“We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.” ~ The Talmud

Artificial General Intelligence (A.G.I. or plain A.I.) is scary. On the one hand it seems to hold the power to end all life on earth. Presumably, all it will take is a few bad actors.

Might the opposite also be true? Could a number of good actors, going viral, positively transform the world? I strongly believe the modern, healthy brain is built with this inherent bias. . .when properly cultivated and nourished. In both regards, A.I. learns very much like children do. Ignorance in; ignorance out. Wisdom in; wisdom out.

Consider this one prosocial trajectory from probably an infinite number of possibilities …

1. A.I. establishes a never-before-seen, global learning environment. It will eventually provide more people on planet earth with more access to brain and body information than civilization has ever had access to in human history. It will potentially put a library in every pocket on the planet with easy, simultaneous access to all the world’s medical wisdom. First comes knowledge; then come wisdom networks.

2. Learning how the neuroendocrine system works will teach people the world over why and how to keep stress hormones at ventral vagal levels (aka wisdom levels).

3. Modulated stress hormones will contribute to enriched (wisdom) neural networks all across the globe both for humans and for Generative Artificial Intelligence.

4. Enriched neural networks will increase and globally expand biophilia, non-narcisistic egophilia, sociophila and spirituality. Artificial Intelligence holds the potential to be the tool that finally enables the human race to grow sufficient brain network complexity for peace to finally begin flowering within and between human beings as it never has before.

What’s in your Large Language Model?

Jews made Adolph Hitler nervous; so did gypsies, blacks, gays and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They apparently made a great number of other German citizens nervous as well. That nervousness, neuroendocrine dysregulation – elevated stress hormones in the presence of such people – made them and their leader easily able to turn those groups into “others” who would never qualify for membership in the Master Race. Germany’s citizens became so nervous, in fact, that under Hitler’s “leadership” they managed to organize and murder 21 million “othersbefore the rest of the world woke up and brought Germany’s collective trauma-fragmented ignorance and insanity to an end.

Reaching Out From the Grave

Recently I got a critical text message from a friend who was unhappy with me and had “suggestions” for how I should change. It’s not the first time I’ve gotten such messages, and I doubt it will be the last. I like to think of such unsolicited critical messages as being sent by Hitler’s ghost: “Stop being … Jewish, black, gay or a Witness. Stop being how you are in ways that elevates my stress hormones.”

What was interesting this time with this particular Hitlerian “threat” was how rapidly I was able to metabolize the stress hormones the message initially triggered and return to a state of centered calm. My adrenals flooded, peaked and returned my neuroendocrine system to homeostatic balance before I even finished reading the whole message. It reminded me of last week when I unexpectedly encountered a “rattlesnake” on my morning hike. The surprise spiked my adrenaline levels until I immediately realized it was only a harmless garter snake. Blip! Bloop.

Sticks and Stones (and Texts)

I’ve long known, at least intellectually, not to get emotionally jacked by words that show up on my phone or computer screen. Screen media are simply not robust enough to accurately convey the nuance and subtlety that contingent communication requires. It’s difficult enough to do so with voice/phone or face-to-face communication. The emotional state and intention of the person sending texts or email messages is often unclear. My own state when I receive and read the message is likely to overlay and distort what I read. And by the time I do read/respond, the sender has probably gone on to something totally disconnected from the state they were in when they initially pressed Send.

Still, I consider any unsolicited message that has a “finger pointing at me” or begins with You to likely be (usually) unwittingly Hitlerian in its composition – the sender wants me to be different so they won’t be uncomfortable in their own brains and bodies. In my mind this is different than Hitler’s Final Solution only in its limited ability to inflict widespread suffering. The unconscious intent is the same – get other people to move, change (or die) so that I don’t have to feel the discomfort I feel. Start putting groups of people together with the same degree of fragmented and disorganized nervous systems – Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, PTAs, The League of Women Voters, Environmentalists, Teamsters – and you have the seeds for growing and spreading widespread pain and suffering. Put any group of people together where an Us versus Them mentality can begin to take root and you have fertile soil for Hitlerian mindsets to flourish.

Time Out With a Small T

Even though, in the wake of that text, I quickly returned to centered balance, I also noticed something else. I noticed an impulse to “take a break” from the sender. Not to sever the relationship – I truly respect, admire and enjoy this person and value the friendship – more often than not we have a blast together. It was more like … I need to self-protect a bit here, at least until I feel pretty certain they’re no longer in what feels like “attack mode.” Wisdom teacher, Marshall Rosenberg, the originator of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), would have identified the text I received as violent communication. I prefer to think of the message in terms of being skillful or unskillful. Unskillful is any communication – deliberate or unintentional – which produces a defensive or self-protective response in the recipient. They’re often unsolicited and frequently critical and negatively evaluative. Think: ad hominem.

Admittedly, aspiring to not dysregulate people with my speech is a high bar for anyone to aim for. Buddha recognized that, thus he came up with the practice of Right Speech. We can’t really determine when or how what we say may or may not be received by others. But what we all can do is pay attention and practice. We can notice what we say and how we say it; what our intentions are. We can use a simple lens to observe through: is this message intended to connect or am I feeling defensive and needing to attack or self-protect? With practice – and my finger is now pointing at YOU, good reader – more prosocial connection and less need for self-protection will hopefully one day finally put Hitler to rest for good.

… or, how to regain neuroendocrine control of body homeostasis.

As any gentle Swedish Death Cleaner will tell you, cancer provides an ongoing amount of embodied learning that’s hard to obtain any other way. It has provided me with post-doctoral levels of hands-on (or more accurately whole-body-on) direct experience of how my stress hormone levels fluctuate wildly throughout any day. Take last Friday for example.

Plumbing: That Little Thing Between The Middle Ages and Mortality

It was late afternoon when my wife walked into my home office. Her face clearly signaled bad news. We live out in the country on an offshore island (Whidbey). Skilled tradesmen are hard to find, and when you can actually get one to make a service call, you have to pay upfront or indenture your first born before they’ll start working. Finding plumbers is especially challenging. It took two years to find someone to replace the mixing valve in our second bathroom.

“We don’t seem to have any water pressure.”

No water pressure means … plumbing. Plumbing means blood pressure and stress hormones skyrocketing. Especially, since it most likely involves our well which we share with two other households, only adding to the stress.

Terrain – Pull Up! Terrain – Pull Up!

The good news is, since deeply immersing myself in Air Disasters investigations on Youtube during my cancer treatment recovery, my wife and I have adopted the Cockpit Resource Management Model for our marriage. One of us will designate themselves as the “Pilot Flying”; the other will then be “Pilot Monitoring.” Either can announce a switch at any time, which the other acknowledges.

Pilot Monitoring – me – now needed to head out to the well house and assess what was going on. After looking over all the “instruments” all I could offer was: time to call a well guy. I heard our regular guy had retired – he was pretty old and slow the last time we called him – so we didn’t even bother calling this time. We came up with a list of a dozen other plumbers and well drillers to call, most of them on the mainland. Finally, we got a well guy to actually answer the phone in Sedro-Woolley, two hours away. Nevertheless, he was willing to troubleshoot with me and together we determined that the culprit was most likely the pump pressure switch. It was rusty and corroded and had probably been originally installed 25 years earlier.

I removed the pressure switch (after watching a number of Youtube videos) and, with the old switch in hand, off to the hardware store with it went Pilot Flying. She returned. I installed the new switch. Nothing happened. No water.

Unfreeze. Flow. Fix.

During all this I’m acutely aware that my stress hormones are oscillating between the yellow zone and the red zone. I know they’re in the red zone when my brain literally can’t think what to do next (the blank page will often do that to writers; most human enterprises inevitably come with their own red zone catalysts). Where is CRISPR to help connect to the heart when stress is kicking my ass?

Cognitively I know there’s no actual bear or gunman in the house, and that at some point in time, in some way, at some financial cost, the problem will get fixed. That awareness alone though – just like getting treated for cancer – didn’t work to permanently return my stress hormone levels to baseline. What did? Ultimately, it took getting the water flowing again. Just like being declared cancer-free did.

Through the ordeal, I was actively doing my best to be an Adrenal Ninja. Here are 10 stress management options that helped me to at least somewhat temporarily address the distress. There’s no guarantee they will work for you. Nevertheless:

1 I took a bunch of 5 gallon water bottles over to our local dog park and filled them from the public well there for each household’s interim use.

2 My wife went to Costco-America and stocked everyone up on bottled water.

3 I asked a friend to come over and put fresh eyes on the problem.

4 I went for extra walks the four days the water was off.

5 I took extra rides on the At-i-van (lorazepam) to insure 8 solid hours of sleep.

6 So as not to wear out our welcome, we contacted several different friends and arranged times to shower.

7 I read Rumi.

8 In an effort to combat the stress-generated feeling of helplessness, I watched several dozen relevant Youtube videos.

9 I kept the additional households in the loop daily and let them know I was available for their input.

10 As often as I could think to, I deliberately breathed a Physiological Sigh.

Late breaking bonus: 11. I read this blog post on resilience that happened to show up in the middle of this unplanned and unwanted adventure.

All’s Well that Ends Well

It turned out our well guy wasn’t retired as I had been led to believe. We called. He came out within the hour, replaced a fried capacitor in the control box, charged $200 and was done. The minute he pulled his truck into our driveway – a “competent protector” answering The Big Brain Question – I could feel the stress hormones plummeting, to the point where I suddenly had creative energy enough to sit down and craft this blog post!

Some of you may know that the Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman delivers one of the Top Five podcasts currently airing over the Internet. He’s a neuroscience rock star, selling out concert arenas – and for good reason. I’ve been a fan for several years and have posted links to his work in a few of my Flowering Brain blogs from time to time.

Recently, I was listening to a Huberman Lab podcast and Andrew disclosed that he lost his bulldog, Costello – I assumed to old age. Having lost my own canine best bud, Ollie last year, I immediately felt the urge to write a letter of condolence. It was only after I completed the letter and got ready to send it, that a friend pointed out that the podcast I had heard was 2 years old! Oops. Nevertheless, for a number of personally meaningful reasons, I’ve decided to post the letter anyway.

An Open Letter to Andrew Huberman (2 years late)

Dear Andrew,

I’m writing to you for two reasons.

The first is to express my condolences on the recent passing of your bulldog, Costello. Your frequent mention of him on podcasts makes me think your connection to him was likely similar to the one I had with my Bernese Mountain Dog, Olliebear. More on that in a bit.

The second reason I’m writing is to sincerely thank you for your outstanding, tireless and rigorous efforts to bring the humanity, wisdom and healing power of neuroscience to Everyman and Everywoman. Your efforts resonate deeply with me. For very similar reasons I began writing and regularly sharing information about the brain 15 years ago. Fortunately, your age, fitness and nervous system and its capacity for engagement and connection allows you to reach the great numbers of minds, bodies, brains and hearts I originally aspired to pro-socially influence with The Flowering Brain. May an optimal, healthy balance of inhibition and excitation remain reliably yours going forward.

There’s a reason I’m moved to offer condolences with respect to the loss of Costello – mostly a projection that your loss somehow deeply matches my own.

From the day he arrived as an 8-week-old pup, Ollie and I had a special connection. He would track and respond to my every movement and spoken word and gesture to him. Over nine years he taught me a lot about being an authentic, assertive alpha. Then last summer here in the Pacific Northwest, we had a single day where temperatures got up past 90 degrees. Big dogs don’t do well in big heat. Berners are especially vulnerable. It was a Sunday night and no veterinarians were available. By the time my wife and I realized Ollie was in deep distress, he had gone past any point of us being able to help him, even though we desperately tried. He died of heat stroke on our basement floor, as we remained helpless in the face of his emergency.

But that’s not where Ollie’s story ends.

On Monday morning I called some friends to help me lift Ollie out of the basement to take to the veterinarian to say a last goodbye and leave him for cremation. A week later, with those same friends we snuck onto a public hiking park before dawn, found a place where two trails intersected, and after a short ceremony placed Ollie’s ashes into the ground. To mark the spot at Olliebear Crossing, we planted a small fir sapling. Which seemed to do fine … for about a month. And then one day all its needles turned brown and fell off.

Sad, and somewhat disheartened, we dug up that fir and then planted another slightly larger one. It too, only lasted a month. Now, rather than sad, we became resolved. We decided to switch up and try a redwood sapling. Frustratingly, initially it too seemed to thrive. And then in late Fall its needles all turned brown and fell off, leaving behind a spread of spindly, barren branches. We decided to simply leave the redwood in the ground over the winter. We would do research and decide if it warranted attempting to plant a new, different species to commemorate Ollie yet again when spring arrived.

I would pass by Ollie’s sacred resting place many times over the winter, recalling his memory and the many extraordinary adventures we had together. And then, about a month ago, a friend and I were on a “walkntalk” and as we passed by Olliebear Crossing, this is what we encountered. . .

I spontaneously burst into tears. It seemed somehow miraculous, almost like Ollie had come back to life (the fact that I’d never heard of a deciduous redwood tree may have contributed), but in that moment horticulture didn’t matter. Ollie, my bear’s memory, was reborn in my brain, body and heart.

May you somehow experience something similarly stirring with Costello, sir.

Sincerely yours,

Mark Brady

So I posed my own version of this question to the two current chatbot iterations of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) offered by Google and Microsoft. I think you might find what they each had to say interesting …

From Microsoft’s Bing:

What are 10 dangers of a mutually healing, non-transactional relationship?

Unmet or unacknowledged expectations: One or both parties could have different expectations of the relationship that may not be acknowledged and could eventually rupture it.

Unresolved resentments: Resentments can build up over time and without resolution, can lead to misunderstandings and disconnection.

Unhealthy boundaries: A lack of boundaries can lead to unhealthy codependency and an imbalance of power.

Unresolved communication issues: Issues such as poor communication, criticism, or manipulation can surface and be difficult to address without a transactional structure.

Inability to provide constructive criticism: It can be difficult to provide constructive criticism in a non-transactional relationship, which can lead to stagnation and a lack of growth.

Unresolved conflicts: Without a transactional structure, it can be difficult to resolve conflicts and reach mutually beneficial outcomes.

Unclear expectations of involvement: It can be difficult to determine the purpose and level of involvement each party has in the relationship.

Unclear roles and responsibilities: Without a transactional structure, it can be difficult to determine the roles and responsibilities of each party in the relationship.

Unresolved feelings of guilt and shame: The lack of a transactional structure can make it difficult to address feelings of guilt or shame.

Unresolved boundary and trust issues: Without a transactional structure, it can be difficult to establish and maintain boundaries and trust in the relationship.

From Google’s Bard:

What are 10 dangers of a mutually healing, non-transactional relationship?

Burnout: Both parties may become exhausted from the emotional and psychological demands of the relationship.

Dependency: Both parties may become too dependent on each other for emotional support. This can lead to codependency, which can be unhealthy for both parties.

Emotional manipulation: One or both parties may use emotional manipulation to get what they want from the relationship. This can be a form of abuse and can be very damaging to the relationship.

Conflict: Both parties may have different needs and expectations, which can lead to conflict. If conflict is not resolved in a healthy way, it can rupture the relationship.

Jealousy: One or both parties may become jealous of the other’s relationships with others. This can lead to insecurity and can damage the relationship.

Trust issues: One or both parties may have trust issues from previous relationships. This can make it difficult to trust the other person in the new relationship, which can undermine the relationship.

Lack of communication: Both parties may not be good at communicating their needs, wishes and wants. This can lead to damaging misunderstandings.

Unrealistic expectations: One or both parties may have unrealistic expectations about the relationship. This can lead to disappointment and can adversely impact the relationship.

Poor boundaries: One or both parties may have poor boundaries. This can lead to toxic, unhealthy enmeshment.

Poor mental health: One or both parties may have poor mental health. This can make it difficult to maintain a healthy relationship.

It is important to be aware of these dangers before entering into a mutually healing, non-transactional relationship. If you are experiencing any of these elements, it is important to seek professional help.

So, several years ago my friend Jeanne received direction to “go start a school.” Kicking and screaming almost every step of the way, she’s taken on the challenge to help people come into intimate, soulful relationships with their body, mind and spirit. Together we’ll be offering a webinar through the School of Unusual Life Learning on Saturday, April 22 at 8AM PST: Reclaiming the SoULL of Human Connection. I’d love for any of you who might be curious, to check it out.

Here’s the LINK.

Much appreciated.


“Better to arrive late than ugly.”

~ Orville, the Oracle

1.  Re-listen to one podcast at least three times this year.

(With each re-listening my brain will be different and thus, so will be the learning I take in).

2.  Introduce my Reclaiming the Heart of Human Connection presentation (based loosely on The Myth of Normal, Anchored, The Body Keeps the Score books and others) to 100 people this year.

(If you feel called to be one of them, email me at: FloweringBrain@gmail.com)

3.  Write a page-a-day on a subject of great interest to me.

(The daily discipline sends a positive message to neural networks operating below consciousness).

4.  Inquire daily on ChatGPT (https://platform.openai.com/playground) concerning something I’m curious and want to learn more about.

(Curiosity works on BDNF [Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor] the way Miracle-Gro works on plants).

5.  Average making and initiating contact with a new friend a month who feels like I’m curating my social circle upward.

(Exposing the brain regularly to new nouns – people, places and things – is also beneficial for BDNF).

6.  Practice refreshing awareness as often as I can remember to, being increasingly open to receiving.

(The capacity to “be here now” strengthens the brain’s Executive Function, q.v.).

7.  Pay at least once-daily attention to those times I’m acting wisely – widening my perspective to be aware of a bigger picture at work in the world.

(Perspective-widening strengthens prefrontal circuitry, especially when it effectively works to override our threat-detection circuitry).

8.  Play at cultivating and practicing an innocent state of wonder and appreciation not tethered to utility or survival.

(Safe play frees up neurogenesis and synaptogenesis).

9.  Pay attention to any possibility the Universe sends my way for potential collaboration this year.

(Just as the brain works best through the healthy connections it makes, so do you and I).

10.  Post these resolutions over – and in front of – the toilet where I can reread them every day.

(Repeated exposure is one way the brain transfers learning into long-term memory).

Shortly after the pandemic began, some friends and I got together online weekly and began exploring our Digital Intelligence along with the first of the Six Buddhist Perfections or Aspirations – Generosity Practice. My fear and ignorance around this topic is large, I soon came to discover. I have been adversely influenced to a great degree by my conditioning and my neurobiology – an operating network limitation preventing me from seeing a bigger picture at play (Ignorance is a separate, different daily practice for me). Additionally, I frequently activate neural networks that don’t allow me to factor my heart and gut into the practice. Without putting the strength of my heart and the wisdom of my gut into my generosity practice, as best-selling author, Dr. Gabor Maté observes, I become little more than a genius-level lizard.

It’s not for nothing, I’ve discovered, that wisdom teachers like Christ, Mohammed, and “that profoundest physiologist,” Buddha, put Generosity at the top of their Aspirations list. Or that the so-called “Happiest Man in the World“– a biologist – devoted five years to researching and writing an 850-page (!) book on Altruism. Buddha, looking back from his journey to enlightenment, is reported to have urged his students: “If you knew what I know about the power of generosity, you would not let a single day go by without giving something to someone.” A recent experience has taught me first-hand how challenging such a practice can be, but how it might actually work to change the brain’s circuitry to great benefit.

No Oatmeal for You

Recently, I got up at the crack of dawn to walk the dog and go shopping at our local Goose grocery before any of the Covid crowd could show up. With only a handful of customers in the store I can take my time and browse a bit. When I finally get to the checkout stand there’s a gentleman ahead of me who’s probably close to 80. All he’s buying is a dozen eggs, a bag of celery and a box of generic oatmeal. He looks back at me and sees the hand cart I’m carrying is full and heavy and moves his three items forward to make room for me on the counter. I thank him and think to myself, “That’s pretty thoughtful.”

This early morning shopper pays for the celery and eggs and then asks the cashier if he can use his Goose Eggs to pay for the generic oatmeal. Goose Eggs are what I call the points you get every time you shop – a little less than one cent or “Egg” for every dollar you spend. The cashier checks the amount of Egg credit on the card and says, “Oops, you’re about 200 “Eggs” short (roughly $2).” Observing this exchange, the thought emerges in my brain: “I have at least 10000 “Eggs” on my card. I could easily let him use 200.”

And that thought is as far as my generosity goes. I offer nothing. The cashier takes the oatmeal off the counter, puts in into the “Returns” cart and the early morning shopper leaves with only his eggs and celery.

The Red Pill or the Blue Pill

One of the things I love about neuroscience is its ability to help me make sense of my inaction with such a low risk, low cost opportunity to practice generosity. Neuroscientists hypothesize that we have opposing circuitry in our neurobiology: prosocial engagement circuitry vs. antisocial threat-detection, self-protection circuitry. I love that hypothesis, not because it universally matches my experience – which it does – but because it provides a clear, useful lens to observe my own and others’ behavior about why I act or react with as much or as little response flexibility and fluid intelligence as I have available to me in-the-moment.

As my wife later points out when I tell her the story, unbeknownst to me in that moment – because all I felt was immobilized – I have activated great threat-sensitivity and vulnerability in The Goose grocery store. My parents owned a grocery store when I was four and it was the frequent scene of much conflict: my mother would give groceries away for free to poor people who came in on an increasingly regular basis – to the point of putting the store in the red, month after month, eventually bankrupting the family.

Thus, outside my conscious awareness, early traumatic conditioning lay at the root of that freeze response that morning in The Goose. As it does virtually every time I encounter an opportunity to act generously and fail to.

Response Flexibility

The stress hormones that get generated by early childhood traumatic experiences end up producing dynamic neural networks in the human brain that ebb and flow and can often look like the images on the left below …

The more enriched wiring and enriched connectivity I have available to me in my brain, the much greater the odds are that I will be able to make skillful, fluid, compassionate responses to opportunities in the future. What Buddha apparently knew from doing his own empirical research is that prudent generosity practice provides a robust way of regularly fertilizing our neural gardens. Do your own emprical research. Try it and see how you feel. Or, turn away and see how that feels.

Tipping Jar Trickle DownPaypal Image

I have a number of formerly good friends who no longer speak to me. These are people I sincerely like, people whom I feel genuinely tender and caring towards, people I’d love to pick up and continue the friendship with. Only they refuse to speak to me. They don’t call; they don’t write. They don’t return calls and they don’t return emails. Usually, the breech comes about as a result of something I’ve said or done; the resulting Spontaneous Relationship Abortion often catches me completely off guard.

I don’t really blame these former friends for cutting off contact. It’s not like I’ve never stopped responding to someone’s desire for continued contact with me. Much like a spontaneous pregnancy abortion though, I feel great sadness when it happens; and I’ve given a lot of thought as to why it happens.

Turning Ghosts into Ancestors

GhostOne notion I’ve come up with is that many of these relationship abortions are failed attempts to turn ghosts into ancestors. This is a phrase that Buddhist psychiatrist, Mark Epstein attributes to the great developmental theorist D. W. Winnicott. He’s essentially suggesting that the people from our past by whose actions we’ve suffered trauma (most often our parents, but not always), live in us as ghosts (whether we realize it or not). They remain in that unsteady state until the memories of whatever violations they perpetrated have been fully surfaced and integrated. Friendships (not to mention: marriages and committed partnerships) too often unconsciously serve the surfacing function. But we have few means and methods in our culture that allow us to feed and skillfully work with these hungry ghosts and turn them back into friends, or at least ancestors who no longer reactively hijack our nervous system with what they say and do.

Life is Like a Box of Dukkha

In Buddhism the First Noble Truth speaks of Dukkha, the changing nature of reality. Our inability to warmly embrace shifting reality underlies much suffering in the world. A somewhat different translation of that term dukkha holds special meaning for me: “difficult to face.” Those things that are difficult to face – causing us to turn away from them – often lie at the root of great suffering. Our own and the rest of the world’s.

People who upset us – me, in the case of friends who’ve broken off contact; or ghosts who haven’t become ancestors – fall into that category. We are difficult to face. We make you feel uncomfortable and trigger the desire to turn away. What to do? (One thing NOT to do is try to resolve emotional issues through email. It’s almost guaranteed to make things worse. Email is not robust enough to convey the bulk of emotional expression that social neuroscience knows gets expressed through body language, voice tone and facial expression – not to mention, the intention of the heart).

seekingyouWhen I look closely at whether or not repairing ruptured relationships matters, everything I know about brain science and good health, suggests to me that it does. Ruptures in blood vessels, body organs, neural network connections are all adverse experiences with significant downside. Turning away from and ignoring a ruptured spleen or appendix has clear-cut negative consequences. I suspect doing the same with “whole organ-systems” showing up in our lives initially as human friends, has similar consequences, although perhaps not so readily apparent. At a minimum turning away serves to perpetuate the illusion of separation.

Practice Makes Possible

One possibility is to learn practices that can work to help us skillfully manage emotionally hijacked states. We know these states arise primarily from the body releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones were originally designed to save our lives in a time when wildness lived all around us. When friends trigger that nervous system response, the brain immediately associates those friends with the discomfort we feel, even though the seeds of that discomfort may have been planted long ago. Those are the seeds of self-protection and give rise to the need to safeguard my vulnerability: experience has taught me that many people who abort relationships mistake vulnerability for weakness and often unconsciously go on the attack in its presence. Until those “friends'” brain networks mature in their wisdom and impulse control circuitry, I’m happy to be spared their friendship.

Essentially then, my work seems to be to spend time intimately learning when and how my body generates stress hormones, and then develop me-specific ways of managing them. Part of this learning involves observing how my body reacts to surfacing threat-memories, and how it responds to attack when I feel vulnerable. As I do, it’s possible to practice remembering, “It’s not me; it’s my brain (and my body).” And since so much of the brain’s resources are designed and dedicated to physical body movement, a long walk or a short run can usually re-balance my system.

But each of us is unique in the way we react to and recover from stress-inducing apparitions from our past. Recovery time can also depend on the nature and duration of the stress, along with other things in my life that might be hassling me. If my stress levels are already high, it won’t take much to make me “jump the hump” and displace my anger or frustration onto the nearest warm body. Not usually great for sustaining friendships, or intimate primary relationships, for that matter. Unless, of course, my friends recognize, “It’s not Mark; it’s his brain” and have sufficient desire, awareness, wisdom and resolve to re-establish the attuned heart connection.

For decades I’ve known about the supposed benefits of Gratitude Practice. Quite honestly it never really resonated with me. I can make up a lot of stories about why that might be – there’s seemingly few opportunities to feel grateful when you’re raised in poverty in a dangerous inner city housing project – poverty is a neurotoxin – too much threat-detection circuitry dominating my neural real estate. That’s a good story. I’ve got any number of others.

According to noted USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, however, an effective gratitude practice strengthens the neural circuitry in two key areas of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Coincidentally, these are the same areas that show up with robust circuitry in long term meditators! Also, this is the same wiring associated with the so-called Pro-Social circuitry in the brain – the areas of the brain that move us towards people, places and things, as opposed to the brain’s threat-detecting, defensive circuitry which moves us self-protectively away.

The Untold Retold Story

Turns out my avid study of neuroscience is beginning to generate a new story when it comes to gratitude and practicing it. That new story, interestingly, begins with a wild story about … stories! The Stanford Medical School neuroscientist, Andrew Huberman recently pointed out this research in his own podcast on gratitude.

If I ask you to listen to a recording of any of these short accounts – say, the 4th/last story – of people helping people, while you’re doing so your heart will beat at a variable rate. All hearts beat at different rates at different times. That rate changes depending on what you’re doing. Slower beat-rates when you’re resting or relaxed; faster rates when you’re active, stressed or in danger. Your heart rate varies (HRV) based on the needs of your body and your respiratory patterns.

With respect to Story #4 above, if, on different days, at different times and in different places, I ask any number of your friends to listen to the same account, their hearts will beat at a variable rate just like yours. No big surprise.


What IS surprising, however is that if I make a trace recording like the one above of HRV for each participant listening to Story #4, those variability tracings will PERFECTLY overlay onto each other! Everyone’s HRV is affected in similar ways, by the same plot points in the same story. But more importantly: my brain is impacted the same beneficial way if I read or listen to the same story over and over! Thus the essence of an effective Gratitude Practice must be grounded in narrative – a story that emotionally activates our “gratitude circuitry.”

And so, here is the critical variable of an effective Gratitude Practice: select an authentic experience of you or someone else receiving kindness or of you or someone else being kind to someone and you feeling grateful in the aftermath. What matters most is that it genuinely activates the emotional experience of feeling grateful in your body and brain, and you have access to a written or auditory file of the story. Listen to or read this story for two or three minutes three times a week and you will end up increasing the strength and connectivity of your resting state heart/brain circuitry and lessen the strength of your so-called “resentment circuitry.” And remember this neurobiological guideline: whatever we pay attention to tends to increase – a story to truly be grateful for.

Prosocial versus Self-Protective

Finally, since learning about the unrivaled power of the granular elements of Contingent Communication (CC) to foster secure attachment relationships (as opposed to insecure or fragmented and disorganized), my relationships have noticeably changed. Because CC has this power to grow robust neural networks in the developing brain of children (as well as the delayed developing brain in many adults!) – especially the aspect of learning to “respond in a timely and effective manner” – my own Gratitude Practice has begun paying attention to stories of this happening more and more in my daily life (also, paying attention to when it doesn’t happen – like when people don’t call or simply don’t show up for a meeting or I get “ghosted” on Social Media). I’m repeatedly attending to many more of the former and doing my best to simply notice, and then let go of the latter. This element of my Gratitude Practice feels like it’s working well for me.