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September 23, 2021

Mind your head

Memo from Pastor Rene

“Mind your head.” When visiting our daughter in England I noticed those words posted over the many tiny doors in old buildings (were people that much shorter in those days?). Even with those warnings I constantly brained myself on the low overhangs, though the message did eventually sink in.

Mind your head. That’s good advice in another way too.

Scientists can now do real-time brain scans that let them see activity in our brains. They can observe what one researcher calls “flooded brain”: When you feel under threat, your brain is flooded with adrenaline and other chemicals. You enter what they call “hyper threat analysis.” The ability for higher-level critical thinking shuts down. This is not a bug, it’s a feature, designed for times of immediate danger. When a mountain lion’s attacking, you don’t have time to ask, “Now what are all my possible options?” The choice is binary: fight or flight! “Flooded brain” is the state of alarm that helps you respond decisively when under threat.

Here’s the problem: Over the last decade, researchers have found the number of brain scans with flooded activity as a baseline—the state these people are in all the time—has increased each year. This is a concern because this kind of brain activity, when constant, leads to poor decision making, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, sleeplessness and an addiction to threat analysis (which can translate into constantly scanning the news).

It’s pretty obvious to me that we’re all living with frequently flooded brains right now. The threats of Covid-19, political strife, fires, mudslides and more, recapitulated daily by the news, conspire to send our brains into near-constant red-alert mode. That may be one reason it seems harder than ever to have a reasonable conversation, why people seem constantly edgy and irritable, why the solution to every problem seems to be either fight or flight, why appreciation of nuance seems extinct. Our brains feel under threat.

So what’s the solution to the flooded mind? A 2015 study by the National Institutes of Health called “The Meditative Mind” revealed the benefits of praying or meditating for at least 20 minutes. When people are in the meditative mind, their brain scans completely change. The stress hormones recede. It’s correlated with relaxation, better memory, longer attention spans, better problem-solving and emotional control.

To me this suggests one solution to the division and stress all around us is for each of us to cultivate a “meditative mind.” We would be better able to converse in peace, more apt to learn from one another.

OK, so how do we actually get there? One great way: experiencing awe. If you’ve walked along West Cliff with winter waves crashing, or hiked under a redwood canopy, or seen one of our spectacular sunsets, then you have felt awe. 

Awe is the emotion in many Bible verses, like: 

Lord, our Lord,

How majestic is your name in all the earth!

When I consider your heavens,

The work of your fingers,

The moon and the stars,

Which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:1,3-4)

A 2018 study at UC Berkeley called “The Science of Awe” showed how experiencing awe is correlated with all kinds of positive character traits such as happiness, creativity, and gratitude. Awe can improve critical mood and critical thinking skills. Experiencing awe makes people more kind and generous. 

Awe is the path out of the flooded mind and into the meditative mind.

To sense awe, I enjoy hiking in nature or listening to classical music, but I really love contemplating the source of all awe. When I’m in creation thinking of the Creator, daily tensions and stresses diminish. I feel I’m part of a bigger plan, and that brings peace.

There’s an old hymn with these lyrics:

O Lord my God,
when I in awesome wonder
consider all the works Thy hand hath made,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy pow’r throughout the universe displayed,

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee,
How great thou art! How great thou art!

That’s awe.

How do you experience awe? How do you move from the flooded mind to the meditative mind? I would love to share your idea in next month’s column. Do you have a favorite place to hike? Does a certain meal elicit awe for you? Is there a verse or poem that brings you peace? You can email me your ideas at [email protected].

This weekend, mind your head. Stop braining yourself on the low overhangs, the constant negative posts and alarming headlines. Tear yourself away from the news and soak in something awe-inspiring. It’s good for you—and you’ll find it’s good for everyone around you too.

René Schlaepfer is senior pastor of Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, www.tlc.org.

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