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It was 11 years ago this month (Holy Cow!) that I struggled to write my first blog post trying to explain Polyvagal Theory. It wasn’t very illuminating, given what turned out to be my limited understanding of plain, vanilla biology. Needless to say, a number of readers were pointed in their criticisms and let my ignorance be forcefully known in the blog comments (to which I only responded privately). While I didn’t necessarily have all the details 100 percent accurate, I did get right the importance of applying the theory as a real world practice: it’s skillful to be aware of the need for people to feel safe in our presence. When we’re working mindfully to actually make the world safe for us, other people and other living creatures in our lives, we recognize that there are myriad ways of making people feel unsafe that we frequently fail to recognize. Critiquing people’s blog posts, for example. That’s not something so easily accomplished without triggering a defensive reaction. Unsolicited criticism often makes people feel unsafe – a central tenet of Polyvagal Theory.

Image result for bliss and gritLast month, my friend Valerie sent me a podcast of two women, Brooke Thomas and Vanessa Scotto (Bliss & Grit) who not only understand, explain and discuss Polyvagal Theory in easy, everyday language, but they also recognize and speak to the importance of actually practicing making yourself someone that others feel safe around. For those of you already practicing, you know that this is NOT something so easily accomplished. Often, our best intentions can go sideways, especially if we aren’t fully knowledgeable about another person’s trauma history.

Is the Best Defense Defenselessness?

Byron Katie is fond of saying, “Defense is the first act of war.” If we look at how that declaration might play out in our nervous system, what we find is that defense – in response to the brain’s subcortical circuitry constantly monitoring and detecting threats – activates the sympathetic nervous system, significantly elevating stress hormones in the process. Elevated stress hormones tend to take our “Wisdom Circuitry” offline and activate our fight, flight or freeze neurobiology. If we’ve learned to be dominant in defense, we are more likely to fight. If not, then hitting the low road in getaway mode is what most likely happens. Either way, human connection – our birthright and a biological imperative – is nowhere to be found.

War, in any form, is not good for living breathing beings. It’s not good for their brains, their bodies or their hearts. When I look in my own personal life at those times when I have “gone to war,” they mostly have taken place in the absence of operational Wisdom Circuitry. For example, years ago when I hyper-extended the hinges and ripped the door off my girlfriend’s VW Rabbit in a fit of rage, there was no Wisdom in sight (in my “defense,” my rage was in reaction to her having just tried to run me over with that Rabbit. Ain’t love grand!). 

Something similar happens when countries go to war, I suspect. In those instances, the collective Wisdom Circuitry of a country’s leaders and citizens becomes sub-operational. Collective elevated stress hormones propel a course of action devoid of any clear, creative, integrated thinking. It’s all self-protection all the time, unless and until it isn’t. Here’s my favorite elegant example of Wisdom trumping reactive hyper-arousal in ways we might all aspire to.

Tipping the Bliss/Grit Scales

At some point in human evolution, I can imagine that the scales of Bliss and Grit are going to tip to the defenseless, Bliss side of the balance beam. Related imageThat will likely begin to happen when children are raised by parents who have a granular understand- ing of the nervous system and are able to provide accurate cues for safety throughout childhood. They will also be able to refrain from non-contingent communication and “digital neglect” (paying more attention to their cell phones than they do to their kids). Parents will also intimately understand Developmental Trauma in order that later interpersonal relationships won’t become playing fields where we hook up with partners who somehow magically reflect back layer upon layer of early unmet safety needs. We will meet and greet other humans on planet earth with politeness, kindness and care, because with expanded awareness we know we are meeting a fractal reflection of ourselves. Until then though, might we actually benefit by spending some quality time with Bliss AND Grit?

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The Neuroscience and Power of Safe Relationships

My lone psychophysiologist hero, Steve Porges seems to think so. Some of you will recognize him as the creative force behind Polyvagal Theory. This extended Youtube interview with him is worth watching for sure (possibly in ten minute chunks for those of us who are attention-challenged like me). In it you’ll see and understand just how much of each day we spend walking through the world in self-protection mode.

The Pied Piper of Polyvagal TheoryPolyvagal Ladder.jpg

If you’ve been looking for someone to explain Polyvagal Theory in ways that don’t require an advanced degree in neurophysiology, Deb Dana is the translator you’ve been looking for. With great humility and compassion, she takes Steve Porges’s work and makes it accessible to anyone who has the ability to pay even a little bit of attention to how their body feels when it’s under stress. I wish she’d published this video 10 years ago! It would have saved me a LOT of time and confusion.

Can Polyvagal Theory Foster Resonance Consciousness?

In this article two UC Santa Barbara professors argue that the “hard problem of consciousness” all comes down to how we resonate. Or more specifically, vibrating at specific frequencies. All of the physical world vibrates and things in proximity long enough often begin to sync up, spontaneously self-organize and vibrate together so long as there is no interference patterns are present. The unconscious, neuroceptive presence of threats, Polyvagal Theory would posit, would be one such interference. At that point we’re less and less conscious and no longer getting Good Vibrations.

The Link Between Your Insanity and Mine

buraquinhocapa-350x230.jpg41% of college freshmen feel overwhelmed. That’s up from 18% in 1985. It’s unlikely to get any better for them after college. In this piece exploring Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, we discover three of the main drivers of overwhelm and depression: Social stress, lack of community, and childhood trauma. “With a fuller picture of his mental health, Hari realized he focused too much on himself and self-promotion. He began making a conscious effort to spend time helping others and to just be present with the people I love. Really, it was a radical transformation.”

The Neurobiology of Loneliness

The good news: it’s not you, it’s your dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), a small cluster of cells at the top of your brainstem. The bad news: it’s lonely at the top. If you like being the life of the party and easily engage with groups of people, when the party’s over and the crowds have all gone home, your DRN is much more likely to activate deep feelings of loneliness than it does for the rest of us.

And if I haven’t bugged you enough about The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory) and how it impacts every area of your life for better or worse, simply click HERE and consider yourself sufficiently bugged.

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Coming Sunday, May 5th, 2019

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“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” ~ Anonymous

Tell me if you’ve heard this one*: a behavioral optometrist walks into a juvenile detention center and tests 1000 kids. Turns out 96% of them have abnormal vision. Chronic stress in their lives has put constant tension on their eyeball muscles and pulled those organs out of shape. The kids all receive corrective lenses. Cognition improves significantly overnight. The recidivism rate for this cohort goes from 55% to 10%!

Take It On Down the Road

When I was 19 I got a Mulligan from a New Haven, Connecticut juvenile court judge after being arrested for illegal discharge of a firearm in the city limits. He pointedly suggested I move and find a different town to go shoot up. Shortly thereafter, I took his advice to heart and drove with friends across the country to Los Angeles. On that drive late one night, just playing around, I put on one of my friend’s glasses. I couldn’t believe the difference! I had absolutely no idea how poor my vision actually was. As soon as I earned enough money, I went to an eye doctor and got corrective lenses. Less than a year later I enrolled in my first college classes!

Taking Another Perspective

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about Blindsight. Different than simply poor vision, it is essentially the inability to see things that actually are in our field of vision. Related image

There are currently three theories to explain the phenomenon. The first states that after damage to our primary visual area, other branches of the optic nerve deliver visual information to several other areas of the brain, including parts of the cerebral cortex. These areas then unconsciously generate blindsight responses.

Another theory of blindsight is that even though the majority of the visual cortex may be damaged, tiny areas of functioning neural tissue remain viable. These aren’t large enough to provide conscious awareness, but nevertheless they are large enough for some unconscious visual perception.

A third theory is that the information required to determine the distance to and velocity of an object goes elsewhere in the brain before the information is projected to the visual cortex. It’s that singular, early advance processing that is responsible for blindsight.

Making It Up As I Go

I have my own pet theory with regards to some forms of blindsight. My theory is that many of us are blind to things going on around us all the time and never even realize it. For many of us stress compromises the “Pay Attention” structures in our brain (the reticular activating system). It narrows the field of vision that we walk through our daily lives deploying. And with a growing tsunami of things to pay attention to critically decreasing our attention span, it becomes more and more difficult to see anything for very long, let alone “the big picture.

But it’s not only our visual cortex that gets compromised. Unaddressed and/or unremitting stress and trauma compromise every aspect of our sensory functioning (which isn’t all that robust under the best of circumstances – neuroscientists calculate that we only consciously take in and process roughly 2% of all the sensory data that surrounds us in any moment). We don’t sense what we don’t know we don’t see, smell, taste, hear or feel. How great a wealth of life experience are we missing because we haven’t cultivated a rich sense of smell. And don’t get me started on hearing and listening. I’ve written SIX (count ’em) books on the topic, all in an attempt to provide possibilities for enriching your auditory abilities. 

Impoverished NeuronsThe Poor Get Poorer

One way stress and trauma and information overload compromise sensory and somatic functioning is mostly by impoverishing our neural networks – the strong connections brain cells make in our brains and bodies. And it does it without telling us it’s doing so. Impoverished neural networks don’t flash a neon sign signaling us that our processing power is diminished. Rather, all kinds of other things happen that we dismiss or create explanatory fictions to help us rationalize. We gain “winter weight” to keep us warm through November, December and January. We will join a gym and work out regularly once the weather warms up. We will begin a daily spiritual practice as soon as we get around to cleaning out the back room to make a sanctuary space. It’s always something. And it is: our brain functioning continues to be adversely impacted by the stressors mounting in our lives without us even realizing it. And in the process we are all neurobiologically poorer for it, especially our hearts.

* From the book, The Heart of Trauma by Bonnie Badenoch, pg. 78. Coming soon to an Enchanted Loom review near you!

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It’s perhaps somewhat strange to find these two books reviewed on a blog about neuroscience. Nevertheless, I have found a great number of neurobiological connections in both. The first Enchanted Loom review is of Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Wisdom Jesus. Image result for the wisdom jesusThis is the book we were never exposed to in Sunday school as kids, or in survey religion courses. In it, Cynthia pulls from many traditions to paint Jesus as a spiritual teacher unlike we have ever encountered him before. Interestingly, she also passingly mentions neuroscience and the brain as part of her in-depth research into the man in the context of his time. In doing so she transcends what has mostly been taught using 20/20 hindsight. It’s not an accident that this little book has already gone through 15 printings and will likely go through many more.

The second Enchanted Loom review is of Sandeep Jauhar’s book, Heart: A History. Image result for book heart a historyIn it he weaves his training as a cardiologist into the actual workings of real hearts in the real world. What immediately intrigued me about his account is that he begins the book by detailing how his grandfather died of fright so great that it completely stopped his heart. Later on in the book he describes his grandfather’s death as akin to a voodoo death hex. Such deaths do indeed take place and seem to be the result of stress hormones rising to levels that result in a complete dorsal vagal shut down – the familiar freeze response taken to the max. Click here to find out some other fascinating aspects of a heart you very likely know less about than you think. After reading this book I’m convinced, now more than ever, of the importance of safety in the world and in our lives, if only for the health of our hearts.

And if you’re curious about the heart’s surprising role in The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory) and how it might positively affect you, me and the rest of the world, simply click HERE. For your heart’s sake.

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… and a good woman is not that much easier.

Let’s begin with a startling statistic – according to research by Sara Konrath and her colleagues at the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy, 75% of college students have ECD (Empathy Circuitry Deficiency). In the larger population, where will you find the most empathy? In women in their 50s!

If empathy is not a relationship dealbreaker for you, then things are looking up. Siri and Related imageAlexa – America’s smart speaker sweethearts – will soon have male versions no doubt; and Artificial Intelligence companies are pouring billions into research such that you will one day soon be able to carry on an “intellectual” conversation and never know you’re talking to a bot, especially as they become confessional and demonstrate a dry or wicked sense of humor (your choice). And those bots will be programmed with all of the 34,000 words describing granular human emotional states; they just won’t be able to actually feel them when they talk about them. Much like that 75% today, when you think about it!

A Shift from the Right

So why exactly have our empathy circuits taken a turn to the left? Bonnie Badenoch, of Brain Wise Therapist fame, has a pretty good idea: “If our right hemispheres harbor significant trauma in the form of unhealed fear and pain or we feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming information, we may adaptively shift toward left dominance in an effort to protect ourselves from a crippling onslaught of unmanageable inner and outer experience. . . . We know that the circuitry for empathy is inherent but needs sustained connection with others to mature. As we move away from our right-centric relational capacities, the nourishment of that developmental process is less available. Not surprisingly, there has been a concomitant rise in narcissism among the population as the left shift has increasingly cuts us off from this relational circuitry and a felt sense of connection.”

State Drives Story Mind on FireAssuming Bonnie’s onto something, what then shall we do? Well, we’re going to have to begin doing things that shift the current left-hemisphere dominant culture into one more balanced with the right hemisphere. In the process of making that shift, we’re going to have to begin connecting with other people. In that connecting, and in the activating of that right brain circuitry, we’re going to inevitably stir up and kindle buried, painful traumatic memories. Only instead of simply reactivating them and adding yet one more painful experience memory to the storage vault, we’re going to have to do the work of integrating them. And today we know two good things about how that might be accomplished.

Two Times Two is Twenty-Two

The first thing we know is that accessing painful memories buried in the depths of the right hemisphere doesn’t have to be done all at once in a single painful cathartic emotional up-welling. Rather, such exploration and activation can be done in a slow, deliberate, titrated manner. A skilled therapist, friend or healer can often seem to work with these buried memories one lonely nerve fiber at a time and restore it to active, healthy function as part of our increasingly integrated, expansive neural network.

The second good thing we know about what can work to accomplish healing integration is that more and more research is telling us that the body has to be involved. If, as Cambridge computational neurobiologist Daniel Wolpert claims, the brain evolved primarily to move the body, we’re going to have to learn and experiment with healing ways to return and re-move the body in ways that can lead to whole body-brain integration. And odds are, it’s going to hurt.

Image result for trauma healing movement

The current signature line in my email account carries this message out to my circle of regular contacts from Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault: The most profound product of this world is tears. Tears express a vulnerability in which we can have our heart broken and go right on loving. That’s our business down here. That’s what we’re here for.” Not only are we going to need to see more crying in baseball, but in all the locker rooms and bedrooms and doctors’ offices all over the world – men’s and women’s – if we are going to move the needle on this empathy circuitry deficiency. Keep tissues within handy reach.

And if you’re curious about the surprising role that The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory) might play in moving you, me and the rest of the world into greater right brain harmony, balance and integration, simply click HERE. Nothing bad will happen if you do. I promise it’s totally safe to at least check things out and you’re under no obligation.

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Several months ago my wife and I went to see the 2019 Best Documentary Oscar-winner, Free Solo. It follows the journey of one young man’s determination to climb all 3000 feet of Yosemite’s El Capitan alone, without a safety rope. A week later we found a movie about one of the consulting support people for Alex Honnold’s solo climb – Tommy Caldwell. The name of Tommy’s movie is The Dawn Wall.

Big UP ProductionsAt an obvious level, it’s again a movie about rock climbing. But The Dawn Wall is a much different movie than Free Solo. It’s a movie about how trauma can adversely impact the brain, the struggles of human relationships, about adversity and overcoming it … and most of all it’s a movie that demonstrates the difference the power of one accomplished, integrated person can make in another person’s life, simply by being unwilling to give up on them, even when they’ve given up on themselves. It’s this powerful dynamic that can come into play when we have a single, significant person in our life willing and able to answer The Big Brain Question “Yes” for us. The power of getting that question answered “Yes” is absolutely remarkable.

Prepare for Ascent

So, here’s the setup – in January! of 2015, two and a half years before Free Solo took place, two climbers. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, decide they want to be the first people to scale El Capitan on the side that the morning sun first shines on each day – The Dawn Wall. It’s essentially a sheer granite rock face. Tommy is the much more experienced climber (You’ll notice in this 3 minute video that he’s missing a finger, cut off in table saw accident! A consequence of trauma fragging his attention-paying circuitry?).

The climb is unquestionably treacherous and difficult – which is why no one had climbed it before. Especially challenging is “Pitch 14” (rock climbers map climbing routes in pitches, which is roughly the length of a climbing rope, and also the space between bolt anchors that hold the rope. Most pitches on long climbs are between 100 and 160 feet long, although pitches can be as short as 20 or 30 feet. El Capitan is 32 pitches of climbing). Mostly devoid of places to grab, Caldwell and Jorgeson had to memorize the exact locations of every handhold, “some of which are the size of a credit-card edge, and every foothold, most of which are less perceptible than a dimple of a well-worn golf ball.”

The Rough Patch Pitch

After Caldwell and Jorgeson lost a hold and fell multiple times and gave all they had to finally “free” (cross) Pitch 14, they were then faced with crossing the second most difficult pitch on the Dawn Wall – Pitch 15. After numerous attempts Tommy Caldwell finally made it. But after many more, Jorgeson was unable to free that pitch. The two men discussed what they should do, and they agreed Caldwell should go on to the top alone.

Related image While Jorgeson battles against the physical and psychological strain, Caldwell spends the next days free climbing up to the Wino Tower (the 20th pitch) which marks the end of the technical difficulties. Caldwell could easily push on alone to the top, but instead he decides to go back for his partner. Caldwell fully intends for this to be a team ascent.

Of course, our adrenal glands always have something to say about our intentions, no matter how noble they may be. While Jorgeson makes repeated failed attempts on Pitch 15 over a whole week, Caldwell calmly waits in the portaledger hanging from the side of El Capitan. He patiently listens to Jorgeson’s struggles, offers suggestions, prepares meals and ministers to his bleeding fingers. With Caldwell’s unfailing encouragement and support, finally on the 11th attempt, Jorgeson manages to cross Pitch 15, taking a harder route than Caldwell took!

Creative Interdependence Rocks

Together as a team – the way they began the climb – Caldwell and Jorgenson make short work of the remainder of the climb and become the first people to free climb the Dawn Wall … as a team. This is the power of the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience in combination with an Irrational Commitment to answer The Big Brain Question “Yes” for another human being. What personal “Pitch 15s” in our own lives might we find ways to successfully cross with someone unquestionably there for us when we most need them? And who might we then be able to answer The Big Brain Question for when they could most use someone to unfailingly have their back?

None of us can answer The Big Brain Question for others however, unless we feel secure, unless we have knowledge and practices that allow us to regularly feel safe. If you’re interested in finding out how The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory) can provide that knowledge and identify those practices, simply click HERE. Nothing bad will happen if you click the link. I promise it’s totally safe to at least check things out and you’re under no obligation.

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