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This Is Your Brain On Catecholamines

I've been on the road for speaking engagements, the proximate cause of my recent blog pause. I tend to write here when something worth sharing crystallizes in my mind. But travels notwithstanding, the truth is that just lately, it's been hard to find the crystals in the fog of reactivity. My subjects today are how reactivity works and what we can do about it.

Giving a talk to a national audience is a good way to bring things into focus. When the bad news rings out (one of my topics was the sobering reality of public arts funding), people wilt, then visibly harden, like moths spinning protective cocoons. But when they hear words that rhyme with their deepest desires, they open like flowers to receive the "tears of gratefulness that come when you recognize deeply felt truths," as one person wrote to me after my most recent talk.

This past week, I spoke to a large group of people who have given their all to create the containers in which artists make and people experience beauty and meaning, in which empathy and imagination are learned, in which wisdom and resilience are strengthened. In every cell of their beings, they know the awesome importance of their work. But that knowledge tends to fade in the constant onslaught of challenges: unlike the military or the prison-industrial complex, they are asked to justify their value to the public interest over and over again, and often, their interrogators are powerful people with minds pre-made, not really listening.

That's the context for my passion for telling anyone who cares to listen that we can't let ourselves shrink who we are and what we know to fit the distorted values of a culture addicted to the bottom line. In my most recent talk, I spoke of six capacities best learned through art—social imagination, connectivity, improvisation, cultural citizenship, empathy, creativity—and their essential roles in so many realms: human evolution, healing, education, even the remarkable changes taking place in Tunisia and Egypt. My aim was to show how something that had been trivialized into mere entertainment is actually the secret of survival and resilience; and thereby to encourage people to show up full-size, claiming the space and support that the public interest in culture really warrants.

My message and its opposite coexist: the blindness of politics-as-usual to so many things that strengthen social fabric, express connection, and enrich understanding is just as real as our awareness of the true public interest in art and culture, a crucible in which a just and loving society may be forged. Right now, the balance seems tipped to one side: we spend far too much of our commonwealth on war, prison, and tax benefits for the wealthiest, while politicians use misdirection to obscure that truth, focusing on a few pennies of public arts spending as if it could address the problems their own policies had created. The same dynamic obtains in other sectors, of course, as when Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin depleted public coffers through tax breaks for those who don't need them, then made public employees pay, not only with wage concessions, but with their rights.

When we take in these contradictions, responses are evoked in all four realms of human existence: body, emotions, mind, and spirit. How we take them in, and how we respond, depends in part on patterns inscribed in our brains by generations of evolution and the reactivity they have inculcated; and in part on humans' unparalleled capacity for reflection and choice, our unique ability to recognize and reject reactivity, rather than obey it.

In my personal math, knowledge plus reflection equals power. The more of us who become conscious of the dangers of reactivity, who cultivate the ability to reflect on our feelings and act from choice rather than compulsion, the more possible it will be to move toward healing our social challenges, rather than succumbing to them.

Right now, reactivity is skyrocketing. This extreme moment, bursting with conflicting information, engenders contradictions galore. Deeply felt truths live side-by-side with violations that feel extreme. Hope and fear take turns wrestling each other to the ground. Each day, the news media need to manufacture new trends and conclusions to hold viewers' and readers' attention, and that pushes the whole enterprise into a cultural space more suited to athletic competition. Our minds have trouble parsing the melee. We wish it would resolve into a single message, so we keep asking, Who's on first? Wanting to know is hard-wired into our minds.

But that's the wrong question. Instead of one set of values or worldview ascending to clear-cut domination, the truth matches Paulo Freire's brilliant insight that an ecology of ideas, a "thematic universe," characterizes any moment in history.

Every epoch, he wrote, is characterized by “a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites,” and it is this complex (rather than a specific idea or position within it) that reflects the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.

At every moment until the end of time, it's too soon to name a winner. The wheel spins, things change. The strongest position from which to regard the spectacle is two steps back: it isn't that the Tea Partiers or the Wisconsin protesters will emerge triumphant, one ultimately vanquishing the other. It's that our moment is characterized by the interaction of two types of politics: one oriented to power-sharing and extending collective support to protect the weak; one oriented to establishing a top-down authority, prioritizing individual freedom, eschewing collective responsibility. Whether or not they seem sound to you or me, each makes moral and practical arguments that capture its adherents. It is likely that they will wrestle for a long time, each taking turns on top. The interaction of the two is what we need to attend; that's what gives this moment its distinctive flavor; that's what sets the terms of possibility.

There's a kind of relief in remembering this. Instead of getting backed into a corner by a powerful polarizing force, it allows us to step back, to bring the entire thematic universe into the frame. We no longer need believe that each day's installment of the news signals some definitive win or loss, the imperative to mourn or celebrate. Taking a longer view, we can pursue whatever we believe to be good and true without being devastated when its opposite seems momentarily to gain ground.

The thematic universe is always morphing: just now, in the nuclear leaks emerging in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we see the hubris of a technological age—worshipping its creations with the false certainty of idolators—contend with the law of unintended consequences, the only law that has never been broken. The arguments for infallible nuclear power have been answered, and—along with the Hurricane Katrina, the still-unfolding consequences of the BP oil spill, and countless other such events—the weight our thematic universe gives the theme "scientific certainty versus randomness" is slowing shifting to a healthy skepticism about technological overconfidence and a healthy respect for the limits on human control.

"Faith versus reason" is another of our era's themes. We see it wherever fundamentalism is beginning to yield to the enlarged view of possibility available in a networked world; and wherever people turn away from modernity's excesses toward fundamentalism's certitudes. So is "differentiation versus unity," manifesting in the steady multiplication of cultural identities and nationalities occurring side-by-side with the boundariless information flow that is bringing us together. In my mind's eye, our thematic universe resembles a tangle of multicolored serpents, grappling and shape-shifting inside a translucent sphere.

Regarding the long sweep of history, there seems to be at least one direction to the morphing, and that is the expansion of autonomy and self-determination: despite many setbacks, ever-larger and more diverse voices are raised on the world stage today. We hear every moment from those who had previously been silenced, who have now learned to say their own words with their own voices, and whose presence will be felt in stronger and stronger ways.

It's easy to forget this big picture, though, to fall into the fascination with who's on first right this minute, to be buffeted by information that has been constructed to enthrall us long enough to get to the next commercial. Pervasive confusion—mental fog—is a cue that, collectively, our defenses have been triggered, aggravating the reactivity built into the most primitive part of our brains. The antidotes are awareness and choice, recognizing the signs, helping the fog to clear, choosing our actions rather than reacting. It helps, I find, to know how the system works on ourselves and on the world.

Confusing times are especially challenging to our brains. Human perception evolved from our early days on the savannah, millennia ago, where our survival depended on our ability to scan quickly for danger, to respond by fighting or fleeing, heeding instincts shaped by floods of catecholamines, fight-or-flight hormones. Every one of us carries that legacy in our bodies: someone gets up in your face, and no matter how evolved you may be, you feel a hot explosion, your heart beats harder, your breathing accelerates, and if you allow that reactivity to prevail, you either punch that person in the nose, or turn tail and run.

This makes us susceptible to a friend-or-foe worldview. We take in the news and react with fear or despair when it feels as if our foes are winning and elation when our friends seem to be in the ascendance. If it's your habit of mind to highlight the most discouraging aspects of our thematic universe, it's almost impossible not to feel like pulling up the covers and returning to bed, forever.

But just as our reactivity is inscribed in our bodies, they also carry the message that we don't have to let reactivity prevail. Human brains are the largest and most powerful of all species: when species are listed in order of their “encephalization quotient,” a factor based on relative brain weight, we always win. It's not just overall size, though: in comparison with other living beings, we have a giant neocortex, especially the frontal lobes, equipping us uniquely for conscious thought. Reactivity lights a match in our brains, but we can use our cognitive capacities to keep it from touching the fuse and exploding into action.

I scan the news and wonder when the neocortex is going to make an appearance, because the limbic system—the Paleomammalian brain—that generates reactivity seems to be securely in charge: the tanks and bombs turned against Libyans by their own government; the anti-Muslim Congressional hearings created by New York Representative Peter King (a longtime supporter of the Irish Republican Army—did you know that Libya was one its biggest arms suppliers back in the day?); the vicious tactics used to demolish workers' rights in Wisconsin.

The people perpetrating these actions—in different ways, Muammar Qaddafi, Peter King, and Scott Walker—are enacting riveting chapters in long-running dramas. All three are driven by a certainty expressed in pursuing one's own interests without being troubled by the damage to others. Qaddafi has been asserting his own entitlement to absolute power for more than 30 years. King, who once had a positive relationship with Muslims in his district, has been pursuing an ethnocentric path, ignoring terrorism by those who share his Irish heritage and scapegoating others.

Walker has been trying to complete a project that Ronald Reagan began in destroying the air traffic controllers' union 30 years ago. (At one time, Reagan was a union president and advocate, as this clip shows.) In the intervening years, while overall union membership has declined, in part due to union-busting policies, there has been growth in public sector unionization; in 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, 36 percent of public sector workers were unionized, compared to less than 7 percent in the private sector. Walker and his sponsors, including the notorious Koch brothers, want to deliver the coup de grace to any organized popular force that can counter the top-down economic policies they favor.

Just this second, all three appear to be succeeding. But as you can read in the articles linked above, their behavior has galvanized the opposition, so all three situations are likely to remain in flux, pending the response of those most affected and their allies.

In my speech last week, I encouraged people to enlarge the frame of debate, so that the entire universe of public funding is on the table, not just the few bits that go to artists and cultural groups. That can only happen if we disrupt knee-jerk reactivity to each item of bad news, and reconceive a thoughtful, strategic response, one with resonance, one that acknowledges and addresses resistance, one grounded in the largest possible understanding of our thematic universe:

When I started this talk, I said that many of us are behaving exactly like the residents of a conquered province. That feeling emanates from the conviction that our cause is on life-support, or at least badly wounded. I hate to see that mind-set contaminate our conversation about the public interest in culture. I hate to see it convincing us to be far smaller and weaker than we are. Because in truth, we haven’t actually tried the paths to mind-changing that hold the most promise. And despite pervasive gloom and doom about arts funding, we haven’t the slightest idea whether—as in Tunisia or Egypt—the aggregate of individual actions could cause a radical shift in possibility, overturning apparent certainties. Everyone possesses the capacity to break the chain of causality, to reject what has failed and to try something new. We can’t be certain whether or not others will use that capacity, but without a doubt, each of us can make that choice for ourselves.

I like to use three simple steps:

  1. Awareness. Notice what is arising in your body, emotions, mind, and spirit. With practice, you can spot reactivity before it develops into a full-blown meltdown. Over time, the sooner you catch it, the easier it is to discharge.
  2. Acknowledgement. Tell yourself or others what is happening. Naming it helps you observe it, rather than be trapped inside of it. After acknowledgement, it's easier to breathe. After a few breaths, the catecholamines dissipate, and you will feel your body begin to relax. Calm will begin to return, your thoughts will be easier, your spirit lighter.
  3. Redirection. Finally, take a step in the opposite direction from reactivity. If the reactivity is telling you to flee, come in closer, remaining in connection with whatever or whomever has lit the match. If it's telling you to fight, try to wrap your mind around the larger meanings of whatever set you off, exchanging the desire to reject for the desire to comprehend. Rejection may well follow, but it will be grounded in thought and give you room to move, rather than merely to react.

I'm reluctant to pick anyone other than Leonard Cohen to sing "Bird On A Wire," that epic portrayal of reactivity and reconsideration (It's hard to surpass the spontaneous, consoling beauty of this impromptu 1972 version). But I'm going to choose Willie Nelson's battle-scarred rendition, which seems to slide easily into the spirit of the moment.

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much"
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

Oh, like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

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1972 version


I've never read yours posts before but I enjoyed this one immensely. It's best you took your time to let things crystallize, since this resulted in something that has a deep resonance. Well done!

As for Bird on a Wire, for it's such a lovely little song. It's also the recording from the year I was born. ;)

Lots of Love,


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Thanks, Mariette

Thanks so much. It's amazing how music bridges time, no?

all blessings,