From The Emotional Calendar

Neuroscience 101

Back in the nineteenth century, it was believed that by feeling the contours of the skull, one could determine the quality of a person's mind. According to the science of phrenology, the human brain had twenty-seven regions. Each region specialized in an essential quality - like love, memory, religion, or courage.

Of course neuroscience, the study of the brain, has come a long way since then. Unlike the "electric automatic phrenometer," which promised to "lend modern accuracy" to the measurement of bumps on the skull, new advances in neuroimaging allow us to look into the brain itself. Now we know where sensory information is directed in the central nervous system - and how that information gets processed. These images reveal that the human brain, with millions of neurons and billions of interconnections, is one of the most complicated and intricate things on this planet. We are still learning how it all adds up to power the intensity and delicacy of human awareness.

Understanding the extraordinary complexity of the way we feel and think begins with our most basic processes: our senses. Primary sensory input from vision, hearing, taste, touch, and temperature goes directly to corresponding "afferent" zones and is relayed to many other discrete places in the brain for initial registration. Smell, interestingly, goes to many brain regions at once through the olfactory nerve, which fans out to bring this sensory information to a wide range of brain areas. To make sense of this sensory input, the brain takes the new information and processes it simultaneously in multiple regions, providing many layers of understanding and context. Amazingly, all of this interpretation happens many levels below our consciousness. We aren't aware - in fact, in order to function, we can't be aware - of the thousands of processes that happen every minute in order to allow us to live in the world.

Every time that we receive new sensory information - smell smoke from a wood fire, for example, or hear a favorite song - we compare it with what is already in our ‘storage banks.' The brain areas that store information are activated by relayed neural input and serve to put this information in context. This is what allows us to become aware, when we smell smoke, that something is on fire. Or to name the composer and the genre of our favorite song.

This also allows us to apply an emotional context to sensory data. When we smell that wood stove, or hear that song, we are transported momentarily into another time or place, a remembered event that is loaded with emotional significance.

The point here is that this is happening not because we're all saps - hopelessly sentimental, longing for days past. This is happening because our brains are wired for survival. Making sense of the present moment requires comparing what we can perceive with what we know, in our experience, this perception means. In some cases, it's a question of survival. In others, it can be about sorrow, or about joy.

The Role of Awareness

What does this mean for us? The fact that much of this processing is unconscious means that the way we feel in our daily lives is often subject to the whim of our memories. But we can better manage this powerful influence on our lives by increasing our ability to be aware of our internal state of being by becoming more in touch with what all is going on. The practices of meditation and mindfulness help to bring our perceptions into our consciousness. Moreover, these practices can enhance our ability to appreciate to the emotional aspect of this incoming data. In my book, I tell the story of a patient who gets nervous and unsettled every Fourth of July. By tracing the holiday back to its associated memories, we found out why. My patient realized that he lost a close friend from summer camp who loved the ceremony of raising and lowering the US flag. When he saw the red, white, and blue on Independence Day, he was cued to remember his friend. This explained why he was feeling down, and proved to be a source of comfort. We were able to expand and separate out his memories of his old camp friend, so that our nation's flag no longer triggered an unacknowledged sadness. He was even able to turn the holiday into an opportunity to remember the good times that he and his friend had shared.

We are all bowled over by our associative memories from time to time. Mindfulness practices, like meditation or even psychotherapy, can strengthen our ability to tune into these unconscious memories, expanding our awareness. What's incredible is that neuroimaging has shown us how mindfulness actually changes our brains. It encourages neuronal integration and enhancement of activity in brain regions associated with interpersonal and emotional attunement including the limbic system and prefrontal cortex. There is, in fact, growth in specific brain areas that occurs over time as a result of sustained mindfulness practice. So an expanded and deepened conscious awareness has been shown to correlate with enhanced brain function- more brain activity, increased neuronal interconnectedness, improved left-right brain coordination, and even, further growth of brain tissue. Pretty amazing.

Mindfulness is a great way to start "forward thinking" - planning for the periods of time that are likely to be emotionally loaded. But trying to become mindful everywhere, all at once, can be a daunting task. Awareness on a moment-by-moment basis is too immediate for planning purposes, and awareness on the scale of a year, a decade, or a lifetime is overwhelming and complex.

Utilizing the Seasons

My suggestion is to take a seasonal approach. Seasons are just right to be able to wrap your arms around and make sense of. Seasons are cohesive and they tend to revolve around environmental, cultural, and personal history. When trying to look ahead and determine how to have a better response to the challenges of life, start with looking at what may be likely to come up for you next season. Develop your understanding of what to expect and why so that you can comfort yourself through awareness. Think about a better way to enjoy the natural pleasures that are in store and manage the difficulties that are likely to come again. In doing so, you will be able to look forward to making new memories and associations of a positive nature. Over time, you can even affect some rewiring of your own brain, reinforcing and developing neural connections that can provide you the bedrock of a better basis for your life ahead. I see this all the time in the lives of my patients, as they go through the long and sustained process of increased awareness. I also see it in myself.

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