I used to have dreams of winning the Megamillions Lottery – real dreams, both spontaneous and deliberately incubated. Inspired by Russell Targ’s attempts to use ESP to predict the stock market’s direction, I even came up with my own system to help me select the numbers to play: I assembled a list of 56 different animals each corresponding to a different Lottery number. My reasoning went like this: my left brain doesn’t seem to have much access to extrasensory perception; perhaps if I paired up images of animals with numbers, my dreaming right brain could transcend time and space and send me dream pictures of jackalopes or unicorns representing the winning numbers. All I needed was two or three numbers sure to come up. Playing a mix of them in combination with other numbers would then significantly reduce the 175 million-to-0ne odds against winning this past Friday’s $166 million jackpot. The most I ever matched was four numbers. But I was sure the millions were coming and that they were going to make me very happy.

Joyless Nation

Then I started reading research on lottery winners. Turns out lottery winners aren’t very happy at all, and many take less pleasure in daily activities than do quadriplegics! That makes sense. If you didn’t have a neural network profile that would have allowed you to weather the stress necessary to actually earn millions of dollars, why would your brain suddenly allow you to bear the stress of being overwhelmed with overnight wealth? And stress – in the form of life circumstances our brains and bodies can’t readily handle – is a useful definition of unhappiness, one that goes a long way toward explaining why we are a nation of joyless lottery winners.

Derek Bok, the two-time president of Harvard, has some ideas about happiness and he has just written a book about it. One of his conclusions: money and material wealth, beyond the basic necessities, don’t greatly increase happiness. Bok isn’t the first person to come to that conclusion, of course. Benjamin Franklin observed that “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.” Richard Friedman’s take on happiness and money though, is my favorite: “Money will buy you a fine dog, but only love can make it wag its tail.”

Treadmilling Through Life

One theory proposed decades ago by positive psychologists, Philip Brickman and Don Campbell to explain this state of general joylessness is the Hedonic Treadmill Hypothesis. Put simply, the brain quickly adapts to changes in circumstances and we lose whatever bursts of good (or bad) feelings initially came with those changes. Thus, the new, shiny car quickly becomes just a means of transportation, the big screen TV becomes a dust collecting medium for advertisers hawking their wares, or Apple’s new iPad quickly becomes a laptop without a keyboard.

Hedonism derives from the Greek word meaning “delight.” In research circles it’s a school of ethics which argues that the pleasures of life are the only intrinsic good. How do we keep our kids balanced in their pleasure-seeking and track them away from the Hedonic Treadmill? Simple, but not easy. Many of them get on it the same way we did: by seeing all the cool things their friends have and wanting to fit in. Is there a single teen today who doesn’t have the latest version of the coolest mobil phone? But most kids, by the time they’re teens, have experienced just how fast the fizz over new people, places and things wears off. They mostly need clever ways to be reminded of it – “how long do you think it will take before the buzz from the latest and greatest steampunked sports car on Trendhunter goes flat?

We can also make kids aware of Harvard professor Dan Gilbert’s research on happiness which, he discovered, we rarely have a good handle on. We mostly stumble upon it. We think we’re happier with variety and spice in our lives, but the actual research shows we prefer being offered the same thing over and over. We will pay a premium to keep our options open, but get great relief and contentment when we commit to a clear choice. We imagine great joy at something we long for coming to pass (like winning the Megamillions Lottery), but study after study shows the joy we obtain from getting a promotion or a college degree or a new car is short lived or pretty humdrum. Most of us would not sign our kids up for pursuing or living a humdrum life. In which case, we might want to find creative ways to lead them away from the Hedonic treadmill. Modeling a life of service is suggested by some.

As a kid raised on welfare by a single mom, lack of money tended to condition my brain and significantly shape my worldview pretty early on. Those experiences still affect me to this day. Much of that conditioning takes the form of implicit memories locked away inside my brain, but they are also stored in my body. And since the memories are often painful ones – showing up for school in wrinkled, dirty clothes, wearing no-name sneakers with holes in the soles – the brain and body work to keep those memories and others like them, pretty much under wraps. One result is that money has had a lot of charge on it in my emotional universe. And because the brain is an anticipation machine, constantly surveying the financial landscape for threats (that it often unconsciously brings into being), that charge carried great costs that I paid usurious interest on for a long time. (What early memories might be unconsciously circumscribing and limiting your own life?).

Raising Body-Smart Kids

The central problem though, wasn’t money or poverty. The central problem was having virtually no safe, direct outlets as a kid to express the thoughts and feelings that living in such an environment generated. And as more and more research is discovering, the body has powerful needs for channeling the energy of emotion out of it, either creatively or harmlessly into the world.

Emotional pain appears to be mediated by the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the same area that registers physical pain. Because the ACC is situated at the boundary of our thinking cortex and our feeling limbic regions, it links body, emotion, attention, and social awareness, and thus plays a key role in the resonance circuitry that allows us to feel connected both to other people and to ourselves. With few emotional outlets, that tender linkage can become significantly compromised early on.

One benefit for kids provided appropriate emotional outlets is that such outlets strengthen interoception – the ability to look inside and know how we feel. Being in touch with how we feel saves us the trouble of having to build up defenses to keep strong emotions under wraps. Energy and information that we continually need to defend against often comes back to create suffering in our lives. We miss important cues that someone less defended would take important note of and use to guide decision-making in their lives.

Having ready emotional outlets also helps build a wide window of tolerance for strong emotional states. That wide window becomes closely associated with emotional intelligence. We don’t have to turn away from painful feelings of grief and loss, our own or other people’s. We can approach and interact with strangers without excessive  fear. We no longer automatically project negative stereotypes onto people different from us. We are protected from taking up health-compromising habits like smoking. We feel completely comfortable having large amounts of money flow easily through our lives.

The Body on the Brain

Not having such an outlet for thoughts and feelings might have been more problematic for me than it was. What saved me was sports. I played either baseball, basketball or football almost every day of the year. When it snowed in the winter, I was down at the basketball court before sun up with my snow shovel clearing shooting lanes. When it rained in the summer, we simply played ball in the mud. Unlike today, where less than ten percent (!) of public schools require physical education, we took gym three times a week, running track, playing dodge ball and learning to square dance.

Physical exercise, it turns out, isn’t just necessary for stemming the childhood obesity epidemic and keeping kids in some semblance of reasonable shape. That alone though would be reason enough to require it, not to mention saving kids from sleep deprivation (every hour sitting translate into more than three minutes of lost sleep), vulnerability to early heart problems, Type II diabetes, asthma, stiff arteries, sleep apnea and cancer. Beyond that though, physical activity turns out to be closely connected to brain development. It profoundly impacts not only what we think, but how we think. New research shows that our bodies and how we use them in the world affects our thinking ability, particularly our ability to think abstractly. And the ability to think abstractly is closely associated with our ability to delay gratification and engage in mental time travel or “episodic future thought.” That ability allows kids to make choices with high long term benefits. They don’t have to compulsively eat the one marshmallow as they did in Stanford psychologist, Walter Mischel’s famous study: they can wait and get greater marshmallow gratification later (or who knows – even happily trade marshmallows for carrot sticks!). And it’s all made possible by parents making it safe for kids to live fully in their bodies and freely speak emotional truths to parental power.

For several years now I’ve had one of Stephen Post’s books (written with Jill Niemark) on my ever-expanding, books-to-be-read shelf. Why Good Things Happen to Good People seemed like a book I should read, but the title failed to trigger many excitement centers in my brain. Why Bad Things Happen to Bad People – now there’s a title that readily grabs attention: my brain wants to protect me and mine from becoming one of those bad people that bad things happen to.

Dr. Stephen Post

Nevertheless, last week I took Professor Post’s book down off the shelf and began reading it. And I couldn’t stop. Post ran an institute for many years at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine funded by legendary investor, Sir John Templeton. His center had an unlikely name at an academic institution (never mind, at a medical school): The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love.

Post and his colleagues have spent several decades dreaming up and carrying out scientific research on love and its many benefits.

Love and Longevity

The first major benefit Post and his colleagues discovered is that people who love and give, live significantly longer than those who don’t. To structure this research, scientists at the University of Miami devised The Love and Longevity Scale. That scale has four, increasingly expanding domain areas: family, friends, community and humanity. The scale then measures love and giving across ten action areas: celebration, generativity (helping others grow – composting and turning another’s garden in preparation for spring), forgiveness, courage, humor, respect, compassion, loyalty, listening and creativity. Guess what? My hypothesis would be that each of these ten action areas potentially operates in the brain as radical neural enrichers (I already have tons of evidence that Listening does, and Post asserts that listening renders love beautiful, and much of the research out of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love would seem to support that notion).

Besides living longer, people who love and give, live longer happier. Afterall, what’s the point of living longer if you’re miserable? Duh. Lovers and givers also live longer healthier, and the way many of them do that is through the cultivation of something called a Gratitude Practice: fifteen minutes a day of thinking about and writing down different things they feel grateful for. In one study of organ donors, for example, the more gratitude they felt the faster they recovered, and with fewer complications to boot.

The Evolution of Attention

I think it’s instructive that the title of Post’s book didn’t initially grab me, though. That’s probably because my brain pays much more attention to threats. There seems to be an evolutionary process at work. Just as it’s taken decades for the field of psychology to begin to embrace its positive side, and similar to how it’s taken more than 50 years for General Mills to develop Chocolate Cheerios (well, maybe not so similar, even though chocolate appears to reduce blood pressure along with the risk of heart disease), the human brain apparently still needs to go through several developmental iterations and achieve much greater integration before such things as love and gratitude draw sufficient interest to spread with wild abandon across the planet.

So, how might we work to increase that interest and manage to raise kids rooted in an awareness that love and gratitude and giving are of great benefit to the brain, heart and hollow organs? Well, we could simply tell them, like I’m telling everyone right here, right now. But what’s the likelihood of telling being able to get anyone at all fired up enough to go out and take action? Slim and none? Perhaps the old writer’s gnome is more in order: show, don’t tell. Or perhaps, for me, it’s act – don’t preach.

The Power of Intention and Focus

By way of showing, Millard Fuller’s story is one of my favorite examples that demonstrates the power of love and giving. A successful attorney and businessman in Montgomery, AL, Fuller came home one day to his wife Linda announcing that she was leaving their marriage. He convinced her to grant him a “hearing.” Turns out she hated their lifestyle. So, he agreed to chuck it all, giving away most of the “tainted” millions. And then, with the financial slate pristine and pure, the two of them set out to found Habitat for Humanity. To date, Habitat is responsible for building 350,000 homes in 90 countries and providing their owners with low or no-interest loans. Think about that: a no-interest mortgage loan! What a concept. Hard to have a housing crisis with home loans like that.

If the Fuller’s story doesn’t inspire you to action, check out this account by Ian Parker in the New Yorker about Zell Kravinsky. Zell not only gave away most of the 45 million dollars he made as a real estate developer, but then he voluntarily donated a kidney to an anonymous recipient. Afterward, because he was so moved by the act (apparently Zell’s brain’s pleasure centers were really stoked by the donation), he seriously considered donating his remaining kidney and going on dialysis! Crazy Zell. Or else, someone simply really overcome with the power of love and giving and gratitude.

So, what would it take to inspire YOU this week to an act of Crazy Loving and Giving? Something that would inspire your love enough to get some heavy lifting done?

Whoever wrote the playbook, somehow managed to design and script my earliest learnings as solo acts. I studied for and took reading and math tests and AP exams and SATs all by my lonesome. The kids who generally did the best on those tests though, usually worked at home or in the library with one or several study buddies, or with paid coaches. But not me. I could have used some help in those early years, but I didn’t know it, and I didn’t know how to ask for it.

To this day, I hate to ask for help. Whenever I have to, my body takes on all the neurophysiological symptoms of a limbic hijacking – my heart rate increases, my mouth gets dry, my palms get sweaty and my mind goes numb. It frequently prevents me from playing well with others. Any of us who are living, loving, learning, growing human beings all need help from time to time. The good news: skillfully asking for help needn’t be a big deal. Asking for help is teachable and learnable, and easily integratable into our personal neural histories. For optimal brain development, the earlier we learn, and the more practice we have helping others and being helped by others, the better. It’s the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience. And there’s the rub.

Institutes of Solo Learning

In the graduate school where I teach, students are required to do original research and write a doctoral dissertation pretty much as solo investigators. I’m not a big fan of this degree requirement (perhaps because my dissertation took me ten years to complete?). Yes, our students have a committee that offers some degree of guidance, but mostly we offer structure and admin direction. Students take classes in research design and methodology and are supposed to learn to take organized, sequential steps in their research, but by and large students are on their own for the bulk of the project. I think they’d be better served instead, if they at least had the option to practice playing well with others, that is, they were free to join up with two or ten other students to do a collaborative, joint research project if they so chose. The world would be better off as well. I can easily imagine the learning exponentially multiplied by all the inspired brains working in concert to complete a project designed and intended to make a positive, measurable impact on the world. Students would probably also learn a lot about creative conflict resolution and the need to honor and embrace differences of opinion, all proven neural enhancers.  I really don’t get the point of working solo, especially when a preponderance of professional academic papers later on are researched, written and published in conjunction with other colleagues.

At a talk I attended at the Carnegie Foundation, John Seeley Brown, the former head of the innovative research company, Xerox Parc, elucidated two points that have remained with me four years later: all the knowledge currently known in the world will very soon be available on the internet for free; new research and knowledge will have to be paid for. The other point was that higher education will be superceded by “communities of practice” – groups of passionate people with mutual interests playing well together, inspiring one another to wild new learning. It’s already happening in many places around the world.

Peppy Le Bot

My friend Patrick hangs out with a group like Brown identifies. Patrick is passionate about robots and he recently presented his own creation, Peppy Le Bot to the NASA/Ames Robotics Group. This is a group not unlike the Homebrew Computer Club that started the personal computer revolution in the 1980s. I’ve been privy to bear witness to Peppy’s inception and developmental evolution, and it’s been astonishing, if not a bit discomfiting to witness. Check Peppy out here. The point though, is that this is how learning will take place more and more in the future: like-minded people with shared interests, cooperating with and helping other like-minded people. And the earlier we can get our kids exposed to such “communities of practice,” the easier it will be for them later on. And even old dogs can learn to play well with others in mutual interest groups later in life, as organizations like Exploritas and Patrick’s work so wonderfully demonstrate.

So, here’s the takeaway: I’m convinced that any replication in the real world of optimal brain processes, like those that involve new learning, manageable growth, connectivity and integration, are generally a good thing. I believe it’s one of the reasons innovations like mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter and ChatRoulette have all gone viral, circling the world in record time: they generally replicate healthy single brains working and playing well in concert. And one day I hope to wake up and find all the countries on the planet working in a similar kind of  integrated harmony like all the different areas of the brain have the potential to. Call it my Neuro-Gaia Hypothesis: as each of our individual brains go, so goes the world. And if Berkeley Ph.D. Jane McGonigal has her TED-talking way, it will be an integrated harmony of Collaborative Gamers spending 21 billion hours a week leading the way.

When my daughter was little, books and magazines were the main way I  learned about parenting, and I read everything I could. Penelope Leach’s and Berry Brazelton’s books became dog-eared and hyper-highlighted. Nowadays, there are any number of ways that we can acquire, take in and put parenting information to use.

Certain forms, like classes and lectures or one-on-one mentoring though, often carry a dogmatic tone (my classes included), and frequently trigger out-sized emotional reactions in parents. Self-condemnation is sometimes the unintended result: “I’m such a horrible parent.” “How could I not know that?” “How could I do that?”  “How could I be so stupid?” A better orientation with respect to acquiring and using parenting information might be: instead of using it for self-flagellation, use it in the service of becoming a pedotrophist.

“Won’t I get arrested and be required to register on some Community Offenders list?” you might ask. The answer is No. A pedotrophist is simply someone exceptionally skilled in the rearing of children. Think of it as a person who has mastered “parentcraft.”

A Dearth of Pedotrophy

A cursory examination of course offerings in colleges around the country finds approximately zero institutions of higher learning offering degrees in parenting, arguably the most important subject area human beings can research and practice. There are courses and degrees in child development, and developmental psychology, and pediatrics as a medical specialty, but no specific degrees in pedotrophy. If you Google pedotrophy, you get a paltry 2000 hits, most of them links to online dictionaries.

One possible reason for this subject lack in universities is because of academic arguments over just how much real power parents supposedly have over kids. One camp has historically argued that it was mostly nature that was responsible for how kids turned out, the other that it was mostly nurture. That dichotomy however, misses the point, not only because it’s a false one, but I don’t think the answer can ever really be known. Both nature and nurture operate in different degrees and in different ways at every developmental stage.

A better perspective might be one that asks: how can I become the best pedotrophist I can be? And what benefits might result? I can think of many. As Geoffrey Canada did when he started Baby College, presumably in response to this educational lack.

Pedotrophist parents would be wide open to the possibility that they don’t know what they don’t know, that is, open to the reality of our own ignorance. (Decades after my daughter was born I’m still learning new things about skillful parenting). They would, for example, be willing to face down the “fallacy of similar effect,” which is the often unconscious, mistaken notion that things work in kids the same way they work in adults. As obvious as it might seem, kids are not simply little adults, yet how often do we unwittingly treat them as if they are?

Mothering Well Makes You Smarter

Sculpture by Ann Fleming

One benefit of becoming a pedotrophist is that mothering well (by either parent) appears to make you smarter. If we can generalize from animals about this fundamental function, maternal behavior triggers the development of new neurons; and in the brain, more is generally better. Based upon my own experience as a new father, my engagement and effectiveness in the world increased significantly once my daughter was born. I had someone besides my wife and myself to operate in the world on behalf of.

Thwarting the Barker Hypothesis

Another benefit that would very likely result from becoming a pedotrophist is that parents would protect kids from becoming victims of the Barker Hypothesis. The Barker Hypothesis was named in the 1980s after the epidemiologist, David Barker. Barker set the stage for establishing the field of bioarcheology when he postulated that lifespan and adult diseases originate in stressed fetal development and/or in troubled early childhoods. Without good parental guidance, research seems to suggest that abused and/or neglected kids are destined for a life of pain. By beginning in the nursery, parents can create the conditions to optimize brain function all the way down the road into old age.

According to Boston neuropsychiatrist and political activist, Bessel van der Kolk, the greatest terrorist threat to America isn’t from Al Queda. It’s from parents who deliberately or unwittingly do damage to their children, damage evidenced by the Barker Hypothesis. That damage negatively affects them throughout their lives, and few ever realize the roots of their difficulties lie in the nursery.

Spreading Acts of Kindness

Finally, parents working to become pedotrophists would teach their kids that it’s lucky to talk to strangers, and they would teach them which strangers are safe and lucky to talk to. Such parents would also learn about and understand what medical sociologists at Harvard have recently come to realize: that spreading acts of kindness has a large multiplier effect and that it only takes a handful of people, even kids or strangers, to make a huge positive difference in the world. And as technologies like Facebook and Twitter and their offspring connect us together more and more, that multiplier effect will be multiplied! Isn’t that possibility alone, worth inspiring us to all become pedotrophists?

Ninety percent of all kids in America get spanked, and black kids get spanked somewhat more than white kids. For those of you who’ve read my books and who’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am staunchly biased against spanking kids. So, it was this pretty strong confirmation bias that blinded me to the work of Kenneth Dodge. Dodge is a well-regarded professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, and he’s been researching corporal punishment and its effect on aggression in kids for decades.

Essentially, what Dodge and his colleagues found is that spanking correlates with higher levels of aggression in white kids, but with lower levels in black kids. As you might expect, these research findings were confounding and not especially warmly received by the larger research community. So Dodge and his team set about to try to understand them in more depth. What they eventually deduced was that culture and environment played a significant role in their findings. Because it was a regular part of black culture, they determined, spanking was essentially no big deal. In fact, early ethnographers equated spanking with love in black culture, and as the “legitimate expression of parental authority.” Not so for whites, where spanking is a closeted, unspoken taboo often triggered by frustration and anger.

Qualifying the Findings

To their credit, Dodge et al did qualify their findings, stating that with regard to black kids: “Spanking might not have proven long-term negative effects if (1) the spanking is administered in a cultural context of normative use; (2) spanking occurs in a family context of emotional support for the child; (3) spanking is applied in a systematic, non-angry manner with clear instrumental goals for the child; and (4) the harshness of the spanking never exceeds thresholds that could constitute physical abuse.”

I take several things away from Dodge’s research. One is that people are complex and we are exponentially more complex within different cultural contexts, and that our own insider and outsider biases need to be carefully examined. Additionally, this research doesn’t legitimize spanking black kids or white, nor does Dodge want it to. We really have no idea how the spankings those black kids received might have inhibited development and later neural connectivity in ways that affected other than aggression. Were they not spanked, how many of them might have generated sufficient neural connectivity and integration to grow up and become President of the United States?

This question also presents itself: what might our country and the rest of the world look like if the spanking statistics were reversed, that is, if 90% of the kids in this country were raised without spanking? What if the world that parents modeled was one that did not use physical aggression as a means of addressing conflicts and promoting discipline, but instead they worked hard at coming up with novel and creative ways to produce long term results that a quick slap produces in the short term? These are tough questions that I don’t expect to be answered in my lifetime. Here’s one reason why …

Teaching by Example

Several years ago when I taught parenting classes,  I enlisted a confederate before class. During the class I would ask for a volunteer and select the confederate and we would explore some aspect of their parenting practice. During the exchange I would subtly put them down and then at some point, I would unexpectedly slap them across the face. Not hard, but loud enough to be heard around the room. Then I would immediately ask parents to pay attention to what they were feeling in their bodies.

I stopped doing this exercise though after two classes, because the live emotional reaction to it was more of a distraction than anything. People missed the point. They became limbically hijacked, expressing various degrees of confusion, hilarity, shame, anger, embarrassment and betrayal. It clearly made them uncomfortable, even after I would disclose the collaboration of the willing confederate. When I would try to explain that as these feelings were triggered in them, so were large releases of cortisol and adrenaline, which are known neural inhibitors – glucocorticoids that prevent us from thinking straight. And this powerful reaction was going on with people (the parent members of the class) who were only watching! Imagine what the experience is like for the child on the receiving end who’s not a confederate, who won’t have a fully developed brain until age 25 or so. My intent was to actively demonstrate that hitting kids is not only neurologically compromising for the kids, it’s probably even worse for parents, much the way that killing people is detrimental for soldiers and policemen in the subsequent degree of PTSD they later develop. Sadly, based on current national spanking statistics, I don’t think that understanding happened.

People who know me well will confirm that I frequently have the attention span of a tse tse fly. Take these columns as an example. Most of them get written over the course of a week in a series of fifteen minute increments. Fifteen minutes is just about the maximum time I can focus on the structure and content of a piece at a single sitting. After that, I have to go chop wood, wash dishes or hike the abandoned golf course across the street. What I’m pretty good at, however, is continually returning to the task at hand and working on it until it ultimately feels finished.

Rather than put a label on this way of being, like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), I prefer to apply John Medina’s Brain Rule Number 4: We (meaning you, me and our children) don’t pay attention to boring things for very long. John presents pretty compelling evidence – which he states flat out is bad news for many teachers and Powerpoint presenters (and parents?) – that almost all of our brains tend to tune out after about ten minutes of listening to someone speaking. We need to begin to feel something or we go numb or become distracted – the brain is very much an emotion-processing, novelty-seeking organ.

Spocking Up

Some people though, can stay tuned in and pay close attention for more than ten or fifteen minutes. Paul Burgess at the University College of London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and Sylvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, think they know what part of the brain is responsible for this uncommon capacity for “cognitive control”- the rostral lateral prefrontal cortex. Also known as Brodmann Area 10 (BA10), this frontopolar brain region spreads across the area above both eyes. It is twice as large in humans as it is in apes, and it’s the last area to become supercharged by myelinization. It’s also the area that I apparently have not taken great opportunity to robustly develop. As a result, I am easily distracted by the cats, Archie and Lulu, sneaking up onto the kitchen counters, or by arriving email, or by my partner running the DR wood chipper out in the garden. But I’m distracted even more harmfully by thoughts like, “I suck at research,” or “I can’t make money in the stock market,” or “Who would want to read anything I write, anyway.” These kinds of internal distractions keep multitudes of  yours and my great ideas from ever making it out of our brain pans and into the world.

Attention Can Be Paid

The good news is that we can do things to diminish distractions and strengthen Area 10. Taking this need for stronger cognitive control to heart, Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong developed an educational program in Denver for pre-schoolers and kindergartners called Tools of the Mind. Mind Tools allow kids to learn by doing, by acting and role-playing a variety of everyday scenarios. They improvise in the moment in order to provide the emotional engagement that is key to strengthening Area 10. This method of learning is far from boring and apparently works to strengthen the neural fibers that help regulate emotion, impulse control and the ability to pay attention – prefrontal executive function housed primarily in Area 10. Kids exposed to Tools of the Mind later end up scoring off the charts on state exams.

I find this research personally quite compelling. The most memorable classes I had in grad school were the ones involving psychodrama, role-playing or improv. And today, when I prepare for a class or a talk, I often script the full allotted time out in detailed, ten minute increments; and then, when I feel fully prepared, I often simply show up and wing most of it. This process feels like my brain attempting to move me in the direction of increasing connectivity and neural integration.

A Mind is a Good Thing to Monitor

Another activity I frequently find myself drawn to is insight meditation, which Inner Kids has shown to be especially beneficial for children (Though I actually meditate less than I would ideally like to. Thus the need for a contemplative community?). In his new book of the same name, Dan Siegel refers to the beneficial results of this contemplative activity as Mindsight. And much neuroscience research hasis being done on long-lived zen Buddhists and Carmelite and Franciscan nuns in the laboratories of Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal, and Andrew Newberg at Princeton. been done and

Oops.  Time to go. I think I hear the padding of little kitty feet out on the kitchen counters …

… and made peace with the limitations of my brain.

The Insane Asylum of the Universe

The German playwright, Goethe called Planet Earth the insane asylum of the universe. From time to time I find myself agreeing with Goethe, especially when I look at recent events going on in Washington or on Wall Street. But I don’t really have to even look all the way across the country … I can simply look in my morning mirror.

I didn’t know it then, but one of the factors contributing to my loose grip on reality during my teen years – my nickname was “Crazyman” – was the slow, unbalanced manner in which my brain was developing, absent very little adult supervision. That imbalance produced a brain that periodically drove me – as it does many teens – to excessive risk-taking. So, as a creative, “precocious” teenager, I poisoned my friends with homebrewed whiskey (inadvertently contaminated with rat feces); in order to become the community spirits supplier, I studied locksmithing so I could pick the padlocks on three neighborhood liquor warehouses after hours; I snuck cherry bombs inside match boxes into my friends’ gym bags; and shortly before I accidently drove it off a cliff in Latigo Canyon in Malibu, I frequently raced my Triumph Bonneville motorcycle down the Hollywood Freeway at 100 miles an hour resulting in suspension by the DMV (This was in the mid-1960s when there were still hours in the day when you could actually speed on the LA freeways). True to the research, most of these thoughtless acts were done under the cover of darkness.

Living Within Limits

It wasn’t that I was a sociopath or possessed of a Death Wish. My legal defense would be that I was simply experimenting with limits in order to learn to live within them. And, if you believe the research of Abigail Baird at Vassar, I did these things because even though my left teenaged brain could think abstractly, it couldn’t feel abstractly – there was simply insufficient bilateral neural integration to support both feeling and thinking. Turns out we learn to feel by doing, and in the process discover how what we do actually makes us feel. (By the way, although he doesn’t realize it, Scott Patterson makes a compelling case for insufficient bilateral integration on Wall Street in his recently published book, The Quants).

Another problem with my teen brain was that in addition to its imbalance, it was also undergoing other significant growth – the expansion and connection of gray matter modules by white matter (myelin). Myelin turbo-charges neural transmission, a process that isn’t optimized until around age 25. And the last areas to undergo myelinization are connections to the frontal lobes, those areas responsible for optimal executive function. One element of executive function is decision-making and the ability to think before we act. Without that prefrontal growth and connectivity, impulses are very challenging to control, resulting in teens being involved in twice the fatal car crashes as the rest of us in America.

Keeping It Real

Myelin growth is primarily driven by real life experience. The operating word being real. Turns out a growing number of life experiences today’s teens are having are not real and neural integration suffers as a result. One “non-real” experience involves the increasing amounts of screen time teens spend on computers, TVs, cell phones, Apple’s  iTablet, etc. According to New Zealand researcher Rose Richards, increased time spent with digital devices seems to be negatively correlated with positive emotional intelligence and strong social bonding. Low social and emotional IQs are not good. It makes it tough emotionally control ourselves and to work through inevitable relationship difficulties without totally freaking.

So that’s a partial picture of the downside of the teenage brain. To my great surprise however – and to many parents as well, I imagine – my teen rebellion years weren’t normal in the least. Research by Nancy Darling at Penn State and Laurence Steinberg at Temple University suggests that a trauma-drama adolescence is the exception not the rule – 75% of teens sampled in a variety of schools describe positive and productive relationships with family and friends. Across the nation, the number of teens taking advanced math and science is up 20%; 70% of college freshmen volunteer for community service weekly (70%!); almost 50% have participated in organized demonstrations (Some, as recently as this week!). These findings closely correspond with Emory University neuroscientist Greg Berns’s findings that many modern-day teenaged brains actually end up maturing quite early. Who would have guessed that contrary to my early experience, there is a strong possibility that going forward, Goethe might turn out to be 180 degrees wrong?

Shortly after I graduated from high school, I took a job as a drill press operator in a funky machine shop where we shared space with a framing contractor. John Rainwater, an Amerindian, ran a company that only did the rough framing – studs and joists and rafters – for houses and apartment buildings in Southern California. One day out in the shop area, I kiddingly asked John to take me out on a job and let me strap on the tools.

The Quad-Gable on the Wood Chapel

“Take this rigging axe,” he said. “If you can drive this 16 penny sinker clear through this 2×4 in six hits or less, you can come out to the job site next week.” Testing me, John placed the coated nail right over a super-hard knot in the fir stud. Noticing that placement, I took the nail and moved it two inches away and proceeded to drive it through the board easily. Had I not moved it, the knot would have bent the sinker on the first hit. True to his word, John took me on as an apprentice with his crew and for the next year he personally mentored me in all phases of Skilsaw carpentry. It’s rough work that I love and I have been doing it on and off for the past 40 years.

Interest-taking

Anybody who’s anybody has had somebody take an active, authentic interest in them. In organized families, it’s usually the parents and/or older siblings. They frequently apply The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience which is: It takes a more organized, integrated brain to help organize a less organized, less integrated brain. This organizing principle is responsible for much of the early development in our lives, including general intelligence. It is our parents’ more organized brains that help with organizing ours – mostly through contingent communication and by finding creative ways to soothe our discomforts and ease our anxieties.

But others can model the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience for us as well. An inspired example in action comes from The Grace Living Center, a retirement home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, located across the street from an elementary school. Don Greiner, the owner of the home, invited the school to put a glass-walled preschool and kindergarten in the lobby. Seeing the kids in there each day as they walked in and out, a number of the nursing home residents began to take an avid interest. Soon a “Book Buddies” program was begun, with seniors volunteering to teach reading one-on-one to 3-5 year olds. Much more than just reading happened – brains were reciprocally organized. Kids left the program reading at advanced levels, and the seniors’ need for medication was significantly reduced and they lived longer. A true Mutual Brain Organizing Society.

I Turned Out All Right

Most of us come to parenting with only our own parents and perhaps a few neighbors and relatives as occasional role models. Oftentimes, people will say to me: “Look at me. My parents didn’t do a perfect job, but I turned out all right.” And my response is simply: “Compared to what? How might you have turned out had your parents known then what we’re learning now about how the brain develops best? The good news is, it’s not too late.”

Locked into the narrow parameters of our own personal experience, it’s often a challenge to recognize that our household of origin might not have provided the best early environment for optimal brain growth and connectivity. Yes, most of our parents did the absolute best they could, often under very challenging circumstances, but it’s what they didn’t do, and didn’t know to do, that we can learn and apply as adults. As a result, we can offer our own kids greater possibilities for changing things up for the better.

Latch Thee onto a Mentor

Morning God Rays on the Wood Chapel

Recognizing the power of being mentored in my own life, I’ve been mentoring carpenters and psychology graduate students for the last 25 years. British creativity expert, Ken Robinson, identifies the four elements of mentoring that I’ve been providing my students during this time. The first is recognition. Being seen repeatedly and accurately in a positive light by smart, kind, caring people in our lives makes a variety of the modules in our brains light up. As a Leo, I can attest to this from personal experience. 🙂

The next mentoring element: encouragement. Mentors are essential for inspiring us to take heart when we inevitably begin to lose it, especially when we’re aiming at complex accomplishments or taking on new and difficult learning. This was certainly true more often than not for many of the people profiled in The Person Who Changed my Life: Prominent Americans Recall Their Mentors. (What they failed to capitalize upon however, is the possibility of  being their own virtual mentor by constructing a personal Digital Avatar!).

Together with encouragement, the third element often comes simultaneously into play – facilitation. When the going gets tough, it’s more than a little helpful to have someone skilled and knowledgeable who can calm the waters or provide clear, accurate direction.

Finally, a skilled mentor encourages stretching. After all, the 10,000 hours that K. Anders Erickson determined it takes to become an expert in any field doesn’t show up from simply doing the same easy things over and over. No. Expertise comes about from growing new neurons and connections that result from addressing and resolving conflicts, and receiving skilled instruction and unfailing support that shows us how to improve those areas where we perform poorly. Think Shaun White, the Flying Tomato, working to perfect the ” Double McTwist 1260″ on the snowboard. Think too, that it is these four elements, as a part of the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience, that worked these last two weeks to bring home a record number of medals in this year’s Winter Olympics.

Recently I was angrily accused by someone important to me of being “yet another emotionally unavailable male.” They might be surprised to know I had a lot of feelings about that – shock and surprise, for starters. But before I go into what was going on in my body and in my heart, because I’m a typical guy, I want to back up and work down from my head.

In graduate school I had a psychology professor who looked around the room one day and declared: “There’s not a man in here who would stick around if the Gestapo showed up at our classroom door.” Well, duh. While at the time I thought this was a personal indictment of me and the two other men in the class, I later realized that as the lone family survivor of the Holocaust, this professor was essentially expressing anger, pain and resentment at a horribly traumatic event that took a collection of nations and a few atomic bombs to bring to an end. Still, this unskillful expression of ungrieved loss did not feel like a warm fuzzy invitation for me to vulnerably express myself, thank you.

Snipping and Sniping

I had another graduate professor, Kathy Speeth, later make what I thought was a very valid point in response: “Ladies,” she said, “if you want your partners to be emotionally available to you, you can’t cut their balls off every time they show some vulnerability.” To me, this is the crux of the matter. (For alternative relationships, where emotional availability can also be an issue, “balls” can be used metaphorically).

Growing up male in a patriarchal culture brings certain emotional limitations with it. Just as there’s “no crying in baseball,” additionally, there’s no crying in basketball, stock trading or house building – all things that I’ve spent a large portion of my life engaged in. The outward expression of feelings – anger often exempted, of course – is not socially acceptable for men in 2010 America. It’s not acceptable to other men, and it’s not acceptable to women, either. Nor has it ever been. In my experience, emotionally vulnerable men might be an intellectually bonne ideé, but the reality is many women want a Georges St-Pierre or a Hans Marrero when the rubber meets the road. They want a Worthy Contender, someone who can send the Gestapo packing … when he’s done crying during chick flicks. Such men go a long way towards keeping women’s limbic systems from being easily hijacked by threatening life events, in other words, someone who can consistently answer the Big Brain Question, “Yes.”

Feelings versus Emotions

Nevertheless, so that we’re all on the same page, let’s be clear now about the difference between feelings and emotions. Researchers of these topics identify emotions as outwardly directed and public, whereas feelings are inwardly directed and private. One reason this distinction is important is that just because a man doesn’t express his feelings, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any. (Unless, of course, he has the clinical condition known as alexithymia, thought to be caused by the left brain not knowing what the right brain is feeling.

Additionally, not only are men culturally conditioned not to express the vulnerable things they feel, but they are neurologically handicapped as well – recall that women are fortunate in that they have roughly three times as many speech and language neurons available to enable them to use words to express emotion. So, if it’s emotional availability we’re looking for, a balanced context for safe expression needs to be c0-created – women need to practice toning down the verbal expression and men need to practice stepping it up.

Only the Emotionally Repressed Die Young

The average lifespan for women is five years longer than for men the world over. While lots of research is offered to explain this difference, I’m pretty convinced that Secret Saying 70 in the Gnostic Gospels lies its heart: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Dr. Gabor Mate, author of When the Body Says No, would very likely argue that men need to structure their lives and relationships in ways that allow for them to bring forth what they have long been conditioned to keep within. And they can undoubtedly use more than a little help from women, like Eve Ensler who encourages men and women to bring forth and embrace our Inner Girl. (And vice versa, of course. Relationships are extremely complex entities).

If I was the father of a young boy these days I would do three things to help in this regard. First, I would do my best to encourage him to learn where feelings live in the heart, mind and body, and what they actually feel like. And then I would make it safe for him to use words to express the emotions generated from those feelings. Next, I would also do my best to model that process. Finally, I would enroll him in the most rigorous martial arts class I could find, and I would support every inclination he might have to perfecting his ability to assertively defend himself whenever life required it. In other words, I would teach him how to skillfully act and make his feelings freely known and readily authentically available for the whole world to see and hear.