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In my early 20s I hung around with a group of fun-loving kids trying to figure out what to do with our lives. Some of us were in college, some of us worked and some of us simply hung out in the basement of David’s house drinking beer, playing video games and smoking pot. Lazy days in LA. Vanessa was a popular member of our informal circle and she and I had a strong platonic connection.

Child-Abuse-stop-child-abuse-34762871-425-354One day I showed up at David’s basement and Vanessa was there alone … in tears, with her face bruised, almost hysterical. When I was finally able to calm her down enough so that she could get the story out, she told me that her father – a hedge fund manager based in Newport Beach – had come home drunk the night before. The two of them had gotten into a heated argument, and before she knew what was happening, her father had punched her several times in the face. Then he set about raping her.

Vanessa was never the same afterwards. Before the rape she had been trusting, gregarious and fun-loving. She had a great sense of humor and was probably the social leader of our circle, always coming up with edgy and interesting things to do. It was Vanessa who arranged for our “private night” at Disneyland high on LSD.

After the rape, Vanessa’s personality took a toxic turn. Where before she would often be the life of the party, now she rarely showed up for the party at all. On occasions when I would seek her out to spend time together, she would alternate between intense engagement and vacuous spaciness. She began to gain weight, got into a fist fight in a club with another girl, and was pulled over days later for a DUI. I don’t think I ever saw her smile again after the beating and the rape.

Guurl Brain Interrupted

Rape is a personal violation of the most damaging degree. When it’s perpetrated by a family member, the violation and betrayal can shake us to the very core of our being. The act itself is violation enough, but what happens before, during and especially after a rape can have additional devastating consequences to the way our brain and body function going forward. Here’s what trauma psychiatrist Roland Summit has to say about sexual abuse in his paper on The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome:

Fragmented BrainInitiation, intimidation, stigmatization, isolation, helplessness and self-blame depend on a terrifying reality of child sexual abuse. Any attempts by the child to divulge the secret will be countered by the adult conspiracy of silence and disbelief. “Don’t worry about things like that; that could never happen in our family.” “How could you ever think of such a terrible thing?” “Don’t let me ever hear you say anything like that again!” The average child never asks and never tells.

One of the most devastating ways rape disorganizes our brain is by making home no longer a safe sanctuary. We all need places to call home in the world – to feel at home. They are essential for growing our neurophysiology sufficiently to be able to regulate stress hormones and build out our immune systems. There are reasons that children who have been violated grow up to later have a great variety of health challenges. Compromised immune function is but one of them.

The immune system contains two types of “memory cells” called CD-45RA cells and CD-45RO cells. RA cells and RO cells exist in ratio to one another (T-cells in the illustration below). RA cells are those which have been previously exposed to toxic threats and are ready to pounce should those same threats reappear. RO cells are free floating “virgin” cells held in reserve to deal with new or novel threats our bodies have not met before. They allow us to safely explore unfamiliar people, places and environments.

figure-1-immune-cell-generation

 

People who have been sexually abused turn out to have many fewer RO cells and greater numbers of RA cells. This makes their immune system not only super-sensitive to threat, since they’ve been exposed to many more highly stressful (inflammation-generating) experiences, but also leaves the immune system much more susceptible to new threats. A higher RA count also correlates with autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis – the body essentially mounts a threat against itself. That ratio imbalance also correlates with obesity and memory difficulties, thus it makes perfect sense that when criminal justice professor Linda Williams interviewed 136 women who were documented victims of sexual abuse as children, 38% of them had no memory of the assault at all.

No Trust = No Safety

Trust is obviously another issue. Trust has a strong neurophysiological basis. People, places and things we don’t trust make us nervous. Around them stress hormones put us on high-alert. Can we learn to trust people our brain and bodies don’t? It’s not easy in the least. The brain and body develop a hyper-sensitivity which can distort perception and blow all perspective out of proportion – for good reason: our trust has been violated. Without trust, the world unconsciously becomes a dangerous place. Why? Because of neuroception – the feeling of threat that invades our liver, stomach, colon, kidneys and heart below the level of conscious awareness. Our bodies have all the evidence we need to repeatedly confirm that the world is a truly dangerous place, even though 99% of the time, it’s not.

The good news is that our understanding of the adverse impact of rape and other personal violations on our brains and bodies is slowly beginning to filter into the wider culture’s consciousness. With that growing awareness, effective treatment modalities are beginning to become available in increasing numbers of communities, large and small, all over the world. Better, of course, would be for those treatment protocols to be never needed in the first place.

 

Greetings, friends.

In the interest of providing your brain’s novelty needs with some different stimulation, today we’re going to change things up a bit. I’m experimenting with different ways for the blog to be easily accessed and interestingly delivered.

3 Small Changes Title PageClick the image on the right, or this link to watch an 8-slide Vimeo graphic presentation with voiceover (The Password is: markbrady). I’d love to get any feedback – good, bad or indifferent – that you’d care to offer in the “Comments” section at the bottom of the blog page (skip the fact that I slow-talk; I’m already changing that up for any future blogcasts).

Many thanks,

Mark

(3 Small Changes That Can Ignite Your Brain’s Neural Network Potential).

When my wife and I first began courting, she orchestrated several world-class moves that absolutely sealed my fate. Before I provide you with any of the gory, intimate details, let me offer up a little pertinent social neuroscience as relevant backstory.

I know many people don’t believe it – including a number of neuroscientists – but when it comes to the brain, there’s no one at fault and no one to blame: we’re all doing the very best the current state of our brains and bodies will allow in response to whatever stressors we’re having to deal with in any moment. So we can’t really blame anything that happens in relationships on women, or men. To a great degree, much is orchestrated below conscious awareness by our genes and hormones, especially oxytocin for women.

Click on the Roses to see her Stunning Photography Website

Click on the Roses to see her Stunning Photography Website

But even more precisely, special genes hiding out in the brain’s patch cords – called interneurons – are mostly to point the finger at for both what goes on in the great wide world, but also between any two people. Interneurons, as the name implies, are brain cells that run short axon fibers between cells inside the brain. When women are “reproductively receptive” the theory goes, oxytocin interneurons express something called Translating Ribosome Affinity Purification (TRAP) genes. These genes make oxy interneurons run wild. TRAP genes are partly why 16-year-old girls in the throes of their first romantic relationship have “enthusiasm” that is almost impossible to curb (16-year-old boys and testosterone is a topic for another blog, another day). That enthusiasm continues to live in the brain and body long after our reproductive urges are but a faded memory.

Life Loves Life

Apart from what any individual living being may need or want, life is a meta-process with its own agenda … to keep on keeping on. And it will do whatever it takes to optimize that possibility, including, I suspect, wipe out or transform the whole human race if that’s what it takes. You see, life isn’t especially species-philic – or phobic, even though 99% of all species that have ever existed are currently extinct. Life has little concern that human beings think they are the pinnacle of development to date. Up to this point, our brain cells and our bacteria and our super-dynamic, social genes – i.e. life – want humans to continue to replicate, although that want may be waning, at least here in the West. American women are not only marrying later and having children later, but they’re also having many fewer children than ever before. Currently only 26% of 18-to-32-year-olds are married. By comparison, Generation Xers tallied 36% married during that window, while Baby Boomers came in at 48%, and the Silent Generation – who came in before Boomers – placed 65% in holy matrimony during that age range. But I digress.

And so, while life may love life, it doesn’t appear to be especially attached to the form it gets expressed in. My best sense though, is that life loves life best when it’s expressed just like that – as love. Which takes us back to our story.

Love and Limbic Hijacking Are Mutually Exclusive

Abby and Ollie

Click the puppy’s picture to see her Breeder Website

The early days of our courtship gave my wife an opportunity to express her TRAP genes in ways that were not only oxy-sweet for her, but extremely nourishing for me as well. Intuitively, she recognized that my difficulty with self-expression could find ready expression in our relationship if she made it absolutely safe for me to “say anything,” to say the stupidest, most outlandish, provocative things in the world and not draw even the smallest negative comment in response. The body’s neuroceptive need for safety, as a precursor to buried trauma presenting itself for healing, is paramount in every healthy human relationship. She was (and continues to be) great at the Golden Rule of Improv – meet every expression with the invitation, “Yes, and.” One of the ways I used to think we co-creatively came up with doing that – but now I’m thinking it was primarily her sly idea – was to begin writing a novel together. So we did – The Outrageous Adventures of Rosie and Griff. As you can well imagine, Rosie and Griff were able to go places and do things that the two of us had neither the money nor the energy to take on in real life. A lot of their adventures took place in bedrooms in Bali and ballrooms in Vienna.

There are several other essential qualities my wife possesses that sealed my fate as well. She enjoys cooking … when she doesn’t HAVE to. My own mother conditioned me with the cliche, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” And even though I don’t want it to be true, and even though I’m in a constant “awareness practice” NOT to have my stomach be ruled by me or anyone else, more often than not, it is. My wife is a GREAT cook. That makes her undeniably the First Lady of My GI Tract.

She also possesses a number of other sterling qualities (amongst thousands); I’ll only mention a few more here. One is – and this is a little hard to admit – her brain is more balanced and integrated than mine. She doesn’t have such a hard and fast “cortical bias.” This allows her to much more easily “feel her way” into wisdom, rather than muscle her way in, as I sometimes find myself needing to do.

My wife also is a person with a wild and active “Impeccability Practice.” If she says she’s going to do something, no matter how wild, crazy or complex, or simple, sane and mundane, odds are pretty high that her word will become reality. Combine that with her ongoing commitment to Radical Accountability and … what’s to feel TRAPPED by or get limbically hijacked about?

Oh, and did I mention that she has a great sense of humor? And that the dogs love her best? And if we ever meet in person some time, remind me to tell you the story about the Thanksgiving frozen peas for the knees.

Note: Please Check Out the Short Offer at the Bottom!

When I was about 9 or 10 years old growing up outside New Haven, Connecticut, the highlight of most days was when Charlie’s Traveling Candy Store would come rolling through the low-income housing projects. Each afternoon I would eagerly await Charlie’s white step van and use my paper route money to buy Jujyfruits, Necco Wafers, Milky Ways, Wise Potato Chips and glass bottles of Coca-Cola and Bubble-Up sweetened with real sugar instead of High Fructose Corn Syrup. candy-usa-2I would then take this treasure trove back to my bedroom and gorge on it unsupervised. Every day was Halloween. And while it turned out to be a quick and dirty way to stimulate my pleasure circuits and regulate the stresses of growing up daily in a very dangerous environment, little did I or anyone else realize the myriad ways in which that early conditioning would ultimately adversely impact my body and brain.

Midlife Expansion

For the last 18 years or so, I’ve struggled with my weight as a neurally conditioned consequence of those early acquired sugar, starch and fatty habits. My normal playing weight up until around age 45 was between 175-185 pounds. When I stopped actively working as a homebuilder, slowly and slyly my weight began creeping up…190…195…200. I righteously promised myself I would never exceed 200 pounds. Imagine the shame and self-loathing when I stepped onto the scale this past January and saw a readout of…242! And I’m not even someone genetically predisposed to disliking exercise. The good news is: I’m not to blame – my astrocytes are! And if my astrocytes are smart, they will cop a plea and point their tendrils at…the microbiome in my gut. There’s speculation that the bacteria there, which outnumber my body’s cells 100-1, invented humans to be moving feedlots; they also get room and board and neighborhood tours, while constantly making decisions for me about what they think I ought to eat. All without telling me; keeping me mostly clueless, as this exonerating research suggests. It’s partly why being fat has worked so powerfully to keep me fat for so long.

What to do?

The past 18 years have essentially been an exploration of what not to do – any of 10,000 things that haven’t actually helped to reduce and manage my weight gain – from partnering with a nutritionist, to cleansing fasts, to restoration retreats, to mindfulness-based weight reduction programs – none of it has produced lasting change. Only recently the problem had become urgent: it was undeniably adversely impacting my brain functioning. For too many days I would find myself walking around in a brain fog. Not to mention my firsthand knowledge of the relationship between depression, dementia and obesity.

Then, one day I heard child neuro-psychiatrist Bruce Perry proclaim, “No matter what business you’re in, first and foremost, you’re in the brain change business!” Bingo! The lights went on. In order to effectively be in the weight maintenance and management business, of course I need to be in the brain change business. All those trips to Charlie’s Traveling Candy Store had worked powerfully day after day to change my brain, providing an effective, short-term way to regulate stress. Back then I was changing my brain reactively, unconsciously. Now I would have to do the work of changing my current brain for the better, consciously. I would have to find and begin to implement ways of regulating stress that did not produce adverse, unintended consequences. Several important and surprising keys presented themselves once I began investigating, none of which had I found in mainstream “diet research.”

Fed Down

Even though there’s great disagreement among scientists about exactly what makes people fat, there’s one thing I feel pretty confident about: people who can easily manage weight have brains that are different from yours and mine (that they have bodies that are different is pretty obvious). One reason (among a cornucopia) that diets don’t work is because unless you deliberately take steps to change the neural circuitry in your brain and body, you’ll end up with pretty much the same brain at the end of the diet as when you began. If you believe the statistics Katy Couric provides in the documentary Fed Up, 67% of Americans are currently obese or overweight, but in 20 years 95% will be. 95%! Why? Because they’re trying (or not) to fix the wrong problem(s). fed-up-trailer-headerI find little solace in having such a great amount of company in my weight management struggle, one that feels like it’s a true, frog-boiling National Emergency. And while that movie and many so-called experts believe that effective weight loss and management is a many-headed hydra, I believe much the opposite – that it’s essentially a developmental disorder. One important aspect is developing creative ways to effectively restore and rebuild what former drug addict and neuroscience professor Marc Lewis (Memoirs of an Addicted Brain) suggests is our “No” circuitry. No circuitry is made up of real neural fibers in the brain that get laid down in childhood when we have healthy parents supervising our development. Such parents have kind, firm and effective ways of verbally and non-verbally telling us “No!” In effect, what those parents are doing is serving as our external orbital prefrontal cortex – “No” Command Central. It’s this part of the brain most associated with effective planning and no-bullshit impulse control – the part of the brain most easily able to adamantly and compassionately say “No” and mean NO to unhealthy, impulsive urges like a late night run up Highway 525 to DQ (Dairy Queen). This is one part of the brain most vulnerable to the above adverse astrocyte effects (Adverse astrocyte effects are also apparently affecting our pets, as more than 50% of them are obese as well!).

Experimenting with What Works

For the last ten months I have been deliberately experimenting with things that are proving to be good and useful for me to do in order to manage my weight, i.e. change my brain. From watching movies like Katy Couric’s, to reading books like Alexander Junger’s Clean, to buying a stress measuring monitor (Spire – a device that measures breath and assesses stress; Steve Porges, of polyvagal theory fame, serves as a consultant; then there’s FitBit and MyFitnessPal; also, a free app I use on my iPhone called 24/7). I also plan to investigate Apple’s Healthkit when it’s available. I’m even experimenting with Soylent, the food substitute. They are all moving me in the direction of becoming a bio-engineered human, which isn’t as distasteful as it might seem if I make a game out of it (What I didn’t bother with were scammy things like Body Mass Index (BMI), national, celebrity-pitched products like Garcinia Cambogia or the Absolute Coffee Cleanse or high-priced programs like 20-20 Lifestyles that are super-complicated and require a 6-month commitment and a travel ban). I also eat out less, since eating out correlates with overeating.

From that high of 242, I have been on a gradual descent, essentially in two-pound increments over the last ten months that have me currently at 210 pounds. Weight management isn’t about how much I weigh (except for when it is). It’s about changing my brain so that what I used to eat that made me fat, no longer drives my neurophysiology. I have grown new cells and brain connections that prefer the taste of healthy food in moderation. And there’s an unexpected added bonus: my sense of smell has returned along with my sense of physical balance! Since the time and effort I put in doesn’t feel particularly onerous or stressful – more like a curious experiment – I expect this descent to continue until I manage to get back close to my playing weight of 185. That may or may not be an ideal weight for me. My brain and body will decide, and it will be a good decision as both become increasingly healthier. I’ll just continue doing my best to keep experimenting with this course-correcting, brain remodeling trajectory.

Note: This coming January, I’m going to be offering four sessions on How a Social Neuroscientist Manages Weight. The material is designed and intended to prove unique to you and your specific brain and body. Check it out HERE. If managing weight is currently a struggle, directly and indirectly affecting many areas of your life, I hope you’ll join me as we explore why changing our brain first makes much more sense than constantly battling with our fat cells.

I have an 8 foot by 8 foot bookcase full of books that I haven’t read. What I’ve recently realized is that the way my brain’s reward circuitry is structured is primarily responsible for this situation. My brain operates with book-buying in much the same way that many drug and other addictions work. Here’s how. I’ll use a recent book purchase as an example.

New Yorker CoverI come upon a review of a new book. In this case let’s use Daniel Levitin’s, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Immediately, I feel this excited, pleasurable feeling in my brain and body as my “liking” and “wanting” reward circuitry begins firing action potentials (electro-chemical signals). “This is great. A book I can really use. I’m constantly feeling overwhelmed by all the information that bombards me day in and day out. This book will probably not only help me with that, but I’m sure it will provide additional benefits as well.” These and other thoughts keep the reward circuitry zinging, which adds to the excitement. Now, I’ve got to have that book. And the anticipation of ordering it and waiting for it to arrive – much like the rituals around scoring and using drugs (so I’ve read) – adds even further to the feel-good process going on in my brain and body. Each day now holds some bit of anticipatory excitement awaiting the book’s arrival.

But then – much like the anticipation and letdown after the long-awaited coming of Hannukah or Christmas morning – the book arrives. Wow, it’s a … Big Book. Almost 500 pages. Where am I going to find the time to read all those pages? What about all the other books? Books with fewer pages? Books written by some of my other favorite writer-researchers, like V.S. Ramachandran, or Lou Cozolino, or Gabor Mate (who has confessed a similar compulsive buying addiction to … classical music CDs)?

Can you feel the excitement dying? Feel the reward circuitry going dark? Three guesses where The Organized Mind is going to end up, as tomorrow I discover new books and get all jazzed up and “rinse and repeat” this liking-wanting-anticipation process all over again.

… But Thinking Makes It So

We do not benefit from labeling addictions and compulsions as either good or bad. Essentially, they are ways that human beings learn to do something that has been subverted or compromised in our brain’s early development: the network capacity to easily manage arousal. There are people whose early development has allowed them to build out self-regulation brain networks such that managing arousal takes very little energy. These are people who don’t drink, smoke or overeat (or compulsively buy books or CDs) because they have no need to solve life’s arousal-regulation management requirement in this way. Their brains do it naturally and effortlessly, mostly because early Adverse Childhood Experiences haven’t compromised the connections running between their emotional and cognitive arousal-regulatory brain networks.

The rest of us are forced to creatively devise energy-intensive neural work-arounds. Some workarounds (books and CD-buying) impact our lives and health less adversely than others (smoking, drinking, over-eating). But they are each a part of the very basic human need to keep our life’s energy in some kind of manageable regulatory balance – whatever gets us through the night. And day.

Overt Versus Covert

So that’s the overt part of this work-around process. But there’s a covert part as well – the part where I’m getting juiced by the process of buying and anticipating delivery of Levitin’s book subverts the possibility for me getting all fired up about … planning, designing and writing my own carefully-crafted 500 page book (which few people might read, but my brain and body will definitely benefit from actually organizing and writing). Big BookAnthony Richardson, writing in the online magazine, Medium, makes a compelling and provocative argument that less than one percent of us will actually take up the work of writing such a book, or any book for that matter. He makes a distinction between what he calls Skilled Creators (SCs) and Replication Creators (RCs). SCs take center stage; RCs sit in the audience. Skilled Creators “use the space between their ears like a muscle and produce something new with it without the help of someone else.” Replication Creators take their inspiration from others – me, for example, reading Levitin’s book and using it for inspiration to write my own. Richardson further argues that the ready availability of “awesome sauce” (dopamine – the brains’ feel-good neurotransmitter) for RCs as we read and do research, subverts any drive or inclination we might have to become SCs. Richardson’s solution? Read and research less; think and create more.

And while it doesn’t have to be either/or, or so black and white, Richardson has a point. The ease of doing computer-mediated research and discovering and buying things online and the hits of dopamine they provide are significant factors resulting in my having this bookcase full of unread books. If you want to become the next internet gazillionaire, create an easy way for people to readily remedy this significant brain design limitation.

Last month my wife stepped into a hole, fell and twisted her ankle while I stood by and did nothing; never offered her a helping hand or asked after her well-being. Nothing. Which seems totally out of character for someone who thinks of himself as kind, considerate and compassionate. Even rats trapped in a cage will help one another. Not only that, but I’ve personally treated rattlesnakes better than I did her. We were out together walking our dogs at the local dog park, and as you might expect, my response – or really a lack of one – was not especially well-received. To put it mildly.

We’re Rarely Upset for the Reasons We Think

Before I go any further with this story, I want to talk a little bit about the dynamics of learned helplessness and dissociation. Often when we encounter new or unexpected situations in the world, our brains tend to scope them out for dangers as well as for creative possibilities.

Learned Helplessness (on the left) - The Result of Decreased Neural Firing

Learned Helplessness (on the left) – The Result of Decreased Neural Firing?

If our body – using the polyvagal nerve network – neuroceptively senses even the slightest hint of danger, several options become available – social engagement, fight, flight or freeze. Without training and repeated practice in moving towards dangerous situations, e.g. the training that soldiers, police or firefighters receive, most of us would prudently choose the flight option. If fleeing isn’t possible, and social engagement doesn’t work, then fighting becomes the next option (Never corner a wild animal in a cave or a professional football player or a rap mogul in an elevator). Take away those two options and all that remains is dissociative freezing – i.e. learned helplessness.

Everything changes when an unfamiliar situation triggers a traumatic memory. Frequently the neurons holding the memory will take center stage, often without language attached – all dissociation is pre-verbal. Whatever behavioral dynamics were present during the earlier, overwhelming situation – fight, flight or freeze oftentimes going all the way back to infancy – will tend to show up.

Dreaming in the Service of Healing

The day after the episode at the dog park, I took a nap and had a dream: I’m a small boy – around 6 or 7 years old – hanging out at McGowan’s Tavern, a beer bar in the Westville section of New Haven, Connecticut. My mother’s there, completely drunk. She begins walking towards the lady’s room because she has to throw up. On the way there she stumbles and falls. I feel great waves of shame, embarrassment and disgust. I also feel totally helpless. In reality this is more of an actual childhood memory than it is a dream.

At the dog park the day previously with my wife, the moment she stepped into the hole and fell, those very same feelings flashed through my brain and body almost below the level of awareness. Along with those feelings came a whole host of blaming and sarcastic thoughts at the sight of her on the ground, which I thankfully had the impulse control not to utter. Beyond that however, no other action potentials seemed to be firing in my brain. A stranger without my traumatic history, would have very likely rushed to my wife’s aid and immediately helped her to her feet.

As you might expect, it took several days for all the elements of “healing wanting to happen” to surface and be worked through between us.

Unlearning Learned Helplessness

Drung_Girls_Accident

Lindsey, what’s WRONG with you?

No matter how ideal our childhood, we all have traumatic experiences buried in the unconscious, implicit memory fibers of our neural network. None of us escapes childhood unscathed. By virtue of the simple fact of being children, with stress-regulating mechanisms still developing, we inevitably encounter experiences where we feel overwhelmed and helpless. Our first haircut, a playground bully, a visit to the dentist – any of them can turn out to be more than a stress match for our developing neural network to be able to easily emotionally regulate. Because the body and brain are primarily built for movement, anytime as children we find ourselves feeling stuck and unable to move, the risk of forming a traumatic memory is significantly increased. Assemble a large collection of such memories and we end up with a brain severely compromised in its ability to process energy and information, especially under stress.

And reliably doing so skillfully, can sometimes make for a challenging walk in the park.

When I turned 40 years old I made the decision to transition from being a carpenter, mostly working for wages, to become a spec builder. I would take on the building responsibilities of the whole house, from foundation to rooftop. In order to finance my transition into what was essentially a significantly different business, I periodically ran up bills on any number of credit cards and then paid everything off once my projects were complete and cash flowed freely. I always felt uneasy about this way of operating, but my brain struggled to come up with any better creative financing options.

One day I opened a bill from Chase Bank and took a look at the interest rate. It was 29%! I assumed there was some kind of mistake. While reading the fine print I realized why it’s “fine” – it’s shameful and they don’t really want anyone to read it (much like the Terms of Service tech companies force us to agree to). I grew up in an era where there were actual laws on the books against such usury. To think that my government had somehow allowed usury to become legal when I wasn’t looking went against everything I believed to be right, true and just about America.

Debt Machine

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about usury:

Usury is the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans intended to unfairly enrich the lender. A loan may be considered usurious because of excessive or abusive interest rates or other factors, but according to some dictionaries, simply charging any interest at all can be considered usury. Someone who charges usury can be called an usurer, but the more common term in English is loan shark. When Cato the Elder was asked what he thought of usury, he responded, “What do you think of murder.”

Over the years the nation’s banks have conspired with our elected representatives to – if not directly murder America’s citizenry – seriously compromise our health. Here’s how it happens.

Anxious Uneasy Feeling

While he probably didn’t understand the neurophysiology of stress, Cato clearly was able to trace the implications of being saddled with debt and being forced to pay interest on money borrowed. Many religions and spiritual organizations forbid the charging of interest on loans for very good reasons. Habitat for Humanity, for example, provides interest-free home mortgages to the families receiving their houses. I suspect it’s because spiritually realized beings, paying close attention to how interest-charging and paying feel in the body, could clearly see how it adversely impacted optimal health.

Uncertainty - Isolation - Control Loss - Conflict

The Four Horsemen of Stress: Uncertainty – Isolation – Control Loss – Conflict

One of the primary ways debt damages the brain then, is through neuroception. Neuroception, remember, is “threat detection without awareness.” Because the debt we owe rarely shows up as a living, breathing, in-your-face entity, our brain can frequently fail to consciously register it. But, our body rarely fails to feel it, usually beneath the radar of awareness.

There are four elements that contribute to increased stress and they frequently only register somatically – in the body – rather than consciously in the brain: uncertainty, isolation, loss of control and conflict (see, The Four Horsemen of Neuro-Annihilation). Being saddled with debt of any kind, to the extent it raises our stress levels – for example, being uncertain about where the money’s going to come from to pay off our debt, or feeling all alone under the burden of excessive debt – adversely affects our brain. Stress hormones in large numbers have been shown over and over to contribute to an increase in the death of existing brain cells as well as a reduction in the creation of new cells (neurogenesis) and to a decrease in the connections our existing cells make with each other (synaptogenesis). A primary critical factor is not whether or not we feel stressed, but how long that stress continues unabated (like say, over the length of a non-dischargeable 30 year school loan!?). The simple fact that a loan can never be discharged in bankruptcy can add unconsciously to our stress load. And the more we’re stressed, we become even more vulnerable to the further effects of stress, as this research shows. But here’s an important aspect: as our brain gradually becomes neurally compromised, few warning signals initially show up. But they do down the road.

Another insidious aspect to the debt stress so many of us are carrying is how it can frog-in-hot-waterishly increase over time. While we’re fully employed and able to manage the monthly loan payments, the stress load rarely goes allostatic on us. But what if we get laid off from our job? Or what if we become disenchanted with the ethics of our company and want to quit? Now suddenly the debt load we’re carrying becomes significantly heavier.

A Mountain of School Loan Debt

Cultural critic Thomas Frank, writing recently in Salon, goes into great detail about how higher education has transformed into a punishing predator by adopting many of the worst practices of the banking industry and consumer capitalism. And this past September, social commentator John Oliver, on Last Week Tonight, did a very disturbing segment on school loan debt that not surprisingly went viral. Turns out that student debt has tripled in the last decade, resulting in 7 out of 10 college grads leaving school in serious hock. For the first time in history, school loans have surpassed consumer debt, up past one trillion dollars. To paraphrase the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen, “A trillion here. A trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about … the seriously compromised health of our country’s citizens”… as a consequence of the stress load that debt places upon us.

Coda

Debt Stressed Brain Cover MayaI research and write this blog for one main reason: to help reduce suffering in the world. Understanding how my brain works and how it’s impacted by the people, places and things in my life has profoundly reduced my own day-to-day suffering. To my mind, understanding how debt adversely impacts neural functioning definitely falls under the category of suffering-reduction. Toward that end I have put together a 160 page book detailing the many different ways debt stress adversely impacts us, our brains and the people we love; but also what we might do to skillfully remedy it. You can support our work and research by purchasing a copy: Here’s the link: The Debt Stressed Brain (or you can simply fill out the form below).

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