Let’s talk some dope (amine)

Remember the Pythagorean Theorem?  Yeah, me neither, until mathematician April reminded us in Sunday School class.  It’s the set-in-stone mathematical law that if you add up the angles of a triangle, it always equals 180.  (The angles are where two legs of the triangle meet – how close or far apart they are.  A circle = 360.)  You learned this in school, trust me, and you learned it as an absolute.  Every triangle’s angles add up to 180.  

And then, April blew my mind.  Se told us this never-to-be-disputed mathematical law only works on a flat surface.  If you draw a triangle on the surface of the earth, the angles will add up to more than 180 degrees.  WHAT?  Yep, context matters.  What I’ve believed my entire life.  What a thrill to hear my sense of the world confirmed by a mathematical theorem!

But this is not a blog about math.  No, this is a blog about my brain, and how this new idea  sent a surge of dopamine straight through my neural pathways, making me feel excited and happy.  Okay, this also reveals the nerd I am – that a new exciting idea is my form of a drug rush.

But here’s the question:  What gives you a rush of dopamine?  What excites you?  Do you even know anymore?

Daniel Siegel in his latest book, “Brainstorm:  The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” suggests our (adult) frustrations with teens come in part from our envy of their passion.  The resting level of dopamine drops in adolescence, but is much more easily spiked.  Hence, their passions are easily excited, and we see that, and as adults, we miss that for ourselves.

In the book “Overwhelmed: Work, love, and play when no one has the time” by Brigid Schulte, she presents all the research on the importance of playtime not for children, but for adults.  If we want to be creative – and let’s face it, our lives demand creative problem solving at home, at work, in our relationships – We need to play.  And she rightly points out how hard it is for adults to play, yet how crucial it is.  

So why don’t we?  Well, who has the time?  The research says playing makes us more productive and creative.  Obviously we’d be happier and better off if we played.

But for those of us living a life faith in this culture, our every minute is measured by our immediate productivity.  “Playing time” looks like “wasting time.”    What will people say?  That we’re lazy, frivolous, childish.  

Plus for those of us who are Christian, our Puritan heritage immediately puts a stop to play.  Consciously or not, we think we must “Come, labor on – Who dares stand idle” as the (awful!) Protestant hymn suggests.  O, we’ll play, sure, – once the list is done.  Once all our responsibilities are fulfilled.  Except the list, and our responsibilities, by their very nature, never will get done.  

Instead:  The research on work, on how our brains are wired, on adolescents, on mental health all agree:  We must play.  And for Christians, we can drown out the “Come, Labor On” message by turning to the God of the hymn, “Morning Has Broken:” which says, “God’s re-creation of the new day.” If we are to be about God’s work in the world, well then, we are called to participate in “re-creation,” that is, “recreation.” 

So, when was the last time you had a dopamine rush?  Do you remember what caused it?  Have you gone seeking it by trying new adventures, going outside your comfort zone, pushing against your edges?  And in spite how exciting I found the limitations of the Pythagorean Theorem, all the research says the dopamine rushes that restore us involve our whole being – Not just our mind – but our bodies, too.  Which is play.  Image

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Today’s Neuroscience Scripture

Did you remember learning in your Psych 101 class about those poor baby monkeys who were separated from their monkey-mothers and given a wire “monkey” to snuggle?  Those poor monkeys didn’t turn out so well.  What I didn’t know until now was that some of those baby monkeys got an intervention when they were older.

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monkey in brazil, by amy

Dr. Harlow, the researcher, had already experimented sending these mother-less monkeys back into the extended monkey family, and their behaviors were heart-wrenching.  (I never could have survived as an animal researcher.)  They isolated themselves in a corner and rocked, having no idea how to interact with live monkeys.  So, the famous researcher staged an intervention:  He took these mother-less monkeys, now older, and gave them monkey therapists – Yes, you read that right – Each of those now teenage monkeys was given a child monkey therapist to hang with – And those child monkeys taught those teen monkeys how to be monkeys again.  

The happily-bonded child monkeys who’d been fortunate enough to stay with their mothers knew what it was to connect and bond.  These kid monkeys were naturally quite curious about this withdrawn sullen angst-ridden teenage monkey, (who had every reason to be sullen, wouldn’t you say, after being raised by wire mesh?  This does not explain stereotypical North American middle class teen angst, however.  I’m hoping Daniel Siegel’s upcoming book, “Brainstorm” does.  Stay tuned)  So, these kid monkeys started checking out their new friends.  Even if they were met with that familiar teenage primate snub (do teen monkeys roll their eyes, too?), those kid monkeys were persistent – They would climb on their new friends, and chatter with them, and snuggle and hug them.  And over time – A lot of time – those teenaged monkeys learned how to be monkeys, again – Part of the monkey family.  Those kid monkeys had rewired those teen monkeys’ brains.

If you are at all familiar with your Bible – Even if all you do is go to church on high holy days, surely you know the saying, “…..and a child shall lead them.” (From the prophet Isaiah 11:6)  How can you not think about that when you hear of these kid monkeys rescuing their damaged teen monkey friends?

It’s all in the interpersonal neurobiology (how our minds shape and are shaped by others) and the brain’s neuroplasticity.  Spend some time with kids – They may just rewire your brain – I mean, in a good way.