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The Power to Create Value and Meaning

When the adult brain regulates the toddler brain

The human prefrontal cortex is the pinnacle of biological development in the mammalian world - nature’s crowning glory. It enables us to look at a tree and imagine a house, and then calculate the steps involved in cutting down the tree, grinding it into beams and plywood, fastening the segments together to form a floor and walls, and then a roof, and so on. It empowered us to go well beyond mere survival to become the only mammals that range across the planet, able to manipulate the environment on grand scales, and create civilization.

A relatively late addition to the species, the prefrontal cortex - or Adult brain - specializes in analysis, sensitivity to the perspectives of others, evidence-based judgment, decision-making, and regulation of impulses, emotions, and behavior. It continually appraises environmental cues and organizes information to reconcile those appraisals with internal experience – thoughts, sensations, emotions, and impulses - in a process known as reality-testing. It then decides on behavior consistent with learned preferences, prejudices, and/or deeper values.

The strongest internal signals to which the prefrontal cortex must apply reality-testing are emotions. Hence the Adult brain must:

• Interpret emotional signals (This is how I feel.)

• Test them against environmental cues (There is something in the environment making me feel this way or there isn't - it's a false alarm)

• Weigh preferences (This is what I like)

• Weigh deeper values (This is most important to me)

• Regulate the emotional signals and decide a course of action (This is what I will do.)

As I look out my office window, I feel a sense of peace within. My Adult brain tests the reality of that feeling and decides that it is accurate, because I’m looking at a beautiful lake, lined by lush trees. I decide to linger with the lake view. But if the reality were different, e.g., there was a storm, the Adult brain would regulate the anticipated peaceful feeling with the more urgent information from the environment, and I would probably check the windows and ensure that nothing important is loose in the back yard. Or if the lake was peaceful, but I felt anxiety or depression when looking at it, the Adult brain would modulate my internal experience to match the beauty of the environmental cues, because reverence for natural beauty is a deep personal value. In other words, I’d remove focus from my feelings, which would allow appreciation of my surroundings. As a result, I’d feel better.

Nature Saves the Best for Last

Not only did the prefrontal cortex develop late in human history, it matures relatively late in each individual. Myelinization isn’t complete until the second decade of life. Myelin is the substance that lines nerve fibers to protect and insulate neurons. It aids in the quick and accurate transmission of electrical current carrying data from one nerve cell to the next. In other words, the prefrontal cortex isn’t functionally “online” much before the second decade of life.

The delay in development between the Toddler brain and the regulatory Adult brain (see posts 1 & 2) makes sense from a survival standpoint. Helpless children must be mobile alarm systems, able to alert caregivers when they need help. There is little survival advantage in regulating the alarm as long as the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is incapable of figuring out how to reduce threat or fulfill biological needs and gratify emotionally-driven preferences.

The downside of late maturity in the Adult brain is that it comes online after the Toddler brain has already formed habits of coping with the alarms it raises, mostly through blame, denial, and avoidance. Many Adult brain interpretations and explanations are influenced by those habits, which lowers the accuracy of its reality-testing and impairs its ability to make viable judgments. To the extent that Toddler brain habits are reinforced in adulthood, the Adult brain looks to justify the alarm, rather than testing it with appraisals of environmental cues. This confusion of alarm with reality is what makes Toddler brain alarms self-validating: If I’m angry at you, you must be doing something wrong; if I'm anxious, you must be threatening, rejecting, or manipulative. The result is usually self-fulfilling prophesy; due to emotional reciprocity, other people are bound to react negatively to my negativity.

Fortunately, the Adult brain has the power to override Toddler brain habits and intentionally develop new ones that serve long-term best interests. The first step is to change the way we regard the negative feelings of the Toddler brain.

Negative Feelings are Signals, Not Reality

All alarm systems, negative feelings included, are calibrated to give false positives. You don’t want a smoke alarm that doesn’t go off until the house is in flames; you want it to go off when there’s just a little smoke, even if that means it occasionally gets triggered when someone is cooking or having a cigarette. The Toddler brain functions as if the smoke alarm is the fire, instead of a signal that a fire might possibly exist. That’s like hearing a smoke alarm and screaming, “We’re all going to die!” We actually come close to that level of error by assuming that Toddler brain emotional alarms represent certain reality.

The Adult brain reacts to smoke alarms by checking out the signal to see if there really is a fire or just something cooking. If there is a fire, the focus is on putting it out, rather than reacting in panic, trying to ignore it, or blaming it on someone. In the Adult brain we pay attention to feelings as important signals but don’t validate them as reality. Negative feelings must be regulated with reality checks (is there really a fire) and plans for improvement (put out the fire).

Reality-testing, appraisal, calculations, judgment, and self-regulation are the tools of the Adult brain. But it is capable of so much more.

The Power to Create Value and Meaning

Value is a special kind of importance that goes beyond survival and biological needs. To value is to make people, things, and ideas important enough to appreciate, nurture, and protect. We create meaning and purpose in our lives by honoring the value we bestow on people, objects, concepts, behaviors, and some notion of spirituality.

A sunset has value if and only if we give it value, i.e., invest energy and effort to fully perceive it, which allows us to appreciate it. While it does nothing for the sunset if we value it, valuing it does wonders for us. The moment of value-creation makes us feel more vital, engaged, interested, appreciative - in short, more alive; life means more at the instant we create value, just as it means less when we’re not creating value. Most positive emotion, passion, meaning, purpose, and conviction come from creating and protecting value, and much emptiness, aggression, and depression result from failure to create value.

Humans are unique among animals in our ability to create value and meaning. I call the innate drive to create value (and experience it), core value. It includes the instinctual self-worth that makes newborns value and attach to caregivers, with the expectation that their emotional needs will be met by their caregivers. Virtually all our accomplishments in life occur through Adult brain value-creation and all our failures owe to devaluing (value-destruction), which typically occurs in the Toddler brain. Consider who is more likely to maintain healthy weight, the person who values health or the one who devalues her body? Who is more likely to succeed with fewer mistakes, the coach who values the skills and cohesiveness of the team or the one who devalues his players? Who will do better at work and feel more satisfied with it, the employee who values her contribution and co-workers, or the one who devalues his job, peers, or managers? Who is more likely to thrive after intimate betrayal, the betrayed partner who values her wellbeing, her other relationships, her strengths and resilience, or the one who devalues his life and most of the people in it?

High value investment increases meaning, purpose, and vitality, with stronger motivations to create, build, improve, appreciate, connect, and protect. It literally boosts the immune system and makes us physically healthier. As value investment declines, so does vitality, motivation, meaning, purpose, and health. You begin to function more on automatic pilot with less interest and positive energy. If it declines too far, you begin to feel numb or depressed. If it declines drastically, you lose the will to live.

Anthropologists report that the earliest humans decorated rocks to make them special. More important, they made themselves special by creating and appreciating the decorated rocks. We become more valuable as we create and appreciate value, and we become less valuable (able to value) as we devalue our surroundings and the people in them.

While value investment provides a greater sense of being alive; value-destruction diminishes the will to live. In the long run, if you devalue more than you value, your life will be pretty bad, even if a lot of good things happen to you. But if you value more than you devalue, life will be generally good, even though bad things will happen to you.

Copyright, Steven Stosny in Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain under Any Kind of Stress 2014.