There’s a confabulation that frequently circulates among a few of my financially successful friends that being rich is their Divine Right. “If all the money in the world was taken from the rich and redistributed to the poor, in a very short time it would be back in the original hands of the rich” they argue. They have a point, and while I would argue things are considerably more complex than that, neuroscience – in one sense – comes down in their camp where the acquisition and management of money is concerned. But not necessarily for the reasons they think.

Money Is as Money Does

From a purely neural network perspective, if you have done the work to become wealthy with respect to money (and as Buddhist poet Gary Snyder points out – there are many, many ways to become wealthy that have little to do with money), the brain cells in your network have become connected in massively large, dedicated networks. Robust money networks in the brain deploy greater amounts of energy and information when it comes to money than do the networks of people who don’t have much money (poor people’s networks do all they can to try and manage the excessive levels of stress having little money generates). The more you immerse yourself in any field, the more your brain grows nerve cells and makes connections related to that field. It’s called learning, and the neurological underpinnings of learning are universal (an interesting corollary: 90% of people who inherit money, that is, people who themselves have NOT spent decades with their brains immersed in learning about money and finance, eventually dissolve their accumulated wealth – they typically go from “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” – in three short generations!).

Among many things that Bill Gates is known for, one is his apparently well-earned observation that, “It’s harder to give money away well, than it is to earn it in the first place.” Right, unless the people he’s giving it to have neural networks learned in managing money well. In which case, they probably don’t need his money! Better would be to require recipients to grow money-management networks first. Who does Warren Buffet give all his charity money to? Why, Bill and Melinda Gates, of course.

Attention Must Be Paid

There’s a neurological truism that suggests whatever we pay ongoing attention to tends to increase. There’s a common descriptive term that applies. It’s one that we’re all familiar with: kung fu. Kung Fu essentially translates as “skill acquired through hard work.” At a very basic level Muhammed Yunus took advantage of this neurological truism and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for establishing micro-credit and micro-loans. He essentially taught money kung fu by making small loans to people to start small businesses. Once that loan was paid off from business profits, borrowers could borrow incrementally larger amounts of money. Rinse and repeat.


Along the way, the people Yunus’s Grameen Bank funded significantly changed their brains: money was no longer this mysterious commodity that mostly caused them anxiety and that they never had enough of. Their brains increas- ingly learned to simply use borrowed money as a tool, just like Apple Com- puter does with the $85 billion dollars of debt they currently have on their books.

The Effect Effect

The Matthew Effect, first coined by CASBS fellow Robert Merton in 1968, underscores this neurological reality. Matthew 25:29 from the King James bible, declares: “For unto every one that hath, more shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” And while Merton primarily applied the meaning to scientists and their ability to garner fame and research funding, the Effect clearly generalizes to other activities where human brains operate.

Two neuroscience corollaries are worth noting. The first is Hebb’s Law: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” The learning that Yunus’s borrowers experi- enced by borrowing money to start and expand small businesses changed their brains, expanding and wiring together network connections in the process. They had to grow in their knowledge and ability to recognize and creatively address the money challenges that every small business owner has to recognize and overcome. In other words, they had to do hard work, i.e. practice kung fu.

Lose It or Use It

The second corollary is, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Tracey Shors and her colleagues at Rutgers University have shown that adults – even old fogies like me – grow thousands of new brain cells every day. Unfortunately, many of them fail to thrive. The reason: they are not placed into productive service. By productive what Shors means is – deploying them in the service of new learning.

failing-715x715My own experience can serve as a cautionary tale. Hailing from a background and ancestry rooted in poverty, I was cognitively and emotionally overwhelmed when I suddenly found myself with a net worth of several million dollars as the result of a series of successful Silicon Valley real estate trans-actions (building and selling expensive spec homes). I simply had insufficient knowledge (brain networks and people network connections) that I could draw upon to guide me in successfully putting that acquired capital skillfully to work (Bill Gates was busy). Nothing in my background – models, mentors or living examples – was available to light the way. And while I struggled to find and figure out how best to intelligently deploy those resources, I unwittingly made bad choice after increasingly stressful bad choice, until eventually all the money was gone. If I had it to do over, with the benefit of diamond-brilliant hindsight, I would have used a significant portion of that capital to buy farmland or other raw acreage on Whidbey Island where I currently live. I already possessed networked knowledge of how to add value to raw land and skillfully leverage its appreciation. Plus, and this is a critical piece … transforming and creating is something I truly love to do. It’s one reason why I’m a neuroscientist!

It’s also one reason I read brain books and offer you this week’s Enchanted Loom review on The Compassionate Brain.

I hear voices. Most of the time the voices are one or another intonation from what I consider to be my usual discursive or directive mind. However, every now and then a strange voice shows up that doesn’t “sound” like me. It doesn’t have a tone or feel or flavor or scent I readily recognize. And it tends to show up as something other than the emergent narrative my neural network regularly generates. Also, it usually shows up offering guidance, which I’m rarely very keen on receiving or acting upon, thank you.

I must be mellowing in my old age, because recently I’ve begun giving some thought and making some space for the still small voice to show up in my life more often. But not without negotiating certain parameters for it. Either show up the way my skeptical, cognitive, scientist brain needs you to, or don’t bother. Here are some qualities I use to make sure my Inner Psychopath is off the grid when the voice comes through.

Manacles On / Manacles Off – I once worked myself into a job where all I had to do was show up and play the equivalent of video games for fun all day long. I had no boss and no job requirements and was free to come and go as I pleased. I made enough money to buy a boat, a plane, a new Corvette and my very own house. A dream job, right? Imagine what my Wild Mind did when my still small voice announced: “You have to quit your job.” At the time I had little doubt that this was the voice of my Inner Psychopath. But of course, it was the voice of wisdom doing it’s best to guide me onto a more spiritually mature path. That path became crystal clear when another voice – that of a real, embodied, living Sufi wise man directed: “Provide shelter for people.” That advice led to a successful, life-saving, 25 year house-building career. And now a Prayer Podz building career.

Golden handcuffs

Later, when I became curious about why I was given the internal directive to leave my work-free job and began to reflect upon it, I realized a number of things. With my basic life necessities covered, I needed something meaningful to actually work and make money FOR. Otherwise, I was a prisoner to money-making for money-making’s sake. It turned out that being of service to other people tended to make me pay considerably less attention to my insatiable, ever-changing ego needs. In The Land of Ego Needs there be many dragons.

Cilantro Voice – Recovering Ob-Gyn Lissa Rankin hears voices as well. One way she checks to insure that it’s not her own IP (Inner Psychopath) giving orders is by paying attention to the tone the voice uses when it speaks to her. If it’s authoritative, harsh and demanding, then she’s pretty sure it’s her IP. But if her still small voice is sweet and gentle, non-judgmental and undemanding – what she calls “Cilantro Voice” – then she’s much more receptive to the guidance she’s receiving. It makes organic, herbal sense to me.

Suffering Up / Suffering Down – do my adrenals respond by turning off the stress hormone cascade? This is sometimes a difficult measure to make. Hearing my still small voice tell me to quit my job, was not without some stress. But once I did manage to give notice and actually get out of the building, to my great surprise I found myself washed over by a completely unexpected calm. A very similar experience happened when my still small voice told me to take my Ph.D. and my multiple California contractor’s licenses and go take a maintenance man position at a Stanford Think Tank … where I joyfully worked for 10 years, learning much about my brain in the process!

Welcome to WhidbeyNeuroceptive Resonance – Is there something about the voice or what it says that enables me to at least glimpse the possibility of safety, security, and/or survival in my life? Several years ago when the Voice told me to leave the San Francisico Bay Area where I’d lived for 30 years and move to an offshore island (Whidbey, near Seattle), it did give me certain pause. But now, after eight years and more than eight trips back to the drought-ridden and climate-changed Bay Area, it’s hard to make a case that my still small voice gave me bad direction.

Visionary Guidance – Is my still small voice pointing me to something that might lead to one or more of my heart’s deepest desires? Is it activating my imagination, intimating inspired, creative possibilities of what might be? Is it “inviting me deeper into the mystery?” If so, and even if it’s suggesting something that I might not be initially comfortable with, I am probably well-served to take the guidance to heart. Since growth and change is a basic human, spiritual and neurobiological need, I might as well follow a direction that potentially inspires.

Separation Verses Connection – Is the download I’m receiving designed to get me more connected with people or moving me more in the direction of the illusion of separation? As a means of measuring, I often use Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of Unity Consciousness that she discovered after her language network centers stroked out. She was able to clearly see and experience the interconnection of all people, places and things at the level of energy just dancing. No Inner Psychopath operating there.

For those of you in the Seattle area, if you’d like to hang out for a day in September, consider this possibility: Bastyr Learning.

Brains are built for learning. Beginning in the womb they take sights, sounds, feelings, tastes, and smells from the world around us and craft meaningful stories from these sensory experiences. Early sensory impressions tend to be much more entrenched and long-lasting, since the cells and the connections they must use are so sparse – we have little learning to compare anything with. First times are memorable. Early learning becomes gospel. Early adverse experiences are also memorable and tend to condition memory networks in ways that often are less than ideal. My own Unwelcome Inheritances include: poverty, addiction, PTSD and ignorance – just some of the fruit for my own personal juicer. Here are 12 additional ways that early conditioning can become an unwelcome inheritance (borrowed from Marin, CA psychologist, Mark Wolynn). Many of us, me included, spend the bulk of our later lives trying to return these “gifts” to their rightful owners:

You suffered a break in your early security bond with mom or dad.

child parentYou were delivered the requirement to be a “parentified child” needing to take care of mom or dad.

You learned how to be unhappy in relationships by observing your parents.

You were taught that it’s okay to leave a relationship when things get hard.

You received implicit instruction in what betrayal looks and feels like.

You learned to accept a primary relationship for reasons other than love.

You observed that big people point the finger of blame at others.

You learned that mistakes deserve punishment in various forms.

You discovered that your mother aborted a child before she had you, or that she considered aborting you.

Kate Bolick (Writer & Editor)

Spinster author, Kate Bolick

You were taught that it’s often better to live alone.

You learned there are many problems we are helpless to solve.

You believed it’s normal for families to have a crazy aunt or uncle or grandparent.

I’m arbitrarily limiting the list to twelve early experiences. This list could obviously go on and on, filled with untold early learnings that we might experience and make up stories about – unwelcome inheritances all. But in addition, a lot of learning that we inherit can adversely affect body and brain when it takes place before we actually learn words to make up stories with. Those stories live in the body and the brain without the benefit of language. These inheritances and hidden loyalties are harder to root out and shine the light of healing repair and compassion upon. Harder, but not impossible.

If you want to know more about how our near and distant past can adversely affect our present – as well as what to do about it – check out THIS Enchanted Loom review of … It Didn’t Start with You.


Why We Snap

Recently, an incident here at home involving Puppy Gus got my rapt attention. Early one evening my wife and I were relaxing in the living room and Gus decided he wanted Dad Ollie’s attention. To get it, he began barking – a sharp, piercing, aggressive yelp that he kept repeating over and over.


What grinch would pinch a puppy?

Ollie paid him no mind, but Gus’s insistence was getting on my nerves – each bark sent a shot of adrenaline rushing through my body. I told Gus, “No” several times using my Command Voice. Still, he kept it up. Finally, I snapped. I reached down and nabbed him by the nape of his neck and gave him a hard pinch. He squealed in surprise and pain as I scooped him up and summarily deposited him outside onto the back deck.

There was no thought or planned action on my part in this interaction. It was all reactive anger and frustration combined with a sudden urgent need to reduce the stress hormones rising to uncomfortable levels in my brain and body. If Gus was smarter and paying closer attention, I suspect he might have noticed some tell-tale signs of my mounting frustration – tightening jaw, color draining from my cheeks, constricted breathing. He would also know that this kind of response is quite a rarity for me. But that would have been little consolation.

Paying Attention to the Relevant Dimensions

After his own experience of similar sudden anger, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development neuroscientist Doug Fields began researching the phenomenon and uncovered nine specific triggers that hold the potential to make any of us snap. He wrote the book with the same title as this blog. It summarizes the reasons he thinks we snap. They’re remembered by the mnemonic: “LIFEMORTS” –

Life or Limb preservation – defending yourself against attackers;

Insult – someone saying something irritating or offensive about you;

Family – as a response intended to protect loved ones;

Environment – as a response designed to protect hearth, home or national borders;


Dr. R. Douglas Fields

Mate – actions orchestrated to keep a primary partner safe;

Order in society – responses designed to preserve the rule of law and to right social injustices;

Resources – actions taken to gain and/or safeguard possessions;

Tribe –defensive reactions intended to preserve group/tribe safety;

Stopped – planned or impulsive actions taken to escape restraint or imprisonment.

Most of these behaviors seem to come prepackaged with neural network development and are instinctively designed to keep the human species alive and well and capable of carrying on and bringing forth future generations. Evolution wants us to evolve. Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it if you look to our political process. Fields details how politicians and their campaign managers are masters of manipulating these triggers – especially the Tribe, Social Order and Environment triggers. We are better served using awareness of these triggers to help in uniting people in empathy rather than the way they are used in politics – to divide, alienate and demonize members of the “other tribe.”

Fields goes into even greater detail in how the brain may sometimes send false positives around these triggers. When that happens a person may snap, but just as suddenly recover and put a brake on their anger. Cognitive understanding of the LIFEMORTS triggers can be a useful tool for anger management – it can readily allow us to discern if something is really worth getting angry about or not. Or if what we’re perceiving or thinking is mostly an imagined threat or an actual real one.

Getting Help for Puppy Gus

All this is interesting and useful to know, but it doesn’t much help Puppy Gus. The work of helping Puppy Gus is actually mine to do. It was my neurophysiology that slowly increased its levels of stress hormones. My brain and body that sat frozen as Gus continued his attention-seeking barking.


Fatigued Adrenal Glands

My adrenal glands that silently ratcheted up the flood of adrenaline and cortisol – temporarily shutting down cognitive functioning – until the only relief available to me was the impulsive action I took.

To avoid actions like that, I believe, requires the lifelong practice of brain network-building, making the unconscious conscious and ongoing practice in learning to skillfully manage my adrenal glands. Somewhat later, while reviewing the incident, I realized that Gus had actually triggered a childhood memory of Buster, the yappy rescue dog my mother got to replace one that ran off. It was a dog I used to beat with a belt in an unguided, unparented attempt to channel childhood anger, frustration and rage. 60 years later, in deploying only a quick pinch instead of a belt to Gus, I seem to have made some small amount of progress in neural network-building. And the work goes on.


There’s a growing body of research evidence that suggests that a day full of digital distractions is less than optimal for the health of my body and my brain. One reason, as neuroscientist Daniel Levitin points out in his book, The Organized Mind, is that distractions are energy hogs in the brain. Every time I shift my attention from one task to another, from thoughts on one topic to thoughts on a different topic, extra energy has to be expended.

texting-while-drivingSo, for example, if I’m driving to work and I’m shifting back and forth from the road to the iPhone screen while I’m texting over and over and over, by the time I get to work, I will have expended much more energy than if I had simply kept both hands on the steering wheel and paid full attention to the road in front of me. I very likely also decrease the probability of running into bicyclists or telephone poles.

Neuroenergetic Theory Abides

But this additional energy expenditure has other consequences. Deliberative thinking is hard work. Neuroenergetic Theory argues that the sequence of the fuel injection process that brain cells use in thinking is adversely impacted by multi-tasking. Once brain cells we use for paying attention to one task complete a fueling sequence, they are inoperative and must undergo a refractory period until they can bring more fuel on board. During that resting phase these brain cells are subject to being overridden by other cells in the brain which can end up calling us off in the direction of any number of alluring distractions. The more we multi-task, the more easily we are subsequently captured by distractions. Whatever we pay attention to and how we pay attention to it, tends to increase. What to do?

Be Pokey, Mon

Slow everything down. What’s the rush? Rushing is stressful. Here’s an interesting study from researchers at UC Berkeley. What they’ve found is that stress causes proteins to misfold in a cell’s powerplant – its mitochondria. Misfolded mitochondria proteins cause a cell to rapidly age and then die. Slowing down processes in a single cell’s mitochondria allows for the proteins to begin to fold correctly, restoring the cell to full health. Might slowing down work to benefit a preponderance of the 37.2 trillion cells that make up the organism called … you!

Pod 2 Interior

Inside a God Pod

There’s only one real way to find out, right – experiment. As I age, I find slowing down and being mindful becomes increasingly important if I don’t want to have the frustrating (and sometimes frightening) experience of going through large parts of my day while not being fully aware and awake in any present moment. One area where I find it particularly beneficial, for example, is when I’m working on a God Pod and I place a chisel or a chalk line down, I deliberately pay extra attention to the placement. If I don’t mindfully mark the placement, I’ll spend an inordinate amount of frustrating time searching all over the place for the tool.

Marky-Marking What Ails Me

Another way I have learned the importance of slowing down and being mindful is again, when I’m working on a Prayer Pod (or cutting and splitting firewood), to deliberately notice when I bang a shoulder into a roof rafter or knock a shin into an alder round. By mindfully marking the experience, a day or two later when I’m feeling the pain from the incident, my mind doesn’t automatically assign a cancer or leukemia diagnosis. I remember: “Oh, right. I banged myself there yesterday.”


Bodhi’s got mail

At earlier times in my life, I used to be an insurance company’s profit poster boy. While mostly good at avoiding auto accidents, I would acquire speeding tickets that kept me right on the cusp of having my license suspended year after year. With those tickets came higher insurance rates, of course. Even when it was pointed out to me that on a trip of almost any duration, the most I would likely shave off my time would be five minutes or so, my nervous system seemed to just want me to go fast. I tend to walk fast, as well.

Nowadays, however, I have made the choice to deliberately slow down. Over here on Whidbey Island, the speed limit in town is 25 – strictly enforced. Neighbors take down speeder’s license plate numbers and notify the police. And most of my walks now have dogs with me on leashes who demand that we stop and pick up Pee-Mail every 20 or 30 feet as we meander the pathways at the dog-park. And you know what, these days my brain, body and I are deeply appreciating that “Bodhi’s got mail!”

Finally, for your leisurely, mindful enjoyment – another Enchanted Loom, this one on The Emotional Brain.

While the adverse consequences of abandoning or neglecting children is easy to observe and document, much abandonment and neglect takes place daily in the world in ways we often don’t pay much attention to. And even if we did, skillful ways to address and remedy such actions so that further separation and suffering don’t ensue, are rarely a part of our relationship toolbox. Here are ten-plus-one not-so-subtle common occurrences that I’ve observed over the years. If you consider that a primary driver of neural network enrichment is the result of give-and-take interpersonal, in-the-flesh feedback, what might we inadvertently be doing to our brain with these small-picture behaviors?

  1. smartphones_in_bed

    What could possibly be so interesting? And who’s in the bedroom taking the picture?


    Proximate Separation– Two people in close proximity who have little direct emotional or energetic exchanges going on. When I was growing up it looked a lot like a husband and wife both reading the newspaper over the breakfast table. Nowadays, it looks more often like the couple in the picture on the right.

  2. Excessive Attention to Smartphones/Laptops– In a February, 2016 poll, nearly 200 million people in America own smartphones. That’s a lot of attention being paid to an electronic device that in earlier times was being paid directly to other people. What’s clearly not being attended to is how this attentional shift might be adversely impacting our capacity to readily regulate arousal states when we do actually have to interact with other people. According to Tallie Baram, a brain researcher at UC Irvine, this significant increase in screen time is having an adverse effect that is going to be showing up increasingly not only in ourselves, but more importantly, in our children’s healthy brain development.
  3. Sexual Time Travel– Basically, not loving the one we’re with. Running off in our minds (and heart) to be with an imaginary someone else, in an imaginary somewhere else. The intimate energy experience with someone who’s fully present and responsive is qualitatively different, in case you aren’t aware of it.
  4. Workaholism– There’s no work in the world that can sustain interest 60-80 hours a week, month in and month out. I don’t care what it is. When more than half your waking life is spent “on the job” it smacks of avoidance behavior or some kind of a brain organized in an addictive manner. Or worse – The Disease of Being Busy.
  5. Non-Contingent Communication– You know the feeling: you’re having a conversation with someone and they’re lost in the space inside their head; or they frequently non-sequitur their way onto other topics, usually having something to do with them. Or you’re in communication over the phone or the computer and the person on the other end has their keyboard clacking away the whole time.
  6. Not Keeping Our Word– When our word is law, when what we say we’re going to do is what we end up doing, we become supremely trustworthy. liar-liar-mdash-is-it-ever-okay-largeNot just to others, but to ourselves – to Witness Consciousness – our inside Sentinel who’s watching every move we make and then generating narratives about who we are and what we’re capable of, for better or worse. When we don’t keep our word, it’s usually for worse.
  7. Relationship Unfaithfulness– With every brain on the planet either consciously or unconsciously wanting a “Yes” answer to the question: Are you there for me? Can I count on you when the chips are down? Will you be there to help me through the inevitable Dark Night of the Soul? – unfaithfulness in relationship answers this fundamental need with a resounding “No.” Expect to be repaid in kind.
  8. Inebriation– There’s little worse than trying to have a healthy, committed lasting relationship with someone who’s frequently in a dissonant state of consciousness. You and they would be better served if each of you did the hard work of trying to heal the broken heart needing to be so often medicated. Medication is not integration.
  9. Multi-Tasking– Time and again research has shown that when we try to do multiple things at once, we do all of them less well than if we focused our attention on one person, place or thing at a time.
  10. Unskillful Listening– We’re all challenged by this sensory experience at some time or another. The primary reason is that skillful listening is just that – a skill. Skills take practice. And we don’t get better unless we know what to practice and what we need practice on. When it comes to this skill, most of us don’t know what we don’t know, and no one has impressed upon us just how important this skill is and how difficult it is to truly master.
  11. Self-Abandonment– In ways large and small. From the promises we make to ourselves and others and fail to keep, to the many ways we don’t take care of body, mind, brain and spirit. We may have been abandoned by others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do the work required to be faithful and true to ourselves. Feel free to start with … The Two Perilous Questions.

Here’s a free series by one of my favorite neurobiologists, Stanford professor and MacArthur Fellow Robert Sapolsky. If you put in the time to listen to this series of 25 lectures, I guarantee you will know enough about your brain and body to be able to apply it in creative ways across many diverse areas of your life. I recommend watching in 15-20 minute increments. While Robert’s an extremely knowledgeable and skilled researcher, he’s clearly never studied effective teaching methods for best delivering large amounts complex information (So much to learn and so little time). But if you put in the time, you’ll know the ins and outs of Human Behavioral Biology as if you actually went to Stanford!

But before you jump right in and begin binge-watching, you might first want to check out this week’s Enchanted Loom featuring Yale neurobiologist Eliezer Sternberg’s book, My Brain Made Me Do It.

1. Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology


2. Behavioral Evolution I


3. Behavioral Evolution II


4. Molecular Genetics I


5. Molecular Genetics II


6. Behavioral Genetics I


7. Behavioral Genetics II


8. Recognizing Relatives


9. Ethology


10. Introduction to Neuroscience I


11. Introduction to Neuroscience II


12. Endocrinology


13. Advanced Neurology and Endocrinology


14. Limbic System


15. Human Sexual Behavior I


16. Human Sexual Behavior II


17. Human Sexual Behavior III & Aggression I


18. Aggression II


19. Aggression III


20. Aggression IV


21. Chaos and Reductionism


22. Emergence and Complexity


23. Language


24. Schizophrenia


25. Individual Differences