Peanut brain

Copyright: nailiaschwarz / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: nailiaschwarz / 123RF Stock Photo

This week, listening to a wonderful interview with brain scientist Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor,  I learnt that our thoughts all originate from a cluster of cells in our left hemisphere which are the size of a peanut. It is our thoughts that trigger our feelings and make us unhappy.

“She ignored me!”, “He’s being selfish!”, “I’m not good enough”, etc.  Our peanut brain has a thought and this triggers a feeling. At this point we have a choice…. to feed the feeling (fan the fire) with further thoughts or recognise, allow, accept and empathise.

If we just allow ourselves to feel the feeling without judgement, with tenderness and without further feeding of the emotion with new thoughts (our stories that we love to tell ourselves and others), according to Dr Jill, the physiological process of our emotions takes about 90 seconds and then it’s usually over and we can come back to a state of balance. Mindfulness practices like slowing our breathing and focusing on the breath also help us to do this.

Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor, a neuro-anatomist then working at Harvard University, had a massive stroke in her late thirties that shut down the left hemisphere of her brain. She experienced a completely silent and blissful mind and the total connectedness of all life as energy. Over the next 9 years, as she slowly recovered from a completely infant-like state, she chose not to revive or recover certain parts of her pre-stroke personality. She was able to leave 37 years of emotional baggage behind and start again with a clean slate (wouldn’t that be nice!). She consciously chose to recover (a very painful and slow process) so that she could teach us that we can all access this silent, peaceful, blissful state. As Jill says, “Peace is just a thought away.”

Dr Jill calls these regular thought patterns “circuitry”. She says we can choose to use different circuitry in our brains (i.e. form new neural pathways). They are just thoughts and we can make a conscious choice in our thoughts. Oprah (her interviewer) asks her whether removing that peanut from our left hemispheres would give us a silent mind but Jill explains that we would then lose language. Our busy thinking mind is the price we pay for language. The left hemisphere is also essential for helping us to make sense of the world. In other words, we need both hemispheres to function well in our world. Whole-brain living.

In Compassionate Communication (NVC), thoughts are extremely valuable because they can give us great insights into what we are longing for in our lives. For example, if I think I’m being left out, I can empathise with myself and realise that I’m actually longing for inclusion and it’s much easier to look for ways to be included than to feed my insecurities and unhappiness with further thoughts about people leaving me out.

I find the analogy of the peanut so helpful. Every time I’m having an unhappy thought or a judgemental thought, I think “that’s just my peanut brain”. Then I think “What am I telling myself? (ie. what’s my story) … I’m telling myself….(e.g. he’s so inconsiderate)” and if I can just be present with myself and pay attention to my thoughts, the feelings emerge. And then, I just allow myself to feel the feelings such as sadness and disappointment. From there, maybe I will realise what I’m needing (such as a longing for consideration or respect) or maybe I just need to sit in my feelings for a while and hold myself as I would hold a dear friend who is in emotional pain. And perhaps then, when I’m ready, I can start to take some positive action steps to get more of what I want in my life.

“Peanut brain” has now become a joke in our household. “Woops, that’s my peanut brain talking” I say when I suddenly realise that I’m heading up the old super highways of judgement, comparison, diagnosis or any of the other roadblocks to communication and I want to pull back and head along my newly forming goat tracks of communication that foster connection. I find the idea that “peace is just a thought away” very comforting and it’s fun to think of this annoying but very insightful little motor-mouth of a peanut living in my left hemisphere. I’m also comforted by the idea that the seat of consciousness is right here in the right hemisphere of my brain.

I love it that science and spirituality are finally meeting – the same messages are everywhere.

And if you haven’t yet seen Dr Jill’s amazing and stirring TED talk “My Stroke of Insight”, here’s the link: http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight

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9 thoughts on “Peanut brain

  1. a lovely post, thank you. It is a nice image, the peanut one. But I’m also mindful that tiny things compacted are very powerful, and the circuitry in our brain is so micro-circuited that there is a lot of power in a peanut. Which I suppose is why thoughts are so powerful. But it’s true, you are a living example of how we can change our thoughts by listening to and accepting our feelings. A much gentler way than having a massive stroke! But catastrophes are opportunities for change, as Jill found through her own courage and compassion.

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    1. Yes I agree, there is enormous power in the peanut (as there is in the atom). I think the people who experience these catastrophes like Jill are like guides or mentors who can then point us towards a more joyful and connected life. Hers is an incredible story and I cry every time I see her TED talk. Her description of how connected she felt to everything stirs a deep yearning in me and excited that I too can foster that sense of connection to all things.

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  2. Thanks for this interesting and enlightening post, Filippa. I, too, like Christina, like the image of the ‘peanut brain’ and will keep it in mind in future when attempting to allow my mind to sit with negative feelings rather than trying to fight them and answer back or overthink them. I can’t believe that process would only take ninety or so seconds, but I’m willing to try. You make something complex appear very simple. I am enjoying the optimism you have sparked for me. Thank you again.

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    1. Thank you Maureen. I’m sure the more painful experiences take far more than 90 seconds but I am experiencing a much calmer, more balanced state of being as I’m learning not to fuel my feelings with further story-telling. My husband is having a similar experience – we both seem to move through our reactivity more quickly or can pull back when we start to get reactive. Such a relief! I’m thrilled to hear that this post has touched you.

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      1. I do understand about painful experiences, Filippa. But I have a very active story-teller role, and that role often re-tells boring stories about pain, with embroidery and embellishments. A couple of times, already since reading your post, I’ve taken a few deep breaths and let things go. Another of my very old (70 years old in fact) resentments will be the inspiration a short-story soon.

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      2. I know what you mean about our storyteller and how tedious it can be when it’s very repetitive. My peanut never shuts up but I’ve certainly noticed the voice quieting somewhat once I gave it the peanut persona! I love the image of you taking few deep breaths and letting things go and I look forward to your short story Maureen. I guess the beauty in all this pain is the contrast it provides in showing us what we are really longing for in our lives.

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  3. As usual, there’s so much I want to write after reading your post. Everything you write is what I’ve discovered, too, albeit through slightly different channels. I was the same as you—if someone ignored me, I thought it was me and something I’d done. I didn’t think that maybe they were just having a bad day. Conversely, when I got angry with someone, I thought it was them and not me. It’s hard to write all this in a concise comment on a blog post, but like you, I learnt to accept my feelings as valid and not judge them. Anger was the one I had the most difficulty accepting—I’d been taught, as most people have, that it was ‘bad’ and you should control it. But it’s not. It’s there to protect. When I accepted my anger, I could then start to learn why I felt it, and most of the time, it related to being hurt, and most of the time, that hurt comes from childhood.
    Science and spirituality are drawing closer and closer together, and medical imaging is supporting psychology. I feel we know so much more now about how our minds and bodies function and what makes people act and think and feel the way they do. Just as Stephen Hawking was trying to find the ‘theory of everything’, I feel we are looking for that with ourselves. I also believe we know the answer already …

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    1. Hi Louise, thank you for your comment. I read some of your story on your blog today and my heart goes out to you for what you went through with the abuse you suffered as a child and then the loss of your sister. You’ve had an amazing and powerful journey of self-discovery and healing. I also believe the answers are inside us and really, the message is just love and connection. Big love and cyber heart hugs to you. Thank you for your courage in sharing your journey of healing.

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