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The first day I showed up for work at one of the nation’s premier Think Tanks I was totally overawed. So much so that I considered not even taking the job. I would be hanging out daily with people who were extremely mentally agile, people who’d won Nobel Prizes, MacArthur Genius Fellowships, Pulitzers. These were people able to make rapid and far-flung mental connections with lightning speed and often their staccato way of communicating that information made me extremely nervous. Even though I was a member of Mensa and I’d earned the same Ph.D. degree as they did (and even had the CEO of Proquest [where all academic research dissertations go to die] personally call me up and praise my work!), I found their reputations and that manner of thinking and speaking extremely intimidating. This world, so very different than my ordinary one, triggered massive stress hormones in my body, since my own daily brain operated in a much more “Which way did he go, George?” manner.

The Color of Genius

Creative Business Idea

But the people who hired me were warm and welcoming and after only a few weeks up there on top of the hill, I began to settle in. One day, one of the staff members took me aside and offered me this assurance: “One thing you’ll learn up here is – genius isn’t genius all the time.” Not only did I learn the truth of that reality, but I came to directly experience over and over that intellectual genius and emotional genius are not the same thing, and in fact, it’s quite uncommon for both to simultaneously take up residence in a single body.

Since then I’ve come to learn a little bit about the brain’s acquired ability to think fast and talk fast. I’ve also learned something about my inability to feel comfortable in the company of highly regarded academic superstars. As this recent research from Brad Hershbein at the Brookings Institute (another high-level think tank) shows, the college degree that I received is significantly different than the degree academic superstars obtain. Why? Because we each began our careers from very different starting points. Growing up poor, only state colleges and lower income majors had much realistic appeal for me. The people and the surrounding environments were what my neurophysiology felt most comfortable with.

Matching Environment to Brain Function

So, for example, I began my academic career at a small junior college in Southern California (Valley College). I easily fit in, did well and felt comfortable there. As a Junior, I transferred to UCLA. There I felt totally overwhelmed and out of place. The sheer size of the school and the large masses of people proved to be more stimulation than my brain and body could easily integrate. Constantly overstressed, my brain didn’t work well. I finally dropped out and transferred to a small state school in upstate NY (SUNY New Paltz) where I graduated with honors. For graduate school, I tried UCLA again. Again I dropped out in favor of a much smaller startup school in Silicon Valley – The California Institute for Transpersonal Psychology. Total enrollment: 38 students! Guess what. I felt totally at home. It took ten years, but I finally completed a Masters Degree and then a Ph.D.

Thinking Fast and Slow

Each of the schools I felt most at home in had very few fast thinkers or fast talkers, and those few who did show up I shied away from. When think tank fellow Daniel Kahneman published his book, Thinking Fast and Slow several years ago, you can bet I was immediately drawn to it. Here’s a passage that helped me make sense of my think tank experience: “People who are cognitively busy are more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.” In shying away from fast thinkers and talkers, it turns out my brain was most likely exercising unconscious, prudent discernment.

But my exposure to fast thinkers and fast talkers inspired a number of important developments. First of all arose a desire to try and understand what made them tick. This desire inevitably led me to neuroscience. Here’s a recent brief partial explanation of how their brains work: What makes the brain tick so fast?

Meeting the Fast Talker Challenge

Wisdom of ListeningAn inevitable challenge for me was to learn how to be comfortable around fast thinkers and fast talkers – to not end up either hyper-aroused or feeling totally shut down in their presence. That desire was the initial inspiration for developing “listening practice.” I began reading pieces by people whom I respected on the topic of skillful listening. People like Ram Dass, Joan Halifax, Rodney Smith, and Kathleen Singh. Then one day I got the idea to put them all together into an anthology, since that’s what many of the scholars at the think tank often did. And thus The Wisdom of Listening was born. And now here, 13 years later, to my great delight, it’s remains a useful, steady-selling resource for people of all sorts of thinking and talking styles.

Who? Me? My brain? Judge you? No way.

Way.

Tell me the company you keep and I’ll tell you who you are. — Cervantes (1607)

Brain-Changing Training Offer: Click -> HERE

 

Here’s an interesting study done more than a decade ago. Michelle Hebl and Laura Mannix, psychologists at Rice University, placed a number of volunteer subjects in a waiting room with a prospective job applicant. In one condition the applicant sat in a corner all alone. In another, they sat next to a person of average weight. In a third condition, the applicant sat next to a person who was overweight. Different sets of volunteer raters were then asked if they would hire the applicant.

Fat and SkinnyAs you might suspect – simply because I’m including it here under this blog title – in addition to being perceived as less active, intelligent, hardworking, attractive, popular, successful, and athletic, the job applicant sitting next to the overweight person was deemed to have lower professional and interpersonal skills when compared to the person sitting alone or with a person of average weight. Cluelessly, these “hiring managers” were not only penalizing overweight applicants, but they also penalized someone who was merely in proximity to someone overweight.

Now consider: more than 2/3s of the people in this country are currently obese or overweight. What do you think those unconscious negative judgments are doing to people who struggle with weight’s neurophysiology? What unspoken answers do you think their own brains are giving to The Big Brain Question? (An interesting aside: If YOU win a Lottery Jackpot, this research suggests my brain is more likely to make me spend to the point of bankruptcy!).

The Brain’s Primary Primary

My brain has one primary concern: keeping me alive. If you’re someone who hangs out with fat people, my brain unconsciously decides that you will not be of much help when the Storm Troopers or the toothless guys from the movie, Deliverance show up. My brain (mostly) unconsciously decides my chances of survival are better if I don’t hang out with you, but hang out with mixed martial artists and Navy Seal Team Six members instead. Of course, knowing about this unconscious bias of my brain is necessary in order for me to then consciously override it. But what if I’m clueless and unaware of this unconscious bias? Then what?

Color Me Biased

This unconscious bias in my brain is unfortunately not only active in me when it comes to the company overweight people keep. It’s also quite active in assessing the color of the company I keep. If you are a person of color or hang out with a person of color, my brain has a built-in anti-preference for you. And unfortunately, it has it against you even if I am a person of color myself. Frances Aboud, a developmental social psychologist at McGill University, has been studying toddlers for decades. Black White ToddlersBlack, brown, white or yellow, every toddler in predominantly white cultures unconsciously prefers … white. Why? Because virtually everything their brain has been exposed to in white dominant cultures implicitly and explicitly portrays white-preference. From billboard ads to television programs to simply their larger numbers on the street – whites dominate the world around us. They also dominate in the world inside us – in the connections our brain cells make in the process of learning about the world around us. In order to counteract this early learning it is important to expose children to diversity in as many forms as we can supply it. From people of different colors, various sizes, different sexual and political and religious preferences, to people with different developmental and physical limitations. Exposure to multi-forms of diversity in the world outside us leads to multi-forms of diversity in the neural networks inside us. Which provides a much richer life to live.

Finally, here’s a perfect Enchanted Loom review to further your understanding of just how unconscious so many neural operations actually are – Shakar Vedantam’s book, The Hidden Brain.

Near as I can tell, the most cash-flow positive way to make money on the Internet seems to be to seduce people with a “can’t fail, easy-as-peasy pie” scheme to make money on the Internet. Of course, only a very small percentage of the people who buy these seminars and take these online courses ever reap the millions promised. Why? Well, the vulnerabilities of our brain and the limitations of our body might have something to do with it.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that those people who make millions on the internet are similar to those people who make millions from multi-level marketing “opportunities.” They are people who have the energy, discipline, drive and focus to be successful in almost any business or enterprise they immerse themselves in. But energy, discipline, drive and focus are functions of a brain that operates in a very specific manner.

Competing With Free

It’s not an accident that even free internet courses like those offered by EdX and Udemy and Coursera have a massive fail-to-complete rate. That means that the vast majority of people who enroll in online offerings don’t have the energy, interest, drive and discipline or the ability to sustain the focus required to complete them. This means several things.

MOOCbetterwordbubble

As someone who has taken such courses and who has completed them (and taken several that I did not complete), I have a sense of the brain processes involved. One is that if self-directed study is to be successful, I need to know why I’m doing the studying, and I need to keep reminding myself of that reason(s). Two courses I managed to complete online were Idan Segev’s and Peggy Mason’s courses on brain physiology – something I am deeply interested in and already know a lot about. Now I know even more. Those courses about changing the brain and how it works have changed my brain and how it works. That was my purpose in taking them.

Interestingly, there were two other internet courses about the brain that I enrolled in that I did not complete. The main reason: the teachers. I simply did not resonate with the teaching and presentation style. Peggy Mason and Idan Segev are colorful characters. And they’re passionate, about the brain and about teaching. Their energy and unique personality – their spirit – shines through. It didn’t even matter that Idan is Israeli and half the time I couldn’t understand what he was saying because of his heavy accent. For me, his passion over-rode his accent. These professors did manage to stimulate the pleasure centers in my brain. That circuitry lit up in response to me learning something REALLY INTERESTING in a fun, surprising and enjoyable way.

But of course, now, if I’m going to make millions on the Internet, I’m left with the hard work of actually APPLYING what I’ve learned from Peggy and Idan in compelling and creative ways such that massive numbers of people will be willing and wanting to discount “free” and pay good money for. So far, no good.

The Empowerment Delusion

Another factor that precludes most of us from ever becoming internet millionaires is The Empowerment Delusion: the false belief that feeling empowered, or believing I am empowered, is the same as actually being empowered. It’s something I have been a victim of myself more than a time or two. Best SellerPart of why The Empowerment Delusion works I suspect, is that beliefs themselves, much like positive thoughts, affect neurotransmitters in the brain associated with Reward Circuitry – with the ventral-tegmental area and the striatum – the brain’s pleasure centers. But while generating feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters may be necessary, it is clearly not sufficient when it comes to the hard work required to actually accomplish something of significance that will generate substantial cash flow.

Take writing a novel as an example of The Empowerment Delusion. Here’s a typical “empowerment pitch”: You Can Write Your Novel in 30 Days. As a young and naïve aspiring novelist, I’ve probably taken a half dozen of these workshops/programs. Initially, my brain generates all kinds of feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. I’ll be off to the races, cranking out pages day after day. Then, about 10 days or two weeks in, the thrill suddenly stalls. Those bewitching brain chemicals no longer work their magic. Writing now becomes … work. It was conveniently never mentioned that this novel-writing gig was going to feel like work! I could actually feel this way by getting a job with a paycheck. And have money coming in, rather than day after day only going out!

If Michaelangelo were alive today, I doubt he would become a grand master by spending untold hours attempting to become an Internet millionaire. I’ll leave you with what he had to say about his own mastery: “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

Here’s an important essay that probably won’t set your dopamine circuitry ablaze, but it’s important to read if you want to be truly knowledgeable about neuroscience research.

A Neurocultures Manifesto

By Victoria Pitts-Taylor

This manifesto is for those of us who do not consider ourselves as belonging to one of the scientific fields generating official brain knowledge. We need a neurocultural manifesto because the brain has been put forward by others as foundational for knowing about the self and social life, because neuroscientists are being asked to be the philosophers, sociologists and gender theorists of our era – they are being asked to do our jobs – and are responding with enthusiasm, and also because brain matter is mattering. Its materiality is now making itself known everywhere: in images, texts, in culture, in embodied practices, in the clinic and the hospital and the school, in everyday life. Many of us want to expand and diversify the available knowledges about the brain by offering critical perspectives on the brain and brain science that take the social and cultural as seriously as the biological. This is a critical task that deserves encouragement.

anatomy_of_the_nilla_brain_by_iceandsnowThe “Biocultures Manifesto” (Davis and Morris 2007) encouraged the work of critical scholars who were collapsing the onto-epistemological divides between biology and culture. The biocultural view argues for the co-constitution of the body and culture, and for the impossibility of knowing them separately. Following a biocultural view, the term “neurocultures” refers to a number of social and biological problematics, including: the cultural condition of the so-called age of the brain, or the current era’s excitement over neuroscientific knowledge; struggles among scientists, doctors, patients, advocates, ethicists, and activists over what the brain is, should be, and can be; representations of the brain and applications of brain science in the cultural and political imagination; personal and collective uptakes of neuroscientific knowledge in everyday life; academic appropriations of neuroscience in the humanities and social sciences; and, most fundamentally, the inextricability of neuronal matter with its bodily, social, and historical surroundings.

This manifesto draws on the work of neo-materialist scholars in feminist and social theory who are rethinking biological matter. Dissatisfied with the limitations of social constructionism for critiquing biological knowledge, but mindful of its insights, neo-materialism examines the ineluctably social character of nature and the natural makeup of the social. In doing so it ultimately collapses the distinctions between them, recalling Donna Haraway’s (1991) formulation, nature/culture. Neuroscientific knowledge is being widely applied to questions of mind, self and society, with significant implications for our understandings of personal identity, gender, sexuality, embodiment, ethics and morality, human nature, and social life. In response, feminists, social theorists, writers of literature and memoir, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, artists and others outside of neuroscience are now taking up and critiquing brain science. This manifesto urges a commitment to a biocultural framework in our critical engagements.

NeuroCultures Manifesto

  1. The brain is biocultural. A biocultural point of view sees biology and culture as inextricably connected. This does not mean that biology determines the social, but means instead that they interface and cannot be divided; separation is fatal for critical thinking. For example, research on brain plasticity, or the brain’s capacity to change in response to environmental changes and experience, and epigenetics, or how genes are differentially expressed, raise many questions regarding how culture matters neuronally. A dynamic view sees the brain (as a physiological structure), mind (as what the brain does) and world (the body, other people, culture, the environment) in constant engagement.
  1. Neurocentrism is a limiting viewpoint. The brain is part of, in, and dependent upon the body. Any philosophical treatment of the brain that forgets this should be reminded. Conversely, critical scholarship on the body in cultural studies, feminism, queer and social theory should take into account the brain as a bodily organ that, like the rest of the body, expresses the co-dependence of nature and culture.
  1. Selves and subjects are always embodied. They are always biological as well as cultural, social, and personal. Social theory that pits culture, mind and self against biology, including neurobiology, diminishes our grasp of the dynamic relation of these.
  1. The brain is matter. Critical scholarship must take up how the brain is framed by neuroscience, but it does not best proceed by treating the biological as if it were simply made up. Social constructionists should not assume “social facts may be entirely dissociated from biological facts” (Davis and Morris 2007). Critique should not limit itself to describing the conditions under which facts of biology are known or generated (Latour 2004). Critical work on the brain must attend to the materiality of brain facts. We must examine the technologies, practices, and modifications that intervene in and transform neural flesh, while taking the organic seriously. Those who do not take the organic seriously are at risk of reifying dualist modes of thinking and dismissing people’s lived experiences of embodiment.
  1. flying_brain_by_pixelnaseThe brain is not ahistorical, fixed, or atemporal. A good deal of current neurobiology paints a picture of the brain as continually shaped through its constant dynamic relation with the world. Further, the brain is always situated in a body and self, and thus in social relations, in family, community, in culture and the economy, in the local and the global, in history. One of the tasks of neurocultural critique is to insist upon holistic perspectives; the methods and knowledges of the humanities and social sciences are necessary for grasping the situated brain as a cultural as well as organic subject/object.
  1. Because a biocultural brain must be understood and interpreted biologically and culturally, scientists cannot be left to do this job alone. Relatedly, the cultural implications of cellular-level research in the lab cannot be interpreted solely through the lens of biology. Interdisciplinary work is no longer optional, but required in order to avoid and combat biological reductionism in arenas where it is an intellectual detriment.
  1. A lot is at stake in knowledge about the brain. This is true for those identified as neurotypicals and those identified as neurodiverse; for patients and those not (yet) patients of neurologists; for those whose body practices and notions of personal wellness are being shaped by brain science; for those identified as at risk for dementia, addiction, depression, infertility, obesity, or other bodily condition now being informed by neuroscience; for juries, jurists, judges and defendants who are being exposed to brain evidence; for men and women who are being told that they have different brain types; for anyone implicated in discussions of morality, emotion, reason, intelligence, sanity, health, sexuality, personality and character. The stakes are material as well as discursive; brain knowledge is not simply shaping what we think brains are, but is informing practices that literally, materially shape them.
  1. We should all participate in negotiating these stakes. Neuroscientists are expanding their reach far beyond their training, into realms of philosophy, ethics, society, culture. Scholars of these fields must return the favor. When boundaries are broken down between biology and culture, cultural theorists need to be as empowered to speak about biology as biologists are about culture.
  1. We should learn to be critical readers of brain scholarship. We should teach our students to read neuroscientific papers, critique methods and interpretations, and follow controversies in the field (see for example Dumit 2004; Jordan-Young 2010; Vidal and Ortega 2011). We should not rely on only popular books that sell neuroscience as philosophy; we should read the research upon which these books make their claims.
  1. We should not accept uncritical uses of neuroscience in our own disciplines. Neurosociologists should be as careful with neuroscientific methods and interpretations as they are of sociological ones. Cognitive literary studies should be as attentive and responsible with its use of research on neurons and brain regions as it is of texts. The reification of neuroscientific ideas is anathema to a biocultural agenda.

There are now numerous scholars in the humanities and social sciences whose work is engaging critically with brain science. Collectively we are establishing a critical biocultural, neurocultural literature on the brain. Unfortunately, however, it is still much easier to find uncritical rehearsals of brain science that disseminate it as monolithic, unassailable truth. Critical neurocultural scholarship on the brain can improve the fund of knowledge about our biocultural constitution. A neurocultural intervention will be critical but also relevant; it will grasp the cultural-political stakes; it will demand holistic perspectives on organic matter; and it will make room for multiple and complex interpretations of the cultural/biological interface that refuses to reduce one to the other.

Victoria Pitts-Taylor is Professor of Sociology, Director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society, and Coordinator of Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as well as Professor of Sociology at Queens College, CUNY.

References:

Davis, Lennard and David Morris. 2007. “Biocultures Manifesto,” New Literary History vol. 38 no. 3: 411-418.

Dumit, Joseph. 2004. Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs and Women:The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Jordan-Young. Rebecca. 2010. Brainstorm: the Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to

Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30 no. 2: 225-248.

Vidal, Fernando and Francisco Ortega. 2011. “Approaching the Neurocultural Spectrum – an Introduction,” pp 7-27 in Neurocultures: Glimpses into an Expanding Universe, ed. Francisco Ortega and Fernando Vidal. New York: Peter Lang.

If neuroculture doesn’t do it for you, click HERE and effortlessly enjoy another Enchanted Loom.

There’s a lot of dismal entertainment dotting the electronic landscape. My tastes run pretty eclectic. I’ll watch and greatly enjoy documentaries like The Making of a Murderer, comedies like Jane, the Virgin and Mozart in the Jungle, and a mixed martial arts drama series like Kingdom. One recent episode of The Profit really highlighted a particular way in which our brain is often very vulnerable in its daily operations, and so makes keeping hard commitments challenging.

This particular episode involved Inkka Shoes, a super-creative custom footwear manufacturer. The three partners call on Marcus Lemonis to help them turn the business around. When Marcus shows up they essentially have $2000 in the bank and are on the verge of collapse. Right away Marcus goes to work on “people, process and products.” His first directive to the 3 partners: reduce the number of product SKUs they are producing.

FabricNext he gives Daniel, the CEO, explicit instructions: “Go to the fabric store and pick just five patterns that we’ll use to focus the product line.” Naturally, as is pretty predictable, Daniel goes out and picks patterns that trigger a dopamine rush in his creative brain circuitry. But instead of only 5 – he comes back with 40 of them!

Marcus is beside himself, apparently not recognizing that Daniel has Executive Function circuitry that doesn’t work very well. He simply can’t turn off the juice after he’s picked five patterns. Much like it does for a child, every pretty pattern holds great neuro-ecstatic, dopaminergic allure.

So, that’s the first reason we quit things: Poor Executive Functioning neural networks that constantly draw us on to the next new thing. It’s like the controller in our Air Traffic Tower is AWOL.

Compromised Arousal Regulation

Together with Executive Function, the next work of a healthy brain is to keep arousal regulated, to keep emotions in balance. There’s a window of arousal that we generally operate most efficiently within, a kind of neurological Goldilocks Zone. Go too far below the window, and we end up without sufficient energy and motivation to consistently get much of anything initiated or accomplished.

arousedGo too far above the window and we enter “afflictive emotions” territory. Little good happens up there. When we find ourselves hijacked in Hyperarousal Land, our adrenal glands have essentially become the boss of us. I have previously made the argument in this blog that the primary purpose of most spiritual traditions is to help us become the boss of our adrenal glands. Without such mastery we’re subject to all kinds of ills you might recognize in this list.

One less-than-optimal, but sometimes necessary way to manage arousal regulation is to “flee the scene” – leave a job, relationship or spiritual tradition that is literally making us sick. But one dynamic that makes fleeing the scene potentially troublesome is that “wherever we go, there we are” – we take our brain and body and unconscious personal history with us.

ACEs

For most of us, compromised arousal regulation has it’s roots buried in early childhood. When I first came across the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) research, fifteen years after it was first published, much of my struggle as an adult – difficulty regulating social stress, lack of verbal fluency, difficulty sustaining focus for extended periods, panic attacks – suddenly made perfect sense. They all correlate highly with the disorganized, fragmented neural networks that result from overwhelming early childhood experiences. That was the bad news. The good news was that a whole host of brief, somatic therapeutic interventions have been developed over the last decade or so that can actually reorganize many of the less-than-optimal conditions that result from ACEs. Here’s a list of a few generally well-regarded therapeutic modalities.

When our early lives have been filled with adverse early experiences, the structures in our brain necessary for detecting environmental threats grows a super-abundance of cells to help insure our survival. This evolutionary preference leaves the prefrontal areas – so necessary for cognitive control – with short shrift. As a result our ability to self-monitor and self-regulate is often seriously damaged or delayed. We are also much more likely to fall victim to our brain making up stories of fear and dread and then acting as if they are destined to come true.

Environments that Promote Situated Cognition

Oh, one other thing that contributes to us quitting: environments – people, places and things – that don’t foster mindful awareness. Such environments tend to super-stress us and shape what we can think, say and do. Or more often: what we can’t think, say or do. Best to be deliberately selective about the places we go and spend significant amounts of the time of our lives.

“Every time we make a promise and fail to keep it, an angel loses her wings and gets booted out of heaven.”

One of the very first posts I made to this blog, almost 8 years ago, was on something I made up called The Big Brain Question. I didn’t make it up out of whole cloth, however. I based the question on my own personal experience, anecdotal reports from friends, colleagues and clients, and a considerable amount of data from attachment research, pre- and peri-natal developmental psychology, traumatology, polyvagal theory, social neuroscience and somatic psychotherapy. All that research is probably best summarized by Karl Pribram of Holographic Brain fame, who wrote: “The most basic human brain function is the regulation of arousal.” The Big Brain Question is all about arousal regulation.

The primary way the brain regulates hypo-arousal is with excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate and acetylcholine – those are the neurotransmitters that get energy (action-potentials) flowing. Hyper-arousal or over-excitability, on the other hand, uses inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA, glycine and serotonin – to calm us down. Those twin binary processes are what the brain spends most of its day attempting to keep in balance. What becomes quite evident is that actions we take or fail to take, are the result of complex processes that mostly operate outside our control – as much as we might like to think otherwise. Positive answers to The Big Brain Question help us develop our own capacity for self-regulating arousal. They help us begin to gain more control.

A Well-Regulated Excitatory Brain Neuron …

Excitatory Inhibitory Cell Connections

Buried Trauma

When I was about 10 years old, I recall a sticky summer evening in the housing projects. It was getting dark and I was sitting on the front porch with my sister and her girlfriend whom I had a crush on. In the middle of playing and flirting, my mother suddenly appeared at the front screen door and announced, “Time to come in and wash up for bed.”

I balked. She insisted. When she opened the screen door to come out and try to grab me, I bolted from the porch, raced to the sidewalk, stumbled on the curb and went flying face-first full into the gravel-filled street. My mother had caught up to me by this time, and my spontaneous, desperate plea to her was, “Please don’t take me to the hospital. Please don’t take me to the hospital” (At age 4 I’d had my tonsils out under general anesthesia. As a result I experienced an unconscious traumatic “freeze response,” and had inexplicably and unconsciously become terrified of any potential return to any hospital at any time, ever).

My mother checked my injuries, made sure there were no broken bones, and then took me back inside the apartment to clean and bandage the deep gash over my right eye (still visible and holding somatic memory more than a half century later!). All the while she assured me that we would not need to go to the hospital.

Because my own brain networks were immature and were not up to the task of self-soothing in those hyper-aroused moments, my mother’s brain had to serve as an external arousal regulator. In effect, in that moment, she was positively answering The Big Brain Question “Yes” for me when my own brain could not.

Exo-Regulation

This is one critical, essential function that parents and other adults need to provide to children (and often other adults in times of great stress). Because the emotional centers of our brains don’t have sufficient connections to enable them to self-soothe – to self-regulate – when we’re kids, that soothing needs to be provided externally. This is fundamentally what neuropsychiatrist Bruce Perry taught a class of kindergartners to do for Peter, a Romanian orphan, when Bruce went to Peter’s class and taught them brain science – one of the most important things those kindergartners learned that year.

Keep Your Word

Promises made and kept are another way to positively answer The Big Brain Question. Healthy parents make a number of implicit promises to their children. They promise to provide a home, food, safety, guidance, loving connection. In healthy homes these things are provided as a matter of course. As such, they become a given – implicitly wired into our neural network. The result: as adults we mostly take them for granted.

A Rose with NeedleParents also make explicit promises. They agree to take us to a movie, buy us a computer game for our birthday, let us have a friend sleep over, etc. If our parents are reliable and trustworthy and know the importance of giving their word and keeping it, we come to expect that behavior, too as a matter of course. Over time, with repetition, the explicit becomes implicit. Until the first time it doesn’t. Promises made and unkept violate a fundamental neurological need. They deliver a resounding “No” as the answer to The Big Brain Question.

But here’s something we only rarely come to realize: when we, as a parent (or simply as a person), make a promise and don’t keep it, the angel that gets booted out of heaven … is us! It’s our brain – Spy Consciousness (to use a term from neuroscientist Mike Gazzaniga) – watches everything we do. And then it goes about unconsciously making up stories about us – who we are, how much we can be counted on, what we’re worth, etc. And unfortunately for you and me, all those stories get delivered to our unconscious where they constantly operate behind the scenes, silently and surreptitiously regulating excitatory and inhibitory neurons, constantly arguing for or against our self-limitations, mostly under the radar of awareness.

Bottomline: Be extremely mindful of the promises you make. Your brain health and balance and self-esteem depends on it.

And now, with that said – as promised – here’s a regularly scheduled Enchanted Loom on one of the best-selling neuroscience books of all time.

“The brain has reasons that reason knows nothing of.” – with apologies to Blaise Pascal

When I was 20 years old a group of aspirants would meet weekly with a Sufi wise man visiting America from Turkey. One day, at a particularly teachable moment, he delivered a directive that lit up my neural network and has powerfully shaped and guided my life ever since. In part it was what he said, but in equal measure it was what I was ripe and ready to hear. Fifty years later that directive has circled round and lit up my neural net once again.

Sufi PirFeedback Loops – Good or Bad?

One double-edged aspect of the way feedback loops affect our brains (and believe me – spiritual directives can be very powerful feedback loops) is that whatever we pay attention to in our lives tends to increase. So, for example, when we begin learning the multiplication tables and say “Three times three equals nine,” actual wires (axons) connect to other wiring (dendrites) in our brain. The more we repeat the multiplication tables, the more wires connect and the stronger the connections become, until one day – voila – we’ve built a sufficiently robust, integrated network that demonstrates we’ve learned all the multiplication tables. This wiring process repeats all through our lives with every bit of learning, including, unfortunately (and fortunately) learning that ends up breaking our hearts.

With respect to the spiritual directive I received, a number of network fibers had already been laid down – the equivalent of several exposures to the multiplication tables. I had sold a business I’d started in California, and was now back in Connecticut working with a friend who’d just started a housebuilding enterprise. I didn’t know it then, but my brain and body really thrived in being active and working outside every day. A big part of housebuilding, especially for two guys building their first house by themselves using a textbook (Willis Wagner’s Modern Carpentry), was creative problem-solving. This too, was a boon to my brain!

Gimme Shelter

Back to the spiritual directive. What the Sufi wise man said that was so impactful to my unfolding heart and brain was: “Provide shelter for people.” This teacher obviously knew that a kind heart trumps good looks!

To a 20-year-old with boundless energy, that directive meant “Build whole houses for people.” Which essentially is what I did for more than a quarter of a century. But the body ages and energy wanes. What’s an elder to do about that Spiritual Directive then?

Well, several weeks ago, the answer to that question arrived in an email from a friend. It was a short, inspiring Karma Tube video. It was this one of a guy in West Oakland, CA suddenly connecting a bunch of Rich Club networks in my brain (which I suspect ultimately connect to the heart – although I have only anecdotal evidence, which is often more than enough to form a research hypothesis or two around).

What the video provided was an illustration of one man’s efforts to help heal a few local broken hearts (including his own). Here’s how his efforts have inspired me.

Slowly I Turn

When I turned 50 it became clear that I could no longer take on the stress and responsibility for planning, constructing and completing one new home after another. I could do remodels and additions – things that required less time and energy and afforded some downtime between projects to recover. As the years have gone by and my interest in brain science blossomed, I have done less and less construction work.

wood-chapel-red-rhodiesFor the last two years though, I’ve been looking into the Tiny House movement, and have built the equivalent of several tiny houses on our property (see the Wood Chapel at the right and Ollie’s Love Emporium image below). Last year I almost went out and bought a trailer to build my first mobile Tiny House on.

And then along came Greg Kloehn’s video. Not surprisingly it triggered memories of two times in my own life when I was homeless, couch surfing, sleeping in trees and in friends’ parked cars. And because I know how important a sound, safe night’s sleep is for integrated brain function, my own neural network lit right up.

love-emporium-framed

Ollie’s Love Emporium

And now Prayer Pod has been born. My first sleeping pod for the homeless – a form of “shelter for people” that my current level of time and energy can readily manage. It’s well on the way to completion (you can see pictures HERE). I find my brain and body abuzz in ways that it hasn’t been for quite a while now. Especially because if anything will begin to address the complexity of homelessness, a safe and sound good night’s sleep is a great place to start. Oh, and the research shows how beneficial helping just one person actually is for the brain, not to mention…the human heart. Whose heart does your brain yearn to help heal?

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