When you're not the favorite child

This article on favorite children from the New York Times resurfaced in time for Father's Day yesterday.  It's interesting, and reassuring just to know it's a universal problem.  One commenter named Dave from Omaha had a sad story,

As children, we 5 siblings, 4 boys and one girl, got along famously. I can count the fights between us on one hand in our entire childhood. The favoritism to the oldest, a boy, was accepted and largely unquestioned. His post-high school education was funded 100%. Books, tuition, room, board, car and spending money. When I attended college I was given not one red cent. Others experienced the same. He was taken into the family business and made wealthy. He worked hard, but he had opportunities not given the others. Dad died last year and it came to be known that the oldest will benefit from the estate far more than the others. To the tune of millions vs. a few tens of thousands. That was the last straw. Each of the five have gone their separate ways and we can't be considered a family any longer in any more than name only. Favoritism unchecked will destroy a family. I know.

One commenter said she wished the article provided helpful tips into what to do if you're not the favorite.  I agreed- the article didn't provide any insight into how to heal from not being the preferred sibling, so I replied to her.  Here's what I wrote.

I wish the author had consulted a Jungian therapist for her article.  I think what Carl Jung would say is that children are manifestations of their parents' owned and disowned qualities of their psychic structure.  Some of our children, we can project our desired qualities onto successfully (ie. they don't bounce back in our face and remind us of how awful we are)- these are our favorite children; whereas some of them we cast our shadow selves onto- these are the unowned qualities that we think are bad or out of control and are having trouble integrating- the children that receive these projections are the black sheep, the scapegoats for our unprocessed unconscious material.  I'm not totally doing Jung justice here, but you get the jist.  When we haven't been favorited by our parents, we have to recognize that we're the bearer of our parents' shadows- it's not personal, and with enough growth and maturity, we become the parents of our parents, helping them access those unintegrated qualities safely and in love.  But who the hell lives long enough, has the inclination, or starts their healing journey soon enough to get to that point?  Most of us, if we're lucky, will only have enough time on this earth to process the gut wrenching pain of being the neglected child and learn to parent ourselves.  And we parent ourselves through meditation.

So what do I mean by that.  When you're not the favorite child, your essential qualities haven't been mirrored back to you very well, meaning you haven't felt "seen" for who you are.   In neurobiology, they would say that our mirror neurons haven't been attuned to by our parents' mirror neurons, without which, we don't have the all-important emotional resonance we need from them, out of which a sense of safe attachment is derived. 

Fortunately for these children, the intrapersonal attunement we achieve between our own minds and our nervous system during meditation has the same healing effect on us as if we were being resonated with by our parents.  In other words, it's been scientifically proven that compassionate self-observation through meditation offers the same soothing effect on our mirror neurons that are craving resonance as you would have if you had had better interpersonal attunement with your parents.   In this sense, these children are able to provide the parenting to themselves that they never received as children. 

Where I read this latter neurobiology stuff is in Dr. Daniel Siegel's book The Mindful Brain.  If you want to know more about the technical details of how meditation has the same effect on our brains as being mirrored by a parent, check it out.


Memorizing Poetry

About three years ago, I read The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope, a read so savory you tend to inhale it in one gulp, but a few words of wisdom have stayed with me, among them, to copy other writers.  Basically, Cope says, if you're wanting to find your own voice, copy someone else's for a while.  Pick a writer you admire and write out their speeches and poems over and over again.  Commit their works to memory.  Eventually, their understanding of the universe, their way of working with language and sentence construction, the rhythm of their prose will inform your own mental patterns down to the cellular level, practically, and you'll be able to build off that foundation with your own style.  I've done that once before- I was so intimidated when I heard a recording of Don Riso and Russ Hudson giving an introductory talk on the Enneagram that I wrote the entire hour-long talk out by hand to get the clarity of their thought process embedded into my brain.  I'm pretty sure modern-day composers would corroborate the idea that playing the works of the great composers like Mozart and Beethoven calibrates an orientation to different styles and structures, helping them write their own unique pieces.

This morning I decided to finally act on this injunction and memorize actual poetry.  The poem I chose isn't a poem at all, but I have a bit of an aversion to the genre, so I just lump all thughtfully-worded literature into one big category.  It's actually an essay by Aldous Huxley that I came across in the dear Maria Popova's popular weekly digest of beautiful images, literature and philosophy, Brain Pickings.  Upon opening it, I fell upon the most irrisistable piece of writing and said to myself, "This is it.  It starts today."

For a couple years now, I've been noticing that my mind doesn't have the same clarity and focus as it did in my twenties.  The combination of stress over the last five years and the fact that I now own a laptop, an ipad, and a cell phone has contributed to a new scattered way of thinking that has me hopping from one task to the next, and clicking from one window to the next without completing anything in one sitting.  My job also has me interrupted every three minutes to the point that lately, I can't sit down and read one full page of a book, let alone an entire paragraph without checking my phone or making muffins because the clanging in my head is so much louder and busier than it used to be. That quality of concentration I had before internet 2.0 (2007-ish) is just gone.  I read differently now; I scan instead of letting myself sink into the experience.  I've had enough, but what can you do?  Do you get rid of your technology?  I've started meditating, I've resisted having my banking apps "remember" my account numbers so I have to practice retrieving them from my memory bank, and the other day, I bought a combination lock for the gym instead of one with a key specifically so I'd have another set of numbers to remember.  My next step is to bring back my old alarm clock instead of using the alarm on my phone.  When I wake up to my cell phone, I inevitably get stuck in reactions of all kinds to my e-mails, the news, and texts that I got (or didn't get) during the night that I lose that precious, ethereal opportunity at the beginning of the day to take the reins in hand and rationally plan my day.

I imagine that not only does the process of memorization improve focus, but I'm sure it also strengthens the hippcampus, the long-term memory processing centre of the brain.  When you create a new neuron connection, you have to maintain it in order to keep it, and the constant repetition of what you've memorized would help the neuron stick around and create connections with other neurons.  When I was at a brain workshop recently, the facilitator asked us to turn to our neighbor and tell them what our most valuable possession was.  Of course a lot of us said our house, our car, or whatever, and he interrupted with, "WRONG!!  It's your BRAIN!"  I was reflecting on that last week as I was driving down Albert Street and I realized it was really true.  Some of us have been blessed with parents who not only activated our brains, but showed us how to do it for ourselves, and we have a certain set of chances at success in life.  Others of us have had to do the activation ourselves because our parents weren't in a position to do so.  The almost incomprehensible mystery of being human is having the capacity to reflect our thoughts back on our own minds and improve how our very brain thinks, all for the cost of the occasional late fee at the library, to quote Will from Good Will Hunting.

Not only would it be good for your brain, but from the few times it's happened to me, it's nice being able to impress people at a dinner party by quoting a famous line or two that contributes in some way to the conversation.  I used to read the Aubrey-Maturin series (off which Russell Crowe's Master and Commander 2003 movie is based), and one observation from pre-modern life struck me: conversation skills are truly an art.  The series is about people riding ships between the old world and the new, and when you're on a ship, you're stuck with the same people every single day, and you have to eat in the same dining room with them three times a day, sometimes for months, and you want to be on a ship with interesting people who can carry a conversation.  The more well-read you are and the better your memory, the more weight you can carry in a conversation to take it on new and interesting turns, acting as a connector between ideas and leveraging them to lead the conversation into stimulating thought-territory.   Having the confidence to guide a conversation is pretty empowering- not to mention pretty important for your career.

Aldous Huxley, British author of  Brave New World  and other works (July 26, 1894 to November 22, 1963). 

Aldous Huxley, British author of Brave New World and other works (July 26, 1894 to November 22, 1963). 

So here we go with the first few lines to Huxley's Music at Night, the title essay in a collection of essays published in 1931, a pristine treatise on the transcendental nature of music to connect people to emotional states in a way that words cannot.

Music at Night

Moonless, this June night is all the more alive with stars.  Its darkness is perfumed with faint gusts from the blossoming lime trees, with the smell of wetted earth and the invisible greenness of the vines.  There is silence, but a silence that breathes with the soft breathing of the sea, and, in the thin shrill noise of a cricket, insistently, incessantly, harps on the fact of its own deep perfection.  Far away, the passage of a train is like a long caress, moving gently, with an inexorable gentleness, across the warm living body of the night.  Music, you say, it would be a good night for music. [...]"

I know someone who grew up in Africa, and he checks his phone so infrequently, and when he does, it's very thoughtfully done.  When I observe him working on a task, I notice a deep quality of concentration and a clarity of focus that I've lost over the last decade- probably most of us Westerners have as technology insinuates its way into our lives.  Here's hoping we can work our way back to that level with a little intention and a little practice.



Lost Wonder: Evolution Was Just Trying to Help

The six layers of the neocortex.   Image from 

The six layers of the neocortex.  Image from 

Today for my fashion homework, I had to look up Heidi Klum, and during my googling, I learned that the sweet German model and British singer husband Seal have been divorced since 2012, and they're already dating other people.  Their seven-year marriage that produced four children ended amicably, but you have to wonder if two relatively grounded people can't make it work, maybe the secret to a long-lasting marriage is to live apart and see your spouse once a year so the newness never wears off.  How else can something that begins so wonderfully fail so often? 

Obviously there's more complexity to the spark in a marriage than the frequency with which you see each other, but it has been said that well into a long marriage, your spouse begins to feel more like a sibling than the fox they used to be.   We become so habituated to their sight, smells, sounds, habits, and thought patterns that we don't fully take them in anymore, the familiarity tempting us finish their sentences without fully paying attention to what they're saying.  It comes to a point where predictability, once highly sought, becomes the drain through which the vitality of the partnership bleeds. 

While the first instinct may be to place blame when this happens, we can actually do something about it with a practice of mindful awareness.  Mindfulness helps us separate sensory input (like seeing our significant other walk into the room) from our well-practiced axonal firing patterns (like predicting how the ensuing conversation will play out instead of listening fully). 

Image from  this  youtube video.

Image from this youtube video.

The brain has four lobes, seen in different colours at right.  The parietal lobe at the top is responsible for perceiving stimuli through our senses; the temporal lobe along the sides identifies the stimuli; and the frontal lobe, primarily responsible for personality, is responsible for planning our responses to the stimuli.  (Saladin, 539). 

The synapses creates between the four lobes are what help us react in accordance with the kind of stimuli that we've perceived.

We know that both DNA and experience play a role in the creation of new synapses.  As we're getting to know someone new, our brains are reorganizing old synaptic patterns as we experience ourselves anew through the eyes of our new partner. 

Over the years, these patterns of relating, marked by certain axonal firing patterns and nerve clusters, become established.  Sometimes overly so.  We become rigidly identified with the habits of our own mind.

Expectations are processed in the cortical memory.  The outer bark of the brain, our neocortex, is arranged in vertical columns or clusters of vertically arranged piles of cell bodies that enable memory to shape perception.  In the brain, the six-layered neocortex appears to have both input and output fibers that create a bidirectional flow of information within the column itself. (Siegel, pg. 105)

Two processes are initiated in the neocortex when we experience sensory input.  The first is called a bottom-up process, the more primary of the two, where input moves upward along nerve fibers to the posterior of the cortex.  This is as close as we get to directly experiencing the sensation as if for the first time- without judgements and previous memories interpreting, forming, and giving meaning to the experience.  If we could only experience bottom-up processing, our minds would be clear, spacious, and receptive with capacity for a flexible response, and we wouldn't depend on a rigid set of structures to feel safe in our identity.  We'd just be walking around all day gazing in awe at everything like we were on drugs, not getting anything done.

The second process fixes that.  A handy by-product of evolution, it allows us to actually accomplish tasks without having to relearn everything, but the downside of it is that when overused, it works against us and stifles the feeling of aliveness.  Information travels down the six layers of our cortex, and is encoded in various parts of the brain, then transported to the dorsolateral (side) areas of the prefrontal cortex, where we become aware of the contents, already laden with previous judgements and memories that help us make sense of the input. 

What meditation does for us is to lessen the impact of our top-down process so we can experience more of the vitality coming in through our eyes, nose, ears, and skin, letting in more wonder.  Or, to put it in terms of relationships, mindfulness creates a space between stimuli and reaction so we can make thoughtful responses to what life throws at us instead of knee-jerk reactions that often we regret or get us into trouble. 



Why learning neuroscience is so hard

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    Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a  model  of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

Thirty-three year-old artist Yarun Steinburg built a model of how he imagines his brain to be using cardboard boxes, Christmas lights, and TVs with film reels from his life.  From the back, you can see that the inside is modeled after a small city, the tightly-packed and highly detailed "neighborhoods", inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what the inside of their own brain might look like.

I've been reading about neuroscience these last four months, and I've really been struggling to integrate the material into my own words, hence the dearth of blog posts.

I decided to google why neuroscience is so hard, and while it's in part because only long-time meditators and intellectual heavyweights- of which I am neither- really comprehend neurophenomenlology enough to verbalize the subtle and complex processes in a way that laypeople can understand, there are few other reasons.

First of all, there is still so much even neurobiologists don't know about the brain, and parts we don't understand the function of.  There are 100 billion neurons- or nerve cells- and endless combinations they can connect with each other.  The connections between the neurons, called synapses- are shaped by both genes and life experience, but we don't know to what extent genes shape connections, and experience shapes connections.

Nerve cell.   Image from 

Nerve cell.  Image from 

Moreover, neuroscience requires both objectivity and subjectivity.  If we're going to understand the phenomena of consciousness, on the one hand, we need scientifically valid observations of the brain; on the other, first person subjective accounts of peoples' internal experiences.  Because both the brain and the mind come together to form consciousness, scientists need to get creative and develop tests that measure and scientifically quantify mental phenomena. 

There is a complicated interplay between the brain and the mind: the mind and its attendant concepts and meanings is rooted in the activity of the brain, and the brain- due to its plasticity- is constructed itself by the mind.  As a result, the brain is turning its social circuits that normally attunes to others, inside out and is interacting with itself.  However, we know from the famous double-slit experiment (on the interference pattern of electrons being shot through a double-slit apparatus) that the mere act of observing electrons changes their behavior; just the same, mindfulness research has demonstrated a similar conclusion- that the mere act of becoming aware of your own awareness alters the form and function of your brain.  Your awareness is goes back on itself in a re-entry loop where the emergent process takes on a life of its own, improving memory, focus, and empathy.

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.
— Dr. Daniel Siegel

Some philosophers would say our consciousness is simply reducible to the chemical and electrical firings of our neurons, while others prefer to hold out for the discovery of the "self node" tucked away somewhere in the folds of our gyri like a pearl in an oyster shell that can answer for each and every one of our thoughts and decisions. 

To make things even more difficult, up until a few years ago, neither the field of psychology or neurobiology had a working, agreed-upon definition of the mind. 

Dr. Siegel, whom I mention a lot, only because I'm reading his book right now (The Mindful Brain), recounts how he has gone around the world speaking to mental health practictioners, and at every event, asked for a show of hands of who had ever had a lecture at any time in their training that defined what the mind was.  His finding- out of the 100,000 mental health professionals that he's taught- was that less than 2% had.  While it's true that philosophers and psychologists have been trying to answer that question since the ancient Greeks at least, what's cool is that we're actually at a unique time in history where we know enough to cobble a rough definition together.  Here is Siegel's own working definition:

The mind can be defined as an embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information. Regulation is at the heart of mental life, and helping others with this regulatory balance is central to understanding how the mind can change. The brain has self-regulatory circuits that may directly contribute to enhancing how the mind regulates the flow of its two elements, energy and information.

But there are other concepts that are still undefined.  Think about it.  Can you define consciousness?  Neither can psychologists.  What about self, or identity?

The next challenge is that the brain consists of more than just the pinky-brown organ in the head.  As the control centre of the entire central nervous system, the brain's nerves are routed through the spine and spread all the way to the soles of the feet.  The fact that this complex system works in concert to keep our bodies in homeostasis is nothing less than jaw-dropping.  As one scientist wrote, "If given the choice between having to pilot a plane without knowing anything about how to work any of the controls, and sitting at the dashboard of my central nervous system, coordinating the millions of outgoing and incoming processes happening every second, I'd choose the pilot job in a heartbeat."

Finally, because my purpose in studying the brain is to understand how brain form and function relates to different personality types, and that research is still in its infancy, there is little that can be said with objective certainty, although Dario Nardi (among others) have been doing some interesting research at UCLA, mapping the brain patterns of Carl Jung's legendary MBTI types, and is now starting to work with Enneagram types.  I'm sure more research funding will be forthcoming the more it becomes clear how brain research is important to our collective health, but in the meantime, we rely on anecdotal observations.  For example, during an informal study of brain activity and Enneagram types, Dr. Daniel Siegel noted in an interview with Russ Hudson and Jessica Dibb that Type Two's (one of the Enneagram's three image types) "have a lot of mirror neurons".  There is no book yet out there detailing what these observations could mean, but hopefully someone bright will pen the first one soon. 


Parenting to Engender Resilience in Children

The best way to understand how a child develops resilience is to look at the role of the nervous system vis-a-vis the rest of their body.  Knowing how the child's brain reacts to stress can help us understand what they need in order to develop empowered and adaptable responses to life's unpredictabilities. 

To Get High or Get Exercise?

I got out one of my neuroscience books today to look something up, and I found some research linked to Saskatchewan (where I live) that made me sit up and notice, so today's an ode to my home province's contribution to this fascinating field.

In 2005, the University of Saskatchewan made a contribution to neuroscience research for its testing of marijuana on rats, and looking at their brains' ability to generate new neurons in response to the drug.  I'm assuming they've made more contributions than just this one, but this 2005 study was given special mention in Wikipedia.  Apparently pot could have a salutary effect on our capacity to retain memories as we get older... similar to the effect on the brain that exercise has. 

"Human neuron showing actin formation in response to stimulation."  (Image by Michael A. Colicos, UC San Diego)

"Human neuron showing actin formation in response to stimulation." (Image by Michael A. Colicos, UC San Diego)

We've all heard of neuroplasticity by now, which is a catchall term for a bunch of different processes: the generation of new neurons, synaptic pruning or rewiring;   basically anything that changes the anatomy (structure) or physiology (function) of the brain in response to new experiences-- good or bad-- is an element of neuroplasticity (Siegel, 2007).

For the most part, when people talk about neuroplasticity today, they're talking about what their synapses and supporting cells are doing.  Whether you're talking about the effect that mindfulness or your Luminosity app have on your brain, or how one part of your brain compensated for a damaged part after an accident, synaptogenesis is when two neurons who are neighbors to each other decide to form a link so information can flow between them.

Neurons are known to be generated post-natally in three areas of the adult brain- the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus (DG), the cerebellum (CB), and the olfactory bulb (OB).  [ Source ].

Neurons are known to be generated post-natally in three areas of the adult brain- the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus (DG), the cerebellum (CB), and the olfactory bulb (OB).  [Source].

Neurogenesis, on the other hand, is the process by which entirely new brain neurons are created- the byproduct of neural stem cells and progenitor cells coming together.  Although adult neurogenesis was proved possible in 1965, we're still learning why the brain creates more neurons, as the function of new neurons still isn't very clear.  Most of our neurons were generated while we were still in the womb, but now we know there are three parts of the brain in adult where neurogenesis occurs on a regular basis: the Dentate Gyrus in the Hippocampus, the Olfactory Bulb, and the Cerebellum.

Because there are a lot of "parent cells" [ie. neural stem cells and progenitor cells] that can give birth to new neurons in the Dentate Gyrus area of the hippocampus, researchers have focussed a lot on that area for their neurogenesis studies.  (Students of mindfulness may know that the Hippocampus is where short- and long-term memories are stored; the Dentate Gyrus is one of the interlocking parts holding the two hypocampi together). 

The U of S discovered that, in the Dentate Gyrus, where a class of cell membrane receptors called cannabinoid receptors are "involved in a variety of physiological processes including appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory", the receptors attached to synthetic cannabis and created new neurons.  The cannabinoid-induced increase in hippocampal neurogenesis had an "anxiolytic and antidepressant effect."

I don't know where that leaves us, as my only interpretation that I can come to is that smoking a sane amount of pot here and there can help us grow new neurons, which helps us become less anxious and less depressed.  Or is it the other way around, that marijuana helps us become less anxious and less depressed, and the extra neurons are just a byproduct of feeling good?  If you're a scientist, you can read the study and e-mail me.

Either way, scientists are interested in this Dentate Gyrus area because- as it was mentioned- the area deals with memory, and because neurogenesis happens here specifically, in this tiny little area of the brain, they're wondering if there are any implications here for Alzheimer's patients.  Who knows, maybe when we're all older, some of us will be smoking pot to extend the lifetime of our memories, and we'll be able to thank the U of S for that.  Others of us will just be exercising, as that seems to stimulate neurogenesis too, at least in mice.

Science and Mysticism: We Need An Interdisciplinary Approach to Life

It turns out that Neil deGrasse Tyson has some pretty strong views on astrology.

Last week I was watching an interview that he did at SXSW last year, and something he said jumped out at me.  The interviewer was Christie Nicholson, a contributing editor of Scientific American Magazine.  She was reading him some stats from the National Science Foundation's 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators (a national survey that's been done every year for over 30 years) to get a reaction from him about what he thought of the state of scientific literacy in the US. 

Warmly regarded as "the peoples' astrophysicist", Dr. DeGrasse Tyson is a big advocate for scientific education for children so they don't fall prey to pseudoscience, and he and American creationists often get at each other's throats over how the universe came to be.  So because creationism contradicts science, I'm not defending the former, but Christianity does tend to get lumped in with astrology and other mystic traditions when his discussions turn to pseudoscience.

Anyway, one of the stats Nicholson used to build a case that America was still highly illiterate in science was that more than 40% of Americans see astrology as highly scientific.  Which is a crazy stat when you think about it.  Astrology is so not mainstream, or acceptable to bring up in conversation in almost any public context besides dates, yet more than 40% of Americans think it's "highly scientific"  I don't know what the definition of "highly scientific" is, as opposed to just normally scientific, but I will say that anyone who has ever had their birth chart read  is blown away with the accuracy of the readings, and after having mine read, and I've spent hours and hours dissecting mine lately, I can't say enough about the value of having it read. 

In my opinion-- and the Greek philosophers agree with me here, so I think I'm in good company-- if you don't know yourself, your knowledge that you've accumulated is dust in the wind.  "Know Yourself" was incribed in one of the pillars at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which forms the basis of the Western tradition itself.  Science came later with Aristotle's drive for objectivity and logic, but Aristotle was definitely informed in his studies by the Delphic Oracle: "Knowing thyself is the beginning of all wisdom", he said.  I don't want to be put in a position of having to defend astrology, as it's the Enneagram that's my first love, but I mean, the West does have a fascinating mystic tradition that deeply informs us about our nature as human beings, as well as a scientific tradition that is just as honorable, but gets all the attention.  Both, in my opinion, need to share the spotlight. 

Until there's a marriage between science and mysticism, the West will continue to struggle with terrorism, global warming, racism, and disease.  We not only need more informed people, we need wiser people who are self-aware and emotionally intelligent to solve these problems. 

DeGrasse Tyson's rejection of astrology in his discussion at SXSW reminds me that he's an Enneagram Type 8, one of the dominant traits of this type being skepticism and a categorical dismissal of anything that appears weak of "fluffy", and it just shows what you can miss out on when you're identified with the personality.  In essence, he's proving his own point that when you don't know the facts, you're subject to being led astray.  Astrology, the Enneagram, whatever: the whole Western mystic tradition helps you come home to yourself.  Knowing astrophysics without knowing yourself is cool for a while until life comes crashing down on your personal life or whatever kind of mid-life crisis elicits your soul-searching.  (By the way, I love DeGrasse-Tyson and have a TON of respect for what he does.  I just wish we saw eye-to-eye on this subject, and I don't wish him any crises- I just hope he has ears to hear when life does throw him a curve ball.)

I'm proud that my course offers both scientific lenses on the self (astronomy and neurobiology) and mystic lenses on the self: Astrology, the Enneagram.  Both are crucial for a integrated view on the world.  It is going to blow some minds, people.  I'm very excited.

Between the Brain and the Mind: Knowing (or SOCK)

Fluorescent image, obtained using multiphoton excitation (MPE) microscopy, showing the brain neurons of a live mouse expressing GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein). Image courtesy of Carlos Portera-Cailliau, UCLA and Coherent.

We know that the brain's neural firing generates activity in the mind, but in the past 15 to 20 years, we've come to understand that the opposite is also true, that the mind can influence the structure of the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity showed that instead of the previous scientifically-held belief that the brain stopped developing after the age of two, and thereafter only experienced the decline in the number of neurons in the brain, we are actually capable of activating and even creating new neurons into our senior years. (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). 

In this way, we see that the brain and the mind create each other.  Before embarking on how their functions correlate, it would be useful to distinguish their roles and capacities.

Obviously, the brain is the organ, and the mind is something generated out of the brain's processes, but a little more ethereal because aside from just knowing, we can know that we know- something unique to the human brain. Daniel Siegel defines the mind as the process that regulates the flow of energy and information. 

The mind comes up with concepts through SOCK- sensation, observation, conceptions- they all lead to knowing.  The energy and information that comes in through the S- Sensations is experienced on two levels: internal sensations (travelling from the visceral organs to the Pre-frontal cortex in the forehead region) and external sensations (travelling from the peripheral nervous system to the sensory area of the cortex at the top of the head). 

We have energy and information coming in through the O: Observation, as well.  Siegel describes observation as the key that unlocks the doors to sensation.  You're talking to a friend or relative and you're really present, and you notice something about them you hadn't noticed before- perhaps a smile line, or the worry they seem to be carrying, which leads to a sensation of tenderness arising from the chest area, or you feel tightness because your mirror neurons are picking up on their worries.  Observation keeps us from careening from moment to moment on automatic pilot.

There is energy and information coming in through the C: Conception.  Our mental concepts can keep us from direct sensation, sure, but mindfulness teachers remind us not to play favorites among what arises- sensations, observations, and concepts- are all to be treated like a welcome guest and allowed to pass through.  Conception can in fact integrate what we've picked up through sensations and observation into a deeper kind of wisdom than had we been operating out of the prison of ordinary living.

Finally, when each of these three streams-- sensation, observation, and conceptializing-- converge, they reach the headwaters of K: Knowing.  The S, O, and C allow us to Know the present moment, "a knowing paradoxically without words, without concepts, without sensations.  This knowing is a kind of subterranean stream, beneath this valley of the present moment, a formless Knowing" (Siegel, 2007).

Practicing mindfulness over a period of time has shown to have an effect on the structure of the brain- thickening affected areas of the brain, or creating new neuropathways- even new neurons.  The mind and the brain work hand-in hand to build and shape each other.

Join the Conversation

Neuroscience of Social: Attunement

My mom read me some advice out of a magazine once, that if you're going to lose weight, you need to get yourself a full-length mirror.  What you can't see, you can't heal. 

Something similar was said at a music workshop; if you want to become a better musician, record and listen to yourself repeatedly.  What you can't hear, you can't improve.

This very same principle applies if you're lonely or feel awkward around people.  Learn how to observe yourself through mindfulness.  If you can't attune to yourself through your highs and lows, you're going to find it hard to find a lover or a group of friends who are willing or able to attune to you in compassion and love.

Attunement is the result of feeling connected to someone, like your emotional state has been "felt" by them, or as Dan Siegel defines it, "how one person... focuses attention on the internal world of another".  Since pre-civilization, our brains have come with a circuitry that allows us to understand others' minds. He describes it as being able to come up with maps of other peoples' attention and intentions.  As the most fundamental example, when parents are in the present moment with their children, "the child's internal world is seen with clarity by the parent, and the parent comes to resonate with the child's state.  This is attunement."  Attunement has as its foundation an approach of curiosity, openness, acceptance and love (COAL), which contributes to healthier intimate relationships, resilience and overall health for the child.

Lily Aldrige and Taylor Swift are best buds.

As adults, having friends (and a spouse) is important to our mental, emotional, and physical health, and has been scienticially shown to affect how long we live.  Single people die from every disease at a higher rate than married people, and several studies have shown that people with only a few social ties and memberships in groups are between two and four times more likely to die sooner than people with many social ties, all other factors taken into consideration.  Loneliness is even a factor in developping cardiovascular disease, Alzheimers, and cancer.  "It is deeply human to have a strong need to belong, to feel a part of something larger than oneself, to be in relationship with others in meaningful and supportive ways" (Kabat-Zinn, pg. 264)

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the most famous neuroscientists because he's the one who first paired mindfulness with neuroscience at UMass in the 1970's.  In recent times, a Stanford team took his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program that he designed and applied it to people with social anxiety disorder.  Those subjects showed improvements in anxiety and depression and an increase in self-esteem. Furthermore,

when asked to practice awareness of breathing in the scanner, the MBSR group also showed what the researchers describe as decreased negative emotion experience, as well as marked reduction of activity in the amygdala, and increased activity in brain regions involved in regulating where one's attention goes. 

When others reject us or skim over us, it makes it hard for us to look at ourselves.  Majorly embarassing yourself in front of a crush usually makes you want to peel your skin off and get a giant eraser to remove the episode from your brain.  That self-aversion is not being able to "see" yourself.  When you can sit with yourself through compassionate awareness in your neediness and pain, you're developping your "inner observer", which Siegel says is like becoming your own best friend.

So if you're wanting to develop better or more relationships, start by cultivating a mindfulness practice.  You need to see yourself in all your stressful, lovely, delightful, and varied states before you can be "seen" by others in all your states.  In other words, you need to love yourself before you can be loved by others.

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Developping Social

I've been writing about the Social blindspot.  We all have a blindspot, but when we have the Social instinct as the lowest end of the Social/Self-preservation/Sexual totem pole, it comes with its unique challenges in life.  Of course, the challenges that come from having Self-Preservation or Sexual at the bottom also present an equal set of challenges, but they're for a later blog post.

People with a social blind spot are - you guessed it- more likely to stay at home, and more likely to decline invitations out with groups.  They're the homebodies of the world, and enjoy luxuriating in the space they've created for themselves and lapping up the sights, sounds, and sensations of their family around them.  Or they just simply like knowing that the temperature, energy, and noise level is going to suit them in their own home, thank-you very much, and they'd prefer those comforts than the strangeness and hullaballoo of being in someone else's home who doesn't make coffee the way they like it, or who doesn't vaccuum their carpet enough, and they predict the cat hair is going to be clinging to their feet when they get home. 

However much we derive comfort from our own systems, however, we can't escape situations that call for the social instinct.  We're going to need to attend funerals and volunteer meetings; at work, we may need to network, or at least attend Christmas parties, and attending workshops means socializing during the coffee breaks.  Even in a monastery where men and women have taken vows of silence, there is an energy that a person carries around with them that people pick up on- does this person feel comfortable with us all being in the same room as her, or would she like us to leave?  People can tell without even knowing how they know. 

Therefore, if you don't have it, you're going to need to develop it.  But how?

This is not to say that people with the social blindspot don't want to be with people- we all want to be with others, and we all love spending time with others- it's just that we tend to have preferences for different social setting configurations.  We may crave an intensity with one other special person, or perhaps a more family-oriented activity.  For a social blindspot person, it's partly going to depend on which instinct falls into the second spot on the totem pole: sexual or self-preservation.

As awkward as group situations may feel to the Social blindspot person, it may be comforting to know that our brains have been wired to be social since before civilization.  Daniel Siegal calls our brains the social organs of the body.  We actually all have the wiring in place to become socially adept- it's already part of our biological make-up of being a human being.

According to Siegel, a thread that's been running through neuroscience literature since the 1920s is an injunction to use the social circuitry in our brain for the purposes of becoming "social" with ourselves (ie. having a self-reflective life), and when we can be social with ourselves-- and this is simply my extrapolation of the principle-- we can be more comfortable in situations where the social instinct is called for.

So what does it mean to be social with ourselves?  That sounds a little weird and perhaps narcissistic.  But Siegel makes the point that developping a mindfulness practice is about learning to have compassion and empathy toward ourselves, even lovingkindness.  And of course, we've all heard that in order to love others, we have to first love ourselves. 

Let me give an example from my work.  I work in an elementary school, so I see little kids interacting all the time.  Once, I saw three girls at the fountain.  Two girls were talking and the third girl was trying to make a contribution to the conversation.  At one point, she leaned in and, with her face lit up, inserted a comment, speaking more in the direction of the "leader" of the group, but the "leader"- who was in the middle of her sentence, looked in her direction for a split second, but - not out of spite, but just simply wanting to continue the momentum of her sentence- finished what she was saying to the other girl, and no sooner than she finished her sentence than the other girl interjected, and the gap was closed in the conversation.  The "outside" girl's shoulder's hunched, she exhaled, and the three of them walked back to class together.  The "outside girl" didn't try to pick up the thread again. 

Now, I've also observed that a kid with higher social, on the other hand, will try repeating what they've said, or will drop the idea altogether to respond to something else that someone else said.  I believe that these socials know that their contribution is important, because they've been attuned to before in a group, and this time should be no different.

But now I'm straying from Dan Siegel.  We should get back to science, and I'm going to pick up on the neurobiology of attunement next post.  Attunement being this ability to connect, to not only physically see a person and hear their words and understand that there's another person in front of us, but to also make them feel seen, heard and understood.  Siegel says, "Attunement is how one person focuses attention on the internal world of another.  This focus on the mind of another person harnesses neural circuitry that enables two people to feel felt by each other."

And this is the missing piece when we feel we don't belong in a group- that ability to "come back to ourselves" after a contribution we've made to a conversation doesn't come across as well as we intended, lick our wounds, so to speak (or have loving compassion on ourselves) and go back and make another go of it.

"This state [of attunement] is crucial if people in relationships are to feel vibrant and alive, understood and at peace.  Research has shown that such attuned relationships promote resilience and longevity."

To be continued...

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