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How Fear Worms Its Way Into Your Brain

Human beings are fearful creatures. One in six Americans takes prescription medication to help relieve fear and anxiety. I spend a greater part of each day paying close attention to how fearful thoughts rise into awareness and activate threat-detection networks which then trigger increasing levels of stress hormones. Fearful JPEGThen I deploy a range of strategies and physical exercise to help regulate them. It’s a lot of work, let me tell you. What this research from the Salk Institute underscores is that fear is essentially a neural net- work phenomenon – one that can be actively worked with. Anti-anxiety meds are one way, but brain plasticity and the potential for organic change invites us to experiment with other ways as well. For example, the Authoritative Communities mentioned in the “Hardwired to Connect” piece that follows. All of us can be calmer together than any one of us alone.

Some interesting experiments with what it’s like to not have to worry about and be stressed around the making and spending of money. When I think about participating, I can already feel my adrenals activating my threat-detection circuitry! For this concept to work, I think it really needs to begin early with kids raised in a “Hardwired to Connect” Community ( <– This short talk by Amy Banks, that includes Interpersonal Neurobiology, is worth listening to).

It’s interesting that, back in the day, a famous Apple Computer TV ad announced, “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” Well, 2018 is more like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four than 1984 was, and Apple computer and phone screens ironically are playing a major role in that social deterioration. This piece, by University of Michigan history professor, Henry Cowles, details how our screens themselves have turned into a kind of Ministry of Truth where alternative facts rule not only the day, but many of our lives without us ever being aware of it.

How to Be an Adrenal Ninja

It’s long been clear to me that our brains can be trained to handle crisis situations. 776-ft-lauderdale-fl-night.jpgThat we can engage in practices that allow us to deliberately and conscious- ly manage the Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis which is primarily responsible for when and how the fear response shows up in our body and brain. In this detailed account of an artist’s response to the Trader Joe’s hostage standoff in L.A. last month, we see how a heart fully operational in kindness and empathy can manage an otherwise completely unmanageable situation. Breathtaking in its beauty.

I Was Blind, But Now I See

This is a compelling Google Talk by Isaac Lidsky, who suffered a progressive blindness disease which ended up teaching him how fear / stress hormones compromise neural functioning and distort reality in ways that few of us even begin to realize. From the assumptions we make daily, to the things we turn toward and away from, fear circumscribes and constricts our lives in ways large and small. I think of Isaac as a true Adrenal Ninja with a red and white folding cane.

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Getting a Grip: Self-Restraint – a Requirement for Living the Good Brain Life

Major religions and philosophical traditions heavily emphasize the value and power of self-restraint as a pathway to a virtuous life well-lived. In this five-minute Aeon video two of my favorite neuroscientists, de977b7acfd0ed5c86f783083443475e--ice-cream-cones-big-ice-cream.jpgDavid Eagleman and Walter Mischel teach us about “Odysseus Contracts” and when we should just “eat the damn marshmallow” (or the ice cream cone). I think their research would find a lot of people who could benefit in our nation’s capital.

Moais: The Power of Positive People

I remember reading some research suggesting that only 6% of arranged marriages end in divorce. If true, that suggests we’re much better off letting other people hook us up with life partners. The above research suggests that things improve even more when we get hooked up with reasonably positive people. Interestingly, many such people have weathered a ton of hardship in their lives. Kind of ironic and paradoxical that they would end up being so positive.

Is the Healthy Adult Brain Primed to Accentuate the Positive?

Interesting differentiation our brain makes between early neurogenesis and later brain cells born to us while we’re adults. The research shows that adult-born neurons valuate sensory stimuli rather than simply identifying them. Cells birthed in our brain as adults tend to accentuate the positive. It demonstrates that reward-motivated learning depends largely on adult’s growing these new brain cells.

How to Have a Transformative Personality Change

This method seems to be pretty reliable and effective, with few, if any, side effects. I would highly recommend it in ways the researchers advocate for. I would also recommend that members of the U.S. Intelligence Community might want to suggest it to our President for his own possible radical transformation.

Knocking Old People Unconscious Is Bad for Their Brain

It’s probably not ideal for anyone, really. But considering the primary alternative is a shot of whiskey and biting down on a towel, administering a general anesthesia is probably a fair trade-off. fall1-20151110023241725.jpgSince general anesthesia is essentially a medically-induced “freeze response,” I can’t help but wonder how the adverse effects might be mitigated if a post-operative protocol for “discharging the freeze response” might be enacted. It’s what the body does naturally when it goes into “shock” and begins spontaneously trembling in response to overwhelming, hyper-stimulating experiences.

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Dumb Days: When Your Brain Wakes Up On the Wrong Side of Your Head

By simply looking into my own life daily, I can empirically confirm this research data: a good number of my own days emphatically qualify as Dumb. What’s also clear to me is the considerable correlation between stress levels and dumb levels. On any number of my Dumb Days I might even qualify for a Darwin Award, like this woman who recently thought it was a good idea to hand-feed a live shark (Something I might try on one of my ordinary Dumb Days!). It would be interesting to be able to accurately assess her active stress levels in the time leading up to that incident.

Beyond Age 105 Brain Function Perks Up

Average human lifespan has been increasing for decades (but not necessarily for people who hand-feed sharks). Today we’re at a point where lifespan seems about to go hyperbolic. In some countries, like Spain and South Korea, where average lifespan is up close to 90, it already has. What this research points out is that if you make it up to age 105, it will be clear sailing for you from there on out. Exciting, no? In the immortal words of the Stills-Young Band, “Long May You Run.”

Life Span

Ignorance or Bliss: Your Brain Decides

Researchers have discovered that our brain uses the same algorithm and neural architecture to evaluate the opportunity to gain positive information, as it does to evaluate rewards like food or money. Negative information, not so much.

“The findings may help explain why people are more likely to check their bank accounts when they believe their value has gone up and less likely to do so when they suspect it has gone down.” And leave it to the banks to exploit this brain vulnerability with excessive overdraft fees and bounced deposit charges, all while our brains are avoiding that unpeaceful, uneasy feeling commonly experienced as Checkbook Dread.

Does Dim Light Make Us Dumb?

Apparently, yes it does. At least if you’re a rat and you’re trying to be a smart maze-runner. But even if you’re not a rat, if you’re an American, you spend as much as 90% of your time indoors. You might as well take the well-lit path of least resistance and spend that time in places that are illuminated to your brain’s best advantage. Good light stimulates Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), necessary for healthy brain cell connectivity. Based on my personal experience, I’m guessing fluorescent lighting doesn’t qualify in the category of “good lighting.” But it may be better than dim.

Slackers’ Brains Are Different than Yours and Mine

It’s all about an intimate relationship with our reward circuitry. For some people (or, in this specific research, mice) working hard massively lights up the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and the Striatum (ST) together with the Basolateral Amygdala (BA), and the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). For others of us, not so much. A ton of contemporary trauma research suggests there’s a reason hard work doesn’t light up those areas for some of us – those networks have become compromised by any number of impoverishing stressors. The good news: Nurture can enrich.

Enriched Neurons.jpg

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More than a dozen years ago my lifelong inquiry into the meaning of life eventually led me to neurobiology. That study provided a realization that there is a fundamental requirement human brains and bodies absolutely need for optimal growth and health. That need is for safety. Safety is what makes a home, home; a workplace healthy; a lover, loving. Safety requirements continue all across our lifespan and need to be provided continually by the people, places and organizations in our lives. Early on in this blog I summarized this realization with the phrase, “The Big Brain Question.” The Big Brain Question, for the most part, operates under our neural radar. Healthy brains operating in healthy environments don’t constantly have us walking through the world consciously asking ourselves, “Is this car safe?” “Is this street safe?” “Is this food safe?” “Is this person safe?” Instead, our neurobiology … trusts, but verifies – constantly, to one degree or another. And too often, it doesn’t even trust. Why, for example, do so many of us automatically lock our phone or our car or the door to our house?

Trust in God, but Tie Your Camel

Breaches of trust, real or imagined, disrupt our sense of safety. If you’ve ever had your house or car broken into (I’ve had both), there’s often an acute sense of boundary violation in the wake of that experience. It feels like a protective barrier has been breached in ways over which I have little or no control. Feeling (or actually being) unsafe is not metabolically neutral. camel-1307355_960_720The brain and body have evolved to protect me in unsafe circumstances. They do that first by activating my threat-detection circuitry. Once that circuitry is activated, the brain prepares the body to take any of three fundamental emergency actions – we either flee, fight or freeze. Each of these actions has increasingly significant metabolic and neurobiologic consequences. In response to threat, my nervous system floods me with various stress hormones that change the serum levels of various Corticotrophin Releasing Hormones, cortisol, catecholamines and thyroid hormone. Stress hormones are the brain’s and body’s way of telling me danger lurks. Depending upon the severity and duration of the threat, these hormones can quickly reach toxic levels. When we find ourselves in unsafe situations where neither fleeing nor fighting are an option, the freeze response – essentially helplessness – can generate toxic amounts of stress hormones sufficient to knock us out or make it feel like consciousness itself (our embodied sense of self) is taking leave of our body.

Consciousness Is Now Leaving the Building

Another way the brain responds is through varying degrees of dissociation. I recall once taking my toddler daughter to a rock concert. Within minutes she was sound asleep. Except when I reflected upon it later, I realized that this “sleep” was different than her normal sleep pattern. This “sleep” was a dissociative response to the overwhelming sound energy that made her go instantly unconscious. If I wasn’t paying close attention, I would have just assumed she was simply tired. At this rock concert, due to my own ignorance, I wasn’t answering The Big Brain Question “Yes” for my daughter. Every parent – rooted in some degree of ignorance as all parents are – does the very best we can, so I’m not to blame for exposing my daughter to stimuli her nervous system wasn’t mature enough to handle; but I can resolve to keep learning and doing better to be the Protective Caretaker every child (and many adults) needs.

Immobilized

Finally, when we can’t fight or flee from the threats the world inevitably presents to us, our last option – the freeze response – comes at a considerable neurobiological cost. toxic.jpgHigh levels of unabating stress hormones flooding the brain and body become increasingly toxic and threaten to damage our neural network by severing the adherence proteins that keep neurons properly connected to each other. Rather than have that happen en masse, the brain takes evasive action: it deploys inhibitory neurons to circuit-break transmissions. What that often feels like is going numb, or we simply faint.

At this point however, in the wake of inhibitory neuron deployment to areas of the brain that aren’t usually shut down, we now have compromised network function. It’s like a room or two in your home having only half the plugs and lights working. What to do?

The first thing is to understand how this neurobiology-compromising process works. Next is to realize that a huge amount of the brain’s resources are devoted to moving the body, thus some form of somatic attention of a therapeutic nature much be brought to bear in order to restore anti-fragile function. Here are some therapeutic modalities I identified years ago that can help with the repair and restoration process. They still can.

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I get a kick out of giving money away. Always have, even when I was a kid and didn’t have any. More precisely, in neurobiological terms, the dopaminergic, glutamatergic and serotonergic cells in my brain that release those feel-good neurotransmitters, get mightily activated when I give money away.

Dime-Challenge-image-squareIt’s rarely a lot of money, since I don’t have a lot of discretionary income to give away. But even a little, distributed in fun, creative ways, can activate feel-good chemistry. For example, I’ve filled a water bottle with coins and left it half buried at the Half Moon Bay beach. Imagine the surprise and delight of a kid (or an adult with a delightable inner child) who stumbled upon it.

Or I’ll stick $5 in a knothole in a tree in the woods (fiat currency looks so weird and out of place when you come upon it in a natural setting). Here’s a Money Tree video that shows people unconsciously walking by money literally “growing on trees” without CbmidueVIAAWUOE.jpgseeing it (that level of unconsciousness would never happen to me or you, right!?).

Anyway, below are a series of links to research that shows how altruism impacts neurobiology. And remember, the more you do of something, the better you get at it because your brain devotes more and more resources to that experiential learning. You actually can condition your brain to generate a Super High through the mindful redistribution of wealth. Share this blog with the nation’s one-percenters!

http://bigthink.com/Mind-Matters/study-the-more-altruistic-you-are-the-bigger-will-be-this-part-of-your-brain

https://psmag.com/social-justice/neuroscience-altruism-donald-pfaff-brain-morality-96067

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/09/22/349639464/the-biology-of-altruism-good-deeds-may-be-rooted-in-the-brain

https://www.medicaldaily.com/human-brain-hardwired-altruistic-behavior-kind-and-generous-378606

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5456281/

http://brainblogger.com/2016/04/29/neurological-basis-of-altruism/

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Our Brain Chooses Fight or Flight for Us

For many years I suffered panic attacks and didn’t even know that’s what they were. I would simply find myself with the overwhelming need to leave a room or an event. Once I did, I would begin to feel better. Naturally, this behavior on my part was disconcerting to my friends, and confounding to me. A Fear.jpgNow, of course, brain science explains how wordless, implicit memories get triggered and flood our brains and bodies with stress hormones, requiring immediate action to help address them – fight or flight. Interestingly, once I understood the neurophysiology underlying them, I have not had a single panic attack since.

Transferring Memories

Now this is some really intriguing research. Full application is probably decades away, but still – imagine being able to have Donald Trump’s best memories implanted into your brain such that they actually become your own. Everything good President Donald remembers actually happened … to you! It boggles the mind, not to mention, the brain.

How Stress Compromises Brain Function

Interesting intervention AND technology. Protein production is key to learning and remembering, but stress inhibits protein production in the brain necessary for that learning and remembering facts and experiences. Now scientists are able to deliberately restrict protein production in specific areas of your brain. So, imagine being able to completely reverse memory and learning deficits in short order, simply by being able to deliberately, intentionally regulate protein production on purpose. Makes me want to have some McISRIBs for lunch!

Stranger Danger

Neurobiologists have long known that the roots of racism are neurobiological. We can’t help it if some people – people different from us – activate our threat detection circuitry. A Racist Fish.jpgSuch scary differences can show up as skin color, socio-economic status, culture, specific training, age, gender – you name it – things we’re unfamiliar with put our threat sensors on guard. And while we can’t help the initial reactivity, we can train and learn to regulate such adverse reactive responses. This study shows one more example of how unconscious conditioning operates in our relationships and profoundly influences us, mostly without our ever being conscious of it.

Artisans of the Common Good

Not everyone has a brain that operates in ways that are prosocial. And for those of us who do, our prosocial brain doesn’t operate with a prosocial mandate all the time. We are complex beings with a vast array of nuanced behaviors that unfold every day in every way. This piece however, invites us to prosocial practice – the more we practice something, the better we get at it. In this case, becoming – in the descriptive words of Pope Francis – “Artisans of the Common Good.”

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The cells that make up living tissue essentially die in two different ways. One is an organic developmental process that takes them fully through a life-cycle until a programmed death sequence – called apoptosis – gets activated. The second way living cells die is through a process called necrosis, often associated with injury or trauma. You can see a graphic depiction of the two processes HERE. Apoptosis is physiologic; necrosis is pathologic.

Necrotic Poop Neurons

Dying Brain Tissues Produce Waste

 

Because necrosis generates inflammation, it has the stink of death associated with it. If you’ve ever smelled a dead rat or an infected wound, you know the unmistakable smell of necrosis.

As you might suspect, brain cells are subject to these twin dying processes as well. Concussions or other physical trauma to the brain replace the physiological processes of organic cell death with the pathological processes of necrosis. The brain has its own glymphatic system for removing the waste and inflammation caused by such trauma, and that system operates mostly at night while we sleep.

I believe something else operates in the realm of necrosis in the brain as well – unexpected or traumatic loss. We’ve long known of a whole host of adverse impacts to health associated with grief, but not much is known about how grief and loss impact our neural networks.

What Unwires Together Turns Necrotic Together

In neuroscience, Hebb’s Rule states that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Neurons fire and wire together every time we encounter or learn something new. The more we learn about a person, place or thing, the more cells in our brain make connections. Primary or important relationships in our lives make new, robust connections day in and day out through the process of give-and- take feedback loops – contingent communication. Over time, substantial amounts of neural real estate come to be devoted to meaningful people, places and things in our lives. Meaningful also includes pets.

archie-and-lulu

Archie’s on the right

When we lose meaningful people, places or pets in our lives, the brain networks devoted to them, no longer receive inputs – the contingent feedback loops no longer activate dynamic activity in those networks. Very soon they begin to die and unravel – if you don’t use it, you lose it. The organic, apoptotic processes that these cells would normally progress through, give way to necrotic processes, elevating stress hormone levels, activating cytokines (signaling proteins), C-reactive proteins and inflammation in the brain and body. Simply stated, loss stinks.

April is the Cruelest Month

April’s been a pretty cruel month for our family up here on Whidbey Island. At the beginning of the month our prized housecat, Archie snuck out of the house and ended up becoming coyote breakfast. He’s no longer there to greet me in the morning, jump up into my lap as I read email, or come whining when I’ve let his food supply run low. I miss him and his cloudy right eye terribly (his sister clawed that eye when he was a kitten).

Berner Pup.jpgThen a difficult puppy birth process had to be aborted, and our Berner mom had to be taken in for an emergency C-Section. Ten puppies in various stages of birth trauma made it back home with us, but over the next several days one after another after another ended up dying. Four died in all. Needless to say, April has been filled with an extremely painful 30 days. Making and burying little ten inch wooden coffins is not my favorite Spring activity.

In response, I decided to put together a short Powerpoint collection of things I wish we’d known going into this puppy-birthing process. These safeguards we unfortunately had to learn in the most painful way possible. If you know anyone – veterinarians, breeders, dog lovers – who, together with their dogs, might be able to benefit from this information, I hope you’ll take the time to pass it along. Help others unnecessarily have to confront and endure The Stench of Loss.

10 Do’s and Don’ts with Newborn Puppies

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