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“Every characteristic absence of spirituality, every piece of common vulgarity, is due to an inability to resist a stimulus.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Thursday morning I got up while it was still dark, put the dogs on the back porch, and mindlessly forgot to close the sliding door behind me. My short term memory ain’t what it used to be. Not unexpectedly, Archie Farchie, our long-haired, smushy-faced kitty snuck out. Fortunately, it was foggy and cold and he walked around to the kitchen door and immediately began pounding on it for me to let him back in before any owls, eagles or coyotes got a scent of him.

Molly's scarf unraveledDonald Trump was born 43 days before me. We both worked as builders. But doing the nail-hammering, lumber-carrying work of building single-family houses out in the country is somewhat different than sitting in an office and orchestrating the building of Manhattan skyscrapers. My guess would be Manhattan building from behind a desk is not only more stressful, but provides fewer opportunities for beneficially metabolizing and discharging stress hormones. As a result, I’m guessing my current short-term memory challenges are nothing compared to Donald Trump’s, even though he has an army of cabinet, press and personal secretaries. I suspect we’ll soon find out.

Presidential Stress

I’m also guessing being a semi-retired neuroscience blogger living on an offshore island is pretty much stress-free compared to living in urban centers with hostile media and Secret Service Agents around to constantly neuroceptively underscore how dangerous life is for you as the leader of the free world. If you look at before & after photos of any president, you can see how the stress has physically adversely impacted their outside appearance. What we can’t readily see is how it’s impacted their inside appearance – their brains and other somatic systems. But neural networks unraveling leave Twitter clues.

Here are a few ways (of literally hundreds) that we know Chronic, Unpredictable, Toxic Stress (CUTS) – the inevitable byproduct of any presidency – adversely impacts neurobiology, especially the human heart:

Compromised Executive Function

Obama photo timewarp.jpgOf the dozen or so elements that make up Executive Function – impulse control, wise thinking, emotional equanimity – probably the one that a world leader needs most is … the ability to strategically handle global complexity and clearly see the big picture.

Frequently, people who have trouble controlling emotional outbursts also have difficulty imagining and thinking in big picture scenarios. They might have little ability to see all the things that make America less than great, like the expanding circles of suffering that result when you persecute minorities or the disabled or underpay large segments of the work force.

Complex thinking involves not only Theory of Mind – the ability to know and accommodate thinking that is different from yours – but also Theory of Heart – the absolute, non-cognitive capacity to walk compassionately in another person’s shoes. When human development operates with great Theory of Heart, you can’t NOT feel empathy for the suffering of others. It’s just how you’ve developmentally evolved. Think: Jesus on the cross begging forgiveness for his persecutors. The neurobiologist in him knew what they were doing to their own brains and bodies – that once you perpetrate one, it’s hard to “unsee” or “unfeel” a crucifixion. It lives in your owneurobiology for life.

Compromised Default Mode Network (DMN)

The Default Mode Network (DMN) in your brain is the term used to describe how interconnected specific neural structures are wired and how efficiently they function when you’re supposedly at rest. When our DMN is compromised, according to University of Western Ontario neuropsychiatrist Ruth Lanius, we may overreact or have knee-jerk reactions to disagreements and discord. We may become hyper-aggressive, argumentative, defensive and angry. This pretty much sounds like Candidate Trump to me. I don’t expect President Trump to grow significantly greater Default Mode Network capacity that will enable him to change very much over the next few years. In fact, evidence from past presidents suggests just the opposite.

Excessive Inflammation

bush-agingtonylamarca.jpgOur brain takes out the neuro-trash while we sleep. When we don’t get sufficient sleep, waste byproducts of brain functioning build up. Along with that buildup comes excessive inflammation. And along with inflammation comes a whole host of conditions that do not bode well for executive decision-making. You can see a partial list HERE. The British medical journal Lancet has identified some cases of inflammation as a trigger for psychosis.

Compromised Gastrointestinal Microbiota

Trump’s diet might be what ultimately undoes him. When diet is not a concern, we don’t tell people we’re taller than we are so that our Body Mass Index won’t betray the fact that we are “overfat,much like 76% of the rest of the world. UCLA medical researcher, Emeran Mayer, MD, asserts that “it is almost unthinkable that the gut is not playing a critical role in mind states.” Since the nation’s “fast food president” is reported to eat more than his share of KFC and McDonald’s Big Macs, we can expect that a lot of fast food policy decisions are probably going to turn out to be less than optimal. The fate of the world may well rest in the hands of the White House Chef. Provided Trump doesn’t follow presidential precedent and end up spending very little actual time there.

To underscore these points, here’s an Enchanted Loom review from Nobel Prize Winner Eric Kandel to help with your memory and your own digestion: In Search of Memory. Feel free to enjoy it and pass it along to the president-elect.

Probably. But it’s not that easy for most of us, due to one little brain design flaw. More about that in a bit.

When I was 25 years old I decided to sell my half of a very profitable business that required me to do almost no work whatsoever (it was a military hardware manufacturing business obtaining lucrative U. S. Air Force subcontracts and getting others to fulfill them. We would easily undercut large corporations like Lockheed, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney on the outrageous prices they were charging for their proprietary parts). I was young then, and my brain operated pretty unconsciously. If you can believe it, considerably more than the mostly unconscious way it operates these days (but not THAT unconsciously: last month I found out that the stress of continuing to run that business after I left contributed to my former partner dying of cancer 12 years ago!).

When the Unconscious Speaks…

enchanted-cottage-2Be that as it may, at 25 my unconscious brain decided it wanted me to start working much harder – by becoming a housebuilder. In order to be able to go along and make sense of this decision that my un- conscious brain had made for me, it cherry-picked a few facts and made up a story. The story was a simple one: I’ll get to work outside; I can go anywhere in the country I want and find a job; I will one day be able to build my own house.

Little did I suspect that a much larger reason my unconscious brain very likely made this decision for me was because, with my extensive ACEs-filled, early trauma history, if I didn’t begin spending a significant part of my workday moving my body and doing what I could to clear the disorganizing somatic markers out of my neurobiology, I would be consigned to living a much shorter life. I would most likely have predeceased my dead business partner, Dave. As it was, by the early age of 20 I had come close to death at least a half dozen times already – three serious motorcycle accidents, one gang fight, once hit by a car riding a bicycle, once almost drowning in Lake Quassapaug.

So, in essence, my unconscious brain was doing its best to have my back. It was trying hard to affirmatively answer The Big Brain Question for me. All I had to do was get my ass out of its way. Often easier said than done.

Dreamy Dream No. 1

Anyway, Dream No. 1, reasonably enough, was to one day build my own house – get the fundamental shelter requirement out of the way. A pretty concrete, straightforward dream. Except dreams only begin to take shape when you mindset them into goals. Goals require planning. There are steps you have to take. The steps to this goal were easy to imagine, write down, and consciously work towards accomplishing:

  1. Learn whatever I need to so I can build a house.
  2. Get money to buy land to build it on.
  3. Get money to pay for plans so I know what to build.
  4. Get money to buy materials to build it with.
  5. Get money to pay subcontractors to help me build it.

It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that an important element in realizing this dream is going to be: get money. That proved to be the biggest hurdle, as it is for many people in the pursuit of dreams. Remember, there was no crowdfunding – no Gofundme, Kickstarter or Indiegogo – around in those days. And even if there was, it’s unlikely that a Give-Money-to-Mark-So-He-Can-Build-His-Dream-House campaign would have been very successful.

What’s In the Way IS the Way

But there was an even bigger hurdle that I had no clue about – the neurological structural design flaw I mentioned at the top of this post. Once I skillfully addressed that even a little bit, all the pieces came together and the house got built, almost as if by magic. I call that hurdle The Prefrontal Paradox. the-prefrontal-paradox-1-638Essentially, it operates like this: a robustly wired, massively integrated ventro- medial prefrontal cortex is where our Executive Functions call home. It’s the one thing required in order to conceive, execute and carry out the steps (especially the money steps for people who aren’t comfortably raised in the world of money) necessary to get a dream house built. But in order to grow a robustly wired, massively integrated ventro- medial prefrontal cortex, you need to already have … a robustly wired, massively integrated ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Hey! What do you know! I’m going to be giving a free, hour-long internet exploration on just how to go about growing a robustly wired, massively integrated vmPFC when you don’t already have one. It will be on Sunday, February 5th at 5AM Pacific Time (I’m using the early hour to test your commitment and dream desire here – if your dreams aren’t worth getting up early for on one single day of the year, then that’s good to know about yourself. Besides, what better way to celebrate National Shower with a Friend Day?). Email me if you’re at all interested. Invite your partners and shower friends: prefrontalparadox@gmail.com

Probably. But it’s not that easy for most of us, due to one little brain design flaw. More about that in a bit.

When I was 25 years old I decided to sell my half of a very profitable business that required me to do almost no work whatsoever (it was a military hardware manufacturing business obtaining lucrative U. S. Air Force subcontracts and getting others to fulfill them. We would easily undercut large corporations like Lockheed, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney on the outrageous prices they were charging for their proprietary parts). I was young then, and my brain operated pretty unconsciously. If you can believe it, considerably more than the mostly unconscious way it operates these days (but not THAT unconsciously: last month I found out that the stress of continuing to run that business after I left contributed to my former partner dying of cancer 12 years ago!).

When the Unconscious Speaks…

enchanted-cottage-2Be that as it may, at 25 my unconscious brain decided it wanted me to start working much harder – by becoming a housebuilder. In order to be able to go along and make sense of this decision that my un- conscious brain had made for me, it cherry-picked a few facts and made up a story. The story was a simple one: I’ll get to work outside; I can go anywhere in the country I want and find a job; I will one day be able to build my own house.

Little did I suspect that a much larger reason my unconscious brain very likely made this decision for me was because, with my extensive ACEs-filled, early trauma history, if I didn’t begin spending a significant part of my workday moving my body and doing what I could to clear the disorganizing somatic markers out of my neurobiology, I would be consigned to living a much shorter life. I would most likely have predeceased my dead business partner, Dave. As it was, by the early age of 20 I had come close to death at least a half dozen times already – three serious motorcycle accidents, one gang fight, once hit by a car riding a bicycle, once almost drowning in Lake Quassapaug.

So, in essence, my unconscious brain was doing its best to have my back. It was trying hard to affirmatively answer The Big Brain Question for me. All I had to do was get my ass out of its way. Often easier said than done.

Dreamy Dream No. 1

Anyway, Dream No. 1, reasonably enough, was to one day build my own house – get the fundamental shelter requirement out of the way. A pretty concrete, straightforward dream. Except dreams only begin to take shape when you mindset them into goals. Goals require planning. There are steps you have to take. The steps to this goal were easy to imagine, write down, and consciously work towards accomplishing:

  1. Learn whatever I need to so I can build a house.
  2. Get money to buy land to build it on.
  3. Get money to pay for plans so I know what to build.
  4. Get money to buy materials to build it with.
  5. Get money to pay subcontractors to help me build it.

It becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that an important element in realizing this dream is going to be: get money. That proved to be the biggest hurdle, as it is for many people in the pursuit of dreams. Remember, there was no crowdfunding – no Gofundme, Kickstarter or Indiegogo – around in those days. And even if there was, it’s unlikely that a Give-Money-to-Mark-So-He-Can-Build-His-Dream-House campaign would have been very successful.

What’s In the Way IS the Way

But there was an even bigger hurdle that I had no clue about – the neurological structural design flaw I mentioned at the top of this post. Once I skillfully addressed that even a little bit, all the pieces came together and the house got built, almost as if by magic. I call that hurdle The Prefrontal Paradox. the-prefrontal-paradox-1-638Essentially, it operates like this: a robustly wired, massively integrated ventro- medial prefrontal cortex is where our Executive Functions call home. It’s the one thing required in order to conceive, execute and carry out the steps (especially the money steps for people who aren’t comfortably raised in the world of money) necessary to get a dream house built. But in order to grow a robustly wired, massively integrated ventro- medial prefrontal cortex, you need to already have … a robustly wired, massively integrated ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Hey! What do you know! I’m going to be giving a free, hour-long internet exploration on just how to go about growing a robustly wired, massively integrated vmPFC when you don’t already have one. It will be on Sunday, February 5th at 5AM Pacific Time (I’m using the early hour to test your commitment and dream desire here – if your dreams aren’t worth getting up early for on one single day of the year, then that’s good to know about yourself. Besides, what better way to celebrate National Shower with a Friend Day?). Email me if you’re at all interested. Invite your partners and shower friends: prefrontalparadox@gmail.com
Can Rewiring Your Brain Make Your Dreams Come True?

Shortly before I turned 18, a juvenile court judge strongly suggested I would be doing myself and the citizens of New Haven, Connecticut a big favor if I found a new town to live in. New Haven judges were notoriously hardcore – they lived in caves, afterall – so I wisely took this judge’s “suggestion” to heart.

Conveniently enough, some friends were taking a 3000 mile road trip to The City of Angels to begin school that Fall. I thought it might be smart to sign on and join them, only I had no job and no money. What I did have though, were friends and parents of friends. I went around to all of them and asked to borrow money to make the trip. I earnestly promised to pay each of them back, with interest. By summer’s end I managed to raise the princely sum of … $150, which I tucked neatly away into an A2 size envelope for safe keeping. A few days before I was scheduled to leave town, I wrote out Thank You Notes to all the people who’d lent me money. I tucked each of those notes into its own A2 envelope, addressed and stamped each and tucked them into my single backpack – the only baggage I would be taking with me to LA. Or so I thought.

Route-66-1.jpg

As my friends and I hit the outskirts of New Haven on departure day, I asked them to pull over and let me mail the Thank You notes. It wasn’t until 3 hours down the road when we pulled into a rest stop for lunch that I realized what I’d done with the $150 – I’d unconsciously made some postal worker’s day unexpectedly richer. $150 then was roughly worth the equivalent of $1100 today.

What I mostly remember about that incident is the feeling of loss, terror and dread that came with the realization that I’d dropped the money envelope into the mailbox along with the Thank You notes. It felt like my very survival was now threatened. Here I was, hundreds of miles from home – soon to be 3000 – with no job and no money – a stranger in a truly strange land. My friends thought it was haha funny, however: they nicknamed me, Markis J. Mynusmoney.

Fast Forward Fifty Years

After exploring holiday gift possibilities with my daughter this year a few weeks before Christmas, she convinced me that the best possible gift I could give her would be … money. This goes against all my holiday conditioning, but Amanda can be very convincing. So one morning I got up early and searched around for a gift envelope and a card to put some cash into. What did I find? An A2 envelope and a “Kick Butt Take Names” card that my friend Joanna designed. That felt like a suitable message matching my daughter’s general expressive holiday energy.

I decide to send Amanda $200. I go to my small cash stash to count out four $50 bills. Except … there are only 3 fifties there. What the heck: Let’s make it a $150 gift then. I put the three bills and the card into the envelope, address, stamp and seal it and lay it on my desk to take out to the mailbox later that morning.

The day unfolds with the usual work in my office – researching, writing, phone calls, bill paying. Around 9AM I gather up a bunch of papers and junk mail and walk out into the living room. As I pass the woodstove, I decide to toss the papers onto the fire that’s burning low. The papers instantly bring renewed energy to it, but I suddenly have a distinctly uneasy feeling. “I should probably put stuff like that in the paper recycling,” is the thought that goes through my mind in response to that body feeling.

It’s not until lunchtime, when I go looking for the gift envelope for Amanda that I realize what the distinctly uneasy feeling was actually about: all I can see are the 3 fifty dollar bills going up in flames. Suddenly, I’m sick to my stomach beyond all measure. Instantly, images of the experience of depositing my only $150 in the mailbox outside New Haven decades ago surface in memory. It feels like I’m in great danger all over again – with the future completely uncertain, and my ability to take good, conscious care of myself fully at risk. How could I be so mindless all over yet again?

In THIS Moment, Everything’s All Right

Fortunately, I have practices that I’ve been doing for years to help calm me down when accidents happen or traumatic memories resurface. Immediately, I leash up Olliebear and we head off to the Log Trail. On the way over, I take mindful breaths, exhaling longer than I’m inhaling. dog-walking1.jpgWhen we get to the trailhead, I immediately let loose with a long stream of invectives, cursing every thing and every one I can think to curse. Ollie doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, but he likes the energy. Off we go, jogging deliberately up the windy trail.

By the time we return back to the trailhead 40 minutes later, my brain and body have calmed down considerably. When we get back home, I take out another card and another A2 envelope and once again address it to Amanda. This time, however, I write out and enclose a holiday check.

This week’s Enchanted Loom looks at many of the reasons trauma often repeats and has it’s unfortunate way with us. Check out the review of Donna Jackson Nakazawa’a book, Childhood Disrupted here.

The first time a friend ever betrayed me stands clear in memory more than 60 years later. I was 8 years old. My sister Andrea, older by 7 years, had prepared dinner and called me to come in and eat. I refused. I wanted to stay out and keep playing with my friends. Ann became angry and frustrated. She began making threats: “If you don’t get in here right now, you’re not getting any dinner now or later.” “Don’t let me get ahold of you.”

I, of course, made faces and tantalized her until she suddenly sprang from the porch and came running after me. Naturally I turned to run, but the moment I did, the friend I was playing with – Junior Jackson – grabbed both my arms and held me until my sister got there. She took me from Junior’s grasp and holding one of my arms tight, slapped me hard repeatedly across the back as she dragged me toward the house. I can still feel her hand where she repeatedly hit me as I write this decades later: it’s mostly in my mid-back, just below my right scapula.

trump.jpgAlienation Is Not Integration

Junior Jackson and I never played together again after that betrayal. A year later, just as she was teaching me to dance, my sister Andrea would “abandon” me, literally tossed out into the street by our mother for becoming pregnant at age sixteen. And she and I were never close again.

For the incidents I just described, and for other reasons as well, neither of them felt safe or comfortable for me to be around ever again. They had apparently significantly altered my stress profile – how my body triggered and released stress peptides and hormones in their presence. They made my body and brain feel the way Donald Trump often makes my body and brain feel – tense, contracted and on guard. My face doesn’t spontaneously break into a smile when I see pictures or think of them.

A Frog Went a Urocortin

It turns out there is one specific stress peptide that appears to play a major role in the lack of joy, affection and affinity I feel for my older sister, Junior Jackson and Donald Trump. It’s called Urocortin 3. Urocortin 3 is different than 1 or 2. The main difference is that it is primarily responsible for the release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex. Cortisol and adrenaline are the two major stress hormones. It’s difficult to feel kindly toward or be friends with people who involuntarily and repeatedly trigger excessive amounts of stress hormones in us.

Difficult, but not impossible. Because, like many parts of the brain, which we know changes throughout our lifespan due in part to neuroplasticity, our stress profile can change as well. People, places and things that made us nervous at one time, we can come to feel real affection for or at least neutral about. We can actually learn to master the ability to prevent our adrenals from making us their bitch!

To Haven or Haven Not

One method that anecdotal evidence suggests might be effective in changing our stress profile is called “Havening.” It’s a treatment protocol recently developed in the United Kingdom that appears to be a creative blend of Emotional Freedom Therapy (EFT) and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR). Here are the 8 simple steps:

1. Find an exact word or phrase that represents your current emotional difficulty. Scale the word/phrase from 1-10, with 10 being the highest/most distressing score.

2. Clear your mind or think about something nice.

3. Use both your hands to tap on both your collarbones while opening and closing your eyes twice.

emdr.jpg4. Continue tapping, keep your head still, and move your eyes fully to the left and to the right, and then down to the left and down to the right, and finally in a full circle clockwise, and then counter-clockwise, keeping your head still.

5. Place your arms across your chest and close your eyes; while your eyes are closed, imagine walking up a flight of stairs and count out loud from 1 to 20 with each step you take.

6. Gently rub the sides of your arms, for the duration of the counting.

7. Re-scale the emotion 1-10. Repeat the procedure with the visual element and auditory element changed slightly; i.e. instead of climbing up stairs visualize skipping a rope and instead of counting 1-20, hum Happy Birthday.

8. Allow your arms to drop and relax, move your eyes in circles and then close your eyes, while stroking the sides of your arms again 5 times and speak the words “Let It Go” on the final stroke. Finally, open your eyes and scale the feeling 1-10 again. Repeat until the emotion is 1-3.

Does Havening actually work? There’s one way to find out. Try it with a friend to bear witness. If you begin to feel compassion towards sisters, friends and presidents with broken hearts and vulnerable brains just like yours, well, then you’ll know the answer.

Once again I’m up early and I’m feeling the all-too-familiar feeling of disaffection and disgust. I’m in the upstairs bathroom and I’m standing on the electronic scale. It measures weight in pounds or kilos, if I’m feeling especially European in this morning’s disgust. One third of the weight I managed to lose in order to teach my Weight, Weight, Don’t Weigh Me class have made a creepy, surreptitious return: the number 222 is flashing brightly back in my face! It feels like the Devil’s working hard to get me to 666!

koala-brain.jpg“It’s not you, it’s your brain,” I have to firmly remind myself. And it is: my structurally less-than-perfectly-functioning brain. I console myself by calling up and rereading this study, which serves to remind me that I’m in massively major good company with my weight management struggle: 99% of overweight people who gain weight and then lose it, gain it back and more over 10 years. 99%!

I also remind myself that my brain has once again allowed me to fall victim to The Empowerment Delusion.

The Empowerment Delusion

The Empowerment Delusion seduces people into believing that they can create health or wealth or anything material by willing it, declaring it, or petitioning God to make it so. A corresponding belief is the delusion that poverty or sickness is my own fault: my bad thoughts, negative ideas, stinkin’ thinkin’, lack of faith and such cause all my misery. These condemnations obviously fail to take into account not only the unfathomable complexity of my daily life and the environment I live it in – with all its compelling allurements – but the similar complexity of my own brain and body. An essential, critical fact that science reminds me of over and over is: Whatever I Might Believe … It’s Probably a Bit More Complicated Than That.

The multi-billion-dollar self-help industry (of which weight management is a hefty component) is largely driven by The Empowerment Delusion: the false belief that feeling empowered, or believing you are empowered, means that you are empowered. Prosperity preachers like the Reverend Ike or Joel Osteen sell you religion as a way to exploit this brain vulnerability. We buy the hope and the promise rather than the truth of just how much time and focus and commitment and hard work success requires. I’m frequently reminded of a statement by a member of Mahatma Gandhi’s inner circle: “It sure takes a lot of money to keep Gandhi living in poverty.” The corollary for me might be: “It sure takes a lot of calories to keep Mark working hard to lose weight.” As any knowledgeable neuroscientist will tell you, feelings are real, but they are also very fleeting. Just like your net worth will be if you fall victim to The Empowerment Delusion.

The Time of Our Lives

Most significant behavior change takes time. Acquiring knowledge and skill takes repetition and practice. Physical cells in our brain and body need to be born, grow wires, make increasingly greater connections. Other cells have to disconnect and die (old learning that no longer serves us) to make room for the new ones. You can see the actual physical process of that happening at the microscopic level in this 2 minute video.

36fb837799b72e5dcb7b6ec9687b713a.jpgOf course, one challenge with much of this material is to find the middle path
between increasing our sensory capacities to apprehend the multiple levels of the real world and falling victim to the Empowerment Delusion. Not an easy path for many of us to navigate skillfully. Reverence for the extraordinary beauty, complexity and intelligence operating in the world will probably serve us well as a part of that path. But first we have to grow the network capacity to fully apprehend it and then greatly appreciate it.

The Three C’s

What might truly help us accomplish this remedial growth? What might be most worth our time and our brain’s energy to pay increasing attention to? If we’re to believe someone generally recognized as safe and spiritually mature, Shinzen Young might have some good advice for us. He suggests we are well-served spending the time of our lives cultivating concentration, clarity and calmness. Just ten minutes a day he claims can end up allowing us to live twice or three times the life we might otherwise just in terms of the depth of meaning and fulfillment we’re able to attain.

Is Shinzen offering self-help? Actually, he’s offering pretty much the opposite, because if you sincerely take his guidance to heart, what you’ll end up with is a “self” that is left with little concern about getting help at all. The self you’ll end up with will be one mostly concerned with selflessly helping others!

Which is what The Enchanted Loom is all about. Check out the review of Shinzen’s unself-help book, The Science of Enlightenment HERE.

I was 19 years old, joyfully cruising my Triumph Bonneville motorcycle down Woodman Avenue in Van Nuys, California one dusky summer evening, when I suddenly smashed straight into a woman coming towards me driving a Chevy Nomad station wagon. She unexpectedly turned left directly into my lane. “I didn’t see you! I didn’t see you!” she screamed hysterically as I hobbled, bloody and broken, to the side of the street. I was blindsided by her blindsight!

How Blindsight Works

Try an experiment. Hold your left index finger directly in front of your face about ten inches from your nose. Close your left eye. Now, keeping your finger stationary, swivel your head to the right until your index finger becomes blocked by your nose and is no longer in view. Now open your left eye with your head still swiveled. With both eyes open now, you should be able to once again see your left index finger, along with everything in the peripheral view to the left of it. As I’m looking to the left of my own index finger, one object that stands out clearly is a 6” five-pointed crystal star that my sister gave me for my last birthday.

wagging-finger

Like this, only raise the finger higher

Now here’s where things get interesting. The optic nerves in each of my eyes send two signals to my brain through roughly 1,200,000 “wires” for everything they see. One bundle of wires transmits information about the shape and color of what I’m seeing – the clear glass star. That signal gets transmitted first to, and then from the visual cortex to my brain’s temporal lobe.

Another bundle of my vision wiring sends a signal that transmits information about where the star is – on the wall to the left of my office window. That signal ultimately gets delivered to my brain’s parietal lobe.

The What and the Wherefore

If an experimental lesion interrupts the wiring that connects my right temporal lobe and prefrontal cortex, suddenly the star will completely disappear. I won’t be able to consciously report its presence. The wiring delivering the “what” information to my prefrontal cortex allows me to cognitively identify what I’m seeing as a crystal star. Since it has been damaged, my ability to identify and name anything my left eye sees on my left side is compromised (my nose blocks my right eye’s “what” wiring from seeing it). Yet, if you give me a list of words – moon, sun, planet, comet, star, asteroid – and asked me which word feels most familiar, I will overwhelming choose – you guessed it – star. Why? Because my parietal – prefrontal circuitry, which hasn’t been damaged at all is still registering the “where” signal being transmitted from my left eye. It unconsciously knows where the star is, it just doesn’t know what it is. Kind of freaky, right?

If you’ve done the experiment, you now experientially understand the structural brain vulnerability called blindsight.

The Pros Knows

Professional photographers are intimately familiar with the blindsight phenomenon. Besides robbing us of memory, no collection of pictures ever comes back to a professional photographer that doesn’t contain images and details that they simply didn’t see when they mindfully framed the shot.

But here’s the thing – we don’t need to experimentally sever brain circuitry to be adversely impacted by blindsight. Acute stress or high levels of allostatic load or chronic fatigue frequently do it for us. Ever been “so tired you can’t see straight”? Well, you were telling a vulnerable, neurobiological truth.

gunpoint

Also, there are many anecdotal reports from people who’ve been held up at gunpoint. Time stands still and all they remember seeing is the big black hole at the end of the gun barrel. My friend Jana was once accosted at knifepoint. The memory of the shining knife blade and the angry eyes wielding it still lives strongly decades later in her brain’s threat detection circuitry.

Awakening From Zzzz-Town

Add in visual subliminal processing and our eyes’ pattern recognition filters and this vulnerability, as a consequence of stress, trauma or fatigue, often has us sleepwalking through a large part of our lives without ever realizing it. We often don’t see what’s right in front of us. What to do? Rumi had a suggestion that I’ve built a recent teaching “explorinar” around: “A thousand half-loves must be forsaken to take a whole heart home.” To forsake means “to renounce or give up for something better.” What the Explorinar (which currently has a waiting list) essentially invites us to do is begin addressing blindsight and many other neurobiological vulnerabilities. We begin paring away and paying attention to the world around us differently in order to clearly see all the many ways our life might actually truly be unfolding … as a Heroine’s Journey. This journey is generally designed to deeply capture our attention in order to reduce the amount of time we spend unwittingly sleepwalking through it.