There’s a revolution taking place in the world today. It’s being funded with millions and millions of research dollars, it involves individuals of every stripe and genre numbering in the tens of thousands, and it’s unfolding upon every continent in the world. This past November more than 42000 scientists from 90 countries gathered in Washington, DC intent on furthering this revolution. Many more are joining the ranks every day. It’s a revolution aimed at producing one central result: an accurate understanding in how the human brain actually works in real time.
I sometimes find myself having quite animated discussions with friends and colleagues about the brain and my assertion that simply knowing how it works helps make it work better. For example, knowing how stress – both chronic and acute – slows down and diminishes the brain’s processing capacity, often allows me to course-correct in midstream. I can begin noticing the kinds of people, places and things that tip good stress (eustress) in my life over to distress (allostatic load), and then make adjustments to return to the eustress side of the ledger. Here in this blog I’ve decided to make my case to the world for some of the benefits obtained from knowing how my brain works.
1. The brain is an unimaginably complex, dynamic, ever-changing energy and information processing collection of matrices. Recognizing it as such makes it difficult to subscribe to the “Fixed Mindset” of human development. “That’s just how we are and always will be.” “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” etc. People can and do change, all across their lifespan. Since none of us escapes childhood unscathed, we have to change. When we’re placed in environments together with people who understand, support and expect great change, it makes growth, learning and healing much more likely. We begin to stop living down to our own or others’ expectations.
2. We can learn at a deep embodied level to take very little personally in our lives. Every brain periodically goes into spasmodic, trauma-linked disorganization, which often shows up in emotionally expressive ways: think anger, sadness, fear or confusion. While we may be the triggering catalyst for such spasms in others (or they for us), we are rarely the root cause (A Course in Miracles, Lesson 5: We are seldom upset for the reasons we think we are). And even in the absence of organic damage, we are rarely to blame or at fault. We can, however, assume responsibility for being a triggering catalyst and make any caring reparations that may be needed or wanted to help restore health and harmony.
3. We can practice deploying The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience. Our brains operate essentially as both extremely complex wired and wireless networks. Much like wireless telephones, some brains carry 3G processing capacity, some carry 4, 5 and 10G processing capacity. . . at different times, under varying stress loads. All of us are smarter than any one of us and none of us is smart all the time. The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience encourages us to locate and hang out with skillful, well-intentioned people of greater processing capacity than we might currently operate with. Doing so, often by simple proximity, will help expand our own network’s processing capacity. Note: In my experience people at the beginnings and endings of life seem to have highly amped up information processing capacities … if that’s the orientation and expectation we meet them with!
4. Knowing how the brain works means that we realize it doesn’t simply learn, but that unless thwarted, it is always looking to learn how to learn. The brain has one primary function, to keep us alive in every environment it finds itself. Loving learning and more importantly, knowing how and why and when to “unlearn” is critical to its and our success.
5. The brain is an associative organ. As Stanford neuroscientist Carla Schatz neatly summarized Hebb’s Rule, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Knowing this simple neural reality teaches us that it doesn’t take much for some innocent or offhand remark to ignite a single neuron firing in the center of a matrix retaining traumatic memories. And that once one neuron holding a painful memory begins firing, the process of kindling can set the complete collection ablaze. The result: an emotional meltdown. Knowing both that and how this process works, however, frequently allows me to head a meltdown off at the pass, or make a much swifter recovery.
6. Many brain areas are plastic, meaning capable of great change. But that plasticity is competitive. It’s one of the reasons that people, places and things that initially excite us, lose their emotional draw down the road and we move on to the next new, new person, place or thing. Knowing this, we can begin to build circuits of new learning that can take plasticity into account. And rather than perhaps looking to change my exterior landscape, I can make a plan and begin remodeling my interior self-scape. It’s a much greener way to go.
7. The brain’s dopamine-based appetitive pleasure system fills us with hopeful anticipation regarding the future. Those parts of the brain are most active when we access the energies of love. (Similar areas are activated when someone ingests cocaine!). According to UC Berkeley neuroscientist Walter Freeman, love creates a generous state of mind (heart) and promotes new pathways. Tapping into the energy of love continually surrounding us turns out to be big brain changing medicine as this recent research underscores. Children born into healthy families know that love is the sea they constantly swim in from the get-go. As we grow out of childhood most of us forget this essential reality. Thus the spiritual directive to “become again as little children.”
8. We can wise up to the bully that is our left brain. Left to its own devices neurologist Bruce Miller at UCSF claims that the left brain is often at work trying to suppress the right, all the while advocating mightily for itself. Much of the brain is necessarily devoted to inhibiting free expression and energy processing (to counteract this tendency is one reason people drink or take drugs). Having more choice available to consciously decide what can and can’t be expressed, leads to a fuller, richer, more deeply creative life, as this recent RSA animation explains.
9. The cartography for neural integration has been laid out by brain educators like Bonnie Badenoch and Dan Siegel. While it often doesn’t look that way, there is clear evidence that the human race is on a positive transformational trajectory. We’ve had exemplars like Buddha, Christ and Mohammed show up powerfully demonstrating such an embodied reality. They were in the brain change business and knew it. They also knew that by first changing the brain we are ultimately led to a profound change of heart, mind, body and soul.
10. I’m continually being reminded (sometimes emphatically!) not to trust what I think. Or take what I think very seriously – given the frequent appearances of things like brain biases and 15 styles of distorted thinking; but especially considering those things my left brain thinks up that attempt to reinforce and solidify the illusion of separation. Just as the neurons in the brain work better connected up to each other, so do I work better in connection with other people in the world. Anything that shows up trying to convince me otherwise, like fear and anxiety and distrust, I have learned to be immediately suspicious of. And … I tie my camel.
11. Finally, the structures and processes found in the brain are replicated in various places throughout the universe. As such, they provide a great template for taking deliberate, creative, loving action in the world. It’s hard to go very wrong when we try to skillfully replicate the workings of one of the most extraordinary creations in the known universe – our dynamic, malleable brain.