by CHARLOTTE A. TOMAINO, PHD
Question: “How many Neuropsychologists does it take to change a light bulb?”
Answer: “Only one, but the light bulb has got to want to change.”
Therein lies the essence of our challenge. Do we want to change? Do we have a big enough reason to change? The human species has evolved all these millions of years primarily driven by survival. The amygdala is the part of the brain that has been saving us from destruction with an automatic fight or flight response. But now, being captured by our technology and complexity, the amygdala is hijacking us when we least expect it and preventing us from moving forward together. We come hardwired for survival. But, what are the doors that close to us, and how would we rather be in the world when that response kicks in?
If we look back over human history, anyone not being run by the survival consciousness has been considered a saint, prophet, sage, or God. We have the mystics who have left us their own description of their awakening, with instructions for our choices in the journey. Those that brought us world-altering revelations brought us the ten commandments, freedom from the chatter in our mind, opening our hearts to love ~ they each have offered their own lived Wisdom.
In our current age we have a new type of revelation coming to us from science. Neuroscience is helping us develop a consciousness of our own inner workings, and the choices – or neurochoices – we have to access neuroplasticity, to consciously “change our minds”(1) and rewire our own brains.
It is all within yourself in your way of thinking.
Immunology is showing us that the emotions of love and appreciation produce a chemistry within us that promotes physical wellness, where fear, anger, and conflict triggers a chemistry that makes us sick. (2) The evidence is clear. It is the habitually trained neural networks (3) in your brain that shape your perception of reality and create who you will be.
The relationship you have with thought,
with the content of consciousness,
will determine your destiny.
(Your thoughts shape your perception and interpretation of your life)
Evolutionary Enlightenment by A. Cohen
Most say they prefer love, but what thoughts, emotions, and activities come forth in response to our political process, our economic turmoil, or our repeated mass violence?
To truly live from love we each must rewire our own brains by making conscious choices one reaction at a time. We must train our own brains to find a substitute for the automatic fight or flight response that has dominated our species. How many of us have enough love in our hearts to address our own neighbors who belong to the Klu Klux Klan or other more active terrorists groups? Our brains automatically judge others and react to them in traffic, on TV, with our laws, and even with our religious rules which condemn. Most of us feel these forms of resistance daily, especially if we live in big cities or work in competitive institutions. Survival 101: ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’
How do we move beyond survival thinking and bring life choices under the guidance of the heart and soul rather than the amygdala?
“Spirituality is the deepest
and most enduring dimension of the Self,
a type of human consciousness
where the heart and soul
are the guide and source of fulfillment.”
Who shall we look to for an answer to this evolutionary challenge? We are inspired by the saints and sages. Their words engage our hearts and souls, but what about our brains? How can we find the physical alignment with love that moves us forward together, shifts our perception and our emotions, and enables us to act together despite our differences?
Love alone is capable of uniting living beings
in such a way as to complete
and fulfill them,
for it alone takes them and joins them
by what is deepest in themselves.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Now we turn to the revelations of neuropsychology. What have we learned about our ability to manage our own brains, and hence, choose our own consciousness?
First, we know that resistant and reactive emotions shift the blood flow in your brain away from the broader, reflective, creative parts of the brain and you lose access to much of yourself.(4) In other words, you do not have access to your whole brain when the chemistry of resistant emotions are rushing through you. Resistant emotions can make you stupid and leave you later asking yourself, ‘what was I thinking?’
Second, we know that if you can observe your emotional response and be consciousness enough to regulate your thoughts and actions by shifting your state before you act,(5) you will be choosing a higher and broader consciousness that will ultimately be more constructive for you and for everyone.
Finally, we know that asking for guidance from your belief in something greater than yourself opens your brain to possibilities not yet seen.
I don’t at all understand the mystery of grace.
Only that it meets us where we are
but does not leave us where it found us.
There are dynamics in this neurological matter of our brains that we can learn about, master, and sanctify. Science is guiding us to better understand ourselves and not be at the mercy of the function of survival automaticity in our nervous systems. This mastery is in its infancy in our species. Only a small percentage know about it and even fewer do it. The highly evolved minds over history have benefited, but this has not been the norm for life on our planet. We readily kill each other physically, emotionally, and psychologically. We come from a consciousness of survival at the expense of each other. We don’t usually physically throw each other to the lions anymore, but we do it in our courts, on TV, and in our media.
As globalization is now starting to wake us up to the fact that we live on the same planet and what we do to others will come back to us in our environment, our economy, our political policy, and as the right hemisphere with the capacity to see the big picture, not just the immediate victory, moves into its place of leadership, a new consciousness is coming forth.
We are one,
after all, you and I,
together we suffer, together exist
will recreate each other.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
How can we individually choose among the thoughts and emotions that will keep our hearts and souls open to each other as we move through our universe together, instead of being driven by our survival reactivity that leads to dominance, competition, winning, and lots of losing.
“By our fidelity we must build – starting with the most natural territory
of our own self …
We make our own soul
throughout all our earthly days.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
We make our own soul, we make our own brain, we make our own heart by how we think, act, and eat. We know this now: stress will kill you! You can create a heart attack, a stroke, destroy your digestive system, or not. There are many more choices than ever existed before, which have huge implications for the future.
What do we live for,
If not to make life
Less difficult for each other?
We have heard, but do we believe, that what goes around comes around? If we believe we effect each other, why aren’t we living as though we know that? Why is our banking and financial system taking advantage of the unsophisticated? Haven’t they grasped that they will be effected too? As efforts for change that have begun in our lifetime make an impact on us individually, we learn to act differently locally because we think differently globally. The right hemisphere is coming on line more and more to give us a view of the implications of our actions, and better options for our choices. Will we respond in kind or respond in love? In my neighborhood in Connecticut I see bumper stickers every day that say, “We are Sandy Hook. We choose Love.” We are coming to understand that love is the only way.
Evolution is slow, ‘the slow work of God.’ Evolution happens with each neurochoice you make and each neuron you strengthen for the next time. Each time you say no to a resistant emotional reaction you weaken and dismantle an automatic neural network in your brain. Each time you make a conscious choice for love, compassion, and understanding you build a new automatic neurological reaction that will be stronger next time.
Living from love begins with the individual choice to change, like the light bulb, in the present moment, because you have recognized you must be the love you seek in this world.
“We make our own soul
throughout all our earthly days;
and at the same time
we collaborate in another work,
in another opus,
which infinitely transcends
the perspectives of our individual achievement;
the completion of the world.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
- Tomaino, Awakening the Brain: The Neuropsychology of Grace (New York: Atria Books, 2012), 66.
- Benson, The Relaxation Response (New York: Harper Collins, 1975, 2001)
- Tomaino, Awakening the Brain, 50
- Tomaino, Awakening the Brain, 113
- Tomaino, Awakening the Brain, 247
Charlotte Tomaino, PhD is a clinical neuropsychologist and director of Neuropsychological Services of Westchester which treats brain dysfunction and brain trauma: nswny.com. She is formerly a Maryknoll Sister and continues to be active with her former community. Her book, Awakening the Brain: The Neuropsychology of Grace expresses her approach and success in clinical practice for integrating spirituality with neuroscience in recovery and expansion of brain function.
- “To truly live from love we each must rewire our own brains by making conscious choices one reaction at a time. We must train our own brains to find a substitute for the automatic fight or flight response that has dominated our species.”
- “…resistant and reactive emotions shift the blood flow in your brain away from the broader, reflective, creative parts of the brain and you lose access to much of yourself.”
- “Each time you say no to a resistant emotional reaction you weaken and dismantle an automatic neural network in your brain. Each time you make a conscious choice for love, compassion, and understanding you build a new automatic neurological reaction that will be stronger next time.”
- Living from love begins with the each of us choosing to change right now, “…because you have recognized you must be the love you seek in this world.”
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:
“How can we individually choose among the thoughts and emotions that will keep our hearts and souls open to each other as we move through our universe together, instead of being driven by our survival reactivity that leads to dominance, competition, winning, and lots of losing?” Can you identify within yourself the “survival reactivity”? What triggers that for you? What helps you break out of that “amygdala thinking” and into a “larger mind”?
“As efforts for change that have begun in our lifetime make an impact on us individually, we learn to act differently locally because we think differently globally.” Think about the many small and big choices you make every day…consider: am I allowing a global and holistic view of the cosmos and myself as a member of this great ecosystem to effect how I shop? What I eat? What I do for a living? How I treat my neighbor?
“Evolution happens with each neurochoice you make and each neuron you strengthen for the next time.” Do you think about your individual choices as impacting evolution? How might that perspective change your choices today?