“Beam Me Home, Scotty!”: 15, The Ship’s Leadership, The Brainstem and PFC Scotty Jr.

(Podcast)

In this our final segment of the first section of the series, I want to introduce you to a character who never inhabited the original Star Trek series, yet who plays a crucial role in our USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain model: Private First Class (PFC) Scotty, Jr. He may be a man. She may be a woman. No matter: Scotty Jr. looks out for Dad up in the Transporter Room by keeping an eye on the Engine Room (the brainstem) and thus on the entire body.

(For those in the know, I am indeed mixing military metaphors, I understand that. In the United States Navy, young crewpersons are “Seamen,” not “Privates First Class.” The latter is  Army (and Marine) talk. Yet I ask you to forgive me: from this point on, I’ll be mixing military metaphors constantly, especially since, by sheer numbers, in the United States most combat veterans of the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have served in either of those two service branches.)

PFC Scotty, Jr., in fact, has a very particular MOS (military occupational specialty): he’s a 35F (or as they say in the” Army, “35-Fox” or “35-Foxtrot”). In other words, he’s an intelligence analyst.

But just as importantly, he’s an entry-level intelligence analyst. He just graduated from AIT (Advanced Individual Training), and he can only do so much at his pay grade. Intelligence analysts take raw information and put it together in a way that decision makers can more easily understand and act upon. They are the experts at “briefings.”

PFC Scotty Jr’s job, however, is not to give briefings per se. He has three main tasks:

  1. He has been “trained” to respond automatically to certain experiences that must be dealt with immediately, even before they hit the limbic system (i.e., Transporter Room). Our bodies do not need to activate the “Yeah, want that”/”Nope, don’t want that” system when what’s coming at our visual fields is a signal that says, “Incoming unidentified object!” or when what’s coming up through our bodies is a signal that says, “Running out of oxygen down here!” In the first example, PFC Scotty, Jr. knows to give to the body the command “DUCK!!”  In the second one, it’s “BREATHE!!” Those are exactly the types of functions Scotty’s pay grade was designed to handle.

 

  1. In essence, anything experience beyond those requiring the body’s immediate reflexes is “above “her/his pay grade.” And every good military person knows what to do when it’s “above my pay grade”: shoot the information up the Chain of Command. Next in line, therefore, is “Dad,” Mr. Scott, and the limbic system’s classification of emotional response.

 

  1. In our no-frills USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain, however, I am going to add one more job to Scotty Jr. In the real brain, the mechanism isn’t exactly a brainstem one, but for our purposes Scotty Jr will take us where we need to go, especially when we’re talking about trauma and combat PTSD. Simply put, Scotty Jr. has a “panic button” right next to him. As part of his training, he can identify when incoming crew members (emotional experiences) are indeed radioactive.

 

When he sees such crew members, he hits the panic button.

Don’t worry: eventually I will explain what I mean by that. Suffice it to say, Scotty Jr’s actions in such “radioactive” situations will clarify why some war experiences never seem to get out of the heads of combat veterans. Again, good news: it doesn’t have to stay that way. But realistic news: for many combat veterans, those experiences are constant and, usually, quite debilitating.

So there we have it. Section One is complete: we know about the basic, four parts of the brain. We know what parts of the USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain correspond to those parts. We know what leaders command each section. So are we ready yet to talk about combat PTSD?

Not quite. Patience, please, patience.

To understand truly about how the brain responds to the emotional experiences of combat, we must first understand how it responds to “normal” emotional experiences, both as we are growing up and then as we live our adult lives. Only when we know what it’s like for our experiences to “go right” will we fully appreciate what’s it’s like for them to “go wrong.”

And to do that, in Section Two we’re going to have to look at two very important ideas: Starfleet Academy and, later, Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs. Let’s boldly go there, shall we?

Don’t forget our motto, though: Decontaminating the Radioactive

Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back into Life.

See you then.

15, The Ship’s Leadership, The Brainstem

“Beam Me Home, Scotty!”: 14, The Ship’s Leadership: The Limbic System & Mr. Scott

(Podcast)

In this segment, we finish up our leadership roll call for the USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain by meeting the ship’s third-in-command, Montgomery Scott, perhaps better known as the “Scotty” who “beams up” crew members into or off of the ship. In the original series, he was played by James Doohan, and in the recent movie series, by Simon Pegg.

In Star Trek lore, Mr. Scott was the ever-steady presence in the heart of the ship, the chief engineer who could fix anything with enough time, given that he always had enough ingenuity. A very critical role, in other words.

In the brain, though, I’m having you consider him even more influential (and, thus, if Captain Kirk is not careful, more dangerous). Although he’s third-in-command, I want you to consider that in the USS Enterprise, he’s just as powerful as the Captain. As a dutiful crew member, he’s willing to subordinate himself to Kirk, but only on the condition that Kirk gives him his due. If Kirk refuses to do that—in other words, if the decision-making functions do not account for the emotional experiences underneath them—Scotty can turn real ugly, real fast.

I cannot emphasize this enough, even at this stage of our series:

IN THE USS ENTERPRISE/BATTLESHIP BRAIN, IF SCOTTY DOES NOT GET ADEQUATE ATTENTION FROM KIRK, SCOTTY WILL MUTINY!

HE WILL EITHER TAKE OVER THE BRIDGE OR HE WILL POISON THE CREW.

“IGNORE” MR. SCOTT AT YOUR PERIL!!!!!

YOU CAN’T IGNORE HIM IN THE LONG RUN!!!

EVEN IF IT TAKES YEARS, HE WILL HAVE HIS SAY IN YOUR LIFE!!!

IF HE HAS TO MAKE HIMSELF KNOWN “BY FORCE,” HE WILL.  IT WON’T BE PRETTY.

High drama enough for you?

Please, please: imagine what it might be like to believe me, if you have to. You don’t want an angry Scotsman in the middle of your brain,

From metaphor now to reality: in your brain, the limbic system is the first stop for all your experiences. You can’t bypass it, can’t, can’t.  I don’t care what your family taught you. I don’t care what your culture taught you. I don’t care what your basic training instructor taught you. I don’t care what the Department of Defense publishes in its regulations. You can’t bypass emotion. You can’t.

If you think you are bypassing it, you’re wrong. Instead, you have only developed well your inhibitory mechanisms (the military police of your brain) to slap down the emotional experiences that are already there. No ifs, ands, or buts: experience does not hit the cortex (the Crew and the Bridge) first. Never has, never will.

Clear?

In the USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain, Scotty is in charge of the Transporter Room, i.e., the limbic system. He is its supervisor. He represents the sum total of our emotional experiences that are needing to be processed and assigned their spots in our brain and our mental life. When brigades of radioactive crew members find themselves transported onto our ships, Mr. Scott is the one who is going to have to handle them all until the rest of the brain (i.e., Kirk and McCoy, the prefrontal cortex and the cortex) deals with them. It’s a dirty job, but a he’s a loyal third-in-command. He’ll do what he can.

To a point.

I can’t emphasize that enough: to a point. Everyone has his or her breaking point. When Scotty hits his, watch out. Mutinies are not fun.

We’ll get to all that later.

Before we do, though, let me introduce you to one more character, one not in the original series or in its newer version. In the next segment I present to you a crew member whose role in our series will be small, but crucial. It’s Private First Class “Scotty Jr.”

As always, though, remember our motto:  Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back into Life. See you then.

14, The Ship’s Leadership, The Limbic System

“Beam Me Home, Scotty!”: 13, The Ship’s Leadership, The Cortex and Dr. McCoy

(Podcast)

In the last segment we learned that Captain Kirk stands for the functions of the prefrontal cortex, and we also learned that the ever-logical Mr. Spock has no place in the day-to-day functions of the brain. So let me introduce you to the brain’s second-in-command: the ever-wise counselor to the Captain, Lieutenant Commander Leonard “Bones” McCoy. MD, played in the original series by DeForrest Kelley and in the recent movie by Karl Urban.

No matter what the “real” Dr. McCoy was like, either on TV or in the movies, the brain’s Dr. McCoy is a no-nonsense function that keeps the Crew of the ship (from this point on, our metaphor for the cortex) functioning well. Dr. McCoy is going to stand for the cortex’s capacity to respond, balance, and recalibrate to all the emotional experiences that come its way through the limbic system.  He represents no specific brain function, but rather represents the sum total of all the tools that the brain has to make sense of the world, protect the body, and keep the body running smoothly.

Since Dr. McCoy represents a variety of brain functions, let’s go ahead and put him in an “area” that represents a variety of brain areas working together. I first introduced it to you back in Segment 04. Remember the little pads at the bottom of your middle and ring fingers, at the very tip of the palm? We called that the Processing Center/Sick Bay. It does not “literally” exist as a particular place in the brain, but it will help us see how the brain has to find a way to process and “deal with” all the emotional experiences that we have.

This “area” is going to play an indispensable role in our being able to understand how the brain decontaminates radioactive emotion in order to re-deploy combat veterans back into life. Here, not only does Dr. McCoy do his “medical oversight,” making sure that incoming crew members are safe enough for full integration into the remainder of the Crew, he also supervises a set of crewman whose jobs (or as it is put in the Army and the Marines, MOS’s [Military Occupational Specialties]) are to make sure that all new crew members (but especially the radioactive ones) are properly understood and dealt with. Here, we will meet the following Crew members upon whom we will depend over and over again:

  1. Intelligence Analysts
  2. Military Police
  3. Firefighters
  4. Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Specialists (CBRN’s, i.e., see-burns)

And one final point: the brain maintains a pretty strict hierarchy of authority. In other words, when I say that Dr. McCoy is second-in-command, I’m saying that, even more than in Star Trek itself, Captain Kirk usually communicates directly only with the good doctor. On the “real” U.S.S. Enterprise, the Captain often speaks directly to leaders in other parts of the ship. On the brain, much less so.

This has its consequences, especially in combat PTSD.

For that, though, we must meet our next leader, Battleship Brain’s third-in-command, the venerable Lieutenant Commander Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. To do that, remember our ultimate mission— Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back into Life—and then let’s move on to the next segment. Talk to you then.

13, The Ship Leadership, The Cortex

“Beam Me Home, Scotty!”: 12, The Ship’s Leadership: The Prefrontal Cortex and Captain Kirk

(Podcast)

In this and the following three segments, we will bring our introduction to the brain and Battleship Brain/U.S.S. Enterprise to a close by identifying the key players who “oversee” the brain’s/ship’s activities. Most will be familiar to you. One will not.

For this tour of the ship, let’s start from the top and move down. For the “star” of the Star Trek series and the “star” of our own personal mental lives (at least in our minds) is right there at the top, on the Bridge (prefrontal cortex): Captain James T. Kirk, portrayed valiantly and handsomely in the original series by William Shatner and in the most recent movie series by Chris Pine.

What more is there to say, really? The Captain is in control (at least by the end of every episode/movie). He sees the dangers ahead. He responds to them. He keeps the mission in mind. He’s the hero.

Well, in the brain, I’m afraid, there is more to say.

In one very important way, the brain does correspond to the show: our brains’ Captain Kirks are indeed responsible for keeping the mission in mind. Captain Kirk (from now on, he stands for the prefrontal cortex) is the one who contains the brain’s capacity to think about the future and to try to work toward it. If you’re going to heal, Kirk will need to keep his eye constantly on that process.

But the part about Kirk’s being in control?  Well…that’s, shall we say, a bit more complicated.

Indeed our Kirks do see dangers and respond to them. The question is not whether our Captains see or respond; the question is when they do.

In addition, we do hope our Kirks maintain some control over the ship.  But here’s the thing: about the best we can hope for will be that Kirk will get enough control of the ship to allow us to re-deploy successfully into life. Fortunately for us humans, Kirk can do that without being fully in control.

Good thing for us, because in the brain, Kirk is never fully in control of anything. Much more on that later.

So, might our hope lie instead with the ship’s second-in-command, the Star Trek character even most non-Trekkies have heard of: Mr. Spock?

Sorry, nope. The brain doesn’t have a Mr. Spock.

For the non-Trekkies out there: Spock, the Leonard Nimoy/Zachary Quinto character with the pointed ears, is half-human/half-Vulcan. Vulcans are a race of people who are particularly adept at suppressing emotion, such that they are essentially beings that can use “pure” logic without the interference of those pesky limbic system annoyances.

Again, sorry: no matter how much we want to try to be “purely logical,” for us humans, there is no such thing. We already know why this is the case because we already know how the brain works: the brainstem and the limbic system have already had a good crack at the apple of any incoming experience long before Captain Kirk even knows what’s going on below deck.

Just because the brain doesn’t have a Mr. Spock, though, we shouldn’t believe that his “character”—one of great internal conflict between logic and emotion—is not relevant to our mission. Far from it. We will not meet him again, however, until the conclusion of the series. Spock fans, hang in there.

So if Spock’s not second-in-command in Battleship Brain/U.S.S. Enterprise, then who is? Well, if we remember our mission— Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back Into Life—might we not better be able to see how the decontamination of emotion will ultimately need to be supervised by someone who can tell when a crew member is sick with radiation and when not?

In other words, we need a good doctor.

So, in our next segment, let’s meet the brain’s version of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, physician of the U.S.S Enterprise.  See you then.

12, The Ship’s Leadership, The Prefrontal Cortex

“Beam Me Home, Scotty!”: 11, The Functions of the Parts of the Brain, The Prefrontal Cortex

(Podcast)

In this segment, we reach our final section of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, and its functions. Previously, in terms of our “Mission to Healing” model, we found that the “how #1” function of the cortex was as follows:

Cortex = TO LEARN TO SELF-SOOTHE MORE EFFECTIVELY

So now, the “how #2” of the prefrontal cortex is:

Prefrontal Cortex = ACTUALLY TO SELF-SOOTHE AS CONSISTENTLY AS POSSIBLE WHENEVER THE MIND/BODY RECALLS THE MOST PAINFUL MEMORIES OF WAR.

To “take control” of self-soothing, one has to be in control enough to give the orders. In any complex, highly-structured organization, the one who gives the orders that have the biggest impact on the entire organization is the chief executive. Those are precisely the jobs of the prefrontal cortex: executive functioning.  For our no-frills purposes, we’re going to list three such functions:

  1. Attention:  If you’re an executive getting a lot of information all at once, you have to know what to focus on and what not to. The prefrontal cortex sorts quickly and (hopefully) well all the input from the inner and outer world.
  2. Empathy:  “Sympathy” is feeling for others. ”Empathy” is feeling the feelings of others. The prefrontal cortex is the hub of the latter, of the functions that pull together all the information about what is on the minds and hearts of others.
  3. Decision Making: Pull the above two together. Add in information from the subcortex and the remainder of the cortex. Formulate a sense of a possible future that would be worth heading toward. Voilà! Go ahead and make a decision, a vital function of this part of the brain.

So now let’s add our final no-frills. Remember the following:

PREFRONTAL CORTEX = “I”

Any time we are making I the subject of our verbs (“I want out of here” or “I’m an intense person”), we are almost always making decisions. If I want out of here, I have decided that I need to go somewhere else. If I know I’m an intense person, I have decided that the word intense describes me more accurately than, say, the word chill. Only now has the “I” shown up in our brains.

(Hint of segments to come: when we go back down into the process, we will later find different “I”’s that will prove quite useful to our ultimate goal of successful re-deployment into life. But that will come later. For our purposes at this point, the “I” that almost certainly until now you have been considering as “you” has first appeared in the prefrontal cortex.)

In most life situations, it really doesn’t matter that “I” has shown up only here in the brain’s processing. In 99% of our lives’ moments, the time from a sensation’s hitting the brainstem to the time of the prefrontal cotex’s decision is often far less than the proverbial “blink of an eye.”

At points of severe trauma, though, such as combat PTSD and its radioactive emotions, that timeline breaks down in a very important, predictable way. In such situations, a lot happens between the first “pixel sightings” and the I’s waking up to them. Thus, our next jobs: first, to understand how so-called “normal” experiences take this path from brainstem to prefrontal cortex (and back), and then second, to understand how combat experiences take that path. Only then will we know what to do about the latter.

For don’t forget our ultimate mission: Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back into Life.

But, hey: if we’re going to do that, we’re at least going to have to know who’s taking us on that mission. So, It’s time to meet the leadership of the USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain.  See you next time.

11, The Functions of the Brain, The Prefrontal Cortex

“Beam Me Home, Scotty!”: 10, The Functions of the Parts of the Brain, The Cortex

(Podcast)

In this segment, we get to know the cortex (or, as it’s sometimes called, the neocortex), all those worm-like folds on the top of the brain that hit you first when you look at a picture of the brain in a textbook or on a website.

First, let’s review what the limbic system has taught us about the goal of our “Mission to Healing”:

THROUGH CONSISTENT, POSITIVE EXPERIENCES,

  1. TO LEARN TO SELF-SOOTHE MORE EFFECTIVELY AND THEN
  2. ACTUALLY TO SELF-SOOTHE AS CONSISTENTLY AS POSSIBLE WHENEVER THE MIND/BODY RECALLS THE MOST PAINFUL MEMORIES OF WAR.

So if the limbic system provides us the “what” of healing, the cortex (and its critical subsection, the prefrontal cortex) teach us the “how” of healing. For us in no-frills land, we’re going to say that the cortex helps us with #1 and the prefrontal cortex helps us with #2.

So, first, the cortex.

Go back to our hand model of the brain. Put your palm facing you (the brainstem) and then move your thumb onto it (the limbic system). Now wiggle your four remaining fingers. These four fingers will help you remember four of the crucial jobs of the cortex:

  1. Language: the cortex is necessary for us to learn words and to put words to use to make sense of our world and to help us get what we want.
  2. Perception: remember that the brainstem only gives us the data, or the screen pixels, if you will, of what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and feel inwardly. It only lets the limbic system know that “something’s coming!” It is the cortex that pulls those pixels together and allow us to realize that we are seeing our loved ones, hearing an incoming rocket, smelling the difference between diesel fuel and homemade apple pie, etc.
  3. Memory: Memory is a very complicated matter in the brain, drawing on a lot of parts both at different times and at the same time. Essentially, though, its home is in the cortex, where, more often than not, it guides us without our even “consciously” knowing it.
  4. Learning: Along with memory, then, comes learning, sort of a mixture of all three of the above. Sometimes we consciously “remember” what we have learned. Sometimes we “relive” what we have learned. In an amazing (though, admittedly, in this case a quite frightening) way, remembering how to ride a bicycle and remember a combat trauma can, sadly, have very similar properties, even if technically they may arise out of “different” brain processes.

In other words, think of the cortex as the brain’s big “processor.”  It takes in new crew members (emotional experiences), processes them, and then finds (or doesn’t) a place for them in our day-to-day lives. The cortex is the entire group of junior officers and enlisted personnel, the ones who carry out the orders of the head honchos by making sure that everyone is “on board” with what is to happen next.

You see? As a combat veteran or loved one of a combat veteran, you know a lot more about how the brain is organized than you may ever have thought. It’s just like another day at work.

So our “Mission to Healing” still has the same goal: Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back into Life. We now know that what of the mission and the first how. So let’s move on to our last brain function and our second how: the prefrontal cortex.

See you then.

10, The Functions of the Brain, The Cortex

“Beam Me Home, Scotty!”: 09, The Functions of the Parts of the Brain, The Limbic System (D)

(Podcast text)

If in the previous segment we met the Avenging Angel of radioactive emotions (PANIC/GRIEF), in this segment we’ll meet the Redeeming Angel: CARE/NURTURANCE.

Fair warning, though, to all military types: the Redeeming Angel is indeed angelic in its action.  It’s not the “standard” downrange (or on-base, for that matter) emotion. Put simply, CARE/NURTURANCE is the emotion of parental soothing.

Hopefully at far more than a few points in our lives, we have had people enter them who have shown their caring for us by their being willing to feed us reliably, protect us regularly, sit with us when we feel like crying, or enjoy with us a good cup of coffee or tea on an early summer morning. These are the experiences that enter our USS Enterprises/Battleships Brain on the CARE/NURTURANCE transporter. A complex series of neurochemical reactions come together to give us a sense of peace, well-being, inner strength, satisfaction. Good stuff.  Opposite of combat stuff.

That is, of course, the point—and thus your hope for the future.

Important, important, importantpoint, however: CARE/NURTURANCE is about physical presence. It’s about seeing someone there on whom you can trust. It’s about that person being trustworthy in providing us what we need, to the best of their abilities, at the times that we need it.

In other words, CARE/NURTURANCE is not about words.

We all know it: when it comes to caring and soothing, talk is cheap. “I’ll be there for you” and being there for someone are often two, sadly, very different things. So trust, the result of consistent soothing, comes only after time. Sometimes only after a very long time, especially if our lives have been filled with people who either failed us or who were ripped away from us.

So we have it already in place now, the secret to recovery from combat PTSD, our ultimate “Mission to Healing,”  brought to you by the limbic system, so simple it’s scary:

THE ONLY WAY ANYONE CAN RECOVER FROM COMBAT PTSD IS FOR THAT PERSON, THROUGH CONSISTENT, POSITIVE EXPERIENCES, TO LEARN TO SELF-SOOTHE MORE EFFECTIVELY AND THEN ACTUALLY TO SELF-SOOTHE AS CONSISTENTLY AS POSSIBLE WHENEVER THE MIND/BODY RECALLS THE MOST PAINFUL MEMORIES OF WAR.

There we go. One sentence. That’s it.

Do you see why I say that words are, therefore, never enough?

While it might be relieving to know that someone can tell you that it’s this straightforward, and therefore somewhat relieving to hear those words, I doubt they soothed you much.  Why? Because those boldfaced, italicized words above have these following words attached to them:

  1. First, you are going to have to let a few people soothe you, meaning that you will not be able to take care of yourself at all times.
  2. Second, you are going to have to practice self-soothing, and in the beginning stages you will be unsure and will not always be successful, both of which you, combat veteran, will hate.
  3. Third, you are going to have to talk about with those same few people all your attempts at self-soothings, celebrate your successes, analyze your missteps, try, try, try again. It can be embarrassing at times, in other words.
  4. Fourth, you’re going to have to be patient, not exactly the number-one talent of most combat veterans. Not exactly the number thirty-two talent, for that matter.

To which I can only say, I’m afraid: “Yes. And it is what it is.”

But good news, truly, no lie, not being Suzy Sweet about it: It can get you somewhere. Remember our series motto/goal: Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back Into Life.

It can be done. Stick with me.

So we know where in the brain the main problem and the main hope first join us. Let’s go on the cortex next time, then, the place where the problem and the hope first meet. See you then.

09, The Functions of the Brain, The Limbic System (D)

“Beam Me Home, Scotty!”: 08, The Functions of the Parts of the Brain, The Limbic System (C)

(Podcast)

In this segment, I want to discuss the third “Nope, don’t want that” emotion, the one that is, without a doubt, the most important emotion for the development of combat PTSD: PANIC/GRIEF. This represents the third of the body’s “3F’s of Survival”:  freeze.

It can be a devastating one.

At first it might seem odd to lump panic, which is about “what’s going to happen next?” with grief, which is about “look at what has happened!” Yet when you think about it, both “stop us dead in our tracks.”  In panic, we ask ourselves, “Where can I go to escape the danger that is upon me?”  In grief, we ask ourselves, “Where can I go to escape the sadness that is upon me?”

Unfortunately, as all we humans know, the answer to both those questions is the same at those moments: nowhere.

If you can find it in yourself to understand this emotion, you will begin to understand, in the deepest, most meaningful way, combat PTSD.

Remember: combat PTSD is not so much about your emotional responses now as it is about your emotional responses back then, at the time of the traumatic event. Just because you might struggle with RAGE or FEAR now does not mean that the emotions/radioactive crew members RAGE and FEAR were the primary causes of your combat PTSD back then. In fact, had those been your emotional responses back then, you would have probably been less likely to develop the longer-term traumatic symptoms you might be having now.

PTSD-treatment pioneer Peter Levine once put it this way: remember on the nature shows, when you saw the polar bear or the lion hit by the stun gun? After all the good environmentalists had gone over to tag, poke, and prod the poor creature and then, when done, had hightailed it out, we viewers would then watch the animal slowly come to and get up, and what did we invariably see?

The animal usual staggered a bit and then, in some fashion, shook like all get out.

There can be, in other words, physical responses in recovery from trauma that seem almost to “shake off” or release the body’s reaction to what just happened to it.  If one can do something at the time of the traumatic event, one will be far less likely to develop something far more problematic in the future.

But now it is even important more to note what I pointed out in the last segment: I have not said “Nope, I don’t want it.” At this point, there is no “I.”

Say that again to yourself: at this point, there is no “I.”

Remember again what your every instructor, your every Command should have told you: one can anticipate. One can never predict. Training can make the anticipated less traumatic. It can give the body automatic responses that can kick in also before the “I” knows what is going on. (More on that in a few segments.) The unpredictable, however, will have its effect on your body.

As you know, all combat veterans were trained to anticipate the sight of a dying comrade in front of them. Many were trained to anticipate what to do when that happens. No one, however, can be trained to “prepare” the body (and the soul) for the sight of one’s best friend’s (or some innocent bystander’s) blood flowing onto the ground or, even worse, body part lying a meter or so to your left.

Too many times, in such situations, nothing can be done at that moment. And your limbic system recognizes that long before you do. As it does, a radioactive crew member lands on your USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain. It’s bad enough when one or two beam on. Unfortunately, as most combat veterans know, entire brigades can sometimes board at the same time.

That’s a lot of radioactivity to be decontaminated.

But remember our motto:  Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back Into Life. Remember: it can be done. In the next segment, then, let’s look at one final emotion, the one that will be ready start the clean-up once and for all: CARE/NURTURANCE.  See you then.

08 The Functions of the Brain Limbic System (C)

“Beam Me Home, Scotty!” 07, The Functions of the Parts of the Brain, The Limbic System (B)

(Podcast)

In this segment, as we continue to understand emotions and the limbic system, let’s look at two of the important “Nope, don’t want that” emotions—RAGE and FEAR—as well as look at what I mean when I say we “don’t want that!”  In doing that, we’ll also first look at the first two of the “3F’s of Survival”:  fight and flight.

Both RAGE and FLIGHT are emotions that arise in response to danger, whether literal danger to our bodies or metaphoric danger to our minds/psyches/souls.  Both these emotions are so common to all our experiences—and especially to the experiences of anyone who has ever served down range—neither is therefore hard to understand:

  1. RAGE is the “Nope, don’t want that” that is triggered when a new experience threatens us such that we want to go on the offensive and meet the threat directly. It’s “Nope, don’t want that, and look out, here I come!”

2.  FEAR, therefore, is the “Nope, don’t want that” that adds the phrase “and I’m out of here!” It is very important not to associate this with either cowardice or weakness. Even lions take flight when necessary.

Remember: we’re still at the stage of the loudspeaker at the Transporter Room/boarding area. Not a single neuron of the cortex (the Crew or the Bridge, in our USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain example) has been activated yet. We are built to move away from threat just as much as we’re built to move toward it.

So let’s pause here and really understand what I just wrote. In other words, let’s think about what it means when the body says, “Don’t want that.”

Notice that I did not use the word “I” anywhere here. It’s not there for a reason. Don’t put it there in your head. “I” will become important when we end up at the Bridge (the prefontal cortex).  Down here in the Transporter Room/limbic system, there is no such thing as “I.”  In other parts of the brain (and therefore our experiences) “I” might decide something.  “I” might be aware of my reactions. Great.

But “I” hasn’t even appeared yet in the process we’ve been describing so far.

If you start putting “I” into your Transporter Room and start making yourself responsible for your body’s automatic reactions to life-threatening danger, I’m going to promise you one result: you’ll end up hating yourself for something over which, no matter what you might think, “you” never did have any control over.

You need to start getting this right now.

As we go on, we will see how the brain uses training (hint: it’ll be the Crew) to prepare for danger. That is, of course, exactly what your (or your loved one’s) military training was all about. Training, though, prepares you for danger that can be reasonably expected. Anyone who has been down range—and anyone who has certainly engaged in a firefight—knows that, eventually, something happens that could only have been anticipated, but never predicted. Put bluntly: if training by itself could save a Service member, there would be no casualties.

Your body will not stop working at those moments, but it will not be “you” who is working. It will be your Engineering Section, your brainstem and your limbic system. You come on-line later. I don’t care how a “real” ship or brigade functions in the “real world”: as far as your brain is concerned, this is the real world, and it’s your real world.

As we start to talk about these emotions, we start talking about the experiences (the crew members) that have the potential to be radioactive. We’re heading into tough territory. Remember, though: you’ve been in this territory before, and, sadly, probably many, many times. Our plan is to go the territory differently this time by explaining what has happened so that you can know what can be done. Remember our motto:  Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back into Life.

Let’s keep going. Next time, let’s talk about the most painful emotion of all:  PANIC/GRIEF. See you then.

07, The Functions of the Brain, The Limbic System (B)

“Beam Me Home, Scotty!”: 06, The Functions of the Parts of the Brain, Limbic System (A)

(Podcast)

In this segment, let’s see what happens in the brain after the “data” of our senses first organize themselves into an experience, whether that be an image, sound, smell, or any other sensation.  In the terms of our USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain analogy: what happens when all those atoms of “experience” come together to form a new crew member boarding the ship?

We’ve already discussed back in segment 02 the basics of what happens: the sensory data meets the emotions in the limbic system. We’ve already seen that emotions differ from feelings, the latter being far more complex in nature. Emotions are the immediate sorters of the brain. They identify experiences as ones that we either want or don’t want.

Think of the limbic system as a voice coming over the loudspeaker that, immediately upon arrival of the new experience/crew member onto the boarding area, tags a new experience as “want that one” or “don’t want that one.” Most importantly, the limbic system does this sorting without necessarily knowing exactly “what” the experience is that it wants or doesn’t want.

Let’s go no-frills here: even though the limbic system is not the same thing as “intuition” (whatever that might mean), it is, in fact, sort of the ultimate intuition—or how about the ultimate “knowing before we really know.” Think of the limbic system as the sheriff of the Wild West who was a man of action, but of few words, i.e., “Yup” or “”Nope.”  In other words, it’s always saying “Yup, want that,” or “Nope, don’t want that.”  Just because it knows.

Neuroscientists much smarter than us are at this very moment arguing about just how to categorize the emotions. Everybody has his or her favorite “team” that s/he fights for with a “better-than-you” attitude that makes the World Wrestling Federation look like a squabble on the kindergarten playground.  So let’s just go ahead and pick a team and take whatever hits we need to take, shall we?

In case you’re wondering, we’re Team Panskeep.

The neuroscientist Jaak Panskeep categorizes the emotions into seven basic categories that, in his understanding, correspond to actual areas of the limbic system. Four of these emotions are of the “Yup” type, meaning that our bodies are somehow, in some way going to want to “approach” the experience. Three of them are as follows:

  1. SEEKING:  a “want that” experience that pushes us toward something so that we might use it/enjoy it in some way. Think of it as the basic emotion of our curiosity and ambitions.
  2. LUST:  a “want that” experience that pushes us toward reproduction, toward sex itself. It can be a part of “love,” but Love as a feeling is far more than just this emotion.
  3. PLAY: a “want that” experience that pushes us toward relating with others as peers, friends, etc. Think of kittens or puppies at the pet store, chasing each other, running over each other, nipping and tugging at each other. Friendship, as an experience, starts here.

There is a fourth “Yup”: CARE/NURTURANCE. Because it is so important for our ultimate goal of “decontaminating to re-deploy,” however, I am going to describe it in more detail in a later segment.  . In the next segment let us look at two of the “Nope” emotions: RAGE and FEAR.

But as always, never forget our ultimate goal in its entirety: Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back Into Life.  See you then.

06, The Functions of the Brain, The Limbic System

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