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Engage Brain

We do need to talk some more about the prefrontal cortex, and the neuropsychology of Plato’s charioteer, who must hold the reins and guide the horses of our otherwise unruly emotional life. Call it the “ego,” if you must, but it is really about the self-regulation that makes us, in Kant’s terms, something other than slaves to our impulses. We’ve seen that in our understanding that the deeper nuclei that govern the “reward” system (which produce the relevant neurotransmitter dopamine) are active in proportion to the size of the reward rather than it’s likelihood (see my blog “Anticipation"). We saw that it was the prefrontal cortex that has to provide the mitigation of response, the reins pulled by lower or even nonexistent likelihoods.

It is a commonplace of human neuropsychology that we are the only mammal that actually has input to the subcortical structures responsible for powering our emotional responses, the limbic system. I almost said that these structures were what drives the emotional system but, while drives in psych-lingo refer to motivations, we have to understand the driving to also require the charioteer with his reins, if it is to get us anywhere, however powerful the horses. Horses, for anyone that has been around them knows, have the temperament of deer, and will readily bolt or rear without a firm, if loving hand. The inputs that higher cognitive centers in the cortex provide to the limbic system are what make it possible for us to get excited about, angry about, or fearful of ideas and imaginations in lieu of external events that can give pleasure or pain. In some ways thoughts and ideas, our imagination, our memories and anticipations that are the “early warning system” for pleasure or pain, which in turn alert us to potentially life affirming, reproduction enhancing activities, or to those that we should steer clear of, that may produce crippling damage or death. This is a topic that probably deserves a whole blog.

The problem is, of course, that we need to learn how to use the reins, how to control and direct the horses, whose energy, whose beating hearts and pounding hooves get us to where we want to be. While we may know the dangers of a horse that’s been “rode hard and put up wet,” and we can imagine the white slather of such a horse drying on its long neck, it can take a long time between knowing the horse and being able to use the reins. One of the problems with psychotherapy, as the delusions of Hollywood would have us believe, is that the insight into a problem does not make the problem go away. Anyone who has been the victim of an addiction, or an unrequited love for that matter, understands this all too well. You know with every cycle what is going to happen, and continue to act the same way, over and over and over. You need, finally, to make a decision to behave otherwise, and act on it, despite powerful motivations otherwise. What is the old folk wisdom, that insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, expecting the result to be different?

The human ability to inhibit a behavior to forego an immediate reward for better outcomes later, to delay gratification, is one of our greatest super-powers. Put two chimpanzees on either side of a table, where one of the chimps has been taught how to figure out which box contains the reward, and then start giving the chosen box to the other chimp. Chimps can be pretty smart in finding the reward, but they are unable to inhibit the choice which will give the reward to the other chimp. You can put two toddlers in this situation and the toddler who knows how to get the reward will very quickly learn to point to the wrong box when pointing to the right one means the other kid gets it. Chimps will screech and howl at the frustration of continuing to point to the box they know has the desired reward when the other chimp continues to get it.

Yes, human beings can and do learn to delay gratification, to forego an immediate reward for something better. But it is a long process. I’m always frustrated with journalists, and sometimes even the neuroscientists themselves, who talk as if the problem with adolescence is that the part of the brain responsible for some of this delay-of-gratification are still “maturing.’ In a sense that is true, but that isn’t an autonomous process separate from learning how to do it, as I suspect the growth in these areas (like the cingulate gyrus) is not just an automatic process taking much of adolescence to occur, but that these are some of the things adolescents need to learn. We all have a repertoire of tricks. Don’t put the easy reward in full view, give yourself small rewards on route, keep thinking about the bigger reward for later. Now, if you are a kid with unreliable parents, it may make sense to take the immediate reward because the bigger reward promised for later never comes. That’s not immaturity, that’s rationality.

It always amazed me to see some poor kid tossing a basketball at a hoop over and over a zillion times and mostly not making it. But if he makes it once in a while, or he’s seen his older brother make it, or if he is getting social rewards along the way for continuing to try, he’s gonna keep shooting. Why don’t we give kids the same lessons about their homework, show them the end-products, show them the advantage of the intellectual skills they are developing. Kids on a team will take endless abuse from a coach, because they know they are getting better. That’s how to develop mastery motivation rather than mere performance motivation, learning to understand how one learns from failure rather than just how to show off skills you already have. But that’s also another blog.

Some of the lessons are simple. I love cheese curls, but I know they aren’t especially good for me. I know that if I go without them for a while, I have less of a taste for them. I know if they are around, sitting on the counter when I come back from a stressful day in the outside world, I will eat them, no matter what imprecations I throw at myself, or how much I beat myself up for doing it. If I hide them, and they are not readily available, I’m less likely to eat them. Even better, I’d sometimes have my kids hide them from me. Of course, sometimes this works too well, as they hide them from me in their stomachs.

Delayed gratification is like hiding things from yourself. I’m sure I will talk at some point about the centrality of self-deception to the human condition, but for now I’ll just tell you about the $20 bill I try to leave in a winter coat I put away in the springtime, and, while I am tempted sometimes, I mainly just forget about it. What a great surprise that first really cold fall day, when I take out on the coat, put it on to brave the increasingly nasty elements and find my $20.

But the lesson here is really about engaging one’s brain, learning and making use of those rein-controlling skills when the power of the horses to run wild is so compelling, or the size of the reward is driving your motivation irrespective of its likelihood. Engage Brain. Drinking more isn’t going to help you get through the semester, and you can see the damage, and keep telling yourself you will drink less next weekend. But then next weekend comes and you continue to do what you did the last one, with predictable results, even more troubling because you could see them coming. The girl is never going to give you what you want. But you have to do something different. Self-regulation isn’t just force of will, it is finding an alternative, and building new habits.

The best lesson I ever learned about telling myself to engage brain, was actually the night I had to actually start telling myself “Engage Brain.” Yes, UI was doing something stupid, normally our best learning experiences because our inevitable failures, given that we can survive them are the best times to learn. The best times to learn are probably not the times we just do something over and over, study harder (rather than better), or are directed by someone else, but when it is most emotionally arousing, when it matters to us most, either because the end is so important or because the failure is so compelling. When we are actually doing something in our lives for which actually engaging your brain, using your reasoning or your knowledge base to overcome or inhibit otherwise more compelling motivations.

For whatever reasons, I decided that the evening of my 50th birthday would be a good time to walk a segment of the Appalachian Trail I had walked before. I’d walked it with someone else. I’d walked it on my own. I’d even walked it ion the snow once when I wanted the challenge. I knew that I could get to the Rausch Gap Shelter, and that I’d sleep there, and then wake up on the morning of my 50th birthday to a sunrise on the Appalachian Trail. I don’t know, maybe I needed the drama. I imagined maybe a warm fire, the possibility of camaraderie with some other hikers, and watching the sunrise on an Allegheny Mountain (OK, for those of your fans of the Rockies, Allegheny Hill). I was divorced and had the kids for the weekend, so I dropped them off at their mother’s which was on the way, and drove to a parking place I’d used before. I put on heavy socks, my hiking boots, and shouldered a simple one-strap sling pack in which I’d put a fleece blanket that was always too hot when I used it napping, an extra layer of clothing, and replacement underwear so could change out of sweaty clothes and sleep warm and dry. I also had a candle, a little flask of vodka with a cup, and a pack of dates. I didn’t take a flashlight. Using flashlights always bothered me as it seemed to restrict vision to a single beam, when adapting to moon and starlight gave one better visual access to the world at night.

Since I hadn’t done this hike in a few years, did I actually look at a map and gauge distances? No. Did I check the predicted temperatures for the night? No. Did I check times for a moonrise, or the phase of the moon? No. Was I a total blithering idiot? Yes. A friend of mine, who actually ran Appalachian Trail repair crews for years (with whom I’d first done this hike), suggested that , since I obviously knew better, that I must have secretly wanted the drama that would then ensue. But I was turning 50. I needed to mark the date, and I wanted something compelling to remember it. So I thought of the beauty of the trail, imagined a fire at the shelter, and the sunrise I might see at dawn on the 50th anniversary of the day of my birth. Yeah, sure, I was also obsessing about my unrequited love, and the recent meeting between her and the dancer I was actually seeing at the time, so I might have been a little preoccupied.

Normally, walking this section of the trail was meditative, as it is pretty rocky, and one needs to be attentive to one’s footing, which retains a certain amount of one’s attention, lending a greater calm with which to enjoy this beauty. So I climbed the first ridge, the golden sunlight at dusk illuminating the changing colors of the trees and mossy rocks, and I knew I was where I should be, the beauty adding an unexpected value to this little walk in the woods. Did I mention that my birthday is in late October, and the trail head was a good hour from my ex-wife’s house? So, yes, it was already dusk. Go ahead, laugh. I was feeling great. But as I walked into the first ravine, the sunlight was already disappearing, and I looked ahead into the route of the trail under the canopy of trees, and just saw black.

It was already a difficult, hike, and I had to attend closely in what were already no more than gray tones, to see the rocky trail beneath my feet. I slowed, thinking I’d best be careful, as one misstep and I’d have a sprained or broken ankle. What would I do? I checked my little clamshell cell phone. Right. I’m on the AT. There’s no signal out here. I’d better be very careful. Turn back? Hardly, the shelter was maybe over the top of a ridge or two ahead, and I figured the visibility would be better on the ridges. I was also a little anxious to get to the other side of the old ruin of the town of Rausch Gap, and the scary little cemetery I investigated, in broad daylight, on my snowy hike of a few years before. It had been an old stagecoach stop, I think, for what might have been a logging town, I didn’t know. I did remember one sad gravestone, into which was carved the despairing final days of some poor guy’s life, worked hard, sick, and finally succumbing. I was already hearing the creek. I don’t have a supernatural bone in my body, and am not remotely superstitious, but I figured I’d get past the fork for the graveyard pretty fast, and take a break at the Rausch Gap Bridge, where a flat cinder fire-trail, which may have been an old railroad bed, went through.

It was about here that I had my first scare. I couldn’t see very well, so discriminating boulders and roots underfoot as variations in gray-scale, so some of the undergrowth ahead sometimes looked like little gargoyles. I knew that was just my imagination. I remembered the thinking some of the gargoyles on Notre Dame in Paris looked like the fevered imagination of someone who had seen an aborted fetus, perhaps a physical source of images about being inhabited by a demon and my heart started racing, and I sped up my walking, until I almost turned my ankle, and finally clamed myself by saying: “Idiot, it is some owl, or wood-bird just taking off when this clumsy hiker stumbled by. Yea, I had to engage my brain.

It got much worse past the Rausch Bridge, as it was by now almost pitch black, and I was having to see by feeling, so it was also slow going. Suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks as I saw a huge bear sitting about ten meters ahead of me on the trail. My heart was beating a mile a minute, I broke a sweat, and my breathing was coming in gasps. I moved my head to try to see better, as it was really completely black. I really couldn’t see a thing. When I realized this, I said, out loud “Engage Brain.” I knew I couldn’t see a thing, so how could I see a bear? And anyhow, what would a self-respecting bear be doing sitting on the trail in front of me. Given my noise, my human smell, and the oddness of some two-legged creature even being on the trail at this hour, why would a bear sit there? Nothing even happened when I said “Hey!” But it still took me several minutes to calm myself down, and I decided to sit down, take a break and evaluate my situation. I was obviously too far to go back. And, wait, but what was that lump at the as Virginia, which I had stored in this bag for safekeeping, then forgot?

I won’t belabor this little memoir too much, as I have written it out on more detail elsewhere, but the lamp helped me get to the top of the next ridge. Even after it started flickering, I’d use it just to see the next little swatch of paint on a tree marking the trail. I think I went in a circle when I got to the top of the ridge, and my heart sank when I realized the shelter was going to be down another valley and up another ridge. I wasn’t going to make it. My light was now dead. I’d even gone in a circle on the ridge trying to see the little reflective paint on the trees, and barely could make out older and newer paint, marking slightly different pathways. Then I found a little shelter under a rock outcropping, looking like someone else had stayed there, as it had branches piled up all around it. Unfortunately, sleeping on rock was not very comfortable, even after I had consumed my little celebratory repast of dates and vodka, my candle burning, deciding that I had done well, and could stay here. Then I heard the howling of wild dogs, maybe as near as the next ridge.

I got up, and peed all around my site, like the naturalist in a movie I’d seen about wolves, marking his territory. I had indeed read about the danger of wild dogs on the trail, interbreeding with coyotes, who had the intelligence of coyotes and the fearlessness of wild dogs. Engage Brain. They were still pretty far away, and the sound wasn’t getting closer. And I reasoned again about how wild animals would have no particular interest in me and, indeed, would probably avoid me. Then I started to get cold, and would try to warm the space under the stupid blanket with my candle, but then realized that the artificial fire making up my fleece would probably go up in a second if I fell asleep with the candle burning under the blanket. There was no way I was prepared to start a fire, and there had been many warnings on the trail about fires in undesignated places. Engage Brain. The real risk was not the stupid dogs, it was probably hypothermia. I needed to get moving, and reasoned that I could follow the stream noises down the ridge, and then follow the flat cinder fire trail. I’d end up following the fire trail by craning my neck to see the stars through the break in the trees, and finally realized that the big light that I kept glimpsing on the ridge wasn’t an airport tower, or a car on a road. Engaging my brain, I asked myself what light follows you at night, and realized it was, finally, a moonrise.

I walked what seemed like forever, finally losing hope that I would ever find the end of this trail, and finally just sat down in a clearing, leaned my back against my pack, and figured I’d just sit there until morning. If I died, there were worse ways to go. Then I saw several shooting stars, and thought of them as an omen, and figured I’d probably last until morning, and bundled myself up to wait. Suddenly there was a rushing noise, getting louder and louder, but before I let my fear of some kind of creek flood overcome me, I saw the light, and realized it was a car on the road just a hundred yards or so ahead.

So I was saved. Never mind that I couldn’t get anyone on the road to pick me up. I don’t think I would pick up some bedraggled fellow waving on the road at 4 AM. Never mind that I had to take a detour to skirt some farmhouse dog. But I finally recognized he road coming over the first ridge, and found my way to my car, cranked up the heat and drove the 90 minutes home as dawn began to lighten the sky.

I got home, grabbed a can of beer from the refrigerator, and walked up to my attic study to watch the sun rise through my eastern window, and cracked open the beer. It was a Monday morning, I didn’t have classes to teach or meetings to attend, so why not. “Yeah,” I thought, “engage brain, this is the place to be on the morning you turn fifty years old, watching the sunrise through the window of El Cielo.” But then, maybe I needed the ordeal, the drama, and the lesson learned. Plus, it made a great story to tell.