Lost Wonder: Evolution Was Just Trying to Help

The six layers of the neocortex.  Image from thebrain.mcgill.ca. 

The six layers of the neocortex.  Image from thebrain.mcgill.ca. 

Today for my fashion homework, I had to look up Heidi Klum, and during my googling, I learned that the sweet German model and British singer husband Seal have been divorced since 2012, and they're already dating other people.  Their seven-year marriage that produced four children ended amicably, but you have to wonder if two relatively grounded people can't make it work, maybe the secret to a long-lasting marriage is to live apart and see your spouse once a year so the newness never wears off.  How else can something that begins so wonderfully fail so often? 

Obviously there's more complexity to the spark in a marriage than the frequency with which you see each other, but it has been said that well into a long marriage, your spouse begins to feel more like a sibling than the fox they used to be.   We become so habituated to their sight, smells, sounds, habits, and thought patterns that we don't fully take them in anymore, the familiarity tempting us finish their sentences without fully paying attention to what they're saying.  It comes to a point where predictability, once highly sought, becomes the drain through which the vitality of the partnership bleeds. 

While the first instinct may be to place blame when this happens, we can actually do something about it with a practice of mindful awareness.  Mindfulness helps us separate sensory input (like seeing our significant other walk into the room) from our well-practiced axonal firing patterns (like predicting how the ensuing conversation will play out instead of listening fully). 

Image from this youtube video.

Image from this youtube video.

The brain has four lobes, seen in different colours at right.  The parietal lobe at the top is responsible for perceiving stimuli through our senses; the temporal lobe along the sides identifies the stimuli; and the frontal lobe, primarily responsible for personality, is responsible for planning our responses to the stimuli.  (Saladin, 539). 

The synapses creates between the four lobes are what help us react in accordance with the kind of stimuli that we've perceived.

We know that both DNA and experience play a role in the creation of new synapses.  As we're getting to know someone new, our brains are reorganizing old synaptic patterns as we experience ourselves anew through the eyes of our new partner. 

Over the years, these patterns of relating, marked by certain axonal firing patterns and nerve clusters, become established.  Sometimes overly so.  We become rigidly identified with the habits of our own mind.

Expectations are processed in the cortical memory.  The outer bark of the brain, our neocortex, is arranged in vertical columns or clusters of vertically arranged piles of cell bodies that enable memory to shape perception.  In the brain, the six-layered neocortex appears to have both input and output fibers that create a bidirectional flow of information within the column itself. (Siegel, pg. 105)

Two processes are initiated in the neocortex when we experience sensory input.  The first is called a bottom-up process, the more primary of the two, where input moves upward along nerve fibers to the posterior of the cortex.  This is as close as we get to directly experiencing the sensation as if for the first time- without judgements and previous memories interpreting, forming, and giving meaning to the experience.  If we could only experience bottom-up processing, our minds would be clear, spacious, and receptive with capacity for a flexible response, and we wouldn't depend on a rigid set of structures to feel safe in our identity.  We'd just be walking around all day gazing in awe at everything like we were on drugs, not getting anything done.

The second process fixes that.  A handy by-product of evolution, it allows us to actually accomplish tasks without having to relearn everything, but the downside of it is that when overused, it works against us and stifles the feeling of aliveness.  Information travels down the six layers of our cortex, and is encoded in various parts of the brain, then transported to the dorsolateral (side) areas of the prefrontal cortex, where we become aware of the contents, already laden with previous judgements and memories that help us make sense of the input. 

What meditation does for us is to lessen the impact of our top-down process so we can experience more of the vitality coming in through our eyes, nose, ears, and skin, letting in more wonder.  Or, to put it in terms of relationships, mindfulness creates a space between stimuli and reaction so we can make thoughtful responses to what life throws at us instead of knee-jerk reactions that often we regret or get us into trouble.