“Whenever we are presented with the opportunity to move towards what we want, we are equally confronted with the reality of leaving others as they are.”
A mentor of mine Carl, and one of his teachers, Kaskayfayet once said (and I’m paraphrasing).
Before we start, think about something you would like to move towards. Whether that means; leaving your job, starting a business, traveling the world or experiencing lasting love. Got it? Great. Now as you imagine taking the steps towards what you would like–notice any feelings of resistance, doubt, guilt, or even shame. Perhaps an emotion that just doesn’t seem to make sense?
In this post, I provide you a contemporary understanding of how we get stuck in certain areas of our lives. It starts with the brain of course. In particular:
- How it keeps us stuck in repeated experiences we no longer want.
- What needs to happen for us to be able to get the change we want.
- The role of communication in helping our brains more readily select experiences we want to have.
To start with, we don’t have just one brain. We have multiple brains (see below). They can be basically divided into three main parts: the forebrain (human brain neocortex), midbrain (Limbic system), and hindbrain (Reptilian brain).
For the purposes of this discussion, we are particularly interested in the reptile and human brain.
I – The Human Brain
By way of our human mind, or the forebrain (especially the pre-frontal cortex)—we seek expression, variety, planning, reasoning, divinity, abstraction, purpose and ethics. It is known to have executive function, performing tasks of a higher order such as creation and time. This part of the brain loves “new-ness.” Our human brain cares about quality of life and loves change. If it had a personality, the question it would frequently ask is:
“What else that is new can I experience?”
For example, have you ever considered what life would be like for your human brain if all you ate for dinner, every single night for the rest of your life was … the same thing? Boiled kale for example. It would drive most of us crazy! On the other hand, you would probably relish at the thought of all the new places around the world you can travel.
II – The Reptilian Brain
The older brain is called the reptilian brain. We share this with all creatures on this planet. The reptilian brain, the oldest of the three, controls the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. Its main function is survival and continued survival. In particular, pulse and respiration. Its functions can be summarized by the 4Fs:
This part of the brain loves “Same-ness.” Because what we initially survive is safe, then it just wants us to do the same thing to stay safe. Simple example, how many here have a tendency to use the same toilet cubicle, or sit on the same bus seat all the time? All reptile behaviour.
It is also territorial. For example, in an open plan office, many people get bothered when the person next to them has sheets of paper that found its way past the perimeter separating your workstations.
Remember the key words; safe, same, and survivable.
The reptilian brain does not distinguish between real or not real. So, if you send a series of sounds and pictures to it, the reptilian brain will think they are real. Just like if you are watching JAWS at the movies, your heart rate will suddenly elevate when the shark is shown on the screen. That doesn’t seem logical, since you are sitting in the cinema and there is no water around you. Your human brain knows it is safe because it can deduce that. However, your reptile brain does not. Our reptilian brain cares about quantity of life. If it had a personality, the question it would frequently ask is:
“Are we dead? No … great! Let’s keep that running.”
If you ever have an unwanted experience in your life that keeps repeating itself … you can bet it’s due to the reptilian function. Whether that is; feeling stuck in your career, painful heartbreaking relationships, money troubles that stick no matter how much you try to change, or building up professional success only to have it crumbling down …
What is happening is that an early unwanted experience is repeating itself. Since the conditions we survive, becoming conditions which continued surviving depends on. Remember, if we survived it at a very young age, the reptilian brain codes it as “safe.” It will then generalize that your continued safety depends on that unwanted experience repeating itself. No matter how unpleasant it was, it only cares that you are alive. As long as you are alive, it has fulfilled its role perfectly.
III – The Problem
So we’ve got a problem here. Metaphorically, one part of us wants to look left (the human brain), the other part of us wants to look right (the reptile brain).
You can see the challenge … can’t you?
One part of us longs for same-ness while another part wants new-ness. The creator of this game called being human clearly lacked no sense of humor, “Let’s put these two contradictions together. Off you go then! Get along! Figure it out!”
So the question we are most interested in exploring is …
How do we have the aspects of new-ness collaborate
with the aspects of us that want same-ness?
Let’s explore this more deeply. To do this, we are going to take a look at some of the inner mechanics of what happens in the brain.
III – A Closer Look at What is Happening
What we have here in the brain, is a diagram of neutrons (the splatted egg-looking stuff). There are 100 billions of these neurons in the human brain, or what is referred to as grey matter.
This is where they are stored. The neurons transmit nerve signals in the brain using electronical signals and chemical signals. They light up and stimulate different parts of the brain which are responsible for different aspects of our human function. Whether that means moving your leg, sounding a word with your mouth, or tapping a rhythm with your fingers.
But it’s not just the neurons that matter. It is the communication between them that does too. Neurons are connected by axons which are like cables between neurons. They help transmit pulses between different neurons. They facilitate interneuron communication. The axons are part of the brain called the white matter, which is free of neurons but rich in axons.
Think of the neurons as telephones, and the axons as the cabling between telephones.
Neurons are connected to axons via the dendrites, which are branches of a neuron. Where they connect are referred to as synapse. Just like wires are connected to a device through different sockets.
What recent studies have shown, is that along certain axons, there exists a myelin sheath (fatty tissue that surrounds the axons) which assist in transmitting signals between different parts of the brain. What’s amazing is if it is myelinated, the signal communicates and travels up to 100 times faster.
Therefore, extremely myelinated neural pathways (connections between neurons) let us know that those behaviours, experiences and habits associated with those neural pathways can happen; faster, with ease, less energy output, and little conscious effort.
This is a double edged sword depending on whether the habit is good for the experience we want, or whether the habit keeps us stuck. For example—get off the couch and get some fresh air! Or, sit on the couch and have a pack of potato chips. What’s your initial instinct? That’s likely the most myelinated pathway.
What triggers the process of myelination?
Glial cells. In particular, two types called astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. The astrocytes monitor the activity along an axon. If it fires regularly, the astrocytes tell the oligodendrocytes to myelinate that axon. The oligodendrocytes are octopus-looking cells that insulate the axons with myelin. Thus enhancing the speed and smoothness that the signal triggers.
Which is why repetition of a certain activity, can eventually develop into a habit.
Myelination also doesn’t happen smoothly. It leaves bumps called nodes of Ranvier which control the speed and frequency of the signals. We don’t always want information to arrive at the same neuron at the same time.
It gets complex, but that’s beside the point.
Now we have an understanding of what is happening inside the brain and how it governs our results, we can start discussing the problem at a deeper level.
IV – Revisiting the Problem
Let’s revisit the reptile brain. Recall, it is always on the look-out for our safety.
The way your brain is mostly wired (combination of neurons and myelinated axons and dendrites etc.) is due to a combination of things. For one, your genetics. This includes propensities, thoughts, and behaviours that most of us don’t have control over.
The rest of our behaviours are mostly learned from our parents through mirroring. As children, the mirror neurons in our brains mimic whatever it is that we sense (see, hear, feel, smell, and taste). That’s often why you hear, “you’re just like your mother,” or “you’re just like your father.” Because it’s true! In fact, you are one half of both of them!
This is a way to be consistent with our environment. The more we are like the things around us, the safer it is. And at an early age, this behaviour is conducive to the reptilian brain which is making sure you are safe and with like-kind.
So what’s happening is, a lot of the incredibly myelinated pathways in our brains are based on survival instincts, and are strong mental impressions (Samskaras, as the Yogis describe) that are mostly set in place by the time we are 4 years of age.
These set of neural pathways are based on decisions we made about ourselves and the world, at a very young age. It helped us make sense of the world so we can feel safe, stable and with like-kind.
As a result, they create a set of beliefs that filter our reality and govern our behaviour. Such as, touching a flame with your hand is not safe because you might burn your finger. That’s obvious, and it is in appropriate function. So you no longer have to consciously tell yourself not to touch a flame. This firmly helps us establish our place in the world.
What we want to pay attention to is the initial strong impressions we get that involve intense negative emotions, and the associated beliefs we create from that.
When we first come into this human reality, the impressions based on our experiences leave imprints. And because our first instinct is to survive, most of our beliefs and filters are in place by the time we are 4 years of age.
Because these are based on survival, generated by the reptilian brain rather than the human brain–they aren’t always useful later on in our lives. Most of the things causing us grief in life, are a result of old mental imprints that have passed their expiry dates (I call it Perfect Solutions that Have Expired)!
Give you an example …
A 3 or 4-year-old child is left alone in a room an unattended to by his mum and dad. They close the door and leave him in a luxurious room by himself, thinking he will stay asleep. There are cushions, the door is closed, there is plenty of air-conditioning, and nothing he can swallow or chew and choke on. Visibly, there is almost nothing that is threatening the child’s well-being. For most human beings, reading this doesn’t seem too bad for the child.
But let’s look inside his world …
He wakes up instead of staying asleep. Inside, he starts panicking. He feels like he is going to die. Because he wants mummy, daddy or someone to be with him. “They responded before, why not this time?” he tells himself.
But this time, when he reaches out with whatever sounds he can make or gestures he can make—there is no response. It is heart-breaking and devastating and it makes him feel like he is about to die. So instead, he tells himself “Don’t leave me … please?”
Still no response. Before long, he creates a belief … I am a loner. Because loneliness is much better than heart-break. It is “safer” in this sense.
The reality is, only 60 minutes passed. Daddy and mummy were having a private chat somewhere else and wondering what present to get him. He didn’t know that of course. And his parents didn’t know what was really going on for him either. After all, they just assumed it was a safe and comfortable room for him to be in!
But for this child, it felt like forever. By then, the internal damage was done. The intense fear of heartbreak, sadness and sense of abandonment has helped him create an extremely myelinated set of neural pathways (self-identity, beliefs and behaviours) to help him survive the experience.
Fast forward 20 years later.
He’s now a mature working professional. Two of his friends, a gentleman and a lady, they invite him to hangout one evening. They say, “Meet us at the club at 7am?” He says, “Sure! I’m excited. See you guys there!” So he sees his group of friends walk away.
Then something strange and inexplicable happens. An intense sadness is triggered and he feels alone. An overbearing sense of sadness. And he wonders, “just when I was looking forward to hanging out!” He starts questioning himself.
He questions if his group of friends really wanted him to be in on their group outing. Within a matter of minutes, the doubt hits him hard. His brain starts convincing himself that he’s not wanted.
“What’s the point. They don’t really want me there. I’m all alone …”
So he bails. And this happens in his relationships with people at work, his family and with women. Time after time after time … he just doesn’t understand why. He just can’t seem to find and sustain a deep connection with other people in his life.
The paradox is, because he survived a form of let down as a child, his reptilian brain has frequently recreated the same experience regularly, as it became a condition that continued surviving depended on.
Why do events we experience in our childhood and youth
continue to negatively affect us in our adult years?
The old set of neural networks are running perfectly, even 20 years later!
What’s happened is, the set of beliefs he created at 4 years old, were triggered by the visual recognition of his friends walking away. The myelinated set of axons and neurons that are associated with the memory of the 4 year-old feeling immensely sad and abandoned, fire off efficiently and effectively. Every time.
The 4-year-old in him thinks it could be a potential threat to his safety. So it fires up the fear, sadness and abandonment. All states that compel him not to show up at the club. It then reinforces his sense of self.
“I must be all alone.”
Problem is, his brain has been wired such that his Reticular Activation System (RAS) will be on the lookout for these potential threats. What is the RAS? The RAS filters the incoming information and affects what you pay attention to. Simple example, close your eyes and picture the color yellow. Now look around you and notice how much yellow you notice in the room!
For the gentleman, the trigger was the image of two people walking away and telling him to meet them later. Anything and everything that could lead to him being in the company of caring people, is associated with potential heart-break and pain. It creates a push-pull effect that is driving him nuts!
Even if he tries to imagine being with someone in a long-term relationship, or having close connections with friends – his reptilian brain thinks that imagined picture is real. Because it doesn’t consider it safe, his breathing becomes irregular, momentarily stopping even. The amygdala will be instructed to fire up the same neurons in the brain, leading to the same fears, anxieties, and feelings of sadness.
If it is not in alignment with initial filters, the brain won’t consider it safe. In short, in a matter of milliseconds, anything he tries to visualize is shut down or compromised. It isn’t even given a chance to myelinate or become properly formed in his mind.
Oh my goodness!!
The way this is structured in the brain, is via neuron networks that are extremely myelinated to serve as an efficient form of keeping you safe, and regenerating painful experiences that you have survived. Even though they might not be useful in a lot of contexts anymore!
Pretty grim. But there is a plus side.
If we can communicate to your brain to revise these sets of neural patterns, we can also help you create new neural connections in line with a goal you want to achieve, or a new experience you want in life.
The RAS and all other aspects of your brain will start filtering the environment to find resources to support those goals …
As long as you can picture it and breathe, then your reptilian brain will be programmed to see that image and consider it safe.
What we can breathe through is considered survivable.
Better yet. If the new experience you picture comes with positive feelings, this also triggers the oligodendrocytes to myelinate those axons like crazy! That means, it will create new automated behaviours that support what you want, rather than shutting it down.
Let’s explore this.
V – Revising the Problem
So how do we revise it? The simplest process to follow is:
- Revisit the memory. That means, finding a way to reveal the initial decisions the individual made, that is causing them repeated pain and frustration in life. Meditation, high quality counselling or facilitation can help with this.
- Provide the younger version of you with information he/she did not have at the time that would be useful. When the 3 or 4-year-old boy thought he was left alone, what he didn’t realize at that moment when he made those decisions, was that his mum and dad would eventually come to his aid after 60 minutes or so. Or the fact that he wouldn’t die due to heart-break.
- Allow him/her to generalize that awareness, through all experiences up to present time and the future. That way, they can imagine what it would have been like in their life, having had the awareness they did not initially have.
The process is simple.
But facilitating the process is tricky business. Especially without a trained facilitator or coach who can guide you through it safely and reliably.
The initial set of neural networks that established themselves early in our lives often operate so far out of our conscious awareness. They can be hard to catch.
They are quarantined so that they can operate out of sight and out of mind in order to keep us safe!
To reveal them, enough trust and rapport must be built with the person you are working with. That means, finding ways in which the person can feel like they are with like-kind. And that your intentions aren’t to force the person to do anything new or anything else … but just to understand.
Because if the set of patterning sees you as a threat, the person is likely to:
- Get really upset and angry at you. (Fight)
- Run out the door. (Flight)
- Stall and not be able to answer your question. (Freeze)
The last F … well, that’s unlikely to happen. 🙂
How do you make sure they feel they are with like-kind? So many ways. But the principle is, think of anything that can make them feel they are with someone who is just like them, and you’re on the right track. This is called rapport. And a few ways we can do this is:
- Mirror body language (posture, movement, position).
- Mirror their speech (tone, pitch, pace and pause).
- Listen intently and backtrack the words they use.
- Match their breathing.
- Empathize with the way they are feeling, by connecting to an area of your life in which you have felt that way.
- Recognize (internally) that the part of them that is holding them back is doing so lovingly. But it is working with outdated information.
The degrees of rapport are a perpetuity. The more we build rapport, the more the individual will open up to us. In fact, more often than not, I find that building rapport by listening intently, allows the inner child to reveal their thoughts to you.
It starts to think “Ah … maybe this person understands. Maybe I can speak with them.”
Once it is revealed, we start to find ways in which we can communicate to the younger version of them and give them new information. Such as; helping them recognize that they have survived all these years. Or, that mum and dad will eventually come to their aide in 60 minutes … Or even present an image of that person hanging out and enjoying having friends in the future (however limited), so that the younger version can see that it eventually is safe.
New sets of more positive emotions are collapsed along with a new set of neural connections.
These then trigger a form of myelination, so that new choices can be made without being a perceived threat to the system. As my teacher Carl Buchheit said, “It is about adding new choices to their life’s menu. Human beings will always do the best they can with the information they have.”
That means, if in this example, the 3 or 4 year-old knows mum and dad will eventually come get them, and they will in the future (and already have, actually) have friends to hang out with … he might not decide his is all alone. He might calm down, with the knowing that someone is going to show up very soon.
Just this one tweak can make all the difference. Throughout all space and time for that individual!
Everyone’s position is unique of course. And more often than not, is much more complicated than the example I have just shown you. Which is why, I believe the magic of this change work is the journey of self-exploration that is made available for clients in a private setting.
And more importantly, the process of facilitating the client in his or her exercising of creational authority to make new choices about who they are, their relationship with others, and their relationship with life itself.
When we realize that all human beings are truly doing the best they can, we don’t have to force them to change. Or try to have them overcome themselves in order to get the change they want. We simply need to acknowledge, include and offer revision to the parts of them that are resisting change in life.
I hope this written piece has offered you a rich number of perspectives to dwell upon. And that the insights trigger your journey of understanding self–offering the possibility that you explore kind and beautiful ways to get change in your life.
The Delphic oracle says, “Know thyself.”
I want to add another line to that,
“Be kind to thyself.”
Rapid change can happen gracefully and gently. Especially when we respect and appreciate all aspects of self. My sense is, this is the truest definition of ending the war within.
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- 1 Rakic, P. (January 2002). “Neurogenesis in adult primate neocortex: an evaluation of the evidence”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 3 (1): 65–71.doi:10.1038/nrn700. PMID 11823806.
- The Leadership Brain for Dummies by Marilee B. Sprenger. (http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-your-brain-controls-your-attention.html).
- 12 Amazing Facts About Your Brain by John Assaraf. A study published in Clinical Psychology Review suggests that, when you practice a variety of specific brain related activities you have the ability to transform your health, finances, career and relationships. http://blog.myneurogym.com/12-amazing-facts-about-your-brain/#.Vq9YweYzIZ4
- The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg.
-  If you were to write out the potential of your brain based on the number of connections your brain could make, it would take you 75 years just to write out the zeros in that equation.” John Assaraf, Having it All.
-  White Matter Matters by Douglas Fields, PhD (Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institutes of Health, NICHD, in Bethesda), Scientific American, Feb 4th, 2008.
-  Astrocytes Promote Myelination in Response to Electrical Impulses. T. Ishibashi et al. in Neuron, Vol. 49, No. 6, pages 823–832; March 16, 2006.
-  Beliefs are nothing more than the neural network, or the neural pathway in the brain that you create.
- The amygdala is part of the midbrain and is an almond shaped tissue that responsible for processing emotions.