Brain Research Illuminates Conscious, Compassionate Connection

Brain Research Illuminates Conscious, Compassionate Connection

90% of what we know about how the brain actually processes experience and information has been learned in the last 15 years.  Neuroscientists report new research findings almost daily – how mindfulness practice improves immune function and strengthens the circuits our brains use for attention, empathy, self-awareness.  How the mirror neurons in our brains pick up signals from motor neurons in someone else’s brain and allow us to “read” their intentions even without words. How our brains can grow new neurons and, more importantly, new synaptic connections among neurons, lifelong.  You can teach an old dog new tricks.

I hope you find the tricks, tips and tidbits from brain research offered in this month’s newsletter fascinating and useful.

Brain Research Illuminates Consciousness and Compassionate Connection

One of my favorite therapeutic interventions with couples these days is letting them know that a 20-second full body hug with someone we love releases the bonding hormone oxytocin and helps create the “oceanic feeling of devotion” we experience as blissful love.  (Try it!) 

Couples may need more than bonding hugs to work through their issues, but simply to know they can use what we know about how our brains work to create immediate state changes is liberating.

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Focused attention – on anything – causes neurons in the brain to fire – to activate and send signal one another..  Focusing our attention on the same thing repeatedly causes the same neurons to fire repeatedly, activating the same synaptic connections with other neurons over and over.  Neurons that “fire together wire together,” creating new neural circuits and pathways.  This is the neurological mechanism underlying the power of any concentration practice such as compassion practice or gratitude practice.  It’s the same mechanism that underlies the power of positive affirmations.  I share two examples of using focal attention to cultivate loving kindness and compassion below in Stories to Learn From.

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One of the most powerful interventions I use with clients is to explain how implicit memory works and the power of it to hijack our emotions.  That when we suddenly feel powerful and painful feelings, especially if they seem out of proportion to whatever might have triggered them in the current moment, we may very well be experiencing an implicit (unconscious) memory of a past moment – all the body sensations and feelings of an experience in the past with no conscious sense in the moment at all that what we are experiencing is a memory.  What we’re experiencing now feels so real, it must be true!  But, most likely, we are re-experiencing a moment from the past re-triggered in the present.  Often just considering that our current experience is being supercharged by experiences we’ve had before can calm down our reactivity and help us  reflect on the experience of the current moment without having to do something drastic (or defensive) to fix it.

Learning about the power of implicit memory to pull us down a rabbit hole proved very illuminating to my client Margaret a month ago.  Margaret went into a tailspin one night when the guy she had been dating didn’t call her when he said he would.  Understandable to be disappointed, worried, upset, but Margaret’s agitated panic seemed overboard to the situation.  When we explored where Margaret had ever felt that same close-to-freaking-out in her past, we got back to two episodes when she was five years old.  Her dad was supposed to pick her up from kindergarten and – twice – failed to show up.  Daniel’s failing to call when he said he would was enough to bring up all the unresolved trauma of her dad’s failure to keep his promise before.  Resolving that unconscious trauma memory through EMDR helped Margaret re-focus on the current experience with Daniel; she could then resolve it by calmly talking things through with him the next day.

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Our brains are hardwired to experience “separation distress” whenever someone we are enjoying meaningful eye contact with turns their gaze away.  The emotional circuitry of our brains reacts instantly and signals us to either to:

* move to reconnect with the other person through the social engagement behaviors of our higher brain (cortex),

* move against or away from them rather than towards – the fight-of-flight mode of our mid-brain (amygdala), or

* shut down and freeze in the mode of our lower survival brain (brainstem).

The more social intelligence we have developed over the years, the more likely we are to “use our words” to re-engage the person.  “Hello?  Has something happened?  Did you just get distracted?”  Rather than over-reacting emotionally, shaming-blaming them or ourselves, or acting out behaviorally – numbing out or dissociating.

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We need all kinds of tools to cope with the separation distress response. (Powerful implicit memories of past abandonment can be triggered in a heart beat.)  One of the quickest coping mechanisms to calm down the part of our nervous system that is experiencing distress is simply to place our own hand on our own heart.  Gently touching the heart center calms down the polyvagal nervous system that has just reacted in alarm, recalibrates it, and allows the cortical (higher brain) social engagement system to come back online again and re-connect skillfully.

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Neuroscience doesn’t have all the answers to all the questions we have about consciousness and compassionate connection.  If anything, the field of brain research is just coming around to some of the same old questions from a new angle and with new technology. But try placing your hand on your heart the next time you become alarmed at a sudden disconnect with someone and see for yourself if that behavior makes a palpable difference.

Poetry and Quotes


All day long a little burro labors,
sometimes with heavy loads on her back
and sometimes just with worries
about things that bother only burros.
And worries, as we know,
can be more exhausting
than physical labor.
Once in a while a kind monk
comes to her stable
and brings a pear.
But more than that,
he looks into the burros’ eyes
and touches her ears
and for a few seconds the burro is free
and even seems to laugh,
because love does that.
Love frees.
– Meister Eckhart

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Love is more than just a feeling.  It’s a process requiring continual attention.  Loving well takes laughter, loyalty, and wanting more to be able to say “I understand” than to hear “You’re right.”
– Molleen Matsumura

Stories to Learn From

Sharon Salzberg, author of Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, tells of her own experience practicing loving kindness on a 10-day meditation retreat.  For the longest time, the practice seemed to have no effect at all on the automatic critical thoughts constantly streaming through her mind.  “Who do you think you are?  You’ll never get this right.  You’re such a klutz” etc.,

One day, she was in the bathroom and accidentally knocked over a vase, which shattered.  Her first thought was still “Oh, you klutz!” but her immediate next  thought, almost without thinking, was “But I love you anyway.”  Her brain and heart were beginning to change, creating a new habit of kindness.   In the decades since, Sharon has taught thousands of practitioners the art of being kind and loving toward ourselves….anyway. 

See Exercises to Practice below for simple instructions on cultivating loving kindness

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I have a tendency to become irritable and critical when my expectations of someone are disappointed.  I move toward “fixing” them rather than tolerating what is happening and learning-growing-changing from there.  About a year ago I became truly dismayed at the damaging impact this tendency – actually a pretty entrenched habit – was having on my relationship with my beloved partner.  I began a practice – consciously and conscientiously – to instantly antidote any critical impulse by saying the word “Compassion!” out loud as quickly as I could catch myself.  I repeated this antidote over and over and over, saying “compassion!” whenever a critical impulse arose.  Gradually, I could catch my critical impulses more quickly.  Gradually I could antidote them more thoroughly.  Gradually I could feel the actual feeling of compassion, for my partner and for myself, as it arose in my body,.  Eventually, the new habit took over. More and more consistently I can catch and stop my critical tendencies as soon as they arise before they do any damage.   My brain has created a new pathway, and my relationship is thriving.

Exercises to Practice

Loving kindness is considered one of the four “divine abodes” in Buddhist meditation practice.  When all our negative perspectives, unwholesome behaviors, and hindrances fall away through mindfulness and clear seeing, we naturally rest in our True Nature anchored in loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.

All four anchors can be cultivated by focusing attention on traditional phrases that evoke each quality.  Traditional loving kindness phrases include

May I (all beings) be happy.

May I (all beings) be at ease.

May I (all being) be safe from inner and outer harm.

May I (all beings) be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.

When I first began doing loving kindness practice, I intuitively came up with my own phrases (this is perfectly permissible) which only years later did I realize were a wholesome progression toward secure attachment and exactly what I needed to gel a more genuine internally secure base.

May I feel held, safe and secure.

May be able to trust.

May I know that I am loved and cherished.

May I love and cherish others, with understanding, compassion, forgiveness.

Settle comfortably in your seat, allow your eyes to gently close, focus your attention on your breathing, rest comfortably in the awareness of the inner presence of Being.  When you’re ready, let yourself become aware of how you are holding yourself in this moment, are you kind toward yourself? Are you uneasy with yourself?  Are you feeling critical of yourself?  Just noticing, just awareness and acceptance of what is, without judgment, or if there judgment, noticing that.

When you are ready, call to mind qualities that you honestly appreciate about yourself – your capacities for patience or thoughtfulness or generosity or perseverance.  Come to an open appreciative stance toward yourself and your own goodness.  Then begin slowly and gently repeating phrases of kindness and well-wishing toward yourself:

May I deeply and completely love and accept myself

May I feel a sense of ease and well-being.

Whatever works to keep your heart open and kind to yourself.

May I see things clearly as they are.

May I feel peaceful and serene.

Whenever a negative or critical thought comes up, simply let it pass through and return to the phrases.  Focus attention on the phrases for 10-15 minutes at a time, allowing your brain to open your heart and create a new pattern of thinking-feeling about your self.  Over time, when you notice a negative thought or anxiety arise, you may notice the loving kindness phrases for yourself spontaneously arise also to support and nourish you.

Books and Websites

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain:  How a New Science Reveals our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley.  Ballantine Books, 2007.

Sharon Begley links neural plasticity – the discovery that we can alter the structures and function of our brains throughout our lives – with the power of Buddhist meditation practices, particularly Tibetan compassion practices, to cultivate the focused and benign attention that does change the brain, making possible the alleviation of deep-rooted mental and emotional suffering.

Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Stephen Hayes, PhD.  New Harbinger Publications, 2005.

Step by step exercises in mindfulness and self-acceptance help readers overcome depression, transform emotional pain, release negative thoughts and self- judgments, and commit to values to live by.

Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg.  Shambala Publications, 1995.

Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg offers gentle teachings and practical guided meditations to help the reader love themselves more deeply and connect with others more compassionately.


Since 1987, the Mind and Life Institute has sponsored bi-annual meetings between the Dalai Lama and Western scientist to explore the nature of mind, the nature of science, the nature of emotions, the nature of dreams, the nature of consciousness and compassionate connection.  Train Your Brain, Change Your Mind, is a comprehensive and easy to read report of the October 2004 meeting on neuroplasticity.


Psychologist Rick Hanson and neurologist Rick Mendius offer a monthly Wise Brain Bulletin with valuable perspectives and tools from the confluence of neuroscience, psychology and contemplative practice.