Robert Fulgum was delighted that a student brought an actual human brain to show and tell. The students got to hold the three pound organ in their hands. “I have one of those things between my ears,” he said, reminding them that not only does it serve to monitor and adjust all the functions of the body, from breathing to moods, it holds much more:
[It] contains all the limericks I know, a recipe for how to cook a turkey, the remembered smell of my junior high locker room, all my sorrows, the ability to double-clutch a pickup truck, the face of my wife when she was young, formulas like E = MC²… fifty years’ worth of dreams, how to tie my shoes, the taste of cod-liver oil, an image of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” and a working understanding of the Dewey Decimal System…” (“It Was On Fire” pg. 41)
He couldn’t say all it contains, for that would take more time than we have in life, much less in class. Carl Sagan notes the smallest life form, the virus, has 10,000 bits of DNA information to make it work. A bacterium has about a hundred times more. A swimming amoeba has 400 million bits of information built in to make it swim. A human has some 5 billion bits of information built into its cells, and though a liver and a brain operate differently, each has the rudiments of the other’s structure and function within its own cells. Then we multiply this information by another magnitude of organization, for our cerebral cortex, making up about 2/3rds of our brain, has about a 100 billion neurons (about as many stars as in our Milky Way Galaxy), each with as many as a thousand connections to other neurons. That’s about 100 trillion connections we carry in our heads.
Of these, which make up the real you? Freud and Jung reminded us that what we think we know is only a small part of who we are. Beneath and beyond the “I am” we identify with is far more organization and activity than we know. We are organized and driven by more than who and what we think we are. Similarly, others are organized and driven by even more than who and what we think they are. Though we like to think we know about ourselves and each other, we don’t. We are far more dynamic and mysterious than the names, stories, and labels we use.
Just as how a person looks might prove to be far different than how they really are, how a person acts is different than how they really are. Act and intension don’t always match. We best take care when evaluating a person based on their looks or even their acts. “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” goes the sage advice. “How can you remove a mote from your neighbor’s eye when you have a log in your own?” shows insight into our relative abilities. Similarly, the Buddha advised compassion over judgment. We humans have selected such religious precepts because we know they’re wise. They open our hearts and help orient our heads.
That we human mammals have such big heads is central to who we are and what we can do. Fulfilling our role in life includes using our heads fully. I love it that liberal religion uses reason as part of our religious way. This is quite distinct from both Christian fundamentalism and New Age fads, both of which tend to denigrate or dismiss the skillful use of our heads. Old Art Brayfield was right to advise: “Think, and think, and think!” We don’t have big, smart brains in order to be stupid or gullible. But thinking shouldn’t become an idol. We don’t make a god of our rational faculties nor of the scientific method. It is only reasonable to go beyond the confines of reason to actualize our whole human selves. We’re more than what we think. We need heart to heal our head, and we need head to help our heart.
All of this came home to me when pondering the implications of the book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Dr. Daniel Amen. Dr. Amen uses SPECT readings to map out the functioning in our brains. His initial reports are promising enough to warrant further research with this tool. Whereas a CAT scan or an MRI shows maps of brain structure, single photon emission computerized topography shows the metabolism or activity of the brain. He finds that under active and overactive functioning correlates with various conditions. Reminding us “the brain is the hardware of the soul,” he notes something important: “When your brain works right, so can you. When your brain doesn’t work right, neither can you.” This has profound implications for how we relate to ourselves and each other.
Just as our bodies vary in size and look, so do our brains come in various conditions. We have different propensities for talent or trouble built right in. Then, how we eat, act, and think influences how our brain works during our lives, and accidents and illnesses also impact our brain’s functioning.
Andrew, age 9, was suddenly angry and suicidal. A SPECT scan showed no functioning in his right temporal lobe. It was as though there that part was not even present. Turns out he had a cyst blocking blood flow. When it was removed, his normal behaviors returned. All the judging, punishment and therapy in the world wouldn’t have changed him. He wasn’t a bad boy. He just couldn’t function well.
We all know some people can’t see well without glasses. We don’t judge and punish them. Instead, we get glasses. How many troubled relationships, dismal lives, and criminal behaviors are really based in physiology? Let’s look at five arenas of brain functioning in order to get beyond judging and instead move compassionately and creatively into remedies. We shouldn’t blame ourselves or each other for behaviors based on problems rooted in our brain’s functioning, but we can help ourselves and each other to recognize such issues and adjust our thinking, eating, and lifestyle accordingly.
Deep in the middle of our brain lies the small but influential mood control center governing our emotional memory, motivation, bonding, appetite, sense of smell, and our libido. When it is calm there’s no problem, but when it rages, often from former emotional injury, our ability to bond with others or even our own children drops, as does our sexy libido. Our sense of play diminishes even as our sense of mental and emotional pain and isolation increases. This makes us harder to live with.
Yet we can do something. We can notice and change those persistent negative thoughts that tend to both come from an inflamed deep limbic system as well as aggravate it. If you or someone you love is persistently cynical, gloomy, complaining and negative, assert a counterbalance to it. Find and strengthen positive memories and connect with positive people. Touch and be touched with soothing kindness. Exercise strenuously. Take Omega 3’s, St. John’s Wort and L Tryptophan.
Similar to and surrounding the deep limbic system is the basal ganglia governing small bodily motions and our level of anxiety. Type A CEO’s have hyperactive basal ganglia. Lots of drive can be good, unless it leads to constant anxiety, tremors, headaches, and panic attacks. Not letting the blood sugar get low, taking anti-anxiety medications, drinking kava, valerian, and chamomile tea, and smelling soothing scents like lavender, help.
The interconnective tissue of our brain of the cingulat gyrus monitors our mental adaptability. When inflamed, there is a tendency to chronic worry, nursing old hurts and grudges, an automatic “No!” to many requests, an inflexibility regarding food, sex, work, housekeeping, and plans. This can become an obsessive compulsive disorder harboring recurrent repulsive thoughts and odd repetitive behaviors like hand-washing or gambling. In that the condition tends to get worse when demands are made on it, it is better to gently offer other ideas and behaviors or come back later to the issue. Singing, walking, playing, and meditating also help. Eating complex carbohydrates with tryptohpan and B vitamins can help.
The temporal lobes govern our access to words, reading facial expressions, rhythm and music, and long-term memory. When the right side is injured or not functioning there tends to be trouble finding the right words, hearing and understanding, and a tendency to dark or aggressive thoughts. When the left side is impacted, reading facial expressions weakens, as do social skills.
The fix for temporal lobe problems again has to do with building a library of positive memories, singing, humming, playing an instrument, dancing, and chanting. Sleep helps, so keep the caffeine down. A high protein diet helps if the problem manifests as short-fuse anger whereas moody aggressiveness is countered by a balanced diet of proteins and carbohydrates.
Finally we get to the PFC, the pre-frontal cortex. The PFC is our mental supervisor tending to attention span, tact, judgment (as distinct from judgmental ness), problem solving, organization, and compassion. Some people with ADD (attention deficit disorder) have their PFC seize up and go blank when confronted. They are easily distracted, impulsive, disorganized, and tardy, have trouble learning, and can seek conflict to motivate their action.
Setting positive, ranked goals, finding stimuli other than being riled, and listening to soothing, even-paced music can help. Eating a high protein diet with no simple sugars, and taking such supplements as ginko biloba and grape seed extract can help our front brains to think better. Practicing compassion for others and towards ourselves helps enlighten the PFC, building positive influence to counter the reactivity of the deeper emotional centers. The pain of old emotional wounds can be soothed by the kindness and wisdom of our front brains. It takes gentle persistence.
In general, we should remember that in ourselves and in each other there is more going on than we know and sometimes less going on than we rely on. Common to all these disorders is a need for careful, compassionate understanding, not brash, insulting labels. We need to be on the watch for such thinking that drags us down into depression or that makes us lash out in rage. What we think creates bio-chemical cycles, so think good thoughts.
Not taking everything so personally helps. We need to not take every idea we have as full or final. Same with our feelings. Both ideas and feelings are limited, ephemeral things that seem so important or total when, in fact, they’re mere reflections of our emotional past, or current hormonal balance, or entrenched ego identity. Being able to see this and go beyond it to new thoughts and better feelings is a skill we would do well to cultivate in ourselves and help elicit in others.
Also, the tried and true advice of getting enough sleep and exercise, along with a healthy diet and regular meditation helps modulate any out-of-balance condition. Sometimes medicine is needed, much like eyeglasses for the near- or far-sighted. There is no shame or weakness in using the medicines that assist us to live as fully and well as we were built to live.
It occurs to me that fellowship life is an arena where we try to treat each other with more compassion and care than labeling and judgment. Some of us have bad days; others bad decades. Depression, anger, impulsiveness, anxiety, drunkenness, shyness, egotism – all these challenge us to see a needy person inside a difficult behavior. This sermon isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, but it should serve to remind us that good people can be caught in bad behaviors and that there are ways to gently help them. Have heart to help our heads. If we are to be Universalists, we need to remember no one is damned finally and that all are lovable. Even ourselves.
Rev. Brad Carrier
For the UU Fellowship of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© April 5, 2009