Thursday, December 29, 2011

This Just In: Science Proves ... Nothing!

I love good science. There's a kind of elegant, brilliant sanity to a well-crafted and carried-out study. They often make me smile inside when I hear about them. 

I was up on Whidbey Island channel-surfing one rainy Sunday afternoon when I happened upon Bill Gates Senior speaking on the University of Washington’s public access channel about a person who conducts such studies. He was introducing Pat Kuhl, co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Learning at the University of Washington. She was talking about the critical period in children’s brain development when language is most easily acquired - the point where children switch from being little citizens of the world to culture-bound listeners and learners. Some pretty amazing things can take place during this time when the language window is open. In the talk Pat described an experiment where one group of 18 month old children joined with their mother and interacted with a young graduate student who playfully spoke Mandarin to the mother and baby for 20 minutes, twice a week for twelve weeks. A control group of children were offered a neutral activity with mother and a graduate student present.

In the follow-up, it turned out that those children exposed early to Mandarin later showed as much ease in learning the language as native-born Chinese children. This was not the case for children in the control group. But here’s the finding that really caught my attention: the children exposed to early second language learning (and the specific language learned doesn’t appear to matter), demonstrated greater neural executive function and stronger ability for directed attention! It’s as if the additional neural real estate that became connected up early as these children acquired the language skills, also somehow managed to strengthen the whole overall network. I would predict that this improvement in executive function would also translate into greater immune function – fewer sick days home from school, and greater impulse control – fewer behavioral problems in school. And all from briefly optimizing the early language learning window in infants.

There was another discovery from this research that I also found fascinating: Dr. Kuhl’s team also ran groups of children exposing them first to audio recordings, and next, to video recordings of native speakers. In each case, little new learning occurred. The finding: for early learning to work best, it needs to be … social learning! Living brains, hearts, minds and bodies need to communicate directly to other brains, hearts, minds and bodies. Score a big one for us social neuroscientists! ;-)

Pat’s work is pretty rigorous, controlled science, which I love. But I also love so-called “junk” science. A scientist colleague and teacher, Steve Porges, recently gave me permission to look at such science and confess the truth, which is that I find it immensely interesting. And in fact, what makes it interesting in my mind is often what makes it most worthy of further study. 

Take the work of Dr. Ryke Geerd Hamer, for example. If I understand his work correctly, Dr. Hamer claims he can look at a brain scan of a hospital patient, make an accurate diagnosis of their malady, and in addition, tell you the precise earlier trauma (which often occurred in childhood) that precipitated and lies at the root of their illness – a pretty remarkable claim. Not surprisingly, Dr. Hamer has not been welcomed with open arms by members of the medical establishment. Is his work “junk” science? It’s really not for me to judge; better would be for me to secure some funding and actually hire researchers to test it.

Or, take another example, that of Evy McDonald. Evy was diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. As a registered nurse, she knew she had been given a death sentence, and like a good patient, she quietly went home to die. But in the midst of her dying, she somehow managed to turn fully toward her illness and become intimately familiar with it. Quite surprisingly and unexpectedly, she ended up curing herself! She later came to identify the seven essential steps she took that were an integral part of her cure. Is this good science?

Whether it’s good science or junk science, here’s something that my colleague Anne Peterson recently pointed out to me: science proves nothing! She was reminding me that no matter how much we might want to, we simply can’t make science our deity. As The Escort pointed out years ago in the movie, Heaven Can Wait, it’s all about “probability and outcome.” Thus, it’s not for nothing that good science essentially only works to fail the null hypothesis, something it's very easy to forget in the wake of discovering exciting, unexpected findings.

The Neurobiology of Yes and No

I teach a fair amount of social neuroscience to parents and parents-to-be. Since I have a very low threshold for repetition and routine, I tend to change things up a lot from class to class. What I like most is to come up with exercises that the whole class can do that best illustrate whatever point I might be trying to make.

One exercise that I’m particularly fond of is a very simple one. I use it primarily to demonstrate the power of language to affect neurobiology. I ask parents to pair up, and then take turns first saying “No!” to each other. After two minutes or so of that, I then ask the same person in the dyad to say,“Yes!” Before the exercise I ask both people to pay close attention to what happens in their bodies. If you’ve been paying attention to your own body while you’ve been reading my description of this exercise, I imagine you already know what people report during the debriefing. In response to “No” they experience lots of muscle tightness, shallow or reduced breathing, very little conscious capacity for expanded thinking, fear, etc. especially when directly contrasted with the “Yes” experience.

It turns out this neurobiological response is significant, especially when it involves yelling, and especially when yelling is insulting, critical or humiliating. Depending upon context and the emotional (dis)organization of the parent, this constitutes emotional abuse. Several years ago the New York Times described a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry that reported emotional abuse as a more powerful predictor of mental illness than either physical or sexual abuse!

The damage caused by yelling is serious. It is suspected to compromise such things as clarity of thinking, susceptibility to further stress, social intelligence and immune function. (In junior high school, I had a classmate named Al Mentone. His mother and father would yell at him to the point of apoplexy. He developed a severe case of acne vulgaris, and I while I only have neurologist, Bob Scaer's The Trauma Spectrum as a general reference, I personally suspect the yelling played a significant role). Unless effectively treated, this damage appears to progress over the lifespan - the key word here being effectively. Trauma that results from emotional abuse needs something in addition to Talk Therapy.

With further respect for the power of words to affect neurobiology, we might also consider something as wild and apparently out beyond the fringe as the findings of Japanese researcher, Masaru Emoto. The words we say to water appear to dramatically affect its crystalline structure. While there has been only one peer-reviewed confirmation study of Emoto’s work as far as I know, what makes his work interesting to me is that they make me want to be more conscious and respectful of the words I use and how I use them. As a speaker, such words, after all, may powerfully impact the water that makes up the 70% of my own body.
But we don’t need scientific studies to tell us that yelling or being yelled at is bad for children and other living beings. All many of us need do is recall what it was like being a kid and how the experience of being yelled at affected us in body,mind and spirit. And also, how the opposite – being affirmed and validated – affected us. I can still clearly remember Vic Weber and Dave Woods, two Yale Divinity School students who worked as counselors at a camp I attended for several weeks one summer. On an overnight camp-out, they asked a Young Woodsman Question: “How wide a cut should you start with when cutting a tree that has to come down?” In the glow of a crackling fire, we all pondered the question deeply. “Well, how big is the tree?” I blurted out. “Exactly,” both counselors responded in unison. I still beam with expansive neuro-pride at my out-beyond-yes-and-no answer more than fifty years later! A very different, memorable experience than being shamed, dismissed or yelled at for not answering correctly. 

What affirmative words have had staying power for you through the years?

On Skillfully Speaking Truth to Power

I was driving home from the airport last Monday night and happened to catch an elder statesman of social psychology on It’s Your World. If you’ve heard it a few times, it’s easy to recognize Phil Zimbardo’s New York accent, especially as he’s offering up some of the intimate details of his famous Stanford Prison Experiment. I love listening to the inside stories, the human side of social science - all the messy details that never make it into the professional journals - the stuff that makes science an oh-so-human operation.

Dr. Z was talking about The Lucifer Effect, his latest book about “understanding how good people turn evil.” This is a fitting topic for a guy who went to James Monroe High School with Stanley Milgram, the social scientist who proved conclusively with his sixteen Obedience to Authority experiments that more of us have an Adolph Hitler living inside us than we would ever care to admit. But what was most interesting to me about Zimbardo’s talk was his account of why the Stanford Prison Experiment was called off before it had even run half the time it was supposed to. 

It turns out that at one point in the experiment, he brought in a number of outside observers to witness how a created context, together with roles assigned by an authority (him) were able to transform intelligent, decent Stanford students into abusive, demeaning nastyboys. One of the people he brought in was a woman who began crying at the sight of what she observed. She confronted Zimbardo and declared that what he was doing was ethically immoral. This strong emotional reaction and the truth of her words surprised Zimbardo to such an extent that he immediately put a stop to the experiment. Then, impressed with this woman’s ability to observe clearly and “speak truth to power,” he later proposed to and married Christina Maslach.

We need more people willing and able to speak truth to power, and to do so skillfully, with clear agendas aimed at carefully considered outcomes. And it is my contention that parents are the people who have the greatest ability to foster and nurture such people … when they’re little. In order to be able to speak truth to power, I think children need experiences of having The Big Brain Question repeatedly and unfailingly answered “Yes.” (This is what Zimbardo did big-time with Christina Maslach!). Rather than being “Shusshed” or dismissed, children need to have frequent experiences, at home and at school and in spiritual communities where they are embraced and encouraged and rewarded for telling the truth as they see it. One suggestion from Dr. Z which I love, is to have parents and teachers spend time deliberately cultivating our children’s “Heroic Imagination!”

I have occasionally stood up and spoken truth to power. Each time has been memorable, challenging and extremely painful. And each time the Big Brain Question was unfortunately answered “No.” If you’re interested, you can read the details of one such instance here: My Difficulty with Dharma Talks. In this case I used gentle inquiry (I thought) and asked the leaders of a popular spiritual teacher’s group about things I found quite disturbing about the day’s activities. But even gentle confrontation, I discovered, can unskillfully hijack a limbic system – both mine and others’. (Years later I came upon a painful account by one of the central characters in my story about later being ostracized from the community himself. When I heard my own interior voice exclaim, “Serves you right, you fascist ass!” it became clear to me that I still had some work to do to heal that experience).

I’d love to hear some of your own experiences with speaking truth to power – what motivated you to speak out and what outcomes resulted? I’d especially love to hear about accounts that worked out well. I will do my best to welcome them with open arms and tender heart.

The Anatomy of an Upset

Several years ago, I made an appointment with a therapist to try and resolve some early trauma that was causing me trouble. After I explained what had happened, the therapist dismissed the incident, told me I was wrong about the experience being traumatic, pulled out the DSM-IV, and proceeded to methodically read to me from it. Needless to say, that therapeutic alliance was short-lived.

The incident I brought to that therapist had actually taken place one dull, rainy New England morning many years earlier. I suffered significant damage which I later learned from non-DSM-IV literature, had apparently impaired a number of cortical and limbic structures in my brain. I was 13 at the time, and of the 25 or so people who witnessed the incident, not a single one of them – me included – realized the severity of the damage that had occurred. It wasn’t until almost 40 years later, as I began researching panic attacks, trauma and social neuroscience that I realized the actual, factual truth of that injury.

Backstorying to the Future

To help set a clarifying context - trauma is often best assessed in context - let me first provide a bit of backstory. Shortly after I turned four, the only option for my father for being able to regulate a violent temper – the result of World War II “battle fatigue” - was to abandon me, my two sisters and my mother. Once it was clear my father was gone, and she was able to move us into a State-subsidized housing project, my mother was then left to struggle with her own demons. The end result was that my sisters and I were minimally-parented, poor, wild, unkempt children. In some strange, ironically benevolent way, this was actually okay, since most all of the other kids in the housing project and Kathrine Brennan Elementary School were all pretty much in the same rickety, single-parent, Aid-to-Dependent-Children boat.
However, when I turned thirteen that all changed. I began to be bussed to Susan S. Sheridan Junior High, a much larger school in an upper middle class neighborhood. The kids in my seventh grade class wore clean, fresh-pressed clothes to school, together with socks that matched, and shoes and sneakers without holes. They had full sets of the World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica sitting in custom-built bookcases in their dens and libraries at home. These new kids were clearly different than me, and I was different than them. But I longed not to be.

History Dread

From day one, Mr. D’s first period Ancient History classroom at Sheridan was a place I dreaded walking in to. He gave lots of homework that required encyclopedia-reading and demanded lots of class participation. After the first day in Mr. D’s class I took a seat in the back of the room where I hoped the six kids seated in front of me would shield me from his line of sight. 

“Why did Sparta engage in a conflict with Attica in the Peloponnesian War?” Mr. D asked on the morning in question. I stared down at the penciled carvings in the desktop, my adrenaline rising. Punctuating the ensuing silence, Phyllis Granoff, Eddie Modell and Sara Cosgrove immediately thrust their hands up in response. And then suddenly I heard my name called, sending my rising adrenaline levels even higher.
“Why did Sparta engage in a conflict with Attica in the Peloponnesian War?” Mr. D. asked me again by name. I sat in frozen silence unable to answer. This scenario repeated two more times, increasing the tension in the room until finally Asa Berkowitz sitting behind me, simply blurted out the answer in frustration: “Because they were afraid of the power building up in Athens at the time.”

Then Mr. D. called my name and angrily asked the question again.

Traumatic Shame

In that moment, sitting frozen with shame and humiliation, this single incident significantly altered my neurology, making history an unsafe subject for me and school classrooms unsafe places to be in general. For the next six years I was unable to say another word in a formal classroom setting! The structures of my limbic system – among them, the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland - had instantly paired school classrooms as synonymous with grave threat. It left me essentially a barely functional autistic when it came to school; and all without anyone, including me, ever realizing it. And all without any real mal-intent on the part of any of the people involved.

This past Spring however, I discovered that the treatments I have been receiving for the neural disorganization that resulted from that seventh grade shaming have begun to pay dividends. In June, I was attending a seminar at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco entitled, The Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain. My friend Sean and I were kibitzing in the back of a room filled with almost 1000 people, when suddenly I heard my name being called out by Dan Siegel, one of the two seminar presenters. Without the slightest bit of hesitation I immediately stood up, looked around the room, made eye contact with several people, smiled and waved joyfully – something that, had I been able to do it 40 years earlier in Mr. D’s seventh grade history class, could have pre-empted many years of significant pain and suffering. 

In a future column I’ll explore some of the emerging therapeutic methods that actually have been effective in addressing and resolving this kind of traumatic disorganization. And by the way - being read to directly from the DSM-IV is not one of them.

The Eyes Have It

Galen Buckwalter is a “proud gimp.” He’s one of the three central characters in physician/filmmaker Gretchen Berland’s new documentary Rolling. You’ll be able to see him next month go to work each day as a psychologist confined to a wheelchair. Two challenges he recently voiced in a National Public Radio interview are of particular interest to me. The first is how other people’s expectations work to have him fall automatically into feeling and acting disabled. This is an example of social neuroscience working in less than optimal ways. What we know from research is that in a different environment, one with positive expectations and possibilities - say a Special Olympics event, for example - Buckwalter would have a very different experience. Environment often significantly adds to or subtracts from neural development. 

If the increasing lifespan advocates are correct and many of us are soon to be living 100 or 150 years, we may well be spending some part of those years in a wheelchair. (Although I can 100% guarantee that the wheelchair of 2050, if there are even any around, won’t look anything like the chair of today). These days, as I feel my knees creak and my hips ache and I take my daily dosage of glucosamine and chondroitin, being wheelchair-bound does not seem like some remote possibility consigned to the far-off future. So, Buckwalter’s experience got my attention, especially his second challenge as he attempts to navigate through a day out in the world; that challenge is gaze-aversion. When he’s out doing his daily life, a majority of the people he encounters simply refuse to make eye contact with him.

I’m one of those gaze-averters. 

I’ve been a gaze-averter since middle school. Three bullying incidents stand in clear memory from that time, and they seem to have conditioned it. The first was Billy Zwack and two of his friends who cornered me one afternoon in an alley behind the Westville Theater. “What-chu looking at?” Two of them held me while Zwack slapped me several times across the face. 

The second incident involved a friend and I. One afternoon, we encountered Dominic Riggione, a high school dropout, in the woods down behind the housing projects where I lived. “Don’t look at me,” Dominic threatened, as he forced the two of us to first walk through, and then lie down in the icy brook. He followed that by forcing us to catch a frog and eat it, and then he ordered us to hit one another with sticks and rocks while he watched and laughed. 

The third incident involved Cleveland Benjamin, a kid that I actually liked and had been friends with. He’d been hit by a car the summer before and he ended up having difficulty walking. One day after school, I was watching him limp across the street over to where I was waiting for the school bus. When he got across, he walked up to me and snarled, “Don’t be lookin' at me.” He then proceeded to take out a straight razor and slash at me three times. Fortunately, it was winter and I was wearing a heavy coat. That, and the fact that I was able to duck and turn, left me with a shredded coat, but with only three small scratches across my back. These three incidents remain powerfully in memory, leaving me with great difficulty in being able to look people directly in the eye. After they happened, looking directly at people suddenly became a very dangerous business.

Gaze-averting, or rather the anxiety that it generates, turns out to be very important information. What it’s telling me, is something that almost all anxiety or upset often tells me when it is not the result of a real, present-moment threat to life or limb – that some traumatic memory living in me longs for healing integration. Some part of my brain is holding life-saving recollections that live in my neural network as one of Bob Scaer’s Dissociation Capsules.  

This is both good news and bad news and more bad news. The good news is that I am at least able to recognize that I am anxious. Not being able to look at a homeless person, or a person in a wheel chair is not “simply the way I am.” It’s one way my particular trauma history has conditioned me. The bad news is that I am fearful and anxious about a lot of things – a nasty email, a surly tone of voice, a letter that has the words “Official Business” printed on it from the Internal Revenue Service – all of which do not represent any real, present-moment threat to life and limb. The other bad news is that we haven’t developed very many really effective tools to work with these kinds of daily dissociative experiences. Making contact with people, by smiling and looking them in the eye, as difficult as it can sometimes be though, seems to help. And as I continue to roll through life, I’ll be keeping my eyes out for other healing possibilities. And I’ll be writing more about the importance of eye gaze for mother/baby bonding in future columns. Like people in wheelchairs, it’s a subject that needs to have more attention paid to it.

Opening the Gifts of Love and Death

This past weekend I taught a graduate seminar on this topic. I borrowed the title from a quotation supposedly attributed to Rainer Maria Rilke, although I have never seen the actual quotation in print (If any of you can point me to the original, I’d be most appreciative) - “Love and death are the great gifts in life. Mostly, they are passed on unopened.”

I’ve taught this seminar many times. In recent years I’ve begun to think about death within a framework of social neuroscience. (Paradoxically, five minutes a day spent thinking about death is reported to lead one to a very happy life). During such musings I explore all kinds of strange and wonderful possibilities. We know that neurons die (apoptosis). We know that people die (death). We know that neurons connect (synaptogenesis). We know that people connect (attuned resonance) - we are in fact Hardwired to Connect. Might this being that I have come to call "Me," simply be a really big, complex “neuron” in a much larger brain? If so, since brains work better when they are connected and well-integrated, wouldn't I do likewise? If so, that suggests I need to connect to death as well as life! ;-) 

In the framework of death and social neuroscience, the end-of-life trajectory often takes on special properties for both the person dying and the circle of people around them. My friend Kathleen has sat with hundreds of people through this trajectory. In her remarkable book, The Grace in Dying, she reports on this significance:

(Accompanying a person at the end of life) is to be pierced by a power beyond our separate sense of self in a moment that sources both compassion and wisdom. We deepen our capacity to live more fully and freely, awed by the fact that we ARE alive. We become different beings through the transformative power of our insight into the dying process. We become larger, more integrated, and somehow more real with this expansion of our horizons and remapping of our boundaries. We enter levels that allow our now deeper being to open to WHAT IS – giving and taking, in living and in dying, with fewer gimmicks and simpler truth, with less frivolity and more joy, with less suffering and more gratitude.
Part of what often makes this time special, I think, is that it seems to dissolve many of our long-held psychological defenses. When our psychological defenses go, my theory would be that for some of us traumatic incidents stored in implicit memory from conception (even before?), through childhood and beyond, begin to make their way to the surface of consciousness. Those experiences often then show up as symbolic entities that we may store as fearful, limbically-wired memories, experiences we have little ability to easily put words to - in other words, as waking nightmares or frightful, wounding images from our personal past. These too, I suspect, have an opportunity to evaporate with the dissolution. 

When I visit a hospital ward filled with terminally ill patients, I see many of them curled up, asleep in the fetal position. They remind me of my daughter, Amanda as an infant. As I used to do with her, I often muse upon what might be going on in their brains, in their hearts. It’s difficult not to actually think of them as developing fetuses, preparing much as Amanda did, to leave one known sensory-filled world in order to journey on a forced surrender into another. One question is often asked of me in these Love and Death Seminars, “What happens after we die?” My response to students is that this question is probably much like asking a baby, “What happens after you’re born?” I’ll further answer that question here the same way I do there - from Rilke again in one of his most familiar Letters to a Young Poet:

… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

The Mind-Numbing Cost of Suffering

One hundred billion dollars (again with that B!). That’s the figure that inspired me to make the commitment and put in the time and energy to begin writing this weekly column. That’s roughly the amount of money that Childserv vice-president, Suzette Fromm came up with when she did an analysis of the direct and indirect costs that result from unskillful child care. You can see a full breakdown of her categories and costs here: Estimated Costs of Child Abuse in America.
This seemed like a big number to me. Bigger actually, than I could easily comprehend. When I looked more closely at Doctor Fromm’s data, I noticed that she based her estimates on reported incidents of abuse. Thinking about my own life growing up in a housing project in New Haven, Connecticut, I witnessed far more incidents of abuse than ever got reported. In fact, I can’t even recall a single incident of anyone reporting anything, ever. Authorities of any sort were simply not part of the Home Team in that world.

This realization intrigued me enough to get in touch with the good doctor and ask her about the decision to base her calculations only upon reported data. “I originally did a range of calculations that could include non-reported incidents,” she told me (I'm loosely recalling our conversation here). “But the costs turned out to be so mind-bogglingly large, that whenever I presented them to peers and policymakers, they would simply glaze over and go numb. 100 billion dollars turns out to be a pretty big number all by itself.”

A big number indeed. For a long time (Fromm’s research was published in 2001), I found my own brain glazed over and numb. What could I possibly do in the face of such an overwhelming social problem? Contribute money to children’s charities? Get an elementary school teaching credential? Become a school psychologist? In truth, what the answer has come down to is: whatever I can do that feels aligned with who I am and what I’m somewhat reasonably skilled at. I’m reasonably skilled, it turns out, at researching and writing. 

As a result of reading as much of the brain research literature as I can – 35,000 new studies are published every year! – I’m convinced that the roots of war and horrendous suffering actually DO take hold in the nursery. And they take root there mostly by accident and lack of awareness. Parents and care providers simply don’t know and understand how the things they do - or just as importantly, don’t do - impact a child’s neural development. And that those things they do or don’t do can have implications affecting such things as ability to learn, social-emotional intelligence, immune function, and general life satisfaction … across the whole lifespan!

As a result of this conviction, one of the first things I did was research and compile a list of practices for parents based on recent findings from social neuroscience, trauma and attachment studies. When I published them last year as A Little Book of Parenting Skills, I contemplated what to say in the subtitle for a long time. I finally settled on “52 vital practices to help with the most important job on the planet.” I chose that subtitle, not because the practices I’ve organized and included are so critically important, but because the job of parenting itself is. And I deliberately made the book small, because parents are well, busy! I have also made it available for the cost of postage and handling ($5) for anyone wishing one. And I give hundreds of copies away for free at talks and seminars every year, not because I’m such a grand philanthropist, but because I truly believe in the power of parents to raise children with profoundly organized and integrated hearts, brains, minds and bodies. But parents first need to suspect they can raise such children. Which often starts with working on healing their own hearts, brains, minds and bodies. 

There have been a whole host of wonderful books and articles written for parents from the point of view of children’s experience. Daniel Stern, a Swiss psychiatrist, has written A Diary of a Baby; Peter Fonagy has written extensively about children’s experience; Penelope Leach has written several editions of Your Baby & Child; and just last year Peter Levine and Maggie Kline published Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes. Later this month, a new book endorsed by Bruce Perry will be released: Creative Interventions With Traumatized Children. Each of these offerings share the common virtue of showing us over and over that through the eyes of a child, parents show up as their whole world. And so, my primary goal with this column is similar to each of those authors - to help make that world a wonderful (and less costly) place for children to live in and continually come home to.

Growing the Altruistic Heart-Brain-Mind-Body

Last week a reader, Catherine Wolniewicz sent me a pointer to Maj. Scott Southworth’s story. While over in Iraq, Southworth made a seemingly impulsive decision to adopt Ala’a, a nine-year-old orphan boy with cerebral palsy. Once his impulsive “right brain–heart” connection relinquished a bit of neural real estate, interestingly the fearful, self-protective brain structures took center stage. In no uncertain terms, here’s what they had to say: “You shouldn’t adopt this boy. You are single, you have no job at home, no house, little money, and no medical expertise.” In Southworth’s struggle, we are afforded an opportunity to witness the birth of an Irrational Commitment.
If you read Southworth’s story, you will see that things are working out just fine, not only for Southworth and Ala’a, but for a multitude of others as well. In many ways, this story reminds me of Henry Thoreau’s famous quotation: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Or, in this case, begin gathering the people together and begin building the social networks (and the inevitable resulting neural structures) required to establish a solid foundation inside and out. One that can help us march forward fearlessly in the direction of our dreams.
Altruistic actions like Southworth’s, it turns out, are getting a lot of attention in research circles these days. This past March, Stephen Post published a revealing collection entitled Altruism and Health. Don Browning, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago had this to say about Post’s studies:

Do people who act generously and have kindly emotions reap benefits to themselves? Does this happen even though gaining returns does not motivate their altruistic feelings and behaviors? The path-breaking essays in this book answer these questions, with appropriate qualifications, in the affirmative. Better psychological and physical health and a longer life are the main fruits that accrue to the altruistic person. This is true for youth, adults, and the elderly, as well as for those who are already ill. This book inaugurates a new science of giving. It uncovers the realities behind the ancient truth that it is more blessed to give than receive. It is a marvelous resource for health care providers, educators, social scientists, and the inquiring general reader.
Such actions, with the benefits they provide, would seem to be worth modeling to our children, students and friends. But we don’t need research studies and external validation to know if altruistic acts work to make us feel better and improve our overall health. We can conduct our own repeated field trials. And it can actually be something we can engage in creatively, set our own rules around, and have great fun with. Here’s a memorable, magical example from my own life – Trickster Philanthropy. It includes a picture of a search-and- rescue worker that depicts the culmination of the whole story.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Soothing My "Death Valley Brain"

I once spent ten days of my graduate school education out in Death Valley on a Native American Vision Quest. The school was neurologically ahead of its time, believing in the facilitation of learning by organizing safe, structured, direct experiences that had manageable stresses and risks associated with them. Clearly some profound learning took place, since many details of the experience live on in my neural network more than 25 years later. Let this descriptive account be a lesson for parents and teachers alike.
One chilly morning in early April a dozen of us loaded our gear and ourselves into three vans and headed down the I-5. Somewhere between Bad Water and Dante’s View, we parked and began the long trek out into the middle of nowhere. At the time I fully possessed a vivid knowledge of Death Valley and its dangers, gleaned from watching dozens of TV episodes hosted by Ronald Reagan and his 20 Mule Team crew. Death Valley was not to be trifled with – anyone who entered it unprepared rarely came back alive.
I learned many surprising things on this excursion into the forbidden wilds of Death Valley. One was just how overrun Death Valley was in springtime with … wildflowers. Great white and yellow seas of daisies and poppies extended out in every direction as far as the eye could see. Flowers all around you tend to take away some of the hostile and forbidding aspects of an environment. The next thing we all learned was what some of the real Death Valley dangers were. Our knowledgeable guides went over them one by one. The first was sun, or more accurately sunstroke or heatstroke, with its close cousin, dehydration. To address this we each had brought along four large plastic jugs of water. Also, on the list of Death Valley dangers, as I recall, were rattlesnakes and scorpions. As someone practiced and comfortable in the unpredictable, wooded forests of my youth, none of these things worried me particularly.
Our little group spent the greater part of the first day trekking further out into the desert, losing all site of roads or familiar landmarks. At a place picked seemingly at random, our guides instructed us to set up base camp. I remember that first night spent in sleeping bags under an expanse with more stars than I ever thought could possibly fill the sky. In the morning we all gathered for breakfast and received instructions in preparation for the Solo adventure each of us would be embarking on over the next five days. After breakfast we set out in pairs on the “Buddy Plan." Our instructions were to separate from our buddy after establishing a contact point that one of us would return to every morning and leave some sign of our visit. The other would return to the same spot each evening and do likewise. The contact point my partner and I bravely chose was the place where we saw our first rattlesnake! It saw us before we saw it, curled up and clearly ready to strike. When we slowly backed off, it uncoiled and slithered to safety inside a rocky crevice.
The first afternoon and night of my Solo went by without incident. The second morning however, the first terrifying experience of the trip unfolded. I was curiously exploring a rocky ledge when I unexpectedly came upon … fresh scat! My first thought was that it was left by a dog. But if it was, it was undoubtedly a wild dog. And if it was a wild dog, then very likely he or she was part of a pack. And if he or she was part of a pack, living in the desert, they were most likely a very hungry pack. And against a hungry pack of wild dogs, I would undoubtedly be completely overmatched. In response to this series of dread-thoughts my body immediately flooded with adrenaline and my brain began to buzz with a frantic desire to find my way to safety. I had brought a knife and a staff with me and so the first thing I did was to sit and whittle one end of the staff to a sharp point. I then cut my boot laces in half, tied the halves together, and used them to tie the knife to the other end of the staff. All the while visions of snarling, starving Cujos danced wildly in my brain.
The remaining nights on this Solo were the most difficult. I lay awake under a rock outcropping in my sleeping bag desperately vigilant, attentive to every sound that played across the desert nightscape. By morning sun, I was exhausted, but still riding high on adrenaline, unable to eat, but also unable to think clearly. I’ve later learned that a brain in a state of fear cuts off much of the creative, higher cortical functions. On the last night of my Solo, completely exhausted by this point, far off in the distance I suddenly heard the faint bark of a single lonely coyote. At that point, I finally put the two together, coyote and scat! A great wave of relief passed through me and I remember laying in my sleeping bag crying, crying with relief, crying with joy, crying at my fear, at my Wild Mind, at the whole ordeal my brain had put me through based upon one little scrap of coyote scat. I came up with a short saying in that moment, the one that I’ve mentioned previously in this column. It has served as a great brain-calming, self-regulating mantra many times since my Death Valley adventure: “In this moment, I am perfectly safe.”
And so I am, and have been ever since.

Making the Friend of Your Friend, My Friend

This past Monday I received an email from a friend that saddened and surprised me. It was a copy of an Open Letter written by Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass and Sharon Salzberg. A few years ago, each of these folks had been intentionally supportive of a Handbook I put together intended for therapists and caregivers. Though I have never spent one-on-one time with any of them, they nevertheless feel familiar to me – like old, dear, trusted friends.

In the Open Letter Jack, Sharon and Ram Dass were making a public appeal on behalf of friends of theirs - Stephen and Ondrea Levine. Ondrea is suffering from leukemia and Stephen’s health is such that he is no longer able to travel and teach. In my own work and studies in dying and grief, no two people have played a more seminal role.

I attended my first workshop with Stephen and Ondrea during the week between Christmas and New Years back in 1981. It remains memorable for one primary reason: most of the people attending that weekend were parents of children who had been murdered or who had died from serious illnesses or automobile accidents. In my experience, there is no grief greater. The equanimity and grace and compassion and empathy with which Stephen and Ondrea were able to be fully present to such profound suffering, as each parent painfully struggled to relate their story, has stayed with me for all these years. Their ability be heartfully present to such suffering remains a model I continue to aspire to today.

Though I have only spent time with them in large group settings a half dozen times at most, Stephen and Ondrea, too, feel like old, dear friends of mine. They have consigned their money and their lives to support their beliefs in the desire to address and alleviate suffering in the world, something I deeply respect and admire. I also remember Stephen once speaking indirectly to the subject of friendship. He was talking about the inbuilt fear many of us seem to have of people we don’t know, like homeless people, and Iraqis and members of the Taliban. In response to such automatic conditioning, he asked one of Mother Teresa’s favorite questions. It was one she used to put to people who feared lepers: “What if you were simply to think of them as Jesus or Buddha in one of his most distressing disguises?”

What indeed? A wonderful question. Nevertheless, I have come to discover that, while helpful, holding such a thought is not fully sufficient for a friend of your friend to immediately and effortlessly show up and feel like my friend, too. Something more is needed. What that something more turns out to be is doing things to "get my head more together," that is, significantly increasing the connectivity between my orbital medial prefrontal cortex and the limbic structures in my brain. Noted child psychiatrist, Dan Siegel, writing in his book The Mindful Brain, cites a number of recent studies that confirm this connectivity is just what the doctor ordered. So, in order for your friend to become my friend, even if your friend is a bona fide saint, I may need to first grow some additional prefrontal connecting fibers. Otherwise, at a minimum your friend might look suspiciously like someone wanting something from me, or like some huckster trying to perpetrate one scam or another – the simple result of my conditioned limbic structures doing their distorted best to look out for me.

Understanding this turns out to actually be a comfort to me. There are things I can do that work to actually grow such fibers and make these crucial connections. A number of things, it turns out. If we’ve been fortunate enough to be born to parents with their own great OFC (Orbitofrontal cortex) connectivity, that’s a great start. They will almost automatically do things to help us grow our own. If not, then an alternative option is to spend a lot of time with a teacher or mentor who has their own neural undergrowth in good integrated order. Andrew Newberg at Princeton and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, in their work with wired-up meditating monks, have produced some empirical evidence that contemplative practices, in addition to their stress-reducing abilities, also work to increase orbitalfrontal connectivity.

These are a few of the ways that I can work on myself so that your friend might effortlessly and easily become my friend. I'll offer up more possibilities in the coming weeks. As a result, the hope is that you and I will perhaps gain back some of the neural real estate that no longer needs to be concerned with fear and self-protection. With such internal neural abundance, we might then be able to generously devote some of it to the compassionate care of good friends like Stephen and Ondrea Levine.

Dancing with the Dark Side of the Season

In 1960 an extremely promising baseball career lay wide open in front of me. I was eleven years old and that summer I had been honored with the “All-Around Athlete” award at Yale’s summer camp for disadvantaged kids (Now, past 60, I can still hit a 90 mph fastball!). In anticipation of a great 1961 season, overshadowed perhaps only by the heroics of Yankee sluggers Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, I told my mother I wanted just one thing for Christmas: a new Wilson A-2000 baseball glove. When Christmas morning arrived, I raced downstairs before dawn and “inadvertently” tore open several presents with my sister’s name on them until I finally came to the package that I was certain held my prize. I ripped off the wrapping in joyous anticipation, only to discover what turned out to be a three dollar baseball glove that I later learned had been a last minute purchase at the local Rexall pharmacy.

Needless to say, I felt heartbroken and betrayed. Even more than that, I was grief-stricken, embarrassed and ashamed. I went up to my room and cried for most of the morning. In my view, limited by the constricting distortion of unfathomable pain and sorrow, my baseball career was clearly over – there was simply no way I could possibly show up on any respectable playing field with a glove like that. Harvard psychiatrist, Judith Herman, would consider this a true trauma in my boyhood world, one that “overwhelms the ordinary system of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.” (pg. 33).

Many of us have similar painful, traumatic memories associated with the holiday season. At some early point in our lives, the celebration of the return of the light somehow managed to take a turn for the worse, often much worse than the bit of personal tragedy I’ve related above. My cousin, for example, spent one frozen Christmas day visiting his mother in Middletown, at the Connecticut State Mental Hospital. And I remember two friends who lived in the neighborhood who spent a few of their holidays among felons-in-the-making at the Cheshire Boy’s Reformatory. These kinds of experiences often lie beneath many of the “Bah Humbugs” of the holiday season. (And in fact, Marley’s Ghost might be recast as Scrooge’s own unconscious attempting to work healing resolution). But turning a deaf ear and a jaundiced eye rarely leads to any such resolution. What might then?

As with many painful and overwhelming experiences that live in us as traumatic memories, telling the truth about what happened, and how it genuinely impacted us, sometimes over and over and over again, can often help. We need to tell people who have the capacity to hear such painful recountings with compassion and kindness, of course, in a setting where it’s safe to do such truth-telling.
There is great benefit to healing traumatic memories, and there are a number of ways we can tell if such memories from experiences in our past have been fully resolved and integrated. Psychologist Mary Harvey has identified seven touchstones we can use to guide us. The first is that thoughts about the experience are able to be entertained and easily managed. The second is that we no longer feel great emotional charge about the experience. The third is we have some choice about recall of the experience – thoughts or feelings about it don’t simply intrude at random. Fourth, the experience can be spoken about coherently with appropriate feeling. Fifth, whatever damage our self-esteem may have suffered, it has become fully restored. Sixth, important relationships that may have been breeched have also been fully restored. And finally, seventh, we’re able to make sense and meaning of the experience, painful and unfortunate though it may have been. For example, with my baseball glove experience, the sense and meaning I’m able to make (after much emotional working-through) is simply that my mother was doing the absolute best she could, living on welfare as a single, unemployed mother of three mostly unmanageable kids.

There’s one further aspect to resolving the dark things that have happened to us in connection with the holidays that I’m a big fan of – restorative justice. This turns out to provide great neurological benefit for perpetrators and victims alike. Somatic psychotherapist, Pat Ogden often refers to the need for some kind of body-based “triumphant action” in connection with restorative justice. How that unfolded for me happened “serendipitously” one day without any conscious planning. I happened to be book-shopping one Christmas in New Haven at the Yale Coop. I often gravitate for “no special reason” to the sports equipment areas of department stores. On this day, I managed to wander through their sporting goods department, when lo and behold, hanging on a hook on the back wall, I spied a lone Wilson A-2000. The price tag was $130! As I write this, that glove, with it’s Snap-action hinge and its well-oiled Grip-Tite Pocket is propped up triumphantly on a shelf here beside me in my office. And inside it sits a baseball signed by the 1961 home run king, Roger Maris himself.

On Not Fearing Fear Itself

A number of years ago some friends and I researched and trained a small group of volunteers for a local community service agency. Our desire was to provide a healing sanctuary for kids who’d lost a parent to an automobile accident or to cancer or a heart attack or to any other sad misfortune. Many of the kids who showed up for these groups came reluctantly, with stiffness in their bodies and fear and confusion in their eyes. At the end of a year or sometimes two, our weekly meetings somehow managed to fully transform and resolve that fear and confusion. What took place with and between these kids continues to provide healing lessons for me these many years later.

In some ways, fear operates in us like a Tilt-a-Whirl roller coaster, one that often squeezes us in a double bind. Stress chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline in the body and brain work to get us all riled up, and then Gaba-Goo (Gamma-Amino- butyric Acid) and cortisol get dispatched to try to still the raging waters. These neurochemicals significantly influence and impact what we think and how we think. Stress-based thoughts rarely spring from things happening in the present moment, but they do work to produce the circular effect of re-triggering the stress chemicals; this recursive pattern turns out to leave little room for joy. This thought-generating process was clearly evident with our grieving kids: “What’s going to happen to me?” “Will I ever see my mother again” “Why do the other kids treat me weird?” “Will things ever be okay again?”

What to do? One thing we did was to help create space for the kids to learn about how grief works and how it actually felt in their bodies. In my own body, for example, in fear or grief, I often feel a familiar, uncomfortable kind of body-tension, my breathing gets very shallow and I notice a certain lack of “spaciousness” in my viscera (hollow organs - heart, lungs, stomach, etc.) and brain. It’s like I’m not totally there.

There’s some anecdotal evidence that this is part of a neuro-physiological event that takes place in the brain where the connections between limbic structures and cortical structures become temporarily reduced or turned off so as not to have the thinking brain delay instant reaction to real-world dangers. For example, we wouldn’t live too long if we had to first think about getting out of the way of a car rolling wildly towards us down the hilly Streets of San Francisco.

Another thing we did with the kids was to begin regular practices to help deliberately reduce stress. We designed and built a “Steam Room” – a place with padded walls, pillows and batakas and a heavy punching bag. It was a safe place to express Big Feelings. Lacking a Steam Room, many adults turn to things like MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) or a variety of contemplative practices, like insight meditation or prayer, which also seem to reduce the baseline levels of stress chemicals in the body and brain. (I think it’s an unacknowledged benefit of attending services as part of a faith community - large groups of people in proximity experiencing significantly reduced stress have a measurable effect on one another’s neurophysiology. This “interpersonal neurobiological” effect is also, in part, why watching a movie in a theater is a very different experience than watching one at home alone. Kids helping other kids heal was also in evidence as a regular part of our pilot program).

There are other practices that can work to lower fear-based stress as well. We know that aerobic exercise works to reduce levels of neurotoxins. Lots of studies have confirmed that. So does yoga, or tai chi, or Pilates, or even simply walking. So does something called 7-11 breathing, where you breathe in to a count of seven, and then breathe out to a count of 11. Doing this clears the lungs of air with a lower oxygen content, replacing it with a more oxygen-rich substitute. Increasing oxygen in the blood increases its supply to the brain, and increased oxygen to the brain is generally regarded as a good thing. Yoga has also been anecdotally found to reduce stress chemicals in the body and brain, as have the exercises associated with Smart Moves or Brain Gym. So does crying. At our children’s program, we did our best to establish a compassionate environment where it was safe to cry.

One of my own self-management practices that I have been using for years, which I find very helpful across a wide variety of fear-generating circumstances, is the repetition of a “mantra” of my own creation. A mantra is essentially a symbol or poem that works to affect neurophysiology. One that I have made up and used successfully (when I can remember to actually use it) is: “In this moment, everything’s all right.” The night our little training group first set up to receive our inaugural group of grieving kids, I remember using this mantra a lot. Turns out the kids were nothing that needed to be feared in the least. And more than twenty years later they still aren’t.

The Neuropsychology of Joy

John Sperling has pledged 3 billion dollars - that’s billion with a B - for research to help us live longer (and to help our kids live even longer still). When that research begins to pay greater dividends than it’s already paying, it will be a good thing if much of that longer life might be spent joyfully. Neuroscience and developmental psychology have some ideas about how that might actually be accomplished.
Joy, it turns out, shows up much like stress in the brain. It’s a neuro-event that needs to be met and modulated, not ignored or dismissed by parents or teachers who don’t truly understand its value and long-term benefits. Unfortunately many of us were born to parents who came through the Great Depression or who suffered through one or more of the major wars that have taken place since then. Wars and Great Depressions are not optimal environments for joy to fully flourish in. But parents can still have a significant impact on our capacity to experience joy even the midst of trying life events. In her wonderful, wide-ranging account on the power that parents possess to affect children’s unfolding for good or bad, English developmental psychologist, Margot Sunderland identifies significant cross-cultural research that illustrates what has to happen in our brains and bodies in order to produce joy:

In the brain there is a foundational genetic system for joy, but how it unfolds depends upon the interaction of those genes with social experiences. By and large, it is not possible to access the brain’s “joy juice” naturally without emotional connection with others. It is possible to experience pleasure, but not real joy. Joy is also a bodily state. To feel heights of joy, as opposed to just pleasure, we have to be moved from the very depths of us. This means that, alongside the activation of the brain’s joy juice, the body’s arousal system has activated high levels of adrenaline, which surges around the body. We can feel this adrenaline boost as our heart rate goes up, we breathe faster, and our appetite is suppressed. Dopamine and opiods in combination have to be activated at optimum levels in the brain if we are to feel joy. The repeated activation of these brain chemicals in childhood can enable your child to access many other wonderful human gifts - namely, to be spontaneous, to have the drive and hope to follow a dream, and to feel awe, wonder, and sheer delight in response to the beautiful and amazing things in the world. (pgs. 91-92)
So joy is experienced in the brain and the body with high arousal and fully activated stress chemicals. As such, the joy circuitry in children must be channeled and modulated by the parents so that it is built up gradually over time until the children themselves can perform the necessary channeling and modulation on their own. Otherwise, joy would possibly end up being just one more overwhelming, unmanageable stressor possibly resulting in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Social neuroscientist, Allan Schore, “the Einstein of Attachment Research” at the UCLA Medical School, has intimately detailed how that channeling and modulation is most likely accomplished. Schore contends that the right brain and the limbic structures store internal working models of our early important dyad relationships. This is the area where fast-acting, social-emotional information (like joy) is processed. And it is the positive emotions like joy and excitement that powerfully impact physical and mental health over the whole lifespan. So joy is unquestionably worth cultivating in our lives.

But what if we have not been fortunate enough to develop the neural circuitry to easily embrace and regulate joy in ourselves – think Ebenezer Scrooge here, or an American politician of your own choosing. Turns out it’s rarely too late to pursue a joy-filled adulthood. Schore and other interpersonal neurobiologists frequently contend that “it takes a more organized brain to help organize a less organized brain.” As adults, we can begin searching for joyful people to begin spending time with. This won’t be easy and won’t feel comfortable, possibly for quite a while – remember, we haven’t yet grown the requisite neural circuitry to easily process and modulate joy. But with time and patience and practice and practice and practice, and a little neurogenesis, gradually the days of our lives may begin to actually feel like joyeuses fĂȘtes.

Building Better, Long-Lasting Brains for the Long Haul

Just as our own brains have done – learned to process significantly more energy and complex information than our parents’ brains ever had to – our own children’s brains are going to end up processing significantly more energy and information than our brains. Compared to when we were their age, between Twitter and Google and video games and Instant Messaging and Iphones and Blackberries, I’m guessing many of our children’s brains already do process significantly more information.

But that’s only part of the good news. Renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that our children will very likely be putting their brains to use for an average lifespan of 150-200 years! In his best-selling book, The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil makes a compelling case that the explosive growth of information technology alone is already creating dramatic changes in all areas of life. And living longer is just one of these changes. Inventions and research findings delivered at a TED talk on Monday morning, can be disseminated and accessed virtually anyplace on the planet by Monday afternoon at the latest. This has significant implications for medicine, nutrition, neuroscience, education – virtually any area where energy and information is put into service by human brains.

Thus, our kids are going to need bigger, better connected and neurologically balanced brains than ours, and they will very likely be needing them far longer - University of Idaho gerontology professor, Steven Austad has bet $500 million that a 150-year-old person will be alive and in good condition by the year 2150. If and as this comes to pass, what are some of the things we can do to insure optimal brain growth and development in our children?

First, it’s important to realize that children’s brains don’t develop uniformly. Rather, neurons begin connecting in the greatest amounts before and after birth on the right side of the brain. This is the side where traumatic, overwhelming memories are mostly stored in what's known as "implicit memory." Overwhelming memories result from experiences that convey more energy and information than our children’s brains can easily handle. (Obviously, adult brains can be readily overwhelmed as well!).

An example: when my own daughter was under a year old she spiked a very high fever that resulted in her going into convulsions. Needless to say, this comes close to being a parent’s worst nightmare. The remedy for this was to plunge her into cold water. This too, had a chilling effect on everyone, as her body immediately registered the abrupt change in temperature. At the same time, this painful memory became stored in her brain without any way to talk about it. (To this day, the image of Amanda shaking in uncontrollable convulsions remains clear in my mind, although as would be predicted, she has no narrative recall of the experience). 

These are the kinds of memories that are stored early on, without the benefit of language, since roughly between ages two and three language has yet to come on line. Consequently, many of us have any number of such stored memories that we simply can’t speak about. They are stored primarily on the right side of the brain as something attachment researchers call “the unthought known.” When these kinds of stored, overwhelming memories are activated, we are often upset and don’t know why. One important process for helping with brain development in our kids then, is to find creative ways for them to first nonverbally express and then begin to construct narratives - tell stories about these early stored experiences. Again from the attachment literature this process is known as “constructing a coherent narrative,” and the shift across the mid-line of the brain, which speech and language seems to accomplish, turns out to be important for optimal neural development.

So, helping our children construct coherent narratives is one way to help them grow bigger, better integrated brains. But our children have many different kinds of experiences in the first 36 to 40 months of life (beginning in utero) that exceed the ability of their brain to adequately process. As a result, a lot of neural real estate is taken up with what Bob Scaer calls “dissociative capsules” – collections of neurons that have had to be systematically and preemptively inhibited from firing. The neurons that become wired together and represent such experiences become necessarily shut down so as to allow the brain and body a timely return to a balanced state of homeostasis. Reclaiming this neural real estate can and should be a practice for growing better connected and more robustly integrated children’s brains. Through the upcoming weeks I will be presenting even more specific information on effective ways that continue to be developed and discovered to actually accomplish that reclamation.

The Neurobiology of Irrational Commitment

One of the things that helps provide a strong sense that I am truly there for my children (and for adults as well), and thus provides an optimal environment for neural development, is something Attachment Researchers label “irrational commitment.” I love this term. It clearly captures the relationship that many parents feel with their kids. 

A few months back I saw a movie that unexpectedly depicted the profound power and real essence of this bond – the Bruce Willis movie, Live Free or Die Hard. In that movie a rogue ex-government agent has assembled a team of thugs and hackers intent on paying back America for not listening when he warned them about how vulnerable the country was to really smart, socially and emotionally handicapped people like himself. As his “Fire Sale” plot unfolds to disrupt all finance, transportation and utility services across the nation, and in the process steal ALL of the money in America, Thomas Gabriel makes one small unfortunate mistake: he kidnaps NYPD detective John McClane’s (Willis’) teenage daughter. 

“My dad’s gonna kick your ass,” Lucy McClane tells this arch-villain, who has just cold-bloodedly murdered all his expendable staff after they have faithfully and naively served his diabolical purposes. And, of course, Lucy’s right. She knows beyond a shadow of a doubt the extent of her father’s love. And in the name of love, John McClane goes up against wave after wave of skilled martial artists, ultra-Uzi-wielding thugs in attack helicopters, a rocket-launching F-14 fighter plane, and surveillance teams who can locate and chastise him instantly anywhere he goes (even as he attempts to take a needed time out in the expected safety of the Warlock’s basement!). In the end, McClane makes the ultimate decision to shoot himself – a flesh wound that goes through his own body and into the heart of the bad guy. As I walked out of the movie, a little teary actually, I thought, “Now THAT is irrational commitment!” 

And it is. It is precisely the feeling that many of us have with respect to our children and the lengths we would go to for them (especially if we had the blockbuster budget and the same access to stunt doubles and special-effects wizards that Bruce has). But what if we don’t. What if all we have is an insecure, ambivalent attachment history, a model of parenting that includes a father who left for parts unknown, a mother overworked, overwhelmed and unable to do even half of the ten thousand things that need to be done to adequately care for children in the course of a day? What then?

In this case, a difficult one to be sure, then we have more work to do than other parents. A lot more. Just the work of figuring out what our work is can be confusing – not to mention, frightening and overwhelming. Even more so when we figure out that our work is not “won and done.” That it is work that we will most likely be charged to do as long as we continue to breathe as living beings with embodied consciousness. 

It’s for precisely this reason that I am so strongly drawn to brain science. It helps to greatly clarify what the work is that we parents truly do need to do: whatever it takes to grow new neurons and connect them up with as many of the old ones as possible. Essentially, that’s it. Why? Because it is these new neurons and connections that will begin a process of establishing for us in the moment and continuing on into later life, what should have been formed and stabilized early and never got sufficient chance to. 

And as I’ve mentioned previously, the Nobel Prize-winning work of Eric Kandel suggests that one of the best ways for parents to do that is by regularly engaging in novel situations in secure environments where it’s safe to play. There are other ways as well to begin doing the necessary neural reconstruction and we’ll continue to explore them in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, consider this question: What might it look like for you to make and sustain an “irrational commitment” to the important people in your life? To the point that you would willingly take a bullet for them?