Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Second Brain...It's All About Heart

Sometime last year (or the year before?) I was speaking with a friend while our children played at a mid-week program.  He was telling me about some things he'd been hearing and thinking about in recent months, based on the work of author Michael Gershon, who wrote The Second Brain.  Apparently it has been discovered that there are as many or more neurons in our bellies as in our brains; that there is increasingly empirical evidence to show that our gut is as big an epicentre as our brains in influencing our reactions, emotions, and behaviour - to the point where some experts studying this area are calling our gut our second brain.  Apparently, those neurons in our guts do far more than break down food; they also have extraordinary ability to influence our mental state and our emotions, often subconsciously.  It is thought that this will eventually have a wide-sweeping effect on how mental health professionals will understand emotion and heart matters.

I'm sure I've completely bastardized the thoughts that my friend was talking about in my inability to summarize accurately what he was saying...but these were the things that caught my attention.

Both my head and my gut are telling me that this direction is bang on...seeing the second brain as an epicentre that has wide-reaching impact on our heart, our emotions.

In fact, and here's a radical thought that may sound silly or so embarrassingly stupid that I should reconsider writing it thought in the months since that conversation with my friend is that this second brain is, perhaps, where the heart is.  Maybe, even, this second brain is our heart.  Obviously not the heart that beats and pumps blood and all of that, but the heart that we refer to when we tell some one that we love them with all of our heart...the heart that I mean when I feel heart broken...the heart that provides me with instinct and occasional bits of wisdom and insight.

It feels somehow so validating to hear about this concept of a second brain, and to think of it as my heart, because I operate more out of this second brain than I do out of my first.  I naturally function more out of my instinct, my gut, my heart-felt sense of a situation than I do out of logic and rational thought.  Interestingly, the Bible doesn't contradict this notion.  Although we're to transform ourselves through the renewing of our minds in Christ (surely a head notion), the greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbours...the greatest commandments have to do with love.

I've come to believe that life, at least my life, really is basically about the heart....working in conjunction with the head, sure, but mostly about the heart.  It's about allowing myself to feel things, and to feel them deeply.  It's about allowing myself to live through, and fully experience, the experience and knowledge of survival that comes from living through the pain of the things I cannot change; and it's about experiencing the joy at the other end of the spectrum that extends my hope through the darker days.

I have had a lifetime of nurtured functioning more out of cognition (1st brain) than out of heart (my definition of 2nd brain).  My father and both of my siblings function first out of the head, and that was certainly the root of my upbringing.  Throughout my childhood, even now decades later, I often felt/feel with my family that I am swimming upstream, against the current of what came/comes most naturally to me.  They were working out of head knowledge - logic, intellect, that which was rational and understandable.  I was working out of instinct and in-the-moment gut reaction, and unconsciously knowing that I was different than them and believing that there was something wrong with me.  I often felt the shame of that, believing based on my environment that their way was the right/better way (and that there was something wrong with my way), and thus learning to squelch the direction of my heart in favour of doing the 'right' thing.  It is only in hindsight, and decades later, that I understand that I assumed the right thing was a cognitive response rather than that what came most naturally to me.  Now I see that the head/1st brain is important, and great in helping to provide logic for those things that require it; but that the heart - the gut, the belly - is where it's at for me.

It's why music moves me more than almost anything else; it's why books like Rohington Mistry's book A Fine Balance remains a lifetime top 20 favourite; it's why being alone in nature can draw my soul and its longings to the surface in an instant and move me to tears; it's why a deeper and more personal relationship with my God is what my heart longs for, even despite myself sometimes; it's why I can be fully in the moment with someone without worrying about the 'where to from here;' it's why I resonate so deeply with words such as those by William Wordsworth, whose sentiment in the following words arrives at the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow and the feeling of them both simultaneously and deeply:

"Surprised by joy - impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport - Oh! With whom
But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?"...
(see below for full sonnet)

I suppose that, in some ways, I had the best of both worlds as a result of my upbringing.  I was born naturally a heart person; and raised as a head person - I now possess elements of both, though the heart side of me is becoming more powerful and certain these last few years.  But for a long time I struggled with the dissonance between those two things and it has been quite a process of coming towards an understanding that my natural state of being is as a heart/gut person.

All of that being said, I need to explain something...and this is as important as anything I have ever written.

I see our world as being largely driven by emotion these days.  I hinted at this in my recent post about happiness.  The mantra of today's society seems to be something like 'well, if it feels right, it's right for you...' or 'if it feels right, just do it.'  I distinctly and definitely don't believe in this.  I do not believe, and in fact refute, that we always need to follow our feelings into action.  Our hearts are subjective and can be just plain wrong if based on fleeting feel-good drivers...perhaps in our pursuit of happiness.  I think that this 'if it feels right, do it' perspective is a pretty dangerous way of living life and that it breeds relativity and a moral vacuum in a world that is crying out for a deeper moral compass where right and wrong coexist with the heart.  Acting indiscriminately on the basis of what one's heart is saying is not a pretty outcome; it is not something I aspire to, and it's something I deeply long for our world to move away from.

So what am I saying?

What I'm getting at is this...a few things.

I'm saying that adaptation and true resilience, as well as enduring behaviour change, is predicated on the feeling of deep and heart-felt emotion - often pain - rather than on the logical/cognitive processing of events.  I'm saying that cognitive processing alone will not lead to adaptation...for that to happen we need the workings out of the heart.

I'm saying that we should not feel obliged to follow the direction our heart would have us pursue (and that's where our head can play a role, in sussing out the details and realities of a situation; and this is where the passage of time can play a role, in giving us the space to let things settle and to make a decision with wisdom), but that we are obligated, for our long term inner health, to hear and to feel what our heart, our gut, our second brain, is telling us because the more we repress that, the less healthy we are on the inside.  In fact, as I write this, I wonder if the real definition of wisdom might be something of the marrying of 1st and 2nd brain...where we take the time to both feel things deeply and process things thoughtfully and make decisions based on the joining of the two.

I'm saying that as a Christian, the most important job I have is to love the people around me.  Do I have beliefs that have roots deep in my soul that are counter to what our society would have me believe?  Yes.  Profoundly yes.  Oh good heavens, I think that we are sinking into the depths of quicksand, morally, as a society.  But I read somewhere and believe that it is God's job to follow through on judgment based on what He has declared truth to be; I believe it's the job of the Holy Spirit to convict of wrong-doing and that each person on this earth will be accountable to and for this; and I believe it's my job to love people, and thereby show them the love of my Creator.  My job of loving doesn't mean that I don't get to speak truth when I see something I believe to be wrong; but that's different than playing the role of judge exacting punishment.  And there is the freedom I'm called to.

To feel is huge!  As I've come to terms with these things over the past decade, I've felt the real me, the me I was born to be, come more and more to the surface.  The real me is someone who feels things, even often little things, very deeply.  I cry far more readily now than I used to, I express frustration far more easily and often, I feel compassion for others more readily and certainly more deeply than ever before, and I am learning to allow the depths of my heart a greater voice.  And accordingly, I'm finally beginning to be able to express those things I'm good at, gifted at, and know that they are gifts unique to me.  I've spent so much time, so many years, in denial of my gifts because they seemed somehow to be the lesser things to aspire to; and yet these days, when tentatively reaching out to use those gifts, these are the times I'm most myself, and most the person I was created to be.

One of those gifts is a kind of discernment.  I have a hard time defining precisely what I mean by this, but it's a perception - an ability to perceive things about a person or situation that are not readily apparent, and often to understand the direction necessary (even in the face of opposition).  It's an ability to understand beyond the present facts, and includes an ability to judge well in certain circumstances.  I am often with someone and can sense something beyond what is being talked about, deep in my gut.  In the past, I shut this part of me down all too often, not having any confidence that what I was perceiving was accurate and feeling rather stupid for believing I might have this kind of understanding...only to learn some time later that my gut had been precise in that moment.  It's been a long process towards understanding, accepting, and even fostering that gift.

I have a gift of compassion and an ability to be in the moment.  I'm not always the person who is going to act on that depth of feeling and understanding through long term action.  I don't always follow through on things very well.  But I can be with someone in the moment and be present for the need of the moment.  I see this, for example, in how I am with my kids during hard times that they experience.  My heart quiets, I can let go of everything else, and I can meet them at a heart level, without fear of where the moment might take us.  I can be in the moment with them without moving forward or forcing them to move forward and I can give up thoughts or anxiety about what to do/say next.  This has been huge when it comes to Seth, who has needed just that gift in order to help him begin to learn to feel and express his many griefs.  It's been huge for Matthew, too, in his high levels of sensitivity (and often anxiety), to have someone to just be with in those times of high need.

Do I wish I'd learned all of this stuff years ago?  Of course.  I feel keenly the pain of wasted years in this regard and wish I were even farther along my life's heart journey.  But then I think about what it took to get to this understanding of myself and know, simultaneously, the joy of having journeyed this path and of having, thank God, gotten at least to this point.

Just last Friday I had an opportunity to sit down again with the friend who first started me thinking about the second brain, and I shared with him my (silly) notion that maybe this second brain in our gut is what we refer to when we talk about our heart.  Oddly he didn't laugh away my fact, I might dare to say that he might agree with me, or at least think that it is possible.  True or not, the notion seems to work for me.


Surprised by Joy
William Wordsworth
Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind
I turned to share the transport – Oh! With whom
But thee, long buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind –
But how could I forget thee? - Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? – That thought's return
Was the worse pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

No comments:

Post a Comment