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Hanging Out with Emotionally Healthy Brains

 
 
 
 

The second of two articles by Linda Graham, clinical therapist, mindfulness teacher and expert on the neuroscience of human relationships

       
 
Human brains learn better in dialogue with other human brains. In contrast, isolation and lack of challenge and stimulation are the enemies of our brain health and resilience. Because our brains are so profoundly influenced, for better or worse, by the quality of the social interactions we have, it's truly smart to spend time with other people who are intent on being and becoming resilient. Just as we can choose to engage in practices that create new neural circuitry to support new habits of emotionally positive and socially adept behaviors, we can choose to spend time with others who have shown by their behaviors that they have trained their brains toward those habits.
 
 
Because our brains are so exquisitely hard-wired to pick up the emotional state of other human brains, we can use another person's deep joy or contentment to shift our emotional state in their presence. This dyadic deconditioning arises from the resonance of shared positive emotions. Focusing on positive emotions does not mean that we bypass or dismiss the dark and difficult. Researchers have found that people who have cultivated genuine happiness and joy experience those emotions because of a deep appreciation and contentment with life; they feel joy no matter what.
 
 
Paul Ekman, a noted researcher and author of fifteen books on emotions, describes his struggle with intractable anger and rages: he had three or four "regrettable" episodes a week, by his own count, until he met the Dalai Lama in the year 2000. Paul was part of a Mind-Life Institute conference of Western scientists and Buddhist practitioners meeting in Dharamsala, India, to explore different perspectives on destructive emotions.
 
 
On the third day of the conference, observers were invited to ask questions of the Dalai Lama. Paul's twenty-year-old daughter, Eve, asked, "Why do we get the angriest at the people we love the most?" The Dalai Lama answered Eve's question while he simply held the hand of Paul sitting on the other side of him. He didn't speak to Paul directly as he talked with Eve; he simply offered the gentle touch of someone listening with compassion to another person's suffering. Paul said he experienced his whole body filling with a radiant warmth, absorbing the caring of the man whom many people believe to be the embodiment of compassion in this world.
 
 
Paul later reported that after this experience, he did not have another "regrettable" episode of anger for the next seven months—not even an impulse. As time has gone on, he sometimes feels the impulse of anger, but he feels no need to act on it. It's gone. Done. His personal reactivity has changed forever. Absorbing the Dalai Lama's deep peacefulness rewired the patterns of neural firing in Paul's amygdala, immediately and permanently.
 
 
We may not all have the opportunity to cultivate healthy emotions by holding the hand of someone as sophisticated in benevolence as the Dalai Lama. But we can deliberately seek out people whose capacities for wise behaviors are more developed than ours. We might find groups of people gathered for this purpose in churches and synagogues, yoga and meditation classes, and personal growth and wellness workshops. Simply being in connection with people who are emotionally healthy can shift our emotional state and reprogram our circuitry.
 
 
Almost fifteen years ago, I consulted a homeopathic doctor about stress. He recommended that when I came home after a long day of seeing patients, I brew a full pot of hot tea and read poetry. I happened to be having six friends over for dinner that very weekend, so I emailed them suggesting they bring poetry to read together.
 
 
That was the humble beginning of our Gourmet Poets' Society, which has flourished for a decade and a half, with upwards of fourteen people meeting quarterly for a potluck dinner — with chocolate fondue as the staple dessert—and hours of reading poems aloud. The themes run the gamut of the human condition—love, death, delusion, celebration, injustice, triumph. However poignant the topic, there is always a buoyancy that comes from sharing tears as well as laughter. And everyone goes home with their circuits rewired toward love and gratitude.
 
 
There are many ways for us to rewire each other's brains, but sharing poetry is uniquely effective. Poetry's use of words to convey emotions through images and metaphors integrates the communication channels of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, helping us be receptive to the power of our emotions while simultaneously strengthening our capacity to regulate them. Reading (and writing) poetry is a reliable way of deconditioning old patterns of thinking and feeling, thus opening up new neural receptivity and allowing us to change more easily.
 
 
The poet and anthologist Roger Housden reminds us: "Great poetry calls into question not less than everything. It dares us to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind. It amazes, startles, pierces, and transforms us. Great poetry happens when the mind is looking the other way; the heart opens, we forget ourselves, and the world pours in."
 
 

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