.300th of a Second

Posted on February 28, 2014

Is it possible that our society is based on a misconception of the human condition? 
We have constructed theories of economics, criminal justice, education, and social services on the assumption that those in our society are making intentional decisions.  This concept of “Free Will” is necessary to justify our prisons, class systems, and how we treat those in our communities who struggle with mental illness, homelessness, addiction, generational poverty, racism/classism, and many other conditions.  It is easy to blame, punish, or ignore an individual if that person has a choice about their situation, but how much Free Will do we actually have in making critical decisions?
The answer builds upon our recent posts about the mind’s role in the flow of energy and information, and the synaptic connections in the brain which create this flow (see previous posts: Mind & Brain, The Little Man Inside My Head, The Vote!, and The Brain as a Quantum Machine for background information on this concept).  With a well-developed mind that is safe, emotionally regulated, sober, able to meet basic needs, and supportive of social networks (including a healthy attachment template), we are able to control the flow of energy and information within our brain.  Even under these ideal conditions, the mind is still limited in its power to control our response in the moment. 
A healthy mind has about a third of a second to gain control of synaptic firing to replace past behavior with a mindful choice.  Free Will, which we base so many systems in our society on, only manifests itself in a small fraction of a second, allowing someone who is mindful a small window of choice to override past brain structure and associated behaviors.  While there is only a small window, it is plenty of time for a healthy mind, in a safe situation, to make a rational decision. 
Energy and information flows into synapses of the brain that have allowed the individual to survive in the past.  The brain does not have a natural set of high expectations for success.  When someone is under serious stress like homelessness, addiction, or threats of violence, the brain sees success as keeping the body supplied with basic needs, such as food, oxygen, shelter, and safety.  Whatever kept the individual alive, will likely be repeated the next day, and the next and the next, even if the behavior has long-term detrimental consequences to the individual. 
We are not born with a mind that can take advantage of the .300th of a second reality of Free Will.  Through healthy attachments with parental figures, caring social networks, safety, positive experiences, and mindfulness practices, we can build a mind that can override past responses and truly make informed decisions on behaviors in order to create new ways of interacting with the world.  Unfortunately, many of our traumatized clients have not had the opportunity to fully develop a healthy mind that can control this flow of energy and information; add this to the stress present in many of our clients’ lives, and they are left in a cycle of habits and thinking that can keep them in a state of constant reactivity with a sole focus on survival.
I believe that this knowledge challenges many of our well established institutions.  For instance, we do not have an educational infrastructure to help kids build healthy minds.  Teachers are continuously bombarded with changes in curriculum and addressing standards, leaving them little time to focus on building healthy minds.  The overwhelming evidence shows that building young healthy minds through mindful activities can delay gratification-seeking, establish a positive mindset, and regulate emotions, which in turn allows for the brain to learn at much higher levels.  Our school systems are designed for kids who have healthy attachments with parents and have developed the capacity to regulate themselves enough to sit quietly and learn.  Those who have not had this opportunity rarely get the help they need early-on to build this capacity.
The label of “at-risk” or “bad student” may be put on a child early-on, and instead of intervening to build the mind, the child often is punished.  In essence, we are punishing children who have not developed a healthy mind in order to regulate their actions and emotions.  This only furthers their negative self-concept, rather than taking advantage of the resiliency and malleability of the young brain to help them gain control. 
Many of the clients we work with did not have the opportunity to develop a healthy mind in their homes or in school.  Add childhood trauma to this situation and you now have a person solely trying to survive each moment.  This often leads to financial struggles, high risk behaviors, unhealthy relationships, and even criminal activity.  Many of the clients we work with have never had the opportunity to develop a healthy mind and take advantage of the .300thof a second of choice.
As helpers and healers, one of our key roles is to help clients build healthy minds that can take control of the flow of energy and information in the brain.  We provide clients with the insight that they do have a choice.  Recognizing we have a choice is the first step to reclaiming power over our thinking, emotions, and behaviors.  We help build the mind’s capacity that a life of punishment, stigma, and judgment has robbed too many people of within our society.

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