Tag Archives: brain research

Night Trekking in Dayton

I experienced an urban “food desert” first hand last week.  As I wrote in my earlier post, this term describes locations where it is difficult to find healthy sustenance. In rural America, “food deserts” arise where it is not financially viable to have a grocery store. In inner cities, these locations appear where it doesn’t seem safe to set up shop.

Instead of wandering out into the sands of the Sahara, I walked out the front door of the Dayton, Ohio Crowne Plaza around 9:30 pm in search of toothpaste. The young woman at the front desk said it would be easy to find, just walk down a block or two to the BP gas station.  Relying on the encouragement of the smiling receptionist, I went out into a harsh ecosystem for this Montana dweller.

My upbringing in downtown Minneapolis should have alerted me quicker, but I was out of my native environment. All concrete and stoplights, there were no evening diners passing by – within a block I realized I was in a tough part of town.  I was kicking myself for a momentarily lack of street smarts when a young heavy set woman in a blue scrub shirt and black pants walked up to me and asked if I needed help. I explained my toothpaste dilemma and she said she was going that way and would walk with me.

Why did I go with her? To prepare for a conference on dialogue and neuroscience I was attending in Dayton, I had been avidly reading about how the brain parses information. Reviewing what I learned, I suspect I followed her was because she appeared unthreatening and felt like an appropriate ally; she appeared authentically kind, she was Caucasian and carried no bag. She, I found out quickly, knew the streets of Dayton. She was big and thus her heft and height somehow made me feel safer.  I could have read the auditory and visual signals wrong — “Don’t try this at home,” should be subtitle to this word painting —  thankfully, I didn’t.

We were on a busy street, yet, throughout our walk, we were clearly the only white folks in the area. Did that make it more dangerous? Debatable. Yet, brain research describes how our senses heighten whenever we encounter difference from our usual setting. Thus, my fight/flight reflex with in full swing by the time I made it to the BP as, “Toto, we surely weren’t in homogeneous Bozeman, Montana anymore.”

Again, the gas station was a busy place with a young woman and her four friends trying to put air in a tire and a few drivers getting gas. The station’s front doors were locked and everyone had to request items through a glass teller window from an elderly Asian man. What would have been buck-fifty tube of toothpaste at Target was $2.99.

If you were hungry, this is looked to be your only option in this neighborhood. Without a car, there were chips and pop for dinner shoved through a teller window.  Walking back with my volunteer bodyguard I learned that she was homeless and that she often slept in a tiny room at a friend’s house. She had lost her fiancé a few blocks before she met me — he and a friend had taken off when she was in the bathroom.  My twenty-something friend was also pregnant and had earlier been raped and robbed on these same streets.  I struggled to take in all that news not only because of its potential personal safety implications, but also, because here she still was walking up and down those corridors.

As my tour guide, she pointed out what looked to be a quick drug deal in the middle of the street, some heavily pierced once-friends (“We don’t hang out with them anymore. They are so immature”) and, eventually, her fiancé and his buddy. Before leaving her to duck back into indoor safety, I slipped $10 for something to eat. Recounting her history, she explained that she was hungry and had missed the meal at the local church.  True or not, she had provided safe passage and I wanted to give her something in return. I told her fiancé to make sure she ate soon, but now wonder, where that might have been possible in that strange, dark world outside my hotel window.

Selfish Selflessness

Note To Self – Always remember how you can still recall your parents’ off handed comments from childhood…

As an example, my father, an outplacement counselor,  lodged this memory in a still accessible mental file cabinet. Recounting the highlights of a client meeting with my mom over dinner, he explained, “I told him to go out and do something good for someone else. It would decrease his depression and get him moving.”

Perhaps this snippet stuck with me that I was privy to inside information about my father’s work life, but regardless, it was sage advice that has come to serve me well.

This week, my friend Deborah, doing something nice for another, sent me a New York Times article that provides scientific backup for my dad’s derivation on the Golden Rule. This seemed especially appropriate to share after last week’s Thanksgiving and the Islamic world’s celebration of Eid — two holidays which focus on the giving of food to loved ones and those less fortunate.

As Tara Parker-Pope writes, “An array of studies have documented this effect. In one, a 2002 Boston College study, researchers found that patients with chronic pain fared better when they counseled other pain patients, experiencing less depression, intense pain and disability.

Another study, at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, Calif., also found a strong benefit to volunteerism, and after controlling for a number of variables, showed that elderly people who volunteered for more than four hours a week were 44 percent less likely to die during the study period.”

So, how do we kick ourselves out of our house of struggles and do something good without an outplacement counselor or parent urging us on?

We can make giving a daily practice like making our beds or brushing teeth. A young woman with MS, Cami Walker, followed this tenet after one of her spiritual teachers pushed her to give something to another for 29 days without fail. You can read her story at her website 29gifts.org.

I had read about Cami’s commitment to give a gift for 29 days and visited this site as she was just beginning this practice for the first time in 2008. It was a simple website, just a couple of pages, documenting what she gave each day and how it might be helping her cope with her illness. I appreciated her authenticity and courage as she faced the challenge and MS.

Reading Parker-Pope’s profile on Cami, I returned to 29 Gifts and was struck by how much positive change she has manifested in the past year both in her own life and beyond. It’s worth a visit.

So, whether it’s just for today, for 29 days or every day, what might we do to lighten another’s load? What simple gift can you give? How can we be selfishly selfless and prove my father right? As a loyal advice giver like his daughter, he’d appreciate that I’m sure.

Practice makes perfect

What is most essential to Buddhism is based on clarifying the mind. If you want your mind to be clear, it is important to put opinions to rest. If opinions are not stopped, then wrong and right are confused; if the mind is not clear, reality and illusion are mixed up. – Hsueh-yen

“Pay attention.” “Be mindful.” “Stay present.” This is standard advice in ancient sacred texts and now in self-help literature. If it is so ubiquitous and so necessary, why is it also so darn hard to do? I want to stay in the moment, really I do, but off I go again.

To answer why I can’t behave, I like to first check latest brain research. As you have read in past posts, our natural brain reactions are what make it difficult to: be calm when another is yelling, listen when we are terrified or stick around when there is conflict. Our brains often take our best laid plans (stay calm, listen, stick around) and send them packing!

It also turns out that it is our brain’s natural story making propensity that keeps us from enjoying the moment. University of Toronto neuroscience researcher Norman Farb in 2007 mindfulness study described our default mental state, which he calls a “network,” as one that loves create narratives. In a Psychology Today article, author Doug Rock explains Farb’s definition as:

“This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself. If you are sitting on the edge of a jetty in summer, a nice breeze blowing in your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and whether you will make a mess of the meal to the amusement of your partner. This is your default network in action. It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating… When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn’t a cool breeze, it’s a sign than summer will be over soon, which starts you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.”

Sound familiar? That’s how my brain works. Wouldn’t be a problem, but I often feel like I miss my life when the narrative mind kicks in. Gorgeous sunset? Oh yeah, missed that because I was thinking about an upcoming presentation. A wry smile delivered by a friend? Shoot, didn’t fully appreciate that either…and the list continues. Life’s beauty passes me by while I am making “to do” lists.

In my last post, I wrote about when I go “mother bear” how it helps to notice what story I am telling myself. After posting, a friend poked me with the comment, “Do you really want to abandon the narrative?” “Abandon?” Well, he probably should have asked, “Could you really give up your stories?” I’ve got great story creation capability. Pick the circumstances and my mind runs worst-case scenarios, develops possible next steps and wonders what I should eat for lunch.

My Buddhist buddies recommend “practicing mindfulness” to quiet the mind. After the “lose the narrative” question and reading the above referenced article by Doug Rock this week, I decided to study on what is mindfulness and what “practicing it” means.

Mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective is basically the idea of paying attention to everything without making up a story. Instead of interpreting what you see, just notice what you can about the present moment. Notice — your breath, what our hands are doing, stomach is saying, your words and how we are feeling. We are also advised to track what thoughts are appearing and regard these as simply, “thinking.”

So, try to pay attention without creating any stories or interpretations for five minutes.

If you are anything like me, you’ll notice how it is ridiculously difficult! While sitting at a stoplight today I attempted a bold act of mindfulness. Looking down the road I noticed a set of thirty new recently installed streetlights. I started by saying, “Just noticing the new streetlights…” Instantly, my mind wanted to add that there were too many lights; how this would add to light pollution and how do they decide the spacing between each anyway? Amazing, given I was trying to be mindful! How knows where I’d have gone if I wasn’t attempting to stay present.

Practicing mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness

Yet, according to Dr. Farb’s study, we can practice becoming more present and that this practice pays off. Daily meditation practice allows us to engage an experiential focus and pay attention. In this mind state we drop the narrative and enjoy what is in front of us without filters. Sitting quietly, back straight and focusing on your breath, your entire job is to stay present. Since there are less stimuli than at the stoplight, you are more able to pull off the experiential focus. Noticing everything in the silence of meditating is like hitting against the backboard to get ready to eventually play a tennis match. Meditation allows us to notice, for how many breaths can we pay attention? With the baby steps of meditation, our brain becomes trained to more easily shift from narrative to experiential.

Nothing new here, but it helps to understand why it is a struggle to stay present and that practice can make perfect…sense.

Going Mother Bear

I remember twenty years ago when our son Cameron was a newborn and my husband and I ventured bravely from the suburbs to downtown Washington, DC on the Metro. He must have been three weeks old or so, as Cameron lay on my shoulder sleeping. A man across the aisle looked at the sleeping baby, I’m sure out of natural curiosity or happy memory, and I doubt I’ll ever forget my reaction. Holding tighter to our baby, I worried fiercely he wanted to take Cameron from me. I probably shot him a look that would kill as I envisioned all the ways I would protect my child.

Mother Bear

Mother Bear

Childbirth had its way with me chemically. Bruce said about a week into motherhood that I acted like I had been hit by a truck OK, not a good metaphor to use with a woman recently recovering from childbirth, but I had to agree with him. The woman I was before the birth had replaced Stepford Wife style while I slept postpartum in the hospital. No, I didn’t become a more diligent cook or housecleaner (no such luck there), but I had become a person who now suddenly would be willing to rip the eyes of out a fellow Metro traveler.

The “mother bear” instinct that took me over was often frightening. I must be honest, Before Cameron (BC), the thought never entered my mind how I might “take out” someone who would threaten one of my loved ones. After Cameron, I began to run scenarios on how I would jump in the tiger area at the National Zoo to rescue my children. How they would have gotten in the pen, I have no idea. Yet as I visualized attacking one claw equipped animal after another, I realized the footloose and worry free BC Deidre was gone.

Around our house in Montana, every couple of years a yearling bear cub appears trying to forage for food. Bird feeders and garbage cans are our usual casualties, but I used to wonder why the mother bears would send off their babies so young. Watching how my mother bear instinct rages within me even though we have grown and almost grown children, I wonder if this early send off is nature’s way of keeping both mother and teenaged bear sane!

With a twenty year old and two teenagers in our family, I am struck by how I still desperately want to keep them safe. I guess I always thought the “BC Deidre” might return when the kids reached a certain age. No luck there. Much to my children’s dismay, the mother bear instinct still remains.

When our children play upon cultural edges, be it teenaged antics or a racy outfit, I notice that I don’t act my best. I want to throw a baby blanket over their heads and take them home, even if they are home! “Guess what, teenagers and twenty year olds need some self-determination and independence,” says my rational brain. Meanwhile, Mother Bear tries to take over, even if her logic on safety is completely out of whack.

Sports are a funny aberration of mother bear gone awry. Go watch the antics of soccer moms. Why might you ask are these women ready to eat the referee alive, find themselves screaming at coach or opposing team parents, or pushing their children to run harder and play tougher? My theory is all the mother bears on the sidelines are internally chanting, “Winners are safer,” and “Great athletes have more opportunities and are thus safer.” Oh yes, and there is the constant message they could repeat that “Athletic kids are healthier (safer), get better grades (safer) and are less likely to do drugs (that will protect them too.)” Our logical minds can find counter arguments to all these pronouncements, yet the mother bears seize the stage and run to sign up little ones for another summer camp.

So, in terms of this blog’s theme, how does a biologically programmed mother “play well”?

I have found three supporting tools:

  • Self awareness – that my hormonal mommy makeup wires me to “keep them safe at all costs,” reminds me to pay attention if I’m going “bear.”
  • Check out the story – When I get a bit territorial, it helps to realize what statement I’m using. It usually that ends with, “…are safer.” It’s then good to remind myself that it’s not always true that kids who get straight A’s are safer for example. What’s the story I’m using? Is it appropriate? Is it fair to my children?
  • Be compassionate – I often dislike how wishing to create safety creates fear-based reactions. I want to support self-determination, creativity and independence in my children, so worry, inadvertent fussing or nagging rarely pleases me. But, I’m still a mother. Get between a grizzly and her cub and you’ll be in trouble. That my claws come out from time to time is only natural. Being kind to myself is better for all involved.

Once out of my childhood house, but “Before Cameron,” I was always confused by my mother’s reactions when I’d periodically visit. Going out with friends, she would be worried if I returned late or struggled over choosing a new job direction. I would remark how silly it was how I could travel all over the country and live thousands of miles away and it didn’t bother her at all, but at home I needed a curfew. Now twenty years AC, I understand entirely. Mother bears become just that when their cubs drop by, whatever their age!

Helping Yourself to Happiness

Last Monday, I met a sincerely happy young mother who had recently been laid off from a well-paid job in the computer industry. She shared that after losing the position her sleep had vastly improved and she was elated to have time to pursue her dreams. She called herself “The Upside of a Down Economy.” With a severance package to cushion the transition and pay for mediation training, Ms. “Upside” was providing her services as a volunteer in small claims court.

Meanwhile, a lead article in the New York Times just a few days earlier began, “Anne Hubbard has not lost her job, house or savings, and she and her husband have always been conservative with money. But a few months ago, Ms. Hubbard, a graphic designer in Cambridge, Mass., began having panic attacks over the economy, struggling to breathe and seeing vivid visions of “losing everything,” she said. She ‘could not stop reading every single economic report,’ was so ‘sick to my stomach I lost 12 pounds.’ The article explains how many are struggling with sleeplessness, anxiety or depression from riding the uncertain financial markets. 

So is the new mediator mom somehow superior to Ms. Hubbard? Why are some people fairing better than others? There are surely a number of factors like a severance packages, spousal income, or the relief of finally losing a job (“The other shoe dropping” so to speak) that can increase security. Yet, how are some people truly happy while old sustaining structures crumble around them? 

Turns out there may be tricks to help us cope, which I’m suspicious Ms. “Upside” employs.  In the attached video, Daniel Gilbert presents some fascinating research on we can train ourselves to be joyful, regardless of our circumstances. By synthesizing happiness, we can more readily adjust to changing times whether or not they bring natural causes for joy. 

So, if it is the best of all possible times or the worst, Dr. Gilbert suggests we can adopt important attitudinal shifts to buoy our spirits and increase our chances for survival.  Thus, I hope you “like” my video choice…and the week ahead!