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. So, here below 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 barring 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 set 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 one of the most extraordinary creations in the known universe – our working brain.
I find it somewhat surprising that a Google search shows that this title has never been written about. I suspect there are good reasons for that, but whatever they might be, I’m willing to put on my Hubris Hat and take up the challenge! (From the perspective of my honorary, Inner Mother persona, of course). If there’s one thing the six week teleseminar I recently-completed with Jeanne Denney – Embracing Mother’s Dark Heart – has taught me, it’s that I don’t know jack about what it really means to be a mother. But I am a man afterall, so I refuse to let a little detail like that stop me.
So, with that clarification out of the way, let’s start with Habit One. . .
Embrace Your Shadow
Most people know what the Shadow is, but just so we’re on the same page, let me tell you what I mean by it: I mean what Kay Plumb means by it -
the parts of a human being that a person doesn’t want to, or can’t, think about or acknowledge. It refers to the repressed, unlived side of your normal daytime personality—the stuff you don’t like about yourself, the stuff you don’t want anyone to know about you.
Thus your shadow contains negative qualities, such as envy or prejudice or insecurity. Or it could even contain positive qualities, such as compassion or artistic ability. But the qualities, whatever they are, stay in your shadow because you don’t like to—in fact most of the time you simply can’t—admit you possess them. Some parts of ourselves we like to show to others—put out into the light—and some parts of ourselves we like to hide—keep in the shadows….Your shadow can’t be smelled or tasted or touched or felt, yet it is actually hooked to you, attached to the creases and crevices and neurons of your daylight mind. And while other people can see your shadow without too much trouble, you usually have to turn your head around to see it.
Ignoring the Yucky Parts
What happens if I simply decide to ignore my shadow? Turns out I can’t, and Kay has some good insights about that as well (I should have asked Kay to guest-write this blog! I can at least suggest you buy her award-winning book: Using Beauty and her Beast to Introduce the Human Shadow).
They get projected out onto other people. You can’t avoid running into parts of your own psyche. Since the things in your shadow are a part of your own psychological make-up they have to, they will, show up somewhere in your own life. In other words, if you just can’t stand to face some of your own stuff, you will end up seeing your own stuff on someone else’s face. The word projection is very apt. We’re all familiar with movie projectors. We all know how those work and what those look like. With unacknowledged shadow material you’re the projector. You’re that little machine in the back creating the image. The image is coming from you. But the only place where you can see the image is on the screen in front of you. You can only see it in another person, or group of people. Causes a lot of heartache in the world.
2. Assume the Stress Position
3. Protect the family from your resentment
4. Support neuro-enriching practices
5. Honor Your Intuition – and Your Authority
6. You’re the mother. “Because I said so” is reason enough. Flexibly authoritative Neurons to Neighborhoods
7. Recognize You’re ALWAYS Doing Your Best
8. Develop Personal Practices that Support Expanding Skillfulness
One of my favorite quotes is from the zen master Shunryu Suzuki who said all of us are perfect just as we are and we could all use a little improvement. Especially mothers (and if you press me, okay, fathers as well).
Compassionate Heart and Other Dangerous Pursuits
I recently attended a workshop sponsored by some friends of mine for whom I have deep respect. They invited a male therapist from Germany to come and facilitate a large group – more than 50 people – exploring trauma and attachment issues.
First off, I’m not a big fan of such workshops; I think the model is deeply flawed. Too much goes on between the lines among the rank and file – traumatic memories get aroused, emotional reactions get triggered, neurological disorganization unfolds – often without ever being noticed, addressed or resolved in any way by the leader or his helpers. Evidence is mounting that each time we revisit traumatic memories without resolving them, further damage results. And this feels profoundly true in my experience. And while there’s conflicting evidence that a traumatic history results in later onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, I believe that most people don’t even realize they’ve sustained trauma when they actually have, making it very difficult to do valid research.
Knowing the power of transference and projection to invite “opportunities for healing,” as soon as I agreed to attend the workshop, I suspected I was setting myself up for trouble. My father was a German who rode in, had two kids and then, when the going got tough, headed off for parts unknown leaving others to take care of the mess in his wake. That dynamic mirrors a situation in palliative care known as The White Knight on the Black Horse syndrome: someone long estranged from the family, or not connected at all, shows up with the announced intention to set things right, disconnecting and riding off once they’ve determined they’ve done all they can and they consider their work done, regardless of what others might think or feel. I’m understandably suspicious of such “saviors.”
At workshops such as this I tend to be hypervigilant. Safety – my own first, and others’ next – is high on my agenda. I listen carefully and watch closely. If someone is purporting to be a trauma and attachment expert, I want to hear and see evidence that their knowledge and understanding pretty much matches my own. The first Smoke Alarm went off for me when the leader announced that he was expecting people in the room to do what they needed to do to take care of themselves! That sounded a lot like the abdication of responsibility to me. “I’m going to bring a group together and if they don’t take care of themselves after I’ve specifically instructed them to, it’s their own fault.”
The Unthought Known
Many traumatic experiences happen to us very early on, before we acquire language. The brain and body records them as image and feeling sensations. In environments where the intention is for traumatic memories to surface, such memories often do … with no words attached. When they do, they often catch us by surprise, and cast us back, emotionally and neurologically, to that much earlier time. As we open up a “Dissociation Capsule” thinking becomes fragmented and difficult, and the discomfort can be both inexplicable and overwhelming. For all intents and purposes, it can feel very much like being two years old again. To invite trauma to surface and then expect two-year-olds to take care of themselves, in my opinion, deeply misunderstands the nature of trauma.
So that was Smoke Alarm number one. Number Two came when the leader made this statement: “I have great respect for people who are willing to work with painful emotions. I have no respect for people who aren’t willing to.” Not only is this a clear misunderstanding of the way that trauma can affect the body and brain, but this simplistic dichotomy – people willing to work to attain emotional intelligence deserve respect; those who can’t don’t – is one that lies at the root of much suffering in the world. That duality is what warrior-mystic Elizabeth Lesser calls “Negative Other-izing,” and people we have little respect for become much easier to exclude from our compassionate heart.
Opening to the Heart in Pain
Later on, I was again watching as this leader gave an authoritarian directive and then blithely dismissed a good friend of mine. I knew she was angry and pained by it, but I was unable to offer her any care in the moment. Later, as we revisited it together, I told her I would not be returning for Day Two of the workshop. She told me that she would be … “because I really want him to be successful.” Her words took me back more than a little. She was in no way offering herself up as a martyr – she’s very far from the martyr type – but she was honestly willing to suffer at the hands of someone making mistakes, and offer support in hopes of him eventually achieving success. In my own hurt and anger, I was not able to find even a sliver of an opening in my heart.
And while I’m sure he wasn’t intending it, that was the Big Lesson my friend helped me take from this workshop: even flawed leaders, ones who piss me off and remind me way too much of my own wounded, abandoning father, deserve a place in my compassionate heart. Whether he has respect for me or not.
The Extreme Dangers of Sitting
James A. Levine, MD, PhD
Being a couch potato has long been known to threaten a person’s health. But now researchers are discovering that it’s much more dangerous than previously thought.
Troubling statistic: Americans spend more than half their waking hours sitting — primarily watching TV, driving and working at a desk.
Important new finding: When Australian researchers recently tracked 8,800 men and women (average age 53) for about six years, they found that for every hour of daily TV viewing, risk for death due to cardiovascular disease increased by 18%. For those who watched TV four or more hours daily, risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was 80% higher than for those who reported watching fewer than two hours daily.
Most surprising: A similar Canadian study of about 17,000 adults found that even among people who are physically fit and have a normal body weight, prolonged sitting, for any reason, was associated with increased health risks, suggesting that sitting for long periods may cancel out some of the health benefits of regular exercise.
THE PROBLEM WITH SITTING
Our bodies are programmed to move. When we spend most of our waking hours sitting, our health suffers in various ways. Examples…
Sluggish central nervous system. Sitting causes your central nervous system to slow down, leading to fatigue. Three weekly sessions of low-intensity exercise, such as walking at a leisurely pace, which stimulates the central nervous system, reduced fatigue by 65% after six weeks, according to one study.
Weakened muscles. Sitting weakens your muscles (especially those that support posture and are used to walk) and stiffens joints, leading to a hunched posture and increased risk for back and joint pain.
Poor fat burning. The walls of your capillaries are lined with lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that breaks down certain fats in the bloodstream. Sit for a few hours, and these enzymes start switching off. Sit all day, and their activity drops by 50%.
Increased heart risks. Sitting for long periods, even in people with healthy body weight, will have negative effects on blood sugar and blood fat levels, which may contribute to diabetes and heart disease.
THE “NEAT” SOLUTION
Fortunately, the dangers of prolonged sitting can be countered by engaging in simple, low-intensity movement throughout the day.
Thirty minutes or more of cardiovascular exercise (such as brisk walking, swimming or biking) several days per week is known to help promote good overall health. However, research at the Mayo Clinic has shown that the average American’s biggest health problem is a deficit in activity when formal exercise is not being performed.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the term that is used for the energy that is expended (calories burned) doing everyday activities.
While in previous generations our work and recreational activities involved regularly standing up and moving the body’s muscles, today’s world of cars, desk jobs, TVs and computers has reduced our daily NEAT dramatically.
The solution is to add small amounts of non-exercise-related activity into your daily routine. For example, simply standing up triples your energy expenditure compared with sitting. And since a slow (1 mile per hour) walk triggers more than half the metabolic activity of a brisk (3 mph) walk, a leisurely hour-long stroll burns more calories than an intense 30-minute power walk.
Interesting: We burn just five calories an hour while sitting and 15 while standing.
TO COUNTERACT SITTING AT HOME
With a little forethought, it’s possible to significantly raise your activity level without stepping foot in a gym. Not surprisingly, watching TV and long hours at the computer are among the biggest traps when you’re at home. To develop your own NEAT lifestyle in your home…
Stand up and walk around. Do this every time an advertisement comes on the TV.
Keep a stability ball handy. Since sitting on this kind of large, inflatable ball requires you to shift slightly from side to side to keep your balance, it engages more muscles (especially those in your abdomen and back) than sitting in a regular chair does. Strong abdominal muscles help fight back pain and enhance stability and balance. Stability ball chairs are available from Gaiam (877-989-6321, http://www.Gaiam.com, $120)… and Isokinetics, Inc. (866-263-0674, http://www.IsokineticsInc.com, $65).
Place exercise equipment near your TV. Good choices include a treadmill, stationary bike and/or elliptical trainer. If you watch TV, choose a half-hour show every day and begin using the equipment as the theme music comes on. Continue until the show ends.
Another option: Try a “mini stepper,” a small device with two footpads that lets you step in place against resistance. These machines can be tucked away when not in use. Mini steppers are widely available from such companies as Stamina Products, Inc. (800-375-7520, http://www.StaminaProducts.com, $40 to $170)… and NordicTrack (www.NordicTrack.com, 888-308-9616, $120).
Put your computer on an elevated surface, such as a shelf or stand. This way, you can stand while typing or surfing the Web.
Choose action-oriented video games. If you play video games, opt for an active game (including Wii, which allows you to mimic motions used in sports such as tennis) instead of more sedentary games.
Engage in “active intimacy.” Catch up with your spouse or other family members or friends by talking with them while you stroll around the neighborhood together.
TO COUNTERACT SITTING AT WORK
For a NEAT lifestyle at work…
Stand up when you answer the phone. If possible, pace near your desk for the duration of the call.
Schedule “walking meetings.” This is ideal when you need to meet with just one or two people and don’t need to take a lot of notes.
Cut back on phone calls and e-mails to coworkers. When you need to speak to a coworker, walk to his/her work space. Besides getting you out of your chair, this face-to-face communication style has been shown to improve relationships.
Follow the 10-minute rule. Whenever you’re working at a computer, get up for 10 minutes every hour to stretch your back and legs. Use this time to perform tasks that can be done while standing, such as making phone calls.
Take the stairs. Avoid the elevator when going to and from your office floor.
Park your car a distance (half a mile, for example) from your office. If you take mass transit, get off the bus or subway one or two stops before your destination.
Take a midday walk. Use half your lunch hour for a stroll.
Use a standing desk. It allows you to stand while working. Ernest Hemingway used such a desk. They are available from such companies as Ergo Desk (800-822-3746, http://www.ErgoDesk.com)… and Anthro (800-325-3841, http://www.Anthro.com).
Cost: About $240 to more than $2,000.
Even better: Add a treadmill for less than $1,000 to your work space to create a “walking desk.” Don’t laugh — many people who have done this (using it for four to 12 hours daily) have found that their productivity and concentration have improved along with their health.
Bottom Line/Health interviewed James A. Levine, MD, PhD, director of the Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He is coauthor of Move a Little, Lose a Lot (Crown).
What if it turned out that most of the world’s problems could be traced to one simple, easily correctable deficit: impaired oxygenation. That much of the greed, wars, violence, health and financial crises, and assorted other human suffering was simply the inescapable result of insufficiently oxygenated brain tissue. Stick with me on this for a bit.
Fundamentally, you, me and all of us are going to die from the same single cause: lack of oxygen to the brain. Every death is ultimately the result of oxygen deprivation. If I get shot through the heart, my heart stops pumping freshly oxygenated blood to the brain and my brain stops working soon afterward. If I get lung cancer, rapidly replicating cells form tumors in my lungs. These tumors crowd out healthy tissue until my lungs are no longer able to supply oxygenated blood to my heart to transfer to my brain. Death results. If I smash my car into a bridge abutment with no airbags or seat belt, my head goes through the windshield and my brain smashes into the bridge concrete. Oxygen is suddenly deprived of a brain to travel to. My life comes to an end.
The Breathing Benefits of Sleep
So, oxygen is the gas of life. One of the many benefits of sleep is that we get to breathe in a regular, uninterrupted fashion for an extended period of time, systematically refueling the brain. My guess is that restful sleep has a positive effect on the generation and connectivity of neurons as well. Interestingly, as might be predicted, once their disorder was corrected, research on kids with sleep-disordered breathing showed marked improvement by way of reduced hyperactivity, increased attention spans and less daytime sleepiness. Getting better sleep seems to have positively affected their brains.
So, how well we’re able to breathe at night affects our functioning during the day. Is it too far a stretch to imagine that how we breathe during the day might also profoundly affect us during the day as well?
A Little Death in Every Breath
Suppose we die a kind of mini-death every time we involuntarily or unconsciously hold back an out-breath? Tai Chi Master William C. C. Chen believes that many of the activities of modern life work to constantly interrupt our natural breathing patterns. A random thought, a ringing cell phone, a honking car horn – all can cut an out-breath short, making us inhale before we’ve completely exhaled (I once had someone insult me by calling me a “shallow, mouth-breather!”).
Neurologist Bob Scaer argues that it’s the “Freeze Response” during which we hold our breath and immobilize our body, which results in retained traumatic memories ending up as collections of encapsulated neurons that he calls dissociation capsules. Such collections of neurons appear to go offline, temporarily lost to the network, significantly reducing processing power (Interestingly, L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology, identified these retained painful memories as engrams and, using an early biofeedback potentiometer he called the e-meter, actually found a way to activate and integrate the neurons holding these memories back into the network. I think this accounted for a lot of Scientology’s early popularity … the process of recalling memories and being able to give voice to them appears to be a process that successfully discharges the emotional reactivity of traumatic memories. Which is what Scientology did for people like Tom Cruise, Jerry Seinfeld, Van Morrison, Juliette Lewis, Sharon Stone and John Travolta. And because the brain is an associative organ, it’s easy to mistakenly associate and attribute healing processes and integrative experiences with the organization that orchestrated them. But, I digress).
Breath and Spirit
I don’t think it’s an accident that any number of spiritual traditions, martial arts and contemplative practices find various ways to practice and incorporate conscious attention to breathing. It is this attentive practice that allows us to add sustained, consistent day-breathing to the restorative night-breathing we do as a matter of course. My hypothesis would be that adding this resource, underwrites neural enrichment, facilitating more and more neural growth and connectivity. That resulting growth and connectivity would result in greater ease in managing daily stress, provide increased ability to move toward things that customarily make us anxious, and expand the neural base that we normally engage the world from.
Gaming the Breath
So what’s the takeaway? Essentially we can make a game with our kids out of paying closer attention to our breathing. We can begin to notice what kinds of interactions and experiences bring our breath up short; what kinds of thoughts bring the breath to a full stop; what the requirements are for being able to breathe fully in and fully out without restriction for five, ten, twenty breaths in a row. My hunch is it will affect us subtly at first, but with practice, over time, breath-remembering will begin to pay big dividends for heart, mind, body and brain. Could attaining lasting peace and ongoing prosperity be that simple?
I usually write the first draft of this column each week in four or five different sittings. Ten or fifteen minutes is often the longest I can sit and fully concentrate. Likewise, the books and articles I read to find research material for the column, I’m only able to read for ten or fifteen minutes at a sitting as well. After that, I unconsciously interrupt my regular breathing pattern and begin to get antsy and anxious. Clearly, my brain has changed over the 25 years I’ve been working with computers, but it doesn’t feel like it’s changed for the better. It is a change wrought by the Internet that many of our children however, will never know – the strength and joy of having much greater powers of concentration.
Harvard Business Review editor, Nicholas Carr had to move from Boston to a cabin in the Colorado mountains and turn down his own consumer electronics consumption in order to write his recent bestseller, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In that book, Carr argues there is a downside to Internet Culture – we are at risk of raising a generation of fast-twitch airheads, sentenced to live their lives in the “intellectual shallows.” It’s a generation that regularly fails to realize that greater access to knowledge is not the same as greater knowledge, that breadth of knowledge is not the same as depth of knowledge, that multi-tasking is not the same as engaging complexity, and finally, that ever-increasing mountains of facts and data are not the same as wisdom. Princeton philosopher, Cornel West has intimated that this description unfortunately fits our current president, making too many critical choices solely from his intellect.
Another unexpected outcome of the electronic revolution was recently detailed by Nurtureshock authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman in Newsweek: America is a country in the middle of a creativity decline bordering on a crisis. To come up with that determination researcher Kyung Hee Kim at William and Mary College analyzed 300,000 Torrance scores, which are generally accepted as an accurate measure of Creativity Quotient (CQ). What Hee found is that American creativity has been in steady decline since 1990, just as computers and computer games began their great cultural infiltration. And the greatest decline has occurred in schoolchildren from kindergarten through sixth grade.
Wisdom is Embodied
It’s interesting that this decline in creativity also seems to run parallel with a reduction in physical education in our public schools. According to the Surgeon General’s Report, beginning in the early nineties, overall enrollment in daily physical education classes declined among high school students from 42 percent to 27 percent by the end of the decade. (Astonishingly, the baseline starts out at less than half of all kids – 42%!).
This is but one aspect of a very complex process, but here’s how I think physical education and wisdom might be related. The brain’s neural network processes energy and information. Generally, the more neurons we possess making more connections, much like a computer network, the more energy and information we can process. The more energy and information we can process, the wiser we have the potential for being, perhaps particularly if we can be aware of and make sense of the energy and information being regularly transmitted from the neurons in our “ancillary” brains – our hollow organs like our stomach and our heart – to our insula, where “gut” feelings get processed.
Inhibited and/or Enriched
Neuron growth and connectivity in our brain can alternately be inhibited or enriched. Internal and external environments have the capacity to do either. Internal environments that inhibit neuron growth and connectivity, particularly in critical limbic and prefrontal brain areas, respond poorly to excessive amounts of stress-generated neurotoxins like adrenaline and cortisol. Exercising the body thus serves an exocrine function – we literally sweat these neurotoxins out of our system (Interestingly, tears of grief also serve a similar exocrine function).
Sitting at a computer or in a classroom or in front of the television for most of the day does very little in the way of providing an exit strategy for neurotoxins. Just the opposite, as many classrooms, computer games and television shows probably generate more stress chemicals than they clear out. This recent study seems to suggest that simply so much sitting is the biggest part of what ails us.
What to Do?
Move yourself and get your kids moving. This might be a male thing, but I don’t like exercising for exercise’s sake. I like exercising with goals in mind. I like cutting and stacking firewood, for example, or riding my bike into town to get the mail, rather than just to ride. I like moving in order to build things or to discover things in my local environment.
Limit or circumscribe exposure to electronic media. This includes television (reduce those 200 billion hours spent watching every year), iPads, iPhones, Gameboys, wiis, Kindles, Xboxes and anything else that results in kids’ physical movement being significantly reduced for hours on end.
Spend time in nature, meditating. It’s pretty clear that most all forms of contemplative practice provide great neural benefit. Here’s a recent study on how meditation increases attention span. Forests, too, engender healing, as this study confirms. Nevertheless, it continues to astonish me how little the open space preserves in Northern California are actually used by people for camping, hiking, exploring meditation. To this day, I can hike into Big Basin Redwood Preserve from the Pacific Coast Highway, hike up to Golden Falls and Silver Falls and encounter only four or five other people on the whole day-long trek. We seem to have lost our memory for the healing, restorative power of nature, and our minds, bodies, brains and souls are paying the price.
This week I’m taking a summer break and letting Jeff Bezos, CEO and Founder of Amazon.com stand in …
“We are What We Choose”
Remarks by Jeff Bezos to the Baccalaureate Class of 2010 at Princeton University
May 30, 2010
As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially Days of our Lives. My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the U.S. and Canada. And every few summers, we’d join the caravan. We’d hitch up the Airstream trailer to my grandfather’s car, and off we’d go, in a line with 300 other Airstream adventurers. I loved and worshipped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips. On one particular trip, I was about 10 years old. I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving. And my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips, and I hated the smell.
At that age, I’d take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I’d calculate our gas mileage — figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I’d been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can’t remember the details, but basically the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I’d come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off your life!”
I have a vivid memory of what happened next, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. “Jeff, you’re so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division.” That’s not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
Gifts and Choices
What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.
This is a group with many gifts. I’m sure one of your gifts is the gift of a smart and capable brain. I’m confident that’s the case because admission is competitive and if there weren’t some signs that you’re clever, the dean of admission wouldn’t have let you in.
Your smarts will come in handy because you will travel in a land of marvels. We humans — plodding as we are — will astonish ourselves. We’ll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it. Atom by atom, we’ll assemble tiny machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs. This month comes the extraordinary but also inevitable news that we’ve synthesized life. In the coming years, we’ll not only synthesize it, but we’ll engineer it to specifications. I believe you’ll even see us understand the human brain. Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton — all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive most of all right now. As a civilization, we will have so many gifts, just as you as individuals have so many individual gifts as you sit before me.
How will you use these gifts? And will you take pride in your gifts or pride in your choices?
Pursing the Crazy Dream
I got the idea to start Amazon 16 years ago. I came across the fact that Web usage was growing at 2,300 percent per year. I’d never seen or heard of anything that grew that fast, and the idea of building an online bookstore with millions of titles — something that simply couldn’t exist in the physical world — was very exciting to me. I had just turned 30 years old, and I’d been married for a year. I told my wife MacKenzie that I wanted to quit my job and go do this crazy thing that probably wouldn’t work since most startups don’t, and I wasn’t sure what would happen after that. MacKenzie (also a Princeton grad and sitting here in the second row) told me I should go for it. As a young boy,I’d been a garage inventor. I’d invented an automatic gate closer out of cement-filled tires, a solar cooker that didn’t work very well out of an umbrella and tinfoil, baking-pan alarms to entrap my siblings. I’d always wanted to be an inventor, and she wanted me to follow my passion.
Trading Security for Passion
I was working at a financial firm in New York City with a bunch of very smart people, and I had a brilliant boss that I much admired. I went to my boss and told him I wanted to start a company selling books on the Internet. He took me on a long walk in Central Park, listened carefully to me, and finally said, “That sounds like a really good idea, but it would be an even better idea for someone who didn’t already have a good job.” That logic made some sense to me, and he convinced me to think about it for 48 hours before making a final decision. Seen in that light, it really was a difficult choice, but ultimately, I decided I had to give it a shot. I didn’t think I’d regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all. After much consideration, I took the less safe path to follow my passion, and I’m proud of that choice.
Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life — the life you author from scratch on your own — begins.
How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?
Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?
Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?
Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?
Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?
Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?
When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?
Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?
Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?
I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story. Thank you and good luck!
I was never a very good student in any of the schools I attended. I was kicked out of Katherine Brennan Elementary School – which currently ranks 534th out of 543 Connecticut elementary schools (Because of kids like me?). But I wasn’t suspended for tromping Element No. 4 from the Periodic Table of Swearing in 20 foot high letters onto the pure white snow covering the hill behind the school. I was suspended when Mr. Fisher, the school principal, ordered me to erase what I originally wrote, and I promptly transformed the F into a B, and the U and C, into Os to spell “BOOK.” I thought I was simply being clever and energy-efficient. He decided I was an insolent, corrupting troublemaker and sent me packing.
From 7th through 12th grade, as the result of an early shaming experience, I never said a single word in any class. I would simply sit mute or pretend to be asleep. No teacher ever seemed to care. I spent a part of my senior high school year playing hookey at the downtown New Haven Public Library with my best pal reading about how to set up a whiskey still. We then set about to manufacture moonshine to sell to our friends. It was our own creative way of getting around the Card Law.
After high school, I waited three years before I enrolled in college and ended up dropping out of three different ones. Seven different graduate schools saw me come and go with no degree (UCLA twice!) until I finally completed a Ph.D. at a little startup school in Palo Alto, California – the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. That degree involved a lot of experiential learning, but it still took me ten years from start to finish.
A School a Mother Could Love
So, what would have made school a great place for learning for me and other kids like me? One thing might have been teaching me things I was really interested in learning, things I would have independently investigated and learned on my own. That’s exactly what Steve Jobs did after he dropped out of Reed College. No longer chained to a required curriculum, he stuck around Reed for 18 more months, only taking classes he was interested in, like Calligraphy and Zen Buddhism. He learned interesting things in interesting ways – a self-directed learning adventure that didn’t put his brain to sleep, staying “hungry and foolish” in the process. What this and the starting of Apple Computer also did for Jobs, was introduce him to others with similar interests where they could spark each other’s creative intelligence and wild talents. Jobs apparently kept intuitively asking himself The Two Perilous Questions at every turn.
One challenge for kids developing their own wild talents, of course, is that significant peers and parents might not understand or approve of them. What parent or teacher in their right mind would have encouraged me to do an “independent study” in moonshining? I can easily imagine the limbic highjacking. And yet, through that early entrepreneurial enterprise, I learned a lot about chemistry and manufacturing processes, taking creative initiative, and I learned about sales and marketing through actual real-world, hands on experience!
Neuro-Learning With Heart
Without realizing it, my own self-directed learning was following many of the neuro-learning principles of Dr. Renate Caine. Interestingly, she articulated twelve of them long before we had widespread access to brain scans. Here’s Renate’s list of principles:
BRAIN-MIND LEARNING PRINCIPLES
1. All learning is physiological.
2. The Brain-Mind is social.
3. The search for meaning is innate.
4. The search for meaning occurs through patterning.
5. Emotions are critical to patterning.
6. The Brain-Mind processes parts and wholes simultaneously.
7. Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.
8. Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.
9. There are at least two approaches to memory: archiving individual facts or skills and making sense of experience.
10. Learning is developmental.
11. Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat associated with helplessness.
12. Each brain is uniquely organized
I suspect the best public and private schools organize teaching and learning to follow many of these twelve principles. They also inspire people like Sal Khan and Jane Shirley. Sal Khan is a one-man transformational educator. He’s responsible for 1516 free videotaped, super-popular mini-lectures on Youtube dedicated to making learning short and sweet, fun and simple. His topics cover everything from simple addition to vector calculus to the Napoleonic Wars. Sal teaches in one way our brains learn best.
And when Jane Shirley took over as principal of “Last Chance High,” in Aurora, Colorado, she put many of these principles to work as well. In doing so, after five short years she raised the college application rate from 5% to 86% and the rate of parent participation at Last Chance High from 10% to 80%!
I have a suspicion that Jane Shirley and Sal Kahn would have found some creative ways to successfully channel my early entrepreneurial energy. Who knows: with my early propensities given proper encouragement and guidance, today instead of Samuel Adams, one of the nation’s most popular micro-brewed beers might be called Brady’s Dry-Hopped Patersbier
Bessel van der Kolk is a Harvard psychiatrist specializing in trauma, dissociative identity disorder (DID) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I love the tale he tells on himself of the client who came to him to announce she was quitting therapy and promised not to sue to get back the money she paid for services not effectively rendered. Van der Kolk had been treating her regularly without much real progress for years. In a few sessions with Francine Shapiro, the originator of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), she found her trauma issue fully resolved. Her surprising recovery eventually inspired van der Kolk to take EMDR training himself.
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
Van der Kolk also admits to having a son bedridden for two years as a teen with psychological trauma whom he was unable to help. It took years for him to find a program that actually ended up healing his son (City at Peace). This isn’t an indictment of van der Kolk, per se, but more questioning a field that he himself regularly indicts.
Part of the problem, argues UCLA neuro-psychiatrist Dan Siegel, is that until he constructed one several years ago, psychotherapists never even had a clear definition of what mental health was. Few have ever taken a course designed to teach the characteristics, principles and practices of good mental health, essentially operating as a field that was primarily defined by what it wasn’t. (Siegel currently considers me to be mentally healthy when I can easily express authentic emotion, while continuing to steer a “satisfying, cognitive course through the future emotional jungles” of my life. In other words, I can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and still manage to find a way – sometimes even joyously – to keep on keeping on, unerringly motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Research as Me-Search
Peter Levine, dissatisfied with conventional therapy, founded Somatic Experiencing as a therapeutic treatment modality in response. It is his observation that many people become therapists in an attempt to address their own suffering – that “research becomes Me-search.” And such “Me-search,” Jungian therapist James Hillman and co-author Michael Ventura argue in We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, very often produces a population of powerless, self-centered juvenile adults who have little capacity to effect real change in their own lives or in the lives of people around them. Are these the results a field of professional practice should celebrate and be highly paid for?
Psychologist and martial arts Special Forces trainer, Richard Strozzi-Heckler makes another telling point about conventional psychotherapy. In his book, Holding the Center, he writes:
… one of the failures of contemporary psychology is that it doesn’t provide practices that lead to fulfillment, new competencies, and the satisfaction of taking on that which is difficult. Most talking therapies…often drive us inward, away from a larger world of social sensibility, the politics of care, and stewardship of the natural world. (Psychology’s) reductionistic bias has a tendency to rigidify and fortify a self that ultimately becomes isolated from others and the environment.
Meeting Heartbreak with Hard Work
Josh Waitzkin was an eight-time national chess champion as a kid and has won more than 21 National and World titles as a martial artist. In line with Strozzi-Heckler’s observations, Waitzkin argues that since growth comes at the expense of current comfort or safety – at points of resistance – peak performance requires responding to heartbreak with hard work, cultivating courage and becoming unhindered by internal conflict. This last – fostering internal conflict – in my experience, is something psychologists are world champions in facilitating. I’d prefer they teach me to perform with grace and the easy freedom of a child, in the face of world championship pressures.
To the Listener Go the Spoils
Rabbi Meir Sendor
Finally, here’s a study that serves as the clincher for me. From an Interpersonal Neurobiological perspective, it certainly looks like more benefits accrue to the therapist than the client. Carolyn Schwartz and Rabbi Meir Sendor recruited non-professionals with multiple sclerosis and trained half of them in active listening in order to provide support to the other half, afflicted with multiple sclerosis as well.
Two years later, the peer telephone supporters – the listeners – were queried about the changes they noticed over the course of their participation in the study. In this follow-up evaluation, these listeners reported more improvement than the talkers. They reported improved listening skills, a stronger awareness of the existence of a higher power, increased self-acceptance, and enhanced self-confidence. Additionally, they also reported experiencing a sense of inner peace that allowed them to listen to others without judgment or interference.
So a genuine question seems to be, who receives what real benefits from psychotherapy? And who should be paying whom?