Molecular Thoughts

This Is Your Brain On Elul

Welcome to Elul. The month whose tagline reads: “Helping Shleppers Get Their Act Together For 3000 Years”. Tis the season for teshuva; our own temporal epicenter for Change.

I’m admittedly obsessed with change. I’ve spent the last 2 decades in hot pursuit of ‘How To’ tools for changing my character traits, my relationships, my world.  And hence this fascination with spirituality, psychology, and now physiology.

So in honor of getting our proverbial act together, let’s have a look at the place where spirit, psychology and physiology meet up and have a l’chaim.

*The Physiology:

Change happens in a box in our brains. It is a magical little cubicle called the pre-frontal cortex. We’ll call it ‘PC’ for our purposes – because it really is like a PC; an adroit little inner-computer that handles life tasks masterfully.

The PC is a wiz at focusing, impulse control, problem solving, will power. It is the artist of our life’s best progress. Want to lose weight? Root out laziness? Step right in to the PC. Here anything is possible and you are queen. Like a crown at our forehead, like an inner-tefillin. It’s a wildly productive place from which to function.

Elul is the time to get trained in how to optimize our PCs. Because Elul is to our year like the pre-frontal cortex is to our brain.  Here in the PC, teshuva is a piece of cake…mehadrin, zero-calorie, dream-cake.

But there is a glitch. Of course.

The problem is that we don’t always work from our masterful PC.

Why in the world not?

Well, because it’s taxing….and because change hurts.

*Change Hurts

I’ve always loved that oft-quoted Jewish aphorism for growth. It’s on the front page of the Shalev Center’s website: “There is an angel that stands over every blade of grass and whispers ‘grow grow’.” That’s the pastel Hallmark version. The actual quote in the Midrash says that the angel is there HITTING  that poor striving blade. A real clobber call for growth.

Of course, when we look at our own lives that makes sense. There is an inevitable aspect of pain inherent to change. In fact, that badgering angel has actually been illustrated wonderfully by modern technology. Advancements in brain analysis technology has shown us how different areas of the brain light up in response to our thoughts. And lo and behold these brain pictures reveal that the human response to change is consistently and universally a preference to avoid it.

Indulge me in a rudely rudimentary layman’s description of what happens:

Brain imaging shows that when we think about Change our pre-frontal cortex lights up like a Hannukah bush. Which is good news, but also bad news.

Apparently our magical PC can only handle a handful of concepts at once – and then it hits its limits. Once it bumps up against its limit there’s a marked sense of discomfort, fatigue and even anger that seems to occur.

This is because the PC is real tight with its overly-emotional and unstable neighbor, Amygdala. Ah, amygdala. You’re soooo primitive. The amygdala is our emotional center. It’s part of our dinosaur brain and it’s all too often about fight or flight. When the PC crashes our not-so-helpful friend amygdala steps in and that’s usually not good for productive growth.

The PC crashes because it needs a lot of blood sugar to fuel it. That glucose is unfortunately metabolically expensive for the body to produce. Note that the brain makes up 1/50th of our body mass but consumes 1/5th of the calories we need for energy. That makes brain activity expensive. And the most expensive of all brain activity is that which is done in the PC.

And so the brain usually opts to not turn on the gas-guzzling PC at any great length.  Instead it runs off of an operating system that needs much less fuel – the slower, gentler basal ganglia. Basal ganglia is all about what’s habitual, automatic – the hardwired habits and memories that make up the bulk of our daily lives.

It is simply less effort intensive to fly on automatic pilot than to rev up your inner super-computer. And so we tend to stick with Old Faithful, the geyser of our habits.

So how are we going to get anywhere given that brain propensity for familiarity…and, I dare say, mediocrity?

Here’s where spirituality & religion comes back in.

*Elul to the Rescue:

What do we do during Elul? We’re in hard-core training for the metaphysical marathon that is the upcoming High Holidays. And so we sweat our spirit. We learn Torah. We wake up in the middle of the night to beg forgiveness. We introspect the heck out of ourselves. We pray like crazy people. We weep our eyes out and we work out our woundings.

All of these activities can be fabulously pleasurable for the brain. Because one of the brain’s favorite delicacies is Epiphany. Sweet epiphany and her compatriot Insight. The super-foods of brain treats.

Brain scans show tremendous activity during moments of insight. New and complex connections are crafted in the brain. Even solving a math problem can create positive brain activity, imagine what having a major life epiphany can do to all that grey matter?!

The pleasurable toil of insight-production keeps our PC amply charged for productive growth.

The ritualized push of Elul, when done right, gifts us with the brain-enriching path of epiphany.

Epiphanies are not a luxury. They are essential to our evolution. Without them, all of our growth work will feel like a pain in the brain. If your prayer life is dull then it will just create a brain ache. If your Torah learning doesn’t rejoice in personal hiddushim and all the new synapses they create, then it’s just going to drag you down. Invest in Insights. Get insight’ed.

Elul is a field of introspection fresh for the picking. Good Lord, let’s pursue insights as our most practical core endeavor if we want to change our lives and habits with lasting impact. Start the year on the right foot…and brain hemisphere too.

Here’s to an Elul full of Insight & Epiphany!

***Now here’s a chance to step into some serious insight’ment! – I will be leading a Pre-Rosh Hashannah Retreat that will be entirely about generating new epiphanies to fuel our growth! I’ll be leading it with Sheva Chaya of Tsfat glass blowing fame. It’s for women and it’s for real and it’s NEXT WEEK – Thursday Sept 15th to Sunday.  It’s in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean and we will serve only the best brain food. – Come join us and grow!!!