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Fierce Listening Grandmothers are Better Than Psychiatrists

“Dixon Chibanda is one of a total of 12 psychiatrists in Zimbabwe — for a population of more than 16 million. Realizing that his country would never be able to scale traditional methods of treating those with mental health issues, Chibanda helped to develop a beautiful solution powered by a limitless resource: grandmothers. In this extraordinary, inspirational talk, learn more about The Friendship Bench program, which trains grandmothers in evidence-based talk therapy and brings care, and hope, to those in need.”

Remembering Marshall

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Dr. Marshall Rosenberg

I can probably count on one hand men I have the utmost respect and appreciation for. Marshall Rosenberg, the originator of NVC – Non-Violent Communication is one of them. He died at age 81 in 2015. He would not be surprised to see the turn to the Dark Side our country has taken although he was adamantly opposed to Domination Cultures like our current president is promoting around the globe. Marshall was generous and accessible and kind enough to contribute a chapter to one of my books. He is missed and fondly remembered on his recent birthday.

Are You Listening? Hearing: Our First Sense to Develop

Turns out the Mozart Effect may be real after all. Neuroscientists at the University of Maryland observed sound-induced nerve impulses in subplate neurons, which help guide the formation of neural circuits in the same way that a scaffolding helps a construction crew erect a new building. Very early in brain development, sound becomes an important sense. It appears that the neurons that respond to sound play a role in the early functional organization of the cortex. This is a new and exciting discovery.

Miles Davis is Not Mozart

Miles Davis

Miles Davis

A musician’s brain is different than that of a non-musician. Making music requires a complex interplay of various abilities which are also reflected in more strongly developed brain structures. Scientists have recently discovered that these capabilities are embedded in a much more finely-tuned way than previously assumed—and even differ depending on the style of the music: They observed that the brain activity of jazz pianists differs from those of classical pianists, even when playing the same piece of music. This could give insight into the processes which generally take place while making music and which are specific for certain styles.

Emotionally Enhanced Vividness

It totally blew my mind when I learned just how little of the world around me my senses take in consciously (roughly 2%). The role that the ADRA2b gene plays in the ebb and flow of the brain’s norepinephrine neurotransmitters is equally mind-blowing in my estimation. Especially when you consider that brain cells are plastic and transformable and Emotionally Enhanced Vivedness – once you understand what it is – could probably be cultivated with practice.

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I have a number of friends who are clinical psychologists. Any number of them tell me that for the most part, their clients don’t change until the pain of continuing to live their lives in the manner they have been, becomes greater than the pain of risking change.

Butterfinger-Cheesecake-Bars2-1024x682.jpgFrom a neurobiological perspective this makes perfect sense. Few of the pains that life brings us are constant. For example, I suffer many of the stereotypical pains of aging – achy joints, dry and wrinkly skin, bad teeth, bad hair, declining vision and hearing. Many of my conditions are undeniably associated with poor eating habits. But the pleasure I get from a short stack of butterfinger cookiedough cheesecake bars or a plate of blueberry streusel bars with lemon creme filling far outweighs any suffering that will unquestionably ensue. One of the vulnerabilities of my neurobiology is that it “future discounts.” Giving much more weight to feeling good now and worrying about the future later is currently a limitation of my brain. But not just mine. This functional limitation is a major contributor to morbidity and mortality the whole world over. Because I am consistently able to find recurring, intermittent, immediate small pleasures, life keeps on being worth living. Even though I know it’s not optimal in the long run. The piper must be paid. Or, as Buddha might say, “Because of this, that.”

Stop the Music; Time to Get Off

Piper payment seems to be upon me; the merry-go-round music appears to be stopping. To date I have now had hives for nearly four months. Their itchiness is interrupting my sleep and making it difficult to interact with people without constantly scratching my belly, my back and my butt. I am sure that, at least in part, it’s diet-related. It’s also stress-related, which is also diet-related. And vice versa. Pleasurable foods are a great nervous system regulator for me. They make me feel good, rather than anxious. In the short term; there’s that pesky future discounting again.

But a great remedy for what ails me can be found in an old Sufi Tale called, The Increasing of Necessity. Essentially, the protagonist agrees to fulfill a commitment with the penalty for failing being forfeiture of his own life. The good news is that we can arrange things in our lives so that our necessity is increased, but not necessarily to the point of our life ending. A recent example might serve to illustrate.

Weight, Weight, Don’t Weigh Me

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Last year I agreed to reprise a course I offered in The Neurobiology of Weight Loss at our local medical school. In advance of the first course I managed to get my weight down to 212 pounds. For this second offering, it would be hypotcritical and make me a less-than-credible exemplar if I was to show up for the course (in my own mind, at least) weighing more than I did for the first offering. With my necessity sufficiently increased, I mindfully engaged in the activities and behaviors I needed to in order to be true to the claims I was making in the course. On the day of the course I managed to show up for the class weighing 206 pounds (As you might guess, a year later I’ve backslid somewhat, but I’ve now recruited a small army to help me return to “playing weight”). The central message of the course is: 1. Struggling with weight management is not a moral issue- it’s a neurobiological vulnerability; and 2. Successfully managing weight for many of us is an enormously complex, Wicked Problem. I am also an exemplar for those perspectives.

Increasing Necessity in Small Amounts

So, the good news is we don’t have to increase the pain or necessity to the point of sacrificing our life. We can do it in small, but effective ways. For example, we can enlist one or more “accountability partners” to hold us responsible for any growth and changes we want to make in our lives (this is sort of like the role Bakhtiar’s wife played in the Sufi story). We can make solemn promises to people who trust us. We can learn about many of the ways the structural vulnerabilities of our own brain work and come up with creative ways to turn them into “Antifragility Drivers.” Cognitive Biases (like “future discounting” already mentioned, and “confirmation bias” are a few of those structural neural vulnerabilities. Here’s a codex that shows more than 200 of them! Click several times to enlarge it). Realize none of us are at fault; we’re all doing the best we can.

Finally, we can embark upon a life course intended to make us increasingly open to the possibility of seeing and hearing and understanding the story of the story of the story of the Unseen World. That world might be found in this creative compilation I’ve put together.

This Week’s Neuro-Fiver

Your Brain Reveals Who Your Friends Are

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Well, now we have the neuroscience to prove it. Or, the reverse of it. By looking at your brain, we can tell what your friends are like, on average. Might it be time for your friends to think about expanding their circle?

The New Science of Daydreaming

A DaydreamerNot every prisoner placed in solitary confinement loves being alone with their Wild Mind. Unless they’ve had training, or come upon possibilities serendipitously, it’s not easy to choose peace over madness, consolation over despair, and turn isolation into solitude. Which is what Dr. Edith Bone had to do over 7 years and 58 days of imprisonment during the Hungarian Revolution. She managed to perfect the process of daydreaming and her brain was infinitely better for it. As our own can be, and we don’t have to be sent to prison in order to grow our own robust daydreaming circuitry.

How Our Brain’s Default Mode Network Thinks Us Up

Most of us spend a good part of every day daydreaming. We exert little effort to direct and inquire deeply into the people, places and things present before us. But it’s not something we have to be affected by forever. In this lengthy piece, neuro-philosopher Thomas Metzinger explores what happens when the Default Mode Network has its way with us, and what we can do to begin to shift the balance of control.

Let a Human Uber Live Your Life

A Human UberWeird, but I have little doubt this is a coming reality. Why? Because it’s a great way to go out into the world and not have to worry about regulating your body’s stress hormones. It might be somewhat challenging for your Uberganger though, but that’s what you’ll be paying him or her the big bucks for!

Can Your Brain Testify Against You?

Currently defendants in a number of criminal legal cases have brought neuroscience to bear as a reasonable defense to explain and justify their criminal behavior. This article explores the ethical implications for the use of neuroscience to establish guilt by state and federal prosecutors. What do you think? Should both sides have equal access? Should the rights of the individual to privacy, due process and protection from self-incrimination supercede the rights of the community to be protected from anti-social acts resulting from verifiable dysfunctional neurobiology?

Human Brains: Journey to Resilience

This little animated film by the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (oh, those Canadians!) offers compelling support for my constant claim that “healing is always trying to happen.” They pack a great amount of recent brain science research into 7 minutes in a way that is both memorable and entertaining. I rate it 5 HBs (Healthy Brains):

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Know Thyself: Well-Being and Subjective Experience

Consciousness research in neuroscience posits the basic idea that the brain has a variety of specialized processing modules that operate non-consciously, and that consciousness occurs when information they provide is captured by attention and brought into neural circuits that support higher-cortical functions.

This article by one of my favorite threat-circuitry brain researchers, Joseph LeDoux, suggests that successful mental health treatment might require us to view mental afflictions as arising “from a federation of systems that generate different symptoms and require different approaches….Although the involved systems have fundamentally different functions, they are highly interactive, and each must be addressed.”

Bedtime To-Do Lists Enhance Sleep

Some 40% of Americans had difficulty falling asleep last month. I was one of them. This study is interesting because it suggests a simple hack: offload worry using pen and paper. Chalkboard-To-Do-List.pngSince most of the things we tend to worry about often pose a threat of some sort, writing them down assures our nervous system that we won’t forget them. Unless, of course, we forget to look at the To-Do List. Better then, would be to set a phone alert for the morning to remind us to look at the list. 😉

This Is Your Brain Outdoors

Since brains are designed and intended to operate in whatever environments they find themselves in, it has long been clear to me that the findings from “controlled laboratory studies” are mostly only relevant in … controlled laboratories. Which is not where most of us live our lives. This study takes a look at a human brain operating out in the real world. Guess what: it operates differently than in a controlled laboratory.

The Science of Perfect Timing

In this RSA video, Dan Pink cites study after study, often involving Big Data, that underscores the wisdom teaching that “to everything, there is a season.” In this talk he mostly focuses on the “seasons” of a single day. Lots of interesting takeaways: don’t spend time with doctors in the afternoon, plan your daily activities according to whether you’re an Owl or a Lark, there’s an optimal, personal timing sequence to peak performance.

Actually, I couldn’t help myself this week. Call it a lack of discipline – I’m including SIX articles I found pretty compelling below …

Should a President Have to Murder an Innocent Aide in Order to Authorize a Nuclear Strike?

While this may seem like a deterrent for many people, most of us will never have to make such a decision. imrs.php.jpgFrom a neuroscience perspective I can pretty much tell you that a human brain that makes a decision to murder 100s of thousands of innocent people is not a human brain operating sanely no matter in what person, in what country that brain resides. The question then becomes what response(s) should happen in the wake of such an insane act? How best might an attacked nation respond to such insanity if the best response is one that will ideally return the world to a state of safety for all the world’s citizens?

The Moral Brain

Making moral decisions seems to require a robust network of integrated mirror neurons in the human brain. This is a part of the brain that trauma, ACEs and aging adversely affects in my personal experience. I’d love to see some research designed to determine if my perspective is accurate. This study lays the foundation for beginning the investigation.

Peeking Inside the Brains of Power People

The brains of people who hold power are wired up differently than those of us who hold little. And those differences are telling. Their empathy circuitry tends to be compromised, that’s one difference. Their circuitry tends to make them less generous with others. There are antidotes to these downsides of power, however. Read the article and learn a few.

The Science of Your Racist Brain

Few of the people reading this blog I would guess would not openly admit to being racist. I would, though. planet-apes-caesar.jpgBut not deliberately. Unconsciously. Because I know how brains respond to real or imagined threat, I know I carry around “implicit” prejudice – my own unique subconscious biases, which can easily be evidenced in controlled psychology experiments. Here’s the research that provides a glimpse into why people who look different than we do activate our threat-detection circuitry whether we want them to or not.

Psychology’s Power Tools

Many of the principles and phrases that psychologists learn and use function primarily to stabilize emotional under-arousal or over-arousal. One such principle is that social support beneficially alters how we perceive the demands of the physical world. Reliable social support can positively impact our complete sensory experience of the world around us. “Caring others” can often work to help us see, hear, taste, touch and smell better together than we are able to by ourselves.

6 Traits of Super Smart People

Naturally, I’m on fully board with Trait No. 6. What most people don’t know about that Trait could fill a book. And actually, it has; six books, in fact. 😉 And remember – if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room!

From the time our brain begins forming in utero, it begins orchestrating a great neural symphony. Those first activities are primarily driven by our genetic inheritance, as enzymes and signalling proteins begin contingently communicating commands, instructions and directions to cell after cell, telling them what form to take, what route to travel to get to which location in the brain and what other cells to form connections with. It’s an astonishing, unparalleled performance, elements of which, continue throughout our whole lifetime.

Brain Developing

Most all of the connections my brain makes are performed in service to insure my body’s survival. And in order to accomplish that effectively, my brain has to pay extra attention to real or potential threats that show up in my daily environment. So, for example, if my mother becomes excessively stressed while she’s pregnant with me, her HPA Axis will begin flooding her system with stress hormones to help her deal with whatever is showing up as a threat in her world. At the same time, my own developing brain will be impacted by that stress and will begin making brain connections and generating its own stress hormones in response to my mother’s stress, even though I may be in very little actual real danger in the moment. My mother may have simply received an emotionally disturbing email.

Regardless, my little in utero brain has now made an associative connection in response to my mother’s stress. These kind of stress-generated neural connections will be made over and over again millions and millions of times in my life. In behavioral psychology, the positive or negative associations and connections our brain makes results in operant conditioning. Those associations and connections are absolutely needed to insure my survival. Or so the design, structure and function of my brain would have me believe.

Lifelong Stress-Rebalancing Act

To begin to step outside of what our brain would have us believe, we can add creativity to karma. We can begin to set about cultivating a radical willingness to see what’s actually happening in any present moment – our brain is most often generating a narrative – making stuff up in an attempt to make sense of feelings arising in our body that we have forever associated with threats to our survival, most often outside our conscious awareness.

If it’s me actually receiving that poopy email and not my mother, by simply beginning to pay close attention to what’s happening in my body in response to the email I’ve just received, I can begin to “unlearn” – basically disrupt and unravel the connections formed by earlier conditioning (early neural connections formed in response to stressful events). When we recognize that in almost every moment of our lives no real threat to our survival is present, we stop time-traveling in our mind. We stop making up fearful stories about the future and we stop recalling painful stories about the past. This growing awareness starts us on the road to real wisdom. All that’s left then is … practice, practice, practice.

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Ripe Fruit for the Juicer

Practice Make Different

When we take up such practice, my recently departed friend and colleague, Kathleen Singh reminds us: “Such creativity, capable of altering the direction of blind karmic habits, is evidence of grace’s evolutionary impetus toward ever-deepening realizations. Relentlessly inquiring into such karmic patterning can free attention from its habituated orbit, just as an electron with a quick infusion of energy, can break free from an atom. Wisdom – clear seeing – provides the energy needed to make the quantum leap.”

One useful aim is to pay increasing attention to when stress hormone imbalances raise feelings of aversion – the impulse to turn away from something that makes us uncomfortable. It could be a video depicting violence, a pet in pain, a homeless person on the street we avoid making eye contact with. But our practice needn’t start with big stressors. It need not involve monumental change. It can be small things done mindfully in creative ways that have little to do with threat or stress. Brushing our teeth with a non-preferred hand. Backing the car into the driveway the next time we come home instead of pulling in front first. Initiating a conversation if we generally wait for others to initiate. Listening instead of speaking (here’s a list of 52 other possibilities). Anything that changes things up and makes a positive difference in our lives and the lives of others that we might not ordinarily undertake is ripe fruit for the juicer. Juice on.

Okay, here are 5 places this week’s brain train has taken me. Possibly a bit off-track …

Cognitive Astrobiology

Well, finally scientists have moved beyond the self-centered notion that humans on earth are the only possible place for “advanced” life forms in the universe. To that end, there is now a field of study one can take up – cognitive astrobiology. rigellian.pngIt essentially invites us to consider what forms alien life might actually take, given a wide combination of star system possibilities; and then how humans might actually go about communicating with such life forms. Some of you may already personally know a few aliens and you can probably testify to just how difficult communicating clearly with them frequently is.

Noticing, But Failing to See

Having been the victim of this brain vulnerability – a woman turned left right in front of me years ago while I was riding my motorcycle – I found it particularly interesting. I also found the phenomenon something to be acutely aware of and important to monitor in myself, lest I end up being the inattentionally blind person responsible for others’ injury and suffering.

Sleight of Hand Shows Limits of Perception

One of my longtime interests is how magicians take advantage of our brain’s significantly limited capacities when it comes to consciously processing sensory energy and information. In this brief demonstration of close-up card magic, astonishing Spanish magician Javi Benitez makes it more than obvious that seeing in no way should ever be sufficient to confirm believing.

Intelligence and Neural Connections

IQ-homer.jpgThe researchers in this area could use a few more neural connections themselves. A sufficient number that would take them beyond simply identifying the experimental correlations, but to come up with creative procedures for actually increasing those connections. I’m happy to give them a hint: begin early in childhood with safe exposure to lots of stimulating, contingent learning activities while keeping the body in coherent motion. Feel free to begin experimenting prenatally. In utero mixed martial arts – I’d like to see it become a Thing.

The Elusive Backfire Effect

It’s hard to change people’s opinions once they’ve come to believe a fact or taken a position. Or so we used to think. It turns out that even that belief is not necessarily true, and I may want to consider changing my beliefs about it. You may want to as well after you read this recent research.

Journeying Down the Erotic Road Less Traveled By

Given all the sex abuse scandals in the news these days, I thought it might be useful to re-post this blog I wrote 6 years ago. What’s missing from a lot of the media coverage are the unconscious orchestrations – the body’s and brain’s impulses toward healing taking place in BOTH participants. What were the relationship dynamics before the abuse happened? In what context did the abuse take place? What unconscious processes were driving BOTH participants? My guess is that very little healing happens in response to most of the abuse or in the events that unfold in the aftermath. (Blog Note: Tori and I are still friends).