Monday, September 21, 2015

The Battle of the Brains

As far as "good" and "evil" are concerned, I think the Grand Play of Life Itself involves both constructive and destructive forces, which individuals may take more or less personally. I feel there is "inertia" built into the system to keep things from changing too quickly in any direction, and although it may be frustrating for people who are trying to bring about positive change, the inertia is there for a reason: too much change, too quickly, can bring chaos and a destruction of structures that may seem restrictive in some ways but are actually supportive in others.

As Robert Pirsig describes in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals - there is this ongoing play between "static" and "Dynamic" quality - and they each seem to be the "enemy" of the other, but it is their ongoing interrelationship that is the underlying mechanism of evolution, both individual-biological and social-cultural.

I would offer that within our own brains there are components that reflect the path of our evolution - reptile (fight, flight, freeze response), paleo-limbic (herd/social brain/group positioning/dominance vs. submissiveness and trust vs. mistrust), neo-limbic, (individual identity/motivation), and pre-frontal (rational, creative, empathic), with the pre-frontal brain being the most recently and I will offer most "highly" evolved in terms of its capabilities for Dynamic interaction with the environment. The other brain structures tend to be much more "static" or "programmed"; i.e. the reptile brain develops automatically, the paleo-limbic brain is more-or-less "set" in its perception of "group positioning" fairly early in life, and the neo-limbic brain locks into its individual "identity" and emotional patterning fairly early in life as well (although it and the paleo-limbic brain do come under the influence of environment more so than the reptile brain).

However, it is the pre-frontal brain which is most influenced by and depends on the environment to develop its full potential - its potential for regulating the more (reactive) patterned responses of the reptile, paleo-limbic, and neo-limbic brains; to think rationally and logically; to solve problems creatively; and to be effective at empathy via perspective taking.

My theory is that the internal battles that people often fight with themselves in their own heads (as well as projecting those battles into the outer world), stem from the "inertia" of the lower brains that do not want to allow "the new kid on the block," i.e. the pre-frontal brain, to be in charge of behavior. Since the pre-frontal brain is not of much help until it has a chance to develop (between infancy and 24 years of age), the other brains actually do "run the show" early on, and it kind of makes sense that they would not want to release control to the pre-frontal brain without some resistance.

Nevertheless, it is the pre-frontal brain that has evolved to help us live more effectively in social groups, even very large social groups, via its capacity for empathy/perspective taking (allowing for compassion), rational thought (to more accurately understand cause and effect relationships among other things), emotional self-regulation (i.e. regulation of the patterned responses of the neo-limbic, paleo-limbic, and reptile brains), and creative problem solving.

From my current point of view, the limbic and reptile brains express more of our "egoic" or "self-centered" personalities, concerned much more with individual "self"-survival than with survival of the larger community, while the pre-frontal brain is our "higher power," because it has the capacity to "see the big picture/society as a whole", to understand and integrate multiple points of view, and to respond creatively to novel situations. However, again, it will not develop these capacities to their full extent unless it is trained to do so via the environment - parental, educational, cultural, etc. (And, as mentioned above, there is a limited window for this development to take place; i.e. between infancy and about 24 years of age.) Furthermore, the pre-frontal brain will always be at least a little at odds with the other brains; there will always be some "ego" to deal with, some tendencies towards selfishness, tendencies towards fear, etc. You can't ever really transcend the "ego", because you can't "get rid of" the lower parts of the brain.

All of those parts of the brain are what helped to get human beings to where they are now, along with the higher functions of the pre-frontal brain. It may be difficult sometimes to live with them, but we also can't live without them.

Consequently, if people feel threatened, the fear response is coming from the reptile and limbic brains. Actively "transcending" that fear is the work of the pre-frontal brain. Looking rationally at cause and effect relationships is the work of the pre-frontal brain. Being able to empathize with another's point of view, even an "enemy's" point of view, is the work of the pre-frontal brain. Being able to stay calm in the midst of external stressors, is the work of the pre-frontal brain.

However, one of the things you don't necessarily get from the pre-frontal brain is "high"; i.e. feelings of ecstasy. Instead, you get kind of mellow, peaceful, content emotions. In that sense, it may seem rather dull, compared to what the limbic brain can generate when it is inclined to do so - especially in circumstances of "romantic love" - which has more to do with an unconscious response to subliminal signaling of genetic compatibility than it does with just about anything else! (Which is unfortunate, because genetic compatibility can only go so far when it comes to people being compatible with one another in all the other areas of human life we now engage as members of this increasingly complex social system.) But that's a whole different matter...!

To summarize, from my current point of view, the lower limbic and reptile brains are a source of "inertia" for human beings; i.e. they develop very patterned/programmed ways of responding to the world fairly early in human development. The pre-frontal brain is actually capable of "transcending" all of that With Practice - whether the discipline is religious or secular, practices that focus on emotional self-regulation develop the pre-frontal brain's capacity to do just that; i.e. self-regulate. Practices that focus on empathy (perspective taking) and compassion, also engage the pre-frontal brain. Just "getting high" on "romantic love" or "spiritual ecstasy" (through whatever mechanism, including the drug-induced kind) - is not a product of the pre-frontal brain. Instead, that's only produced by and reinforcing of the rather self-serving nature of the lower limbic brain(s).

Our world is in all too many ways a projection of these ongoing battles within our own heads. The conflicts, the battles we see "out there", reflect something of the same conflicts and struggles human beings experience within there own minds (brains) and bodies. Many people will seek "spiritual bliss," thinking it is "the highest expression of their nature," when actually, being calm, cool, collected, rational, and (truly, consciously, intentionally) empathetic and compassionate towards others is the "highest" expression of our human nature.

If someone speaks of "raising their consciousness to a 'higher vibration'" I might substitute, "in their higher (pre-frontal) brain", where, absolutely, they could look at the negatives in the world and come up with creative solutions for "healing" them. They could empathize more deeply and see more clearly from multiple perspectives in order to resolve conflicts more effectively. Nevertheless, all of that would definitely not be about being "blissed out" all of the time, and thinking that is somehow "magically" going to "Change the World." There's a lot more Work involved than that, and that is what the pre-frontal brain is good for!

(For more information on the reptile, paleo-limbic, neo-limbic, and pre-frontal brains check out the Udemy course: Master Your Brain: Neuroscience for Personal Development.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What's In Your Back-pack?

Once upon a time a little girl was born. On that day her mother gave her an invisible back-pack very similar to the one her mother was carrying. The mother reached into her own back-pack and pulled out two large invisible stones, one was named "My Self-worth" and the other was named "My Life Purpose". She put these two stones in the little baby girl's back-pack.

Now the little girl may have struggled at first to carry those stones for her mother, but since they had been there from the day she was born she really never knew what life would have been like without them. It was almost like a test: once her mother realized she could carry those stones, she continued to add more as the years went by. Some of those stones were given to her mother by other people and society, like "Do Well In School", and "Be a Good Christian", but then there were some unusual ones that were fairly unique, like a Really Big Stone called "Be a Prophet (with me) and Help 'Save the World'"!

Eventually her mother's stones included, "My Fear that the Mafia and Your Dad are Out to Kill Us (and stop us from carrying out our 'Mission from God')", and "My Need to 'Protect' You by Not Letting You Have any Kind of Close Interpersonal Relationships with Anyone But Me", and later "My Physical Health and Well-Being", "My Happiness", and "Food, Clothing, and Shelter Needs for My Life (as well as your own)". It's really amazing that the little girl did not crumble under the weight of all of those stones!

However, after the little girl had grown into a young woman and started going to college, still looking after but not actually living with her mother anymore, she came in contact with a "mentor" instructor who took the time to really listen to her, and (at least indirectly) notice that she was carrying this really heavy back-pack full of her mother's stones. This person suggested that she see a school counselor as he would help her take a closer look at all that she was carrying and decide what really belonged to her and what did not.

Eventually, under the counselor's direction, this young woman confronted her mother and showed her the stones and said, "These belong to you, not me, or any of the other people you've blamed for the problems in your life." A few weeks later, the mother had a "break-down", and was found by the police wandering around outside her house. Since the mother had spoken about trying to kill herself, and had at least managed to bruise the back of her neck really badly, the police and other "authorities" were able to commit her to a mental hospital shortly thereafter.

However, it was that long-night in the emergency room with her mother when this young woman was finally able to empty out many of the stones from her back-pack, especially "Be a Good Christian", "Be a Prophet and Save the World", and "My Fear that the Mafia and Your Dad are Out to Kill Us". She also set aside the ones named "My Self-Worth", "My Happiness", and "My Life Purpose" that had all come from her mother.

Nevertheless, she kept the one for "Food, Clothing, and Shelter (for herself)" as well as "Do Well in School" and "Keep Up with Your Minimum Credit Card Payments". She had also added another since being on her own in college called, "Be Attractive and Sexually Available to Men in Order to Get them to Like you and Care About You." And finally, she inadvertently replaced the "Be a Prophet and Save the World" stone with another very large stone called: "With Little to No Understanding or Support from Anyone Else, Especially Your Other Family Members, Continue to BE STRONG and Just Learn to GET OVER all of the Emotional Trauma and Lack of Functional Parenting of Your Childhood, ON YOUR OWN, Even If It Takes You the Rest of Your Life, and Maybe Somewhere Down the Road You can Write a Book about It".

Now, needless to say, that was still a Really Heavy Load for this young woman to carry, and interestingly enough, her back frequently hurt from it - for real! And she stumbled around a lot, and when she did try to connect with potential friends or partners, this huge load on her back always got in the way (especially when it bumped into the heavy loads those people were often carrying as well).

The problem for everyone was that these back-packs and their heavy stones were INVISIBLE! And how can you really deal with all these things when they're INVISIBLE!?

* * * *

Many, many years later, as this now much more mature woman was continuing to try to "GET OVER" the emotional and practical challenges of her early life; after she had piled-on and then dropped other various expectations that she had for herself, her relationships, and her life purpose; after she had stumbled around and ALMOST fallen, over and over again; after she had learned unconsciously that one of the few ways to not Fall Down was just too KEEP MOVING - she had a Break Through!! ... While continuing her education studying neuroscience, her instructor offered up an image and a concept that she had never considered before: Demands and Expectations vs. Means and Resources...!

The instructor explained that when "Demands and Expectations" far outweigh "Means and Resources" (for meeting those "Demands and Expectations") this can cause a great deal of psychological stress. (Duh!) Furthermore, although it is possible to build a larger "resource base" to support meeting "Demands and Expectations", it is actually a lot easier just to reduce expectations first! The instructor illustrated these ideas with two pyramid-like structures that looked something like this:

Upon seeing these images, it was as if a bright light were turned on in her head. This now much more mature woman finally realized that when "Means and Resources" do not match or exceed "Demands and Expectations" instability is inevitable! And it was in this simple illustration that she was finally able to SEE the biggest problem of her own life (and possibly that of many, many others as well)! Her "invisible back-pack" was Way Too Full of "Demands and Expectations" compared with the "Means and Resources" she had ever had available to her or managed to gather together for herself to help her "carry the load". (In fact, she had never even really thought practically about "Means and Resources", maybe in part because she had had so few of them most of her life.) And furthermore, she realized she was now the single person Most Responsible for keeping that back-pack overfilled with Her Own Expectations of Herself and, therefore, distancing the very people who could help her because they would feel threatened by her self-created instability!

Being a fairly intelligent woman, she knew what she had to do, and so she went right to work Emptying That "Back-pack"!! She also took some time to "inventory" her "resource base". As a consequence, she made much more conscious decisions about what stones she could keep - what expectations she actually could fulfill for herself, and her present life circumstances, and with the people she cared about.

(Now here's the cool thing: Since this woman had been struggling to carry that Really Heavy Load all of her life, her legs and back were actually still pretty strong. And when she shouldered the now Much Lighter Back-pack it was really no great surprise that it was Much Easier for her to carry!)

Furthermore, she learned how to see and talk to her friends better about the loads that they were carrying, and to help them do an inventory of their own "resource base" for carrying those loads. And finally, she started focusing more and more on building up her own resources so that, when the time is right, she can get back to those Really Great Things that she wants to accomplish with her life.

With renewed gratitude for all of the help and support she did actually receive through the course of her life, and especially for the instructor who created the neuroscience course she was taking that allowed her to make this critical discovery, and with the increased understanding of how it was Her responsibility not to overburden herself in the future, this woman now lives her life more happily, freely, stably, and productively, than she ever has before!

* * * *

There's a credit card company out there that asks in its commercials: "What's in Your wallet?" Maybe, where your overall well-being and "life balance" is concerned, the far more important question to ask is, "What's in Your Back-Pack?" And "Can you really afford to be carrying all of Your 'stones'?"