I have a long-time good friend named Alexandra. By any modern-day measure she would be considered a beautiful woman. She began life repeatedly identified as “adorable.” Any time either parent took her out in public, she invariably attracted the attention of adults and other children as well. She heard “She’s such a beautiful child” so often, as an adult, in a fit of ironic pique, Alexandra considered changing that to her middle name. In defiance, she refused to accept what Baylor medical researcher Heather Patrick calls, “contingent self-esteem” – basing her primary value only upon her looks. “When your self-esteem is contingent upon how you look,” Patrick notes, “you can only feel good about your looks if they meet a specific, and usually very high, expectation, such as weighing in at a certain number. Self-satisfaction does not exist on a spectrum for you: If you don’t meet the culture’s introjected standard, you will feel absolutely ugly.” No way this worked for Alex.


Actor, Evangeline Lilly

As a teen, while used to being stared at, Alex soon realized that peoples’ eyes and the way they use them, convey a lot of information about their “energy.” Mostly what she became aware of was the way some people looked at her that didn’t make her feel especially seen or safe. It wasn’t something she could easily put into words, and the feelings of being both invisible and in danger didn’t make sense when Alex tried to explain it. At those times when she would talk about it, people would accuse her of being “sensitive,” narcissistic or neurotic. Because of the unwanted attention it often attracted, Alex grew up much more aware of the curse being beautiful was, rather than any real blessing it conveyed.

Neuroceptive Attention

We now have a word to describe Alexandra’s experience: neuroception – threat detection without awareness. One day Alex paid an unwanted price for ignoring it. It was her first year of graduate school at an all-girls college where she decided to study neuroscience. Learning that the brain has structures that automatically and unconsciously attend to both beauty (reward and motor centers) and faces (fusiform gyrus), helped Alex begin to stop taking people’s stares so personally. It wasn’t her; it was other people’s brains.

While her parents didn’t require her to, Alex elected to work part-time. She found a job at an inner-city woman’s health co-op where many of the co-op’s clients were abused women. Her school studies taught her that abuse in many forms tends to adversely impact the brain’s network organization – cognitive functioning and impulse control often become problematic. One holiday weekend at the health co-op she had a chance to encounter it up close and real. When she arrived at work she found four women in the waiting room fresh from the nearby hospital Emergency Room. Two had recently been beaten and raped, one had had her face cut with a straight razor, and the fourth, addicted to methamphetamine, was pacing the waiting room and screaming at the other three women. All four were unusually attractive women. Or, they had been prior to their recent visits to the neighboring ER. It was clear to Alexandra that their current distress was in many ways connected to the way they looked – to the attention they attracted.

She resigned her position at the health co-op a week later.

Beauty Denied

There is some research that suggests one way to address the challenge of beauty is to simply not pay much attention to it, your own or other people’s. This makes good sense when you consider that what we pay the most attention to affects our brain in ways that increase both the numbers of cells and the number of connections they make related to what we’re attending to. Paying mindful attention to what we most want our life to be about, pays off.

Not paying attention to beauty, however, is not such an easy thing to pull off. UCSD neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran makes a strong case that there are many aspects of beauty that have an organic, evolutionary neural basis connected to Darwinian survival. Beautiful things outside us tend to make us feel safe. Regularity of features suggests genetic robustness. Some consider Ramachandran to be the Father of Neuroaesthetics. Some don’t.

No Thank You

Beauty violenceNot caring how our brains have evolved or much for neuroaesthetics, many women take strong issue with contemporary cultural expressions of beauty. Photographic artist, Jessica Ledwich captures many of the ways women are forced into being that have violence at their root. In the image at the right, she graphically portrays some of the mechanistic aspects of contemporary beauty.

Actor Evangeline Lilly expresses just how painful these mechanistic aspects can be: “I spent many nights crying myself to sleep wishing I was ugly because of the way men leered and disrespected me, because they assumed things about my mental capacity or my physical willingness based on my looks.”

“Ever since high school I had done things so people wouldn’t just respect me because of the way I looked. I decided, to hell with it. I’m going to pursue mediocrity, and I’m going to be so happy.” Six weeks after her first TV audition, she was in Hawaii filming “Lost.”

The main brain challenge then for beautiful women is this: “It’s not you, it’s other people’s brains – they have simply naturally evolved to pay great attention to external beauty.” It’s a mistake to take any of it personally.

Tangentially connected to this blog topic is this week’s Enchanted Loom – a graphic review of USC neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio’s book, The Feeling of What Happens. Access it HERE.

 When a Client Makes You Want to Smack Them

by Sally Mynewskin

Today I had a woman client – let’s call her Priscilla – who complains about never being seen or heard – she is also very vague about what being seen or heard means – it is a lot more than someone looking at her or actively listening to her. Fist FaceWhen her partner – who came in with her – tries to “hear” or “see” her, he invariably makes a misstep and she become bitter that he’s forever clueless and “just doesn’t get it.”

I have no idea what Priscilla really means, so I ask her to move to another chair and respond as her partner would had he really heard her – I explain that this demo might be more clarifying than trying to describe what she means.

Immediately she’s annoyed with me. “Why should I have to do all the work? Why can’t he just do it? Why do I have to do it for him?

Hardly Working

If he listens he gets clobbered for not seeing her. If he moves over to put his arm around her and console her, she objects. She can’t understand why he gets angry at her because she is a therapist and she is “careful to be very clear in all my communications.”

Apparently there is a form of empathy and compassionate contact I am not familiar with as I am not able to do it or help him do it.

Next, she wonders aloud, “Why is it so hard for therapists to be understanding? I am able to see and understand my clients.”
I act as if I haven’t heard her dig at me.

Moments later I am once again totally clueless about her needs. Foolishly, I risk asking her what kind of response from her husband would be helpful. After considerable thought she actually identifies something she wants, which neither her husband nor I would have guessed was on the menu.

I say to Priscilla, “Now that he knows what a good response would be and he actually replied to you in this manner, would you say to him that it doesn’t do any good because he had to be told what to say?”

Her response, “Of course.”

It’s hard for me to say without some sarcasm,”So let me see if I got this right. He’s an idiot if he can’t figure out what you want, and if you tell him what you want, it’s meaningless.”

So I don’t say it.

Instead I say, “It must be tough to not get what you desire yet feel frustrated if he wants you to coach him to give him more of what you desire.”

To this, Priscilla has no reply.

Brain on the Blink

Eye Hand Coord

Why is Priscilla So Hard to See?

Brains that don’t process energy and information very well are especially susceptible to cognitive distortions. For any variety of reasons people possessing such brains are both unable to recognize these cognitive distortions; consequently they are unable to actually take effective action to do anything about them. Here’s a handy list of 20 of more than 100 of the Most Common Cognitive Distortions. Priscilla puts many of these into play in almost every session and is clueless about their operations. It’s undoubtedly tough not being seen, and at the same time feel so much frustration when your husband needs to be coached to give you more of what you want.

And yet, providing insight, being understanding, being empathetic, clarifying her individual objectives for coming in, all go nowhere. My lizard brain wants to smack her or say something very unprofessional. With a lot of impulse control, I manage to hold my tongue.

Wit’s End

It is a fool’s errand to ask Priscilla what she means by being understood and being seen, as it just leads to more frustration for everyone involved. The bind though, is that the work in the office will go nowhere until she is seen and understood.
Trying to understand the roots of her pain are mostly met with annoyance over us not dealing with the problem of her husband being so insensitive.

In the end, with Priscilla, I have four choices: smack, fire, refer, or plod on. What would you do?

Anybody want a referral?

A Tale of Two Narcissists

One day while surfing the 10000 TV channels currently available to couch potatoes, I happened upon an episode of Jane the Virgin.

Jaime Camil

Jaime Camil

One character in particular caught my interest (in addition to the show’s wonderful Emmy-nominated narrator, Anthony Mendez). That character was Rogelio de la Vega, played by Jaime Federico Said Camil de Saldaña Da Gama. Rogelio is the quintessential narcissist. Nothing happens in the storyline that he can’t find a way to somehow twist into being about him. But he does it with such charm and grace and a ready, knowing smile and a raised eyebrow that he totally gets away with it. All we can do is laugh. Rogelio is the kind of narcissist that I long to be.

Narcissus Are Us

As the Talmud points out, we’re all narcissists to one degree or another: “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” Because of the way our brain is structured, because of how our five senses process the energy and information of the world, it cannot be otherwise. But as brain scans have underscored, the narcissist I am is mostly a matter of degree.

Unfortunately, the kind of narcissist I too often show up in the world as looks more than a little like Donald Trump. We’re both builders, for starters. Being able to build something, to bring something substantial into creation, whether we say it out loud repeatedly like the Donald does or not, conveys God-like powers. As futurist, Stewart Brand articulated in the throes of the Hippy Sixties: “We are as Gods so we might as well get good at it.” One primary difference between God and The Donald is that God seems to have no great need to go around letting everyone know how great she is. The Donald – not so much.

Other common traits of a Trump Narcissist that I sometimes mirror include a lack of authentic empathy and a disrespect for boundaries (I’m pretty good with cognitive empathy – I know how I should feel across many social circumstances). Active narcissists tend to be free-wheeling with their arrogance and sense of grandiosity. Psychologists John Gottman and Robert Levenson cite one particularly destructive behavior that narcissists demonstrate: seeing and treating other people with contempt. For Gottman, contempt, constant criticism, defensiveness and withdrawal, are part of the “Four Horsemen of the Narcissistic Apocalypse.” Look to Trump’s current behaviors towards his fellow Republicans in the current primaries to see the Four Horsemen in flaming, living color. Happily, for me – not so much.

The Narcissism Meter

Rogelio ACCThere’s a structure in my brain that serves as a kind of Narcissism Meter. It’s called the Cingulate Cortex. Those of us who most often light up the middle of the Cingulate Cortex tend to fall into the Rogelio Cohort for Narcissism. Those of us who light up the far right side of the Scale (the posterior or ass end of the Cingulate Cortex) tend to be most associated with the Trump Cohort for Narcissism. Those who tend to light up the very front part of the Cingulate Cortex fall into the Saint Realm. Their lives tend to be wholly devoted to selfless service.

But even though The Donald might be happy being a Trump Narcissist, I’m not. So, how do I transform myself from a Trump Narcissist into a Rogelio Narcissist? Three steps. 1. Recognize there’s an addictive quality to both being a narcissist and being “entertained” by a narcissist. There’s something compelling about watching flaming narcissism in action in very much the same way that it’s compelling to watch a car stalled on Union Pacific’s railroad tracks. The crash is coming and it’s not going to be pretty. Step 2. Begin paying attention to which narcissist is showing up in your own daily life on a regular basis. When my Inner Trump Narcissist is working hard to grab center stage, like a kind, understanding parent, I can gently take him by the hand and lead him back to his seat in the audience. Step 3. Mindfully practice, practice, practice.

And now, to remind you all of just how perpetually thoughtful and wildly creative I am, here’s another Enchanted Loom graphic review, this time of Lou Ann Brizendine’s book, The Female Brain.

“What if there was something you could learn that you didn’t know you needed to learn, but once you did, a great many parts of your life would work much, much better?” This was the opening gambit offered by the leader of a training I was required to take back in the day. I was taking this training because I wanted to work with children who’d suffered significant losses, children going through unexpected and often overwhelming grief. Needless to say, I was intrigued.

Next, the trainer put up a Powerpoint slide that depicted a brain cell. “This is a neuron,” she said. “It’s the basic building block of your brain – the fundamental live wire that makes up your neural network. It and its 86 billion sisters and brothers are mostly responsible for what you do and who you are. What do you notice about it?” One by one the dozen of us in the room began telling her things we noticed about the picture below.

Brain Neuron

“It looks like a plant.” “It looks like an alien creature.” “It looks scary.”

“Good,” the trainer said when we were done. “And any time you find yourself emotionally overwhelmed while you’re working with the kids, this is what you’ll do – you’ll simply ‘Say what you see.’ This will be your default response when you get overwhelmed, when you don’t know what to say or what to do – Say What You See.”

Until I actually tried it, I thought this was a really stupid idea. But not caring the least about what I thought, the kids lit up in response every time I tried it. They were joyfully responding to simply being seen with nothing added. Here’s a great visual metaphor for what our work accomplished: Healing Broken Hearts.

Seeing the Obvious Unseen

“There’s something about this brain cell that you’ve noticed but you haven’t really seen,” the trainer continued. “Look at the proportions of dendrite roots to axon boutons. It turns out that axons speak and dendrites listen. Just looking at this cell it becomes clear what the brain thinks is most important. Well, we’re going to spend the rest of this training exploring just how poorly most of you listen and just how challenging a personal practice listening turns out to be, especially when you get serious about it, like I know you all are. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here, right?”

The remainder of the weekend was spent with the trainer being true to her word – we did indeed learn how challenging deeply listening could be and that we all pretty much sucked at it. One small part of what made it challenging was that when we created an environment that made it safe for people to tell us deep and tender truths – inevitably they would end up triggering emotional reactivity in us that we weren’t expecting. Caught off guard, we weren’t in any way prepared or comfortable showing tears to the kids or their parents.

Mutual Self-Interest

“Nobody’s here just ‘for the children,’ the trainer said, emphasizing with quote fingers. “Each of you is also here to help the child in you, the child you once were that lives on in memory. None of us escapes childhood unscathed; your work with these kids is bound to mirror some aspects of your own painful beginnings. Holding this space together for the kids and deeply listening to their pain and suffering can turn out to be deeply healing for each of you. Be ready for it.”

a sandtrayAnd it unquestion- ably was. For more than the 20 years I remained involved as a volunteer with the Children’s Pro- gram that a small group of friends and I started back in the early 90s. It was only the second such program in the country at the time, which seems hard to believe here in the 21st century.

We also learned a lot of other things that weekend about how children learn and grow and heal. The presence of other children in the same boat was important, as was the proximity of adults intentionally creating the healing space, holding it and insuring that it remained safe. So, was a minimal use of words, combined with a lot of art and physical activities – traumatic experiences mostly get stored in the brain and body away from the language-generating centers. We also learned that being listened to and learning to fully listen to others is not only a large part of how healing happens, it’s also how learning happens. Dendrites do outnumber axons for a reason – they’re the best brain parts we’ve got to help heal our own broken hearts.

Because I feel this topic is SO important for secure attachment, beneficial relationships and brain network health and integration, I’m making a digital copy of my latest book, Fierce Listening available for $2.00 all week. Click HERE and find out if your heart knows what you need.

Back in my late 20s I made my living as a remodeling contractor. I was young and buff then, with great legs and a skinny little butt. Add in a leather tool belt and a blue Levi’s work shirt and I cut quite a compelling figure. Little did I realize.

One day I got a call from a doctor and his wife. They immediately hired me to remodel their kitchen. It soon became clear that this kitchen makeover was a last ditch attempt to remodel their marriage. Unfortunately, Home Remodeling Therapy rarely works for marriages. This time was no different.

Kismet Karma

an electric connectionSeveral weeks into the job The Wife – who shall go nameless – invited me to lunch to celebrate my birthday. It was quite a pleasant meal as we time traveled exploring personal histories and exchanged tales of personal drama. She was a former NY model with a degree in sociology. She was also a gourmet vegetarian cook. It was nice to sit across the table from someone who smiled and whose eyes lit up when they looked at you.

Several days later The Wife called me down from the roof all sweaty and hot, where I’d been installing new shingles. “There’s a leak under the sink cabinet,” she told me. “Take a look.” We both got down on our knees to look at the leak. I couldn’t see it. We both then put our heads inside the cabinet. And then I still didn’t see it, but I sure felt it. Her proximity, her smell, the confined space – suddenly an intense electrical charge went all through my brain and my heart and seemed to energize every cell in my body. Right there on the spot we both created a Kismet Chemistry Story. This was surely a match destined and designed in Heaven.

Exodus, Stage Right

There’s a reason why Exodus 20:17 warns, “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s house, thy neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey.” That guidance has obviously been crafted from hard-won, firsthand experience. But like I said, I was in my late 20s, buff and leathered and testosterone-addled.

The Wife soon got divorced and took up with me. The Husband was not happy. He refused to pay the time and material bills I sent him for the remodel. My relationship with The Wife ended three years later when I came home and caught her en flagrante with a college student whom “she’d been together with in a previous lifetime.” I bumped into the Husband in town shortly after that discovery. “Karma’s a bitch, isn’t it,” was all he would say to me.

And Karma CAN be a nasty devil, of course. But it doesn’t have to be. According to Wikipedia, Karma refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). For Karma to be good, it seems to require that I live with some degree of ethical conduct and impeccable behavior. Apart from how hormones are known to affect ethical conduct, here’s one reason why I think impeccability is a requirement if karma is to be good…

Go Set a Sentinel

A part of my brain pays attention to EVERYTHING I think, everything I say and everything I do. It then saves the important stuff and files it away in our associational cortices. It also makes up stories as it observes me thinking, saying and doing things. What kinds of stories do you think my brain made up after it saw me take up with my neighbor’s wife? Clearly I’m someone who wants to deal in stolen property. Best to let me see what dealing in stolen property is like from all sides, as the dealer and the dealee.

An inside Neuro JobIf creating a dramatic narrative was ALL my brain did with what it observed me saying, thinking and doing, the subsequent stories it made up might be something I could become skillful in working with. However, there’s one additional step my brain takes which exponentially increases the difficulty of that workability – it doesn’t explicitly tell me it’s made up stories based upon my saying, thinking and doing. It mostly operates unconsciously. And how it often shows up in my life is the effect my brain’s buried stories have on … my adrenal glands!

The unconscious narratives the Silent Sentinel in my brain make up in response to what it sees me think, say and do I believe constantly regulates the baseline levels of stress hormones we carry around in our bodies day in and day out. It is these unconscious story-generated stress hormones that decide essentially … what we unconsciously turn towards, and what we unconsciously turn away from. In other words: our karma. If you aren’t real happy with the effects unfolding in your life, begin doing your best to change the causes. Notice what you think, say and do … or don’t think, say or do. Whatever we pay deliberate, ongoing attention to … tends to increase. It’s an inside neuro-job.

And now here’s a morning parting gift certainly worth paying attention to, the latest Enchanted Loom review!

I am sitting at the back of a meditation hall at a children’s camp just north of Malibu in Southern California. It is 9:40 AM, on a warm May morning. Approximately 200 students are here, waiting to hear a dharma talk by a revered Buddhist teacher. This weekend, six hundred people – triple the current number – will flood this small, oceanside arroyo for a Day of Mindfulness.

I have read many of this teacher’s books as they have been published, and I have practiced the meditations. I am at this five-day retreat to gain direct experience of this teacher whose prose and poetry I find inspiring for its clarity, gentleness, and elegant, simple grace. But today, for this talk, the teacher is ten minutes late.

And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen …

Presently the teacher arrives, ushered through a side door by a brown-gowned entourage. As the teacher ascends the small stage at the front of the hall, we all stand and bow, palms together, hands before our faces. After returning our bow, the teacher’s helpers place what looks like a small electronic recording device in one jacket pocket and attach a microphone to the lapel. They repeat the process with the other pocket. Then a third device goes on top of the one in the first pocket and a second microphone is attached back on the first lapel. This twenty-first-century ceremony is performed without a word. Finally, after some additional equipment is adjusted and it is determined that the video camera is operating properly, the presentation is ready to begin. But first, two children who have been sitting at the front of this gathering, girls of nine or ten, are permitted to leave the hall and go outside and play.

Dr. Kathy Speeth

Dr. Kathy Speeth

Throughout these preliminaries, I am practicing two mindfulness exercises. The first, called Evenly Hovering Attention, was taught to me by the daughter of two Gurdjieff students, Dr. Kathleen Riordan Speeth. In this exercise, my head slowly swivels and my eyes survey an arc of approximately two hundred degrees as a I take in the whole panorama around me. The practice is to observe mindfully, as best one can, without judgment. A very difficult practice in fact, for my mind is perpetually distracted. It asks, for example: “Why are those two children here? Why are they now allowed to leave? And why are there only two? Are they the teacher’s?”

The second mindfulness practice is one taught to me by a student of the legendary behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner. I have a loose rubber band around my wrist. From time to time as I feel myself becoming drowsy, I stretch the rubber band with my thumb and forefinger and snap it against my wrist just hard enough to get my own attention.

Violating Expectations

The room is hot on this Wednesday morning. Two hundred people are too many to stuff into this hall – the sign at the front of the room says, “Maximum Capacity: 153” – and our collective body heat is oppressive. This particular dharma talk is to introduce the first of the “Fifty Verses on the Manifestation of Consciousness.” Less than half an hour after the talk begins, I scan the room and find exactly the opposite being manifested. The majority of the people present are either slumped on their chairs, benches or zafus (cushions), chins on their chests and their eyes closed, or else they are staring straight ahead, transfixed in a manner my daughter used to demonstrate at those infrequent times she was allowed to watch TV.

“Do not worry about falling asleep,” the teacher tells us. “Better to fall asleep than to try to use intellect to grasp these teachings.” Immediately, my antennae go up. Wrist-snapping is no longer necessary. I have heard this exact same assertion before: from Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Werner Erhard and Baba Muktananda. From several of these notorious, abusive teachers, these exact same words, in fact.

At a Dharma Discussion later that same evening, I present my experience and my concerns to a panel I assume are this teacher’s Senior Students.

290928_1“During the talk I found myself growing sleepy and I felt as if I was being hypnotized. The room was hot and crowded. And I had to do a lot of work to stay awake. Now, it troubles me to be attending a talk that purports to invite me to manifest consciousness – to wake up, as it were – while in fact I am being put to sleep.”

My concerns are met with the following responses: “Well, you just fell asleep.” “The teacher told you it is better to fall asleep than to try and use your intellect.” “The teachings are very important, but sometimes very difficult for the western mind to understand.” When it starts to become clear that I (and apparently others in the room) am not satisfied with this response, I am reluctantly asked to elaborate on my experience.

“The teacher was talking very slowly, very softly, repetitively, with long pauses in between. From time to time they would sing verses that sounded unintelligible. I could not understand them. It felt like a hypnotic trance induction. Whether you are aware of it or not, these are many of the same elements used to induce a trance state. And it was not just me. When I looked around the room people either had their eyes closed completely, or they were staring straight ahead, glassy-eyed, transfixed and unmoving.”

To this elaboration I receive a single short reply: “Go and talk to Senior Student X. He is a hypnotist. He can tell you all about hypnosis and trance.”

I elect not to talk to Senior Student X. My experience is my experience. My perceptions are my perceptions. They are, in fact, based upon extensive reading, research, discussion, and real-life training. Senior Student X will only confirm my experiences and perceptions or offer me evidence or argument for them being incorrect.

A Molehill Out of a Mountain

So what’s the big deal about one more dry, incomprehensible lecture experience? Who among us hasn’t been put to sleep in some of the finest university lecture halls in America?

This country has a history of well-meaning and genuine spiritual teachers being surrounded by eager American students who soon coalesce into an extensive, dynamic, growing community. Too often, one day members of such communities do wake up, do manage to manifest consciousness – too frequently to a group dynamic and an organizational pattern that they were completely unaware had been abusing and exploiting them – perhaps like the frog who started out in the pot of lovely, cozy, lukewarm water.

The next day I participate in an outdoor walking meditation. I feel like it’s being led by a kind of Pied Piper. As it comes to an end, I can’t help but notice the long, dark shadow that stretches out behind the teacher, a shadow not unlike any participant at this retreat might cast on this sunny day. But on this day, I am particularly curious about only one. It may turn out that this teacher’s shadow awareness is sufficiently clear and integrated that its harmful aspects never become manifest in this dynamic and expanding community. In that case, it could fall upon the senior members of the community to act out this harmful side, in much the same way children frequently act out the shadow of the “Model Parent” in dysfunctional nuclear families. This pattern has been replicated in at least a dozen notable spiritual groups that I can readily recall.

On the back of the pickup truck I drove to this retreat is a bumper sticker. It reads: “Is it best for the children?” It is a verbal template that Alice Walker has suggested be applied by decision-makers in government, schools, businesses and other organizations. Is it best for the children to purport to teach them to manifest consciousness, to pay attention, to wake up, through methods that, inadvertently or deliberately, put them to sleep? I have the same trouble with that approach that the people of Hamelin Town had. It is decidedly NOT best for the children.

Originally published in The Whole Earth Review under the title “My Difficulty with Dharma Talks.”

Earlier this year a friend whom I greatly admire and respect – let’s call him Justin – received notice that his landlord had sold the house he was living in and Justin would have to move out. Surprised by the notice, Justin didn’t have the thousands of dollars he needed to immediately move into a new place, mostly because the landlord refused to return his cleaning and security deposit until after he moved.

I could tell Justin was seriously stressed by this situation and too proud to ask to borrow money from me, so I took the initiative and offered to lend him the amount he needed to relocate. Reluctantly, he agreed to accept my offer and promised to pay me back in full within 45 days.

Well, you can probably guess what happened. The 45 days came and went with no word from Justin. No money, either. Another two weeks passed – still no word. I sent an email asking what was going on? Then a message to his voicemail. Nothing.

Starving My Feedback Loops

Interestingly, while I was certainly concerned about the money, what I was thinking about most was what I knew was happening to Justin’s brain. Not to mention, my own. And it wasn’t pretty. Below is a graphic illustration of how neural networks develop in children. They continue to develop this way as well in adulthood, only much more slowly and with significantly greater complexity. Unless, of course, they don’t, for example when adults stop learning.

Neurons Connecting

What primarily drives the increasing numbers of connections in the brain are feedback loops. And what we know from the attachment literature is that the most powerful feedback loops – the ones that most predictably produce Secure Attachment – are most often the result of Contingent Communication. I’ve written a LOT about this kind of serve-and-return relationship requirement over the years, mostly because of how powerful a network enricher contingent communication actually turns out to be.

Except for when it isn’t. Which is what unpaid debts essentially end up being. People break off contact and the feedback loops stop. It’s not unlike a death. The serve part takes place when the loan is granted, but without the return part – the promised payment actually being made – little growth and connectivity results. Rather, just the opposite happens, in fact – disconnection. Impoverished networks comprised of cells that look more like the first three networks in the illustration above are the often the result when positive, loop-closing feedback fails to follow. It’s one reason prison’s use solitary confinement as punishment (which I have little doubt the Founding Fathers would today consider cruel and unusual punishment. Many in prison have already suffered more than their share of grief and loss).

Neural Impoverishment

Network impoverishment is what happens when money promised doesn’t get repaid. The result is often stress and shame and avoidance on the part of the borrower. It’s not all that great on the lender’s neurophysiology, either (I literally had a pain in my ass for three months as a result of a compressed sciatic nerve). This only adds to the impoverishment of the neural network. And we know how bad that is for the network from the many posts I’ve written about how acute and chronic stress sever the adherence proteins necessary to keep the network from unraveling. But an impoverished network is only one adverse consequence. There are others.

It Actually IS What You Think

One of the great gifts that Jill Bolte Taylor gave us in writing about her stroke and recovery through the eyes of a brain scientist, is her account of how language and implicit memory work hand in hand – mostly how our Silent Witness observes everything we say, think and do and then goes to work to make up a narrative about what it observes. What kind of story do you think Justin’s Silent Witness went to work and made up about him? Let me take a stab at authoring it for you.

Silent Observer“Justin is a guy who owes money and doesn’t pay it back (the Silent Witness is very careful and accurate with pronouns. It prefers the third person, too). Justin’s word can’t be counted upon. Justin doesn’t answer the Big Brain Question for himself or his friends. Justin doesn’t understand the enormous benefit to him of Irrational Commitment or the network-building power of feedback loops.”

The Brain Embodies the Narrative

Each of those thoughts unfortunately, rarely makes its way into full blown consciousness. Defense Mechanisms go to work and keep them under wraps. But they remain alive and unwell, buried in the unconscious, consigned to the depths of implicit memory. Justin’s body, however, is fully aware of the messages, from the stomach to the heart to the adrenal glands. And those kinds of unconscious, implicit actions, thoughts and observations – to the extent that they add to Justin’s allostatic load – all have serious somatic impact. 

How Best to Borrow Money

  1. Make your word your bond. Be extremely careful and discerning about the promises you make.
  2. Agree to a payback schedule that has a 90%+ probability of being met. This is essentially what Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize in Economics for doing with his Grameen Bank. He started people off who had the money networks of a three year old and incrementally grew them into responsible adulthood one small graduated, contingent loan loop at a time..
  3. Consider the promises you make to be like the Irrational Commitments that healthy parents make to their children from before birth – healthy parents will do everything in their power to keep the promises they make to their children. Do likewise with the promises you make to adult children.
  4. If circumstances arise that prevent you from keeping your word – keep the feedback loop operating. Don’t break off communication. Broken feedback loops are as bad as broken promises. Maybe even worse, because of the pains in the ass they correlate with.
  5. Find sterling role models to help you work to become Brilliantly Sane in the handling of your own financial affairs.

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