Take advantage of your brain’s secret superpower

permissionAs children, we sought it outside of ourselves, challenged its boundaries, and submitted our viable worlds to be ordered according to its precedent. What is it? Permission. But we’re not little kids any more. In Blank Canvas Living’s exploration of learning to live with the brain, not for the brain, personalizing our permissions is one of our most powerful cognitive conceptual tools.

What is permission? Permission is a biological event. Let’s think about the brain. Without getting too technical here, permission can be loosely defined as the activation of neural pathways through the release of neurotransmitters in response to a stimulus. OK, now that that’s out of the way…

Permissions build our physical, emotional, moral, and social realities. We learn the boundaries and expectations of our viable worlds through external permissions (verbal, non-verbal) which are internally translated into supporting circuitry. This is a lifelong process, but most concentrated during childhood, before the brain starts pruning back unnecessary conceptual flexibilities. Example: A mother patiently teaches her child that dogs are brown and grass is green while cozying up together over a colouring book. A darling scene, sure, but equally grotesque in its neurological ramifications – the loss of our virginity of perception. Shedding a little tear here… sniffle.

super brainSo how is permission a superpower? This is going to blow your mind… ZOOM POW SPLAT! A paralysed woman in a wheelchair in British Colombia scores highest on a national happiness survey. Everyday she wakes up with a brain flooded with neurotransmitters that colour her reality full of hope and possibility. Why? She has permission (remember the biology!). An Oxford philosophy honours student hangs herself after a bad breakup. Why? Her depression gave her neurological permission to live, and ultimately die, in a threatening and hopeless world. When used as a cognitive conceptual tool, permission can offer a glimpse into different realities. And once that door is open, you can step inside.

How to play with your permissions to personalize your viable world:

1- Evaluate your current permissions. This might surprise you. Example: You take a drink after work to relax. Yes, your brain is asking for an external, because that’s where it’s learned the Pavlov progression starts, but did you know you get a dopamine surge even before ingestion? Your brain is, essentially, already giving you full permission to enter a relaxed system state and live in a warm, fuzzy, blameless world. It’s only the mechanism (the glamour) for getting there that’s in question.

2- What world would best suit your genetic self? What permissions would that world give to someone living in it? What permissions would that person give themselves? What permissions would be damaging? Examples: Permission to be accountable to others in order to live in a world where others are accountable to us. Permission to indulge in loving, gentle self-talk in order to live in a world where we have value and safety.

3- Once you define a permission you’d like to adopt for yourself, you’ve got to ask the big question: what is the precedent for this permission? Are there people out there right now living with this permission? Are they successfully achieving their personal goals? Are they mentally healthy and happy? How do their viable worlds differ from my own? Example: Since the paralysed woman in the wheelchair has full permission to be happy, why the hell should your loaded inbox give you permission to be miserable? Seriously, think about it.

So before you light your next cigarette, accept that this is only the mechanism (the current glamour), and that your brain is already giving you permission to leave your desk and take 7 minutes of pure indulgent escape. F*ck the cigarette! Own those 7 minutes of bliss within your own body. Take a breath – clean, pure. Be fully, apologetically, your own permission.

The horrifying truth about happiness

smiley face cartoonEver been wrong? I don’t mean “oops” wrong, but completely, horribly, soul scorchingly WRONG? If logic loops and paradoxes are sure signs of a stale paradigm, what happens when our current model for the understanding and pursuit of happiness stumbles headlong into both? Well, dear readers, as you’ll discover below, the answer is anything but pretty…

smiley face When you read any recent scientific article/paper/post about happiness, a common link shines through. Whether describing hedonistic (drugs, alcohol, the ingestion or wearing of whipped cream) or eudonic (volunteering, goal meeting, exercising talents) rewards, there’s always the same sentence squeezed in somewhere: “… causes certain chemicals to be released in the brain.” AHA! Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together. The conclusion is obvious: happiness is a function of neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, etc.). So logically, everything we do, from pouring ourselves a glass of wine after work, gunning for that promotion, taking SSRIs for depression, getting a pineal gland buzz from meditation, to tying ourselves up in faux-fur, is done in dedicated service to that one magical organ – the brain – and its darling little chemical messengers.

Why do people ‘get off’ on different things? Depending on our genetics and environment, we learn to respond to (and thereby pursue) a unique set of glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls. Innate personal activation energy thresholds and social/cultural vulnerabilities help determine whether we end up junkies, or well-coiffed queens of the PTA. Simple enough… or so it seemed until I, young, naive, and as intellectually masochistic as Newton probing behind his own eyeball, decided to test this theory on myself.

Logic loop: If happiness is a modulation of our neurotransmitter levels, and the brain is wired for efficiency, why are all these idiots jogging when they can be…

Within a surprisingly short amount of time I found myself too fat for anything but my Viking man’s track pants, lying spread-eagle with a bad back on a candy wrapper covered carpet, watching reality TV reruns while doped up on a nauseating (not to mention dangerous!) cocktail of alcohol, muscle relaxants, Gravol, painkillers, and – just for good measure – marijuana. Happy? Not so much. Solution? I figured all I had to do was switch my primary goal to longevity, rather than happiness, and train myself on a compatible new set of glamours and insatiables. Since I was already living in a Viable World without heroin (I had to draw the line somewhere!), couldn’t I just exclude my problem glamours from my viable world?

Paradox 1: If food is one of my insatiables, and there can be no viable world without food, how do I escape the efficiency logic loop that led directly to the track pants?

Paradox 2: In a world where there are people who fear public speaking more than death, how can a prefrontal cortex goal of longevity overcome eons of limbic evolution and enforce the pursuit of less than maximum-by-the-moment happiness?

What’s the horrifying truth about happiness? It’s that so many of us have gotten it all WRONG! Solution? Full mind/body/spirit paradigm change. F*ck neurotransmitters! Let’s explore how to live with the brain, not for the brain! Curious? Let me introduce you to systems theory’s naughty little kid sister: Pragmatic System State Theory.