Posts Tagged ‘Big Brain Question’

“If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you don’t like to play with much.” ~ James, age 7

When I was a kid, I was a canny little outlaw who somehow managed to finagle a little black and white Philco TV set to watch in my own bedroom. Whenever my mother wanted to punish me, she would take one of the vacuum tubes out of the back of the TV set. I would fly into a rage in response to this clearly unfair act, which would promptly cause her to get a belt and threaten to beat me if I didn’t go immediately to my disabled-TV bedroom (I don’t ever recall her actually hitting me with a belt, but threats to do so were not uncommon). I would then reluctantly go to my room and stay there.  During summers, when school was out, I would end up staying there for days! Ultimately, hunger or loneliness or boredom or all three would work to get me to gingerly emerge from that self-inflicted prison, but nothing would be discussed about the incident at all, ever. It was as if nothing out of the ordinary had even happened. No discussion intended to repair this relationship breech ever took place.

Ambivalent Attachment

This early lack of reliable engagement and contingent communication was profoundly detrimental to my early brain development. It directly led to a way of being in the world for me that developmental psychologists would identify – using the Adult Attachment Inventory – as “Insecure-Avoidant/Ambivalent.” A simple way to describe that orientation is how my mother would often say it: “People make me ‘nern’.” People make me nervous. They made her nervous, and her way of parenting unfolded such that it ended up making me nervous as well (had she actually beaten me with the belt, the odds of “disorganized” attachment being the result would have significantly increased, along with the probability of me ending up in jail for one “Impulse Crime” or another).

Fierce Listening.jpgBeing nervous around other people, whether as a result of painful early experiences at their hands, or by neglect, is not so good for intimacy or everyday social-emotional engagement. It’s also not so good for brain development in general. In order to regulate the stress chemicals that being around other people generates, I would frequently be forced to withdraw and spend excessive amounts of time alone. People sometimes call this tendency “being an introvert” (nevermind that Oxford professor of neuro-pharmacology, Susan Greenfield thinks that technology may be creating a whole planet of “introverts” – people excessively anxious around other humans). One way to think about my introversion is that I simply didn’t have sufficient operating bandwidth in my brain to allow me to easily self-regulate in the company of others (one of the reasons I teach listening skills to clinicians and have written 5 books on the topic is because skillful listening is a great practice for carving out internal space. Listening allows me to buy time around other people so I can center and emotionally self-regulate).

Ghosts of Days Gone By

Gradually, over the years I’ve discovered that when I spend time with different people over an extended period, if they don’t initially show up as someone important from my past, sooner or later my brain will morph them into someone of significance. Usually someone I have some unfinished business with … most often, mom or dad (which Freud recognized as transference and counter-transference nearly 100 years ago). In my case, my older sister Andrea, who functioned as my mom in the early years, is also a morphing possibility.

Unfinished business seems to live in the brain and body (and probably the heart and other parts of the somatic hologram as well) as repositories of emotionally charged memories – collections of neurons that have been taken offline for prolonged periods. With the neural real estate holding traumatic memories reclaimed and restored to good network operating condition, our brains become capable of processing exponential increases in energy and information. We become smarter, healthier and much more capable of showing up fully in the present moment. Except for one thing …

Good Corner Man and Cut Man

… healing painful early experiences in the present is NOT EASY and NOT FUN. It’s painful! If the choice is hanging out with people who trigger painful explicit conscious memories (or unconscious painful implicit memories) or hanging out with people who are fun and a joy to be with, most of us will choose to hang with the latter. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Until those people morph into some ghostly Painbringer from the Past, of course. I’ve written about this difficulty before because of how crucial, critical, essential, vital and important I think it is. Electing not to repair ruptured relationships is like a neuron in the temporal lobe – essential for hearing – deciding not to maintain crucial connections with a speech or language neuron in Broca’s or Wernicke’s area in the brain. The network ends up not working very well. When whole collections of people assembled in countries elect not to repair ruptured relationships, the world ends up not working very well.

My experience with people offering their services as healers is pretty extensive, and mostly unsatisfactory. But what I’ve found is that the few of them who were skillful healers tended to operate as good “Corner men” or “Cut men” in boxing. They went beyond the healer role and had the skills to address whatever happened in the ring. Through experience I came to trust that by the final bell, they’d still be there in my corner. And no matter what it took, I could count on them to get me through the ordeal. They continually managed to explicitly and implicitly answer The Big Brain Question Yes! for me. Somehow, I came to trust their experience and their expertise. But most importantly the quality of their presence and compassionate heart would work to soothe and calm me and help restore my emotional equilibrium after a ten round psychological battle with the demons arising from my personal past. Without that trust and confidence in their capable heart, the possibility of reenactment without resolution comes with too high a neurological price. And it’s one that I’m no longer willing to pay.

How then, best to skillfully do the work of repair? A crucial, critical, essential vital topic for another day. But note: sometimes it takes a posse.

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When I was eighteen, I invited an “older woman” on a water-skiing weekend up to Lake Mead outside Las Vegas. Dusty was a 22 year old single mother, the first woman I’d ever spent a whole night with, and she had a healthy shamelessness about sex. I, on the other hand, had nothing but … High Anxiety. Well, it didn’t take Dusty too long to figure out that I was a virgin. Our sexual exploits would be best summarized for her by the Rolling Stones song, I Can’t Get No ….

So that was my reason for having sex: it was time. And, I was very lucky. Dusty was patient and kind and willing to hang out with me until I got the hang of this thing supposedly on the minds of men every seven seconds. Working in mental health for a number of years, and hearing stories of how emotionally and physically devastating the First Time can be, was when I realized just how very lucky I actually was. A First Time that is forced or painful or results in abandonment or humiliation often produces Robert Sapolsky’s Four Neuroannihilators. First Time Trauma can take a lifetime to repair. Some people suffer permanent damage and never do fully heal from painful initial sexual experiences. And some people never even realize the extent of the damage they’ve suffered. Having little other than Hollywood fiction to compare it to, they don’t know what’s actually possible in terms of love and sex.

First Time, Best Time

So, a bad first sexual experience holds great potential for conditioning the brain in less than optimal ways. But what might an optimal experience look like in general? Since our kids are most likely going to be having sex whether we like it or not, what guidance might be good for them to get? I think by looking at the positive side of Sapolsky’s neuroannihilators, we are offered  some very useful guidelines, derived from his years of observing … monkeys.

First, when engaging in sex both people need to be able to control their own involvement. They need to be able to say “Yes” or “No” without penalty, and both need to be able to change a “Yes” to a “No,” and vice versa, without fear of abandonment or ridicule (remember, we’re imagining optimal here).

Ideally, there next needs to be some predictability with the relationship and some continuity with the people involved. Years ago I recall a book in which Rudolf Steiner, the originator of Anthroposophy, postulated that anyone we have sex with remains a spiritual part of our energetic field for an extended period of time. In the best of all possible worlds, we might want to exchange such energies with people who answer the Big Brain Question “Yes” for us. To simply end up as a notch on someone’s bedpost is probably less than optimal for brain development. I’m guessing it’s not an accident that many spiritual traditions advocate for either celibacy until marriage, or having sex only within a committed relationship. There are neural consequences involved for the brain (not to mention, the heart). Unfortunately, such traditions rarely creatively address the urges and unfolding needs of the developing body.

After predictability, Sapolsky would probably argue for whatever forms of healthy social support might be available. Thankfully, these days there is certainly a lot more support available than when I was a kid. A number of my own students, in fact, have become effective professional sex educators and counselors to teens, counseling them on topics ranging from birth control to disease prevention to sex and spirituality to Second Generation Virginity.

Sex Stress Test

One important thing it’s useful to remember: sex is stressful. Even consensual sex. But according to Jonah Lehrer, my second most favorite neuroscientist, consensual sex stress is good stress. The glucocorticoids that normally diminish the growth of new brain cells, actually appears to increase them when released during consensual sex. If this is indeed the case, then sex itself would qualify as an effective stress management technique – the fourth and final requirement on Sapolsky’s list of neural enhancers.

So, there we have some food for thought. Lest I forget, here is the research cited in my title, the 237 Reasons for Having Sex. I find the presentation both silly and fascinating. The normal adult brain has networked 100 billion neurons making an average of 10,000 connections each (you do the math), and many of those connections process energy and information outside conscious awareness. Such complexity and unconsciousness suggests we may be simplifying things just a wee bit when we try to boil down having sex to only 237 reasons.  Finally, if you want to discover some surprising ways we all unconsciously affect sexuality in children, click HERE.

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If you’re paying any attention at all, it’s difficult to miss how much neuroscience is infiltrating just about everything that has to do with anything these days. From parenting to professional poker, from therapy to theology, from advertising to economics to education to ethics, neuroscience is making rapid inroads. Some of these areas desperately need the perspective that neuroscience has to offer. And much of the excitement, it seems to me is fully warranted. Take this experimental study that used transcranial magnetic stimulation to rouse a man who had been laying in a minimally conscious state for over a year. If that one’s not good enough for you, how about this experiment where V.S. Ramachandran at UCSD used a simple mirror to reroute brain neurons in order to eliminate phantom limb pain in a veteran’s amputated arm. And if that’s not enough to get you excited, how about this research that holds the promise to one day be able to restore functionality to fully paralyzed limbs. If you’re one of the people who has benefitted from these creative advances that are the result of increasing understanding about our living brain and how it works, I’m guessing you feel thankful … and hopeful. And these are just first successes in a very nascent field. For that reason and others, more and more I’m thinking of neuroscience as the science of hope.

Hope for the Heart

I’ve seen perhaps two dozen therapists as a client over roughly 35 of my 62 years. Of those two dozen, only two stand out as being especially helpful. (One of those two, Kay Godlewski, died in the middle of our work together. I tried not to take it personally). Over much of that same period, I’ve had four significant long-term relationships with wonderful women. Each of these relationships changed significantly when pain, confusion and overwhelming stress and suffering arose. Unknown to me (and I have two Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family systems with honors, as well as a separate five year Ph. D. degree in psychology!), the root of these challenges came from resurfacing traumatic memories stored without benefit of language – memories that I could not find words or feelings for. After repeatedly seeking out, but finding so little help that really helped, I essentially gave up hope. Looking back through the lens of social neuroscience, simply knowing that much of my struggle was resulting from a “damaged” brain with resonance circuits poorly connected to the frontal lobes, would have made an appreciable difference for me – it’s not me that’s the problem, it’s my brain! Learning and practicing some of the proven effective techniques of somatic psychology, would have restored that lost hope. Hell, even something as simple as learning there was a word for not being able to say what I feel – alexithymia – would have been a hopeful help.

Hope for our Children

Each generation surpasses the previous one in many ways. One simple measure is in brain capacity – the ability of the brain to process energy and information. We are Hardwired to Connect, and optimizing those connections early on, significantly increases capacity. My own daughter processes multitudes more energy and information than I did at her age – 25. Her own children will process multitudes more than her (something pretty difficult for me to fully imagine, actually). Some simple evidence for this is represented by the story that I’ve pointed to several times in this space – Bruce Perry’s Kindness of Children chapter from his book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. I can easily envision a collaborative community of Special Agents – kindergartners whose part-time volunteer job is to help regulate other kids whose brains are not able to easily perform that function for them … to help them grow the neural resources that will permit greater control of their emotional impulses. This collection of kids would continually be answering the Big Brain Question with a resounding “Yes” for those not getting that question positively answered elsewhere.

A number of years ago I had a bumper sticker printed up that I placed on my truck and then gave away to friends. It was a quote from the writer and poet, Alice Walker. She suggested a template to overlay onto education or social programs or impending life decisions. It was the simple question, “Is it best for the children?” I think the answer to her question, in terms of the hope and the creative possibilities offered by social neuroscience, is an unequivocal, “Yes!”

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My friend Sean and his wife Jaimee took their six month old son Levi in to see a pediatric urologist last year. She’s a highly respected, well-known doctor on the San Franscisco Peninsula. Let’s call her Ursala.

“Your baby has this urinary tract infection because you didn’t have him circumcised,” Ursala authoritatively pronounced, as she looked at Levi’s chart on her computer screen. Sean and Jaimee just listened politely and didn’t defend or justify their circumcision decision. They suspected that his urinary infection was instead connected to a very difficult birth that went four weeks past term and included two stays in the NICU in rapid succession within the first month of life. “You’re also going to spoil him by constantly fussing over him the way you do.” This was Ursala’s next pronouncement. Again, Sean and Jaimee just listened politely. When it came time to actually examine Levi, Ursala’s next comment was surprisingly contradictory: “Hmm. He seems remarkably trusting and good-natured. He’s doing well, when you consider all he’s been through. You’re very lucky.” Nevertheless, Ursala continued to lobby hard for kidney surgery, another traumatically invasive procedure.

L. U. C. K.

Levi had indeed been through a lot. But in Sean and Jaimee’s mind, the only thing that luck had to do with it was the fact that they were Laboring Under Correct Knowledge. As parents they have worked hard to become their own pediatric authorities. The first bit of knowledge they have acquired is that baby’s brains are sufficiently developed before birth such that they can unquestionably feel pain and experience trauma. Thus – and this becomes suspiciously apparent to any parent who has attended a circumcision and didn’t dissociate during it – intentionally inflicting a large, painful laceration on a very sensitive area of a baby’s body represents a massive betrayal of trust. With circumcision, the Big Brain Question has NOT been answered “Yes.” The people whom a baby most needs to protect them and keep them safe and secure, have essentially failed in that responsibility.

The Unkindest Cut

Bob Scaer, a retired neurologist and long-time medical director of a health center in Colorado, claims that the trauma of circumcision has lifelong ramifications, none of them neurologically positive. In his outstanding book (the rewritten, second edition), The Body Bears the Burden, he makes a very strong, medically-based argument that the trauma of circumcision may lie at the root of such things as ADHD and excessive male aggression. Sean and Jaimee have thus made what they consider a very informed decision intended to optimize Levi’s brain development.

To the Spoils Go the Victory

On the audio program, The Neurobiology of Healing, contrary to Ursala’s negative judgment, Scaer also claims that it is simply impossible to spoil a child under three years old. I agree. The brain of a child under three is simply insufficiently developed and requires all the care and attentive nurturing parents are able to offer. This is yet more of the information and knowledge that are making Sean and Jaimee pediatric authorities.

Worldwide Knowledge Explosion

We’re in the midst of a worldwide research, knowledge and information explosion right now. This development is working to make any of us authorities on virtually any subject of deep interest to us. In a lecture at the Carnegie Foundation for Education last year, I heard John Seeley Brown, former director of Xerox PARC, announce that in five years, all the knowledge currently known in the world will be available online for free! The last estimate I heard is that 35000 new studies in neuroscience alone are published every year! No single person can be expected to keep current. That includes our professional healthcare providers. By the same token, it allows us to become our very own authority in any area where we have the desire and motivation to do research and make in-depth inquiry. And as parents, teachers and counselors, we can certainly seek and find information and knowledge that is particularly pertinent to us, our students, clients and the members of our family.

Caring for Natural Resources

The acquisition of knowledge about things child and parent-related has long been a prime parental responsibility, one that goes beyond simply saying “This is how my parents did it, and I turned out all right.” When I hear that rationale, my question in response is often: “Compared to what?” How might you have turned out if your parents had known more than they did?  Had addressed and healed more of their own wounding? How much pain and suffering might you have avoided had your parents had more information available to them, especially during the first three years of your life, which we’ve now discovered has lifelong impact on things like immune function and protein expression in genes. Nevertheless, we now have the tools, and we owe it to our children to make the time to do the work of becoming our own authorities in the areas that have the greatest heart and meaning for us in order to consciously care for our most precious natural resource.

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There’s ONE question that all brains want answered, and they want it answered, “Yes.” Parent’s brains, children’s brains, Auntie Jeanne’s brain, all brains. And they don’t want a lukewarm “Yes,” or a “Maybe Yes” or a “Getting-to-Yes Yes.” They want a real, resounding, unequivocal, “YES!” Yes.

brain-blue-electricBefore I tell you what that question is, I’d like to tell you a bit about what goes on in a person’s brain when the answer is something other than “Yes.” First of all, if the answer is “Maybe,” or “I’m not sure,” a confusion and uncertainty begins to take shape in the brain. How this looks under an electron microscope is a significantly reduced number of hills and valleys in the brain (gyri and sulci) together with fewer neurons and fewer connections between neurons in important regulating regions (Rich Club Networks). Reduced connections result, not unexpectedly and oversimplified, in reduced abilities in different areas. For example, motor areas or immune function can often be compromised, resulting in lower social or emotional intelligence or reduced impulse control. If you go here and take a look at prize-winning mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss’s brain, you will be able to clearly see a side-by-side comparison of two brains, one that very likely had the Big Brain Question repeatedly answered, “Yes” (Gauss’s), and another that most likely had it answered “Maybe.”


Much greater problems arise for us though when the answer to the Big Brain Question is, “No.” When the answer to this question is “No,” we are put in an untenable position: the place where we live or work, and the people we need to care for and connect with us and positively respond to us. are not performing that fundamental function very well. Even if we are able to take good care of ourselves, we still need important people to connect to. Feeling, or actually being helplessly stuck with ruptured relationships with no ready resolution in sight, is one primary experience that can result in Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) in adults and children alike. What this form of  PTSD often looks like when a brain-scanner takes a picture of it is something like this – major brain cell real estate is simply not optimally integrated and operating in the neural network.

This kind of brain damage, in differing degrees, has a lifelong impact on our children. Here’s what “recovering neurologist,” Dr. Bob Scaer, has to say about it: “The cumulative experiences of ‘life’s little traumas’ shape virtually every single aspect of existence. This accumulation of negative life experiences molds one’s personality, choices of mate, profession, clothes, appetite, pet peeves, social behaviors, posture, and most specifically, our state of physical and mental health.”

All that might not be so bad. Given the great plasticity and regenerative capacity of the brain, it might be something we could readily work with. However, Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician, sees the damage caused by the answer “No” to the Big Brain Question as even more serious. Here’s what he has to say: “The biology of potential illness arises early in life. The brain’s stress response mechanisms are programmed by experiences beginning in infancy, and so are the implicit, unconscious memories that govern our attitudes and behaviors toward ourselves, others and the world. Cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and the other conditions we examined are not abrupt new developments in adult life, but the culmination of lifelong processes. The human interactions and biological imprinting that shaped these processes took place in periods of our life for which we may have no conscious recall.”

So, we can see that children’s brains need tender, loving, consistent care. But what exactly IS this Big Brain Question, and how might we consistently answer it “Yes”? Click HERE to find out.

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