Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress

Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress

by Steven Stosny

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780757319082
Publisher: Health Communications, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 465,633
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., has treated more than 6,000 people through CompassionPower, the organization he founded and has directed for more than 21 years. He is the author of Living & Loving after Betrayal, Love without Hurt: Turn Your Resentful, Angry, or Emotionally Abusive Relationship into a Compassionate, Loving One, and, with Pat Love, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking about It. His textbook, Treating Attachment Abuse: A Compassionate Approach, set a new standard for understanding and treating family abuse and was a Behavioral Science Book Selection. His blog Psychology Today blog on relationships is one of the most popular, with nearly four million views.

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Chapter 1

The Profound Brain

The human prefrontal cortex is the pinnacle of biological development in the mammalian world, by far nature's crowning glory. It enables us to look at a tree and imagine a house, calculate the many steps involved in cutting down the tree, grinding it into beams and plywood, and fastening the segments together to form a floor, walls, roof, and so on. (Consider for a moment how wondrous it is to see a tree and imagine a house.) The prefrontal cortex empowered us to go well beyond mere survival to become the only animals that range across the planet, scratching out vast farmlands, building great cities, and creating advanced civilization.

A relatively late addition to mammalian species, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) exhibits many specialties, including analysis, sensitivity to the perspectives of others, judgment, calculation, and regulation of impulses and emotions. It appraises environmental cues and organizes information to reconcile those appraisals with internal experience—thoughts, sensations, emotions, and impulses—in a process known as reality-testing. It then decides on behavior consistent with learned preferences, prejudices, or deeper values.

The strongest internal signals to which the PFC must apply reality-testing are emotions. Consistent regulation of emotions requires continually:


  • Interpreting emotional signals (This is how I feel)
  • Testing emotional signals against environmental cues (There is something or someone around me making me feel this way or there isn't; it's a false alarm)
  • Considering preferences (This is what I like)
  • Weighing deeper values (This is most important to me)
  • Deciding a course of action (This is what I will do)

As I look out my office window, I feel a sense of peace within. My PFC tests the reality of that feeling and decides that it is accurate, because I'm looking at a beautiful lake lined by lush trees. I decide to linger with the splendid lake view. But if the reality were different—for example, there was a storm—my PFC would regulate the anticipated peaceful feeling with the more urgent information from the environment, and I would probably check the windows and ensure that nothing important is loose in the backyard. Or if the lake was peaceful, but I felt anxious or depressed when looking at it, the PFC would modulate my internal experience to match the beauty of the environmental cues, because reverence for natural beauty is a deep personal value of mine. In other words, I'd remove focus from my feelings, which would allow appreciation of my surroundings. As a result, I'd feel better.

The PFC provides a level of self-awareness and awareness of others unparalleled in the animal world by virtue of what psychologists call theory of mind. That's the ability to ascribe mental states, such as beliefs, feelings, motives, and desires, to self and others. Perhaps most important, the PFC enhances our most humane qualities, such as appreciation and higher order compassion—sympathy for vulnerabilities that we do not share. Thus we are able to create connections of value with other people, in which we both give and receive emotional support. As a byproduct of its combined processes, the PFC creates value and meaning in our lives.

Nature Saves the Best for Last

Not only did it develop late in evolutionary history, the PFC matures late in each individual due to delayed myelination, which isn't complete until the second decade of life. Myelin is the substance that lines nerve fibers to protect and insulate neurons. It aids in the quick and accurate transmission of electrical currents carrying data from one nerve cell to the next. In other words, the PFC isn't functionally 'online' much before the second decade of life. Hence, it is called the Adult brain.

As we mature, the Adult brain gradually takes over dominance from that which controls the world of toddlers: the primitive limbic system, a relatively small region common to all mammals. (When you see a picture or model of the brain, you don't see the limbic system. The large cerebral cortex sits over it like a helmet with a slit in the middle, where the two major hemispheres of the brain join together.) Although the brain is always changing, the limbic system is pretty much fully developed on a structural level by age three. Hence, it is called the Toddler brain.

The primary survival function of the limbic system is to generate an alarm. But it has little reality-testing capability—that is, it can't distinguish what is really happening in the environment from what is being thought, imagined, or dreamed. That's how we can have intense emotions when nothing is happening around us, invoked by thoughts, memories, imagination, or dreams. Reality-
testing is the province of the Adult brain.

From a survival standpoint, the gap in development between the Toddler brain and the regulatory Adult brain makes sense. The only way toddlers can survive is to sound an alarm that will get adults to take care of them. There is little survival advantage in regulating the alarm as long as the underdeveloped PFC is incapable of figuring out how to make things better. Because they can do very little for themselves, toddlers must manipulate their caregivers into doing things for them. Later in toddlerhood they're able to cajole with sweetness and affection. (What is more adorable than a three-year-old?) But early on they coerce caregivers through their greatest tool—the alarm, ranging from persistent whining to full-blown temper tantrums. (We tolerate the harshness of the alarm in toddlers because they're so damned cute and lovable.) When comforted instead of punished when they experience intense negative emotions, toddlers learn that they do not have to hide part of themselves to gain connection. When connection persists during positive and negative experience—that is, when care-givers do not react to the alarm either by rejecting or withdrawing affection—children learn gradually that they prefer the positive experience of the connection to their reflexive reaction of 'No! Mine!' They begin the lifelong task of balancing the Grand Human Contradiction.

The Grand Human Contradiction

Human beings are unique among animals in the need to balance two opposing drives. The drive to be autonomous—able to decide our own thoughts, imagination, creativity, feelings, and behavior—must compete with an equally strong drive to connect to others. We want to be free and independent without feeling controlled. At the same time, we want to rely on significant others—and have them rely on us—for support and cooperation. Other social animals—those who live in groups and packs and form rudimentary emotional bonds—have relatively little or no discernible sense of individuality to assert and defend. Solitary animals are free and independent but do not form bonds with others that last beyond mother-infancy. Only humans struggle with powerful drives that pull us in opposite directions, where too much emotional investment in one impairs emotional investment in the other.

©2016 Steven Stosny. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.

Table of Contents

Preface vii

1 The Profound Brain 1

2 How We Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over 17

3 How Pain Becomes Suffering 27

4 Feeling Powerful vs. Being Powerful: "Coping" in the Toddler Brain 37

5 Toddler Brain Habits Ruin the Best of Intentions 47

6 How We React to a Jerk Like a Jerk: Principles of Emotion interaction 61

7 Anger in the Age of Entitlement: Living in the Wrong Part of the Brain 77

8 How to Turn Toddler Brain Feelings into Adult Brain Values 93

9 Adult Brain Habits: Improve, Appreciate, Connect, Protect 119

10 Radical Self-Value Breeds Radical Value of Others 135

11 How to Be Happy: Make the world a Little Better 147

12 The Adult Brain in the Web of Emotion: Everything We Do Makes the World Better or Worse 167

13 To Soar Above, Build a Web of Compassion and Kindness 183

Epilogue 211

Appendix: Exercise and Logs: Forming Habits That Increase Core Value 217

About the Author 223

Index 225

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