The Little Man Inside My Head!
Posted on January 31, 2014
I apologize for not posting last week. Caught a bug that knocked me out for a few days. Excited this week to be back on my feet and in San Francisco for a Trauma Informed Leadership training with Lyon-Martin and a Trauma Informed Care training with HIV Health Services. Always love the Bay Area!
Today I want to continue our discussion on the mind and brain by talking about the mind as an observer. This observer is a powerful aspect of our human nature, and I believe critical to the recovery and healing process. In the next few post I want us to consider this observer and how we can help traumatized clients regain control of their lives.
Let’s begin by defining the mind as observer. To return to Daniel Siegel’s definition of the mind “The human mind is a relational and embodied process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” The question today is, who is the regulator of energy and information? It is important that we first define when the mind is observing and when, for lack of a better term, it is napping. For this we’ll use an analogy of different “roads” in our brains: the Survival, Thinking and Habitual Roads.
When we encounter a stimulus in the environment, our senses take this information and turn it into electrical pulses that travel to our thalamus. The thalamus decides whether or not the stimulus is a threat or benign.
If the stimulus is seen as a threat, the thalamus directs the information to the amygdala which activates the survival part of our brain. I like to call this the Survival Road. Daniel Siegel and Daniel Goleman call this the Low Road and my wife Sarah calls this the Lizard Brain when teaching her first graders. I like Survival Road because this part of my brain has saved my life many times and I feel like Low Road or Lizard brain does not give it the respect it deserves.
The term Lizard Brain, which first graders love, comes from the fact that we share this instinctual part of our brain with lizards and other animals that do not have our higher functioning cortex. When the amygdala is triggered we activate our flight, fight or freeze response which is instinctual and reactive.
If you have ever been driving down the road and a car next to you doesn’t see you and starts to move into your lane, the thalamus sees this threat and activates the amygdala all in a fraction of a second. The amygdala signals for the release of cortisol and epinephrine into the body, shifting energy and information from the higher level brain functions and rushing it to our muscles so we can react immediately and quickly to get out of the way of the oncoming car.
Think of a time your Survival Road took over. Your muscles became very tight and tense and all of your energy and information were intensely focused on the threat. The Survival Road keeps us safe when danger is present.
While the Survival Road is in action, the observer is shut down. We are limited in our ability to problem solve or interact in a healthy way with other people. When an individual experiences repeated trauma, especially as a child, they have to rely heavily on the Survival Road. This over reliance on the Survival Road strengthen the reactive areas of the brain at the expense of normal cognitive, emotional and social development. Because fear is a constant presence, the thalamus becomes conditioned to send more stimulus down the Survival Road and as a consequence the client lives much of their lives in their lower more basic parts of their brains.
Another impact of living on the Survival Road is that the observer is not fully developed. Habits and reactions to perceived or real stress can become a way of life. While the brain develops strong connection to survive, and at times thrive, in highly stressed environments, the observer (and the Thinking Road on which it relies) is cut off from the energy and information it needs to develop.
The thalamus can also direct information and energy toward the Thinking Road. Goleman and Siegel call this the High Road, and Sarah teaches her kids the Wizard Brain. The Thinking Road is the part of our brain that manages abstract and higher level thinking. The Thinking Road developed later in our evolution. It allowed us to master our environment and ultimately put ourselves on the top of the food chain.
The Thinking Road also plays an important role in calming the amygdala. Think back to our example, you are driving down the road and a car moves into your lane. The amygdala jumps into action and you get out of harm’s way. Once the threat is over your hippocampus sends information to your amygdala that its job is done. The Thinking Road is ready to take over again. This is the observer telling the Survival Road that it is no longer needed. The energy and information can be shifted back to the Thinking Road.
I like to think of the observer as a homunculus, or little person, how at its best it can play the brain like a musical instrument. With practice and skill, my homunculus is a master at shifting energy and information into meaningful and important activities that bring accomplishment and joy into my life. I cram my brain with knowledge; surround myself with people and pets who love me; try to live a healthy life; and when I need him, the little person in my brain can produce some pretty cool ideas, thoughts and provide me passion for the work I do and the life I live.
But I’ve learned he is a needy little bugger! Exercising, great friends, eating right, loving my work and co-workers and of course my marriage to my wonderful wife, all let my homunculus play its instrument with great vigor. But I’ve found this is not enough. I also need to provide him with a space of his own to build his strength and effectiveness.
We build our homunculus, and the Thinking Road he travels, through mindfulness practices. The mind as observer needs to be built up in order to have control over our brain’s structural functions. We are born with only the potential for an observer. Through our relationships and experiences we learn to regulate our energy and information. The mind as observer develops as we gain mastery over all of our emotional, social and cognitive functioning.
Unfortunately, many of our traumatized clients never had the love and safety they needed to develop this observer. Being raised on the Survival Road with fear and pain as constant companions might keep a person alive in stressful situations, but it comes at a cost. Living on this road can make almost anything seem threatening. This hyperaroused state can become a way of life, making controlling the flow of energy and information difficult if not impossible.
The wonderful thing about our brains is that it is never too late to feed the homunculus. Building this mastery is not quick or simple, but we are learning how to utilize the mind to restructure the brain. In the next several posts we’ll explore this further. My challenge to you this week is to listen to some of your struggling clients and see if you can hear any signs of their observer. This voice might be small and barely audible, but listen closely and try to help them identify times where they did feel in control. Talking about the Thinking Road often stre