Sunday, May 02, 2010

Two Wolves

While I was reading a few more chapters of How God Changes Your Brain today, I came across a story I have heard before ... a parable attributed to Native Americans. It seems a Grandfather tells his Grandson of two wolves that live inside of him. One wolf is kind and generous. The other is angry and hateful. The Grandfather tells the young boy these two wolves fight all the time for control. The boy asks, which one wins? The old man wisely replies, the one that I feed.

Using this parable as a launching point, authors Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman devote a fascinating chapter to explaining how the different parts of our brain operate and effect us in turn.

For the sake of simplicity, we can term one part of the brain the "emotional" brain. This is the limbic brain, which has "existed" for 150 million years. It tends to be the source of selfish, angry, fearful and suspicious thoughts.

The other part of the brain, we can call the "smart" brain. This is the prefrontal lobe and anterior cingulate, which has evolved more recently; the source of logic, higher thinking, compassion and understanding.

When we are presented with new ideas, the "emotional" brain reacts suspiciously and tries to reject them. These new ideas threaten us. We like things just the way they are. In contrast, the "smart" brain tries to understand these ideas and "cooperate" with them, if you will.

Likewise, the more we "feed" the emotional brain, the more our thinking and actions and behaviors tend to reside there; the same is true for the smart brain.

And there you have it ... the two wolves.

Here's the interesting part. The prefrontal lobe is more akin to a playful wolf pup, but the limbic brain is quicker to respond. That's why you have to be intentional about exercising compassion and acceptance toward the "others" of your life -- people, ideas or circumstances -- before the limbic brain can take its usual pot shots and lash out in anger.

Anger does all kinds of crazy things to our brains. It blinds you to the fact that you are angry (how convenient), encourages you to defend your beliefs (regardless of how illogical they are), and causes you to perceive anger in others that isn't even there.

Our minds are always biased toward seeing evidence that supports our point of view. Newberg and Waldman say that if you want to decrease your natural tendency toward prejudice and out-group mentality ("us" vs. "them"), then you have to stop doing one thing -- categorizing yourself.

If you put labels on yourself like conservative, liberal, fundamental, evangelical, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc., etc., your brain automatically reacts in a "negative" manner toward people or situations or ideas that are outside of these labels.

This idea makes a great deal of sense to me and really jives with Jesus' admonition to love your brother as yourself. Stop defining yourself and you'll stop defining (judging) your brother.

Likewise, teachings that you should love those who persecute you and bless those who curse you fall in line with the idea that by responding to the anger and hate of others with compassion and love, you not only keep yourself from falling prey to hate and the control of the limbic brain, but you also "reflect" a character trait that your enemies and persecutors will mimic back (usually without even realizing it). Perhaps that's what Jesus means when he says acting these ways is like heaping burning coals on the heads of our enemies; not to harm them, but to get their attention; to help them snap out of it; to bring about change.

One final thought from the book. When things don't go our way, we tend to respond by blaming either the world, God or ourselves. Surprisingly, it is much better to blame God or the world than ourselves. The authors don't mean to imply that we should not be accountable for our actions. It seems that when we throw too much blame on ourselves, our guilt shuts down our prefrontal lobe, which leads to negative beliefs about ourselves, which fosters depression. (Perhaps that is why so many of the women I have contact with in my ministry just cannot seem to get out of the funk of guilt and shame!)

A few thoughts to process ... as you contemplate this amazing organ created by God.

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