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You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’s never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.

~ Bob Dylan

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

New Yankee StadiumOne afternoon when I was 16 however, I came home to discover that my mother’s dream for me had changed. “Last night Tom told me not to worry,” she said (Tom was her first husband who had recently died of tuberculosis). “He said that you’re going to play baseball for the New York Yankees.”

This was the form that my mother’s accumulated, mounting life stresses finally took – a complete psychotic break from reality. She ended up being immediately committed to the state mental hospital in Middletown, Connecticut. My 14-year-old sister and I were promptly placed into the care of our 23 year-old-sister – developmentally still a child herself – but rapidly making a forced cycling through Erik Erickson’s Human Development Stages (see below).

Good Heart – No Teeth

While somewhat of a dramatic illustration, I think it clearly points out what I’m describing in my title. My mother dreamed of me being educated and successful. It was probably also a dream she simultaneously had for herself – she was an avid reader – but she lacked sufficient inner and outer network resources to begin putting foundations in place which would allow such a dream to become reality. For her or for me. My mother’s good heart lacked teeth.

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

Taking It to Level 7 on the Brain Integration Scale

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

When you look at each of Erikson’s stages, it’s not too hard to imagine there are neural correlates – specific neural network constellations – associated with each of them. If you administered fMRI brain scans to people prHeart Teetheviously identified at Stages 1-8, I’m guessing you would see specific patterns of network integration that would correlate with each stage. It takes more energy and information processing and network integration to begin thinking about people other than ourselves. We know, for example, that the posterior end of the cingulate gyrus lights up brightly in people identified as narcissists, while the anterior (front) part of the cingulate gyrus lights up in people who easily express high degrees of empathy. Caring for and helping others just seems to be the general global direction in which healthy, growing, integrating, aging brains want to naturally move. The brain wants to grow the heart in ways that have teeth.

Sweethearts R Us

Most of the people I know whom I would describe as good-hearted are true sweethearts. I sometimes find myself in that category. Mostly though, I am aware of not having sufficient teeth to provide the help others often need or could benefit from, for instance, the way Mick Ebeling does. When your heart has teeth, here are two ways you often show up in the world where it then becomes a matter of whose are bigger.

One recent personal example: several weeks ago I applied to be a volunteer member of our town’s local Ethics Board. I would be part of the team that received complaints about town police or public officials committing “actions that are not in the town’s best interests or that have the appearance of impropriety.” This seemed like a good, Eriksonian Stage 7 way to be of service, however I was rejected and given reasons that I felt were specious – one of my references had unproven ethical allegations made against them (making me guilty by association and hearsay?); and the interviewers (all men) didn’t like research I cited from MIT (interestingly) noting that groups made up of all men don’t make decisions as well as groups with at least a few women members.

Instead of taking issue with the decision, I simply meekly accepted the rejection and went on my way. I then made up all kinds of rationalizations about why their decision was “for the best.” In my heart though, I knew my response had no teeth.

This appears to be me and my brain’s current work: grow some heart teeth. On a less genteel blog, the writer might say, “Grow some balls.” To which I would respond: “Neural network willing.”

Last call to radically change your brain … click HERE.

I’ve never been old before. Like many of you, I’m in the process of thinking and feeling my way through it. Knowing how my brain works is actually turning out to be an increasing comfort as new learning and discoveries unfold every day. Apparently, I’m not alone in my getting-oldness: turns out there are over 76 million of me – people born between 1946 and 1964 – The Silver Tsunami.

Tuesday August 20, 2013

Even with the adverse effects that poverty and trauma can work in the early years, and even with HAROLD messing with my brain, much of old-age can be hormetic if we hold to that possibility and creatively implement actions intended for it to happen. It would be great, of course, if hormesis had been a perspective and possibility imbued from conception, but I’ll take what I can get where and when I can get it. For those of you who haven’t met this word before, it mostly means: becoming stronger in response to stress.

Does Whatever Not Kill Us Really Make Us Stronger?

Not all stressors necessarily serve a hormetic function, of course. When I could no longer get up every day and do the work I’d done for 25 years (housebuilding), that loss of livelihood seemed to present a clear threat to my survival. The result was an increase in stress hormones that compromised already marginal cognitive functioning. I thought it was going to be a simple task for me to pick up and transition to the life of a stock market daytrading desk jockey. Well, the evaporation of several hundred thousand dollars along with my marriage confirmed that my brain was simply not functioning in a clear and integrated manner. Unfortunately, I knew very little about my brain and the effects of stress upon it at that time. Long after the fact, when untenable mounting stressors sent a good friend of mine to prison for murder, I began to get a clue, however.

Hormesis with the Brain in Mind

What might have made the stress of a career-transition hormetic for me? Professionals of all stripes and colors have this issue to deal with as their careers come to a close. Judging by how many professional athletes end up broke and beaten at the end of their careers (and too many hits to the brain pan is a frequent contributor), the capacity for stress to make us stronger has not been very extensively explored. Here are three things that I think can begin to move us in that direction:

100namesOne – We have to awaken to, and hold out for hormesis as a possibility. In her wonderful memoir, 100 Names for Love, naturalist Diane Ackerman recounts the struggle she had with the rehab team tending to her husband after a stroke. The whole team continued to express expectations for recovery that Diane refused to let them or her husband live down to. When the team seemed unable to take her high expectations seriously, she brought her friend Oliver Sacks in to give the rehab team a good talking to. It apparently worked: her husband’s recovery far exceeded the rehab team’s expectations. Were it not for her mother, Jill Bolte Taylor might have suffered a similar, low expectation rehab fate. The lesson: monitor the expectations and beliefs you bring to any party.

Two – The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience invites us to surround ourselves with people like Oliver Sacks, people who refuse to accept the status quo and who are open and enthusiastic about the creative potential for old age to be generative and extraordinary. These would be people who promote the possibility that aging, even with its aches and pains and capacities that are simply different than they used to be, brings with it enormous gifts. A happy disposition seems to be one benefit for many of us if you believe researcher, Laura Carstenson at the Stanford Center for Longevity. But in order for that to be true for us, we probably will be required to orchestrate our lives so that anxiety doesn’t kill our social status!

Three – In his provocative book, Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb presents the possibility of my Silver Tsunami years transforming me into a sage. One path for me to do this, he suggests, is to become “someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking (pg. 156).”

And if you can’t do any of the above, consider … stem cells.

Finally, a new Enchanted Loom, this time on, what else of course, Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile.

“One secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm. ~ Aldous Huxley

When my wife and I moved into our house on Whidbey Island, our first addition was two kittens, Archie and Lulu. Early one morning while I was busy bringing in wood for the stove, Lulu dashed out through the open door. She never returned.

To provide a play-pal for Archie, we got an English Golden Retriever puppy – Bodhi, who turned out to be a little friskier than Archie’s adrenals could easily handle. So we added Gracie, a rough and tumble alley cat who proved to be a good energetic match for Archie. This bit of backstory is necessary to properly introduce you to HAROLD.

Mixed Motives

The Three Bears

The Three Bears -Abby, Emmy & Ollie

There’s one additional reason we originally got Bodhi – he would insure that both my wife and I got out of the house to walk him every day. That strategy worked so well that we added The Three Bears (Olliebear, Emmybear and Abbybear – three Bernese Mountain Dogs). Our thinking was, “If one dog gets us out of the house X minutes a day, four dogs will get us out of the house 4X minutes a day.” We’re very good with specious reasoning around our house; but math and analytic assessment are not our strong suit.

Better Get a Move On

But the basic idea is sound: reducing our screen time and moving our bodies is a critical component of good mental and physical health. Consider: 80-90 percent of all the neurons in your brain have one primary purpose – to move your body. Even more telling: Every neuron in your brain traces a route through the maze that is your neural network, and every one ultimately terminates at a muscle! Do you think my brain is happy that we went out and got four dogs? You bet it is! (And we haven’t even mentioned the Canine Oxytocin Factor – mostly because I just made it up).

Anyway, this is where HAROLD comes in. HAROLD is an acronym (which I didn’t make up) that stands for Hemispheric Asymmetry Reduction in OLDer adults). It describes one way brain capacity and efficiency become reduced due to age-related structural and physiological decline. StroopEssentially what happens is the older we get the worse we perform on the Stroop Test (The test where your speed of response is measured as you identify the color BLUE when it’s printed as the word GREEN). Old people can be really pokey on the Stroop (Named after the originator, J. Ridley Stroop in 1930). The part of the brain most affected – the prefrontal cortex, home to all the Executive Functions. And we all recall the Executive Functions, right? But just in case we’ve forgotten (Thanks, HAROLD!), here’s a partial list of ten:

Perception

Mindful awareness of happenings in the immediate, surrounding environment

Sustained Attention

The ability to focus on tasks or situations despite distractions, fatigue or boredom

Flexibility

The ability to change focus, adapt to changing conditions or revise plans in the face of obstacles, new information or mistakes (Flexibility can also be considered “adaptability”)

Response Inhibition

The capacity to think before acting (deficits are often observed as “impulsivity”)

Emotional Regulation

The ability to readily modulate emotional responses

Planning

The ability to list steps needed to reach a goal or complete tasks

Organization

The ability to arrange information or materials according to a system

Initiation

The ability to creatively implement skillful, living activities

Time Management

The ability to comprehend how much time is available, or to estimate how long it will take to complete a task

Self-Monitoring

The ability to stand back and evaluate how we are doing in day-to-day life (can also be thought of as “meta-cognitive” abilities or “mindsight”)

What “hemispheric asymmetry reduction” means is: Just when we’ve finally gotten used to being able to skip and chew gum at the same time, along comes the decline! But the good news is: it doesn’t HAVE TO. If we know what to address, e.g. 10 Executive Functions, we can begin to come up with preemptive, creative ways to begin to address them, and these other neurological challenges that come with aging. My number one and neuroscience’s best recommendation – put physical exercise, in whatever form you prefer, at the top of the list. It’s really hard to keep an enthusiastic child still. Ask any elementary school teacher!

Of the many spiritual traditions, Tibetan Buddhists seem to have the greatest, long-standing interest in death. Perhaps this is the case because our mortality seems to be one issue that causes us the greatest conscious and unconscious concern. It’s also a subject that few of us seem able to think and speak about with grace and ease.

Atisha Dipamkara

Atisha Dipamkara

Atisha Dipamkara was an Indian spiritual teacher who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Much like the Buddha himself, Atisha renounced the wealth to which he was born and instead devoted his life to spreading wisdom teachings designed to help alleviate human suffering. Anxieties, fears and concerns about death headed the list of topics spiritual searchers of his day struggled most to come to grips with.

Neuroscientists too, are concerned about death, mostly about how to help the brain become better organized in order to put it off as long as possible. Some consider such pursuits sheer folly. But how many of them are facing imminent demise? They might have a change of heart when the end-of-life trajectory actually begins counting down their days. That said, here are Atisha’s teachings about death filtered through the lens of a social neuroscientist (me):

Death is happening outside all around us.

Even apart from terrorists using bombs and guns, and climate change using hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes to perpetrate aggravated assaults with extreme prejudice, death is going on all over the place all the time. A handful of the one million! spiders that live out here on our country acre are currently spinning their last web. Dying rhododendron blossoms are littering the ground all over the front yard. A junco fledgling, eating at the bird feeder outside my office, launches the wrong way into the window and breaks his neck. All it takes is an unflinching willingness to open our data ports (the five senses) and we will see, hear, taste, touch and smell life ending all around us all the time.

Death is happening all the time inside us.

Millions of brain and body cells die inside us every day. Some die by the natural process of apoptosis – programmed cell death. Others die by insult and injury leading to necrosis. Eventually, all of us – all our cells – will die one way or another. Best not to put up too much resistance, since, as many of us already know … resistance is futile.

Life energy is finite.

The average lifespan for someone my current age is 88.5 years. That works out to roughly 46 million, 515 thousand, 600 total life minutes. More of those minutes of my life have been spent than currently remain. The question is: how might I make the most of the little more than 10 million minutes I have left? Feel free to offer creative suggestions.

Our time of death is uncertain.

A HaymakerBecause my remaining time is a general average, it’s best for me to make hay while the sun shines. I might only have 5 million minutes left. Or only one. Or it could be 20 million. Ideally, I’m able to spend each minute with as much intentional awareness as I can, doing generative things for myself and others that light up the pleasure centers and the hayfields of my heart and brain.

How we will die is also uncertain.

Right now I’m accompanying several friends whose life partners are in the midst of their end-of-life trajectories. We ourselves might be on such a trajectory as well and simply not realize it. We might want to honor that possibility by signing up a physicist to speak at our funeral. Or at least complete an Advanced Directive (q.v.)

The material world is of little use during the dying trajectory.

Good luck continuing to One-Click for all those consumer goods on Amazon.com.

Loved ones cannot keep us safe from death.

Many would if they could. The news is: they can’t. Is that news good or bad?

The amount of pain we experience while dying can be addressed.

Might the best time of life to become a drug addict be as the end-of-life trajectory begins to unfurl? Some think yes, some think no.

Embracing death can lead to living well.

In his book, The Undefeated Mind, professor of medicine Alex Lickerman writes:

“By willfully and directly confronting our fear of death we can increase our determination to live well; a finely honed awareness of death can help us avoid wasting time on pursuits for which we are ill-suited or in which we have no real interest but in which we participate out of a sense of obligation or guilt; that keeping our life’s end firmly in mind can help us focus on those things that the wise know will most likely bring happiness: our relationships and helping others….Though death itself may destroy us, the idea of death may save us.” (pg. 233)

Death will come whether we’re prepared or not.

Best is to be prepared, don’t you think? You’d make detailed preparations in advance of a trip to San Pedro Sula in Honduras, wouldn’t you? And a good thing, too, since it’s the most deadly city on earth. Some people prepare by learning about the most common regrets dying people have and working to insure they don’t repeat those scenarios. Your brain will appreciate any death work you elect to take on.

Finally, on the life side of the ledger, here’s an Enchanted Loom review of Louis Cozolino’s new book, Why Therapy Works, slated for official publication in 2016.

Once again, I thought I would change things up a bit on the blog.

Here’s a link to a short, fascinating, compelling Mind of a Murderer audio podcast:

Mind of a Murderer: Janene Patton

Janene_Patton-featuredImagine you’ve been selected to be a jury member in the Janene Patton murder trial. As a neuroscientist knowledgeable about trauma, bipolar disorder, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and attachment theory – all things we’ve explored together over the last 7 years – what perspectives might you offer your fellow jury members? What do you think of the interviewer?

Contribute responses of any length in the Comments box below…

“Out beyond left brain and right brain there is an integrated energy field called heart. I’ll meet you there.”

~ with apologies to Rumi

Once, when I was at one of my lowest life points – I’d just received divorce papers from my wife’s lawyer; the dream house I’d lovingly hand-built was being overrun by realtors with low-ball offers trying to take advantage; and I had no income-producing work – the single thing that kept hope alive was my growing understanding of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ongoing, ever-present process of reconfiguring its internal wiring, both by growing new connections, and more recently discovered, growing about 700 new hippocampal brain cells every day. All I had to do was look back at the astonishing network of events that had brought me to that moment to understand I had little clue and less control over the complexity of what I would encounter up the road from where I was. But little clue and less control is not NO clue and NO control. Growth and change happen, and to a some degree it can be directed.

Hippocampal Neurons

I didn’t know or call such potential for growth and change by the name neuroplasticity then – I was just ending a 25 year housebuilding career and had only just begun to morph into a neuroscientist (Definition: someone who reads between 10 and 20 evidence-based neuroscience papers every day!). The name I knew it by at that time was paideia (Definition: lifelong learning of “the beautiful and good” with special attention paid to the essence or spirit of things). PAIDEIA is both the name of my consulting/publishing business and the environmental license plate I have had in both California and Washington State for 30 years.

The Power of Expectant Non-Knowing

Healing, learning, growth and change seem to be the general direction life tends to take, often, as transpersonal psychologist Hillevi Ruumet has detailed, in the form of a forward-moving, recursive upward spiral. What goes around comes around. a recursive spiralEach time it does, we bring to it much of the healing, learning, growth and change we’ve picked up along the way on previous orbitings. For example, to best move through the divorce process with the least amount of pain and stress, experience had taught me, “Above all else, stay away from the lawyers.” And so I did, refusing to hire one, even though several of my lawyer friends were quick to point out to me all the ways I was being unfairly taken advantage of by my wife’s attorney. Why add one more person with legal training to take advantage? What I may have lost in money, I gained in reduced stress and peaceful sleep.

To Surrender or Abdicate, That Is the Question

Still, navigating the fine line between surrender and abdication is not an easy path to travel. Denial and rationalization can make for unhappy outcomes. How best to distinguish one from the other. To abdicate means to abandon or desert with a sense of resignation, often because circumstances are too painful or emotionally overwhelming to confront. I think of it as lacking heart when I’m being unkind to myself. More accurately, it results, I think from simply not having adequate neural fibers in the executive areas of the brain making sufficient connections to allow for clear thinking and easy emotional self-regulation. We’ve all been there. The fact of the matter is that there are some life circumstances our level of developmental maturity simply isn’t sufficient in the moment for us to skillfully meet. So, we’re forced to manage the best we can. Sometimes the best we can manage is abdication.

Surrender, on the other hand, is the opposite of turning away. Surrender is turning towards with hands raised, open to the possibility of outcomes we can’t quite imagine in the midst of the fray. Surrender involves expectant non-knowing. It is born of a recognition that there are complex forces in the world and their general direction is towards an ecological balance – a kind of “spiritual, energetic regression to the mean.” It’s similar to the way the body and brain continually work to bring itself back to homeostasis.

Serenity Now

SerenityThere’s great, life-guiding wisdom, I think, in The Serenity Prayer. One key though, is to remember that the difference-knowing wisdom that each of us possesses lives in a constant state of growing and changing neural inhibition, excitation and connection. Trust it.

On that closing note, here’s a trustable Enchanted Loom surprise for your viewing pleasure.

Resources to Support Practice

(Click poster once or twice to enlarge)

21 Listening Challenge Poster I Statements

Click HERE to view Resources to Support Practice

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