Posts Tagged ‘Dan Siegel’

Mirror Neurons

Monday, April 30th, 2018

Trailers

Shadow photo by David Jouris

I was sitting in the Mendocino Taqueria waiting for my tacos when a man and woman came in, the woman carrying a three-month-old baby boy who was being fussy and crying. The woman jiggled and bounced the baby and cooed reassuringly, but the baby was not to be consoled. The man ordered their supper and went to use the bathroom, and the baby continued to fuss and whimper despite the tender cajoling of his mother.

I smiled at the woman to communicate my support for her efforts to soothe her baby, and the baby saw my smile, locked eyes with me, and stopped crying. My eyes widened and I said “Hello,” to the baby, and the baby gurgled a reply, and we continued to look at each other for a minute or two until the mother turned away, breaking the connection between her baby and me. This breakage caused the baby to start fussing and whimpering again, which caused the mother to jiggle and bounce the baby again, but the baby was not to be consoled until his mother happened to turn toward me again, and the baby subsided into fascination with me and I with him—the baby’s mother unaware of what was causing him to stop fussing.

When I say “locked eyes” what may have happened, according to recent neurological discoveries, was that the baby’s mirror neurons and my mirror neurons engaged with each other, and this engagement created what some neuroscientists call a conjoined neurological system—the sharing of our two minds.

Mirror neurons are a fairly recent discovery, and there are different kinds of mirror neurons, and there is intense debate among psychologists and neurologists about how mirror neurons work, but what I’ve read about them has made me a devout believer in conjoined neurological systems.

I’m sure you’ve had many experiences similar to my hookup with that baby boy in the taqueria, and I have no doubt that conjoined neurological systems make possible the pleasure and sense of completeness that so many new mothers experience in relation to their babies, the feelings of satisfaction that so many parents experience while relating to their children, and the phenomenon of people falling in love with each other.

I’ve had thousands of such transcendental hookups with babies, children, dogs, cats, and other humans in my life, and now that I have read multiple texts about neurobiology and mirror neurons, I am hyper-aware of how quickly these mind melds can occur when I and my fellow animals are open to such unions.

According to Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, optimal human health—mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual—depends on frequent positive interpersonal brain hookups. Our brains and nervous systems—our minds—evolved specifically to interact with other brains. We are inherently cooperative animals, and when we don’t have enough interaction with other animals, our brains atrophy and die.

This is why solitary confinement in prison is so damaging to a person’s health and sanity. It is one thing to choose to be alone for a day or two or three, but to be forced into isolation with no hope of connecting healthfully and meaningfully with other people or animals or living things is truly terrible torture.

I am a social isolate, not by nature, but in response to my abusive parents who combined individual abuse of their children with aggressively disallowing my siblings and I to unite in order to weather the ongoing misery. This made it necessary for each of us to emotionally fend for ourselves, and as a result, all four of us became social isolates in our own unique ways.

When I chose to pursue writing as a career rather than becoming an actor, I was unaware that my tendency to isolate was the largest determining factor in that choice. I was not a gifted writer, but I was an excellent actor; yet after high school I chose to pursue writing instead of acting because my lifelong habit of self-isolation was too strong for me to overcome. Thus, as Gabor Maté discusses so compellingly: what began as a childhood coping mechanism became my habit, and my tendency to self-isolate, which was my salvation until I left home at seventeen, made group activities much more challenging for me than for people who grew up in families that supported and encouraged the healthy inclination to interact and cooperate and collaborate with others.

Despite my tendency to self-isolate, I have always been a person who other people, including complete strangers, feel comfortable confiding in, and I’ve often wondered why this is so. As the result of some experiments I’ve been conducting, I understand that when I interact with other people, I emanate the vibe of someone safe and enjoyable to talk to.

As the result of my reading about how our neurological system works, I know that most human brains are ready, one might even say eager, to hook up with other brains if, and this is a hugely important ­if, those other brains communicate: I’m friendly and want to interact with you so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding.

Prior to my recent experiments, I must have been unconsciously emanating this message. In my experiments, I consciously think (and feel) I’m friendly and want to interact with you so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding when I start up a conversation with someone in line at the bakery or I bump into someone at the post office or I engage with the checker at the grocery store.

The results have been astounding. Not only do nearly all randomly selected people open up to me as if I am a dear and trusted friend, but their bodies relax, their faces soften, and my body and face relax and soften, too. These physical and emotional changes occur so predictably in the course of our interactions, if I hadn’t read volumes of neurobiology I might think I’d stumbled on the trick of emotional hypnosis. But what I’ve learned is that humans are hardwired to connect in this way if given the opportunity.

We live in a society that produces highly defended people, defended internally and externally. But being so intensely defended is not our true nature. Our true nature, our genetic heritage, is to be closely connected—emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually—with the other members of a band of people. We are designed to be part of conjoined neurological systems.

And when we meet others of our kind and we feel/hear/believe/trust that the other is friendly and wants to interact with us so we can experience the pleasure and fascination of mind melding, then our true natures are awakened.

Being Jewish

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

“The writer of any work, and particularly a nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” Annie Dillard

My therapist asked me if I would be willing to let go of the concept of good and bad. I suppose good and bad might be two concepts, but since we can’t have one without the other, I’ll go with good and bad being a duality. I told my therapist I was certainly willing to try to let go of the concept of good and bad, and for the last week I have been hyper-conscious of my use of those two words, as well as my virtually reflexive good/bad judgments about events and things and people, including little old me.

As an editor of my own work and the works of others, and as one who has endeavored to help many people with their writing, I would say the one word that writers use most profusely and to the detriment of their writing is it. Indeed, if you want to improve your writing in almost no time, take a recent page of something you’ve written and circle all the its and replace them with words the its are standing in for. I think you will be pleased by how much more interesting and informative your prose becomes.

I bring up it because, though I’ve long known and suggested to other writers that using words such as bad and good in our writing is almost always less effective than using more incisively descriptive words, I now realize that in my thinking and feeling and talking, I constantly use bad and good instead of saying and feeling and thinking what I more deeply feel and think.

So ever since my therapist asked me if I was willing to let go of the concept of good and bad, whenever the words bad and good come up in my speech and thoughts, I replace them with words that come closer to expressing the feelings I was trying to express with those more general words.

For instance, this morning I had an email from someone in Los Angeles who was curious to know why my book Buddha In A Teacup is not readily available in libraries in Los Angeles. I did some checking and found my correspondent was correct: Buddha In A Teacup is a non-presence in most Los Angeles libraries. I did some further checking and found that Buddha In A Teacup is only available in a few libraries scattered across America.

My initial reaction to this information was This is bad. But because I am retraining my brain/mind/spirit to replace bad with more incisively descriptive terms, I came up with, “The absence of Buddha In A Teacup in thousands of libraries across America made me sad for a moment, but the absence of the book in libraries isn’t bad or good. The absence of my book in libraries is in the nature of things at this moment in time.”

“There are two kinds of comedy. One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

For reasons I can’t readily explain, letting go of the concept of good and bad seems to be making me more comfortable with being Jewish. As I explained in my last two articles, my recent return to therapy after a thirty-year hiatus has prompted me to delve into and accept that I am Jewish despite not knowing my mother and her ancestors were Jewish until I was twelve, and despite not knowing until I was forty that my mother’s lifelong pretense of not being Jewish profoundly shaped my self-identity.

This delving into being Jewish has prompted me to write articles about my discoveries and share those articles with you. Writing and posting these articles has been exciting and scary and funny and fascinating. I’ve had several responses from other people who did not learn they were Jewish until they were adults, and I’ve had responses from people who have always known they were Jewish who told me, in so many words, “So what else is new?”

And now that I am retraining my brain to replace good and bad with more specific descriptors, I have, on several occasions, found myself being Jewish, which is unlike any feeling I’ve ever had before. Being Jewish, in the way I’m being Jewish, is so deeply satisfying I’m tempted to say the experience is reminiscent of satisfying sex, but that would be misleading so I will resist the temptation.

What do I mean by finding myself being Jewish? Here’s a for instance. (By the way, the preceding sentence fragment feels ultra-Jewish to me, at least the way I hear myself saying Here’s a for instance.) I’m having a conversation with Marcia about the menu for our upcoming vegetarian Thanksgiving supper with Bill and Sally and Sal. As Marcia and I converse, I’m aware of a subtle shift in my accent and the enhanced ease with which words are coming out of my mouth. This shift is so subtle, I don’t think Marcia realizes, as I am realizing, that I am being Jewish. What’s more, I can feel that as I am being Jewish, I am wonderfully relaxed and, dare I say, more sure of myself. Yes, I dare say I hear a confidence, an ease of expression, and a different grammar defining my speech—a Jewish grammar accompanied by a slight Jewish accent and a full-body enjoyment of being Jewish.

What is Jewish grammar? You’re asking me?

Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist who is a pioneer in the field of neurobiology, frequently talks and writes about how the words we repeatedly use/think to describe ourselves to ourselves and to other people, create templates in our brains that dictate many of our subsequent thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In other words, if I tell myself “I’m a terrible singer” a hundred times a day for ten years, I will probably not pursue a singing career. Oh I might pursue such a career, but chances are better I will become an electrician or the owner of a hat shop.

Who knew that letting go of the concept of good and bad would result in my having several enjoyable experiences of being Jewish? Maybe my therapist knew.

Until now, I haven’t told anyone about these “Jewish moments” because part of the fun is feeling Jewish without making a big deal out of being who I am. Which reminds me of something numerous Buddhist teachers have said about meditation, and I will paraphrase what they said using what might be called Jewish paragraph construction, if there can possibly be such a thing.

So you meditate for twenty minutes every day for several years and you sometimes wonder, “Is this daily meditating doing me any good? Might my time be better spent reading cookbooks or vacuuming?” And then one day you’re at the grocery store and some schmuck shoulders you out of the way and snatches the magnificent zucchini you were just about to get, but instead of saying or thinking, “What a schmuck!” you are hardly bothered at all and you send loving thoughts to the schmuck as he hurries away with the zucchini you wanted, and then you return your focus to the remaining zucchinis, and there, partially obscured by a somewhat battered zucchini, you find a zucchini every bit as firm and beautifully shaped as the zucchini the schmuck stole from you. And you are struck by the realization that meditating every day has helped you become more accepting and tolerant and unattached to outcome, and the schmuck ceases to be a schmuck and becomes a human being with a character disorder.

Whether meditation is doing you any good is another question entirely because the concept of good is a tricky one, just as the concept of being Jewish is a tricky one. What’s so wrong with things being a little tricky? Isn’t life, after all, a little tricky? And isn’t Jewish paragraph construction, if there is such a thing, characterized by questions that are in themselves also answers?