Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Story-teller in My Brain

When I was a child our family traveled a lot. My father was in the Air Force, and we moved every one to three years, so we would travel between homes. We always seemed to live far away from my grandparents, so during summers we would make the long trek back to California. When we lived in Spain, my parents were courageous enough to take seven children and my grandmother camping through Europe for a month each summer to connect with the history and culture of those countries.

We were normal children being given incredible opportunities. But as normal children we would often become bored and start bickering. My mother, at her wits end at times, turned to story-telling. She would tell the most magical and fantastic stories, with us kids as the heroes and heroines, of course. Her stories would spellbind us into a quiet, peaceful, cooperative state of mind. All of us children hold her stories as a very special part of our childhood.

Over the past year, as I've added the treatment of neurofeedback to my practice, I've been studying and learning about the anatomy, physiology, and overall processes of the brain. Research on the brain has exploded in the last 20 years as the discovery has been made that the brain has the capacity to change. For centuries the common scientific belief was that once damaged, the brain could never regain what it lost. Once the brain became emotionally ill it could never recover. However, now because of the knowledge that the brain is neuroplastic (meaning that the cells can change function) and that in some situations the brain cells can regrow, there is much greater hope for those with dysfunctional brains.

Today I would like to talk about the little story-teller in the left side of our brains. No bigger than the size of a peanut, we can allow this part of our brain to control our lives. Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., described it in her book, "My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey."

Dr. Taylor is a neuroscientist, and was teaching neuroanatomy to medical students when she experienced a hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding into the brain), that damaged a good portion of the left side of her brain. She was able to experience first hand the progressive loss of function of parts of her brain that she had been teaching her students about. She feels that she was also blessed to have been aware of the latest research on the neuroplasticity of the brain, because that gave her hope of recovery. Even though it took eight years, with many major functions not returning for five or six years, she continually worked and practiced her brain and eventually regained all of her functions again; physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually.

To many scientists still coming from the old view, this constituted a miracle, because once lost, the brain shouldn't be able to regain its function. But with the new research, the miracle was in her never-ending hope and her patient work and practice towards progress, not letting failure after failure get her down until the changes finally took place, and the incredible learning process she chose to experience as she re-gained her left-sided ego mind.

Dr. Taylor talks about one area that returned that she wasn't sure she was very fond of. This was the ability to weave stories. She relates, "This story-teller portion of our left mind's language center is specifically designed to make sense of the world outside of us, based upon minimal amounts of information. It...takes whatever details it has to work with, and then weaves them together in the form of a story....Our left brain is brilliant in its ability to make stuff up, and fill in the blanks when there are gaps in its factual data. In addition, during its process of generating a story line, our left mind is quite the genius in its ability to manufacture alternative's particularly effective at hooking into those circuits of emotion and exhausting all the 'what if' possibilities."

Because she had lost this part of her brain function for a time, as it returned she was able to observe how often her story-teller would come to conclusions with only a very little information. Because her right brain had become so developed because of the loss of her left brain, she was able to observe with humor all the stories that her left brain would come up with that allowed it to read things into the actions and words of other people that weren't actually there. She realized that her story-teller actually expected the rest of her brain to believe and act on all of the stories that it was making up. She realized that her left brain was doing the best job it could with the information it had so that it could survive in the world, but she also had to remember that "there are enormous gaps between what I know and what I think I know. I learned that I need to be very wary of my story-teller's potential for stirring up drama and trauma."

Dr. Taylor also realized that as her left brain manufactured stories that it promoted as truth, it would also repeat those stories over and over again, creating loops of thought that didn't want to quit. She realized that before her stroke these loops of thought often ran rampant and she found herself habitually imagining devastating possibilities. She realized that we "need to tend carefully the garden of [our] minds. Without structure, censorship, or discipline, our thoughts run rampant on automatic. Because we have not learned how to more carefully manage what goes on inside our brains, we remain vulnerable to not only what other people think about us, but also to advertising and/or political manipulation."

Dr. Taylor said that this story-teller part of our brain has the potential to be mean, worry incessantly, or be verbally abusive to self and others. It could be stubborn, arrogant, sarcastic, and/or jealous. It held the capacity to be a sore loser, hold a grudge, tell lies, and even seek revenge. This small piece of her brain could bring her into a downward spiral, that caused her chest to feel tight, her blood pressure rise, and increase the tension in her brow which gave her a headache.

She found that it was a choice whether to believe these stories and allow them to play their loop or not. She found that at times it was a constant effort to tend to the thoughts that would come and latch hold upon her, to "step to the right," (use the right hemisphere to see the situation with compassion towards herself and others), and to change her mind. But in making that constant effort, she was able to control her thoughts and keep herself in a more peaceful place than she had been before her stroke. "I wanted to leave behind any of my old emotional circuits that automatically stimulated the instant replay of painful memories. I have found life to be too short to be preoccupied with pain from the past."

Studies show that emotions, when they are not held onto, enter, affect the body, and leave in 90 seconds. She realized that she had no control over this thought/emotion for 90 seconds. So she consciously chose to feel that emotion, let it wash over her, internalize it for 90 seconds, but not act on it or lash out because of it. Then, if it lasted more than 90 seconds, it had become her choice to allow it to continue. This is when the story-teller would take over. So, at this point, she would thank it for expressing itself, and tell it to move on and out of her body, that she no longer needed it.

She began to treat her thoughts as children, teaching them what is appropriate and not appropriate. When they would latch onto painful or fearful thoughts and not let go, she would tell them that their time was up and they would have to leave. If there was a loop that was hard to break, she would give that loop a time limit when it could fully express itself and feel all it wanted, but then it would have to stop. She would set a time daily, like from 9:00 to 9:30 p.m., where that story-teller could tell all it's stories and get everything out, and then it would have to stop.

Again, this took constant effort and attention to the thoughts that were coming and emotions she was feeling. The effort to change the mind takes observation and practice. Otherwise the story-teller will take control and rule the mind and body, and the peace we seek will be impossible to find. But the rewards of such effort are tremendous. Every little bit of change and practice has a positive effect. Every bit of patience at repeated failure makes changes. Every thought of love and compassion works towards quieting our out-of-control story-teller. The story-teller has a purpose, to assist us in surviving when we don't have all of the data, but when it takes control, it can remove love from our existance.

Dr. Taylor concludes, "Nowadays, I spend a whole lot of time thinking about thinking just because I find my brain so fascinating. As Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' There has been nothing more empowering than the realization that I don't have to think thoughts that bring me pain. Of course there is nothing wrog with thinking about things that bring me pain as long as I am aware than I am choosing to engage in that emotional circuitry. At the same time, it is freeing to know that I have the conscious power to stop thinking those thoughts when I am satiated. It is liberating to know that I have the ability to choose a peaceful and loving mind (my right mind), whatever my physical or mental circumstances, by deciding to step to the right and bring my thoughts back to the present moment."

This concept has been a major part of my work as a physician: to assist people in changing their minds by changing their thoughts and emotions. It is possible to be different than we have always been, once we start doing the work, dealing with the pain of the past and letting it go, realizing we have no control over the future and letting it go, trusting that as we stop believing our story-teller that more compassion, peace and love will come into our hearts and we will be more open to doing what is for the highest good.

To me, this work is the purpose of our lives. We are here to learn to be like God, who is Love. As we change our minds, with patience and practice, those changes can become permanent and our own lives more peaceful and loving. And each one of us that changes allows others to change, and our personal ripple effect changes the energy of the world. This is the work of a lifetime, so we can afford to be patient with ourselves.

Until we meet again,
Dr. Judi


D said...

That was fascinating to learn about the brain. Thanks.

emily said...

Love to read your thoughts and discoveries. And am so grateful for your pursuit in finding treatments to help people.

Marci said...

I really enjoyed this post and I think it will be beneficial info for me and my family. Thanks!