I went to the western coast of Vancouver Island. And there I got a ride with someone, and I said, you know, “Thanks for the ride,” he said, “What’s your story?”
“I dropped out of Harvard Medical School.”
“What are you going to do now?”
I said, “I’m going to become a salmon fisherman.”
He said, “Really?”
I said, “Yeah.”
He goes, “I am a salmon fisherman, and it’s amazing, I’m dropping out, and I’m going to become a psychologist.” You know?
And I said, “Really? Why?” And he told me the whole life, and I said, “Okay, that’s maybe not for me.” So, I had always wanted to be a dancer, I had danced in college, and so I said maybe I’d be a choreographer, and I started doing that kind of thing, and I realized I loved how dance felt, and I had, like, no interest in how dance appeared, so I thought if I was a choreographer, I’d probably starve to death. So I ended up going back to school, but I was always interested in this question of how could you have really smart professors, really smart, concerned professors, who were blind to the mind? How was that possible? You know, how could we do that?
Later on I’d work for the organization that collected 55,000 Holocaust survivors’ stories to document that, and I was their consultant, and, you know, I went to Poland, and we went to the concentration camps, and I met some people who had been there as kids, a place called Majdanek, one of the worst concentration camps – not that any of them are good – but this person said, “You know when I was a kid, it was amazing, the guards who’d work in the camp, killing hundreds of thousands of people, would come back and be really nice with their dogs. They’d play with their dogs and play with their kids, then go to the camps.”
So then I started thinking this thing about seeing the mind isn’t just something you have or don’t have, you can actually shut it off. You can shut mindsight off. And now we have a whole bunch of scientific data that shows that under certain conditions you can treat people similar to you as if they have a mind, and if you categorize someone “not like you,” you actually shut off the circuits of compassion if you don’t have this reflective capacity to stay present, to have the grit, the strength, to actually approach things that are difficult, like feeling uncomfortable because you’re with someone not like you. We can wake up to this and actually change these patterns that human beings have of, in fact, genocide, of looking at a world and feeling like we’re not a part of the planet, of realizing that in fact we are part of an interconnected whole.
So what I want to do with you is share with you some insights that come from a field I have been very proud to be a part of founding called Interpersonal Neurobiology, which is a fancy word just saying that the brain is a social organ of the body. And if we don’t take care of the social side, the mindsight side, the brain will tend to want to accumulate things and think that this bodily self is the only self, as if a cell in the body – if you’re a heart cell you said, “I’m just a heart cell, screw the liver cell. I don’t really care about the skin cells, I’m a heart cell.”
You know, we are all a part of one organism. And reflection is an opportunity to realize that relationships are our life’s blood. And this is what gives us resilience not only as individuals but as a collective community. So let me walk you through how this happens.
The way school is now is imprisoning the brain, literally. It’s putting the brain in a cage. We have to free the brain from that cage. And we actually know the science now about how to do that. So the question is: can we make this a collective movement, a grassroots effort to work together to make this happen? And here are some of the ways to think about it: The way we educate kids now, is we’re basically damaging their brains, to be really blunt about it. We’re taking a set of circuitry that we’ve evolved for sure over 40,000 years, probably two million years, and now we have evidence it’s probably 4.4 million years – this is an ancient set of circuits that modern culture obliterates in our strange way that we think we’re all separate from each other. This is a new invention, and it’s a kind of sickness, and this brain is sick.
So the question is: can we actually listen in to what’s happening to the brain side of things and understand it so we awaken how we approach our lives. Well, the kid is ready to awaken, right? I mean, at a young age, kids’ circuitry is all ready, the whole relationship that they’ve had with their parents has been shaping this brain, and then we shove them in schools and everything that was relational disappears after kindergarten. It’s so sad, and the brain shrinks away. Right? This kid has the ability to see all sorts of things – to be an artist, to be creative, to be intuitive, to stick to it, to approach things that are difficult and not withdraw from them – and we have the opportunity to support this child’s development. If we do it right and we train our teachers well, we can actually do it.