Posts Tagged ‘Allan Schore’

I wasn’t really looking for wonderment and surprise when I stumbled onto brain science. Mostly I expected I might occasionally come across an intriguing fact or two that would hustle me up against the short end of the believability spectrum – some wild neuroscientist or other making a deep, left-field declaration that I can’t quite fathom.

And they don’t disappoint. Instead they send me scurrying around the Internet or over to the library looking for “further confirmation” – actually more often looking for dis-confirmation.

The fact that a piece of brain tissue the size of a single sugar grain contains 100,000 neurons making nearly a billion connections was one such you’ve-got-to-be-kidding claim that turns out to be true, pretty much. Depends on what part of the brain the tissue is taken from. My wonderment: how can we even begin to accurately study something so infinitesimal?

Darkness, Darkness, Be My Pillow

Freud UnconsciousAnother similar hard-to-believe claim that seems to be true is University of Virginia’s Timothy Wilson’s assertion that 99% of what our brains apprehend in any moment, we grok below the threshold of conscious awareness. Isn’t that astonishing as well as terrifying? What are the implications for a long and happy life if we’re all spending only 1% of it awake? Might the world be better off if more of us spent even more time deeply asleep? We’d produce a lot less procreation, consumption and hydrogen sulfide (Did I mention that we already spend up to 2 hours a day functionally blind? Every time we turn our head, our eyes stop seeing – our brain simply fills in the space between the stop and start of the head turn!).

Next, John Medina’s Brain Rule No. 4 – that healthy brains have a hard time concentrating on a continuous activity for much more than 10 minutes – was a great relief for me to discover. It made it clear that it wasn’t me or ADHD that sent my body fleeing from the boredom of more high school and college classrooms than I care to remember – it was my healthy brain’s natural response to ignorant teaching methods! Big sigh of relief there.

Re-build Foundations Under Castles in the Air

One more claim I found quite compelling was Allan Schore’s assertion that because of the nature of the brain’s early architecture, the developing right hemisphere by necessity becomes the default repository for neuron assemblies retaining and storing traumatic memories. That fact has a lot of implications for any number of human arenas, especially creativity. It would be great though, if Allan would team up with a popular writer who writes aimed at my adolescent brain. Weighty titles like Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self don’t exactly set my learning neuron networks aquiver.

Louann Brizendine, MD

Louann Brizendine, MD

Probably the most confusion-clearing-up revelation for me came from Louann Brizendine. In her book, The Male Brain, she details how puberty finds my testosterone production increased 20-fold to massively toxic levels! And which areas does testosterone attack in the 15-year-old brain: Broca’s and Wernicke’s, home of speech and language production. So, I wasn’t simply a sullen teen; I was a testosterone-poisoned teen! Like many men, I’m still trying to recover from that early wipeout.

Finally, Jill Bolte Taylor’s observation of what a lying sack of bat guano our left hemispheres turn out to be more often than not, was mostly confirmation of any number of contemplative teachings that repeatedly make that claim: a mind generating painful thoughts is a terrible thing to trust. It was affirming though, to have it confirmed by a Harvard neuroanatomist using stroke-induced self-observation. It was also of great consolation to receive her warning about how devious Lefty is in all the ways it then goes about trying to make me forget that it’s constantly lying through its glial cells.

So that’s a pretty interesting collection, I think. Next week I’ll write about the most mind-boggling brain science claim I’ve come across yet. In fact, I had it here at the end of this collection, but I want to take the week to further confirm the truth of it before I post it. Stay tuned.

End Note: I research and write about social neuroscience because I believe knowing how the brain works can profoundly reduce suffering here on planet earth. It has for me. I’ve recently put together a four-session Webinar that one or two of you may find interesting: Life, Art and Neuroscience which explores suffering reduction in depth. Click HERE if you’d like to find out more information. We don’t know what we don’t know until we know it.

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The first time it happened, I thought I was about to be the victim of a masterful, elaborate practical joke. I got a call one day from a Nobel-prize winning scientist at the facilities office at the Stanford Think Tank where I was the manager. Professor Prizewinner, a visiting scholar on sabbatical, was calling to complain that there were no lights in his new office. Interested in him and his work more than his complaint, I decided to make the service call myself. I walked over to his office, knocked and entered. He was intently immersed in the data on his computer screen and barely acknowledged my presence. Sure enough, the office was dark. I flipped the light switch next to the door and immediately flooded the room with light. The professor didn’t even notice. And astonishingly enough, he wasn’t the last visiting scholar I ended up making similar calls to show how to flip on a light switch!

This illustrates one central problem with math and science that leads to Nobel Prizes: they appear to be primarily left brain activating, extremely narrow enterprises. In a left brain-dominated world, where math and science are constantly being foisted on early learners, the result can only be imbalanced, poorly integrated neurological development. It’s like our psyches grow up lopsided and rarely, if ever, recover. In most developed countries this imbalance begins in preschool and carries on up through graduate school. And it can sometimes make it difficult to find our way in the dark. Let alone acquire Big Picture wisdom.

The Right Way to Learn

To combat this imbalance, which I instinctively knew was not working well for me (my gut, heart and right brain told me so!), I enrolled in and dropped out of five different graduate schools.

Fort Pottingpalace

If I wasn’t so fearfully concerned about earning a living and being able to survive in the world, my sense is I would have personally been served way mo’ betta by enrolling in a Mystery School right out of Junior High!

But back in the day, math and science were somewhat balanced with music theory and phys ed and art. If they had added a little wilderness vision-questing and perhaps fort-building and garden-creation to that curriculum, it would have been a boon to my early brain development. But alas, I had to wait until I became a senior citizen to fully take up these latter studies.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Fort Woodchapel

We’ve all learned the wondrous magic of learning to draw, write, paint, poop  and trade stocks from the right side of the brain. But what those right brain proponents frequently fail to tell us is that along with all that sublime creativity, something wicked this way comes. Something dark, unbidden and foreboding. Buried memories of all the overwhelming, unmanageable things that ever happened to us. As UCLA neuropsychiatrist, Alan Schore frequently and compellingly declares: “The right holds the secrets!” On the right side of the developing infant/toddler/preschool brain are recorded all the traumatic experiences that often make up the unconscious human shadow. These memories – a night when no one quells our crying, an errant elbow in the sandbox, throwing up on the merry-go-round – recorded and buried as image and emotional sensations (often without benefit of language), long for integrative expression and resolution. That longing regularly drive artists, writers and musicians, and even a few psychotherapists to drink. These treasures, buried alongside all the pain, are one reason artists often pay a heavy toll for their art: we are only rarely able to excavate the pleasure without the pain.

Defense Wins Games

Focusing on math and science then, could be seen as a great defense, one that allows us to live and survive in the world without having to get our hands dirty or our hearts broken open over and over again. There are however, problems with this bit of defensive imbalance, neatly summed up by transplanted USC neuropsychiatrist, Antonio Damasio. Here’s Antonio on yours and my brain:

The overall function of the (whole) brain is to be well informed about what goes on in the rest of the body, the body proper; about what goes on in itself; and about the environment surrounding the organism, so that suitable survivable accommodations can be achieved between the organism and the environment. (Descartes’ Error, p. 90)

Once Again, Without Feeling

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion

It turns out that a brain with an imbalanced bias to the left, one that can’t find the switch to light the dark, is a poor informant indeed. Whole worlds of energy and information are simply not available to it, primarily the world of … emotion!

To combat this imbalance, scientists have done an interesting thing: they have used the left brain to reduce emotions to the Big Eight in order to study them in great left-brain detail. Take a look at Professor Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion there on the right. You can see the Big Eight: anticipation, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise, fear, trust, joy. Feeling anything yet?

Neo-Evolution or Bust

As Institute of Medicine medical ethicist, Harvey Fineberg obviously points out in this fun TED Talk, having a brain that is a poor informant is not good for keeping us on a clear and steady evolutionary path. It prevents us from being able to adapt easily to the complexity of our ever-changing world, from being able to actually FEEL emotions, rather than only reducing them to objects for study.

My solution: encourage kids to ditch math and science class in favor of feeling their way through life! If they feel any great left-brain-math-science draw later in life, they’ll have a much stronger, better balanced foundation to stand upon.


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I was 24 years old when I met my father after an absence of nearly twenty years. Like many fatherless kids, I had no idea what I’d missed by his absence, although alexithymia – no words for emotion – seems to be one thing I gained. We spent a number of days together trying to get to know one another over the next year, but I had no idea how to respond or really be in relationship to him. One thought that frequently arose after a day spent together was: “I’m sure glad I missed twenty years of this.”

“This” was apparently in part, the result of his role in the Merchant Marines during WW II – a form of PTSD that made him talk incessantly. That was struggle enough for me to endure, but the harder part was his frequent need to point out to me all that I was doing wrong and could be doing better. At the time, I was co-founder of a very successful manufacturing business and attending UCLA as an undergrad – all without any encouragement or support from him, thank you. For some reason, I was frequently physically sick during and after his visits – sore throats, stomach aches, headaches …

Making Wrong Right

I characterize my father as a Make-Wrong Person and not surprisingly I occasionally meet up with people who remind me of him in my current life. When I do spend time with such people, I pay close attention to how they affect my mind and body. First of all, I notice my breathing often gets very shallow, next my stomach tightens and I get very still. A kind of hypervigilance takes hold. It’s like I’m steeling myself for the next “assault.” This kind of automatic reaction it turns out, is all part of a Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenaline (HPA) axis stress response. My father’s way of interacting with me – unwittingly, of course – effortlessly managed to turn protective allostasis into damaging allostatic load.

Right Speaking

Seattle of Hospice director, Rodney Smith, writing in one of my favorite books, Lessons From the Dying, speaks to the power of speech to affect neurophysiology. He suggests using the things we say to others as the object of contemplative practice, and offers up Socrates’ Triple Filter for “right speaking” as a useful guide. Socrates suggested that before we go about correcting people, or gossiping about them, or making them wrong, we consider the following: Is what we’re about to say … good? This is not some kind of pollyanna-ish directive to simply always accentuate the positive, particularly when applied in conjunction with the second filter: Is what we’re about to say … true?  Finally, and this is one of my own particular challenges: is what we’re about to say … useful? If what we’re about to say is not good, true or useful, perhaps we might want to explore what our motivation is for saying it.

Prosodic Elegance

One of the things I would add to Rodney’s and Socrates’ guidance is a fourth consideration: does what we’re about to say have Prosodic Elegance? Prosody has to do with how the rhythm, tone and syllable stress of language convey feelings. Gregory Bateson identified it as part of the deep structure of language and it’s what our right brain responds to in communications more than the words themselves. Prosody has also been shown to powerfully affect neurophysiology, especially in young children. UCLA developmental psychiatrist, Allan Schore has written extensively on the role of prosody in brain development. Unknown to most of us, we emerge from the womb finely attuned to prosodic elements or our mother’s speech, which has played a significant role in our early neural development (it’s not an accident that hearing is the first sense to develop, and the last to go). Prosodic Elegance then, is the conscious ability to use our voice and speech to achieve the outcomes we most desire. In martial arts, the voice is often used loudly and forcefully to thwart an attack. In plays and poetry readings, the voice is used to move the listener emotionally.

Considering this evidence, were my father alive today, I would hope to have the awareness and ability to take him aside and in the most gentle voice I could manage, simply tell him that I understand he did the best he could given what life delivered to him. And that I love him, and I forgive him. But if he wants to spend time with me, he’ll have to curb his advice-giving, chatterboxing and criticism. That’s my bottom-line Triple Truth.

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