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Excerpt from "Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment"

Overcoming Toxic Emotions

by David Perlmutter, M.D. & Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D.


Overcoming Toxic Emotions

Sensing and responding to threats instinctively through our emotions is one role of the limbic brain, which enables us to develop behaviors that keep us out of harm’s way. Just as our ancestors learned during our hunter-gatherer past that danger lurked in a particular part of the forest and that it wasn’t safe to stray away from our clan, so we too are taught to “stop, look, listen” before crossing a street, through which we gain a deep respect for danger from oncoming vehicles. The problem in responding instinctively to all perceived threats is that we turn over to our amygdala control of our responses rather than using the logic of the prefrontal cortex.

With our new understanding of neuroplasticity, we know that our brain can adapt not only to injuries but, more importantly, in response to any and all experiences we may encounter. This frees us from merely responding reflexively as a consequence of genetically determined hardwiring. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a neurology researcher at Harvard Medical School, recently stated that neuroplasticity “is an intrinsic property of the human brain and represents evolution’s invention to enable the nervous system to escape the restrictions of its own genome and thus adapt to environmental pressures, physiologic changes, and experiences.”5

Researchers have discovered that not only can we create new neural networks, but also we can create them to be powerful enough to overcome our instinctive emotional reactions. In an experiment, individuals were asked to do two tasks—one perceptual and one intellectual. The first task was to match the emotion of anger or fear that was apparent in images of faces projected onto a screen— a perceptual task involving images. They were then asked to look at the faces and associate them with the words anger or fear—an intellectual task involving words. When matching the angry or frightened expression, participants experienced increased blood flow to the amygdala, the primary fear center of the brain. In contrast, when the participants assigned the word labels to the image, blood flow to the amygdala diminished while circulation to the right prefrontal cortex increased. Because the prefrontal region is associated with overriding our primitive emotional responses, the researchers concluded that we can develop new neural networks in higher regions of the brain and reduce these responses.

The neural networks formed while in our mother’s womb and during childhood are the foundation for our later beliefs. They are the beliefs we carry into adulthood and through which we understand and interpret our experiences. And while the first lessons from our infancy generally serve us well, they can negatively color future experiences that would otherwise have been perceived as benign or even positive.

The science of neuroplasticity suggests that you can rewire the circuits of the brain and create new, more positive associations within your day-to-day experiences. Shamans learned that the instinctual survival emotions of fear, lust, and anger that color the way you respond to the events of your life are actually the causes of illness. You no longer have to succumb to the tyranny of the emotional limbic brain with its self-created nightmares that prevent you from experiencing joy. You don’t have to experience fearful responses when faced with new situations. Instead, you can come to them fresh, open to the possibilities they present.

You can change the sounding board by which you judge your present experience and allow yourself to see the world, quite literally, in a new light. You can set aside the old trauma and drama, and become enlightened to what blinded you before, awakened to what is new, exciting, rich, prosperous, healthy, and joyful.

To free yourself from the immediate emotional responses of the limbic brain, you must accomplish two tasks. First, you have to enhance your brain’s physiology, which you can achieve by making specific dietary and lifestyle modifications. Second, once your brain has been optimized, you can take full advantage of its powerful ability to develop pathways that will enable you to experience people and events you once perceived as negative, instead, as enriching, fulfilling, and positive.

***

Filling the Glass

This is where we explore the effect of mental attention not associated with any physical activity or dedicated to memory, that is, mental attention directed onto itself in such a way that we facilitate the experience of grace or enlightenment.

Andrew Newberg, M.D., director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, uses sophisticated brain mapping and imaging techniques to examine how meditation changes both the structure and function of the brain. In his book How God Changes Your Brain, Newberg states that meditation not only modifies specific areas of the brain but helps the meditation practitioner behave and express emotions in a more positive manner.

Newberg’s work shows that meditation enhances blood flow as well as function in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate, an evolutionary newcomer that mediates empathy, social awareness, intuition, compassion, and the ability to regulate emotion. This structure sits in the front of the brain and wraps around the anterior of the corpus callosum, which is the thick network of neurons that bridges the two hemispheres. In addition to these functions, the anterior cingulate acts as communications conduit between the amygdala, which, as we’ve already stated, is one of the most primitive brain structures, and the prefrontal cortex.

The anterior cingulate thus stands at the crossroads. Its functionality, or lack thereof, helps determine whether our day-to-day behavior is reflexive and fear-motivated or is a manifestation of our uniquely human ability to recognize a wide array of choices, implications, and consequences. Newberg has quite graphically shown that meditation and other spiritual practices strengthen the anterior cingulate while also calming the primitive amygdala.

As might be expected, anger produces an effect quite the opposite from meditation. Anger shuts down communication to the prefrontal cortex. Emotion and fear determine and dominate behavior. As Newberg states, “Anger interrupts the functioning of your frontal lobes. Not only do you lose the ability to be rational, you lose the awareness that you’re acting in an irrational way. When your frontal lobes shut down, it’s impossible to listen to the other person, let alone feel empathy or compassion. . . . When you intensely and consistently focus on your spiritual values and goals, you increase the blood flow to your frontal lobes and anterior cingulate, which cause the activity in emotional centers of the brain to decrease.”9

Bridging our primitive emotional response area, the amygdala, with our highly evolved contemplative prefrontal cortex allows the anterior cingulate to mediate how we perceive ourselves and our actions in relation to others and the rest of the world. Based on the fact that meditation enhances the functionality and capability of this circuitry, Dr. Newberg establishes a very important link between the physical brain and spirituality. He says, “We believe that there is a coevolution of spirituality and consciousness, engaging circuits that allow us to envision a benevolent, interconnecting relationship between the universe, God, and ourselves.”10

Neuroplasticity is the link between contemplative practices and enlightenment. You train your brain to open the portal to wisdom when you turn your attention away from the everyday world and gaze within. In the past, it was thought that this ability belonged only to a few enlightened individuals, a belief system perpetuated by priests and religious hierarchies who had a vested worldly interest in protecting their privileged status.

In truth, every human being has the brain hardware needed to take this giant leap in consciousness. Our brains evolved to provide us with this equipment long ago. And if we look to the past, we can see the extraordinary feats of creativity and innovation that humankind has achieved by relying on the software that came preloaded in the prefrontal cortex.

David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, ABIHM is a board-certified neurologist and fellow of the American College of Nutrition. He received his M.D. degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine, where he was awarded the Leonard G. Rowntree Research Award.

A frequent contributor to the world’s medical literature, Dr. Perlmutter’s work appears regularly in The Journal of Neurosurgery, Southern Medical Journal, Journal of Applied Nutrition, and Archives of Neurology. He is the author of The Better Brain Book and Raise a Smarter Child By Kindergarten, and the upcoming Power Up Your Brain - The Neuroscience of Enlightenment (Hay House, February 2010) which he co-authored with recognized psychologist and medical anthropologist, Dr. Alberto Villoldo. Dr. Perlmutter is recognized internationally as a leader in the field of nutritional influences in neurological disorders, and has been interviewed on many nationally syndicated radio and television programs including 20/20, Larry King Live, CNN, Fox News, Fox and Friends, Today Show, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Montel Across America, and CBS Early Show.

Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D., is a psychologist and medical anthropologist, and has studied the healing practices of the Amazon and the Andean shamans for more than 25 years. The author of many bestselling books including The Four Insights: Wisdom, Power, and Grace of The Earthkeepers, and Mending The Past and Healing the Future with Soul Retrieval, he is releasing the upcoming Power Up Your Brain - The Neuroscience of Enlightenment (Hay House, February 2010) with co-author and board-certified neurologist, Dr. David Perlmutter.

While an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University, Dr. Volloldo founded the Biological Self-Regulation Laboratory to study how the mind creates psychosomatic health and disease. Convinced that the mind could create health, he traveled to the Amazon and spent decades working with the medicine men and women of the rainforest in order to learn their healing methods and mythology. Dr. Villoldo currently directs The Four Winds Society, training individuals in the U.S. and Europe in the practice of shamanic energy medicine. Founder of the Healing the Light Body School with campuses in Australia, the UK, Sweden, Holland, and Germany, he currently directs the Center for Energy Medicine in Chile, practicing the neuroscience of enlightenment. For more information, please visit www.thefourwinds.com

You can purchase the book at www.powerupyourbrain.com

5. Alvaro Pascual-Leone et al., “The Plastic Human Brain Cortex,” Annual Review of Neuroscience 28 (July 2005): 377–401.

9. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 19–20.

10. Ibid., 124.


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