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I bet you’re sitting there right now wondering how the Number One breakthrough in Neuroscience last year might impact the joy and divinity in your life.

Let’s start here: Many of us have had this experience I’m guessing – we’re driving to or from the office or the grocery store and just as we park the car we realize that we haven’t been aware of anything much in the world around us that we passed along the way. We completely missed the moonwalking gorilla that was dancing with the basketball players; we missed the change of clothes, backdrop and table cloth the card hustlers perped out on the street; and we had absolutely zero awareness of the banana in the mirror disappearing as we sat at a stoplight.

What’s up with that? When did we learn to pay such poor attention to things happening around us in the moment? Well, the good news is that we’re not alone. Neuroenergetic Theory posits that all of us are subject to attention deficit to one degree or another, depending upon things like time of day, what’s going on around us, who we’re interacting with, etc. That’s the good news, and … the first impact the No. 1 Breakthrough might have on your life: we’re not alone in our proclivity for being easily distracted or going unconscious.

The Good Bad News

ClaustrumThe bad news? Well, consider this scenario: you volunteer for an afternoon experiment at your local neuroscience lab. These guys actually did some astonishing research last year. They open up your skull and implant a number of electrodes in different areas of your brain. Then, one by one they fire a few millivolts of electricity into each of those areas. The whole process takes about three hours. When it’s over and you’re all patched up and put back together and ready to be sent home, your question for the team leader is, “Will this experiment take long? I’d like to be home in time for dinner.” In other words, you somehow managed to not be present and accounted for in the least during the whole three hours. Where did you go?

Nowhere, actually. You were right there, wide awake in the lab the whole time. The only difference between your time here in the lab and your time driving to work, is mostly the degree of present-moment awareness, of consciousness. In the lab, the neuroscientists managed to take that awareness all the way down to … zero.

How did they manage to accomplish that? Very simply – one of the electrodes they implanted was placed in your brain’s claustrum.

Which leads to the second impact this finding might have: We are very likely to have endogenous (brain-generated) electrical signals stimulate our own claustrums and make us go completely unconscious for micro-moments throughout any day. And we would often not know it.

Making the Hard Problem Less Hard

But what does zero consciousness have to do with joy and divinity, you might ask. Determining the neuronal basis of subjective experience, cognition, wakefulness, alertness, arousal, and attention – if and where these processes actually live in the brain and body – is generally considered to be “The Hard Problem in Consciousness.” No lesser a mind than Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick’s, co-originator of the double helix model of genetic structure, placed his bet that the seat of consciousness would be found in the claustrum. Rich Club NetworkWhy? Because its anatomy is quite extraordinary in that it has neural fibers that send and receive input back and forth from almost all regions of the cortex. It’s the central connecting hub – the Grand Central Station of the brain. It’s the King of the Rich Clubs.

But notice something about such networks like the ones on the left: once the nodes are well-integrated and mostly connected, it only takes one crucial connection – the horizontal one that connects the blue nodes – to turn a non-rich-club network into a Rich One.

So, here’s the 3rd impact last year’s research finding might have on your life – because of the way networks operate, each new connection increases the potential – much like the old Christmas tree lights where, once you find the blown or missing bulb and insert the necessary new one, the whole string lights up – a single, crucial Rich Club neural connection could set your whole network ablaze. And when that has happened historically, my intuitive sense is that human saints were the result.

Does that crucial connection have to take place in the claustrum? Perhaps. But again, my intuitive hunch – with little evidence-based research to support it – is that such a crucial connection has to take place in the physical neural fibers residing in the 10th cranial nerve – the vagus nerve. And my hypothesis is that node connection has to involve the physical wiring between the brain and the heart. And when it does, I suspect we no longer have any trouble paying exquisite, joyful, divinely focused attention. Simply think about the last time you fell in love.

“If there’s no sense of rejoicing

and magical practice,

you find yourself simply

driving into the high wall of insanity.”

~ Chogyam Trungpa

“Sanity rarely sounds an alarm.” ~ Mark Brady

In my mid-30s I voluntarily committed myself into a mental hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. I was there for two months receiving treatment for “Extreme Grief Reaction.” The thing that was most scary to me (besides the freedom granted obvious psychopaths to roam the halls unmedicated and unsupervised at 3AM) was the difficulty I had making clear distinctions between the patients and staff. Too often, the doctors and nurses seemed as loose in the marbles department as the patients.

When I was released from that hospital, I had the good fortune to find a paying job almost immediately – working as a staff member in another mental hospital! In the span of a single day I went from being a patient to being a staff member. Needless to say, this added further evidence to my growing Wariness Hypothesis. As you might expect, my relationships on the job at the new hospital never grew especially strong. I just couldn’t relate very well to staff members who proclaimed things like, “I can’t really trust you until I make you angry with me,” or “In order to become healthy, you should join me for chanting at 4AM every morning. We all bow and kiss the feet of Baba (Muktananda).”

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

My job at this Hospital was Work Program Coordinator and Social Director. I was responsible for evening and weekend social activities for the patients. Or, as one patient pointed out to me – I was in charge of “forced fun.” MarkowWhich may have been true from their perspective, but from mine, it was real fun – I got to take trips anywhere I wanted to so long as I brought a few patients with me. Here’s a picture a patient took of me early one morning out in a barn on a Rudolf Steiner Biodynamic Farm. I also took them to first-run movies, museums and the Peter Paul Candy Company, makers of Mounds Bars and Almond Joys (I was curious to find out how they got the chocolate to cover the bottom of those candies, since in the commercials, all you ever saw was chocolate pouring all over the top of a coconut patty; Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t!).

That Peter Paul candy jingle pretty much summarizes my first-hand experience with mental health – sometimes I’m much more mentally healthy than I am at others. Up to that point no one had ever really explained to me what mental health actually was; but I had a LOT of direct experience knowing what it wasn’t. I could deliver personal, direct accounts of many conditions described in the DSM. It wasn’t until the mid-oughts that I heard Dan Siegel offer the first definition of the mind and what a mentally healthy mind actually might be: “The mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information in the body and brain, and between bodies and brains.” That seems to match my experience if I want to think in terms of energy and information theory.

But A Mind is a Sketchy Thing to Trust

While there’s no foolproof test for making a dead-certain accurate sanity assessment, I will argue here that most of us are out of our minds more often than not. And that we don’t often recognize when we are – not only does sanity rarely sound an alarm, but insanity mostly reports its presence after the fact. French mathematician, Blaise Pascal would very likely wager that we’re better off operating under the assumption that temporary insanity is our predominant default mode and work forward from there.

Below are 7 reasons in support of this argument. I could easily have come up with seven thousand, I suspect, perhaps starting with all the known cognitive biases. But before you look at them, consider:

  1. junk-food-puzzle-1 200 million people in this country obviously go temporarily insane every day. How? Their brain makes an “executive” motor decision to have their hands put bad medicine in their mouths (in the form of too much unhealthy, fake food).
  2. We elect political representatives who rarely, truly represent us. And we do it decade after decade after decade.
  3. We deny global warming and then, when hurricanes, tornadoes and floods destroy our homes and businesses, we rebuild them in the very same place.
  4. We discover that a preponderance of the cells in our brain are dedicated to physical movement. Then we sit still while teachers and school admins systematically do away with recess and physical education in our public schools.
  5. We operate daily giving little thought to living with the “end in mind.” While death denial is understandable for brains tasked primarily with doing everything they can to keep us alive, we may be more sanely serving ourselves if we actually give greater deliberate thought to our dying. We might start with The Nine Contemplations of Atisha.
  6. Many of us want to be rich and only have to work on what we want when we want with whom we want, but how many of us actually meet, learn about, hang out with and/or study with people who have actually accomplished that goal?
  7. We unfailingly believe what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell when the evidence is overwhelming that our brains only consciously process tiny increments of sensory input.

P.S. The Judge’s Votes in the Creative Book ReTitling Crowdsourcing Experiment are in. You can view the results: HERE. Many thanks to all who gave time and energy to the effort.

How about if you read them over and decide for yourself? You can probably guess what I think. Let us know what you think and why in the comments section below. I let you know some of what I think in response.

A Brain-Sourced 10 Commandments

1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter the beliefs your brain generates with new evidence.

2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what your brain wishes to be true.A- Moses

3. The scientific method is the most reliable way for your brain to understand the natural world.

4. Every person has the right to control of their mind, body and brain.

5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to use your brain to live a full and meaningful life.

6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them, even though, very often, your malfunctioning brain made you do it.

7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Use the Theory of Mind function in your brain to think about their perspective.

8. We have the responsibility to consider others and their brains, including future generations.

9. There is no one brain-based right way to live.

A Twinky Moses10. Leave the world and the sentient beings in it, along with their brains, better than you found them.

Adapted with thanks from: http://bit.ly/1tksnLs (And a tip of the TPJ to Carl Haefling for the heads up).

P.S. Last call for the few remaining spaces to find out what Leonardo DaVinci’s and Thomas Edison’s brain have to do with weight management. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain! A Winking-Smiley-face

Click HERE for the details.

Greetings as this year winds down. I thought I would end it with another one of my blog presentation experiments. Brain WeirdOnly instead of a Vimeo with audio and video, this time I thought I would just make the case in a dozen illustrative pictures. Theoretically they should be equivalent to 10000 words or 11 blog posts. Feel free to weigh in with an opinion.

Here’s the Link:

10 Diabolical Ways Your Brain is a Devious Genius at Deluding You

If you want a copy of the slides, I’m happy to send them. Email me: floweringbrain@gmail.com

PS. If you want to see how your own kick-butt, crowd-funding campaign might look, check out my good fun friend Joanna’s $1MM Indiegogo request. Does her commitment and passion shine through, or what? We Are Powerful. If you can, send her some Holiday Cheer.

In my early 30s, one way I would bestud my social circle with manageable testosterone was to be part of a monthly poker group made up mostly of doctors, lawyers and psychologists. Each month 8-10 of us would get together and eat, drink beer, cuss, play cards and smoke the occasional cigar. None of us were particularly skilled at poker; we mostly got together to socialize, tell off-color jokes and assorted lies and just relax and have fun. Guy fun. Except for one of us. Let’s call him … Cade.

In his professional life Cade was a “Special Master.” A Special Master is a licensed psychologist the courts appoint to provide independent, unbiased assessments, mostly about what should happen with the kids in any divorce. One thing I remember clearly about Cade is having the frequent thought, “Boy, I sure would hate to have him in the middle of my divorce.”

poker-faceI thought a lot of worse things about him after he’d had a few beers. Cade, it turned out was super-competitive. Testos- terone does that to some people. A few beers made it much worse. Mix money into the scrim, and things could get out of control pretty quickly. Which they did one night when Cade was on the losing end of a “bad beat” in our poker game. He ended up flipping the table upside down, sending chips, cards and drinks all over the other players and my living-room carpet.

That should have been clue enough for me to begin severing my ties with Cade. But I don’t quit people easily. Here’s what it actually took to make me finally perform a brain-saving “jackassectomy.”

The Icing of the Shooter

I used to be a big fan of college basketball (I once wrote a novel – The Icing of the Shooter about grief and basketball; it surprised me by winning the Jack London Prize that year!). One year Stanford ended up having their first championship season in more than half a century – they survived to play the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Final Four Tournament in San Antonio, Texas.

Final-FourA week before they were scheduled to play, Cade called me up and asked if I was interested in flying down to Texas with him. Though I was, the expense and the time I would have to take off work seemed to suggest against it. But Cade had struck out five times prior trying to find someone to go with him before he called me, so he was willing to sweeten the pot.

“Tell you what,” he offered. “I have four tickets. I’ll give you one; we’ll sell the other two, take the proceeds and I’ll split them with you to cover your expenses and lost work time.”

This sounded like an offer too good to be true! So, I agreed to go. But then, as if Stanford’s heartbreaking semi-final loss to Kentucky 86-85 in overtime wasn’t enough, when we got back to Palo Alto, Cade made no mention of the money he promised to divvy up. Finally, on the drive home from the San Jose airport, I asked him for it.

“I never promised that,” he answered. “I don’t know where you got that idea.”

Well, I had no confusion about where I got that idea. And also in that moment I also had no confusion about the Jackassectomy I needed to perform on Cade. I haven’t seen him or spoken to him since.

The Toxic Five

The people in our lives who fall into the Toxic Sphere can generally be found in one of five categories: Bullies, Needers, Takers, Narcissists and Sociopaths (I’m leaving psychopaths off the list, since most of us don’t usually have them dancing around in our social circle for very long). psychopathThese people can seriously elevate stress hormones to neural-impoverishing levels.

Most of these categories are probably familiar and don’t need much descrip- tion. What might help with the jackassectomy decision though – since very often toxicity is mostly a matter of degree – is to enlist a couple of allies to help us with our discernment process. Some very astute allies – our body and brain.

Mark Goulston, a neuropsychiatrist and author of the book, Just Listen!, suggests paying attention to “The Wince Factor” as we consider whether a Jackassectomy is in order. He provides a Wince Factor Scale to help with that. I’ve modified one question to reflect some of my own bias.

Here it is:

The Wince Factor Scale

(Rate the person in question on a 1-3 scale; 1= not at all; 2 = sometimes; 3 = almost always)

Does the person whine?

Does the person complain?

Does the person come off like a victim?

Does the person seem to be saying, “Feel sorry for me?”

Does the person make repeated promises they don’t keep?

Does the person cry or act deeply hurt when something doesn’t go their way?

Does the person attempt to make you feel guilty?

Does the person seem like a bottomless pit?

Do you want to avoid the person?

Does your stomach knot up when you get a phone call or email from that person?

Do you feel like yelling at that person, “Shape up!”?

Do you feel guilty because you find yourself rooting against that person?

Scoring:

12 or under: this person is pretty low maintenance and worth working with to improve things;

13-24: medium maintenance; do you want to invest the time and energy to make things better?;

25-36: high maintenance; perform the Jackassectomy before this person sucks the life out of you.

The time you spend with them has great opportunity cost and violates The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience.

Many years ago I did a home remodeling project for Marilyn Ferguson, the author of a popular best-seller at the time, The Aquarian Conspiracy. Hanging out in the energy field of this “one-woman movement for hope” I learned a lot of things, mostly through observation and osmosis. For example, I learned the power of exciting ideas from her monthly newsletter, The Brain Mind Bulletin (I’m surprised at how early I was interested in the brain!). I also saw how grace handled pressure (until it didn’t – Marilyn died of a sudden heart attack at age 70 in 2008). I learned a lot of things from Marilyn, like, that I didn’t have to be a misanthropic, social isolate, which I mostly was; that my own childhood trauma wasn’t personal; that I could use it as fertilizer for my own brain’s flowering. But the most memorable thing I learned from Marilyn was … “all of us together are wiser than any one of us alone.”

Honoring Wisdom

Recently, as I pondered how I might make useful use of the collective wisdom of so many people who subscribe to this weekly blog, an idea came to me: A Creativity Sweepstakes. Here’s how it will work. Over the last 7-10 years I have seen a number of the ideas I’ve researched and presented here on this blog slowly filter their way into the mainstream. Two examples are the handful of states recently passing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) legislation and two cities (Beach Cities, CA & Albert Lea, MN) and one state (Iowa) becoming Blue Zone communities. Then, of course, there’s the work of the Sanctuary Institute.

I’d like to see if I can continue to help things move in that direction at the level of parenting and individual child-rearing. Toward that end I have a book that I think can help that isn’t meeting with very strong public reception. I personally find the content quite compelling, but people don’t seem to resonate with the title very much:How Parents Screw us up FRONT COVER Final 020112

$100 to the Winner

So, here’s how the Sweepstakes will work:

1. Fill out the form below and I’ll send you a digital copy of How Parents Screw Us Up (without really meaning to).

2. Read enough of it to gain a sense for what might make an outrageously compelling title and subtitle. Feel free to enlist the help of your creative friends as well; in other words, crowdsource the crowdsourcerer.

3. Email as many new titles as you can come up with to me at: crowdsourcingcreativity@gmail.com

4. I’ll pick one and announce a winner when I post my first blog in the new year – January 4th, 2015. The winning title and subtitle together will receive $100.

Having a strong purpose in life is considered to be one of the six core elements of psychological well-being (the other five are autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships, and self-acceptance). Having a life purpose means I can describe specific goals and objectives that give me a sense of direction and meaning. It means I have one or more juicy reasons to get up every morning. Here are six ways that juice-flow benefits my brain …

1. It takes me away from my own old, repetitive story.

We only need to look into our own lives to recognize that our brain works 24/7 to insure our survival. It does that mostly by paying extra attention when stress hormones signal real or imagined threat, mostly through the process of neuroception. From there it goes and confabulates and dramatizes stories about all the potential threats that exist in our daily environment, eventually using those stories to significantly circumscribe and limit possibilities in our world. Getting over ourselves, i.e. letting go of our own stories and instead focusing our cognitive and emotional energies on accomplishing some kind of social good is a wonderful use for our neural networks, as research has repeatedly proven.

2. It reduces the risks of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

Comparing senior study participants who developed Alzheimer’s Disease with a group who didn’t develop the disease, Patricia Boyle at Rush Medical Center in Chigago discovered that those without a life purpose were twice as likely to come down with it. Life purpose, of course, must be adjusted to our ever-changing neuro-physiological capacities. But we have little idea about what the upper limits of those capacities might be. Here is a collection of people who began to fully flower in their “sunset” years: Late Bloomers. Feel free to follow in any of their neural traces.

3. It strengthens neuro-cognitive reserves.

NeuroenergeticsNeuroenergetic Theory proposes that using the brain makes it tired. There’s a sequence of energy deployment our brain cells go through that increasingly reduces its stores. Here’s how Drake Baer at Salon.com describes it:

If we grossly simplify the (neuroenergetic) process, it looks like this:

Your brain is like a super–excited third–grade classroom: The star student––that is, whatever you’re trying to focus on––will get most of your attention. And if the star student got enough to eat and enough rest, it can be called on periodically throughout the day. If not, other excitable parts of your brain will get your attention. Then your mind will start to wander.

Once fully depleted, those brain cells are taken “off the grid” until the energy can be replenished. Think of how rechargeable batteries work. Neurons work very similarly. As our cells’ energy stores become depleted when we focus on a particular task, neurons with fuller reserves are more easily able to fire action potentials and steal our attention away. This is believed to be the neural process which results in ADHD. Being involved with other people in something of significant social purpose strengthens those reserves. The larger social purpose can serve as a meta-awareness, focusing factor.

4. It will help you perform better on tests that assess brain fitness.

Michelle Carlson at John Hopkins university enrolled one group of women in the Experience Corp and wait-listed a control group for a year. The women were trained to tutor young children in reading and math. When the experiment was complete, I suspect you can already guess the results. You’re right: “We found that participating in Experience Corps resulted in improvements in cognitive functioning and this was associated with significant changes in brain activation patterns,” Carlson said. “Essentially the intervention improved brain and cognitive function in these older adults.” Caring for others in ways that don’t overstress us, provides a win-win all the way around.

5. It enhances brain plasticity.

brain-plasticityOne primary way a life of social purpose enhances brain plasticity is by forcing us to immerse ourselves in ever-changing enriched environments. Because the brain is designed to actively respond to novelty and external enriched environments, it is forced to grow new cells and those cells are forced to make new connections. The wisdom teaching to “become once again as little children” is essentially inviting us to use our brain and our other sensory organs to walk through the world with a Beginner’s Mind – to take the “Pre-School Perspective.” Neural plasticity and enrichment will be the result.

6. It promotes eudaimonic well-being.

One provocative study published last year points to a possible biological effect: It showed that eudaimonic well-being – which results from being virtuous – is associated with decreased expression of various stress-related genes in human immune cells, whereas hedonic well-being had the opposite effect.There’s nothing either morally good or bad in hedonic versus eudaimonic; it’s simply a description of two different degrees of brain development, one of which appears to be better for our health.

Ralph Waldo Emerson may have been onto something, then, when he said: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” Hear. Hear.

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