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addicts and simpletons

I love to joke that the brain is lazy.  It’s not actually lazy, per se--although you could make a convincing argument for that hypothesis. 

No, the brain isn’t lazy, so much as it likes to clear off its workspace as often as humanly possible.  Your brain is me when I accidentally threw away some papers I needed to grade in my zest for a clean desk. Your brain is also Will wondering, after the fact, which drawer I have moved the silverware to.  Constantly trying to clean house, lump things together, combine processes to save time.  It’s no wonder it needs to dream to file everything away in categories; no wonder it tends to (rather sloppily at times) draw conclusions like bumper sticker thoughts; no wonder it gets so befuddled, so bemused, so confused after a lifetime.  

But, still.  I am an endless student of the brain--it’s wonders, its flaws.  I love to approach everything from a brain-based place.  Education, social issues, children and their sometimes baffling array of behaviors. The truth is that our hearts, our intentions, our perspectives are all hog-tied, to some extent, by the evolutionary capabilities of the brain.  Two things, in particular, are fascinating to me: the brain as a simpleton, and the brain as an addict.  The former because it sheds light on so many overgeneralizations of human character.  The latter because of its compelling and eye-opening effect on all human patterns of behavior.    

I'll begin with a simple example→   BANG!

Clatter! Rattle! Shatter!  

You guessed it.  Loud, sudden noises. 

Startling noises rally the brain--it picks up its skirts, girds its loins, squats down behind a rock and waits. Watches. Monitors. A shotgun blast. An explosion, the sound of glass breaking.  A shout on a street corner.  Even the f-bomb in an argument.  That’s startling.  That’s loud (to the emotions, if not to the ears).  That’s sudden.  

And the brain?  

The brain stops everything it is doing: creating, learning, day-dreaming...and protects the body or mind it is assigned to. It is an extraordinarily complicated organ with one essential task: survival.

BUT. 

Those survival techniques are not only in play in the wild.  The same brain that could and would attempt to protect you in an emergency reacts the same way in a classroom or in the aisle at the grocery store. Loud, sudden distractions skew the brain’s focus, hamper its ability to concentrate on anything other than being on safety patrol. Your head lifts, your eyes scan for the source of the distraction.  It’s a pure thought process, the simplicity of the brainstem whose choices number only two: fight or flight.  And it serves a beautiful, monumental purpose-the most noble of them all.  It is an asset...right up until it isn’t.  

I am a teacher and I spend every August explaining this facet of the brain to my students (minus the part about the f-word).  Yes, even 2nd graders can understand this, both as a good thing and as a liability.  They are absolutely fascinated by the brain and what I bring of it to their attention.  It is my reason for all my classroom procedures.  

“I’m not being Mrs. Funhater!” I tell them, sparking a great round of laughs.  But, rather, “I want all of our little brains to be operating at max capacity because we have a lot.to.do. in 2nd grade.”  

One rule?  We don't shout.  They don’t, and I don’t.  We don't act like fools and fall over and blurt out or talk loud--and it’s all in the name of brain-based research.  “Look around you,” I encourage my little friends who invariably forget these rules in the first weeks (and the last weeks!) of school.  “You are one of many.  Your behavior does not only affect your ability to learn...it affects others.”

It's based on the brain.  A mind that is constantly forced to process changes in the environment--be it as simple as sounds or anything as complex as constantly shifting behavioral expectations--is a brain operating in anxiety.  Any mixed bag of inconsistencies and a lack of clarity will create a mind that's operating in anxiety, and anxiety sits in front of rational thought.

A mind on patrol is a mind in its brain stem. And a brain stem doesn't think, it doesn't rationalize, it doesn't learn, it doesn't listen. It reacts. It protects.  It is not a mind open to learning--it is a mind operating in fear.  Not terror necessarily, but fear.  For one blip of a second, the brain shuts down its processes, determines a course of action, then resumes.  And all of that dropped time, when the brain went offline?  Lost learning. Thus, we do what we can to minimize distractions in the classroom. 

Is it advisable to keep all distractions at bay? No, of course not. The brain needs to learn to sort. It needs to learn to operate and produce amidst distractions--both internal and external.  But, knowing how the brain works, we do what we can. The brain will learn to discern what is a loud or sudden sound that needs to create action and what is simple everyday noise. Eventually the brain, that little lazy dummy, will figure it out.  Hopefully.  But as I say to my students on the subject of their inside voices: “No one is shouting in an emergency room, and those are actual emergencies.”  

 

Beyond the brain’s capacity to learn comes the brain's ability to process over time, to endure.  Another facet of the brain that has captured my attention recently is that the brain is not only lazy--it is also an addict.  

In my exploration of Reiki, we learn how addicted the brain is to the chemical reactions it produces.  We all know this in the form of social media--that there is some narcotic effect to likes and responses which keeps us all teetering on the edge of some sort of benign, garden-variety, human narcissism, awaiting a response.  And then when the response is not what we wanted it's a one-two punch of anti-dopamine that has us experiencing an actual-legit shade of depression.   None of this is new, we all know this.  But.  Let’s consider what happens in the brain, and to our reactions, a couple of stops down this road.

We are human beings, conditioned to creating some sort of human connection to our world and the people in it.  So, the brain receives external stimuli, creates a thought, connects the thought to emotion.  That connection releases enzymes in the brain creating a simple chemical reaction.  Then we act. This process takes fractions of nanoseconds--so swift that we aren’t even aware of it.  In a tenth of the time it takes to blink, we decide to speak or to be silent; we decide what to think; we decide to act or to wait. But the human reaction is the 5th step of the process--behind stimuli, thought, emotion, chemical reaction.  It’s not the 2nd or even the 3rd.  The level of conscious action comes after a host of things have happened at the unconscious level.  But that isn’t even the most fascinating part.    

I think we all can imagine a time when we were dealing with another person whose reaction seemed disconnected to the moment.  I once was in therapy, processing an event and my therapist said, very emotionlessly (or so it seemed to me at the time), “Your emotional reaction is disproportionate to the level of emotion actually present in this situation--which happens to people all the time.  But understand that, when that happens, you have linked your present circumstances, which are fresh and relatively new (think of a first date) with something in your past, which carries a lot of weight for you.  But those two things don’t actually go together: not the events, and certainly not the level of emotion.”  So we had to do the hard work of separating them.  We had to talk through everything that may have been even tangentially related to find out where the threads were knotted together incorrectly, and restitch them properly. And that’s what therapy is--it is a slow and honest untangling and restitching of threads.  

The most fascinating part of this entire brain-based process is its effect over time.   After your brain receives a certain stimulus, and its accompanying chemical high (whether a pleasurable dopamine-type or a fear and adrenaline-based high) for days, or for years, or for decades...it actually starts to take a shortcut.  Like Pavlov’s dog no longer needed the food, but only the bell, for its mouth to water--our brains no longer need the thought-emotion connection to release the chemical.  

What happens over time, is that when we encounter the familiar stimulus, then the stimulus itself releases the chemical.  Before conscious thought even rises from its pillow, we ride the wave of the chemical reaction directly into reAction--but we have skipped over Thought entirely.  And--brace yourselves--This brain shortcut is the foundation of all dysfunctional human behavior patterns.  

This shortcut is the effect that all healing arts attempt to address.  Talk-therapy attempts to talk, to untangle knots and to insert Conscious Thought back into this human, brain-based thought/emotion process.  Because your thoughts and emotions always go hand-in-hand in your brain.  Your thoughts are always trying to find their way to connection, usually in the form of  emotion--simply by virtue of your humanity.  If thoughts--and their verbal equivalent, words--didn’t accompany emotions, then words would never hurt me.  Only sticks and stones.

A long time ago, I asked Dan a question about something that I had no emotional attachment to--never imagining that he did.  The question was a simple one on the surface, but Stimuli triggered a chemical Reaction in the brain, skipping completely over Thought, that plunged him down corridors of guilt and doubt, through different doors and windows of missed opportunity, and threw him down several flights of emotional stairs and when he landed, he was so far away from the question that I asked, that from the vast emotional distance of the simple present, I said: “Why are we here?”

He looked at me after a moment and said, “I don’t know.  I don’t know how I got here and I’m freaking out.”  

In our story, Dan had gone from Stimulus to Reaction down a pathway I hadn’t walked with him.  Truly, I tell you, lightyears could have been put down between the two.  And rarely is it so clear, but the chasm was so vast that it was even visible to him in his dazed state--that he had skipped clear over thought and into a sort of emotional Fight or Flight.   And that happens all the time.  To all of us, unwittingly.  Your brain is an addict.  Your brain learns to feed off these chemical reactions very early on.  It is why drugs and alcohol are such a potent addition to the neuron-rich pathways of your brain--it has been a chemical addict since the dawn of time.  Most human patterns of behavior--good and bad--can be traced back to the brain’s addiction to its own chemical reactions.   

It’s not always bad--but the brain’s tendency to addiction can be manipulated.  Marketing companies use this all the time.  Looking at an L.L Bean catalog, I will remark, “The subtext of this picture is that if I had this sleeping bag I would have a better life.”  We joke frequently in the car--when a familiar soothing, nostalgic voice reminds us of halcyon summers; of easy, driftless days; of times gone by--that, “This is either a commercial for Country Time Lemonade or the state of Michigan.” 

The healing arts recognize that all of those chemical triggers create blockages in the main energy centers of your body which house your organs, and subsequently create disease and unwellness over time.  

We refer to these as the Chakras--which is a Sanskrit word that has become sort of a metaphysical short-hand term for actual physical spaces.  You have chakras all over your body, but the main ones down the center of your being correspond to the vital organ centers in your body: such as your nervous, respiratory, pulmonary, digestive, and reproductive systems, etc. The Crown chakra exists visually at your brain, but it is not actually connected to you.  It represents your connection to God and to the Universe, not your connection to yourself.  So, while it is one of the 7 chakras, it doesn’t exist on your body, proper.  Traditionally, it is above your head.

The work of all of our healing arts, is to break that connection between stimuli and chemical reaction--to insert conscious thought back into its rightful place in the equation.  To allow you the freedom from your energy being dragged around by the chemical reaction to the stimuli in your life.  

Meditation works to put mindfulness in the center of that process.  Aptly named, mindfulness refers to awareness of what your mind is actually seeing.  Your mind is “full” with the present, so the past doesn’t enter the process.  Through this discipline, you are equipped with a healthy detachment between the two, so you have the peace of space to create healthy reactions in your life.  

Yoga addresses the channels of your body, and by lengthening and straightening those channels your body is able to contribute to untangling those knots.  At this point, I could travel onto a wild tangent about yoga.  There is such a rich, compelling history attached to yoga that I cannot even address it in this blog post about the brain--but more about that later.  Believe me

Exercise of all of it’s forms, works to clear those chakras and energy centers with physical movement and balance; massage works to clear those energy centers through touch; Reiki and Pranic Healing address these blockages and knots from an energy perspective.  Medicine, even!  The practice of medicine attempts to address the imbalances from a chemical perspective, or herbalists from a natural perspective.  

All of these things, cultivated from our modern world and our distant, common, human past, work to balance the effect of the brain’s natural tendencies on our culture, on our bodies, on our aging process, and on our spirits.  The brain, {sigh}.  What a nuisance.

All forms of these holistic, healing processes are specific practices which exist within the value of good energy.  Good energy in the body equals good energy in the mind.  A free flow of light. From my perspective, what I love about all yoga, about Reiki, about God, about all of these things which rally around good spirit, is that the value of each is in its brightness.  It doesn't banish the dark, it doesn’t fight the dark, it just...exists independently of it.  It doesn’t exist as a result of, or as a weapon against, or a tool to balance.  It simply...IS. 

The world can wait.  A half hour, an hour--the world can wait.  Be still.  

Find strength through stillness.

None of these things boast that good and light WILL outweigh the burdensome and dark, they simply say it DOES.  Period.  And if you can begin a practice of feeding that life, that light, that brightness and faith into your system, then you CAN change your life.  You can change your energy field and develop wellness.  You can even…(wait for it)...change that brain of yours.  

Your brain is an addict--give it the purest, most healthy of substances to thrive on: joy, love, peace, goodness, self-discipline.   

Your brain is lazy, it will follow the path of least resistance--give it a bright, pebbled, green and golden, outrageously beautiful road.  

 


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