In the last post in this series, we discussed three general areas of the brain: the Prefrontal cortex, the Amygdala, and the Limbic Brain. Explaining how the prefrontal cortex is the power plant of empathy and relational connection. Trauma and emotional memory are stored alongside our creativity and imagination in the limbic brain. We also stated that our conscious, recollective memory is merely a memory of the last time we remembered an event, rather than being a memory of the event itself. Finally, we wrote about the amygdala being our reptilian brain. It is our built-in early warning and security system. The amygdala responds to threats and danger with one of three generalized ways: fight, flight, or freeze. It is the quickest reacting portion of our brain. Its sensitivity to threats is determined by the thickness of the cortisol in which it swims. If the layer of cortisol is thick, the amygdala is more hyper-vigilant. Thick cortisol also allows more “lethal” responses to danger, simply because of practice.
The amount of cortisol surrounding the amygdala is determined by the amount of trauma or danger one has faced during life and the amount of long-term security that they feel. Finally, we noted that the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex cannot each operate optimally at the same time. If the prefrontal cortex is online and functioning at a high level, the amygdala is resting and at ease. If the amygdala is hyper vigilant, the mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex and the ability to feel empathy are turned down or completely off. This is the biological explanation for John’s statement that “perfect love casts our fear” (1 Jn 4).
Finally, we noted that the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex cannot each operate optimally at the same time. If the prefrontal cortex is online and functioning at a high level, the amygdala is resting and at ease. If the amygdala is hyper vigilant, the mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which determine one’s ability to feel empathy connect emotionally to another, are turned down or completely off. This is a biological explanation for John’s statement that “perfect love casts our fear” (1 Jn 4).
Conflict always hides or reveals fear. The closer you are to another the more room there is for fear, for there is much more to lose. This is why people choose not to let people get close or push people away. The walls people build or the exertion to drive others away from them and keep them at a distance are defense mechanisms. What would happen in your relationships if you were mindful of these tendencies and what laid behind them?
Typically, when a spouse, or a child, or a parent, or a friend responds defensively, our first reaction is to become defensive ourselves. The amygdala creates this response. We’ve been, “triggered.” To love, we must move beyond our amygdalin response and jump start our mirror neurons. This requires something I call “psychic space.”
Let me explain that concept. I ride a motorcycle because when I ride, I feel free. I have space around me. The world seems bigger than when I am in a car. I feel nimble, quick and even fast. When I am in a small dark place, I tend to shut down. I may or may not be scared, but I am aware of the constraints surrounding me, and I do not like them, so typically I try to sleep and escape to the wide open spaces in my mind. For some, the feeling of freedom occurs when they hike, or when they look at the ocean, or the mountains, or the plains or forests. Some find it while sailing or skiing; others backpacking; still, others when they swim or run or lift weights. But that feeling of space that we create when we are in those places rather than feeling constrained and hemmed in matters and affects the way we can respond to those we want to love.
The question arises, how do people create space. Our bodies play a role in that. First, we need to activate the Vagus nerve. That is most easily done by deep breathing while focusing on our breath. Our minds need to “re-enter our bodies,” and leave the fantasies that our loved one’s defensive posture triggered. We have to return to the present moment in our physical bodies to realize that the danger is a creation of our minds. We do this by breathing in deeply through our noses, filling our diaphrams that are housed below the lungs. Only then can we begin to move away from an amygdalin response.
Once we’ve started to breathe and focused our attention on it, we may need to create more space to respond well. Because sometimes the physical space we occupy is not a safe space because of the angry, defensive presence of the one we want to love. At that point, we need to create physical space to find psychic space. There are other tools you can use when you are alone to create space. Exercise can help, stretching, and yoga are other tools that bring us into our bodies and the present moment. EFT tapping is another useful and easy tool. The purpose of creating “psychic space” is to allow a more loving entrance into conflict. If this can be done a stronger relationship will form. Arguments and conflicts are not bad, nor are they to be avoided. Avoiding the person and / or the situation is a the amygdalin response: flee. Instead, enter into those conflicts cognizant of the effect of the engagement has on both your and the other’s brain having created space so that your mirror neurons are engaged as much as possible.
When people involved in the conflict can see the conflict through the other’s eyes, it changes the nature of the conflict and allows for creative and synergetic solutions and partnerships to emerge.
One other important outcome of understanding how the brain works is that suddenly everything doesn’t have to be about me. Sometimes, something occurs that triggers a loved one sending their brain to crazy places and causing them to act in ways they typically would never choose to act. If we can understand this while not excusing their behavior, we will avoid creating new unnecessary conflict. After a traumatic event: a car crash, accident, break-in, embarrassment, or shaming; people are not able to respond well to life. We have to allow them to find space to change gears. When we choose to challenge them because we don’t like how they are engaging with us, or we only want them to feel better because their emotional state worries us, we create unnecessary conflict that needn’t have occurred.
From all of this, it is easy to see that even our physical posture in these conversations matters. When I turn away from you, your amygdala informs you that I must not like you. It can’t help it. It is part of the reptilian brain and simply reacts in set fashions. That message is sent based on the fact that I am not fully facing you. We need to physically turn toward one another. We need to be able to meet but not demand the other’s gaze. Tone affects our amygdala more than the words that are said. It hears inflection, reading the emotion and the threat behind it. Since it is nonverbal, it only evaluates visual cues, energy levels, nasal, and tonal issues when assessing the risk.
Please be aware that memory can also trigger amygdalin responses. A nasal memory can trigger memories of trauma and set off a powerful, visceral, emotional, mental, verbal, and physical reaction.
I can say things differently to my wife than I can to my daughter or my son. When engaging with my ex-wife I need to be cognizant that I am communicating on a completely different plane. People are different with varying experiences in the world. That reality means that their amygdala may act differently than you think it should. And I will say to you that you cannot judge another’s amygdalin response. Because you have no way of knowing why it developed the way that it did. To engage another cautiously does not necessitate that I am fearful and not loving. Sometimes caution is a function of love rather than fear. In those instances, caution is wisdom.
Knowing how our minds are wired does not solve all the problems. It can lead to manipulation in the wrong hands. It can also help us love more wisely and avoid creating needless conflict while walking into necessary conflict with a posture that allows synergy rather than destruction. In the end, we simply need to pay attention and be present. When we do so, we imitate Christ, who became incarnate to be present with us here.
Is there anything that all healthy humans want in life? In other words, is there anything that crosses social, economic, and cultural divides that is a desire or longing for all humanity? I ask because if we don’t understand for that which we all long, we will never grasp how people respond, develop, and break.
Before answering, however, let’s quickly sketch the human brain using very broad strokes (like creating a picture using google maps from 30,000 feet). For the sake of perspective in our overview the brain will have three primary regions: the amygdala — also known as the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the pre-frontal cortex. The Amygdala is the part of our brain that keeps us safe. Typically it employs three responses: Fight, flight, or freeze. Additionally, it has the power to override the other areas of the brain to keep us safe. If it is fully turned on, the pre-frontal cortex is either turned off completely or barely activated. In those moments, we describe people as “acting on instinct.”
The limbic brain is a catch-all region of the brain that includes: most of our emotions, our long-term memories, and our motivational and pleasure centers. It also guides our intentional muscle movements and is involved in how we learn. It comprises most of our brain mass.
The prefrontal cortex is central to our personality, our social choices, and sophisticated planning and thinking. This is the area of the brain that helps us filter our behavior while simultaneously guiding our thoughts and actions so that the are consistent with our internal goals or drives.
While the above paragraphs contain the most general of outlines and are not comprehensive or complete, they set the scene. The main characters in the story, however, are our “right and left brains.” For they process life differently. Their interaction about how to get that which everyone wants becomes the human script.
The right brain is the originator of our dreams. It is intuitive, visual, seeing the forest before seeing a singular tree. It is artistic .and non-verbal, the place of imagination, creativity, emotions, and rhythms. The right brain allows you to sing in tune or stops you from carrying a melody. The right brain is where fetuses and infants start to think learning life. It is also the place that stores trauma for not just children but also adults. It does not require words to feel or see. In many instances, words only get in the way of creative expression. It is important to note that the right brain also contains what Freud called, “the unconscious.” And finally, to recognize that it is the birthplace of shame. Shame is a critical player in this drama because, at its root, it is the feeling or sense that one is undeserving of their longings and desires; that either, they are not enough or are too much. It has devasting consequences for us physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Physically, both the right and left brain encompass the prefrontal cortex that connects them, allowing them to communicate and the limbic brain. So as you think about our left and right brains, please simultaneously remember the limbic and prefrontal cortex functions.
The left brain is analytical, logical, and verbal. It is linear, likes math, facts, and learning languages and always uses words or numerals to think. While the right brain gives birth to shame, the left brain is the uterus for our guilt. This is a primary difference between guilt and shame: Guilt always begins with words, while shame always starts with emotions to which we later give language.
The above aids us as we consider humanity’s desire(s). As a Trinitarian, I believe God created people both corporately and individually In his loving, relational image; Therefore, every human’s deepest desire is for a relationship with another. However, this desire is not innate, but rather developmental. For early on, infants have no sense of “inside/outside” or “otherness.” Those concepts are learned. There is no way infants’ minds can grasp that everything “isn’t me.” They learn that there is me and you and that we are separate and other. That is only one of the billions and trillions of things that infants learn as they grow. How they learn to be other and relate to the other will make a huge difference in how their minds develop and grow.
The child’s prefrontal cortex isn’t online at birth. It is still under construction. The connection between the right and left brain is not operational. Dr. Alan Schore argues that the development of the prefrontal cortex and children’s ability to utilize it to regulate right-brain emotions is of utmost importance developmentally. In other words, our ability to integrate our right brain with our left brain is crucial. When it does not happen early in life, feelings overwhelm the child and trauma ensues.
20th-century theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed attachment theory based on these observations. Subsequent discoveries in the 21st-century of mirror neurons have made this theory almost as accepted as gravity. Alan Schore, mentioned above, used attachment theory as a foundation to create the 21st century’s version of it, calling it, Affect Regulation Theory.
Schore theorizes that mothers lend their brains to their children, using their mirror neurons to do so, allowing their infants to cope with overwhelming emotions swirling in their right brains. When parents succeed in doing so, the infant learns over time how to “contain” their feelings, creating neural pathways between the right and left brains that regulate emotions. When parents fail, they must work to repair the rupture addressing the failure with the child, thus allowing the child to continue to process their feelings and grow. Clearly, all parents fail, in this task and children are left picking up the pieces, needing to find other ways to live safely with emotions that threaten to consume them. (To be continued)