens when we serve and nothing gets returned? Or what gets returned has little or no connection to what we served – for example, with gas-lighting or non-sequiturs?

Tennis GIF - Find on GIFERFirst, let’s take the simple everyday experience of sending a text or an email to someone. In your mind the message you sent requires a response. But what happens when nothing comes back? Depending upon how urgent or critical we feel the message is, our stress hormone levels might begin to elevate. If non-responsiveness happens in our world on a regular basis, we could expect our baseline levels of stress hormones to become chronically elevated. And there is a vast and growing research literature that suggests convincingly that chronically elevated stress hormones adversely impact neuron growth and connectivity.

 “When (chronic stress) happens, (binding proteins) become unable to perform their role as modulators of synaptic plasticity” explained Professor Carmen Sandi of the Brain Mind Institute at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. “In turn, these effects lead subjects to lose their sociability, avoid interactions with their peers and have impaired memory or understanding.”

Without You, There’s No Me

And that’s just for starters. We are all greatly dependent upon the people around us to reflect their experience of us back to us. By what people say to us and how they behave towards us, our brain learns to copy other people’s minds. This is how socialization unfolds at the level of our neural networks. Sam Eriera at University College London has done extensive research on how this socialization takes place:

We are highly sensitive to people around us. As infants, we observe our parents and teachers, and from them we learn how to walk, talk, read—and use smartphones. There seems to be no limit to the complexity of behavior we can acquire from observational learning.

But social influence goes deeper than that. We don’t just copy the behavior of people around us. We also copy their minds. As we grow older, we learn what other people think, feel and want—and adapt to it. 

Our ability to copy the minds of others is hugely important. When this process goes wrong, it can contribute to various mental health problems. You might become unable to empathize with someone, or, at the other extreme, you might be so susceptible to other people’s thoughts that your own sense of “self” is volatile and fragile.

What Is Gaslighting?As a kid, I recall my mother frequently admonishing me: “People judge you by the company you keep.” While the benefit of keeping good company might have been easily inferred, it wasn’t until my late 20s that I finally began to connect the dots – spend time around people who inspire you and you can learn things from that you’re interested in. Duh. 

But because of my early socialization and psychological conditioning, the people I would have loved to spend time with and learn from, were essentially people who made me more than a little nervous. In Polyvagal Theory jargon – they activated my spinal sympathetic nervous system – fight or, in my case, mostly flight.

A Not-So Everyday Example

I spent 10 years working as the maintenance man at CASBS, a Stanford Think Tank that has served as a sanctuary for 24 Pulitzer, 51 MacArthur, and 27 Nobel Prize winners. Many of these illustrious visiting scholars, in addition to being brilliant researchers and people capable of complex, nuanced thinking – they were also lovely people.

One of them in particular stands out for me: Jim Scott. Jim is a history professor at Yale. One day, out of nowhere he approached me and asked me to join him in the scholars’ regular afternoon volleyball game. I was actually a pretty decent volleyball player in high school, but this invitation out of the blue from a Yale professor was more than my nervous system could handle (I grew up in a New Haven housing project in the shadow of Yale University. If I ever had dreams of attending there, they never made it to conscious awareness). Jim’s invitation to me got less than a serve-and-return response – I simply looked at him and walked away without uttering a word! How bizarre is that? Not bizarre at all when you understand how super-elevated stress hormones can activate a dorsal vagal shutdown of the speech and language centers in the brain. Silently walking away from Jim and his invitation was simply the best self-regulation strategy that I could muster in the moment to avoid a complete brain and body shutdown.

Abdication Is Not Integration

I hope these few examples do the job of underscoring just how important it is to do our level best to respond with truth, kindness and compassion to the people we care about in our lives. Even when such responses involve Difficult Conversations; no, especially when such responses involve Difficult Conversations. To take this up as a dedicated, serious practice will go a long way towards moving human evolution on Planet Earth in the direction we’d ideally like it to go.

 

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Recently, I’ve been watching the reality TV series called, Undercover Billionaire. The story is about a real life, self-made billionaire – Glenn Stearns – who decides to travel to a new town where he’s unknown, with $100, a cellphone and an old truck, and turn that $100 into a business worth $1 million dollars … in 90 days. If he fails, he’s agreed to donate $1 million dollars of his own money as the kicker.

The Underdog Entrepreneur Fund – Underdog BBQWhen I watch the show, it’s easy for me to see Glenn operating with this rag-tag team he assembles as the part of the brain responsible for our so-called “Executive Function.” Here is a partial list of the qualities that make up Executive Function in the human brain:

    • Paying attention.
    • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing.
    • Starting tasks and staying focused on them to completion.
    • Understanding different points of view.
    • Regulating emotions.
    • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing).
    • Responding rapidly and effectively to changing scenarios.

On this show, Glenn demonstrates all of these functions over and over again in spades. Where he really shines is when obstacle after obstacle comes up, that he and the team couldn’t predict, but are forced to deal with. Essentially, his journey is one of creatively addressing and solving problem after problem in the unwavering pursuit of this one clearly defined goal: create a business in 90 days valued at $1 million dollars.

There are many really interesting dynamics that take place on this journey. One is: Glenn’s in a strange town – Erie, Pennsylvania – where he knows no one and knows nothing about the town. He also has zero idea about what business he’s going to start or how he’s going to start it. The first week in town, in order to save money, he sleeps in his truck, as night temperatures drop below freezing. To get money for an apartment to live in for the 90 days, he scavenges used heavy equipment tires that are littered all around Erie, and sells them to a wholesaler for $400 apiece. It’s a pretty humble beginning.

Three Takeaways

I have three neuroscience takeaways from the show. The first is: The Power of The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience. The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience states that it takes a more organized brain to help organize a less organized brain. Think: parents and teachers with children. Or think: an accomplished professional in any field mentoring a beginner. On this show Glenn is the man with the plan, the seer with a vision, the guy with his eyes on the prize – to create a business valued at $1 million dollars in 90 days. The Prefrontal ParadoxIt becomes his primary job to take the disparate and fragmented group of individuals he’s managed to assemble around him (and convinced to work without pay), and organize and shape them into a coherent, integrated team. This seems to be much like the work of an integrated ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) – where Executive Function primarily comes to live in the human brain.

The second takeaway is the need and requirement for give-and-take, serve-and-return, Contingent Communication. Glenn is a master at not only responding to people, but getting them to respond to him. I think it becomes especially easy because he knows that he ultimately has each person’s well-being and best interests at heart. If, as Polyvagal Theory posits, we only have two choices in human relationships – connect or self-protect – Glenn meets most every attempt at self-protection with an invitation to connection. Note: He’s an extremely accomplished listener.

Like with any good dramatic presentation, there are more than a few intense conflicts and challenging problems the team needs to address – like running out of food in a restaurant three days straight (this is not really a spoiler, so no need for an alert). And Glenn gets thrown for a loop time after time. The main difference say, between him and me, is that his downtime in the wake of all these challenging circumstances is that the time he remains knocked off-center becomes shorter and shorter as the series progresses.

The third neuroscience takeaway for me is the real power in answering The Big Brain Question for people. Over and over and over again, Glenn overtly and covertly conveys to people that he’s there for them, even though he supposedly has very little money and is not paying them for their work. This was the most extraordinary element of the show for me: how he got people to have faith and trust in him as a leader, with absolutely no guarantees that they would be successful. They could count on Glenn for many things that had little to do with money: to be clear and consistent in the communication of his vision; to be able to pivot and give direction when obstacles to the goal appeared unexpectedly; to show and express public care and sincere appreciation for all the time and energy each of the people put into their collective effort. To me, this series was a Master Class in the famous Margaret Mead observation …

Purpose | Small groups, Margaret mead, Change the world

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