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As many long-time readers know, I’ve cut back on regularly writing, editing and posting creative work to this blog. I’ve cut back for many reasons; mostly because I thought 520 continuous weeks of posting was disciplined enough. Another reason was because I didn’t constantly have topics I was passionate enough to write about on demand every week. I know that inspiration favors the disciplined, but I also know that it favors other ways of creatively operating as well. But the main reason I stopped regularly writing, editing and posting, was because for the last year I’ve been tele-mentoring people in “The Neurobiology of Sacred Relationship” (see below). After 10 years, blogging had turned into a half-love for me, and thus the time had come for it to be at least partially forsaken. My increasing interest in the brain’s role in Sacred Relationship made it clear that it was time to change things up.

Ordo Amoring Whole-Loves

Forsake is an interesting word. It means to give up or renounce something formerly held dear. When we skillfully do so, we aspire to something better.

Curvy Pod Front

A Recent Enchanted Prayer Pod

Often, though, there is no guarantee that something better will be the result of our renunciation. I may have to actually work at, or be open to such a possibility. Not only that, but having to make hard choices between what I love and what I love most (“Ordering our Loves” according to St. Augustine) can at times be absolutely excruciating. Such is sometimes the nature of Sacred Work or Sacred Relationship.

Last year, I posted here about my difficulty in giving up house-building. I’ve had a Sacred Relationship with it for more than two decades. While I could no longer build 6000 square foot mansions for high-tech billionaires, I could still build small pods for a single homeless person to sleep in. But even that’s become challenging, especially during the cold, rainy Pacific Northwest winters. My most recent effort: A 6 square foot memorial Little Free Library for a local charity. Old housebuilders never die, we simply reduce our square footage.

Sacred People Relationships

Obviously, we can form special, Sacred Relationships with more than just work. Sacred Relationships with other people is the recent area I’ve been creatively exploring. What might be the nature of a Sacred Relationship between two or more people? One thing brain science might tell us is … it’s probably going to be idiosyncratic and unique to the people involved, given the complicated nature of our brains and bodies filled with complex neural matrices and network effects we can’t even begin to imagine. At the same time, a Sacred Relationship is very likely to be profoundly influenced by many of the same factors that affect brain development: genetic ancestry, pre- and perinatal health, stress and nutrition, cultural heritage, past and present environmental influences, Adverse Childhood Experiences, the national and international political environment, spiritual direction … the list of potential influences is a long one. Ignorance of which sadly contributes to the fact that:

  • 41 percent of first marriages end in divorce.
  • 60 percent of second marriages end in divorce.
  • 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce.

Clearly, Sacred Relationships take work to make and keep sacred. But what sort of work? And how much? Heinz Kohut, the founder of Self-Psychology, once remarked, “The secret to a good marriage is having only one person go crazy at a time.” If I was to echo Kohut with a positive slant, it would be: “One secret to a Sacred Relationship is mastering emotional self-regulation strategies.” Often easier said than done, of course, since few of us have been taught such strategies and the better you get at them the greater the challenges for amping up your mastery are likely to become! Here is a recent example of a violation of the sacred. Sacred is hard.

Crucible

Healing Relationship Crucible

Relational Learning

Be that as it may, there are things we can learn and small, incremental changes we can make. Simply knowing and understanding how the biology of hyper-arousal feels in our body can make a difference. So can understanding the often reciprocal, dovetailing differences between one person’s brain and an other’s. And then there’s the expansive, creative possibilities that emerge when we frame our primary relationships as a crucible within which “healing’s always trying to happen.”

Over the past year I’ve put together a series of four interactive online “explorinars,” during which time I’ve been mindfully person-testing them. I’m now ready to make time for three (3) people to investigate The Neurobiology of Sacred Relationships with me at 7AM Pacific time on Sunday mornings. If this offering might be of interest and you’d like to know more, feel free to check out the above link or email me: floweringbrain@gmail.com

The Dumb Ugly Truth: The Older I Get, The Fatter I Get, The Dumber I Get

Apparently. Leave it to my kinfolk to deliver me news I’d prefer not to hear. We Irish have never been all that good about holding our tongues. But this is an interesting study that I’m not taking as a judgment about me. It’s more like confirmatory research about the fragile vulnerability of our bodies and our brains. This study found that people who are overweight do not perform as well on tests of memory and visio-spatial ability compared to those who are normal weight. Makes me wonder what’s going on in our president’s brain. It appears that being overweight leads to a synapse-eating frenzy in the memory area of the brain.

How Fat Town Lost a Million Pounds

Fat Town.jpg
A million pounds is a LOT of weight to lose. This short TED talk by the mayor of Oklahoma city, previously one of America’s fattest towns, shows that all of us can lose more weight than any one of us. Duh. But it also shows the power of a group of people organized and united in a common goal for the good. It reminds me of our efforts to put a man on the moon, or our united efforts in WWII in response to the attacks by Germany and Japan. Too bad we don’t have a president who can unite the whole country in this kind of goal for the good.

Can Crat Kill Your Food Cravings?

I have a fallback position for all the struggles and failings that make me human: “It’s not me, it’s my brain.” And indeed it is. But failings and struggles are only a part of the story. The more I know about how my brains works, the more creative applications I can begin to apply. Monash University scientists have identified a neural switch that potentially controls my body’s capacity to store fat, especially after long periods of “famine” or weight loss — a process that underlies yo-yo dieting, where we regain the weight we lost and more after dieting. If the CRAT protein can be externally manipulated, why can’t we learn to organically and naturally manipulate it? The answer: Because drugs make drug companies way more money.

Emotional Spillover: Why I’m Rarely Upset for the Reasons I Think

When-a-Child-is-Out-of-Control.jpgFor many reasons Richie Davidson is one of my neuroscience heroes. One of those reasons is because he mentors so many young neuroscientists. In this study, one of his mentees, Regina Lapate, used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), a technique that can temporarily “knock out” or inhibit activity in specific parts of the brain. She and her team discovered that when the lateral prefrontal area – a region known for executive function (attention, focus, impulsivity and more) – was inhibited by the stimulation, participants showed more emotional spillover. What that means is that….crazy can be contagious!

What Wildfires Do to Our Minds

“It was an absolute trauma for everybody involved. The fire is over, but the grief may last a long time. We live in a time where these natural disasters are going to be happening more and more. How do we develop resilience? What do we do to feel like we can be safe in the world again?” In addition to our minds, increasing numbers of natural disasters also adversely affect our brains. For better or worse. One of the ways survivors can be most adversely impacted is through loss of sleep. Things only go downhill if we can’t remove the neuro-toxins trauma produces that needs to happen organically while we sleep.

Full But Still Feasting

Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong

How Fear Worms Its Way Into Your Brain

Human beings are fearful creatures. One in six Americans takes prescription medication to help relieve fear and anxiety. I spend a greater part of each day paying close attention to how fearful thoughts rise into awareness and activate threat-detection networks which then trigger increasing levels of stress hormones. Fearful JPEGThen I deploy a range of strategies and physical exercise to help regulate them. It’s a lot of work, let me tell you. What this research from the Salk Institute underscores is that fear is essentially a neural net- work phenomenon – one that can be actively worked with. Anti-anxiety meds are one way, but brain plasticity and the potential for organic change invites us to experiment with other ways as well. For example, the Authoritative Communities mentioned in the “Hardwired to Connect” piece that follows. All of us can be calmer together than any one of us alone.

Some interesting experiments with what it’s like to not have to worry about and be stressed around the making and spending of money. When I think about participating, I can already feel my adrenals activating my threat-detection circuitry! For this concept to work, I think it really needs to begin early with kids raised in a “Hardwired to Connect” Community ( <– This short talk by Amy Banks, that includes Interpersonal Neurobiology, is worth listening to).

It’s interesting that, back in the day, a famous Apple Computer TV ad announced, “You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” Well, 2018 is more like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four than 1984 was, and Apple computer and phone screens ironically are playing a major role in that social deterioration. This piece, by University of Michigan history professor, Henry Cowles, details how our screens themselves have turned into a kind of Ministry of Truth where alternative facts rule not only the day, but many of our lives without us ever being aware of it.

How to Be an Adrenal Ninja

It’s long been clear to me that our brains can be trained to handle crisis situations. 776-ft-lauderdale-fl-night.jpgThat we can engage in practices that allow us to deliberately and conscious- ly manage the Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis which is primarily responsible for when and how the fear response shows up in our body and brain. In this detailed account of an artist’s response to the Trader Joe’s hostage standoff in L.A. last month, we see how a heart fully operational in kindness and empathy can manage an otherwise completely unmanageable situation. Breathtaking in its beauty.

I Was Blind, But Now I See

This is a compelling Google Talk by Isaac Lidsky, who suffered a progressive blindness disease which ended up teaching him how fear / stress hormones compromise neural functioning and distort reality in ways that few of us even begin to realize. From the assumptions we make daily, to the things we turn toward and away from, fear circumscribes and constricts our lives in ways large and small. I think of Isaac as a true Adrenal Ninja with a red and white folding cane.

 

Getting a Grip: Self-Restraint – a Requirement for Living the Good Brain Life

Major religions and philosophical traditions heavily emphasize the value and power of self-restraint as a pathway to a virtuous life well-lived. In this five-minute Aeon video two of my favorite neuroscientists, de977b7acfd0ed5c86f783083443475e--ice-cream-cones-big-ice-cream.jpgDavid Eagleman and Walter Mischel teach us about “Odysseus Contracts” and when we should just “eat the damn marshmallow” (or the ice cream cone). I think their research would find a lot of people who could benefit in our nation’s capital.

Moais: The Power of Positive People

I remember reading some research suggesting that only 6% of arranged marriages end in divorce. If true, that suggests we’re much better off letting other people hook us up with life partners. The above research suggests that things improve even more when we get hooked up with reasonably positive people. Interestingly, many such people have weathered a ton of hardship in their lives. Kind of ironic and paradoxical that they would end up being so positive.

Is the Healthy Adult Brain Primed to Accentuate the Positive?

Interesting differentiation our brain makes between early neurogenesis and later brain cells born to us while we’re adults. The research shows that adult-born neurons valuate sensory stimuli rather than simply identifying them. Cells birthed in our brain as adults tend to accentuate the positive. It demonstrates that reward-motivated learning depends largely on adult’s growing these new brain cells.

How to Have a Transformative Personality Change

This method seems to be pretty reliable and effective, with few, if any, side effects. I would highly recommend it in ways the researchers advocate for. I would also recommend that members of the U.S. Intelligence Community might want to suggest it to our President for his own possible radical transformation.

Knocking Old People Unconscious Is Bad for Their Brain

It’s probably not ideal for anyone, really. But considering the primary alternative is a shot of whiskey and biting down on a towel, administering a general anesthesia is probably a fair trade-off. fall1-20151110023241725.jpgSince general anesthesia is essentially a medically-induced “freeze response,” I can’t help but wonder how the adverse effects might be mitigated if a post-operative protocol for “discharging the freeze response” might be enacted. It’s what the body does naturally when it goes into “shock” and begins spontaneously trembling in response to overwhelming, hyper-stimulating experiences.

Dumb Days: When Your Brain Wakes Up On the Wrong Side of Your Head

By simply looking into my own life daily, I can empirically confirm this research data: a good number of my own days emphatically qualify as Dumb. What’s also clear to me is the considerable correlation between stress levels and dumb levels. On any number of my Dumb Days I might even qualify for a Darwin Award, like this woman who recently thought it was a good idea to hand-feed a live shark (Something I might try on one of my ordinary Dumb Days!). It would be interesting to be able to accurately assess her active stress levels in the time leading up to that incident.

Beyond Age 105 Brain Function Perks Up

Average human lifespan has been increasing for decades (but not necessarily for people who hand-feed sharks). Today we’re at a point where lifespan seems about to go hyperbolic. In some countries, like Spain and South Korea, where average lifespan is up close to 90, it already has. What this research points out is that if you make it up to age 105, it will be clear sailing for you from there on out. Exciting, no? In the immortal words of the Stills-Young Band, “Long May You Run.”

Life Span

Ignorance or Bliss: Your Brain Decides

Researchers have discovered that our brain uses the same algorithm and neural architecture to evaluate the opportunity to gain positive information, as it does to evaluate rewards like food or money. Negative information, not so much.

“The findings may help explain why people are more likely to check their bank accounts when they believe their value has gone up and less likely to do so when they suspect it has gone down.” And leave it to the banks to exploit this brain vulnerability with excessive overdraft fees and bounced deposit charges, all while our brains are avoiding that unpeaceful, uneasy feeling commonly experienced as Checkbook Dread.

Does Dim Light Make Us Dumb?

Apparently, yes it does. At least if you’re a rat and you’re trying to be a smart maze-runner. But even if you’re not a rat, if you’re an American, you spend as much as 90% of your time indoors. You might as well take the well-lit path of least resistance and spend that time in places that are illuminated to your brain’s best advantage. Good light stimulates Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), necessary for healthy brain cell connectivity. Based on my personal experience, I’m guessing fluorescent lighting doesn’t qualify in the category of “good lighting.” But it may be better than dim.

Slackers’ Brains Are Different than Yours and Mine

It’s all about an intimate relationship with our reward circuitry. For some people (or, in this specific research, mice) working hard massively lights up the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and the Striatum (ST) together with the Basolateral Amygdala (BA), and the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). For others of us, not so much. A ton of contemporary trauma research suggests there’s a reason hard work doesn’t light up those areas for some of us – those networks have become compromised by any number of impoverishing stressors. The good news: Nurture can enrich.

Enriched Neurons.jpg

More than a dozen years ago my lifelong inquiry into the meaning of life eventually led me to neurobiology. That study provided a realization that there is a fundamental requirement human brains and bodies absolutely need for optimal growth and health. That need is for safety. Safety is what makes a home, home; a workplace healthy; a lover, loving. Safety requirements continue all across our lifespan and need to be provided continually by the people, places and organizations in our lives. Early on in this blog I summarized this realization with the phrase, “The Big Brain Question.” The Big Brain Question, for the most part, operates under our neural radar. Healthy brains operating in healthy environments don’t constantly have us walking through the world consciously asking ourselves, “Is this car safe?” “Is this street safe?” “Is this food safe?” “Is this person safe?” Instead, our neurobiology … trusts, but verifies – constantly, to one degree or another. And too often, it doesn’t even trust. Why, for example, do so many of us automatically lock our phone or our car or the door to our house?

Trust in God, but Tie Your Camel

Breaches of trust, real or imagined, disrupt our sense of safety. If you’ve ever had your house or car broken into (I’ve had both), there’s often an acute sense of boundary violation in the wake of that experience. It feels like a protective barrier has been breached in ways over which I have little or no control. Feeling (or actually being) unsafe is not metabolically neutral. camel-1307355_960_720The brain and body have evolved to protect me in unsafe circumstances. They do that first by activating my threat-detection circuitry. Once that circuitry is activated, the brain prepares the body to take any of three fundamental emergency actions – we either flee, fight or freeze. Each of these actions has increasingly significant metabolic and neurobiologic consequences. In response to threat, my nervous system floods me with various stress hormones that change the serum levels of various Corticotrophin Releasing Hormones, cortisol, catecholamines and thyroid hormone. Stress hormones are the brain’s and body’s way of telling me danger lurks. Depending upon the severity and duration of the threat, these hormones can quickly reach toxic levels. When we find ourselves in unsafe situations where neither fleeing nor fighting are an option, the freeze response – essentially helplessness – can generate toxic amounts of stress hormones sufficient to knock us out or make it feel like consciousness itself (our embodied sense of self) is taking leave of our body.

Consciousness Is Now Leaving the Building

Another way the brain responds is through varying degrees of dissociation. I recall once taking my toddler daughter to a rock concert. Within minutes she was sound asleep. Except when I reflected upon it later, I realized that this “sleep” was different than her normal sleep pattern. This “sleep” was a dissociative response to the overwhelming sound energy that made her go instantly unconscious. If I wasn’t paying close attention, I would have just assumed she was simply tired. At this rock concert, due to my own ignorance, I wasn’t answering The Big Brain Question “Yes” for my daughter. Every parent – rooted in some degree of ignorance as all parents are – does the very best we can, so I’m not to blame for exposing my daughter to stimuli her nervous system wasn’t mature enough to handle; but I can resolve to keep learning and doing better to be the Protective Caretaker every child (and many adults) needs.

Immobilized

Finally, when we can’t fight or flee from the threats the world inevitably presents to us, our last option – the freeze response – comes at a considerable neurobiological cost. toxic.jpgHigh levels of unabating stress hormones flooding the brain and body become increasingly toxic and threaten to damage our neural network by severing the adherence proteins that keep neurons properly connected to each other. Rather than have that happen en masse, the brain takes evasive action: it deploys inhibitory neurons to circuit-break transmissions. What that often feels like is going numb, or we simply faint.

At this point however, in the wake of inhibitory neuron deployment to areas of the brain that aren’t usually shut down, we now have compromised network function. It’s like a room or two in your home having only half the plugs and lights working. What to do?

The first thing is to understand how this neurobiology-compromising process works. Next is to realize that a huge amount of the brain’s resources are devoted to moving the body, thus some form of somatic attention of a therapeutic nature much be brought to bear in order to restore anti-fragile function. Here are some therapeutic modalities I identified years ago that can help with the repair and restoration process. They still can.

I get a kick out of giving money away. Always have, even when I was a kid and didn’t have any. More precisely, in neurobiological terms, the dopaminergic, glutamatergic and serotonergic cells in my brain that release those feel-good neurotransmitters, get mightily activated when I give money away.

Dime-Challenge-image-squareIt’s rarely a lot of money, since I don’t have a lot of discretionary income to give away. But even a little, distributed in fun, creative ways, can activate feel-good chemistry. For example, I’ve filled a water bottle with coins and left it half buried at the Half Moon Bay beach. Imagine the surprise and delight of a kid (or an adult with a delightable inner child) who stumbled upon it.

Or I’ll stick $5 in a knothole in a tree in the woods (fiat currency looks so weird and out of place when you come upon it in a natural setting). Here’s a Money Tree video that shows people unconsciously walking by money literally “growing on trees” without CbmidueVIAAWUOE.jpgseeing it (that level of unconsciousness would never happen to me or you, right!?).

Anyway, below are a series of links to research that shows how altruism impacts neurobiology. And remember, the more you do of something, the better you get at it because your brain devotes more and more resources to that experiential learning. You actually can condition your brain to generate a Super High through the mindful redistribution of wealth. Feel free to share this blog with the nation’s one-percenters!

http://bigthink.com/Mind-Matters/study-the-more-altruistic-you-are-the-bigger-will-be-this-part-of-your-brain

https://psmag.com/social-justice/neuroscience-altruism-donald-pfaff-brain-morality-96067

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/09/22/349639464/the-biology-of-altruism-good-deeds-may-be-rooted-in-the-brain

https://www.medicaldaily.com/human-brain-hardwired-altruistic-behavior-kind-and-generous-378606

https://www.uni-wuerzburg.de/en/news-and-events/news/detail/news/altruism-can-be-trained/

The Myth of Authentic Altruism

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5456281/

http://brainblogger.com/2016/04/29/neurological-basis-of-altruism/