Making Empathy Operational

When I was a baby grief counselor just starting out, if you had asked me if I was an empathic person, I would have promised you I was. And you probably would have believed me (the agency apparently did, since they kept me involved on and off for 20 years). With the benefit of hindsight, however, what I actually was, was someone who had a strong cognitive understanding of empathy. I had bold and lofty thoughts about empathy, but not actual feelings. That’s a big energetic and neurobiological difference, one it turns out that involves a variety of structures in differing hemispheres of the brain. You can probably guess which hemisphere is predominantly associated with feelings actually felt.

Balancing the Thinking-Doing Bias

As a male raised in mid-20th century America, it would have taken a massive paradigm shift or monstrous wake-up call to prevent my brain from developing and becoming acculturated without that strong cortical bias. Males during my growing-up-years were expected to think and do, most often at the expense of feeling and being. Feeling and being were for sissies- there’s no crying in baseball or anything else where men dominate.

Thinking Doing

Think AND Practice

Whatever we pay ongoing attention to … tends to increase. This is where the notion of “competitive plasticity” comes in – one aspect of my brain’s ability to rewire itself by taking over and placing little used networks into alternative service. In his recent book, How the Brain Heals Itself, neuropsychiatrist Norman Doidge recounts in case after case how competitive plasticity ends up transforming people’s lives. It can actually expand, combine and integrate empathic thoughts into genuine, authentic empathic feelings. Blessed be.

In the brain, neurons that fire together, wire together – this is the well-know Hebb’s Law, named after the Canadian neuroscientist, Donald Hebb who first observed and wrote about it in 1949. To brain researchers it’s more formally known as spike-timing-dependent plasticity. But the opposite is also true: neurons that fire apart, wire apart. This feature of the brain means that we can deliberately take learned paired associations, for example the experience, “While I’m concerned, I don’t actually feel soft, kind and loving in response to you, who’s wife just died of breast cancer.” Every time such a thought or awareness arises, by repeatedly taking a few breaths, relaxing and replacing that awareness while attending to my body with thoughts like, “I love the experience in my mind and body when I feel and act in kind and loving ways.” Over time, that new pairing in the brain will begin to make integrative, cross-hemispheric connections that will eventually integrate both body and brain. The ensuing result – genuine, authentic “heart-felt” empathy. We eventually end up changing our brain by repeatedly generating and maintaining “spike-timing-dependent” changes in our neural networks that end up expanding and integrating the thinking-feeling-being-doing capacity of both our hemispheres. We become more humanly whole. With practice.

von Economo to Go

We know from research like this and this that when people actually feel genuine empathy, their brains work differently than when people only think empathic thoughts. The primary difference seems to be in something called von Economo or spindle neurons. Von Economo neurons are primarily found in the Fronto-Insular Cortex and in our old friend, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). Because they’re longer and can cover greater distances than most other cells in the brain, von Economo neurons are the perfect cells to make up the nerve bundles running between the cognitive structures of the brain and the deeper limbic, or emotional structures. And as we generally suspect, the more energy and information our brain can process, the greater the integrated, coherent and authentic responses we are able to genuinely express. In the research literature it’s called response flexibility.

von Economo

The point here is that empathy (and most every other human emotion) can be cultivated (sadly, so can its opposite, as this video tragically depicts: Brainwashing Children). It can be learned and acquired. We can practice feeling soft feelings like love, appreciation, gratitude and affection much as we practice a musical instrument or an athletic skill. And if other adult humans are too difficult to practice on directly, we can begin our practice with baby steps – with birds, with puppies, with kittens. Every time we do, the cells in our brain and body grow and make new connections such that over time we begin to feel increasingly comfortable with kindness, compassion, love and empathy. Which is our plastic brain’s and our healthy body’s basic, organic, default preference.

It’s funny how sometimes just the right teaching by just the right teacher at just the right moment comes rolling through my extroverse. When it does, it seems to remain embedded in my neural network forever. It’s like my brain had been growing and changing for awhile, pruning old connections here, growing new connections there and then suddenly this teaching shows up and makes an unmistakeable and undeniable “Aha” vital connection between two Rich Club centers. And that’s all she wrote.

This particular teaching was initially kindled by Dean Ornish, the MD who did the studies showing that preventive medicine can reverse what was formerly thought to be irreversible heart disease. SatchSwamiDean was sponsoring an evening talk at the San Francisco Unity Church by his own spiritual teacher, the Woodstock guru, Swami Satchadananda. Swami died in 2002, and he was very frail when he appeared onstage and was introduced by Dean. But he was only frail in body; his mind and his voice were delightful and devilishly sharp.

Un-yoking the Yoke

I forget the exact title of the talk he was giving that night; based upon the teaching, I would hazard a guess that it had something to do with why the Yoga of Relationship is one of the most challenging yogas. That certainly seemed true for me at the time, and apparently for the standing-room-only crowd as well.

One thing that makes relationships such a challenging yoga is the simple fact that the other person sometimes says or does things we don’t like. The reason we don’t like what they say or do is because it upsets us. The reason it upsets us, more often than not, is that either implicit traumatic memories get triggered (and fail to announce themselves to our conscious awareness), and/or our brain begins making up all kinds of imagined disastrous futures, and convinces us that our relationship partner is clearly the cause. The brain is constantly connecting things together that happen simultaneously in space and time.

Except at its root, our own neurophysiology is the actual culprit. Our brain is making up the stories and triggering the cascade of stress hormones that send us into a fearful state of hyper-arousal (or depression as hypo-arousal). Because in most every moment of relationship conflict (barring actual physical, verbal or emotional abuse) we’re perfectly safe. But when that hyper-arousal happens it’s almost a given that we will begin pointing fingers and making accusatory statements that begin with “You.”

One problem with “You” statements however, is that at their root they are enormously disempowering. They relegate us to the victim position and we generally find ourselves hanging out in that too-familiar state of learned helplessness. Spend any great degree of time there and it begins to feel like the gloom of our familiar.

Blame = Life Threat


Click to Enlarge

Another problem with assigning fault and blame is that the brain interprets most every evaluation, most every negative judgment as threat. This is one root revelation of Steve Porges’ vagus-nerve-based Neuroception Theory. Anytime we feel threat, not only is our body and brain adversely affected – they launch a tidal wave of stress hormones in response – and negative resonance leaves our partner’s brain and body similarly affected. Stress hormones “close down the thinker.” They short-circuit cognitive functioning, needing to conserve neural and body energy resources for survival necessities. And the disorganization and hyper-arousal bounces back and forth with rarely any resolution.

Unfortunately, shame, blame, fault-finding and finger-pointing are not all that uncommon in many primary relationships. When they show up, few of us have many tools to skillfully address, calm and disarm them. And this was the memorable teaching I received from Swami Satchadananda on that foggy San Francisco night years ago. In the midst of his talk about these kinds of relationship dynamics, Swami paused and looked out over the audience. Then he solemnly raised his right hand and pointed it directly at us.

“Remember,” he said, “Anytime you’re pointing the finger of blame at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you.”

Finger pointing

Even as a little kid I hated people making promises to me and not keeping them. I can still hear my six-year-old voice plaintively wailing, “But you PROMISED!” In one of my early blogs I wrote about my mother promising me a Wilson A-2000 baseball glove for Christmas. Not getting it left me hugely disappointed and it adversely impacted my neurophysiology on many levels, far more than anyone would ever suspect (just seeing the picture of the glove on the right below, activates the feeling of that crushing disappointment; I can literally feel that memory affecting my endocrine system in the present moment).

wil_a2000_xlcstHuman beings need some degree of predictability in their lives. Lack of predict- ability is Number 2 of Stanford neurophysiologist Robert Sapolsky’s, Four Neuro-Annihilators. Making promises and keeping them is one way the people, places and things around us – the world – becomes safe and reasonably predictable. Predictability makes the world become a place we can feel at home in. One of the things that makes home home is the way our brains and bodies feel when we’re there – safe, comfortable, familiar, well-regulated. One of the reasons I live on a small off-shore island is that things tend to be pretty predictable here. It’s also why I don’t like to travel to foreign countries – like mainland America – because of the stress generated by the Unpredictability Factor. It wasn’t until I actually moved to this island and paid close attention to my body the first time I locked my car or house door that I realized the unconscious message my stress hormones were sending to my brain in response: “It’s not safe!”

The Unpredictablity Threat

Making promises and not keeping them generates all kinds of adverse neurophysiological processes in the person promised – and equally important – in the promiser. Whether we realize it or not, the unpredictability that unfolds as a consequence of a promise unkept is experienced by the brain and body as a threat. And we know from Neuroception Theory that threat increases levels of stress hormones. High levels of stress hormones have been shown to literally shrink your brain. Stress also correlates with increased levels of inflammation in the body and brain. And the number of auto-immune diseases where inflammation is an active agent is growing larger every day (here’s a link with just a few).

Brain untrustworthySo that’s one adverse consequence of making promises and not keeping them. Another relates to the single basic, fundamental question that every one of our brains is constantly scouring the relational environment to determine if the answer is Yes or No to. And your brain does it on the sly, under your cognitive radar, forgetting to consciously clue you in mostly. And it usually announces its findings, not in words, but in feelings. And those feelings can be characterized primarily by two responses: attraction or aversion. That question, of course, is The Big Brain Question, and making promises and not keeping them answers that question with a clear, resounding: NO!

But delivering this unwitting message to significant people in our lives by making promises and not keeping them is only one edge of a double edge sword. The other edge is this: our brain is constantly watching every single thing we do. It monitors and records every thought and feeling we have, long-term-storing the ones it deems important for survival.

Essentially what we demonstrate to our own brain by making promises that we don’t keep is that … you can’t trust you. Think about the life-limiting implications that unconscious, underground operation – not being able to confidently trust yourself – might have day after day in your own life.

According to research by the Laboratory of Neuroimaging at USC, yesterday I thought an average of 70000 thoughts (some percentage of which could be classified as clinically insane!). I’m going to be thinking in the ballpark of the same number of thoughts today. Probably tomorrow as well. And the day after that. Which is generally okay. Except for one problem: roughly 63000 of those thoughts I think tomorrow will be the same ones I’m thinking today, and yesterday, and the day before. But there’s a good reason for such thinking: It doesn’t send my stress hormones soaring. Much of the way I think and the content of the actual thoughts I think is all about Job One as far as my brain is concerned: regulating physical and emotional arousal, in other words – stress management.

Non-Averse to the New

Many people live their whole lives with neural neophilia under tight wraps. Neophilia simply means “love of the new.” Neural neophilia is a phrase I newly made up, since I do my best to embrace neophilia. In my lexicon it means two things: 1. Using my brain to deliberately think new thoughts (often inspired by reading a lot and being exposed to new thoughts from others. I choose reading because it’s easier to manage my brain’s and body’s arousal states with a book than it often is with other people; plus, books get edited); and 2. Growing new brain cells and making new brain cell connections.

thoughtConsider this: most of who I am is the result of what I think, how I act, and how I feel day in and day out. If I think the same 70,000 thoughts every day, I’m going to be more similar than different after a decade or two than if I only thought 50,000 or 40,000 of the same thoughts every day. How I change and grow is closely connected both to how I think and to how able I am in managing the stress of new thoughts passing through the slipstream of my mind.

Einstein once sagely suggested that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In addition to the need for upgrading the quality of our thinking, I would suggest that we need to upgrade the quantity of our thinking by increasing the number of new thoughts we think every day. We need to become increasingly comfortable with thinking outside our adrenals. Let me repeat that: We need to become increasingly comfortable with thinking outside our adrenals.

The Other People Problem

Just as some new thoughts are much more hyperarousing than others – for example, the thought of being invited to give a TED Talk – so are some people. “High maintenance” people in our lives tend to be the ones that we have difficulty keeping our brain and body in a steady state of equilibrium around. “Low maintenance” people are the ones we generally consider to be “our tribe.” But consider this: How will we ever change and grow into the gem of a person some think we are destined to become and attain “the Pearl of Great Price?” Could those people who tend to push our buttons possibly be offering us a gift? The burnishing gift of growth and development, of thinking new thoughts, of feeling new pheelings and behaving in new ways?

Except for the fact that I can’t easily manage the flood of stress hormones generated by my adrenals around HMers, my sense is that many of them have at least a few admirable qualities. I’m mostly blind to what those qualities might be when my adrenaline levels have stormed the battlefield of body and mind and my cortisol levels are doing everything they can to restore those hormones back to manageable levels. This is generally when I need to call for reinforcements. This is when I need members of my tribe to have my back. And this is often why tribes and communities (spiritual, corporate and otherwise) can be a great aid in shuttling us along in our development. Not only is there safety in numbers, but numbers help us distribute Maintenance Requirements.

High MaintenanceIn this vein, there’s a teaching story I heard long ago attributed to the wisdom teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. Seems that while Gurdjieff was away in Europe, a group of students in his American community got together and bribed another student, who rubbed most everyone the wrong way, to move to another state. When Gurdjieff returned and inquired after the missing student, he quickly uncovered the conspiracy. Immediately, he went to visit the student in his new environs and offered him twice the bribe to return to his former place in the American community. Gurdjieff understood that this student was precisely the “sand in the oyster” – the abrasive personality that would serve to polish his students in their spiritual unfolding.

Spiritualizing Goldilocks

One central challenge, of course, is that we can’t spend the bulk of our waking life around abrasive, High Maintenance people lest they take an ongoing and unremitting toll on our body and brain. Because High Maintenance people flood our system with stress hormones in amounts large enough to adversely affect brain and body organ function, we need to be mindful and judicious about how much time we can expose our bodies and brains to them. That’s one wise requirement for Supreme Self-Care.

Think about the people in your own current circle. Can you discern which of the people in it might provide you with just the right amount of irritation and/or abrasion to turn you into a shining gem of a human being with a neural neophilic foundation robust enough to joyfully think 10 or 20 thousand outrageous new thoughts today? Perhaps you might start by looking with newly appreciative eyes at the person laying next to you in bed!

1. We grappled with thoughts that generated high-arousal states and managed to redirect at least a few of them. As often as we were able, we thought outside our adrenals.

2. We managed everything we could so as not to give in to the ignorance that contributes to great suffering in the world.

Your Kidney-Topping Adrenals

Your Kidney-Topping Adrenals

3. We did our best to follow the path of our own heart, brain, mind, body and spirit.

4. We practiced authentic gratitude as much as we could, and when we couldn’t we simply accepted that fact.

5. We did our best to grow our compassion and generosity networks.

6. We followed the spiritual directive to “provide shelter for people” for as long as brain and body would allow.

7. We established one of the first safe places in the world for children to heal from painful and disruptive loss.

World Hands8. We did our best to include ourselves in the wide circle of sentient beings we cared for.

9. We left many corners of this circular world a bit better than we found them.

10. We learned as much as we possibly could about what might come next so as to make way for richer living.

I invite any of you who wish to, to share life experiences below that might contribute to your own end-of-life ecstasy. I’d love to hear some of them …

I’m pretty sure a combination of my mother’s high levels of stress hormones and unaddressed grief, together with the toxins in the alcohol and tobacco she used daily, worked to interrupt the easy flow of the bonding hormones between us during gestation and after birth. With dire relationship consequences.

bond-mother-and-childI was in the fourth grade. It was Parent’s Day at Katherine Brennan Elementary School and I can still remember David Coe cooing “Isn’t my mother … beautiful?” There was total rapture in his voice. In response to him, my thought was, “Why don’t I love my mother like that?”

Love Me – Make It Safe

One simple answer is that love seems to require safety, openness, softness – undefendedness. For many who were born in the aftermath of a World War, there wasn’t a lot of that available. Even less when you then grow up in a local war zone yourself. Experiencing those love-requisite conditions also seems to require something that attachment researchers have identified as … irrational commitment. If we haven’t experienced it directly, many of us only know what irrational commitment looks like and feels like because we’ve seen it on TV or in the movies. Our great, yearning need for it is an underlying theme in many of our most popular films – someone who will be there for us come hell, high water or recurring psychosis requiring Mad Maps.

One component of irrational commitment that makes it work is that it needs to come from a competent protector. As a kid I remember Cassie Mae Purvis tearing the screen door blocking her way to Ben Meesaw, off its hinges – after which she proceeded to beat Ben bloody. His grown-man violation: he slapped Cassie Mae’s youngest daughter, Betty-Ann. The predominant desire I was left with after witnessing this drama was, “I wish my mother could do something like that.” There was no father to do it for her or me. But children need protection. They need an undeniable answer “Yes” to the Big Brain Question.

When we grow up without a securely bonded early attachment and the irrational commitment of a competent protector, we need to find it elsewhere as adults. Many of us missing that early experience turn to psychotherapists.

Commitment Yearns to Be Free

In graduate school, a clinical professor of mine – Kathy Speeth – once proclaimed: “If you want to avoid the inherent conflict of interest in being a psychotherapist, find some other way to make money and do the therapy for free.” This proclamation resonated deeply in me, even though I hated hearing it at the time. Karma.PsychotherapyAnd while she didn’t couch it in early developmental terms, what Kathy was essentially pointing to is that you don’t get secure attachment, deeply-connected bonding and irrational commitment by paying for it. Nobody gave Cassie Mae a dime to go over and make it clear to Ben Meesaw that he needed to keep his hands off her children.

The money gets seriously in the way (even if it’s only $25 a week for something called “Message Therapy“). It tends to distort and disorganize relationships. It’s No. 2 on the top ten Relationship Hit List. Why? Because in our blood and bones (and in the implicit memory structures in our brain) we know that if we stop paying a psychotherapist, then whatever irrational commitment or bonding we may feel as a consequence of the relationship will invariably go away. And the “Yes” answer to the Big Brain Question becomes a resounding “No” with seriously re-disorganizing neural implications. Loss and trauma get piled upon loss and trauma.

The Way Out is Through

So, what’s someone who loves helping people heal and grow to do? Well, Kathy Speeth provided one possibility: like many great artists have done so as not to compromise their art, find a way to do the work for free. Make the hard changes you’re challenging others to make, yourself. Become a priest or a spiritual director. Start a farm and make your psychotherapy “office” the fields where you plant and weed. Join a walking club and invite folks for Walks’n’talks. Start a widget-manufacturing company that doubles as a healing center. Become a friend.

For me, the decision NOT to become a fee-receiving psychotherapist after spending 1000s of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on my training and education was not an easy choice to make. Because most of us tend to be loss-averse, Sunk Costs have strong ties that bind. But once I recognized that the memories I was attempting to surface and the wounds I was attempting to heal wasn’t happening, the creative possibilities for finding ways to work with them that didn’t involve transaction or commerce have become only as limited as my creative imagination.

I bet you’re sitting there right now wondering how the Number One breakthrough in Neuroscience last year might impact the joy and divinity in your life.

Let’s start here: Many of us have had this experience I’m guessing – we’re driving to or from the office or the grocery store and just as we park the car we realize that we haven’t been aware of anything much in the world around us that we passed along the way. We completely missed the moonwalking gorilla that was dancing with the basketball players; we missed the change of clothes, backdrop and table cloth the card hustlers perped out on the street; and we had absolutely zero awareness of the banana in the mirror disappearing as we sat at a stoplight.

What’s up with that? When did we learn to pay such poor attention to things happening around us in the moment? Well, the good news is that we’re not alone. Neuroenergetic Theory posits that all of us are subject to attention deficit to one degree or another, depending upon things like time of day, what’s going on around us, who we’re interacting with, etc. That’s the good news, and … the first impact the No. 1 Breakthrough might have on your life: we’re not alone in our proclivity for being easily distracted or going unconscious.

The Good Bad News

ClaustrumThe bad news? Well, consider this scenario: you volunteer for an afternoon experiment at your local neuroscience lab. These guys actually did some astonishing research last year. They open up your skull and implant a number of electrodes in different areas of your brain. Then, one by one they fire a few millivolts of electricity into each of those areas. The whole process takes about three hours. When it’s over and you’re all patched up and put back together and ready to be sent home, your question for the team leader is, “Will this experiment take long? I’d like to be home in time for dinner.” In other words, you somehow managed to not be present and accounted for in the least during the whole three hours. Where did you go?

Nowhere, actually. You were right there, wide awake in the lab the whole time. The only difference between your time here in the lab and your time driving to work, is mostly the degree of present-moment awareness, of consciousness. In the lab, the neuroscientists managed to take that awareness all the way down to … zero.

How did they manage to accomplish that? Very simply – one of the electrodes they implanted was placed in your brain’s claustrum.

Which leads to the second impact this finding might have: We are very likely to have endogenous (brain-generated) electrical signals stimulate our own claustrums and make us go completely unconscious for micro-moments throughout any day. And we would often not know it.

Making the Hard Problem Less Hard

But what does zero consciousness have to do with joy and divinity, you might ask. Determining the neuronal basis of subjective experience, cognition, wakefulness, alertness, arousal, and attention – if and where these processes actually live in the brain and body – is generally considered to be “The Hard Problem in Consciousness.” No lesser a mind than Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick’s, co-originator of the double helix model of genetic structure, placed his bet that the seat of consciousness would be found in the claustrum. Rich Club NetworkWhy? Because its anatomy is quite extraordinary in that it has neural fibers that send and receive input back and forth from almost all regions of the cortex. It’s the central connecting hub – the Grand Central Station of the brain. It’s the King of the Rich Clubs.

But notice something about such networks like the ones on the left: once the nodes are well-integrated and mostly connected, it only takes one crucial connection – the horizontal one that connects the blue nodes – to turn a non-rich-club network into a Rich One.

So, here’s the 3rd impact last year’s research finding might have on your life – because of the way networks operate, each new connection increases the potential – much like the old Christmas tree lights where, once you find the blown or missing bulb and insert the necessary new one, the whole string lights up – a single, crucial Rich Club neural connection could set your whole network ablaze. And when that has happened historically, my intuitive sense is that human saints were the result.

Does that crucial connection have to take place in the claustrum? Perhaps. But again, my intuitive hunch – with little evidence-based research to support it – is that such a crucial connection has to take place in the physical neural fibers residing in the 10th cranial nerve – the vagus nerve. And my hypothesis is that node connection has to involve the physical wiring between the brain and the heart. And when it does, I suspect we no longer have any trouble paying exquisite, joyful, divinely focused attention. Simply think about the last time you fell in love.


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