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Recently I’ve been spending time at Enso House, our local island hospice. Spending time with people at the end of their lives seems to naturally invite reflection on my own life thus far. Most lists like this tend to focus on regrets. For me, however, there is a long list of things I am grateful for. Here are twelve “gratitudes” – appreciations from my life thus far that head that list for my heart, brain and me:

Body brain1. We grappled mightily with a Wild Mind when it often generated high-arousal states and managed to redirect at least a few of them. We fought hard to keep our adrenal hormones from constantly limiting our life, i.e. making us their b!tch.

2. We managed the best we could so as not to give in to the fear and ignorance that contributes to great suffering in the world.

3. We did our best to follow the path of our own heart, brain, mind, body and spirit. It is a process of deeply honoring our own idiosyncratic, unique, actively dynamic body, brain, mind and spirit.

4. We practiced authentic gratitude as much as we could, and when we couldn’t we simply accepted that fact.

5. We did our best to grow our compassion and generosity networks. And sometimes we wish our best could have been better.

6. We followed the spiritual directive to “provide shelter for people” for as long as brain and body would allow.

7. We established one of the first safe places in the nation for children to heal from painful and disruptive grief and loss.

square-earth1.png8. We included ourselves in the wide circle of sentient beings we cared for.

9. We left many corners of this circular world a little bit better than we found them, using whatever awareness and means we had at our disposal at the time. We learned that love … helps.

10. We learned as much as heart and brain possibly could about what might come next. The primary takeaway: if what I do while I’m here makes a difference later, then it’s probably a good idea to do the best I can while I’m here.

11. We managed to work with and support people who work with and support people making an exponential beneficial difference in the world.

12. We did our best to be continually loving and kind to the significant people passing through our lives. We were good shepherds. We paid attention and were responsive.

Last week we began exploring how our brains contribute to us abandoning people in our lives when they might most need our support, love and connection. We looked at how interoceptive overload, confabulation and affective realism often operate during such times. These are very likely concepts and ideas that don’t arise into conscious awareness for most of us when we struggle with such decisions, though they are often operating implicitly behind the scenes nonetheless.

This week I’d like to add to those often unconscious processes by exploring three more brain operations that frequently can be found in the abandonment mix. The first is:

Making Prediction Errors

My brain (and yours) is in the Prediction Business. It is essentially a prediction machine. When I spend significant time researching what I think will be a great birthday present and it receives a lukewarm reception because you’ve already received something similar from someone else or bought it for yourself, I’ve made a prediction error.

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Prediction Error

When I take time off from work and plan a surprise vacation and the destination ends up surfacing traumatic memories for you, forcing an early return home, I’ve made a prediction error. When enough of these errors occur time after time, other predictions will frequently emerge: we’re not well-matched; we’re bad for each other; it’s time to abandon the relationship. If one purpose of relationship is to help each other grow, heal and change, abandoning the relationship in the face of repeated prediction errors could constitute yet another error that would result in healing once again failing to happen. Nevertheless, we all have our allostatic load limits.

Malfunctioning Control Networks

Control Networks in the brain can be thought of as our emotion regulation networks. They are ideally designed to help us make sense of and optimize the uncertainties in our lives. They allow us to generalize thoughts, feelings and experiences we’ve learned in one context/environment – how to be in emotional relationships with the people around us as children – to another context/environment – how to be in relationships with people we meet and emotionally connect with as adults. If we emerge from a childhood that was a model of secure attachment, with few Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) then our Control Networks will have little difficulty transferring healthy thoughts, feelings and behaviors to our adult relationships. However, if our early attachment was insecure – ambivalent, avoidant or disorganized – then we are very likely going to find it challenging to emotionally control ourselves when conflicts or disagreements arise. We are also highly likely to feel powerless in being the architects of our experience as well as the electrician skilled enough to rewire our circuitry so that it functions well in such circumstances. We’ll simply move on to the next relationship and very likely find ourselves confronted with the same healing/rewiring work that is ours to do. Abdication rarely leads to integration.

Aging the “Immature Brain”

Brains don’t age in ways that are easy to see the way the body does. They don’t get more wrinkled, more saggy and more gray. They essentially show up gray, wrinkled and saggy from birth. What brains do do is change in the amount, degree and speed with which they process our life’s energy and information.

bald_brain_girl_by_memoriesofthehorizon-d8i8nsc.jpgI remember the first time I realized I was emotionally and intellectually “older” than both my parents. For my mother, it was when I had to go and convince Connecticut State mental hospital psychiatrists that she and the community would be safe if she was released into my care. For my father, I had let him come live with me and then had to explain to him why he couldn’t stay forever, and also why I wasn’t going to simply hand over to him – free and clear – a successful business I had spent five years of my life building. What’s wrong with these people?

One answer: neurally immature. But scientists are close to developing a way to accurately measure the age of our brain apart from our chronological age. By combining MRI scans with machine learning algorithms, a team of neuroscientists at Imperial College London, has trained computers to provide a predicted “brain age” for people based on their volume of brain tissue. At the heart of the approach is a technique that measures brain volume and uses machine learning to estimate the overall loss of grey and white matter – a strong indicator of the aging process in the brain.

One book that might help us become “brain younger” and mature and also more skillful in relationship with significant people in our lives – encouraging us to hang in with them through troubled times – is Marion Solomon’s and Stan Tatkin’s collaboration – Love and War in Intimate Relationships, reviewed HERE in the latest Enchanted Loom. Enjoy.

Short answer: Abandoning is the best stress relief strategy we can come up with at the time. Everything else is explanatory fiction.

When I was 21 years old I co-owned a hardware manufacturing business with a partner. The business was extremely stressful – we were buying proprietary blueprints stolen from large government military contractors and then using those blueprints to manufacture items cheaply to sell to the U. S. government at huge margins (a pretty weird thing for a young kid to be doing, right?).

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One day our blueprint supplier was arrested by the FBI. My partner and I figured we were very likely also in their crosshairs. My solution: abandon my partner and the business completely, drop out of school and move to another state. Flight was the only option I thought was available to me.

It turned out we were in the FBI’s crosshairs. They came calling with a search warrant several months after I left. My partner however, was smart enough to get rid of every bit of incriminating evidence. The FBI was unable to make a case against him. Or me. A big bullet dodged.

But a lack of flexible, creative response to the relationship challenges I had with my partner – he lied, cheated and drank – that often accompany us in our youth is not the only reason we abandon people. Brain science is providing us with a possibility for many others. Below are just a few.

We fail to recognize our help is needed

When people do and say things that make us feel the need to abandon them, like making negative judgments or launching personal attacks, the flood of stress hormones in our brain and body – our threat detection circuitry now fully activated – essentially short-circuits much of the capacity we might have for deep thinking or making creative, connecting responses. Unless, of course, we have training and lots of practice. How do we train and get lots of practice to deal with the stresses that come in dealing with negative, verbally attacking people? One way is to have people repeatedly offer up personal attacks and negative judgments about us. With practice it becomes clear that – bromidic though it may be for them – hurt people do hurt people. Better to practice skillfully addressing the hurt rather than counter-attacking the hurter.

We experience Interoceptive Overload

Interoception is a word all of us would be not only well-served to learn, but even better served to observe it operating inside ourselves and other people. I think of it as “interior perception.” Here’s the formal definition: sophisticated body awareness that includes pain, temperature, itch, sensual touch, muscular and visceral sensations, vasomotor activity, hunger, thirst, and “air hunger.” Such body awareness in part, I believe, provides the basis for emotional intelligence. I also believe – when finely tuned – it provides the basis for much accurate intuition.

The key words above are “finely tuned awareness.” Most of us walk around the planet – and I definitely put myself in that category – with something less than such awareness. As such, it’s easy for us to become readily overloaded and hyper-aroused by the behaviors of the people close to us, for example, not keeping promises.

We Confabulate

We all do it all the time – make stuff up and either truly believe what we make up or convince ourselves somehow that the story we made up is true. pinokio-Copy-1024x768.jpgHere’s the formal definition: “The production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.”  In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor gives a great description of her confabulating brain being reborn and slowly coming back online at this link. David Dunning of The Dunning-Kruger Effect fame, sums up confabulation well in his piece for Pacific Standard magazine: “We Are All Confident Idiots.” When we decide to abandon someone who needs our help it’s very often in response to a confabulated story about them we’ve made up, most often from a Fixed Mindset.

We unskillfully apply Affective Realism to other’s struggles

Affective Realism refers to the way our feelings influence what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch — not what we think we see, hear, feel, smell, taste and touch, but the actual content of our perceptual experience. We can only experience what our senses make us believe. Human brains produce Affective Realism through much of the same network circuitry that it produces dreams and creative imagination.

If someone is constantly upset, if they feel unconsciously threatened in my presence, or abandoned by my lack of presence, it’s easy for me to attribute the problem to them. It’s a lot harder to consider: “Hey my business partner has had to make a lot of difficult decisions on his own while I’ve been spending much of the work week going to college. I wonder if that might be adversely impacting his behavior.” I might actually have some responsibility in our partnership.

Next week, in Part 2 we’ll look at the impact of our brain’s prediction errors, malfunctioning control networks, the impact of “immature brain age” and Insecure Attachment, all of which can play into our relationship abandonment decisions as well.

The very first time I said “I love you” to another person, I think I was around nineteen years old. And as you might suspect, it was after a “bout” of lovemaking. Janine and I had been dating for several months and the words actually expressed the tender wash of post-coital feelings running all through my body. So, I was feeling safer than safe, and I truly meant it when I said it. It was a spontaneous expression of the oxytocin-serotonin-dopamine-infused energy flowing in the moment.

Vulnerability Trap

It was also a very vulnerable feeling, one that I wouldn’t necessarily want to take with me out into the larger world where competition is rife and vulnerability is often exploited as weakness. vulnerability.jpgFor example, you rarely, if ever, hear those words spoken in workplaces like Google or Amazon or Walmart…or in Congress (not that I really know, first-hand. I’m making an educated guess based upon what I know about the how the brain works). It’s vulnerability that allows loving feelings to surface, which is one reason we often feel loving with puppies, kittens and babies. It’s also absence of fear.

Men often find themselves in a double bind when it comes to vulnerability and saying, “I love you.” While the idea of vulnerability in men is given lip service to by women in heterosexual relationships, actual vulnerability in men is not especially welcome – for lots of reasons, conscious and unconscious. There’s quite a comical Seinfeld episode with the “I Love You” roles explored – George Costanza consults with Jerry, Elaine and Kramer about whether he should vulnerably expose himself and say  “I love you” to his girlfriend, Deanna. To do so and not get an “I love you” back is to be left with “the Big Matzo Ball.” If you haven’t seen the episode, you can still probably guess what happens.

It’s All In the Details

Turns out there are a number of neurological reasons for love being challenging to verbally express. A large part of it comes down to our early learning and the way our brains become organized. Some of us have grown, grown up with, or inherited brains that are aware of and can express a high degree of “emotional granularity.” Emotional granularity refers to the ability to put feelings into words with a great deal of differentiation and/or complexity.  The greater your granularity, the more precisely you can experience yourself and your emotional world. Instead of simply feeling angry, people with highly developed emotional granularity might use words like peeved, incensed or infuriated to more finely identify, capture and express the feeling.

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Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

When it comes to expressing love verbally in response to internal affect, we might experience the granularity of it as feeling cuddly, affectionate, appreciative, adoring, tender, infatuated and many fine distinctions in between. Emotion researcher Lisa Barrett has found that “the greater the emotional granularity people have, the less likely they are to freak out when angry, to drown their feelings in booze, and the more likely they are to be able to find positive takeaways from difficult emotional experiences. They’re also better with emotion regulation, or the crucial life skill of not having to hit something whenever they’re angry, run away when they’re afraid, or laugh when they’re anxious. High-granularity people also go to the doctor less and take less medication, signaling not only psychological, but physical health.” They’re also able to tell people they love them when they do.

Expressing Love Is Learned

In order to be free and easy and granular with expressing love, we have to have seen it repeatedly demonstrated over and over again, preferably from before birth, ideally by our fathers to our mothers (and vice versa). When that happens, our brains build increasingly robust networks associated with the experience. It’s those robust networks that ultimately allow for subsequent free and easy expression. Without those networks strongly established in childhood, we definitely have the work of verbally expressing love cut out for us as adults. But that doesn’t mean we’re bad people. Or unloving.  😉

Finally, please accept this love offering – click HERE to enjoy an Enchanted Loom review of Lisa Barrett’s book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

Recently I got pulled over by the Washington State Highway Patrol for not wearing my seat belt. I was heading home down Route 525 from the local lumber yard – less than a mile from my house – and didn’t bother to put it on. The trooper was driving in the opposite direction and right after passing me, he immediately hung a U-ey.  I saw him do it and when he walked up to my truck I was now wearing the belt. 525792-20161101-rearview-mirror-trafficstop.pngHe asked for my driver’s license and registration of course, and when I pulled it out of my wallet, there sitting behind it was an expired membership card to Mensa. A wave of embarrass- ment ran through my body upon accidentally exposing that card. Mensa is the private membership organization open only to people with a tested IQ in the genius range: 132 or higher on the Stanford-Binet. The expiration date on the card was 45 years ago. I can personally attest, along with National Geographic, that intelligence expires and it’s not a constant. Along with emotion, intelligence fluctuates wildly as a function of what’s happening in me and around me.

But what was the embarrassment about? Essentially this: if I’m so smart, why aren’t I more successful? To which my Inner Interlocutor immediately, defensively challenged: compared to what? Well … compared to people who are more successful, obviously.

Love Me, Love My Public Deficiencies

Brain researchers assessing embarrassment claim it essentially results from an expected negative evaluation in the eyes of others during “public deficiencies.” Being pulled over for not wearing a seat belt might qualify. A more simple way of saying it is: People make me nervous. Which is another way of saying that because it’s often so difficult to emotionally regulate my internal states during social interactions, I have preferred to avoid people, especially groups, for much of my life. Not a loner exactly, but certainly someone who prefers a much smaller social circle than a person like Jared Kushner, who recently resigned from 250 corporate boards in order to become the President’s right hand superman.

Learning My Emotional Potential

From earliest childhood, the stress hormones that other people trigger in me don’t flood in a vacuum. Collaboratively, they become an integral part of the subsequent story that my brain begins to generate. They become part of the intellectual and emotionally conditioned narrative that I walk through the world with (mostly unconsciously), thinking, “This is who I am.”

Te-Laisse-pas-faire-maternelle.jpgA simple example of how emotional conditioning occurs: When my daughter was a toddler I would take her to the local park. She would swing on the swings and play in the sandbox and sit on the seesaw. One day, on its way up, she fell off the seesaw into the sand. Her face screwed up as if she was about to cry, but first she looked at me. I basically looked back at her with no fear or alarm on my face. She apparently took that as a cue that she was all right. “If dad’s not hyper-aroused by my fall, I must be interoceptively integrated (I had her wordlessly thinking in neurobiology terms early!).” And she was. Which sent her right back to the seesaw as if nothing had happened. Her brain was learning how to take emotional cues from significant others and construct them as part of her own emotional response repertoire. Later, with never-ending opportunities for practice, she would learn to take such cues from her own body.

Unseparating the Separation

I was only a member of Mensa for one year. I distanced myself for two reasons. One was that no matter how brilliant an intelligence test certified I was, I was more than a little aware of just how much of any day I walked around totally clueless. The second reason I distanced myself was similar to the discomfort I experienced years ago upon discovering I had a financial net worth that was higher than 99% of the people on the planet (no longer currently true, BTW). Both contributed more strongly than I liked in supporting and fostering “the illusion of separation” – the notion that the rich or the smart are different or better than anyone else. Having spent ten years undercover among some of the smartest, richest people on the planet, I can tell you unequivocally, promoting the illusion of separation is a royal road to great suffering.

I’m guessing the State Trooper saw my Mensa card. “I’m going to let you off with a warning this time,” he said, “but not wearing a seat belt behind the wheel is a pretty dumb thing to do.” Like I said, intelligence is not a constant.

I tend to find all kinds of odd and everyday things enormously interesting. The cells and networks that make up my brain certainly qualify in the odd and everyday categories. Over the last dozen years I’ve learned a lot about my brain, mostly that it is an extremely vulnerable organ, and that the vast majority of the neurons that make it up have evolved primarily to allow me to navigate physically through the world. 7999632-3D-rendering-of-a-motion-study-of-a-woman-Stock-Photo-anatomy-muscle-female.jpgThey essentially serve to activate any of the roughly 640 skeletal muscles in the human body. It’s still not widely accepted that this is the case, even though a number of prominent, respected neuroscience researchers are adamant in their claim that body-moving is Brain Job No. 1.

As you might suspect, like most neuro- scientists, I have a lot of ideas and opinions about that body movement claim, one that has only been emerging quite slowly in the brain research community over the last few years. Recently, it was discovered that something we thought for decades to be true and absolute about the brain – that neurons operate digitally; they are either on or off – either firing electrochemical action potentials or not – is false. Turns out the brain is analog AND digital, and 10 times more active than previously measured. And it appears to be physical movement that makes it so. Movement appears to significantly change the way the brain transmits and processes the energy and information of our lives.

So much for what we were so sure we knew about the brain and how it works. What else might we be well-served to be less sure of?

Who Knows If It’s Good or Bad

When Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield was studying Buddhism in Thailand, he once got this advice from his teacher, Ajahn Chah, about what would be a most valuable practice for him to bring back home with him to America: “You have so many views and opinions, what’s good and bad, right and wrong, about how things should be. You cling to your views and suffer so much. They are only views, you know.”

From a brain health and vitality perspective this is an invitation that makes great sense. We do suffer from our opinions, in ways large and small. Opinions tend to be things we know, or think we know, about people, places and things in the world. Opinions are formed out of and represent old learning, often experiential, sensory-driven learning that has already established solid neural network connections in the brain and body. Psychologists term it conditioning. Some of it is useful, like being able to ride a bike or drive a car without giving either an excessive amount of attention. But some of our opinions put us to sleep, thinking we know how things are now or how they will certainly be tomorrow.

Flexible Fluidity Makes It Happen

Some of our conditioning results in what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has identified as a “fixed mindset.” Fixed mindsets, like fixed chemical compounds, require a lot to transform.

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What a “Growth Mindset” does for your brain.

What they ideally transform into is a “growth mindset.” Growth mindsets tend to take much greater advantage of one of the brain’s most powerful design features: neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe the brain’s ability to reorganize itself, both physically and functionally, throughout our lives in response to behavior, environment, thinking/learning, and emotional expression. Here are 10 potential ways to positively affect neuroplasticity. Fixed, inflexible opinions are not on that list.

Neuroplasticity’s Poster Boy

John Goodenough could be the poster boy for neuroplasticity. He’s the inventor of the lithium-ion battery. You know, the ones that are catching fire in phones and hoverboards all over the planet. Faced with that clear product short-coming, Goodenough took on the task of inventing an even better battery. And it looks like he will succeed … at age 94!

At age 50 or so, the work I was doing with young kids and adult learners in graduate school began to draw me, with increasing frequency, to the field of neuroscience. One day I announced to various members of my extended social circle that it looked like I was on my way to becoming a neuroscientist. As you might guess, people in my circle had a LOT of opinions about that. The predominant sentiment was that I should forget it – I was too old. All those opinions did was make it clear to me that I needed to change the people who were then making up my social circle. And so I did. And guess what: I’ve been researching, writing about and teaching about neuroscience for the last ten years. Guess what that makes me!

For those of you who don’t hold the opinion that book reviews have to be written only in words, here’s another Enchanted Loom. This review is on David Nichtern’s opinion-transcending book, Awakening from the Daydream.

For those of you who missed Part One of my Talk Radio Network interview by Gloria Burgess, here’s a link that will allow you to miss Part Two, too 🙂 …  Interview, Part II. And now back to our regularly scheduled bloggin’.

Shortly after Stephen Levine’s book, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Is Your Last was released, a close colleague and I decided to invite a group of friends to gather together weekly to structure and explore the guidelines that Stephen offered in the book. The first thing each person did was to go through the book and extract and prioritize those things they would be spending the year focusing on, things like forgiveness and gratitude and, as Plato suggested, “practicing dying.” What took my colleague and I by surprise was the activity that turned up at the top of almost everyone’s list. It was as if each participant instinctively knew that this was essential to attend to while they still could. The Number One Activity? Finishing unfinished business. Or as Stephen describes it – people at the end of life change their relationship to relationship itself. They have “a going-out-of-unfinished-business sale.”

Unfinished business comes in many forms, of course. The form it took for most of the members of our little group was to do their best in attempting to repair long-ruptured relationships. One challenge in actually attempting that was that none of us had ever had any instruction whatsoever in how to actually go about such repair work. What should we do first? What should we do next? How do we best communicate our intention and desire? What if the person had no interest? What if they were no longer alive? How do we truly know when a ruptured relationship has been fully repaired? Lots of questions, very few clear answers. These questions, it turned out, were ones that each of us in the group had to learn to live our way into in order to find out the answers for ourselves.

Termination Makes It Happen

Brazilian businessman, Ricardo Semler took the wisdom available in Stephen’s book to heart long before the book was ever published.

Ricardo Semler

Ricardo Semler

Shortly after he took over his father’s manufacturing business, he decided that he didn’t want his work life to kill him. Nor did he want it to kill his employees. Dead employees don’t deliver much value. To help himself live his life to the fullest and not have it be mostly about work, Semler designated Mondays and Thursdays as Termination Days. Every Monday and every Thursday Semler lived as if he was responding to an imaginary diagnosis from his family doctor: “Ricardo, you only have six months to live.”

I have taken both Stephen’s and Ricardo’s wisdom to heart. I have recently initiated my own Termination Days. How do I spent them, acting as if I only have six months to live? I spend them volunteering at Enso House, our local island hospice. Enso is a perfect match for me and my aging neurobiology. They only have two beds and they only accept one guest at a time. It’s a great place to titrate intimate learning about a journey of my own that I will one day be taking. Better to go out and hang with the Reaper while he’s distracted, busily engaging with other people, yes?

Still Life with Color

Stephen (who died last year) would not be surprised in the least to discover that through the brain magic of projection and transference, my own mother showed up on Day One of my first visit to Enso. And you, dear reader, can probably guess my mother is someone I had/have unfinished business with (does anyone not?). Our relationship ruptured early in my life. As someone severely troubled and trauma-ed – she spent many years of her own life confined to Connecticut state mental hospitals. Through no fault of her own, she became someone I was simply unable to trust.

Deathbed.pngBut I could feel understanding and compassion for her. As I learned about her early life – it’s very likely that her mother murdered her father and was never prosecuted for it. It was most likely in reaction to some abusive perpetration, and it happened sometime before my mother became a teen. But my mother also and saw her sister die young of cancer and her brother live an extremely disorganized life in a neighboring housing project. It was all she could do to get up every day and survive until the next. 

It is a similar understanding and compassion that I also have for the current terminal guest at Enso House. She is like my mother in more ways than I can imagine, from her slight build, to her affect, to her sense of humor. Sitting by her bedside, listening to her ragged breathing while she sleeps, is a perfect way for me to “relationship-repair-by-proxy” during these first Termination Days. Long may they run.