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When people somehow discover my early beginnings were less than optimal, they often marvel at what I’ve been able to accomplish over the course of my life. I don’t. I consider myself extremely lucky (I can’t tell you how many times I narrowly missed dying – when you’re holding a rifle that you’ve just discharged near a playground, and 6 New Haven cops are advancing on you with their guns drawn, and you’re not shot dead 12 times over, luck is clearly playing a part). I also know that scores of people have been uncommonly supportive of me – they have answered The Big Brain Question in the affirmative over and over and over.

My study of brain science over the last 13 years has repeatedly convinced me that The Big Brain Question is something our neurophysiology begins to put together non-verbally before we are ever born. It forms the question in response to the way our brain and body shifts hyper-arousal states to tranquility and calm through processes that diminish and discharge stress hormones. After birth, in the best of all possible worlds, we have parents who learn to help us do that so our little body doesn’t have to constantly go it alone. At some point, other family members and people in our extended community make their contribution. They all together form a network designed to let us and our brain know that we are loved, that we matter, that people can care enough to calm us.

Many popular songs speak to this basic neurobiologically-based question. I’m convinced that’s a big part of what made them so popular. Here are 20 that I’ve managed to come up with. I’m sure there are untold more. If you’ve got your own favorite song that positively answers The Big Brain Question, feel free to post it below. Here’s my list as hyperlinks so you can give a listen.

  1. Bridge Over Troubled Waters – Simon & Garfunkel
  2. Will You Be There – Michael Jackson
  3. Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper
  4. I’ll Be There for You – The Rembrandts (Friends Theme)
  5. Stand By Me – Ben E. King
  6. Good Enough – Sarah McLaughlan
  7. How Did You Find Me Here? – David Wilcox
  8. Everything I Do, I Do It for You – Bryan Adams
  9. Because You Loved Me – Celine Dion
  10. I’ll Stand By You – The Pretenders
  11. You’ve Got a Friend – Carole King
  12. Love at the Five and Dime – Nanci Griffith
  13. Where’ve You Been – Kathy Mattea
  14. Love Me Tender – Elvis Presley
  15. I’ve Got You Babe – Sonny & Cher
  16. Now and Forever – Richard Marx
  17. You Raise Me Up – Josh Groban
  18. Something In the Way She Moves – James Taylor
  19. Never Stop Jackson Browne
  20. You Are Not Alone – Michael Jackson

Several years ago I seriously injured my finger in a logging accident. I put some antiseptic on it and bandaged it up, but after a few days it began to give off the stench of dead rat. So, with little fanfare I went to my computer and did a Google search on “stinky finger.” I promptly learned that the damaged tissue had become necrotic – it was dying from lack of blood supply and other nutrients. The effective Google-delivered remedy: wrap it overnight in a wet tea bag. Lo and behold, it worked! The tannic acid in the teabag apparently has properties that have been known for years to remove dead skin cells (It’s also good for shrinking hemorrhoids!).

tea1Good for What Ails Me?

And now, a confession: I use Google to research a wide variety of medical conditions my brain makes up stories about while trying to convince me they are all lethal and preordained to kill me. Most recently: sciatica, sinus infections, peripheral neuropathy, folliculitis and hives. Turns out that even though a statistically wimpy number of people have actually died by complications from all of these conditions, I’m unlikely to. So, I’ve probably got probability on my side. I’ve also got culture, since I’m joined by more than 84 million other Americans who use any of the hundreds of search engines and meta-search engines currently available online to do research and spare us from dizzying trips down the rabbit-hole that is Corporate Medical America.

However, there’s a certain kind of anxious urgency I notice about these kinds of remedy searches. What I mostly want them to do, and what they generally do accomplish is … they calm me down. There’s something about being able to name a condition – say idiopathic urticaria (hives) – and get the sense that it’s not going to be the seminal event that begins my end-of-life trajectory – that brings reassurance. I can relax and actually enjoy the scratching and the temporary relief it brings.

Digital Hypochondria

There are other problems in using the internet to self-diagnose of course. One is: there are many more listings in search engines for serious and weird diseases than there are for things like hives and the common cold. Search long enough and I’ll eventually find sufficient link-bait to convince me that the itchy welts on my skin are the way my personal, unique strain of brain cancer just happens to be presenting! Not all that good for calming what in reality actually ails me. I too often find myself with the overwhelming impulse to research any and all symptoms of other related conditions and induce in myself a state of medical-induced anxiety – cyberchondria!

cyberchondriaAnother problem: I don’t know what I don’t know. That’s called … ignorance. Or my new favorite word for it: nescience. One way to overcome nescience is to become informed, but probably not by relying solely on search engines. In the old days, a better way to dispel nescience with respect to what ails us might be to actually consult with a doctor. The only challenge with that is these days doctors are super meta-busy doctoring. If you’re a neurologist, for example, with a full 60-80 hour a week practice, you don’t have time to stay even a little bit current with the 300,000 peer-reviewed neuroscience studies published every year! Who does? No one.

What to do? Here’s one suggestion – form a doctor-patient-advocate armada relationship. No one will be more motivated than you and your circle of friend”ships” and caring community members. Ideally there’s an Admiral who can be the WICOS (Who’s In Charge of the Ship?), directing every aspect involved in research and treatment. There are boatswains to do the actual scouring of the current literature; a sailor who’s “A-J Squared Away” to review it and curate it; a Chief Petty Officer to summarize the most relevant studies; a deck hand to arrange for effective treatment, medicines and non-medical needs; a Bridge Commander to schedule all the various appointments and followup needs…

Are you getting the feeling that it truly takes a Navy Seal Team to manage an illness these days? Well, don’t fret about it. Enjoy this Enchanted Loom featuring Dr. Dan Siegel instead.

Outgrowing Gun Brain

When I was 18 and I moved from Connecticut to California, the very first thing I did was to buy a gun. I bought a 9-shot Harrington & Richardson .22 caliber revolver. Eighteen! was the legal age required for gun ownership in California then. I bought a shoulder holster along with that gun and carried it concealed with me everywhere I went, once on an American Airlines cross-country flight! (Obviously, this was a number of decades ago, before terrorists filled the skies). Growing up in a dangerous, low-income housing project, the need for a gun was obvious to me.

At one point I owned a dozen guns – several rifles, a shotgun, revolvers, semi-automatic pistols, even a little 2-shot .32 caliber Derringer. I loved guns.

More Dangerous to the Owner

The first inkling I had that guns could be trouble for the gun owner was a day when I was alone in my bedroom cleaning one of my semi-automatics. I took the top slide off with the bullet clip still in the handle. gunThis maneuver unwittingly loaded a live round into the firing chamber. I’d never had a lesson in gun safety. I put the gun back together and left the clip full of bullets on the bed. Then, thinking the gun was empty, I playfully pointed the barrel at the bedroom wall and pulled the trigger. The loud bang left me startled and shocked. The .32 caliber bullet blasted through the bedroom wall and out into the kitchen where it hit the open refrigerator door, just missing my roommate Larry Labovitz, standing in front of it (Larry would later go on to become a renown Hollywood civil rights lawyer. He almost didn’t).

The next inkling I had that guns could be dangerous for the gun owner was one day when I had a bunch of guy friends over. We were horsing around as teen guys do, and at one point I pulled out my revolver and pointed it at Art Gerstel’s head. I’d previously loaded the gun with blanks, and so imagine Art’s surprise when I pulled the trigger! I was just about to pull the trigger a second time, when suddenly there was a loud knock on the front door. A neighbor wanted to know what all the noise was about. We appeased her and things settled down. Later, back in my room I emptied the gun and discovered there was an actual live round still in the cylinder! It was right in line to fire the next time the trigger was pulled. Were it not for that knock on the door, I would have gone to jail for involuntary manslaughter and Art Gerstel would be dead.

Defense Is the First Act of War

The main reason I told myself I owned guns was “for protection.” But I truly loved guns. I loved the way they looked. I loved the heft of them in my hands. I loved the way they smelled. I loved cleaning and caring for them. I loved “the power in the palm of my hands.” In retrospect, I had an extremely sensual love affair with guns. They calmed my fear circuitry and stoked my dopamine and oxytocin networks.

But as I got older, the love affair began to fade. In my early thirties I got to a point developmentally where I could have love affairs with actual people. I could have sensual and consensual experiences with them and they could reciprocate. Guns aren’t so great with contingent sensual reciprocity. They don’t give back.

Cognitive Ripening

Not only that, but I was actually becoming able to put my cognitive brain in charge, rather than my emotional, fear-fueled reactive brain. I went and did research to find out if my fear – the main reason I told myself I needed a gun – was legitimate. family-of-burglars-250x150.jpgIt turns out a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to injure its owner or an innocent person than it is to stop an intruder. I can personally attest to that. And in 2015, gun deaths exceeded traffic fatalities for the first time – a reflection of how much safer our cars are, as well as how many more guns we’ve littered the country with. But here’s the thing: in the rural areas there are only 600 burglaries per 100,000 people. Only 444 of those are residential break-ins, and only 269 of those are through forcible entry. Average loss is a little over $2000.

For me, the much larger question becomes, do I want the traumatic memory of injuring or killing another human being burned into my neural network for the rest of my life over the extremely slim (.27%) chance that an intruder will break into my house to steal $2000 worth of my belongings that insurance covers anyway?

Should such an unlikely event take place, I would hope and prefer to react the way Shichiri Kojun did. That seems a worthwhile level of heart and brain development to aspire to.

If you ask most corporate CEOs and Human Resource Managers what the most important duties of their Chief Feedback Officer are, the feedback you’re likely to get will be a blank stare. Most won’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Which is interesting, especially when you consider that the number one way the human brain learns and grows is … through feedback.

Here’s a list of virtues – as a high-level CFEO – you might ideally embrace:

  1. You understand that the primary way the brain grows cells and network connections is through feedback loops.
  2. You subscribe to the research that shows that collaborative communication fosters attachment and loyalty.
  3. You recognize that lack of timely, constructive feedback is the Number One complaint of employees the world over.
  4. Chief Listening OfficerYou are willing to wear the Chief Learning Officer’s hat and the Chief Listening Officer’s hat from time to time.
  5. You know the value of and the power in repeatedly answering The Big Brain Question “Yes” for your employees.
  6. You totally get how important Irrational Commitment is to job satisfaction, performance and loyalty.
  7. You promote and structure an environment that kindly encourages and supports Impeccability Practices.
  8. You help foster transient hypofrontality in support of creativity in meaning-making and in research and development.
  9. You help people manage stress while seeking to foster a neophilic environment.
  10. You recognize that the workplace is where the bulk of most employees’ lives unfold and you want theirs and yours to ultimately be a juicy, good-at-the-end, life well-lived.
  11. You regularly review and enjoy the latest Enchanted Loom installments … and here’s one right HERE on The Wandering Mind by emeritus professor Michael Corbalis.

I was 30 years old when I completed my Bachelor’s Degree, 45 when I finally completed my Doctorate. Along the way I ended up enrolling in and dropping out of almost a dozen different colleges. The schools I stayed the longest in offered classes like Innovative Studies, Book Building and Production, Alternative Housing Design and Construction, The Psychology of the Courtroom…. I mostly enrolled in schools offering subjects I thought I might actually want to show up and learn about, things that could actually be useful in the world outside the classroom. In the end, for my doctoral studies, I enrolled in a small startup school that specialized in championing “transient hypofrontality.”

Farther Is As Farther Founds

The founders of The California Institute of Transpersonal Psychology had two of America’s most prized pedigrees: Bob Frager received his doctorate from Harvard; Jim Fadiman received his from Stanford. Together they realized that their schooling had heavily emphasized what are traditionally thought of as “left brain” learning (STEM curricula do likewise). But they asked a question along the lines of “What would an education look like that helped students ascend his pyramid and attain Abraham Maslow’s Farther Reaches of Human Nature?”

While they didn’t realize it at the time – because the possibilities for funding neuroscience research with massive capital investment wasn’t even a gleam in any university presidents’ eye – the answer they came up with was “transient hypofrontality.”

Here’s how On Being host, Krista Tippett describes the transient hypofrontality experience:

(Transient hypofrontality) is a daunting name for an experience many of us will recognize. Simply put, (neuroscience of creativity expert) Rex Jung says that intelligence works like a “superhighway,” with massive numbers of connections being made between the different parts of the brain with speed and directness. When we become more creative, our powerful, organizing frontal lobes down-regulate a bit. The creative brain is a “meandering” brain. The superhighways give way to “side roads and dirt roads,” making possible the new and unexpected connections we associate with artistry, discovery, and humor.

Death Valley Baba Disciple

Baba Haagen-Dazs Disciple in Death Valley

When it was founded, The California Institute of Transpersonal Psycholo- gy was indeed all about side roads and dirt roads and the unexpected connections of artistry, discovery and humor. It was also about experiential learning. If you wanted to learn about death, you went and spent time with dying people. For learning to extract meaning from dreams – which are themselves transient hypofront- ality experiences – we gathered together in small groups and took turns sharing and working with our own and each other’s. If you wanted to learn about Buddhism, you went and spent two weeks living with Buddhist monks at Shasta Abbey on Mt. Shasta. If you wanted to learn about Native American Vision Quests, you signed up to go and spend 10 days together and solo out in Death Valley, California.

At the end of our two-year time in residence at CITP, there wasn’t a single student who didn’t have DOUBLE the number of credits required for graduation. This is what it looks like when transient hypo- frontality drives learning.

Preparing for the End Game

Albert_Einstein_age-quoteMy time with CITP has prepared me as well as anything could, I think, for growing old. Part of my clinical internships were spent at the bedsides of dying and grieving people, seeing what aging and death actually look like up close. It also creatively inspired me and a few friends to begin a program to introduce death and grief directly to children who were thrust into the midst of it by the untimely death of a parent or sibling.

It also introduced me to Sufism, Taoism and Buddhism, all of which encourage me to have a direct and honest relationship with reality in all its many forms. One form reality is taking is that along with my body aging, my brain is changing. Brains and bodies tend to do that all throughout the lifespan, and one of the ways mine is changing (and very likely yours as well) is that it’s unraveling and downsizing parts of my prefrontal cortex. In other words, on its own the brain is organically orchestrating its own transient hypofrontality. This is surely something to be celebrated. If you’re looking for a role model to demonstrate just how you might go about that, look no further than HERE.

I can’t recall a time when I didn’t believe I was capable of learning, growing and changing. At least that’s what I would say if you asked me. But if you gently invited me to say more, and I felt safe enough to drill down further into that belief, what you’d find out is that I actually do believe that about myself, but only to a point. There are certain possibilities for growth and change that I aspire to which I don’t currently believe I will ever really attain. For example, for more than 20 years I’ve been trying to get my weight below 200 pounds. I’ve researched physiology, I teach classes on the neuroscience of weight management, I’ve even co-presented daylong seminars with a nutritionist! And still, the 200 pound goal eludes me. 204 is the closest I’ve gotten recently.

enoughnessI also don’t believe I will ever be able to recreate the financial wealth I enjoyed (and mismanaged) at an earlier time in my life. The short-term stressors of being wealthy were more than brain and body could manage at the time, especially since I have long been acutely aware of just how much fear, poverty and suffering the majority of humanity lives with. Why should I have and hoard so much more material wealth than most of the rest of the world? Having disproportionate wealth felt like a substantial karmic burden, somehow. I certainly didn’t feel free when I was rich. And I have exemplars like Buddha and Christ suggesting that money is a powerful trap one can easily fall into. It would be interesting to get a CPA’s account of how Christ and Buddha managed their finances.

The Secret Enemy

Disbelief in or compromised belief in my ability to change is The Secret Enemy. It’s one of four identified by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman in their recent book, Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be A Whole Lot Happier. The other three enemies are Outer, Inner and Super-Secret. Outer Enemies are simply the people, institutions and situations that threaten or frustrate us, either consciously or unconsciously (as with neuroceptive experiences). The Inner Enemies are the emotions we feel in response to those external threats, like fear, hatred or anger. The Super-Secret Enemy is our negative inner self-judgment and self-loathing.

enemyIt’s dealing with the Super-Secret Enemy that I find so useful in my study of neuroscience. I’ll give you a recent example: last week I was outside repairing a storage shed. I was cutting asphalt shingles for the roof with a utility knife. On one cut I inadvertently had the tip of my index finger extending over the straight-edge and I ran the utility knife hard across it giving me a deep gash. While the cut was painful enough, I didn’t let The Super-Secret Enemy turn it into suffering by generating all kinds of negative judgments: “How could you be so stupid?” “When are you going to learn to pay attention to what you’re doing?” “You call yourself a craftsman?”

What I did is simply acknowledge that my brain was temporarily distracted – my neural networks had momentarily exceeded their capacity – and as a result I injured myself. Distractions happen. And they happen more, the older I get. If a finger injury is the worst that occasionally results when I’m distracted, I am indeed blessed.

The Astonishing Hypothesis

In his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Nobel Laureate Francis Crick has written, “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” While I would argue there’s likely much more to the story, Crick’s perspective frequently matches my own. If I was in my “Right Mind” I can guarantee you I would not intentionally be slicing up my fingers. But Right Mind isn’t a constant. It’s mostly a product of a brain and body able to mindfully focus on a complex assortment of needs and stimuli in the moment. A brain operating with full sensory input awareness could have felt my finger hanging over the straight edge and my eyes could have seen it protruding into the cut line. But they didn’t. And the only compassionate response to a vulnerable, over-taxed brain, mind and body is kindness, flexibility and forgiveness. Always. And then The Super-Secret Enemy has no one to attack.

If you’d like to see what’s possible when we’re no longer under attack, check out this Enchanted Loom review of Stanford neurosurgery professor James Doty’s book, Into the Magic Shop.

Many of you know that we breed Bernese Mountain Dogs here on Whidbey Island. Recently, we had our first “litter” – a singleton who ended up with the name Gus. Through a whole host of emotionally challenging information that required us to make a series of difficult decisions, Gus became the product of artificial insemination and had to be birthed by Caesarean. At a little over one pound, Gus felt like a miracle puppy. He and his mother, Emmy – who’s the most affectionate and responsive of any of our extremely affectionate and responsive Berners – bonded powerfully. Gus and Emmy both thrived. When he was finally ready to be placed into a good home, Gus was up close to a woolly and whirling 20 plus pounds.

Life Innocence

The innocence of babies and puppies is a huge draw for me. It’s been hard not to project memories of my own early life of innocence and confidence onto Gus. To see him come greet Gracie the Cat with excitement and openness, only to receive a loud hiss and several rapid whops across the nose that sends him scurrying with tail between his legs, can’t help but tug on the heartstrings (Gracie never extends her claws on Gus, interestingly enough. She apparently is only wanting to teach him to respect boundaries). This interaction recalls a time for me at around age three: I am swinging on a swing in our local park when a little girl walks up to me and, for no reason I expect or can understand, she smacks me hard right in the face as I swing forward into her fist. The end of innocence and trust.

Berner cat

Not Gracie

But not for Gus. Later on any day, he will once again come bounding up to Gracie, tail wagging. Eventually, she simply gets tired of abusing him and darts under a chair whenever he approaches.

When it is time for Gus to go to his new owner, I have mixed feelings. I am going to miss the little guy, but I am not going to miss him constantly being underfoot, tripping me, feeling his needle-teeth on my ankles, nor will I miss the 30 pounds of pee and poo I have to clean up every week (I actually weighed it!). When Gus finally leaves, it is like a psychic windstorm has cleared the premises.

Just When I Think He’s Gone, He’s Back

And then Gus comes back. The people who initially take him decide he is too much work and that their little kids are afraid of him. Plus, he chews their furniture.

Again I find myself with mixed feelings, this time of a different sort. How can people take a puppy as cute and innocent and as exuberant as Gus and not be willing to put in the work to keep him? If we didn’t already have Gus’s massive dad, Olliebear, he would definitely be a keeper.

bernese-bernese-mountain-dog-breedSo, now we set about trying to find a second home for Gus. This time it’s with a professional dog trainer who loves everything about puppies. Well, it turns out that the older dog she already has, doesn’t love puppies in the least – to the point of vicious attack. So once again, Gus comes back. And now I’m finding myself even more disturbed.

On the third try, two grandparents with two grandchildren who are previous Berner owners agree to make Gus their dog. The four of them show up, spend a short time with him and right there on the spot decide NOT to take him.

Now I’m REALLY upset, way out of proportion to this chain of events. How could these people not want this sweet, innocent baby? And that’s when the light goes off. The Wisdom Teaching, “We are rarely upset for the reason we think” surfaces in my brain. My upset isn’t just about Gus at all. It’s my own brain filled with pictures of myself at age 4 and my little sister at age 2. It is about the sweet, innocent “puppies” we once were, puppies who weren’t wanted. My father treated me and my sister much like these prospective “parents” are treating little Gus. He abandoned the family right when those pictures in my brain were taken.

Somatic Marker Theory

Noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has a pretty convincing explanation for my upset with the way Gus’s journey has unfolded. He calls it Somatic Marker Theory. Basically, things happen in life that trigger emotional reactions. These emotional reactions affect various parts of our body, including our brain. Primary emotion inducers are actual events, like being hit in the face while swinging on a swing, or being handed a puppy by my father on the day he left for good. These experiences get stored in brain and body as somatic markers or brain/body memories. Secondary emotional inducers are triggered thoughts and memories of these kinds of earlier events. Thoughts and memories can be even more powerful stress generators than actual direct experiences.

When a parent abandons a family, a lot of adverse emotions get generated. Survival feels like it’s perpetually at stake. Stress hormones skyrocket for everyone as if a contagion. Most of the stress never gets expressed in words. Rather, as it did in my family, it gets acted out as sub-optimal self-regulatory behavior – my mother significantly increased her alcohol intake to the point of daily intoxication. Needless to say, this and many other events that unfolded as a consequence, generated any number of painful somatic marker memories for my sister and me.

And Gus’s placement drama turned out to be just what the doctor ordered to begin dredging them up. Now begins my hard personal work of neuro-somatic integration. It better happen fast. We have another litter of puppies due next month.

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