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Practice Makes Permanent: Reactive Thinking and the Promise of Rewiring our Brains Through Mindfulness In Divorce!

Practice Makes Permanent: Reactive Thinking and the Promise of Rewiring our Brains Through Mindfulness

Jennifer Kresge, M.A., L.M.F.T. and attorney Nina Meierding put on an excellent institute at the 2010 AFCC convention in Denver last week entitled "How the Brain Reacts to Conflict." I wanted to share of few of their pointers as they relate to the importance of mindfulness, because considering them might be helpful in dialing back reactivity for people in relationship transition.

But first a seeming digression.

Do you know why railroad tracks in this country are exactly 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart? This seems an arbitrary number.

It is because that is the way they were built in England, and English transplants helped design them in the United States. But why were they fixed at this distance in England? Because the tramways that preceded rail lines in England and Europe were designed by the same people who built the trams. They used the same tools and jigs that had previously been used for building wagons, which had the same wheel spacing. Why this wheel spacing? Roads that were many hundreds of years old were fixed at that spacing, and to use any other size would destroy the wagon wheels. The roads were deeply rutted from centuries of use.

Why were the ruts grooved at this distance? Because the roads were built by the Romans for their legions, and in particular war chariots. These chariots that formed the initial ruts, which everyone thereafter had to match in order to not destroy their valuable wooden wheels, were spaced at 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to allow the rear ends of two horses to which the chariots were harnessed. Yes, our railroad lines are spaced exactly to accommodate two horse's asses.

And so on.

If we can be aware of why we become angry and how anger and rage wears grooves into the cellular and neural architecture of our brains, a freedom from the 'tyranny of the mind' becomes a real possibility. Especially in divorce and relationship transitions.

If we ignore the how's and why's of our brain's functioning, we risk not only suffering a level of unconscious awareness but also a repetition of patterns of thinking and acting that really don't do us - and those we are charged with loving and caring for - much service. In fact, this can cause our families huge harm.

Indeed, our (understandable) ignorance of neurobiology may explain much of the suffering in the world today. It may also be the root to the flowering of a new kind of human.

We all know the brain is an amazing organ, but neuroscience and brain scan imaging is developing evidence that has vast implications for how we manage conflict, the impacts of conflict upon children, and how it is that our own conditioned perceptions often hijack our best intentions. This evidence includes the fact that after birth the greatest developmental spurts for the brain occur when children or 3-5 and again between 10-13 years of age. Neurons - cells and the synapses that connect them - are being creating afresh in younger adults in exponential leaps. By the mid-20's our brains contain some four quadrillion of these neurons. They are all firing together in an impossibly complex array.

How these synapses fire, and the combinations that fire together as we think or are energized by emotion, determines to a large extent the success or failure of our attitudes and behaviors. They may expand or limit our ability to respond with equanimity to the perceived and actual stresses of day-to-day survival. The more often that combinations of neurons fire together in repetitive ways, the more they become hardwired.

An image that a friend shared with me is that of driving a car through unbroken fields of wheat. If the vehicle is driven again and again over the same path and course, a ditch begins to wear in. Most of us have had the experience of getting tires caught in a ditch - it becomes difficult after time to steer our wheels out of it.

As Ms. Kresge observed in Denver, "neurons that fire together, wire together." Responses to stimuli, and repetitive thinking and feeling, cause deep furrows (so to speak) to form in our brains that can seem impossible to overcome. This is how patterns of negative behaviors can be easier to follow than to move out of, despite the fact that they are often counter-productive or even destructive. Consider this in light of your reactivity to a spouse, client, judge, opposing counsel, or other triggers. Small wonder we often feel like we go unconscious. Patterns of thinking and reacting can wear ditches across the neural pathways of our brains.

Fortunately, as adults and even as we continue to age, the brain remains highly plastic - it is the only organ in the body which we can sculpt. In what researchers liken to the process of pruning, our brains enjoy a neuroplasticity that allows us the opportunity to change and restructure how we think and even feel about things. We can design new pathways. This is one promise of mindfulness, and mindfulness is an exercise that may help us achieve an alternative reality. What a huge opportunity! It is a liberating reality to consider.

The brain is all about survival. It includes the pre-frontal cortex, which is the center of rational thought, the memory and sensory centers, the amygdala - and other areas I won't pretend to understand. The rational center of our brains explains why as a species we have been so uniquely successful.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system, which all higher and lower creatures share. The limbic system is often referred to as the lizard or reptile brain. In humans it is where emotional memory is processed. It is the source of the 'fight or flight' response.

How we feel in relationship transition has a lot to do with the fear, fight or flight that the amygdala predisposes us for: We are hardwired to survive and the limbic system is here to aid us! Unfortunately when the amygdala is engaged our pre-frontal cortex tends to shut down (for one thing the brain consumes huge amounts of energy from our bodies, energy that needs to be conserved if our limbic system is stressed) - and instead of behaving "rationally" we tend to act "instinctively." Those conditioned responses (like fear or anger) that might help us to flee or otherwise survive a threat in nature may not be an adaptive response within our social and familial interrelationships, where a different response might be far more appropriate in serving a more enlightened and energetically positive form of surviving.

Last week I was working outside in the yard, and almost stepped on a rattlesnake who kindly notified me of his presence first. I froze with an adrenaline rush as he (or she) likely did too. As my system calmed I began to admire its unusually rosy coloring. Since the creature was blocking my path my frontal cortex re-engaged to help solve that dilemma. And I had no desire to harm the snake. But during the rest of the day outside, I remained 'on alert.' I have seen many proud gardeners kill these animals without a second thought, indeed with little thought at all.

The brain is hard-wired to be resistant to choosing new and different ways of responding to stimuli. It wants to do what it has always done, even if what it has always done is not really working for it - as with the negative loops we find developing in relationships that are under stress.

A fascinating concept that is relevant not just to the development of children's brains, but also our own adult brains, involves the theory of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are thought to fire in specific areas of the brain when one acts (i.e., wave our hands) or when we see another person act (wave their hands). As we watch them, in our brains we are also waving our hand. Our minds are mirroring what we are perceiving. Birds suddenly taking flight in mass presents a good image of this. In effect our brains are emulating what we observe, and it is believed that this theory of interpreting and matching sensory cues in our brains explains much about learning and social development. The functioning of mirror neurons may be a useful tool for transmitting learning between people, and learning is functionally an extremely adaptive process that helps any organism to survive. Survival is the primal goal of all beings, and it is a key goal for clients in relationship transition.

Consider what this means in terms of parents modeling behaviors to children in the midst of parenting disputes. Our reactivity can be transferred and taught to our children in ways that we might otherwise be completely oblivious to. This transmission assists in their own hardwiring as cells within their brains mirror what they observe, firing together and therefore wiring together. What we teach to children, particularly in high conflict divorces, can be quite different from what we wish for our children and what we think is happening. This awareness is an invocation to take a greater responsibility for our thinking and our conduct.

Repetition reinforces hardwiring. Driving a path time and again so that it becomes a ditch deepens the ditch. A child watching her parents blame and argue cannot help but be forced (with no choice in the matter) to have her mirror neurons fire together in ways that themselves become a grooved pattern for responding which becomes wired into that child's brain, one that the child is likely to repeat in response to similar challenges in her own life. Evidence suggests that when people are deeply emotionally invested in outcomes this hard-wiring is all the more intense. Lessons are learned more deeply under emotionally threatening circumstances. They just may not be the right ones as measured by the quality of lives we offer and inherit.

So several points may be worth considering:

Practice makes permanent. The more we rage and resent and react, the more we will rage, resent, and react.

We can overcome our hardwiring and retrain our brains to respond differently. But it is easier not to, since our brains naturally follow the hard worn grooves no matter how dysfunctional they may be.

Children in particular (and possibly at certain ages) are impacted in almost physiological ways by what they observe and experience. We owe it to children, and to ourselves, to overcome our reactive conditioning.

We really can sculpt our brains to retrain them to fire differently from how they do now, and so we may learn to react and respond differently to the stressors in our lives.

Chances are we may benefit from guides who can model positive patterns of thinking and behavior, just as our children may benefit and learn from us. Negative guides will only diminish our capacity to develop new ways of thinking and responding. Hiring aggressive lawyers (my own personal peeve) may affect us biologically.

The emotional intensity of the stress of relationship break up may offer itself as the most effective backdrop for permanent and useful change, if we will allow it. The crisis of divorce can be our greatest opportunity and teacher.

What we may learn will generalize into every corner of our lives, far beyond simply coping with the crisis of divorce or relationship transition. It may be how we can condition our brains to become mindful.

There is much below the surface here - is it not the tip of an iceberg worth investigating?

How we handle the stress and reactivity of relationship transition, or assist those who come to us for help, will echo not just within our own future, but for everyone else with whom they and we come in contact - and especially those persons who matter most!

And it might be nice to not have the road we travel determined by a horse's ass.

By the way, a highly readable introduction to the transformative potential of consciously shaping our brains is Sharon Begley's (2007) 'Train Your Brain Change Your Brain.' United States: Ballantine Books.


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