What do we know about how the brain works? Really, what is a myth, and what is on the cutting edge? We are going to be talking about those questions and many more.
Mark is the author of fourteen books including the national bestseller, How God Changes Your Brain, which Oprah selected as one of the nine must-reads back in 2012. He is on the executive MBA faculty at Loyola Marymount. He created a course in neuro leadership.
What I appreciate about Mark is he is very evidence-based. There are a lot of ‘woo woo’ things that are out there, but that’s not Mark. He is very research-oriented. Everything is backed up. We have some good questions that we want to ask him to deconstruct some of the myths but also hear about some of the newest thinking that he has as well as some of his colleagues.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I’m really intrigued to meet and speak to Mark Robert Waldman. One of the things that I’m excited about today, Relly, is as you know I was raised in a neuroscience lab at Rutgers University as a young student. So, this is going to be extremely interesting to me.
Dr. Relly Nadler: Mark, welcome to the call. We are excited to tap into some of your expertise here.
Say a little bit about neuroscience and how you got interested in it.
Mark Robert Waldman: Well, thank you so much, Relly, for having me on.
I got interested in neuroscience basically when I was writing and working on a bunch of anthologies for Tarcher Putnam. I was a developmental editor there. When you are creating an anthology, you never want to talk to the author because they always want to know how you are going to use your article. This particular anthology that Jeremy wanted, he was the creator of Tarcher Putnam, was a book on the most radical perspectives on god. At that time, I found a book written by Andy Newberg which was called, Why God Won’t Go Away. No matter how hard I tried to take little pieces from the book, I couldn’t do it. I had to send Andy an email.
I said, “Hi Andy, I’m going to take parts of this article that you had written and some of the other things that you have said and create an original article from that.”
He said, “Oh, great.”
He liked it very much.
And then I found out that Andy doesn’t write very well. He is a neuroscientist and if you have ever gone to PubMed.gov you could pull out a paragraph and not understand a single word. I even showed him a paragraph he had written once, and he didn’t know what he had said.
So, he had asked me to work with him on his next book. Suddenly, I am tossed into the realm of neuroscience after spending many years in the area of transpersonal psychology. I had to go live on PubMed.gov and read, oh I don’t know, two-three thousand of abstracts and maybe fifty papers every week. What blew me away was that in the little nooks and crannies of this amazing amount of research there were little discoveries that I’ve never come across that said this form of psychology doesn’t change your brain much, doesn’t really reduce anxiety but some of these other forms can reduce anxiety, sometimes in a number of minutes.
I became hooked. I have been living in a world of neuroscience and basically seeing what you can find in that realm that are brand new strategies that nobody has ever tried out before that may genuinely enhance your neurological functioning.
So, that is what I am addicted to.
Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I love it. I love it, Mark.
So, one of the people that I get to work with, in my world where I work with special forces and special operations, is a gentleman by the name of Monsignor Michael Mannion. He introduced me to prayer when I went to the canonization of Mother Teresa in Rome. I was literally getting up every morning at 5am and going to Mass. Being at the Vatican, such a wonderful, beautiful, inspirational experience.
Dr. Relly Nadler: Mark, back to the question that Cathy talked about – neuroscience. How are things changing? I know you are on top of that and a lot of times I hear you say, ‘whatever I say may not be true now or later because things are changing so much.’
Mark Robert Waldman: Yes. That’s very accurate. I want to follow up just for a couple of seconds with what Cathy had said at the end, that she had gone off into or was working within the Catholic world of meditation and centering prayer.
That’s actually what Andy Newberg and I have been doing for the last ten years. We have been doing brain scans of nuns, Buddhists, Pentecostals, speaking in tongues, atheists praying to god. What we were looking at, at that time, because this was Andy’s passion, was what are the connections of what’s going on when you are engaged in any form of spiritual practice.
I came from the realm of transpersonal psychology which was looking for the first time back in the 80s and 90s; what benefits meditation can be. Can you integrate meditation into psychotherapy? The answer is yes.
So, with all of these brain scan studies we have done in the twenty or thirty different religions and spiritual practices, I can summarize for you very simply what goes on in your brain. Basically, your anterior cingulate and insula become far more activated which allows your dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex to become activated which in turn actually stops you from having your emotional centers run around too much.
There is your old language of neuroscience.
Within the last couple of years, there has been a revolution going on. A brand-new form of brain scan technology called Diffusion Tensor Imaging. If you have ever seen these new pictures of the brain that kind of look like bundles of colored yarn all stuffed together. That’s really how your brain actually looks. One neuron in the very front of your brain can send an axon all the way across to the other side of your brain and then there are all these little tiny tips coming off the synaptic tips, and that’s where those neurotransmitters come out.
So, we are no longer talking about brain parts, there is really no such thing as a brain part because everybody seems to think they know what the amygdala is; the fear center. It’s not, by the way. That’s why I’m saying, anything that you think you know about the brain, even if you have taken it from our books, is probably misinterpreted and misunderstood.
This new language that’s moved out of this new form of technology is that we can look at whole networks that are involved in key processes. Five of the key processes are the ones that we use every day when we wake up. Our brain is emotionally driven, and those emotions stimulate the motivation center of your brain which basically wakes you up and drives you into the world to look for things that will be rewarding, satisfying, and interesting.
But, as an infant, you can’t think very well. You can’t organize and plan. So, what happens to all of that dopamine, that wake-up chemical, that is being released from your motivation center? Well, it goes to the top part of your brain, a huge network that people like to call default mode network, it is basically – if you were to sit back right now and yawn and stretch and let your mind wander. Basically, you have turned off the part of the brain that is listening to me, that’s taking place in your thinking, executive network. And this huge imagination, resting-state default network becomes activated.
In that state, particularly if you teach yourself how to mindfully observe what’s going on, you can sit back, and you’ll see this endless jumble of thoughts and feelings. partial ideas, worries, and doubts, imaginations, excitements, and depressions and it is all going on in the imagination center.
As a young child, when you see that child wandering around – if you think about all the daydreams, fantasies, and plays that you were doing, you are using your imagination and then as you slowly develop the ability to think, plan and organize, your executive network, then you can pick from your imagination those things that will help you to achieve the goal that you want.
What I have described now is basically four key networks of your brain. The emotional networks, the brain is basically an emotional creature. If the emotion is negative, things are going to operate way out of consciousness that just gets you away from anything that might be felt as emotionally dangerous.
But the things that feel kind of interesting and pleasant, things that point to caring, playfulness, and curiosity, those are the things that stimulate the motivation center which releases that dopamine which gets us to start to imagine all the ways that we might be able to get what we want. To fulfill our desires, that is your imagination default mode network.
Then your thinking network kicks in and when your thinking network kicks in, it is supposed to turn off your imagination network. So, you don’t get lost in your worries, fears, and doubts. But you can only focus on something that you want for about twenty seconds and then you use up all the neurochemicals necessary to stay consciously focused and you are going back into that imagination daydreaming like state literally two or three times every minute that goes by.
When we are awake, half the time we are focused on the outside world. The other half of the time our mind is wandering around and daydreaming and doing all these kinds of things that it is designed to do. But, if you get lost in that imagination network, that’s where anxiety exists.
So, anxiety for example is, ‘Oh, I am basically worrying that if I did A, B, C, and D, this negative thing would happen.’ It is not true. It is basically a prediction of what may or may not happen in the future. So, when you are feeling highly anxious the next time, just remind yourself that’s your imagination. There is always another part of your imagination that is positive.
So, positive and negative fantasies are going back and forth all the time in the imagination network.
Now, current psychology says well let’s have you think. Let’s teach you how to focus. Even mindfulness practices focus more on learning how to pay attention to your breathing and not to get lost in that mind-wandering thing.
But that integration going back and forth smoothly between your thinking and your imagination back and forth, that is the key to psychological health. There is one structure, there is one area. One network called the salience network that’s involved in regulating all those other networks I’ve mentioned.
Here is what is really cool. I mentioned the anterior cingulate and insula, the two key areas that become the most active when you sit back and you simply become mindfully aware of how you are thinking or feeling or worrying or whatever it is. The process of simply sitting back and being aware of all those thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations, that is what is stimulating and creating the ideal balance between your imagination network and your thinking network.
That is called brain network theory. I basically described to you what ten thousand different parts of the brain used to be discussed. I think that’s easy. Everybody can kind of memorize it.
We call it TIMES, Thinking, Imagination, Motivation, Emotion, and Salience.
When you stimulate that salience network and you are just sitting there being aware, that’s what is allowing yourself to create an ideal emotional balance so that you can think more clearly without getting lost in your emotions or your imagination.
Does that make sense? Is that clearer than anything you have heard from a neuroscientist in the past?
Listen to the entire interview, above.