Stable Activation Patterns
The “chaotic” brain (in a very small nutshell)
The advent of digital computers was involved in the development of chaos theory, a mathematically-derived description of many complex systems in nature, including the human brain. Chaotic systems are a break from our older linear way of understanding. It represents a return to ancient philosophies like Taoism and Buddhism. Many of the brains included in studies of Peak states come from these very traditions.
The theory says that chaotic systems are highly sensitive to the initial conditions in which they appear, and they develop in response to “experience”. Complex chaotic systems are not predictable, but they are characterized by what are called “strange attractors”— “habits” of operation.
A racing stream after spring rains changes shape constantly as it passes through a rocky stretch, but it will create nearly the same standing wave in nearly the same place with different water thousands of times during a day. A series of time-lapse photographs would often show the wave—not always—and not in a predictable way.
These brain habits underlie mental, physical and emotional habits. I don’t know when I will be angry, and it won’t matter why, but I can rely on the fact that one or more times in the next few days I’ll lose my temper about something. Or feel very anxious or handle a difficult situation calmly and effectively or lie awake in bed for hours.
The experience of the mother is the experience of the child during the earliest pre-natal development of its brain. Two girls are born at the same hour in the same hospital. One’s mother is healthy, excited, feels safe and secure during the pregnancy. The other’s is living in an abusive situation and often feels frightened, worried, guilty.
After birth, the first child is loved and nurtured, has a reliable environment and develops a sense of importance, order and acceptance. The other finds a frightening, unpredictable universe without reliable love and caring—even protection. These two brains will develop very different cerebral energy patterns. They will differ in ability to sustain “resting-ready” alpha states, process in beta and access feelings and memories in theta.
The first is more likely to accept experience as it comes, find ways of adapting it to his desires and deal with losses from a position of stability and power. The second may develop a hyper-vigilant brain, always looking for the next disappointment or threat, unable to trust to the point of forming intimate relationships with others.
These different patterns can be measured, categorized and trained.
Stable Activation Patterns
Remember that “we do not experience the universe as it is; it is as we experience it.” Our brains create the universe in which we live. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. The second child feels like a victim, acts like a victim, sees a world looking to victimize her. She can always find what she looks for, so the brain continues to believe that its lack of human contact is an “outside” problem.
Once a brain starts down one or the other of these roads it is often blind to the role of its own habits. Of course a major or extended shock could shake the faith of the first brain in the “goodness” of life, but it is difficult to produce a positive enough experience long enough for the second to accept that all it had learned up to that point is wrong.
A person who is anxious today most likely was anxious five years ago—perhaps since childhood—and will almost certainly be anxious five years from now. The activation patterns adopted by a brain to respond to where it began and what it has experienced remain stable. The physical, mental and emotional habits we experience grow from those patterns. They control our perception, our actions and our life.
The irony is that such a pattern–disconnected from its cause–often ends of keeping the person in exactly the state it was designed to protect against. If my brain did not experience nurture and learned to maintain distance to avoid disappointment, it blocks itself from experiencing it today—even if someone now wants to and can provide it.
We have much more experience with another complex chaotic system in our bodies. Your metabolic system, which digests food, turns glucose into fat and back and produces energy, is incredibly complex. It too maintains stable energy habits. I can eat a whole pizza and drink a six-pack of soft drinks while lying on the couch today, and I won’t gain 5 pounds tomorrow. I can eat only the box the pizza came in and drink a gallon of water during serious exercise, and I won’t lose 5 pounds.
Though most of us have no hope of understanding metabolism, we know that we can change it by consistently changing the inputs over time; or consistently changing the outputs. By training we can change the energy habits in a very stable way.
The same is true of the brain.