Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 6

Self -Acceptance

Oranges - not quite ripe for the picking - Tropea, Calabria
Whatever about the many reasons we humans can give to the rather interesting and totally open-ended question as to what the meaning of life is, one thing remains certain and that is that we can do nothing of importance or consequence in our own lives if we do not believe in ourselves, if we cannot live comfortably in our own skins, if we cannot accept ourselves as we are.  There is much we can do to improve ourselves  - from going to the gym, engaging in all manner of courses offered by various colleges and institutions, attending psychologists and counsellors to all the creative pursuits like art, writing, crafts and hobbies.  However, in the end, if we fail to accept ourselves we certainly will be very unhappy indeed.  Whatever life is about; whatever theories or philosophies we may advance to explain it; whatever we may do in life by way of jobs and lifestyles, in the end it all boils down to surviving it as best we possibly can and to developing as many coping skills as we can to navigate the frail bark of the self through both the calm and stormy waters that life inevitably brings with it.

Compassion for Self

As a mere human creature among billions of other human creatures who walk upon this earth I am no better or no worse than any other one of them.  Thinking in terms of numbers can be humbling indeed.  Then put your creatureliness alongside the billions of other humans who have and who will walk this earth.  Further, put your creatureliness firmly in the animal kingdom alongside all those many thousands of other species of animals and ask about your significance in the scheme of things.  Do we humans ascribe too much importance to the special place of our uniqueness as separate human beings?  In short, have we over-rated the significance of the self, the significance of the individual in the scheme of things?  These questions are worth asking, and indeed the questions are often more important than any quick answers that can be given because in asking them we are taking ourselves seriously less seriously if you pardon the paradox.  Because we have evolved out of the simplest earliest creatures that crawled about in the oceans, seas and rivers, we are made from the fragile stuff of the earth, and therefore we can seriously have great compassion for this fragility.  We can further have greater compassion for our frail bark which sails through the many different weathers on the sea of life because we dare to create, to build, to dream and to love even though the storms of adversity blow against us.  The courage to create and to dream against the backdrop of inevitable extinction is possibly the greatest distinguishing characteristic of our human species.  As Shakespeare so aptly put it in the words of the character Prospero: "We are such stuff //As dreams are made on; and our little life//Is rounded with a sleep." (The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 156–158)  At this stage I should like, with the humble objective in mind of rooting the human person in his/her biological or biochemical origins in the flow of life (Professor Paul Gilbert), or firmly in the river of genes as Professor Riuchard Dawkins would put it, to focus on the evolution of the human brain.  


The Tripartite Brain:

While Professor Paul Gilbert does not mention Paul D. MacLean (1913 – 2007) by name, he does mention his theory of the evolution of the brain, viz., the development of the tripartite or triune brain.  MacLean was an American physician and neuroscientist who made significant contributions in the fields of physiology, psychiatry, and brain research through his work at Yale Medical School and the National Institute of Mental Health.  MacLean's evolutionary triune brain theory proposed that the human brain was in reality three brains in one: the reptilian complex, the limbic system, and the neocortex.  This proved to be the most efficient model for understanding the brain in terms of its evolutionary history.  According to this theory, these three mentioned distinct brains emerged successively in the course of evolution and now co-inhabit the human skull.

(a) The reptilian brain, the oldest of the three, controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. Our reptilian brain includes the main structures found in a reptile's brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum. The reptilian brain is reliable but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive.  It is the most ancient of the brains. It has two hemispheres, just like the neocortex, and it may be that they relate functionally to the left and right hemispheres of the neocortex. It consists of the upper part of the spinal cord and the basal ganglia, the diencephalon, and parts of the midbrain - all of which sits atop the spinal column like a knob in the middle of our heads.

Dr. Suzanne LaCombe, on her webpage puts it this way:

The reptilian brain is located in the brain stem and both terms are used synonymously. Phylogenetically-speaking, it was the first part of the modern brain to develop in human evolution. It operates behind the scenes, regulating our survival needs: food, oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure and reproduction, among many others. The brainstem is like a bodyguard who's always watching your back, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats. The reptilian brain also decides whether you will move into fight or flight. The thinking brain is too slow for such an important task. So for example, when a 90 mile an hour curve ball's coming at you, it's the reptilian brain that reflexively jerks your head out of the way before you even realize what’s happening. We can't leave our reactions up to the thinking side of the brain. We'd still be back there lying on the playing field wondering what happened and how we got that lump on the head! When you think of your "instincts" think, reptilian brain. It's responsible for our survival related functions like:

•breathing


•digestion


•circulation


•elimination


•temperature


•fight or flight


•movement, posture and balance.  (See this link: My Shrink )
As a Resource and Learning Support Teacher with some background in counselling I am engaged in running anger management. anxiety management and EBD groups at school.  Students with all manner of behavioural problems like ADD, ADHD and ODD are working out of this ancient brain.  I also have the privilege of teaching a sixteen year old boy with Asperger's Syndrome and OCD.  Undoubtedly OCD is rooted in the ancient Reptilian brain I believe.  Most of our basic drives would seem to be located there.  Indeed, MacLean contended that the reptilian complex was responsible for species typical instinctual behaviours involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays.  Once again here I find Dr Lacombe's insights interesting and indeed helpful:

 
The reptilian brain is an ancient beast. It was developed over 100 million years ago. The higher brain or the neocortex came along a mere 40,000 years ago. So, when the reptilian brain is on alert, it's pretty hard for a youngster like our neocortex to tell a 100 million year old brain to behave! One of the insights we've learned from body psychotherapy is that hardship in counseling is needlessly provoked if the reptilian brain isn't calmed down first. That is, it's very difficult to dig into our psyche (e.g. and explore childhood issues) when the reptilian brain is calling the shots.  However, when the nervous system is regulated and balanced, it far easier to move through our emotions.  Emotionally triggering material will be that much more difficult if the reptilian brain is activated. When you are suffering from high anxiety--by definition--your activation level is high and the reptilian brain is controlling too much of how you will respond to events in your life. (See the above link)
(b) The Limbic Brain or Mammalian Brain:

The limbic brain emerged in the first mammals. It can record memories of behaviours that produced agreeable and disagreeable experiences, so it is responsible for what are called emotions in human beings. The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain is the seat of the value judgments that we make, often unconsciously, that exert such a strong influence on our behaviour. Whatever the merits of the triune brain hypothesis, MacLean's recognition of the limbic system as a major functional system in the brain has won wide acceptance among neuroscientists, and is generally regarded as his most important contribution to the field. MacLean maintained that the structures of the limbic system arose early in mammalian evolution (hence "paleomammalian") and were responsible for the motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior.

(c) The Neocortical Brain:

The neocortex first assumed importance in primates and culminated in the human brain with its two large cerebral hemispheres that play such a dominant role. These hemispheres have been responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. The neocortex is flexible and has almost infinite learning abilities. It is also what has essentially enabled human cultures to develop.

However, it is most important to note that these three parts of the brain do not operate independently of one another. They have established numerous interconnections through which they influence one another. The neural pathways from the limbic system to the cortex, for example, are especially well developed.  See the following link for an excellent discussion of these three levels of the brain: The Triune Brain



Our love will end when 1+1=3:  Graffiti: Tropea, December, 2010
Professor Gilbert maintains that it is in the ancient brain or the reptilian brian that the archetypes, as defined by Professor Carl Gustave Jung are located.  These are powerful innate patterns for feeling, thginking and behaviour, e.g., to seek status, control a territory and find a mate.  Interestingly he also says alliteratively that the reptiles which emerged into the flow of life around 500 million years ago were basically concerned with eating, gaining and defending their territories and, of course, mating - in other words: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing and F---ing.
Having acknowledged these three levels of the human brain, Gilbert argues that we are now ready to see where compassion can be learned as a skill to counteract the baser and more primordial instincts of the ancient or reptilian mind.  In this regard, let me finish this post with Professor Gilbert's own words:

Before we leave our evolutionary journey, let's end on the major optimistic note of this book: while many dark and cruel potentials have emerged from the struggle for life and can live in our minds (as so much of our great art and literature has shown), we are also capable of compassion.  But compassion, too, is an emergent potential of our minds carved from nature.  It is easy to focus on many of the darker archetypes of our minds, and forget that out of that darkness of the struggle for survival and reproduction, out of threat and fear, has emerged our capacity for caring and compassion.  (Op. cit., p. 135)

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