When I first suspected my path for continued growth and learning was inviting me to become a public speaker, I thought teaching would offer what my brain, mind and body seemed to need most. The only problem was that every time I stood at the front of a classroom, my threat-detection networks activated a flood of self-protection hormones that made the experience truly miserable. A good friend offered to help me explore what was actually so terrifying. Turned out I was mostly mortified imagining being two hours into a three-hour class and having nothing more to say. Together we came up with a simple strategy: I broke the three hours down into 18 ten-minute segments and outlined content and exercises for each of them; then I added 6 more ten-minute segments for good measure.

I now had four hours of outlined material for every three-hour class. I could relax, knowing that I was more than prepared. That reasoned solution as a strategy to manage my stress actually has a scientific name. It’s called: diachronic regulation. Diachronic regulation simply means making a rational effort to change our environment in ways that makes gritting unnecessary. Think Odysseus being tied to his ship mast so as not to be seduced by the Sirens, or the kids in the Marshmallow Test getting up from the table and taking themselves over to a toybox, far away from the marshmallows.

Instead of developing the teaching strategy I did, I could have just toughed it out. I could have gritted my teeth and showed up for each class with my adrenaline and cortisol levels off the chart and hoped that over time, through simple repetition and exposure, their levels would eventually reduce. There’s a scientific name for that strategy as well: synchronic regulation – the use of pure willpower to manage stressful environments. Between the two, diachronic gets my vote.

The Fundamental Fragmenter

Diachronic Regulation is also probably much better for my health. Coming up with effective stress-management strategies while my brain and body aren’t actually flooded with stress hormones, generally produces much more creative, effective and workable results – grace, if you will. If I’m looking for a way to produce sub-optimal outcomes, putting myself in a hyper-stressed state is a great way to do it. Fragment my network connections – disrupt the easy flow of energy and information – and my creativity, not to mention my health, will suffer as a by-product.

I’ve written here, here and here about how chronically and acutely elevated stress levels underlie much of what ails the human race. From auto accidents to nightmares to loneliness, our brain’s and body’s attempts to protect us are all in reaction to elevated levels of stress hormones inside us. Polyvagal people make a pointed observation with respect to living on earth with its other air-breathing inhabitants: We can either connect or self-protect. While we are organically live-wired to connect, high stress will almost always move us in the direction of self-protection.

Over the years, researchers have discovered and described many methods to skillfully manage stress (which I believe, at bottom, a great many spiritual directives are also designed to do; whether we admit it or not, there’s a great deal of stress involved in stealing money or coveting your neighbor’s life partner). A great many of those methods involve … diachronic regulation – intentionally change our inner and/or outer environment so as to easily metabolize stress hormones.

We each need to find stress-reduction strategies that work for our particular nervous system in particular places at particular times. Three of my own favorites that tend to work for me most of the time are: 1. going for intentional, stress hormone-metabolizing walks, which usually has me on local forest trails. I’ll often vary my pace and closely attend to the natural world around me; 2. Mentally recited a calming phrase or soothing words. Two of my regular go-to’s are: “In THIS moment, everything’s all right” and “This too shall pass”; and 3. Asymmetric breathing: three-beat inhales to five-beat exhales (or 5/7 or 7/11 – whatever works. Longer exhales than inhales slows the heartrate; a slower heart rate signals safety to the brain’s threat-detection networks.

I’d love to know what often works to lower stress levels for any of you who care to share.

Is it possible to know things without knowing HOW you know them?

Last November my wife and I moved everything out of our cabinets and cupboards and crammed it all into our dining room in order to remodel the kitchen. Well, after nine months the remodel has finally been completed and last week we began to migrate much of the kitchen paraphernalia back to where it came from. Among the pots and pans and dishes I came upon a big blue plastic measuring cup filled with dog grooming tools: thinning shears, coat combs and brushes, nail clippers, etc. Because I couldn’t think of the perfect place for it in the new kitchen, I put the collection aside and moved out the things we previously did have specific locations for.

A week or so later, my wife came to me frustrated and perplexed: “Phanny’s coat is all tangled and ragged and I wanted to comb it out, but I can’t find the grooming tools.” Rather than shrug and pretend I didn’t know anything about them, I admitted that I had seen them in the dining room, but didn’t recall where I’d put them. Together then, we searched every inch of the house and the garage. No luck.

“Let’s take a break,” I suggested. “Tonight I’ll incubate a dream about the tools and see if my unconscious can provide a clue.”

Targeted Dream Incubation is an established nighttime protocol that you can review HERE from the MIT Media Lab. I learned it decades ago from Arthur Hastings, my doctoral dissertation chair, and have practiced it with great success at least a couple of dozen times since.

That night I carefully went through the procedural steps, but awoke in the morning not remembering a single dream. Nevertheless, shortly before noon I walked out to the garage, and without thinking anything at all – my mind was completely blank – randomly ambled over to a covered banker’s box sitting on a shelf, took the lid off and … voila! There inside was the blue measuring cup holding all the tools!

Recollection versus Recognition

If you’re like me, you probably have a harder time recalling things than recognizing things. The reason for this is that two different networks in the brain are involved. According to cognitive neuroscientist Adrian Owen, recognition takes place within circuitry found in the temporal lobes, while recollection occurs in the prefrontal areas. Fortunately, these prefrontal areas are subject to being able to be influenced by our attention and intention.

When I was moving things out the dining room into other areas, I wasn’t paying conscious attention to where I relocated many of the things I moved. Nevertheless, nerves in my hands, arms, legs, eyes, etc, were actively involved in the process, sending sensory signals from my body to my brain. But no language circuitry was involved with my moving the grooming tools to the garage, thus later my body seemed as if it was being wordlessly guided. If I had made a deliberate mental narrative note – intentionally said to myself: “I’m putting these grooming tools in this box and taking it to the garage ” – I more than likely would have immediately been able to identify where they were when my wife asked. While the “what” circuitry involved in me remembering actually moving the tools was available to me, the “where” memory circuits in my hippocampus were not. At least not consciously. Nevertheless, the experience/memory of where I put the tools was still a part of my sensory and motor networks. And this is what the Targeted Dream Incubation seems readily able to access, probably because in the cleared-out and prepared dream state, there was no longer a lot of other active brain circuitry running interference.

Back to the Future

Elements of the Targeted Dream Incubation were actually identified by Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, more than 100 years ago. The backward day review, or ruchschau, was developed as a part of his spiritual mind training protocols. Gayle Delaney and Loma K. Flowers, a psychologist and psychiatrist respectively, developed the Dream Interview and Questioning Protocol in the 1980s. And Lynne McTaggart researched and wrote about the power of intention all the way back in 2006.

So the recognition that our brain and body contain more information and experience than we normally have conscious access to has long been known. Who were we, for example, and what did we know before we lost 50% of our neurons in utero and before we acquired language? Might there be effective ways and means for gaining conscious access to more and more complex energy and information flow the way that people with hyperthymesia or synesthetes do? Hyperthymesics and Synesthetes have axons and dendrites that connect in ways that most of ours do not. Similar to them, might it be possible to intentionally grow neural network wiring and connections sufficient to consciously gain access to energy and information that is tantamount to … clairvoyance? Might I simply need to set an intention and practice getting my narrative-generating circuits (monkey mind) out of the way on a dedicated basis? In other words, can I at last train and learn to trust my Unthought Known and unknown known?

“There won’t be peace on earth until the voices of the grandmothers are heard.”

~ Native American Teaching

Lately, I’ve been binge-watching the Smithsonian Channel seriesAir Disasters. Every aviation accident the world over gets investigated for causes and conditions. After doing a deep dive into the FDR (Flight Data Recorder) and the CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) investigators are almost always able to piece together the (often) unpredictable, perfect storm of events that unfolds to bring about a crash. They then write up their findings with recommendations for engineering, training and procedural changes that continue to make air travel safer and safer.

Every episode of Air Disasters underscores the thousands of hours the pilots who crash have previously flown. That’s not a metric I’m particularly interested in. Quantity of flying hours is not quality of flying hours. I’d prefer to know how many life-threatening incidents pilots have been able to surmount, how many times they’ve had to think fluidly and flexibly in the face of unexpected, stressful challenges. I want to know how many crash landings they’ve previously survived.

Wise-end Democracy    

Similarly, in this democracy I live in, I want to know how many “disasters” or near-disasters candidates wanting my vote have survived. How often have they faced moral quandaries, self-interested seductions, or personal failings and managed to come through them with flying colors? In other words, I want the candidates I vote for to be … grandmothers. Or at least have “Grandmother’s Brain.” Unfortunately, our current political system provides few deliberate, constructive growth and redemption opportunities for politicians or voters.

I think of Grandmother’s Brain (if it hasn’t been adversely affected by compromising health conditions) as being unique in the human species. Not only have Grandmothers had the embodied experience of growing and bringing life into the world, but they have had to face and overcome decades and decades of real world challenges. It’s inevitable that a majority of them would acquire some degree of wisdom along the way.

Not to mention the contribution Grandmothers have apparently made to human evolution. A team of scientists from UCSD and Princeton published a paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution showing that grandmothering might well have been an important driver of the evolution of certain genes that contribute to a healthy immune system, along with resistance to cognitive decline with age.

Much like the way Grandmothers “burnish a child’s development in unique and valuable ways”, they would bring similar engagement to the political process. Their capacity to think and feel their way into and through complex real-world circumstances would be unmatched – certainly by any 18-year-old whose brain doesn’t become fully mature until roughly age 25 (I’m guessing no wise Grandmother would pass laws allowing 18-year-olds to vote, drink or buy guns!).

Wisdom Practice

In order to safely face unexpected, stressful challenges and crash landings, pilots spend many hours of their training in cockpit flight simulators. Simulators are exact replicas of the same plane instrumentation pilots fly regularly. In the simulators they get to experience all kinds of things that can go wrong, from engine failures to stall warnings to retracted and stuck landing gear. The purpose of such training is much like learning the multiplication tables: they build brain networks over and over through practice and experience so that under stress, a pilot doesn’t have to think about what proper actions he or she should take. It’s embedded in the brain and muscle memory.

Through the long courses of their lives Grandmothers of the world have had similar training. While perhaps less structured, deliberate and intentional, nevertheless, going through childbirth and motherhood, no matter how many crash landings and aborted takeoffs a Grandmother may have had with her own children, she has inevitably gained learning and wisdom that can be obtained in few other ways.

If We Build It, They Will Run      

Healthy neural networks spend lifetimes moving in the direction of greater and greater connectivity and integration (learning). Greater connectivity and integration is able to process energy and information with increasing capacity for complexity. Grandmothers generally have access to a wider and deeper well of life’s complexities. They can see a much bigger picture than many of us. Many, simply as the result of a long life, possess neural networks steeped in The Six Transcendent Perfections of Buddhism: Generosity, Morality, Joyful Energy, Patience, Contemplation and Wisdom.

Who, in their right mind, would not champion and support such human beings serving as our elected representatives?

There are any number of reasons, of course. I touched on one of the main reasons in the last blog post – all the (generally) negative opinions I have about others as a result of Naïve Realism. And as many of us have experienced directly from Polyvagal Theory, most all unwanted evaluation is experienced as threat. Who wants to have judgy people around saying and doing things that continually make us feel bad in our mind, brain and body?

Something called Signalling Theory provides another metric by which I can measure how well I play with others. One of the signals I have to send a potential friend is the amount of time I offer to spend with them. How much time? Well, 41 minutes a day is the average amount of time Americans currently devote to all socializing. I’m way below that. According to researcher Jeff Hall, I need to spend 60 hours over 9 weeks with someone I’m playing minimally well with. 100 hours means I’m pretty okay at playing. If I spend 200 hours or more, I’m a true-blue player. I seriously doubt that’s going to happen in my remaining lifetime.

But there’s a concurrent metric in Signalling Theory that additionally determines how well I play with others. And that is: how vulnerable am I in another person’s company? Showing vulnerability signals that I am very likely to be a trustworthy person. Personally, I suck at vulnerabiltiy. When it comes to the Scary Rule – if something scares you to say, say it – you’ll rarely hear a word out of me. In order to avoid having to say something vulnerable, what I mostly do is my best to focus the conversation on you and get you to be the vulnerable one. It’s a self-protective strategy that has essentially failed me for much of my life. Nevertheless, it works.

And the Winner Is …

In his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, UCLA social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman writes: “The neural systems that handle social and nonsocial reasoning are quite distinct, and literally operate at odds with each other much of the time. The more you turn on the networks for nonsocial reasoning, the more you turn off the networks for social reasoning. This antagonism between social and nonsocial reasoning is really important because the more someone is focused on a problem, the more that person might be likely to alienate others around him or her who could help solve the problem.”

So, because of a structural limitation in my brain, I have a hard choice to make: direct the focus and emphasis of my daily life towards I.Q. (cognitive intelligence) or E.Q. (emotional intelligence). And my time spent undercover with some of the world’s best and brightest seems to bear this out: many of the esteemed scientists I observed for nearly a decade did not particularly play well with others. A preponderance of their lives was spent in the service of becoming world experts in their chosen field of knowledge rather than in cultivating social/emotional intelligence. In fact, the organization had to have a full time social director on staff to organize and facilitate various kinds of interactions between visiting scholars, in other words, to try to teach them to play well with others.

Transaction Jackson

Much of the difficulty in learning to play well with others originated in my close and extended family. In the 1950s and 1960s we didn’t know much about the lifelong, brain-disorganizing impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). Decades later, after getting little help from professional therapists for what was essentially frequently having The Big Brain Question answered “No” for me, I came to the conclusion that transactional relationships were not sufficient to heal wounds that had taken place in non-transactional relationships (nuclear and extended families). People I was paying to “be there for me” were simply not going to be once I stopped writing the checks. And the conventions of the profession taught me not to expect them to. Transactional relationships had limited healing potential.

Science writer Eric Barker, in his recent book aptly named for this blog post, Plays Well With Others, points out similar limitations with communities like Multi-Level Marketing Organizations, Self-Help Groups and books like the perennially popular How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Friendship may be defined as mutual aid, but it is not transactional. We don’t keep score with friends. Our brains tell us the story that friends are a part of us, and this is how we overcome the dictates of ruthless Darwinianism and act altrusitically….Dale Carnegie got the initial parts of meeting people right, but then we must display the costly signals of time and vulnerabilty to forge and maintain true friendships that will last….We must aspire to a fearless open love that sees in others more good than danger.” This is something I consider worth aspiring to in the life time remaining to me.

I think it’s wrong for me to decide what a sane adult can or cannot do with their own body. I also think it’s wrong to discriminate against other people based on their race, gender or genetic inheritance. Finally, I think it’s wrong to lose a U. S. Presidential race, make up lies pretending you won, repeat those lies convincingly over and over until not only are you convinced they’re true, but large groups of other people become willing to assault and kill humans who oppose you in support of that lie. I think all those things are wrong.

And yet, there are large numbers of people on the planet who disagree with me (nearly 77 million Americans believe The Big Lie! – 32% of 240 million eligible voters). What’s the reason for such beliefs? Something called Naïve Realism. Naïve Realism occurs when I mistake my own understanding of people and events as objective truth, rather than as merely my own unique-to-me interpretation. I do this because my brain has learned to believe that I should have the final word on the world around me. In other words, I have opinions and those opinions are sacrosanct. It doesn’t matter that, as Nate Silver’s group points out, many of our opinions are formed as a result of the Causality Illusion – things happening sequentially in close time proximity. UCLA neuropsychologist Matthew Lieberman believes those opinions live in a brain area he calls the gestalt cortex. According to Lieberman: “We tend to have irrational confidence in our own experiences of the world, and to see others as misinformed, lazy, unreasonable or biased when they fail to see the world the way we do. The evidence from neural data is clear that the gestalt cortex is central to how we construct our version of reality.”

Interestingly, when Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield was training as a monk in Thailand and about to return to America, he asked his teacher what single bit of spiritual wisdom he would encourage Jack to bring back with him. That teacher, Ajahn Chah advised: “Teach people to give up their opinions.”

Thinking Beyond The Box

Contrary to how we might have learned to think about it, ignorance is not stupidity or lack of intelligence. Ignorance essentially means to have a narrowed or constricted perspective. Ignorance often prevents us from being able to see a much larger, more complex and nuanced series of events unfolding around us and into the future – in other words, a bigger, more comprehensive picture. The neural capacity for being able to expand a constricted perspective often shows up as wisdom. Wisdom in any moment requires flexible thinking and is something neuroscientists have given the name Executive Function. The eight key Executive Functions are Impulse Control, Emotional Control, Flexible Thinking, Working Memory, Self-Monitoring, Planning and Prioritizing, Task Initiation, and Organization. When I look at this list, who comes to mind for me in terms of being able to demonstrate high levels of executive function is … a Zen master, Wisdom Teachers.

The neurobiological difference between a Zen master and me and you (laypeople) has been researched and documented by scientists like Andrew Newberg, Richie Davidson and Denyse O’Leary & Mario Beauregard. While we all have Gestalt Cortices, what Zen masters have developed in addition, are large amounts of enriched neural fiber tracts running up to the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC – the seat of Executive Function) and running between the left and right hemispheres through a robustly expanded Corpus Collosum (CC).

Connect-ation Makes It Happen

The good news is: wisdom teachers weren’t born that way. They developed these kinds of robust neural networks through practice. What they practiced and how they practiced has been passed down to us through the millennia. Buddha, for example, as a master neurobiologist – which he became as the result of lifelong study and granular observation of his own nervous system – offered us The Noble Eightfold Path. The third step on the path is … Right Speech. Right Speech is careful not to make other people wrong for their opinions and ideas. I have to assume that Buddha noticed that when he was made wrong, his own body mounted a defensive posture, flooding his system with stress hormones – most all evaluation is experienced as threat. He probably also noticed that when his body was flooded with stress hormones his brain capacity for creativity and flexibility in his thinking and in his ability to respond skillfully became compromised. In such neurobiological states, the odds on constructive human connection become much lower.

If it’s true as neurophysiologist Steven Porges asserts: our nervous system essentially allows us two choices in much of daily life – connect or self-protect. Near as I can tell whatever I can do to foster connection, more often than not, serves the greater good.

1. Together with the help of many others, I managed to rise out of poverty and overcome 8 out of 10 ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences – the thing that most contributes to creating mass murderers) and the dysfunctional conditioning provided by spending most of my early life with a single mom on welfare in an inner-city housing project.

2. Together with the help of others, I jumped off the pier into the deep end of the water at Yale Camp for Underprivileged Kids when I was 10 years old, not knowing how to swim. I simply watched what the other kids did with their legs and arms and copied it for myself. That has turned out to be a profound, lifelong metaphor for much that has subsequently unfolded in my life.

3. Together with the help of others, although arrested a number of times in my teens and early 20s, I somehow managed to steer clear of the criminal justice system, often by the luck of the draw and the grace of some seemingly higher power.

4. Together with the help of others, I managed to follow a spiritual directive delivered in my 20s by a Turkish Sufi wisdom teacher who instructed: “Provide shelter for people.” Over my lifetime I have built or significantly remodeled over 100 homes.

5. Together with the help of others, I hired a number of minorities in my house-building business, trained them well, paid them above market, and supported them in going out and becoming even more successful than I was.

6. Together with the help of others, I managed to take on and embrace the hard work of forgiving both of my parents. They each suffered horrendous experiences in their lives that contributed to their limited possibilities for being at home and at peace in the world. And I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that, as much as I wished it had been different, they each did the very best they could raising my sisters and me.

7. Together with the help of others, I managed to take on the care and feeding of a number of animals in my life. From Corky, to Ginger, to Buster, to Poppy, to Nellie, to Natalie, to Raoul, to Lulu, to Archie, to Gracie, to Bodhi, to Emma, to Abby, to Phanny, to Ollie, they have all been uniquely instructive teachers and endearing companions on the Journey.

8. Together with the supportive help of others, I managed to graduate high school, attain an AA degree, a BA degree, an MA degree, an MS degree and a PhD degree. I also managed to sustain 18 years of “independent study” in neuroscience that I hope and suspect has served me and others particularly well.

9. Together with the help of others, I managed to co-create and develop curriculum for the nation’s first online Masters Degree program in psychology at Sofia University. It was based on the hybrid mix of in-person meetings and online discussions modeled on the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) – the world’s first public online community.

10. Together with the help of others, I managed to balance my years of “right brain” education with 10 years of high level “left brain” exposure at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. I hired on there – undercover – disguised as the maintenance man so as to closely observe behavioral scientists in their natural habitat.

11. Together with the help of others, I was able to work as a volunteer in a community grief counseling agency (Kara, in Palo Alto) for 25 years. It was there that we began what turned out to be a very successful children’s grief program – the second one in the country, modeled after the first – The Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon.

12. Together with the help of others, I managed to take on and overcome what can best be described as functional autism – damage that compromised the social circuitry of my nervous system. In an effort to support and facilitate healing that I believe is constantly trying to happen, terrified, I deliberately went about doing the work of becoming a reasonable skillful university instructor.

13. Together with the help of others, I managed to research, experiment and cure myself of panic attacks that I didn’t even know I suffered from for the first 55 years of my life (I would simply, inexplicably become hyper-aroused for no conscious reason and have to flee from wherever I happened to be. The fleeing usually worked to metabolize the stress hormones and calm me down). I’ve been panic-free for the last 20 years.

14. Together with the help of others, I managed to enter into several sustained, mutually supportive and growth-producing long-term relationships. One of them produced a daughter, Amanda, who’s doing wise work in the world and of whom I’m especially proud. Another produced 15 Bernese Mountain Dog pups! 🙂

15. Together with the help of others, over the last 50 years or so, to the best of my ability I’ve managed to become a person who has made it a priority to be a help to others.

16. Together with the help of others, I have managed on a number of occasions in my life to speak truth to power, often to good effect. When I saw children in our community grief program being exploited by the agency to raise money, I spoke up. When I saw good people turn their lives upside down and out of balance and create suffering in their own families in order to “serve the greater good”, I spoke up. When I saw the leaders of a spiritual group, operating in ways that exploited group members, I spoke up.

17. Together with the help of others, I took a directive I received in graduate school to heart: “If you want to be a help to others and avoid all conflicts of interest, find another way to make a living and offer your help for free.” As much of my life as I could manage has been oriented from this perspective.

18. Together with the help of others, I managed to survive 25 consecutive years of stock market losses and still managed to become a member of The Lousy Millionaire’s Club (members are people who have made and lost $1,000,000 several times. I made the money in real estate – not the stock market … yet).

19. Together with the help of others, I wrote and leave a collection of books (The Wisdom of Listening, Noble Listening, Fierce Listening, Sacred Listening) intended to provide people with granular instruction in the art of being able to be present to and listen deeply to other people, places and things – to basically help them function as gods in the universe – since listening seems to be pretty much God’s main job.

20. Together with the help of others, I managed to fulfill the early life dream of becoming a novelist. I wrote and completed three novels: The Icing of the Shooter, Psychomanteum and Death School. Psychomanteum sits on the library shelves of The Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, along with books by Nobel Laureates and MacArthur Genius Award Winners (The novel was set on the SCASBS campus).

21. Together with the help of others, I managed to write and sustain the weekly Flowering Brain neuroscience blog for over a decade. My intention with it from the beginning was “to translate neuroscience to help inspire a life of grace and meaning.”

22. Together with the help of others, I managed to go from being a devout, gun-hoarding misanthrope to a considerate, understanding, embracer of humanity. I grew to learn that none of escapes childhood unscathed and none of us gets out of this world alive. And we all are left with our unique neurobiology to grapple with what happens in the time and space in between, the very best way we can.

23. Together with the help of others, I managed to assemble a team of Trickster Philanthropists and together we managed to help fund the development of a gas-powered, portable, concrete core drill that is currently used by fire departments and search and rescue teams all over the world. That tool alone is responsible for saving thousands of lives.

24. Together with the help of others, over these last years, I have worked diligently daily to discern between wisdom and ignorance in my words, thoughts and deeds. I can say, with genuine humility, much of that time has been spent on the ignorance side of the street. And frequently continues to be.

25. Together with the help of others, I explored a wide variety of spiritual pursuits. I informally studied in Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, Judaism, Sufism and Buddhism. I also engaged with most every kind of entheogen available for human experimentation. As a result, I’ve come to the conclusion that my own brain/mind/body has not been sufficiently developed to date to become “God-realized.”

26. Together with the help of others, over these last years, I’ve put together instructive neuroscience Powerpoint teaching modules on The Six Perfections (Generosity, Morality, Patience, Joyful Effort, Meditation and Wisdom), Live Wired for Sacred Relationship and The Grieving Brain (available free to anyone who’d like copies of them).

27. Together with the help of others, I managed to reframe a cancer diagnosis as a Call to Adventure – The Hero’s Journey. I learned more through direct experience about cancer and radiation and chemotherapy than I ever cared to at any point in my life. I returned to the Ordinary World with the Boon, as this adventure called life draws day by day ever closer to a close.

Curious about what might be the PRIMARY reasons human beings have brains?

(Along with 6 1/2 other interesting factoids very few fellow humans realize).

Check out this ENCHANTED LOOM and discover a review of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s …
7 1/2 Lessons About the Brain.

Here are some serious things about your brain well worth knowing.

“We don’t see the world as IT is. We see the world as WE are.” ~ The Talmud

In her recent book, 7 1/2 Lessons About the Brain, Harvard Medical School researcher, Lisa Feldman Barrett recounts the story of a conscripted Rhodesian soldier who happened upon enemy guerilla fighters in camoflage uniforms carrying AK-47 assault rifles. He took careful aim at the leader and was just about to shoot, when a fellow soldier stopped him. “It’s just a boy herding cows on the path,” his comrade said. The soldier blinked and stared, and indeed the guerilla fighters were something his brain and nervous system had hallucinated in the stress of the moment. Here’s how Dr. Barrett explains the incident:

“From the moment you’re born to the moment you draw your last breath, your brain is stuck in a dark, silent box called your skull. Day in and day out, it continually receives sense data from the outside world via your eyes, ears, nose and other sensory organs. This data does not arrive in the form of meaningful sights, smells, sounds, and other sensations that most of us experience. It’s just a barrage of light waves, chemicals and changes in air pressure with no inherent significance.

“How does your brain conjure high-fidelity experiences like guerrilla fighters in the forest, out of scraps of raw data from the outside world? How does it create feelings of terror from a thundering heart? Your brain recreates the past from memory by asking itself, The last time I encountered a similar situation, when my body was in a similar state and was preparing this particular action, what did I see next? What did I feel next? The answer becomes your experience” (pg. 67). The lesson: Great stress can often produce tragic hallucinations.

Telephone Game Brain

I don’t think there’s a day that goes by when a friend or my wife will correct or comment on an experience we’ve had together that actually didn’t take place the way I recounted it. When they deliver their recollection, more often than not I discover that our blended experience more closely resembles my actual experience. As research from the lab of Ken Paller at Northwestern University points out – memories are like the Telephone Game – each time we access a memory, the brain goes about revising it. Depending upon our stress levels and the context within which a memory is being recalled, an account can radically change over time. As you might guess, this brain operation causes victims of trauma great stress as different versions of the incident can play out over time, not because of error or because of lying or deceit, but because of neuro-revisioning. Many an account by rape and assault victims has been discounted and dismissed precisely because of this memory revision process that goes on constantly in everyone’s brain, tending to make testimony seem less credible.

The Blind Not Seeing the Blind

The brain’s network processing resources are limited. Where it can conserve energy, it does, using schemas to focus on what matters most. These schematic shortcuts can result in Inattentional Blindness – we are so focused on the 100 year old cedar tree in front of us, that the forest literally goes unnoticed. Perhaps the most famous example of Inattentional Blindness is the Invisible Gorilla experiment carried out by Dan Simons and Chris Chabris. Because subjects in the experiment were so focused on ball passes and player uniform colors, many completely missed the gorilla who came dancing across the screen in the middle of the video.

Here are some everyday examples of Inattentional Blindness from VeryWellMind:

  • Even though you think you are paying attention to the road, you fail to notice a car swerve into your lane of traffic, resulting in a traffic accident.
  • You are watching a historical drama set in ancient Greece. You don’t notice a major blooper in which an airplane appears in the background of a pivotal scene.
  • You decide to make a phone call while driving through busy traffic. You fail to notice that the traffic light has turned red, so you run the stop light and end up getting a traffic ticket.
  • While playing a video game, you are so intently focused on spotting a specific type of “bad guy” that you completely miss another threat to your character and end up losing the game.

These are just a few of the ways the brain can operate in matters that can result in great suffering. For me the primary takeaway from this information is that we are each walking through the world with neurobiological resources that, depending upon a whole host of untold factors, can undo us at any time. Best to exercise and express as much humility and appreciation as we can for when things go well.

The Grieving Brain

It’s been awhile since I’ve done an Enchanted Loom book review. With Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, this seems like a timely book for many of us to be aware of …

The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and  Loss: O'Connor, Mary-Frances: 9780062946232: Amazon.com: Books

Click HERE to view the review.

I’m thinking of putting my 20 years as a grief counselor into service and offering a Zoom presentation on this topic if there’s sufficient interest. Let me know if that’s you at: floweringbrain@gmail.com

“Yet.” Your brain knows the deep meaning of the word, YET. Especially as it applies to neuro-biological development. Because neural networks are being reshaped and remodeled every moment of every day of our lives, most any goal or desire I might have, has the potential to be realized at any point throughout my lifetime. So, for example, somewhere in my mid-twenties I set a “soft” goal to earn a doctorate degree. Well, four different graduate schools and two decades later, I finally realized that goal at age 45. All through those 20 years my neural networks had been constantly growing and changing as I engaged in a wide variety of other life activities like: getting married, running a company, having a child, etc. The video below depicts a lot of what was going on in my brain during those years.

Live-Wired video …

Over those 20 years I had not received a Ph.D. … yet! And then one day, I did. I’d love to say, “and that made all the difference.” But of course, life and learning that changes the brain doesn’t end once we achieve a goal, no matter how lofty that goal is. The process of neural growth, change, and integration continues to unfold all across the lifespan.

It was only after completing the work for the doctorate that I discovered neuroscience and trauma psychology and the dysregulating network effects of early Adverse Childhood Experiences and Insecure Attachment. While I was tempted to enroll and work to complete a second doctorate – simply for the structure and discipline it would bring to my study – I elected instead to take on 20 years of “independent study” in neuroscience. And THAT has, indeed, made a world of difference.

Brain Plasticity

The term “Brain Plasticity” is defined as “the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections.” To me, that doesn’t really capture the never-ending, dynamic nature of our living neural networks. I much prefer David Eagleman’s term, “Livewired.Livewired speaks to the constant, dynamic, unfolding nature of neural networks.

Here’s another example of how live-wired neural plasticity works. Again as a kid in my 20s, I thought it would be cool to hand-build my own house. For 25 years my house was in the process of being built … in the deep unconscious realms of my neural networks. The Reticular Activation Sysem part of my brain is primarily reponsilble for making the unconscious conscious. It’s a highly developed “seek and ye shall find” structure. Thus, anything that showed up in my world that would move me in the directiion of being able to build my own house would get my attention. I’d constantly find myself paying attention to “Land for Sale” ads (I ended up buying and selling four “false start” building lots), I took construction jobs, I read Willis Wagner’s Modern Carpentry three times and then used it as a handy, on-the-job reference on construction sites. And for all those 25 years, my hand-built house hadn’t become reality … yet. And then one day, a series of seemingly miraculous events came into play (one being, I was able to convince the Town of Atherton, CA to essentially give me a free building lot to put my house on!) and my house got built.

Adrenal Ninja

Currently, I have a goal to become an Adrenal Ninja. At this point, I’m not one …YET. An Adrenal Ninja knows how the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis works, intimately knows how stress hormones feel as they ebb and flow in the body, is savvy about how cues of safety and of threat make those hormones dance all over the place, and has a regular practice of returning to a state of peace and calm in shorter and shorter amounts of time after being highjacked. When Plato directed each of us to “know thyself,” to my way of thinking this granular awareness points to the root of such knowledge.