This is your brain on fear


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When I was a kid there were these cheesy public service ads on TV featuring a frying pan with eggs sizzling and the tag line, “this is your brain on drugs.”  This dramatic commercial failed to convince many young people to abstain from drug experimentation as they witnessed friends smoke pot and then NOT become comatose zombies (or edible breakfast products).

Drugs do in fact kill brain cells (as well as causing all manner of pesky health and legal problems) and I do not recommend them.  Let’s all strive to keep as many brain cells as we can; There are so very many fascinating things to learn over the course of a lifetime, why limit our capacities with needless neuron death?    

Speaking (okay typing) of brains, have you ever stopped to think about this ridiculously giant brain we humans have?  Neurological research estimates that we use three to five percent of our brain’s potential—Einstein is said to have used a good seven percent.  Kind of turns that old saw about giving “one hundred percent” on its–can’t resist the pun—head, eh?   Instead try encouraging yourself, your kids and your employees to, “give six percent!”   Let them look at you like you are crazy.  Because now you know:  It only sounds like an underachiever’s motto.

As toddlers we average 100 billion brain cells, but by the time we reach maturity (for some this is more of an “if” than a “when”) we have 10 billion brain cells left.  This means that over time we experience a 90% reduction in neural potential!  Yikes! 

Not to worry folks:  you still have ten billion brain cells, each wired to ten thousand of their closest neighbors.  What happened to the other ninety billion?  They were pruned.  Much like an arborist will study a tree and lop off its least useful branches; our brains act like self-regulating plants and prune or remove brain cells in areas that are not productive. 

Why does the freakishly giant human brain do this?  For the same reason you do not take piano, Chinese, calligraphy, boxing, french cooking, pottery, belly dancing, underwater basket weaving and public speaking classes all in the same week:  The development of competence requires focus.  As you develop excellence in any area of life, the neurons, or brain cells corresponding to that particular area of skill fire and wire together in a dense complex net that allows recognition, meaning, and response. 

Imagine for a moment the brain of Michael Phelps,  the Olympic swimmer who practically needed a truck to haul away his gold medals.  Let’s compare and contrast his brain and mine (this is purely hypothetical and no post-mortem forensic brain analysis was performed for the creation of this blog): Put me in front of a swimming pool and I’ll look around for my children, locate the lifeguard and then find a dry spot on the bleachers to read a book on the sidelines while they swim.  My brain goes: swimming-kids-ensure safety-read a book.  Put Michael Phelps in front of a swimming pool and he registers the distance between the walls, estimates the strokes he will have to swim, the point at which he will need to begin his underwater flip, who else is in the water and what their presence means to his competition, meanwhile the muscles on his back tense in correspondence with his anticipatory thinking.  His right-hemisphere neural network is highly developed for swimming. 

How does this relate to trauma?  Glad you asked!   Trauma acts as a “system override” on your brain: it tells your brain,

                “Emergency!  Emergency!  Put all your attention here!” 

When we are experiencing a trauma our gastrointestinal juices literally dry up in order to make maximum energy available to our limbs for running away or fighting.  Our muscles tense in preparation for flight or fight.  Our red blood cells create excess platelets so that if we are cut during fighting we are less likely to bleed to death! 

Guess what the brain is NOT doing during a trauma?  Thinking.  More specifically, it is not making sense of the situation, thinking about the other person’s humanity and feelings, finding a middle path between our own wants and needs and the wants and needs of the other person. 

Instead the brain is saying,

                “I will die if I don’t get my way!”                                   

And once upon a time, this was true and therefore vitally important to believe.  You would die if you didn’t get food and it was the middle of the winter and the last caribou your clan hunted was picked to the bone and the spring greens were not yet growing.  If there was someone in the clam holding back some grub and you didn’t get any, you would starve to death.  This sense of urgency and self importance that accompanies stress was once a vital ingredient that kept our ancestors alive in desperate times.

Now go look in the mirror.  Do you have a pronounced frontal lobe?  Do your knuckles meet your knees while walking?  Does your forehead stick out over your eyes like an upper cabinet?  If so, please report to your nearest natural history museum.  If not, try this instead:  Pay attention to your feelings of desperation and urgency when you have an unmet want or need.  Notice it and use some self-talk to tone it down.

                “I would like but I do not need…”  is a mighty fine place to shift your self-talk in a non-primal direction.  As soon as you remove the urgency from your mind some of those ten billion ready and waiting brain cells can come back on-line again and help you navigate whatever challenge you are facing.   

And if all else fails, take a tip from that old anti-drug commercial of my youth:  go fry yourself up some eggs and a side of bacon.  Protein does in fact soothe feelings of desperation as it reminds our primitive and survival-obsessing brains that we are going to live.