Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Neuroplasticity and the Cortisol and Serotonin Switch: An Interview with Dr. Loretta Breuning

Dr. Loretta Breuning
One of the first major seismic shifts in world history was the realization that the Earth was not the center of the universe as had been previously stated and believed. With this revolution came a sense of displacement; overnight, humanity had lost its special location and standing in the cosmic scheme of things. The second revolution occurred with Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, which placed and enmeshed humans fully within the world of animals. Our physical ancestors were not angels after all; they were monkeys.

Moreover, and psychologically speaking, it was Freud who discovered and added animal instincts to complete the picture of this perceived displacement. We have the commonly shared territory of the id, the unconscious reservoir of dark impulses, sexual urges, and aggression that ought to be controlled, diverted and dealt with to avoid impending chaos and destruction. As we can see, we still have a very long way to go to peace and tranquility, but what may be perceived by some as a loss in pride and entitlement and by others as a lesson in humility can, in fact, be harnessed and utilized towards a better understanding of the human species.

As a matter of fact, this was one of the main topics of my interview with the renowned brain chemistry expert and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, Dr. Loretta Breuning. Her book Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop sheds light on various trends and behaviors, including competition and social rivalry and their established link and connection with the animal world. 

Before we delve into specifics about the interaction, interplay, and interconnectedness between humans and animals and how it can benefit us to understand our own behaviors as well as that of others - including how that new-found knowledge and insight can lead to greater emotional freedom as well as move us towards potential happiness - let us first deal with the elephant in the room.

In recent times, as noted and observed by Dr. Breuning, there is a trend towards romanticizing and idealizing wildlife and animals. Unlike before, when we upheld humans as shiny examples of the natural world, nowadays, in academia and mainstream currents, we are going in the opposite direction by upholding nature in all its supposed glory as an angelic role model to follow. This is not merely seeing and sympathizing with animals as oppressed and victimized beings but of instilling and projecting into them inherent goodness and compassion that seems borderline angelic in nature.

There are two examples that come to mind demonstrating this and the potential harm associated with such a way of idealized and idealistic thinking. On one hand, we would overlook and ignore the fact that animals lack the human moral capacity in relation to decision-making and judgment. There may be – and I would say there certainly is – a bond and affinity that transcends across species, a space in which pets and certain animals may see and relate to their benevolent owners or caregivers with care and affection, but at the same time, there is also a wild instinctive side to them, an aggressive and ingrained survival instinct that can resurface at any given moment regardless of the established bond between them.

My first example here is a scene from Natural Born Killers by Oliver Stone that has always stuck with me. The film cleverly connects the dots between human and animal nature but it also makes a counterpoint with the example of the snake. We hear an anecdote of a human taking care of a snake, feeding, and protecting it, and yet, one day, the snake bites its owner. The owner is shocked and asks the snake, how it could possibly return all his kindness with such a heinous and cruel act. The snake replies (I am paraphrasing from memory), my wild nature was known to you from the start, and it was always known to you that I am a snake and that betrayal was part of my DNA and, ipso facto, sooner or later, you would be bitten.

The second case I would like to mention is the wonderful but heartbreaking and sad documentary Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog in which the filmmaker documents various years of the life of the self-styled American environmentalist Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell had chosen to live in a bear habitat and shot some beautiful and amazing footage up-close with bears and other wildlife. That he managed to survive for years was a miracle, and we can see, often with our own eyes, how it was not always easy, but, in the end, he and his visiting girlfriend were mauled and eaten by one of the bears. The romantic and idyllic idea of nature and wildlife to be essentially loving and peaceful was suddenly and violently shattered into pieces.

Let us now switch to humans, and it is not hard to see that we are hardly doing much better. Although there are those who are good and decent, it often feels that they are in the minority since the ones who are cruel and abusive seem to abound and be anywhere; we can spot them in any direction we set our eyes on, be it in the media, in politics, at work, while they are often lurking among family, friends, and neighbors. Why is this so?

It is not enough to simply state and acknowledge that we behave this way because we come from monkeys; there are deeper insights to be gleaned from this fact. Animals have an ingrained structure of comparing themselves to others, which we have inherited from them. As Loretta explains, this hierarchical behavior of mammals is often, consciously, or unconsciously, copied by us, and it is the underlying reason why we are always comparing ourselves to others and that we constantly want and strive to be in a position of strength.

This makes perfect evolutionary sense because the overall goal and aim are to promote our genes; the difference is that we, as opposed to animals, have a possible vantage point because we have the potential to be aware of this trend, and yet, many fellow humans ignore this fact, or they lack the necessary insight or awareness.

Hence, for our own protection and survival, natural selection has built a brain that responds to this situation and promotes this in a natural fashion without the necessity of thought and awareness. The way it is done is through the release of good feelings via the neurotransmitter serotonin.

In a nutshell, whenever we feel stronger than others, our serotonin levels go up and we feel good about ourselves; on the other hand, whenever we feel weaker in the presence of others, the brain releases cortisol, a known stress chemical. As it is easy to see, the human challenge or dilemma is the following: How can we get that good feeling of serotonin without being a jerk?

However, as Loretta explains, the trick is to put yourself up without putting others down. This is often easier said than done. Bullying and denigrating others for a fix of serotonin is a much faster way to get the rush of good feelings pulsing through our veins. This is the proverbial dominant gesture that many copy from monkeys: they puff up their chest and give a direct stare and throw menacing grunts or words with veiled or open threats in your direction; they want to impress and intimidate you either with physical prowess or their social standing alongside the supposed power that comes with it.

If both parties are bullies by nature, they would get into a physical altercation or confrontation, but bullies generally know who to pick (although at times, they miscalculate their strengths or make mistakes and errors by underestimating the strength and power of others, mainly due to their own lack of intelligence). But the problem remains that if you see yourself as weak or if you have been a victim of bullying in the past, you tend to accept the abuse and violence and may even rationalize and justify it to yourself.

But it is best to be aware of this tendency and to notice it when it happens. Many of our reactions and comparisons with others stem from our own past experiences, particularly the way our brains wire in youth. There are different pathways that become set during those critical, vital, and impressionable years of brain growth, and you may either choose to always put yourself on top or you may resort to comparing yourself negatively with others by putting yourself down and on the bottom.

Evidently, neither path is healthy nor beneficial, and the problem is that not only do we keep repeating those patterns from when we were young, but we also tend not to see our own status games. This is not too surprising as our mammal brain, the part of the brain that controls our instincts and emotions is inherited by animals and cannot use language.

Put differently, these chemicals, especially the threat-sensing cortisol and the domineering sensation of serotonin really drive us, and we do not consciously decide or opt for them. Many will deny it through defense mechanisms as they always claim to see those types of unwanted behaviors in others but apparently never spot them within themselves.

And yet, there is hope and a path out of this jungle. The key lies in neuroplasticity and in rewiring your brain by creating and setting new pathways. We acquired many of these traits and feelings through our past conditioning and via mirror neurons. You are wired to repeat patterns of behaviors, including thoughts and emotions associated with them, and so whatever triggered your threat chemicals in the past will continue to do so until you decide to put a stop to it.

It starts with mindfulness, that is, being aware that we have been conditioned to mirror the behavior of others. In the process, you learn and mirror what gets rewards (dopamine kicks in) as well as what helps you avoid pain. First, you start by pleasing your partners but then the focus of your inner mammal will be on pleasing peers so that you can find a sex partner. This is one of the main reasons high school kids tend to follow their peers more than their parents.

The problem with neuroplasticity is that the older you get, the more difficult the task of changing, re-programming, or creating new pathways will be. These pathways are built easily and without much effort when we are young, but with age, it becomes more difficult to build those conditions. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and yet, it is possible but only with a lot of effort, determination, and persistence.

It would certainly help or be beneficial if there was any type of precedent set in the past. For instance, if you were helping others and got rewarded, you will continue to do so but, on the flip side, if you were rewarded for unhealthy behaviors, then you would likely choose and take unhealthy steps. And yet, suffering can come in handy here. As Loretta points out, prominent people have gone through loads of suffering, and that includes Freud as well. He faced adversity and resistance but still managed to push ahead despite it all.

We can use his knowledge, experience, and insights to also push ahead and go past the resistance that we experience throughout our lives. It is possible to switch and turn your cortisol response into a reaction with serotonin. It cannot and will not happen overnight, but we can set ourselves a game plan by establishing clear and precise short, midterm, and long-term goals.

All this time, it is recommended to be driving in the middle lane. Sure, there is the temptation to go in the fast lane as we crave status and social dominance, fame, and riches and often we want to have it quick and easy, but all things considered, it will be a frustrating experience. We also have to face and accept the fact that we cannot always come out on top and that some will be always better and better off than we are.

On the other hand, the slow lane, although gradual and patient, will have its own share of shortcomings, such as the unenviable feeling of being left behind or even feeling angry and resentful, which will in turn - yes, you guessed it - precipitate a cortisol response. The best thing to do is to keep it real and to remain cool.

What makes you cool? I can give you Loretta’s response to this topic of interest: What makes you cool in high school, or any other time of your life, is the same that makes you cool in a monkey troop. If looking to impress a mate, you want to have a healthy appearance as the brain selects for partners that are healthy, and this provides the potential guarantee of keeping your genes alive.

You also want to have a strong social alliance. This explains why youth and adults may get involved with gangs or build connections, coalitions, and alliances to get a seat on the "cool" table. The real aim of high school is to win over desired and desirable sex partners, but some people are still stuck in that state and stage notwithstanding their physical age.  

Finally, there is the willingness to take risks. As a high school student - and even years after that - I was afraid to talk to potential romantic partners, while the cool kids made it look easy by merely going up and talking to them. This timid behavior often goes hand-in-hand with doubting and second-guessing yourself, but the element of risk, of stepping outside of your comfort zone and the status quo, can be helpful for various parts and domains of your life. We can learn from animals, listen to, and embrace our mammal brain, and yet, at the same time, we have the incredible potential of paving a path towards growth, transcendence, and self-empowerment in the process.



Such was my wonderful interview with the amazing Dr. Loretta Breuning! You can access the full interview either here or you can catch it on my podcast: Arash’s World Podcast!

Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Age of Adolescence and the Adolescent World: An Interview with Erica Komisar

Erica Komisar
Often when we talk about the “good old days” and reminisce about the past, we tend to skip over the turbulent and often troublesome period known as adolescence. There seems to be something about being a “teenager” that apparently brings out the worst in us. We may recall days of anger, angst, emotional turmoil, and misunderstandings from peers and parents, or we remember (or prefer to ignore) being excluded from groups, or we may have clicked with some groups at the expense and exclusion of others.

Although we often find and put our finger on what is commonly known as our vocation during childhood, it is during the time of adolescence that we reignite and reconnect with that specific passion of ours. This happens for a reason. It is during this difficult time period and transition that we connect with our interest with renewed and intense passion because it is a way of dealing with the pain and uncertainty that we experience. Alternatively, it may represent a type of escape and refuge from it all.

In either case and be it as it may, it is a way of ensuring that we do not lose our minds and our fragile eggshell sanity. What saved me back then was the trifecta of BCMM: books, mainly of literature and of philosophy, classical music, and movies. These three “hobbies” of mine still continue to be my existential backbone and the purveyors of happiness even at - or rather especially during - desolate times.

I had the absolute pleasure to talk about these very same issues of despair, desolation, and loneliness, the adversity known as adolescence, with psychoanalyst and parent guidance expert Erica Komisar. Her book Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety is not only a masterful and insightful self-help guide for parents and child adults everywhere, but it is a godsend for me especially now that my son shall be firmly setting foot into this tumultuous period of his - and our - life.

Sorry to start with a piece of sad and unfortunate news: in modern terms and with the advent and age of technology, the age of adolescence has extended its range from age nine to age twenty-five! This growth period is divided into three main phases: the early adolescence of Exploration from nine to thirteen, the middle adolescence of Declaration - formerly known as the main teen years - from fourteen to eighteen, and the late adolescence of Confirmation aka the young adult period from nineteen to twenty-five. It is not until the end of adolescence that the brain has fully and emotionally matured, at least hopefully and theoretically so, but more on this a bit later in my post.

Although adolescence is a critical period of brain growth, it is not the only one, nor is it the first one. The first critical period begins at birth until age three, and it is crucial for emotional regulation and resilience to stress. At this stage, the environment is especially important, and the infant and subsequent toddler remain extremely sensitive to stress. Erica has dedicated her first book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters to this precise period in which parents, especially mothers, serve as the child’s primary attachment and work as stress buffers.

It is essential and vital for the caregiver to always be there, to be present, and to help to soothe the infant from moment to moment as this would biologically regulate the child’s emotions, lay down the foundations of emotional security as well as create a safe haven and a solid trust in the environment. These are important building blocks for effectively dealing with and regulating stress and for paving the bridge of resilience, all in preparation for later stages during which they would be put to the test, in particular the age of adolescence.

By taking care of your child especially for the first three years of his or her life, by buffering them from too much stress and by not putting them into institutional care and facilities, such as daycares during those critical years of growth and connection, the stress-sensing part of the brain, the amygdala, will become quiet - which is a good thing - and it does not come online. Children growing up without their primary attachment figure or with mothers who - in pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s famous term – are just not “good enough”, or, as in my own case, who are raised by a narcissistic mother, these children will essentially lack an emotionally secure foundation, which could potentially last a lifetime.

Then, the emotional storm of adolescence hits the stage, and this is the second critical period of brain growth where the brain is once again vulnerable and under attack. Even for healthy kids, adolescence is a trauma, but for someone with less emotional security and less ability to regulate their emotions, it is so much harder to get through unscathed.

Not only is this a stressful period on its own, but it is confounded by additional layers of stress, especially during this age of anxiety, which includes economic uncertainty, political and social disruption and upheaval in the fabric of our existence, natural disasters, and climate change alongside the predominantly negative influence of social media, and the unexpected and unheard-of challenges of a pandemic.

Adolescence is a period where, as a parent, we have an incredible impact and influence on our child and immense and undeniable responsibility that comes with it. It certainly does not help that we feel powerless and confused ourselves or that we put and unload extra and unnecessary stress on our children and young adults.

This is also where independence becomes of importance, but many parents misunderstand what this means and what it entails. There can also be cultural pressure, such as Japan’s disturbing and borderline-cruel tradition of sending out three-year-olds on errands in busy urban city centers (I learned this shocking tidbit from the first episode of Apple TV+’s Becoming You, in which the usually lucid Olivia Coleman falsely attributes this traumatic experience to be a show and sign of real independence); on the other hand, there is the equally emotionally misguided cultural practice of parents, particularly fathers that refuse to give hugs and kisses to their children in various parts of the world.

The period of adolescence is important for the psychological developmental process known as separation-individuation. It is a time for a natural and healthy separation of the child from his parents and caregivers. When they were infants, they would learn to take their first steps during the first critical growth period; at this point, adolescents would learn to take their first steps away from their parents to create a little bit of distance between each other. As a result, the adolescent learns to function in the world and gains confidence by being physically and emotionally separated from their parents.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that independence is not binary. Although the adolescent starts to individuate, that is to form his or her own identity, they still count and need parental emotional support and guidance. They may consciously push away their known source of security and support and instead try to depend more on peers and teachers, but it is all part of their existential crisis and the opportunity for personal growth and knowledge. Yet it does not mean by any means that they are, can, and even should be fully sufficient at that age.

As a parent, we still need to be there for them, but we can let them know in clear terms that they can be dependent on us sometimes and still be independent at other times and that it is not an either-or decision. It is not a binary case of one or the other nor of having to stick to independence at the expense of dependence but rather a bit of both, each in their own due time and each as needed and required.

Nonetheless, it does not change the fact that our beloved adolescent offspring will go through a painful period of growth as they start to depend on themselves and during a period of their lives that is full of conflict and filled with many mood changes. All this necessary turmoil can be a tad, or rather a lot, smoother with love and emotional support from their parents. It is essential that our children know and feel that when they need us, we will indeed be there for them.

But let us be accountable and accept responsibility for our own parental actions, missteps, and errors. First off, we ought to be aware of the fact that age does not automatically equal emotional maturity. Put differently, not everyone has developed emotionally to be at their purported physical age, and, in fact, it is quite possible that we got stuck at a specific point of our lives, and even more likely that we may have indeed become stuck and stagnated at the adolescent level.

Many parents have had significant trauma and their pain goes back to adolescence. They may have amnesia about it and may not be able to remember anything or seemingly fail to recall the painful parts. The symptoms go back to their own experience of adolescence, and therapy can help them to not only reflect on where in that development they got trapped and stuck but also how to move past those emotional hurdles and obstacles.

In fact, as Erika mentioned to me, we are meant to move through these stages of development, but we do not always go through them, especially if there is trauma that interrupts it. In this way and manner, therapy opens doors and windows to resolve age-old conflicts that did not get resolved in their own time and that is now carried over unconsciously into one’s current experience and mindset.

Having a child in adolescence may jumpstart development in this area of our own lives, so it is most useful to be aware of and pay attention to specific characteristics of your child that tend to push your own buttons. If something about them continuously upsets you or gets on your nerve, these so-called buttons may represent your own unresolved conflicts that they may have actually learned from you! These are characteristics that we may have passed down to our children in an unconscious manner, and they can be manifested in notable and noteworthy anxiety, depression, paranoia, or harsh self-criticism.

In fact, it is easy to blame social media or others, but it is undeniable that children learn values at home, and they do not come from social media nor from society alone. If material success and high achievement are prioritized in your life, then these superficial aspects and appearances are going to be what your adolescents will also value in their lives. On the other hand, if you value relationships, family, and meaningful work, then that is what you effectively teach to your children.

It is you who teaches them what’s valuable and what’s not; in fact, looking at your children can feel like looking at the mirror. It becomes a problem when you displace and project your own wishes, desires, and frustrations onto them and try to model your children into mini-versions or clones, or idealized versions and extensions of yourself. For instance, you yourself may have failed in school, but you will demand - and obsessionally and unreasonably so - that they demonstrate high achievement in school.

This anxious push by parents will create a lot of anxiety and puts a tremendous amount of pressure on your child. If society and social media emit similar messages, these values can only reinforce the values that came from us initially. If our adolescents are overvaluing superficial and material success, then it may be because we have taught them to do so with our words and actions, consciously or unconsciously.

It is hard to own up and accept one’s failings and shortcomings. But when I see children that are troubled or misbehaving or even bullying others, that often reflects negatively on their home environment, and, in particular their parents. I always found it amusing that Cesar Millan of the show The Dog Whisperer would rarely work on the dogs but would “treat” the dog’s owners. In the same way, we often blame our children for things and issues that we do not want to accept within ourselves. In either case, we are much more responsible for their development than we may think.

This is a sad reality when it comes to the (mis)diagnosis of ADHD. It is overblown, and it is more often a symptom than a disorder. It stems from anxiety and comes from different types of frustrations in our young child’s life. It is tragic that many parents would jump and resort to using medications to treat the symptoms and, in that process, leave the issues unresolved and damage their child’s health and wellbeing.

It is often, as Erika explained because parents prefer the quick and easy solution that ends up causing significant and occasionally irreversible damage to the child’s physical and psychological growth. Instead, caring and mindful parents should take the time and effort to look and analyze the situation and to get to the root of the problem, which is, as in the case of Cesar’s misbehaving dogs because of the caregivers and not necessarily an inherent issue or flaw with the children themselves.

The fact that many people are continuously stuck in adolescence or have not overcome adolescent trauma is not surprising if you look out the window in today’s world. Adolescents are driven by extreme binary ways of seeing the world and of limited ways of thinking due to the lack of development within their brains.

Hence, in the adolescent world, you are either with them or you are against them, you are either in or out, you are either a good or a bad person, and you are either right or wrong. These walking “child adults” just like adolescents, and in some cases even worse than them, lack the ability to take in multiple nuanced perspectives, and they lack overall emotional and cognitive maturity.

They may even embrace activism with a passion but lack the empathy to fully understand and think about the issues. They may sound convincing but there may be a lack of understanding of what is important and essential. Essentially, the outgrowth of entitlement, which comes from deprivation alongside its juvenile expression via harmful trends like Cancel Culture, is often due to a lack of understanding, empathy as well as emotional maturity of the parties involved.

But like adolescents who can outgrow this dark period and get past the tunnel of stress and anxiety, there is hope for all of us, parents and adolescents alike, to come out stronger, and more empathic, more insightful, and more emotionally and spiritually mature and where we can not only see but actually visualize that the future can indeed be different from the present.

I want to thank Erica Komisar for her time, insights, and wonderful work! I also want to thank her publicist Lindsey Mach for arranging this wonderful interview!

To access the full-length interview, which is much more detailed and extensive, please take a look here or have a listen to Arash's World Podcast.