Curt Thompson: Spirituality, Neuroplasticity, and Personal Growth (Full Interview)


>>I think anything that we do, in which we can incorporate things that make logical sense to us, can be used to their advantage
to help transform our life. For example, if I injure my shoulder and my physical therapist, after I see them, they say, “Take this exercise home and
do it three times a day.” I’m not very likely to do
that, unless they tell me, “And when you do this, this
is what’s going to happen “to the tendons in your shoulder.” We are much more likely to
embody behavioral change when what we are doing with
our bodies, whether that means, by my body, whether that
means what I’m saying, what I’m thinking, what I’m
feeling, what I’m acting, if those things make sense to me, and if they make sense, in terms of how I can
literally apply them, in the real world. And so, for example,
if someone says to me, “The more you pay attention
to certain things, “the more you establish that
those things will become “more permanent, not
just in your thinking, “but literally in your brain.” And then I’m invited to pay
attention to other things that can change the nature
of how my brain is wired, I’m much more likely to do that, especially if you give
me concrete practices, such as meditation practices, for example, that can change the way my brain is wired. Those, and many other elements
of neuroscience, I think, become grist for the mill,
whereby which I can begin to make sense out of why I do what I do. The reason we even talk
about wanting transformation is because at some point in our life, we can look around and say, “My life is doing things
that I wish it weren’t doing, “and I want that to be different, “in very concrete, practical ways. “How can I make that happen?” We hear preached, we hear taught
all the time, things like, “Be renewed, be transformed
by the renewing of your mind.” I have no idea what
that means in real life, but with what we’re discovering about the way neuroscience
works, it gives us tools whereby which we can
help people make sense of what that might actually
mean in real time and space. Anytime we think about changing
the course of our mind, we’re talking about neuroplasticity. We’re talking about
changing the way my neurons are actually firing. One of the most important elements of helping neuroplasticity to flourish is activating it through
the use of attention. I like to describe attention
as being the engine that pulls the rest of the train of the mind. There’s nothing that we
do throughout the day that does not, in some way, shape or form, involve a shift in attention from one thing to another to another. That attentional change is
crucial because most of what causes trouble for us, whether
I’m depressed or anxious, is deeply related to the fact
that I am paying attention to the same things over and over again that are creating those troubles for me. And so, naturally, if my life
is going to be different, I’m going to have to change
the focus of my attention and in so doing, activate neuroplasticity. If I want my brain to change, I need to change the
focus of my attention. Now there are a couple of
concrete things that we can do. One of the most simple
things that we talk about is a thing I call the sixth
breath-permitted exercise. That’s simply breathing in and out every 10 seconds. Human respiratory rate usually runs at about 12 to 15 breaths per minute. If we intentionally decide that we’re going to lower that rate, it’s going to require for us to breathe more slowly and more deeply,
so that we don’t pass out, but we can’t just simply
do that indefinitely, unless we are focusing our
attention on that activity. So for example, we can’t
breathe six times a minute and read a book, or watch
TV, because sooner or later, my attention will be drawn
to the TV and I will go right back to my baseline of 12
to 15 breaths per minute. So the element that we’re
actually harnessing here, is not just my breathing,
which naturally will reduce my anxiety, lower my blood
pressure, lower my heart rate, it will also force me to keep
the focus of my attention on the present moment. Now this is important, in terms of overall
reduction of anxiety because, as we like to say, anxiety is all about
future states of mind. To the degree that I’m
anxious, is the degree to which I’m thinking about things in the future, whether it’s five minutes or
five years into the future. To be paying attention to my
breathing rate, for 15 minutes means that for that 15
minutes, I’m working very hard to keep the focus of my
attention immediately before me. Now, that’s not easy work to do because I don’t have some thing I can focus on that is
other than my breathing and the rate at which I’m
inhaling and exhaling. One of the things that that
does, is that it allows me to strengthen my attentional
muscle, as it were, so that I find that over
time, if I were to do this practice say, 15
minutes, twice a day, 10 minutes, twice a day, for six weeks, I not only strengthen my capacity to be more focused, attentive, and less anxious during that time that I’m practicing it, it also becomes a tool to
which I can turn very quickly, throughout the course of my day. Which means that it’s more
likely, when my teenage son leads me to want to lose my
temper, I’m much more likely to, as my wife says, “When you want
to step forward, step back.” It’s easier for me to
step back if I have a tool that I can turn to immediately, allow myself to focus my
attention, lower my breathing rate, which lowers my blood pressure, which lowers my muscle tension,
which makes it more easy for me to be thoughtful and reflective, so that my response to my son
is more likely to meet him where he is, as opposed to
responding in a way that is coming from my lower brain, my more reptilian brain, my more protective brain,
my more angry brain, and then lead to things
that are not the kinds of outcomes that I want. The brain tends to develop
from bottom to top, and right to left. Now I say tends, because this
is no hard and fast rule, but what we are referring to is that, as a developing fetus grows, especially its neurological system, first comes what we call the neural tube, which becomes later our spinal cord, and at the top of the spinal
cord, we see emerging what eventually becomes the brainstem. The brainstem is the part of
the brain that is responsible for most of our very basic life functions. So breathing, heart rate,
blood pressure, temperature, appetite regulation, those
kinds of things that we need for basic survival. We have this in common with reptiles. In addition, the brainstem
also houses what we call our fight-or-flight procedures. So those things that become
imminently dangerous to us activate networks in the
brainstem that then lead to us behaving quite automatically, without having any thought whatsoever. So if I’m walking across the street, and a car blows on the horn
because I’m not watching, I don’t think about whether
or not to get out of the way, I simply do. From the brainstem, then heading north, again, bottom to top, we
think about what we call the limbic circuitry, or
circuitry out of which much of what we feel, emotionally, emerges. We also like to say that
emotion is important because as the word implies, e-motion, that which proceeds
movement, that if we were to take emotion out of the human being, human beings would stop moving. We wouldn’t do anything. Emotion then becomes, as we say, the energy around which
the brain organizes itself. It then tends to energize other
things that are taking place in the cortex, which is then
the top part of the brain. So we’ve moved from the brainstem,
to the limbic circuitry, to the cortex, bottom to top. The cortex is what most people
might think of or recognize when they thing about a model of brain, of an anatomical model that they’ve seen, and the cortex, among other
things, is eventually the place out of which emerges
our critical thinking, our reflective thinking, our
logical and linear thinking, but before it ever gets
there, it also is the place out of which emerges things
like our creative self. My sense of space and mobility, my sense of what I like artistically, if I walk into a room and
just see that it feels good or that it feels cluttered,
my right hemisphere is gonna have a lot to do with that. And so we see now that
even though we are moving from bottom to top, we are
also moving from right to left. By that we mean that the right
hemisphere tends to develop, in developing fetuses
and even in children, up to the age of five to six
years, the right hemisphere tends to mature more
quickly than the left does. And so the things that
the right hemisphere is responsible for in most people, things like creativity, visual-spatial
orientation, non-verbal cues, 60 to 90% of all human communication is non-verbal in nature. So most of that
communication is taking place in the right hemisphere
that has already begun to develop very, very quickly
before the baby’s even born. It’s only later, around
18 to 24 months of age, that my left hemisphere,
now starts to mature. So my logical thinking, my linear thinking that one thing follows another,
my mathematical thinking, my need for things to be in order, all of that begins to
develop later in time. So when anyone then, is beginning to pay attention more to their mind, it’s helpful
for them to pay attention to, what we call, both the mind’s structures, where things happen, and functions, those things that correlate
with those different things. Examples of this would be something like a memory that I have of my
experience with my own daughter when she was about 16 years of age, and we’re standing in our
kitchen and I asked her, this was on a Friday
evening, and it’s important because several days before this, I had, knowing that she’s a teenager,
I had warned her that we, as a family, were gonna have
a work detail with our church that we were going to have to be at, at eight o’clock on Saturday morning. This is not good news for
a 16 year old girl to hear, so I figured I would start
this process early in the week. I introduced the subject
to her on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I figure I’m
doing my job as a parent. Friday night, I ask the simple question, “What time would you like for me “to get you up in the morning?” The outcome of this conversation
was just withering fire from her about why it
just didn’t make any sense that we were doing this tomorrow morning, and so forth and so on, and
I, of course, was confused because I thought I’d done my homework and had behaved right as a parent. What I wasn’t counting on was
that as she started to talk, my becoming aware that I was becoming as rigid as a board standing in my kitchen, and as I started to pay
attention, literally, to my back and my stomach and my jaw, I became aware that something
was, I mean it was clear that something was not
okay in the conversation, but it was the first time
that I felt like I had a way to diffuse the conversation,
not so much by paying attention to what she was actually saying to me, but by paying attention actually
to what my body was doing. And so, I said to her, “You know, I think I’m not doing very well “in this conversation.” This would be one of those
rare moments when I actually parented in a way that
would be reasonable. “I would like to go over and sit down, “and have a conversation about this.” Now, mind you, it’s 10 o’clock
at night, I’m headed to bed. I’m not thinking about
having 20 minute conversation with my daughter to answer the question, “What time will I get
you up in the morning?” However, when we sat down, it was clear that everything about our body postures changed, and the very act of
changing our body posture, because it was one of those
rare occasions where I was paying attention to my own, I noticed that I felt less relaxed. We stopped the conversation
that we had, we took a break, we 15 seconds walked over, sat down in more comfortable chairs, and that gave me enough
breathing space to back up and begin to ask her different questions about why she was upset. It’s a practical kind of thing to do that begins with the question of, “What am I paying attention to?” Most of us, and I would
admit my self included, often simply react in those conversations, without being mindful enough
of what other parts of our body are trying to tell us, such that if we did pay attention to them, it can lead to making different choices that lead to long term, better
outcomes in relationships. We like to remind parents
that every infant comes into the world looking for
someone looking for her, and it never stops. What this means, practically
speaking, is that a baby is born with a
particular temperament, and parents then encounter that
baby with that temperament, and the parents will react to
that baby in a particular way, and that infant will then attach to them in response to their reaction. Now, if I’m a parent who has the capacity to think about, and be reflective of my developing infant’s mind, and by mind here, we don’t
just mean their brain, we also mean their brain
and their body movement and their sense of distress and
their sense of being content and so therefore I’m not going
to bother them at the moment, my capacity to be aware of their developing mind, is deeply related to whether or not I have made sense of my own developmental story. And so one of the things
that we tell parents is that, there are many, many variables
that shape a child’s capacity to attach in a secure way, but
the data pretty clearly shows that there is one single
variable that stands head and shoulders above
every other variable. Interestingly enough, it’s not how many parenting classes I go to, it’s not how many times I watch certain parenting videos,
it’s not about that. The single most important
variable is whether or not I have made complete sense of my own life. The degree to which I make
sense of my own life, meaning, how able am I to incorporate my own emotional states, my own memory, my own traumas, how able am I to experience healing of those? To the degree that I am able to do that, it enhances my capacity,
then, to, in a health way, sense the states of mind that
my infant is experiencing. Consequently, when my infant is upset, that may evoke in me
feelings of being upset. If those feelings are
things that I am able to step back from and say, “I’m upset because my infant is upset, “but I’m not gonna act on those things.” That is to my baby’s advantage, because I can then pause, reflect, and then act more intentionally, rather than acting more impulsively. This leads to a baby having the experience of, as we say, the
experience of feeling felt. The baby has the experience of their mind being sensed and understood by their parent. One of the challenging things
of course, as parents, is that some of our children can
develop in such a way that their first words
come out by the time they’re less than 12 months of age, and they’re speaking in full sentences by the time they’re 15 months
of age, three word sentences, and of course this fools us
into believing that they know exactly what we’re
telling them when we say, “No, don’t eat the begonia
leaves, you may not do that.” We expect them to understand,
conceptually, the word “No.” When most of the time, a 15
month old, an 18 month old is only going to comprehend
the emotional tenor with which we say that word. Most parents don’t say, “No honey.” We say, “No!” And we typically say it because
we want to keep our kids out of danger, because we want
them to be safe, so forth, but most of the time, they’re
not comprehending that in logical, linear ways,
which means of course, that when they don’t do
what we ask them to do, we assume that they’re simply
being willfully unwilling to do what we ask them to do. As opposed to us comprehending
this in different terms, really recognizing that
what we are trying to do with our children, for the
most part, for the first, probably two to three years of their life, is that we’re trying to help them regulate their emotional states, and the single most
helpful way we can do that, is by being aware of
our own emotional states and how we are responding to them. This leads to all kinds of
work, as parents, that I really, frankly, would rather not do. I’d rather not have to
go over and pick them up, I’d rather just say, “Please come here.” And they do that, and when they don’t, I know that, “Gosh,
their brain really wants “just to go to explore things.” And I’m going to have to
somehow physically do the work, to be present for them,
to help move them away from the dangerous thing,
while communicating to them that I’m loving them while I’m doing it. The good news is that we are
never too old to make changes. Perhaps this was why Moses
was 80 when he got the call. Perhaps this is why Abraham was 75 when the whole process started. Perhaps this is why God’s
not worried about any of us, in terms of when we begin to make changes. A story that’s related to
this begins with a young man in his mid 30s who was the
oldest of five children and had a nine month old that was rather precocious in giving him some difficulties. And so he called his
mother for some advice, and she, wise person that she was, decided she wanted to refer her son to his father, who was about 63 at the time. Her son was not very happy
about this because his father had never been anybody
who’d really talked to him throughout his entire
life about anything except whether or not he was
getting to church on time, and whether or not he had his
homework done and so forth, but emotional things within the family, were never things that’s they discussed, and he wasn’t very pleased with
his mother because he wasn’t getting from her, the advice
that he wanted, directly. Upon contacting his father, his father had a story to tell him. A story that he’d never told him before. His father mentioned to him that this 35 year old son of his had never known his
grandfather, his father’s father who had been an alcoholic
and had died before the 35 year old was born, and Ed, the 63 year old dad in this story told his son, “What you didn’t know about
him, was that he would “get very, very aggressive
in his states of drunkenness, “and would throw people around
the room in the kitchen.” And he told his son, “I swore that when I had
kids, I would never, ever “do to them what my father did to me.” And so whenever it came to emotional things that would get dicey in the
house, he would simply withdraw and allow his wife to take over. Consequently, he never really had much of an emotional
connection with his kids, not because he didn’t want
to, but because he was afraid of what might happen. Well this wasn’t something
that his 35 year old son was really ever aware of, but Ed told his son that when his nine month old was born, things started to happen
because Ed was now in a position where he didn’t really have to
be responsible for parenting, he wasn’t responsible for a lot of things for the development of his
grandson, his problem was, he didn’t know how to connect with him, and it was creating all kinds of problems in his own relationship with his wife because he was worried about
why he couldn’t do better with his new grandson. And his wife said, “I think you
should go talk to this guy.” And so into my office
walks 63 year old Ed, who never really had told
anyone about the details and certainly had not ever
shared the emotional content of the trauma of what it was
like to grow up in a house where everybody was being brutalized in the wake of his father’s alcoholism. Now what’s significant
about all this, is that as Ed did work with me, he began to notice changes within himself. He was paying attention
to emotional states he never had before,
paying attention to memory, having that revitalized and
changed, such that he was now beginning to talk with his wife. At one point, his wife called me and said, “What have you done with my husband?” This didn’t solve the
problem immediately however, of how Ed was going to
relate to his grandson. Until that fateful day when
Calvin, his 35 year old son, called his mother. As Ed began to tell Calvin his story, Calvin, of course, was stunned by things about his father’s story
that he didn’t know, and Calvin heard his
father feeling things, and describing things and
even asking for forgiveness, something he’d never really been very well-practiced at doing, in the course of their life together. Here’s the strange and beautiful part, as Ed began to make sense of his life, he created space for Calvin to begin to make sense of his
life, because Calvin had, for all of his life, never
really thought or felt his father loved him. He felt his father tolerated
him, there was no sense of his being aware that his
father really deeply loved him, he was just handicapped by his own fear. This then, began to activate
some things in Calvin that, interestingly enough, meant
that over time, Calvin started to figure some things
out, which enabled him to be less anxious, which
interestingly enough, meant that his parenting of
his own son began to change. Now what’s interesting about all this, it was changing long before Calvin’s 9 month old son had language. This was not a matter of
Calvin explaining things differently to this young boy. This was a matter of the trickle
down effect of what happens when an older person begins to work on changes in his mind, that evoke changes in his 35 year old son, that move all the way to
the brain of a 9 month old. Now here’s the really good news, we can see that whether
you’re 9 months of age, 9 years of age, or 90 years of age, the potential for regeneration, for renewal, for changing your mind,
for repairing ruptures, is never, ever exhausted, and this is really good news. The term neuroplasticity really refers to the capacity of neurons to flexibly change. By that, we mean the following, 25 to 30 years ago, which
is not really that long, it was believed that, for
the most part, if there was any damage to the brain,
number one, the brain would have a great deal of difficulty
recovering from that damage. The second thing was, that
it was generally considered that once a person reaches
the age, somewhere between about 12 and 16, that the
brain was, for the most part, done forming and there
really wasn’t any more space for growth or change whatsoever, but advancements in some of our technology gives us the
capacity for now measuring what those neurons are able to do, and as it turns out, neurons
are far more flexible than we ever thought they were, and by flexibility, by neuroplasticity or the neuron’s capacity to be flexible, plastic, or malleable,
we mean the following. First of all, that neurons
are able of regeneration. So the brain has the capacity
for, one, growing new neurons. The second part of
neuroplasticity is that the brain has the capacity for neurons
to grow in size and length, in diameter and in length. And the third thing, is
that neurons are able to increase their degree of
connectivity with other neurons. All three of these things, regeneration, growth in length and diameter, and growth in density of connection, means that our mind has the
capacity for doing things, even after damage, that we didn’t think it could do before. What does that have to do
with spiritual transformation? We like to say that, in the brain, nothing changes without neurons changing. If I learn a new thing,
if I put a new practice into a disciplined place,
all of those things require the redirection of neurons to do things that they weren’t doing before. Neuroplasticity is something
that we want to enhance in order to make that flexibility more accessible. Things like spiritual disciplines, fasting, confession, prayer,
solitude, and so forth, do a couple of things. One, they open our awareness
to things that our mind is sensing, feeling, evoking, that we typically are
not paying attention to. If I am now paying attention
to these new things, I’m asking my brain’s neurons to do things they weren’t doing before, and as such, I open up windows into connecting functions of
my mind, experiences of my mind that were not being connected before. And so, the flexibility of neuroplasticity is, in some respects,
almost interchangeable with spiritual formation. You can’t really talk
about spiritual formation without invoking the
activity of neuroplasticity. There are, perhaps many reasons whereby which we have come to where we are in history. One thing seems to be rather evident, and that is that we love knowing things. We almost have an insatiable
thirst for knowing things. It also appears that most of our interest in knowing things is in order to control and
reduce our distress and anxiety, that largely comes, not
because we don’t know things, but because we are not known. It’s interesting that we live in a world that, for the last perhaps 300
years, has largely been shaped by an ethos that encourages
and invites independence, invites people to make their own choices, without necessarily needing to be connected to other people. That tends to be a very
different plausibility structure than a biblical one, which from the get-go, addresses the world and says, “Let us make mankind in our image, “let them then rule and have
dominion over the earth, “let them live like us.” Essentially. And that’s a pretty crucial statement because we hear in
that, that the intention for women and men, by God’s design, was for us to not simply live together, but that we would be
increasingly more deeply known by one another. It’s interesting that one of the ways in which the Hebrew texts
understand what God meant by bringing to Adam a helper, was one who mirrors Adam to himself, that I’m not just helping
him with the laundry, I’m not just helping him with dinner, I’m helping him to see himself. Interpersonal neurobiology,
interesting enough, is tending to give us different information than what our typical scientific direction tends to go. It tends to say, “We don’t
really know ourselves, “until we see ourselves
in somebody else’s eyes.” This is replete throughout
the biblical narrative. Even though it’s being newly
discovered by neuroscientists in the 21st century, this
is information that is, to the writers of the Ecclesiastes
would say, is not really new under the sun, we’re
just simply putting a different spin on it. So to the degree that we aren’t just simply striving to know information, but to
the degree that we are willing to be known by others in all of our dreadfulness, in all of our darkness and strangeness, is the degree to which I
then become known to myself, and I can’t really do that,
nor will I experience that, I think, with God, until,
and/or unless I’m doing that with other people that are just sitting three feet away from me.

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