As a kid I spent a lot of time alone. My role models were TV characters like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Bronco Layne, Bret Maverick, and Richard Boone as Paladin. Iconoclasts and rugged individualists all, they each worked diligently in the service of good against the forces of evil. They were mostly strong, silent types – men of action living in a black and white world. You didn’t mess with them unless you were out of your mind.

Richard BooneIn the light of current brain science research, most of my childhood heroes would very likely turn out to be clinically diagnosable, the inevitable result of experiencing one brain-disorganizing trauma after another from mishaps while tearing across the Texas plain. Why, for example, did Jim Bowie need to openly walk through the world carrying a three inch wide, sixteen inch long knife named after him everywhere he went? Or why did Bret Maverick wander from town to town acting out his gambling addiction with a thousand dollar bill pinned under his coat collar. Banks were around then and paid interest on savings, too. And the defense of the Alamo? Clearly Bowie and Davy Crockett were engaged in pretty distorted thinking. I’ve been to the Alamo and the walls around it are barely six feet high – completely indefensible. Their folly was undoubtedly dissociative “suicide by Santa Anna.”

Having long aspired to it, I’m now pretty convinced that rugged individualism is how neurological disorganization plays out for any number of us. One result of my spending so much time alone as a young kid, is that my speech and language centers failed to develop very strongly. Rugged individualists don’t show up as strong, silent types because we want to, it’s because we have little choice. According to neuro-psychiatrist Louann Brizendene, the speech and language centers in men are normally about one third the size of those in women. I’m pretty sure they’re even less developed in me. It takes great brain energy producing a lot of concentrated focus for me to speak aloud for even a short amount of time. Words just don’t easily form in my mind, leaving me sometimes feeling like a barely functional autistic. And recent research suggests that this neural real estate deficiency makes me not so great at reading nonverbal communication very well either.

Self-Enforced Solitary Confinement

solitary-confinementI occasionally used to think about spending time in prison (what part of my personal trauma history might be responsible for that line of thinking?) and about getting sent to solitary confinement. It would be a welcome retreat for me. I’d be safe and contained and have ample time to explore creative flights of fancy. I’m now sure that’s quite wrongheaded. John Bowlby, the originator of attachment theory, thought so as well. He believed isolation was inherently traumatizing in and of itself, often leading to something like “primal panic.” As Buddha probably intuited when he established the sangha (spiritual community) as a central element in his teachings, adults and children need other people to help us regulate our neurophysiology, to help us engage in a kind of emotional homeostasis. This ongoing, interactive, self-other emotional regulation is described by Dan Goleman in his book, Social Intelligence as a “Neural Duet.”

We also need other people to help us release the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin, associated with states of calm, joy and contented bliss. Without other heart-brain-mind-bodies dancing together with ours, those creative flights of fancy can easily trigger a glucocorticoid typhoon that is not at all easy to regulate single-mindedly. In other words, when I’m all alone, I’m much crazier than when I’m in the company of others. (One purpose reading books and magazines seems to serve is to place me vicariously in the company of others as a way to direct and constructively channel mental and emotional energy).

The Early Bird Attaches to the Worm

As might be predicted, this propensity for isolation frequently follows in the wake of less than optimal early attachment. Insecure attachment leaves me less able to take emotional risks, proactively reach out to others, or deal with conflict very easily. I simply don’t have the neural resources – the integrated connections that would readily and easily allow for that.

But the good news is that with practice, any one of us can grow new neural connections in our speech and language centers. Being able to grow new neurons and connections is one of the things that makes practicing in places like Toastmasters work so well. It’s also why for the last four or five years I’ve been teaching classes and forcing myself to give public talks. In light of the 10000 Hours-to-Become-an-Expert Rule, by 2015 all my speech and language centers should finally be fully reclaimed. In place of the strong, silent, rugged individualist will bloom a social butterfly!