I wrote a Brain Blog for ten days and now I’ve moved this blog into the next phase of exploration.
I’ll do this in the more traditional blog format of putting the most recent entry at the top, rather than the way the first 10 days is structured.
Tuesday 17th April
All the things that brought us here aren’t necessarily going to help us get any further. Our brains and our bodies are built for survival. (I know they’re the same thing, my brain is part of my body but if I said our bodies you might think I’m meaning just the body, arms, legs torso etc)
Survival these days is unrecognizably different from how survival looked, sounded felt and smelt in all the hundreds and thousands of years leading up to these days.
If one of our ancestors were plonked in the middle of our life today they’d go APE as in nuts. The Threat and Reward circuits that our brains are built to respond to would go into the red, danger zone on the maximum input dial. So it’s not surprising that we’re all, as Ruby Wax puts it – Frazzled!
We live in such big groups now. Millions of people. We cope with this by zoning out and by believing the stories, the myths of society are written in stone. Absolute. Not made up at all but actual solid FACT. Money is an obvious example of a universal myth everyone believes in. It used to be God. If we stopped believing in that, well the society that would emerge from that is unimaginable to us. Much like the society we’ve created now is unimaginable to our distant and not so distant ancestors.
It wasn’t that long ago it was the common and perfectly normal response to just Bop someone on the head if you didn’t like them. And I’m not just talking about Cavemen. Skulls examined from the Middle Ages in London showed 1 in 4 male skulls had, at some point, been bopped on the head and it had either killed them or left significant scarring. Knife crime aside, how come being bopped on the head isn’t the norm anymore. Have we evolved? Have we advanced in our response and behaviour?
It wasn’t that long ago, during an epidemic of Cholera we looked at the line and saw that everyone on that side of the line was dying of Cholera and everyone on this side of the line wasn’t. The line in question was the pipe line where we poured raw sewage into the river that the people on that side, downstream then drank and the people on this side, upstream, didn’t.
Someone said “Hang on a minute, it’s just a thought but maybe it’s not such a good idea to pour sewage into the river.” In much the same way as we’re realising it might not be such a good idea to fill the oceans with plastic.
It takes a while for our collective brains to figure these things out. By taking our brain functions outside the body, into AI, maybe we’ll speed this process up a bit.
Oh yeah and I’ve been thinking about characterizing the different areas and functions of the brain. There’s our friend, Larry the Limbic system, who made his appearance earlier in this blog. So now I’m looking into how to characterize other areas of the brain.
I’m also reading around how stuttering is not one thing that can be fixed but it’s an orchestration of different functions or dysfunctions. And this has relevance to other areas of the brain and other behaviours. More on this later….
Wednesday 11th April
I was controlling my stutter by avoiding situations where I’d be under pressure to speak … on command- so queuing, getting to the check out or on a bus, phoning….
I’d become skilled at Word Switching, coming up to a word that was going to be tricky then switching it to another word. A lot of effort from Command Control centre to achieve this
Bluffing. I’ve got a clear memory of uncomfortable-ness, impending bad feeling – when Call my Bluff was on the TV because one of the contestants had a stutter.
Deceiving myself and others
On guard constantly. On patrol -con trolling
Ready to strike or flight
It’s like One day I’d be walking. Running, dancing then the next moment stumbling, limping, getting stuck.
I’d be Blocking. Speaking with a the long pause.
Control breathing, force my mouth to be shaping words, avoiding certain sounds – Then it changed, I changed. You know sometimes if you turn on the tap and run the water over your fingers there can be an instance, a fraction of a second, a millisecond where you’re not sure if it’s hot or cold? The intense signal is transmitted to your brain which is rapidly processing it
Hot or cold water?
Well it’s like my mind was trying to control what the water was going to be and forcing my mind to say it’s Hot or it’s Cold in that microsecond of confusing or even before I’ve run my fingers under the tap.f
I had recurrent back ache. I still have. It can be trapped nerves, slipped discs, quite severely debilitating. One day I’d gone to the sports injury clinic to see what they could do and there happened to be a physio there who worked with the ice hockey team. In fact he was on his way to the airport to fly out to some tournament and I’d only just caught him.
He said it wasn’t my back it was my hip. He saw this a lot in the ice hockey players. if a ligament gets too stretched too quickly it kind of snaps rigid, to protect itself from more serious damage. It becomes hard. It’s like a gold ball in my hip socket. This has a knock on effect on the ligaments round my hip and back and puts pressure elsewhere that knocks everything else out of line and causes discs to slip, nerves to be trapped etc. Releasing the hip released the back. Not sure that’s technically accurate but you get the idea.
Trying to control something that should be free flowing causes a similar rigid response. I’m constantly on alert and my speech is out.
Speech is a river
Don’t interrupt the flow
It’s an automatic system like my heart beating and lungs breathing
How do I get myself out of the way. Give up this control?
Learn to trust the impro, like I did with dancing?
To change what I’m doing I’ve got to ask myself – What’s this present behaviour achieving, protecting ?
It avoids the embarrassment, shame, feelings of worthlessness, anger, fury rage, resentment.
Sunday 8th April
I’ve been going over the same things; looking at how my brain works and responds to Threat and Reward and how that builds the structure of my neuronal pathways and that determines how I’ll react, think and feel.
This week I’ve looped back, or spiralled back over how this all first began … I made a show last year called The Quinn’s Speech exploring how having a stutter has affected me. This led to look more closely at how my brain works.
So here’s the quote for this week – Speech is a River – the title of a book by Ruth Mead which she quotes from Rumi. I’ve also just read Ruby Wax’s Sane new world. and it’s given me LOTS of inspiring ideas. Things to work into this show- The Quinn’s Speech – and mindfulness exercises. I walked the dog with an intention to stay focused on sound and it worked. I’ve been trying moments of extended mindfulness and yes, it’s good too.
Monday 2nd April
I’ve been looking at how my brain is built, how it’s shaped determines how I’ll act, feel and think. It’s FAST! Signals from the external and internal world are processed and acted upon in hundreds of a second. So today I’m practicing S-L-O-W-I-N-G
Noticing gives me time to recognise what’s going on and then have a choice over what I do next. Same as when I was looking at stress and reactions to threat, rather than identifying ME with the stress response [I’m a fly off the handle person or a nervous person or an angry person or whatever] I notice the way the reaction happens and what it ‘feels’ like.
This separates IT from ME
Same with thoughts. If I notice them and don’t get attached and all caught up in them I can recognise what they are and get a ‘feel’ of how they operate. Mindfulness comes to mind. Practice Practice Practice. Thoughts are tricky, skittish, scurrying little critters. I try to notice them, shine the light on them and they’re gone – scattering this way and that. And while I’m noticing that they’ve hooked me into another train of thought before I’ve even realised it.
I’ve just been for a walk in the falling snow and I just noticed sounds, near far up and down and all around. I noticed how the sounds were constantly changing. Thoughts came in – planning what to do when I got back – thinking back over things.
And I’m thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking
It was a Great exercise in Being and slowing down. Now I’ll start planning this Quinn’s speech – speak for yourself show performance project and what about the AI social robots and whoosh! I’m thinking and I’m thinking and planning and planning can lead to worrying, tension and all of that all over again.
Sunday 1st April 2018
April fools day. A joke works as a set up and then surprises with the unexpected. Jokes jiggle us offering up a new perspective on the familiar or commonplace, things we’ve stopped really looking at or taken for granted.
This week I’ve been thinking about
Cholera and oceans filled with plastic.
Oh and Ciabatta. If we can invent Ciabatta and make it sound authentically traditional I can surely re write my narrative and change my thoughts, behaviour and personality.
John Ciabatta Quinn.
This week I’ve been re-thinking how I process Threat and Safety. I read a situation as safe or threat. Well, I don’t- It’s read and the decisions made long before I get involved. My amygdala sends the signal to activate the stress response or the social engagement system. Safe goes straight to social engagement. I look at people, talk to them. Smile. Hello friends. I feel warm, relaxed. At ease. Threat sets off the fight/flight response. Signals are sent. Chemicals flood the blood stream. The sympathetic nervous system dilates my pupils, increases heart rate and breathing, gets muscles ready for action. Stomach tightens. Pedal to the Metal. Vrooom! This doesn’t have to be a life threatening danger. It can be a vague unease. A niggle. A worry, I’m getting Irritated. Annoyed. A rising heat. An urgency to lash out, act.
The Vagus nerve comes out of my brain and connects into organs to send the message – Calm down. Breathing out slows heart rate. Parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. Foot on the Brake. And then there’s the Freeze response. Another branch of the Vagus nerve starts to shut my body down. Opiods are released. Blood is redirected to prevent blood loss if injured. I feel numb, disorientated.
All of this is designed for survival. Trouble is if that stress takes a long time to calm down, to de-stress-discharge, get all that adrenalin and cortisol out of my body. It can damage organs and my immune system if it isn’t got rid of.
So I was scared of dogs when I was little. Really scared. Hysterically screaming shaking and quaking kind of scared. I’m not scared of dogs now but this way to respond to threat didn’t get re-routed. The fast track relay of alarm and response messages fire of signals and trigger the fight/flight/freeze response. Limbic system to Brain Stem – ALARM!
By reshaping my brain I can find a different way to respond.
Intentional brain change.
Change on the bigger scale. The macro view. It wasn’t that long ago during a cholera outbreak we looked at a line and released that everyone on this side of the line was dying of cholera and those on the other side of the line weren’t. The line was where we poured sewage into the river, that we were then drinking. Those upstream weren’t drinking the sewage.
“Hey hang on guys, I’ve just had a thought. What about we don’t pour sewage into the river?”
So we’re not doing too bad. It was only 200 years ago we released it’s not such a good idea to drink your own poo! And now we’re just beginning to release it’s not such a good idea to fill the oceans with plastic.
Sunday 25th March 2018
It’s an hour later. The clocks spring forwards. This week I’ve ended up writing this blog in reverse. Retro-spectively. Reflectively.
Clearly. Trying out succinctly. To the point.
Relaxed – Excited- Stress- Distress
Relaxed – Excited – Stress- Relaxed
Larry, the Limbic system was not happy. Getting agitated. [Using Prof Steve Peters metaphor of Chimp and Troupe] The Chimp needed recognition from the Troupe.
So I – (whoever that is, is still undecided and an ongoing active investigation)
So I listened to Larry, gave him some care and attention. Used the Thrive VRF’s on him. Once he’d exercised That-That-What was irritating him, we faced the world together, Larry and Me, and got the pats-on-the-back we needed and more. Larry likes keeping score and we got over 100 likes on Facebook. So even Facebook’s not all that bad, right?
[Passwords come and go but the Data last forever.]
I’ve given up remembering any passwords. This meant I couldn’t (be bothered) to retrieve them and access my website – go through all the I forgot my password rigmarole – and write this blog when I was away at the beginning of the week.
[We’re being manipulated by this Internet like flies trapped in ……. web. Who knew?]
This week I have been looking at the way we talk about stress
Our brains receive a signal , interpret it, send out a response, action is sanctioned somewhere back in that control centre, CIA room from the Bourne films. I’ve already gone into alert. Threat. What we would have called Arousal but that’s hooked up or hooked into sexual arousal so not that helpful, confusing, sidetracking even, let’s call it excitement.
Relaxed to Excited happens before I’ve had time to ——— and think.
In EXCITED everything speeds up and gets more intense, Game On, I’m spinning all the plates at once and its easy. It’s Fun.
Fun turns to RUN!
Plates falling all over, sympathetic nervous system hotting things up. Panic is sitting on the edge of its seat ready to go one way or the other. Let’s call this STRESS. This is when stress kicks in and is very useful to deal with a Threat. Threat doesn’t have to be of the clear and present danger variety . It can easily be crowds, exams, money, people, overthinking, doing something new, these kinds of things can catapult me straight into stress and on into DISTRESS
Alternatively we move from Stress to RELAXED using the parasympathetic nervous system as the brake.
I can apply the brake, gently and in plenty of time, brake-foot off- break again….. I can’t actually remember learning to drive, being taught this, but I guess I must have, at some point, right?
Relaxed – Excited- Stress- Distress
Relaxed – Excited – Stress- Relaxed
It’s my choice and I’ll cry if I want to
I’ve also been on a roll of rejection and failure which has had a knock on effect on old Larry and tested my resilience. I’m happy to say we’re both still smiling
and all the way back to Monday 19th March 2018
I found out today that Ciabatta was only invented in the 90’s and is only possible because of advanced market capitalism bringing all the seeds and technology together to be able to make it. Ciabatta even has the ‘air’ of being authentically traditional. Clever – those marketeers!
STRESS – We’ve been like this for a long time.
Our ancestors in deep history were probably not that different to us in many ways.
We were making bread 100,000 years ago and we didn’t start putting things in fences and doing agriculture till 10,000 years ago!
Cultivation brought culture, civilization
We moved from a roving band, a troupe – to a community, a society
This moved so fast, relatively
our bodies, our physiology,
our nervous system hasn’t had time to catch up
That wave like bell graph of relaxed to excited to anxious – stressed – distressed
STRESS – Designed to help us meet a crisis, an emergency – a threat
We are alert and taking in all of our surroundings
Just walking down a supermarket aisle
would have us climbing the walls
if we didn’t tunnel our vision, zone out, screen out the barrage
of noise and lights going on all around us.
A walk through a city without our blank face would be truly terrifying.
Trouble is we’ve developed these techniques to some extent but our bodies take a little longer to catch on. Those triggers and alarms can still be firing and we’re on a constant alert – react – alarm
With No OFF button begins to damage our immune system and cause a whole lot of other problems
Relaxed to stress to STRESS to STRESS STRESS STRESS
Sunday 18th March 2018
I create this self, this image, this narrative and it’s partly lazily slopped together and it’s partly intentionally and carefully carved and constructed.
There was a moment I remember- [I remember the last time I remembered it and imbued it with significance and meaning] -one Sunday morning seeing my shadow on the wall from the bright morning sun. I realised that was my image. I’ve seen young children of 3 or 4 realise this and it’s cute and hilarious but I was early teens, maybe 13 or 14 and I realised it in another, recycled way.
I quickly covered the wall with paper and drew my shadow before it moved or faded. I painted it to make it solid and felt an odd sense of creation. A self outside myself. A picture, the older it gets the younger I’ll look. Somewhere in my brain there’s a whole team on this self creation that continually remodel and remake my self image, sometimes with my input, mostly on their own.
To understand and embody this means I can slowly, step by step, take control of this process and create a self image that chimes with what I hold fast to.
Wednesday 14th March 2018
I’ve been thinking a lot about some research I heard about, (if I was more academic I’d been able to quote the report or paper!) In a simple choice of this or that, they, the Neuroscientists, have been able to see the activity in the brain that makes the choice 6 or 7 seconds before you, ME, make that choice. All the necessary processing and decision making is going on in some production meeting, behind closed doors that then gets passed to me, to go out in front of the cameras to make a press statement.
So who’s putting the words in my mouth?
Brain Blog supplemental …. another thing that’s on my mind, I don’t know who it comes from but someone had this analogy of how we’re externalising our physiological functions. (Could have been Yuval Harari, I’ll check that one out). We took the job of digestion and externalised some of the process and called it cooking. We extended the power of the skin by clothing so we can go into space and into the depths of the ocean. Look at how both these activities have flourished in their creative diversity! And now we’re externalising our brain, our thinking, our mind even – as computers and AI. This is going to be just as creative and diversely flourishing and potentially much more revealing to who we actually are ?!?!?!?!?!!
Tuesday 13th March 2018
Met up with a friend today to try out some ideas about what Brain Coaching might look like. We met on an open, wide and wild Northumberland beach and walked up and down talking. Then we did some ‘enacting’ coaching exercise but with a definite slant to how the brain works.
The beach turned out to be great place to do this. There’s nothing there and there’s everything there: the sound of waves, birds even the odd plane. We used sea weed and sticks to mark out areas and connect different aspects of the issue we were looking into. In the end it looked like a series of interconnected neuronal pathways!
Elmo, the dog, provided us with a great distraction as well as a living metaphor for the Limbic system. He dug some great holes as well.
I’m not sure who else might want to do this or how to make it work but it was a very powerful coaching exercise
Monday 12th March 2018
Today I ran a workshop on stress, anxiety and brain coaching with a group of Y10 students. I asked them to explore
What does the brain do?
What do you know about anxiety and stress?
What stresses you and how do you deal with stress/anxiety?
We then did some practical re-routing of our neuronal pathways. We pretended to get sad and angry, working on the assumption that the body doesn’t know if you’re pretending and releases the chemicals and electrical signals as if you really are sad/angry etc
[We then did some very interesting work on AI but that’s slightly off the main focus of this blog.]
What struck me was how much they all knew, not only about stress but about how to regulate anxiety. Wrapping language around the actual sensations of emotions was trickier…. it is for everyone! They did identify the sensations though, with a bit of prompting, for both the accelerated, stress response of the sympathetic nervous system and the braking systems of the calming, parasympathetic nervous system.
Sunday 11th March 2018
Last night i went to see the youth theatre I work with put on the play Brainstorm. It’s about teenagers and their relationship with their parents and it’s also about the teenage brain. Very strong and moving performance, especially with their parents sitting in the front row!
What sticks in my mind was the image, the metaphor, they used in one of the sections where they described the teenage brain as being like … arriving in a city you don’t know without a map and not knowing where you’re going….
I imagine this to be at night. Lots of bright city lights and traffic and noise. Exciting and a little dangerous.
This is the power of metaphor to link the right and left hemisphere’s of the brain and the power of the arts to explore and express our interests, passions, fears and frustrations.
Today I’m planning tomorrows workshop with a group of 14/15 year olds to explore stress, anxiety and brain coaching. I want to know what think about stress, how they deal with it and what they think the brain does. I’ll use this to develop a performance/workshop looking at how to coach our brains.
I want to also see what they’re happy to do in an audience participation way. Will they get up and ‘act’. I’m working on the assumption that the body doesn’t know if we’re pretending or not. It doesn’t know what pretending is, so if you ‘act’ angry, it gets angry. We can then name those sensations and feelings and apply the brakes.
Friday 9th March 2018
Some cities are planned, New York is built on a grid system and pretty flat. A city like Edinburgh has the old city, then they just built a new one next to and now it’s all one city. How my brain, your brain, everybody’s brain is built is different, maybe planned maybe ramshackled and cobbled together. I used to think this was fixed. It grew when I was young, a baby probably, then stopped growing and just did what brains do, like hearts and lungs and stomachs; but apparently it’s not quite like that.
The brain can rewire itself. It can be sculpted and pruned and grow in new ways. The way the brain cells are connected determines how we respond, how we think and who were are, our memories, our thoughts, our personalities. The connections between the brain cells, the neuronal pathways, are like roads, back streets and alleyways. The more they get used the more likely they are to get used again. The busiest roadways become the faster and strongest and the alleys and back streets that don’t get used much get closed off and disappear. It a living road map that gets constantly updated and re-routed.
Every time I try something new, change a habit, learn something – a new neuronal pathway gets established and the more I repeat it, the stronger it gets. If I commit to this new way of thinking, acting and being, with some emotion, it gets stronger. But the old way of doing things is quite entrenched and works just fine thank you very much!
I’m slowly realizing I can change. Everything.
Intentionally create new reactions, neuronal pathways, thoughts and behaviours.
I’m planning to go to talk to some school students about this on Monday and see what they think.
THIS IS DAYS 1 -10 OF MY BRAIN BLOG
One day becomes Day one: Brain Blog
moving what was always “One day” to actually starting it right here right now ….Day one
I’ve been reading a lot about the brain and Neuroscience so this is where I write down what I’m thinking and processing. The brain, your brain, my brain, everybody’s brain has billions of neurons – brain cells and how they connect up determines how you’ll deal with things, how you’ll react, how you’ll think, feel and act. You can re-route these pathways and change how you react, how you think, feel and act, how you remember and change who you think you are. I’ve been wondering what this actually means, can I change my brain and change how I deal with things, can I change who I am or is there some part of me that is fundamentally me, the core me that doesn’t change?
This leads into fixed and growth mindsets and the Carol Dweck. I think I thought we can all learn things, become more intelligent and creative but I think I thought there’s a fixed core personality that doesn’t change that is the true essence of who I am. Reading Carol Dweck’s book on growth mindsets make me question this and I’m now thinking that if I think my core personality is fixed in what way does that limit my options, growth, happiness and humanity?
ok so that’s Day one of Brain Blog
What does the brain do? Lungs breath out and breath in, air, oxygen, get rid of …? (have to google that one to check but I think it’s CO2 so I’m adding to greenhouses gases and climate change, yikes! hope I’ve got that one wrong! If it was a question on Pointless I’d say yes, depending on how much money was at stake) Heart pumps blood round the body to bring oxygen to muscles and take the used blood away? Brain does all the thinking? So I know I’m just figuring all this out but it seems like we, the big WE of humanity that is, we’re only just figuring this out as well, now we can see where the blood is going in the brain, using fMRI scanners, it tells us which parts of the brain are used for different activities. I was curious about this so volunteered to have my brain researched and go in an MRI scanner. Tricky lying absolutely still in a metal tube and the NOISE! It goes on and on and on. They were able to ‘acquire’ some data though so I hope it was worth it.
Back to Basics – Living things that don’t need brains are things that don’t move around. (If I’ve understood Susan Greenfield correctly) So the brain co-ordinates all the incoming data, like a control centre, as we move – everything changes. It was like this when I was back there but Oh! things are different over here. I imagine it’s like one of those CIA rooms in the Borne movies, lots of big screens, operatives at computers, some CIA boss shouting things like “Why I am not seeing this?! Come on People!”
In terms of motivation .. I’ve thinking I’ll aim for 50 days maybe even 100! but for now I’ll focus on doing 10 days. That’s day Two over and out.
The brain as coordinator, command centre central!
Messages come in from the senses with information about what’s going on OUT THERE, or messages and signals come in from out interior world with what’s IN THERE. These then get processed and sent to the right places, reactions are triggered, chemicals released, we feel things and act (depending on how our brains are wired up and the sculpture of our neuronal pathways.) We can rebuild these pathways! There’s this thing called Neuronal Plasticity which means we can re-route the actual physical structure of the brain and change the way we think and act. This is not as easy as it sounds. The neuronal pathways we use become mylinated, insulated in white matter, so the messages get sent faster, a bit like superfast broadband. The more we use that pathway the more likely we are to use it. Habits build up and are difficult to break. It takes a great deal of effort, commitment and determination to break and make habits, especially when the habit of always reacting like this has worked very well up to now thank you very much!
I don’t change until I HAVE TO
Break a habit make a habit – If you’re right handed try doing things with your left hand, (if you’re left handed try using your right) opening doors, drinking coffee, walk upstairs with your left foot leading rather than your right – notice how it feels, what do you have to do differently to make this work ? Notice how you sit. Sit in a different position. Notice what was out of awareness is now brought into awareness. It just feels odd! Playing around with physical habits helps me bring my attention to what habits are unconscious and helps me INTENTIONALLY make new habits – build those new neuronal pathways. Have a go!
Tomorrow I’ll look at how many brains we’ve got going on in that there skull of ours
We’re still finding out how the brain works. There’s a model of the brain, called the Triune Brain which identifies three distinct brains. This is a model and helps us to understand what’s going on. Remember the menu isn’t the meal!. We have the ‘reptilian’ brain stem that sorts all the information coming up the spinal cord from the senses and regulates things like heart rate, breathing…. all the things I don’t have to ‘think’ about. It’s concerned with survival and is switched on from birth to the first six months of life. Then there’s the Limbic system that gets wired up and fired up from the age 6 – 18 months. This ‘mammalian brain’ works out how we interact in the pack, how curious and playful we are, how social and caring. It’s all to do with the emotions.
The brain operates on Threat and Reward and when the limbic system is alerted to threat, the amygdala sets off the emergency siren that gets us read for fight-flight-freeze. Adrenalin and Cortisol race through the body and we’re not in our ‘thinking brain’. The cognitive, thinking brain surrounds the limbic system and brain stem and has two hemispheres. The right hemisphere is fired up first then we move into the left hemisphere that deals with logic, sequencing, cause and effect, reflection and language. This is what we’re normally referring to when we talk about ‘using our brains’ or being ‘brainy’. These are approximations. If I think the same thought at different times I don’t necessarily use the same neuronal pathways each time. It changes.
What this means is that I am constantly picking up signals, deciding if there’s a threat or reward and setting off a cascade of responses; without my conscious rational ‘thinking’ brain having much say or much of a clue about what’s going on. I may get a sense or a hunch about something not being quite right but not be able to put my finger on it. My rational self might be thinking ‘I’ve not idea why I just did that’ because my limbic system, (let’s call him Larry) took control of the situation and decided to act in a particular way without me.. John.. knowing anything about it! Thanks Larry, another fine mess you got me into! Most of the time Larry’s pretty happy. You could say he’s as happy as ….. Larry but when he detects a threat – BOOM! he’s off. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing.
So how I became interested in the brain and what it does was when I decided to look at what it’s like having a stutter. I’d got so good at controlling it, avoiding any situation where i might stutter, keeping it so well hidden I didn’t really know the stress and strain I was putting myself under. It’s fascinating to work out the mechanics of what’s happening when I stutter, I don’t fully understand that yet. More important was understanding the constant state of high vigilance i was putting myself under to NOT stutter. It was like Larry was constantly on patrol, alert to any possible THREAT. Every interact was monitored.Stuttering is bad enough, really frustrating and embarrassing but the effort to monitor everything I’m about to say and every social interaction is just TOO MUCH. So I decided to do something about it.
Owning up to it was the first big step. I’d kept it so well hidden. Noticing the sensations and feelings around it was the next step. ‘Shining the light’ (to use a Thrive term) on how I beat myself up was another huge step. Taking control of the anxiety in my mind and stress responses in my body was the next step. Understanding how to keep Larry … happy, easing the pressure to be on guard 24/7 – putting all this Neuroscience into practice. Walking the Talk.
So when I’m about to stutter I intentional notice where I’m getting tense, and intentionally relax my jaw, arms, chest ..where-ever I feel tension. I keep looking at whatever’s going on or whoever is in front of me. (A great instruction from the Thrive Trainer… thanks Coral) I breath, deeply and let the air OUT. Slow it right down. I make myself do the things that are tricky. Reading aloud from a page of writing. Phoning. Queueing then getting to the front of the queue and asking for what I want. I remember going in to a green grocers and wanting an apple but couldn’t get the Ah sound so ended up with a potato.
Day Six – Beginning to be a Brain Coach
My brian, the structure made up of billions of neurons, thousands and thousands of neuronal pathways holds my memories, my identity, my personality and my sense of self.
I was ill recently with some lurgy/bug that turned into uvulitis. ( I didn’t even know I had an uvula!) It meant I had trouble swallowing but it also sent me into a bit of delirium. When I was lying awake thinking over all the bad things I’ve ever done and all the bad things other people have done and all the bad things that have ever happened in real life and on TV I thought hang on! Who’s thinking all this? If I can reshape my neuronal pathways who’s in charge of this re-routing? Can I coach my brain out of these catastophising habits?
I wrote down the monologue. I looked at it in the cold (rational) light of day. Realised this was Larry the Limbic system and Larry needed some help. He was panicking. So I had a hot bath, ate comfort food and kept warm and safe. The antibiotics kicked in, the infection went and I forgot all about being so crazy. A handy trick the mind plays!
(This mammalian limbic system is described in great detail in Prof. Steve Peters book The Chimp Paradox)
Mind you …….. what’s the mind got to do with the brain? The brain we can now see, operating. When I think of certain things blood goes to specific parts of my brain that deal with that type of thinking. So how does the mind fit in? Is it the real or is just something my brain dreams up to make sense of what’s going on. We love a story and a story needs a protagonist. Is the mind more than the protagonist in my story?
I woke up this morning thinking about dreams. I know there’s deep sleep, REM sleep but I’m thinking about the dreams I remember. I don’t know that much about them, what they’re for, is it just a sorting, a filing exercise? I remember hearing a program on the radio about dreams, how up until recently we took dreams seriously, as if they gave us information relevant to our waking reality. Police records show people reporting crimes they’d seen in their dreams and those crimes being investigated, that’s how seriously we took them! Somehow we’ve completely abandoned any idea that dreams matter
There’s that moment in a dream where I start becoming conscious, following the action, the drama, the narrative as it unfolds then I start to think ‘hang on’ that can’t be right I know, I must be dreaming, this is a dream’. I’m wondering if I can do that same thing in my waking state? Take a moment to go ‘hang on what am I doing?’ Drop back into reality for a moment instead of racing off into the past or future what if what if what ifs! Practice mindfulness, meditation, awareness of presence in both states, dreaming and awake. Stop and think. Cognitively regulate before my instinct and limbic system (dear old Larry) get too carried away with themselves.
Oh I know what’s going on …. I must be dreaming.
We have a sympathetic and a parasympathetic nervous system that operate mostly out of our consciousness or below our ‘thinking brain’ Here I am trying to coach my brain, re-route neuronal pathways, think differently but if Larry the Limbic system picks up threat he sets off a whole cavalcade of responses before I’ve even realised it. Messages travel so fast down the HPA axis that Cortisol and adrenalin are flooding my body ready for fight or flight before I’ve had chance to say ‘Whoa! what’s all this about?”
When I was young I was scared of dogs. I mean TERRIFIED. I can remember just shaking, screaming, being hot like I would explode. My parents would spell out D-O-G if they saw one so they could divert me before I saw it and FREAKED out. They actually spelt out D-A-G just in case i could spell so i must have been pretty young. This built a trigger response to danger that became ‘hard wired’ and the more you use it the more likely you are to use it, again and again and again.
I may not be afraid of dogs anymore, in fact I’ve got a rather splendid dog called Elmo, but that trigger and HPA axis Cortisol Adrenalin response is still there. It got all mixed up with lot so of other highly emotive responses connect with stuttering but now I’ve found out about Vagal tone and the parasympathetic nervous system. If the sympathetic nervous system is the accelerator, the parasympathetic nervous system is the brake. Good Vagal tone means i can access the Vagal nerve and calm myself
Long breath out, brakes on, lower heart rate, brake off. Long breath out, brake on and SLOW down. Return to calm. Social engagement. Hello! Can I talk to you? Can I count to 10?
Spot the tell tale signs of Larry getting all agitated and get in there with some regulation before it all kicks off!
I carry a story around in my head. Several stories all at once. The story of who I am, what I do, what I don’t do, how I react, what sort of person I am. Some of this is in my memory, the conscious thinking part of my brain, the part I’m aware of. I make this up but think it’s consistent and real and that’s how I actually am rather than believing it’s a made up story that I’m choosing to run with, out of hundreds of other stories I could choose to follow.
Like switching channels maybe?
Then there’s the emotional memories laid down in my hippocampus that Larry was in charge of long before I came along.
Memories connected to Emotion are really strong
When I’m remembering something I’m not remembering that thing I’m remembering .. remembering it.
And if its wrapped up in a strong emotion – it’s strong and compelling and in my face! I may not always know when one of these emotions has been triggered I might just get a sense of unease, a hunch, a gut feeling. So when I say ‘this happened to me when I was a child….’ I’m saying I’m remembering that I believe this happened and I’m choosing to believe this which means I’m now like this. None of which is necessarily true. None of which is necessarily fixed or certain. I could just as easily not remember that thing and choose to believe I’m not like that I’m more like this
This all sounds a bit hypothetical and I’m really wondering what that means, practically. Look at the mechanisms, how it all works and don’t carry the remembered past/present or future around for too long.
I set myself the goal to write ten days of this brain blog and today is that day. I nearly didn’t write today, I got wrapped up in the day and busy and it came to the evening and, well, it’s easier to put things off isn’t it? But this is the achievement day, the day from that one day to Day One, the reward for the effort.
I’ve started talking to people about brain coaching and I’m going to do some of it so I’ll reflect on that as it comes along. For now, I’m reflecting on what the ten days has given me.
It’s helped me focus and put some of these ideas into practice.
Notice habits. Change reactions. Re-route behaviours. Visualise blood going to different parts of my brain as I think about things. Notice and name sensations. When I feel uneasiness coming in like a chill round my shoulders or anxiety begin churning my stomach. I pause. Notice it. In the Thrive approach this is attuning and validating, part of the Vital Relational Functions (VRF’s). Attuning and validating the physical reactions calms Larry the Limbic system, starts applying the brake early. Then my thinking brain sets off the questions .. ‘What am I unsure about?’ That trundles off like a steam train through the tunnels, runs along the coast, over the hills and eventually comes back with some kind of answer. While I’m using the VRF’s on Larry.
I’m noticing the small things that can happen so fast.