The Power of Your Past

The art of recalling, reclaiming, and recasting.

Paul McCartney and Jaak Panksepp

The Ancient Yesterdays the Rats Reveal

(Note: this blogger took some time off to get a lot of papers done for graduate school. It is good to be back)

Paul McCartney carries around the past with him, gracefully. All us boomers, the Caucasian ones the most, remember the Fab Four, and Paul can talk about the old days one moment, and the next go do a version of “Hey Jude” for millions watching the opening of the 2012 Olympics. Thank you, Paul. You were the one who wrote "Yesterday" of course, which was a sad song about troubles being here to stay, but you believed in yesterdays anyway.

So what of our yesterdays do we carry and why is that important? We can think in terms of three levels that we ought to care about, and many of us don’t of course, because while Paul’s accumulated yesterdays are important, we forget about them all the time with the press of today’s duties and tomorrow’s goals. Much of our lack of attention to our past stems from our poorly psychologically-formed notions and practices. (One is the tabula rasa idea of a clean slate of a brain at birth that I will mention a little later.) I contend that forgetfulness of our pasts is a problem, and that our tomorrows go a lot better when we harvest the lessons from our yesterdays, and most of us agree with that, even if it is hard to make the time to do so.

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So what are the three levels? You will know them. One is your own past that started on day one of your life. The second is the ancestral past—the one that makes you ethnically who you are, although ethnic is a weak word for the many of us with ethnic amnesia and who think of ourselves pretty generically as modern Americans, or Brits, or Brazilians, without a sense of tradition. (I count myself in this modern group by the way, as my German-Irishness was of no consequence to me most of my adult life.) And the third level is our shared biological past. This is where Panksepp, the affective neuro-scientist and master at studies with rats, who has rattled (no pun intended, mainly) the world of psychology, comes in. More on him in minute.

We of course carry around our pasts with us. Take a look at some previous blog posts here if you want to read about why the first level of our past, the one that started on day-one, breath-one of your life, is important. Your past has energy for you to use and values for you to harvest, and also—and this is a big also—mistake-laden carry-over thoughts that need to be re-worked if you hope to move ahead to your most meaningful life.

I leave our ancestral pasts to another post, but here are thoughts about our biological past, and this is where Panksepp comes in. Our biological past cannot be ignored. It is the source of the major energies in your life with which we must contend. These energies are biologically wired into our nervous systems and we need to work with them if we want to really know who we are and how to grow.

When Paul was thinking about a break-up with a love in "Yesterday," he was working with one of the primal energies of the biological pasts—caring. Panksepp shows (Affective Neuroscience) that the tabula rasa idea, the clean-slate, blank-mind image for our minds that was fundamental to decades of psychology, is not just not true, it is spectacularly false. Freud and most moderns were fond of this notion and thought that each brain comes into the world ready to be programmed for its life by the environment it encounters. That works of course to some degree. For example, there is enough plasticity in the neo-cortex for my six-year-old, Bulgarian-born orphan grandson to move to Ohio at age five and to totally acclimate to his new surroundings within months. But the plasticity is far from total. We are all born into this world with very specific pre-programmed learning strategies, domain-specific ones for language and many different types of thinking, and physical capabilities. This is the biological inheritance from our past that we inherit and which we have to learn to encounter and use.

What are the energies with learning strategies attached? Here is what Panksepp has found: care, play, lust, rage, fear, panic, and seeking. Seeking needs a bit of explanation—it is about motivation and interest. Too much seeking energy and a person may be manic; too little, depressed.

And here are a few truths about these energies: they are variation resistant and universal, found in all humans across the globe, and not easily subject to change, versus language and other neo-cortex dependent functions. And, coming from older parts of the brain, they are more powerful than our conscious thoughts because the neural pathways from the older to the newer are much stronger than the reverse. Paul may sing about a yesterday when you broke up with your partner, while Panksepp is researching about hundreds of thousands, and millions, of years ago when we got programmed to go after that kind of candidate for partnership in the first place.

So what, I have an old brain?

The so-whats here are huge. Like why does CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) not work all the time? Because it is the new brain trying to influence the old brain. Why might we want to pay attention to our dreams? Because dreams are the old brain telling the new brain, in symbols, what could be good for a more balanced life. Why are the neuro-scientists rediscovering Jung and metaphor and archetypes? Because Jung fought the tabula rasa idea his entire professional life, and called the factory-equipped brain tendencies instincts at one level and archetypes as they show up symbolically. For those of you who thought Jung irrelevant, and there are many, you may want to check this out: The Neurobiology of the Gods: How Brain Physiology Shapes the Recurrent Imagery of Myth and Dreams, by Erik D. Goodwyn. (Yes, I like Jung a lot.)

So hang onto your hats. We just went into the labs of tomorrow with Panksepp and came out with some yesterdays, some long ago yesterdays from our old brains, much on our mind. What are we to make of all this? Too early to say entirely, but Paul’s ending thoughtful hum may do…mmm-hhhmm-hmm-hmmmm, hmm, hm hmm.

John Schuster is the author of The Power of Your Past.

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