I believe it’s a mistake to think about the brain and brain science in any kind of reductive fashion. That said, our brains are involved in every aspect of ours and our clients’ lives. Might we be well-served to keep these 7 features of brain function somewhere in the forefront of our own brain?

1. The brain is the most complex creation in the known universe

I suspect it’s a rare neuroscientist who hasn’t been filled with awe and wonder at both the complexity and the beauty of how a healthy brain is organized and operates. Reposting from a recent blog, here’s how science writer Bob Berman describes that complexity:

The brain … is the crown jewel of our nervous system. It has 86 billion neural cells and 150 trillion synapses. These are its electrical connections, its possibilities. This figure is nearly a thousand times as great as the number of stars in the Milky Way.

The number of brain neurons is impressive. To count them at the rate of one a second would require 3,200 years. But the brain’s synapses, or electrical connections, are beyond belief. Those 150 trillion could be counted in 3 million years. And that’s still not the end of the matter. What’s relevant is how many ways each cell can connect with the others. For this we must use factorials. Let’s say we want to know how many ways we can arrange four books on a shelf. It’s easy: You find the possibilities by multiplying 4×3×2 — called “4 factorial” and written as 4! — which is 24. But what if you have 10 books? Easy again: It’s 10! or 10×9×8×7×6×5×4×3×2, which is — ready? — 3,628,800 different ways. Imagine: Going from four items to 10 increases the possible arrangements from 24 to 3.6 million.

Bottom line: Possibilities are always wildly, insanely greater than the number of things around us. If each neuron, or brain cell, could connect with any other in your skull, the number of combinations would be 86 billion factorial! This winds up being a number with more zeroes than would fit in all the books on Earth. And that’s just the zeroes after the 1, the mere representation of the number, not the actual count. The brain’s connection possibilities lie beyond that same brain’s ability to comprehend it…

It’s truly humbling to come face to face with the fact that our own brain is probably NOT sufficiently robust enough to fully understand its own workings. Let alone fully understand the workings of our clients’ brains. We can try, nonetheless.

2. The brain is in a state of constant, dynamic flux

While the analogy isn’t perfect, I tend to think of the brain as being similar to the sun at the center of our solar system. Sun GIFViewed up close, the sun is a seething cauldron of energy (and most likely information, which we haven’t developed many tools to interpret or measure yet) in a constant process of transformation. Here on earth, change is not only a given and a constant, but barriers that show up to block or inhibit the impulse toward healthy, organic change in ours and our clients’ lives tend to have adverse consequences for the brain. Here’s a 2 minute pictorial video where you can see the irrepressible, dynamic movement of living cells: Brain Cells Embracing.

3. The majority of the cells in the brain are dedicated to moving the body

You won’t find this claim supported in any text or journal more than a year old – it’s been slow filtering into the brain science community. But as this research shows, some 80% of the cells in the brain are compacted and pressed down into service in the cerebellum, our “little brain.” What the Cerebellum is most associated with is … moving the body, mostly coordinating all the fine motor movements we make (like my fingers being able to type this post without my eyes having to look at the keyboard). Add in the cell collections in the motor cortices and it starts to look like Cambridge computational neurobiologist Daniel Wolpert’s assertion that the real reason for brains is to move the body is dead on.

Many people show up in the offices of helping professionals as a consequence of the adverse effects on the brain from experiences that resulted in the body being unable to move, e.g. the freeze response in the wake of a traumatic experience(s). Might the most effective therapeutic work involve devising ways and means for helping them to “unfreeze“?

4. The brain performs most of its operations below conscious awareness

Reading books like David Eagleman’s Incognito or Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion or Tim Wilson’s Stranger’s to Ourselves offers up overwhelming evidence that what cybernetic research and information theory claim is very likely true: the brain operates as a powerful filter in our daily experience of the world. Up to as much as 99% of the energy and information bombarding our senses day in and day out is registered by the brain non-consciously. This simple fact has huge implications for our ability to be accurate, authoritative reporters of our own experience. It also holds implications for the reports we receive from the clients whom we see and attempt to treat. Add in all the defensive strategies we acquire over a lifetime, and how many of us turn out to be confabulators of the first order and rarely realize it?

5. Brains are designed to work in whatever environment they find themselves

In his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – a powerful account of his work with street addicts – Gabor Maté offers up a wonderful analogy: Sad Plant“Think of a kernel of wheat. No matter how genetically sound a seed may be, factors such as sunlight, soil quality, and irrigation must act on it properly if it is to germinate and grow into a healthy adult plant. Two identical seeds, cultivated under opposing conditions, would yield two different plants: one tall, robust, and fertile; the other stunted, wilted, and unproductive. The second plant is not diseased; it only lacked the conditions required to reach it’s full potential….The same principles apply to the human brain.” If we’re going to skillfully work with clients, we need to effectively work with the environments they live and work in when they leave our office. Anything less fails to honor an essential brain function.

6. Many of the challenges people seek professional help for involve the brain’s compromised ability to skillfully regulate arousal

75% – 90% of all visits to doctors’ offices are the result of stress-related illnesses and complaints. What that means, looked at through the lens of brain function, is that “what we have here is … a failure … to self-regulate.” When we fail to regulate arousal, we end up flooding the brain and body with stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Stress hormones in large numbers adversely affect the growth of new brain cells and the connections the cells we already possess are able to make. They promote inflammation. Inflammation compromises immune function. And the more we fail to skillfully regulate arousal, the more we will continue to fail to skillfully regulate arousal unless we break the cycle by deliberately developing some personally relevant, skillful stress management practices (If you’re going to click on only one link in this post, click this previous one!).

7. The root arousal-regulation challenge for the brain (and body) is its inevitable, impending evaporation

Most of the human defense mechanisms, from avoidance to distraction to denial, operate with the intention to keep mortality awareness under close wraps. The success of many religions the world over, including the religion of Oprah, is rooted in their promise of afterlife salvation. Even neuroscience seems to hold out the promise of an afterlife, as presented in this documentary: The Day I Died. Nonetheless, the fundamental buried awareness – that we are all going to die – unconsciously directs a great deal of the shape and direction our own lives and the lives of our clients. As we work with body and brain to get our own mortal coil in great good order, the people we live and work with in our lives may all reap the benefit.

Note: Might someone you know benefit from learning this information? Feel free to copy and paste This Link7 Essential Brain Features All Helping Professionals Need to Know (http://floweringbrain.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/7-essential-brain-features-every-helping-professional-needs-to-know-including-parents-teachers-and-business-leaders/) and pass it along. We all need as much help reducing suffering as we can get.

When I was in my early 20s I traveled to Ojai, California to attend a public lecture by the spiritual teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. Seemingly through the luck of the draw, I had become unexpectedly successful selling profitable airplane hardware to the U.S. Military, and I found myself plagued, as many financially successful people are, with the recurring question, “Is THIS all there is?” I was hoping Krishnamurti would answer that question in inspiring, heartful ways.


“This is my secret: I never mind what happens.” ~ J. Krishnamurti

What mostly drove my interest was what K had to say in his transcribed public talks about fear. As a Point Six on the Enneagram, fear is my primary “Vice” and one of my central life drivers, and so I was looking for some way out of that seemingly perpetual, internal discomfort. Krishnamurti seemed to have the answer:

The action of fear and the effects of fear and its action is based on past memories – such actions are destructive, contradictory, paralyzing. Right? Do we see that?…That when you are afraid you are completely isolated and any action that takes place from that isolation must be fragmentary and therefore contradictory, therefore there is struggle, pain and all the rest of it. Now, an action of awareness of fear without all the responses of memory is a complete action. You try it! Do it. Become aware, as you are walking along, going home, your old fears will come up. Then watch, watch, be aware whether those fears are actually projected by thought as memory.

It turned out that I didn’t really resonate with K, the man much. I found him to be overly severe, rigid and authoritarian. He seemed to be exasperated that the folks in attendance could not clearly understand what he was claiming was a very straightforward and simple notion: Thought, unmonitored, produces fear. Stop letting yourself become emotionally high-jacked by your fearful thoughts.

The Curse of Knowledge

Well, easy for him to declare. His 40 years of meditation centered around a sheltered, protected life turns out to have changed connections in his brain so that being effortlessly able to observe fearful thoughts and dismiss them easily was mostly a result of his robustly connected Executive Function circuitry. And that circuitry was constructed in part with the great help of the community that operated around him for decades (he never mentions that part in his talks, even though Buddha clearly identified spiritual community as an essential element of developmental practice). Richie Davidson’s whole neuroscience research career at the University of Wisconsin has repeatedly found evidence for such unique neuro-developmental change in the brain, and Dan Siegel’s book, Mindsight details much of that contemplative practice research and how it neuro-physiologically changes the brain as well.

Thought-monitoring is an essential requirement if we are going to spend any great degree of creative, unstructured time in the present moment. Anytime we wander unsupervised away from the present moment however, there’s a high probability that we’ll end up in … Confabulation Land. Confabulation is a great word. Kids do it all the time, and it’s fascinating to witness both their earnestness and their certainty. And it seems to be a necessary part of their organic, developmental unfolding. But confabulation doesn’t just stop when we’re no longer kids. Confabulation seems to be essential for creativity.

Here’s the definition from Webster’s: Confabulation – memory distortion, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive. Confabulation is distinguished from lying as there is no intent to deceive and the confabulator is unaware the information is false. I think of confabulation as “creative ignorant innocence.”

By its very nature then, any kind of creativity that imagines something interesting and/or novel and/or complex about the future, takes us away from self-awareness in the present moment. We forget ourselves in service to our creativity. Almost. Except for the part about how the body’s neuro-muscular memory remembers so much more than our explicit memory-mind does.

Creativity’s Double-Bind


Click the Photo for the Answer

Essentially, if you plan to live the creative life, a requirement is that you must spend a lot of time with your thoughts – all those creative stirrings that repeatedly motivate, inspire and invite you to bring them into full artistic expression. Because both creativity and trauma take up residence primarily in the memory circuits of the right hemisphere, it’s not uncommon for trauma-based, fearful feelings to find their way to conscious awareness in the course of any artistic exploration. But without a network sufficiently strong enough to easily switch into witness or Mindsight Mode, we can find our body repeatedly flooded with stress hormones. Stressful, disorganizing dissociation can then begin to have its way with us. Fear, sometimes experienced as undifferentiated or free-floating anxiety, permeates our creative experience. In trying to make sense of this somatic ordeal, we often tell ourselves a story – we now confabulate in service to stress management.

The good news/bad news is that neuroscience is potentially removing the dark, downside of creativity by developing increasingly effective interventions that can remedy these distressing experiences. The drug propranolol has been available for quite some time, and seems to be an effective remedy for some people. But before too long, as scientists at MIT have demonstrated, we will be able to use optogenetics – a “Breakthrough of the Decade” – to physically disconnect the specific trauma “wiring” which joins the emotional centers in the amygdala and the memory centers in the hippocampus. Which, I suspect, is essentially what happens when we successfully “work through” the traumas of our lives using things like therapy and intimate, interpersonal relationships. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is within our reach. Will we reach for it? Unless our traumatic history is overwhelming and debilitating, I suspect most of us won’t.

Simply put, using word and picture metaphors, our brain wants to help us turn Image-Z:

Your Neural Net on Life

Your Chaotic Image-Z Brain Neurons


into Image-Q:

An Image-Z Brain

Your Organized Image-Q Brain Neurons

An Image-Z brain is dizzy and disorganized, easily emotionally hyper-aroused. Image-Z brains struggle with sustaining attention and most are excellent at making up wild and crazy stories about the future and the past and then cunningly convincing us that they’re true. Except, at any moment our Image-Z brain is serving up those stories, 99.9% of the time everything around us in our immediate environment is generally, A-OK. Our Image-Z Brain does things that make us later scratch our head and wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?” It also is the reason we find ourselves becoming quite practiced at offering apologies to the people around us.

Shaping Up the Q

Image-Q is how the neurons in your brain look when they’re integrated and organized. An Image-Q brain allows us to Be Here Now, to hang out in the Precarious Present completely awake and fully engaged. It also allows us to make real-world plans for the future and successfully carry them out, while playing well with others. An Image-Q brain shows us with the qualities that neuropsychiatrist, Dan Siegel identifies with the acronym, FACES. An Image-Q brain is … Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, and Stable. This integrated neural network produces energy flow similar to a river flowing easily between chaos on the one bank and rigidity on the other. It’s perhaps best characterized by Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If,” which begins, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you ….” Psychiatrists and psychologists make diagnoses using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Essentially that manual is describing either excessive rigidity or excessive chaos, i.e. an Image-Z brain.

When our brain is organized and integrated in Image-Q fashion, life is good. We have little need for things like drugs, alcohol or addictive sex to enhance or motivate our life experience. We end up spending many of our days towards the far right on the continuum of things like unconscious-to-conscious, restlessness-to-contentment or contraction-to-love that I borrowed from Buddhist teacher Rodney Smith and presented here several weeks ago. It’s challenging for an Image-Z brain to consistently manifest love in the world.

Getting Where We’re Going

So, how do we transform our Image-Z brain into an Image-Q brain? Answer: Practice, practice, practice. Mostly through noticing all the times when we end up emotionally washed up on the river bank of rigidity or chaos. Another way to think about that energy flow is as a Window of Arousal. The practice is working to easily open our window wider and wider. As we do, things that used to upset or depress us begin to lose their power to emotionally toss us away. We no longer need to “seek shelter from the storm.” We are the shelter. It lives in us as an expanding ocean of serenity and harmony.

Chaos Rigidity Image

Finally, here’s a well-known story I have my Listening Practice students read and actively work with, which dramatically illustrates what that Wide Window might actually look like in the real world. It’s worth reading (or re-reading) and remembering:

“Sit down here and tell me about it.”

The train clanked and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty – a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.

At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car. He wore laborer’s clothing, and he was big, drunk, and dirty. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that the baby was unharmed.

Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood up.

I was young then, some twenty years ago, and in pretty good shape. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training nearly every day for the past three years. I liked to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. The trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.

a-life-in-aikido“Aikido,” my teacher had said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

I listened to his words. I tried hard. I even went so far as to cross the street to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

“This is it!” I said to myself as I got to my feet. “People are in danger. If I don’t do something fast, somebody will probably get hurt.”

Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” he roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!”

I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.

“All right!” he hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson in Japanese manners.” He gathered himself for a rush at me.

A fraction of a second before he could move, someone shouted “Hey!” It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it – as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he had suddenly stumbled upon it. “Hey!”

I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little, old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentle-man, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.

“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly.

The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer. “What’cha been drinkin’?’ he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest.

“I been drinkin’ sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.


“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake, too. Every night, me and my wife – she’s seventy-six, you know – we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree has done better than I expected, though, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It’s gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.

As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said. “I love persimmons, too.” His voice trailed off.

“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”

“No,” replied the laborer. “My wife died.” Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got no wife. I don’t got no home. I don’t got no job. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.

Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said, “That is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”

I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair. As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle…had been accomplished with love. ~ Terry Dobson

If you’re like me, most of you probably have at least a mild case of ODD – Oppositional Defiant Disorder. It seems to be a built-in cost for pursuing freedom, independence and autonomy. Not ODD all the time, but often enough. For me these days, it often reactively emerges when I watch the silly stuff that’s supposed to pass for “governance” by our elected officials.

But if I tell the truth, I’ve been pretty oppositional and defiant since I was a kid. I was on a first name basis with Bob, the district Truant Officer – the odds of me showing up at school on any day were about 50-50. I got expelled the first time in fifth grade for stomping 30 foot high profanity in the new snow on the hill behind the school. In high school I was given the Kid-With-the-Most-Days-Absent-But-Still-Graduating Award. I never bothered with the SATs, and I had absolutely zero interest in college.

ODD KidIn kindergarten 98% of the kids recognize themselves as creative and by the end of high school they morph into 98% who don’t. That kind of school system – as international educator, Ken Robinson points out in his TED Talk, viewed almost 28 million times – is something any healthy kid with half a brain is smart to be defiant and oppositional about. Or else that’s pretty much what they’ll end up with: half a brain! Much less in fact, at least where creativity is concerned.

Expanding Contractions

In addition to finding school pretty stultifying, I also found New England culture pretty rigid, authoritarian and repressive – a deadly neurological combination in my experience. To my young brain, it was like the collective congregation of excitatory neurons in the brains of the people living there had all unwittingly turned inhibitory. Not a lot of life energy pulsating there in my world. So as soon as I was done with school, even before I legally turned 18, I left New England and hit the road for California. It was 1964.

That move had its ups and downs. If New England was constricting and rigid, Los Angeles showed up at the other extreme. It was there I got introduced to sex and drugs (I was already corrupted by rock and roll); one time I ended up at a “private night” at Disneyland high on LSD. Mickey, Goofy and Pluto have never been the same for me since. Disneyland turned out to be anything but a Small World Afterall.

Glass Half Smashed

It was in Los Angeles I realized that on the Glass-Half-Empty/Glass-Half-Full Continuum, I often tended to show up ODDly on the empty side. My brain just loved a juicy Doomsday Dystopia Scenario.

I say “my brain” loved it, because I recently came across some yummy new research that clearly implicates it, and not me for my ODD world view. It turns out that when you grow up in an especially dangerous and oppressive neighborhood, stress hormones go to work building out structures in the body and brain required to help you manage things in the ‘hood. Adrenaline and cortisol make the brain powerfully imprint memories of trauma and threat onto the network in order to be able to steer clear of similar dangers when they show up later down the road. In other words, you become “street smart.”

But those smarts come at a cost, and it’s a high one at that. My brain and yours have a finite capacity for resource allocation. If we allocate resources to insure safety in the “low-income” areas, e.g. the limbic structures, and build up the fear and trauma memory centers, we are neurologically mandated to reduce the resources we allocate to the “uptown” neighborhoods – the higher order cognitive centers corresponding with the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. Those would involve things like kindness, compassion, altruism, creativity, generativity and such. The inner world of an ODD-fellow too often shows up as just the opposite of those things.

The Bad News is Not All Bad

Habenular Structures

Fortunately, through the grace of evolutionary design, the brain is “plastic.” It operates in a constant state of change and flux, doing its best to adapt to whatever environment it finds itself in. Place it in Disneyland on drugs and it will adapt to that Magic Kingdom. Place it in a safe, stimulating environment with other healthy brains and it will begin to trim down structures like the habenula, which is constantly on the alert for and trying to predict nasty life events. It’s an unhappy habenula which tends to make me oppositional and defiant and makes my glass frequently show up half empty (and that jack-of-all brain parts also turns out to be responsible for making me a couch potato! Which makes sense, since there’s usually little danger found in my living room with me curled up on the couch).

And now we both know what our work in the world is – it’s to create environments and relationships that will allow us to dismantle the fear/stress wiring and increase the kindness, compassion, altruism, creativity, and generativity wiring; to take on the task – clearly at odds with the dominant world culture – of increasing the wiring of love.

This week I’m taking a vacation of sorts. I’m going to let someone else fire the heavy action potentials. Two people actually: Tami Simon, Sounds True founder, interviewing Jill Bolte Taylor.

Jill Bolte Taylor & Mom

Jill Bolte Taylor & Mom

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile and finding it useful, this interview is definitely worth slowing down and savoring. If you were taking this blog for course credit, I’d require you to read this piece several times and then collaborate with two other people and write a 10 page paper on it!

Tami Simon

Tami Simon

Or even better – move it out from behind the protected walls of the Academy into the larger world and develop a project that creatively applies and demonstrates what you’ve learned …

Bringing Grace and Balance to Your Brain




Note: Many thanks to all of you who signed up for the second, up-dated go-round of the Social Neuroscience Training which begins this Saturday. It looks like a magnificent group and I expect a grand time will be had by all.

Last week my brain threw up the spontaneous, random thought: “You’ve been in the human potential, suffering-reduction business for more than half a century!” That pulled me up short, since I rarely feel that antiquated. Then I thought it might be fun to make a list of all the “growth opportunities” I actually have direct experience with, or that I’ve studied in depth. So I did. Here’s the list that I’ve come up with so far:

Human Potential Practices

What’s It All About, Markie?

In addition to both the number and variety of things I’ve exposed myself to over the years, what’s of most interest to me is … where I’ve landed. Paraphrasing child trauma psychiatrist Bruce Perry, “If you’re in the human potential-suffering reduction business, first and foremost, you’re in the brain change business.” And that is indeed where all this personal exploration has currently led me – to exploring and understanding yours and my own brain (and its body connections) as they operate in our everyday social world. (Not to mention the way trees – which we human energy beings are completely dependent upon for life – operate in much the same way as my brain does. This short video explains those parallels quite clearly).

Almost every single process and practice on that list has, at its most fundamental level, the goal of either temporarily or permanently changing the distributed network that comprises my brain and body in order to improve its capacity to process energy and information. What most of those practices are attempting to do – usually unwittingly or indirectly – is take my current processing capacity – for the sake of metaphor let’s say my brain operates at a 3G operating capacity – and transform it into a 4G, 5G or 200G processing capacity (G stands for “Generation; 3G transmits bits and bytes at a highest rate of 200 kilobits per second; 4G transmits at a highest rate of 1 gigabit per second; 200G is currently beyond my capacity to imagine. That’s probably when we begin to instantly teleport living beings). The brain too, transmits bits and bytes (byte = 8 bits) in the form of 1s and zeros – meaning action potentials that either fire and transmit electro-chemical charges or else they fail to. It offers up a steady, massive, multiple stream of on/off, yes/no activity.

Brain with axons extending

Perilous Is As Perilous Does

What’s additionally remarkable and stands out most clearly as I look over the list above is that for almost everything on it, my interest and engagement in each discipline or practice emerged mostly organically. It was just me doing the best I could to repeatedly ask and answer The Two Perilous Questions. For example, I’ve written two previous posts here and here about how repeated ungrieved losses eventually drew me to become a longtime, volunteer grief counselor. Before that, I was enrolled in a Ph.D. psychology program at UCLA when a supposedly “chance” meeting with Marilyn Ferguson, author of The Aquarian Conspiracy pointed me to a start-up graduate school in transpersonal psychology (Sofia University). I traveled to the Bay Area for an information interview, intuitively felt it was a much better fit for me in both size and curriculum than UCLA, and immediately applied. A third example: my interest and involvement with EMDR came about when, on a walk together, my friend Katy Butler (Knocking On Heaven’s Door) told me about an interview with Francine Shapiro which she conducted for the Psychotherapy Networker. She was effusive about how she had been cured of longtime pain associated with a childhood trauma in a single session. This kind of rapid suffering-reduction was something I wanted to know more about.

The Be-All and End-All Brain ~ Not

My developing interest in neuroscience is much more tempered than it used to be. What neuroscience has taught me is that the brain and body are NOT all that matter and NOT all that life boils down to. On the contrary. The very complexity and extraordinary workings of brain and body parts – seen and unseen – convince me that there is much more to life and living than most of us ever consciously suspect. The research field and the tools of neuroscience simply provide a context and a process by which to construct creative hypotheses and systematically test them out. And repeatedly make mind-blowing discoveries like these and others that I’ve written about over the years.

It’s a sufficiently robust, complex and mysterious place for me to be spending the remaining days of my life. Please feel free to join me.

Time Is Moving

Last Call: If you rightly suspect that learning how your brain works will make it work better, now’s your last chance to register for the unique and entertaining Social Neuroscience Training which begins next week. Click HERE to see if it resonates.

time counter

Shortly after I completed my terminal graduate degree, it was time to put it to use. I was 42 years old and had been a homebuilder for almost 25 of them. But now the body was tired and needed to cut back on the rough and tumble work of daily construction. But what to do next? I didn’t have any interest in following the traditional trajectory and becoming a job superintendent – telling other people what to do has never been something my brain and body much resonate with – so that was out. I didn’t care to become a developer/producer. Too much stress and I couldn’t see where the juice might be for me in that role. Besides, I had a newly-minted Ph.D. that would let me work as a clinical psychologist. But the unfortunate truth was … sitting in an office all day long listening to people’s problems and trying to help, didn’t get the juices flowing either.

The Next Step of the Journey

“You really should put your degree to work,” friends and family consistently reminded me, as if I somehow forgot to remind myself. All the time and money and study should be put to the best use possible, right?

What to do? While pondering this question, one day I happened to spy a small help-wanted ad in our weekly newspaper. The ad was for a maintenance man position at a Stanford Think Tank. Stirrings small, slight and quivery began moving in me. I’d driven by the think tank sign at the bottom of the hill on the edge of campus thousands of times over the years: Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. “I’ve always wanted to see what’s up the hill behind that security gate,” I thought. I decided to go up on the pretext of applying for the job just to take a look around.


And so I did. And it was fabulous, gorgeous, breathtaking. The private think tank sat high on a hill overlooking the main campus and all of Silicon Valley. Deer foraged along the sides of the hill. Rabbits, raccoons and Hooty, a huge white owl, were openly in residence. And most surprisingly, the people were relaxed, engaging, fun. The interview done, I considered it a successful, information-gathering adventure.

And by the time I got back home there was a call on my answering machine offering me the job.

There’s a great line in one of the Indiana Jones movies. Harrison Ford is deep underground in a cave when suddenly he hears rustling and hissing. He holds his torch down into a deep pit. “Snakes,” he says. “It HAD to be snakes.” The equivalent for me was: “Self. It had to be a job offer requiring me once again to get over myself.” And then the “shoulds” started showing up, desperately trying to tout me off taking it. “There’s no way you can thrive in that job.” “Think of the lost opportunity costs.” “You’re SO overqualified for that job – you’ve managed crews and built multi-million dollar homes.”

“I can quit in 6 months,” I rationalized to myself. Bill Kreutzmann (one of the two Grateful Dead drummers once held the job years before) didn’t keep it forever. Long story short, I ended up taking the job and staying there 10 whole years. It turned out to be the perfect place, with the perfect people to begin an extended, informal, self-directed post-doc in social neuroscience – something that wasn’t even on my radar at the time I applied. Over those ten years I got to see how Nobel Prize winners, Guggenheim recipients and MacArthur Fellows live and work up close, day after day (hint: they grew up in environments that wired their brains very differently than yours and mine; most have an extraordinary, developed ability to maintain laser focus for decades. For example, Eric Kandel studied two neurons in the California sea snail … for 30 years!).

Word Damage

But my conscious mind with its army of “shoulds” would have had me decline that hidden opportunity had I not listened to the “still, small voice.” And in my estimation, that’s what makes “should” the most brain-damaging word in the English language. Let me explain further.

When you open up a human skull you see a collection of brain cells approximating 17 billion (69 billion more are contained in the cerebellum). That collection of neurons makes trillions of connections which are absolutely unique to everyone of us. Not only that, but many of them are in a constant state of flux. Here’s how science writer, Bob Berman tries to help us understand that complexity:

Your Neural Net on Life

Your Neural Network on Life – Imagine it in constant, dynamic flux

The brain … is the crown jewel of our nervous system. It has 86 billion neural cells and 150 trillion synapses. These are its electrical connections, its possibilities. This figure is nearly a thousand times as great as the number of stars in the Milky Way.

The number of brain neurons is impressive. To count them at the rate of one a second would require 3,200 years. But the brain’s synapses, or electrical connections, are beyond belief. Those 150 trillion could be counted in 3 million years. And that’s still not the end of the matter. What’s relevant is how many ways each cell can connect with the others. For this we must use factorials. Let’s say we want to know how many ways we can arrange four books on a shelf. It’s easy: You find the possibilities by multiplying 4×3×2 — called “4 factorial” and written as 4! — which is 24. But what if you have 10 books? Easy again: It’s 10! or 10×9×8×7×6×5×4×3×2, which is — ready? — 3,628,800 different ways. Imagine: Going from four items to 10 increases the possible arrangements from 24 to 3.6 million.

Bottom line: Possibilities are always wildly, insanely greater than the number of things around us. If each neuron, or brain cell, could connect with any other in your skull, the number of combinations would be 86 billion factorial! This winds up being a number with more zeroes than would fit in all the books on Earth. And that’s just the zeroes after the 1, the mere representation of the number, not the actual count. The brain’s connection possibilities lie beyond that same brain’s ability to comprehend it…

So, anytime we’re operating under the direction of a “should,” whether it’s internally generated or externally imposed, there’s a high probability that we’re honoring neither the complexity, the uniqueness nor the incipient emerging needs of our own personal neural network. To fully understand the workings of our brain or the universe, it doesn’t look like any of us really has enough … brain power. While at the same time, it seems like a “creator” must, and does, and without “shoulding” on herself. And in my experience, she rarely uses words – she tends to use small, slight, quivery feelings instead. Best to ignore “shoulds” and instead pay increasingly, ever-close attention to the tender stirrings.


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