die Quelle

“A thought went up my mind to-day
That I have had before,
But did not finish, -- some way back,
I could not fix the year,

Nor where it went, nor why it came
The second time to me,
Nor definitely what it was,
Have I the art to say.

But somewhere in my soul, I know
I've met the thing before;
It just reminded me --'t was all --
And came my way no more.”

    -  Emily Dickinson


“Brains have been evolving on this planet for a long time. Lizards got brains a couple of hundred million years ago. When lizard brains emerged several things appeared on the planet for the first time: lust, anger, and aggression. Lizard brains are small and simple. They control breathing, vision, bodily movement. They also allow fierce territorial fights, lusty bouts of mating, and displays of anger. 

About 100 million years ago, loyalty appeared on Earth. Mammals emerged. Mammals have a large brain that grew on top of the lizard brain. 

Mammals’ new layer of brain - called the limbic system - is more densely wired and allows for richer experience. Our favorite mammal, the Dog, experiences love and loyalty, as anyone knows who has one. Dogs are as adept at positive emotional attachment as we, and sometimes clearer about it. 

Poetry, art, language and reason appeared on Earth a few hundred thousand years ago when our ancestors evolved. All apes have a third brain. It is inside this human brain that mathematics and music, deception and politics, religion and racism live. It is the Machiavelli as well as the Mozart brain, the Eichman as well as the Einstein brain. 

This neo-cortex is functionally semi-independent from the lizard and dog brains. That is why our experience is so odd. Consider this: language lies in the human brain, but emotions lie within the separate dog and lizard brains. So the emotions are in a different world from language entirely. Not only that, reason too lives in the new human brain while emotions live in the older brains. The lizard and dog brains are running their emotion programs while the human brain is running its thinking programs. They don’t have too much to do with each other. 

The older brains cannot speak. They can only feel and act. This is where the self-contradictory nature of so much human behavior comes from. 
The lizard brain is moved to lust. The dog brain is moved to love and loyalty. The human brain to the idea of romance and a dream of ethics. 

We have more than one memory system, too. There are independent memory systems in the neo-cortex and the limbic system. The big human brain has the intellectual memory where we remember facts and phone numbers. The dog brain has an emotion-based memory. It is slower to learn but retains memories longer. In fact it never forgets your experiences. As we age the neo-cortical memory degrades and we have senior moments. This doesn’t happen to the limbic brain - our repository of emotion. Think about that. The cognitive brain forgets. The emotional brain never forgets.”

    - James Thornton






I believe that life is a grueling vortex of suffering and despair. And then you die.

But I have been reading Nietzsche lately.

Our world view, or at least mine, it would appear, is influenced by that which we have most recently been reading. When I was a student in college back in the 70’s, studying psychology, the chapter in the textbook we were reading at any given time would have profound repercussions in my daily life. Psychology has a unfortunate tendency to focus on abnormal behavior, so whatever mental illness we were studying had the effect of convincing me that I had that particular illness.

Thank goodness we eventually studied Abraham Maslow, who was just contrary enough to suggest that studying aberrant behavior might be counterproductive, and that perhaps we should study what makes well adjusted people well adjusted. Without Maslow I might still be suffering from the certainty that I had the last mental illness I read about back in the spring of 1975.

It seems to be a basic human trait to look for scripts to explain the puzzling circumstances of our life and to grasp hold of any script that fits the bill. As my experience with Nietzsche and psychology texts show, some of us can too easily embrace a script to explain away vexing uncertainty.

The source of human behavior and the explanations we apply to understanding behavior are endlessly fascinating, which can be attributed in part to the fact that each of us provides our own self contained laboratory for long term psychological studies.

Recently, driving my car to work, I noticed my gas tank was half empty. I immediately began to consider where the nearest gas station was, so I could fill up. For some reason, it occurred to me, for the first time, that I never let my fuel tank get below half full, that I top off my tank 3 or 4 times a week. I felt tense and anxious when the gauge hit the halfway point. Suddenly this seemed like the oddest thing in the world. 

I drive, after all, the single most fuel efficient gasoline car sold in America. It can do quite well on a half full tank. What kind of person needs to constantly top off their fuel tank? I saw this for the first time as the neurotic behavior it obviously is. Where, I thought, did this compulsion come from?

I once visited the famous German Black Forest, nestled high above the Rhine River valley in extreme southwestern Germany. When I visited the forest I approached it from below, driving east out of the university town of Freiburg, twisting and winding upward from the Rhine flood plain, until I reached the plateau that the Black Forest inhabits above the Rhine river valley.

As I drove east through the Black Forest I came upon an open area at what seemed to be a the highest elevation along the way. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was crossing a continental divide, with water on one side draining to the North Sea, on the other side to the Black Sea. Soon I saw a marshy basin just below the road bed and a sign announced that this was the Donau Quelle. Quelle was a word I was unfamiliar with, but I quickly figured out it’s meaning. I knew that Donau was the German word for the Danube River, which meant that the modest damp depression along the side of the road was the source, the quelle, of one of the most majestic and famous rivers in the world. 

I had seen the Danube as it flowed through cities to the east, an impressively substantial body of water, and it seemed impossible that the tiny rivulets streaming out of this little marsh could be the source of the 2nd longest river in all of Europe. This is a river that grows to split giant cities, a river lined with castles, a river that flows all the way to the Black Sea, famously memorialized by Strauss in his waltz “The Blue Danube”.

It seemed to me that the source of the Danube should be a giant mountain lake, surrounded by snow packed peaks. 

The actual Quelle, the actual source of the Danube, is a simple, unassuming spot along the side of a road crossing a plateau, but it still led to unimaginably distant and foreign places, places with virtually nothing in common with the small marsh in the Black Forest. 

The landscape of the mind isn’t altogether different from the Black Forest. It is filled with more darkness than we care to acknowledge, it is dappled with areas of sunlight and clarity, and it has paths that lead to who knows where. It is a fundamental quality of life that things tend to have their source in one place and end up in another place altogether, in an unfamiliar shape and form.

So, on the day I realized that I felt anxiety at the thought of my gas tank passing the half empty mark, I wondered at the source, the quelle, of my compulsion to keep my little car’s gas tank full. 

And just like that, once considered for the first time, it came to me why this odd fixation existed. I realized exactly why I do it.

The Quelle of my odd gas purchasing habit can be traced down a winding channel to a beautiful, sunny Tuesday in September just over 7 years ago. 

The day is vivid for many reasons, but it started as an unusual day for me even before it became one of the most important days in US history.

The mother of one of my great friends from home had died and I was to leave at noon to drive the four hours to my hometown for her wake. I had a lot to get done at work before I left.

I went into the library to work on some computers, and the librarian had a TV on that showed a building in New York with flames erupting from the windows of it’s higher reaches. I was told a small plane had hit it. I wondered to myself how a pilot could screw up that badly and I considered that a few people had certainly been killed. As I worked on the computers, I heard a gasp, looked towards the TV and saw that another building had been hit by a plane, by a giant airliner, and now both towers of the World Trade Center were ablaze.

More students and teachers began to crowd around the TV. As word spread of the unfolding tragedy, entire classes gathered in the library, filling the large room, each of us hanging on every word spoken by the TV commentators.

Their was a sense of unreality, watching the towers burn, slowly realizing that this couldn’t have been an accident, that something sinister was at play.

And then, in one of the most surreal moments any of us will ever experience, the giant towers collapsed, a possibility no one had remotely considered, confronting us with the inescapable reality that many thousands of people were dying at that very moment.

It is easy to forget now that we know the details of that day, but as it unfolded, confusion and paranoia reigned, a result of the members of the electronic media reporting any rumor they came across.

We were told that the Pentagon had been hit by a plane, which of course turned out to be true. But we also were told that planes were in the air that were aiming for other targets like the Sears tower, the White House, the Capital building, even nuclear power plants. It was as if the world had gone mad, reality had turned horribly upside down.

Since my place of work is less than 2 miles from a nuclear power plant, the rumors were unbearable. I was worried about my own family, 20 miles away, frighteningly close to 2 more nuclear power plants. 

The day revealed itself as if in a terrible, terrible dream. I am sure you all recall the sense of uncertainty, of foreboding, of gut wrenching anxiety that was present in our minds that day.

Throughout that awful, surreal morning my emotions swung like a pendulum. I wanted to go home and do what little I could to comfort and protect my brood, but I had a sense of duty that I should drive south to the wake of my buddy’s mom. She had treated me with great kindness when I was young, and friends must be there for friends during times of emotional need.

One minute I was telling myself it was madness to leave home under the circumstances, the next moment I would recall the comfort provided to me by my friend when my dad died.

At the stroke of noon I made my decision. I would drive four hours, be at the funeral home when it opened at 4 PM, I would pay my respects, be back on the road by 4:30, then home by 8:30 to be with my wife and young sons on this terrible day.

By the time I started south all air traffic had been suspended, and though it seems impossible, the absence of airplanes and their distant noise in the sky created a perceptible visual and auditory silence, somehow adding a quietly sinister twist to the day. The interstate highway was mostly empty, and, as I passed by towns along the way, the streets there were empty as well. It seemed that I had entered the vast movie set of a post nuclear landscape.

My radio provided a soundtrack on the trip south. All normal broadcasting formats had been suspended, as had commercials, creating another oddly unsettling phenomena. I was treated to an unbroken stream of voices spewing paranoid rumor joined on occasion by factual horrors. I obsessed over my decision to go south and almost turned around several times in the first hour. I felt as if I were in some terrible experiment on the consequences of decision making. On this day of primal, reptilian fear, my thoughts would wander to the possibility that the rumors about nuke plants being targeted were correct, and having to live forever with the knowledge that my family had been incinerated while I drove across the empty prairie.

This was the first day of my entire life that being paranoid didn’t mean people weren’t out to get you. People really were out to get us.

After what seemed an eternity I arrived in my hometown and drove directly to the funeral home, arriving a few minutes after 4 PM. There I saw the oddest thing - the funeral home parking lot was completely empty. 

This was unspeakably odd. My friend’s family was the most prominent in town. His dad was the bank president, the pillar of the community, universally loved and respected. His late mother was the town librarian, known and loved by all. This is a small, intimate town where the wake of a vagrant will bring out scores of mourners.

I went inside the funeral parlor and was shocked to realize that my friend and his family were not there either. They were absent from their own mother and wife’s wake. Aside from the greeter in the foyer, I was the only person present.  

My friend’s mom was lying in the next room in an open casket, and I quietly paid my respects, noting a new variety of anxiety to add to the day’s abundant emotional stew, as I found myself alone for the first time with a dead person. 

Another strange development in the most painfully uncertain day in memory.

But of course, this was a day like no other in recent history. My friend’s mom had the unfortunate timing to have her wake on September 11, 2001, and so her remains spent the afternoon and evening in an otherwise empty room. Every possible mourner was in their house watching TV, trying to make sense of what had happened, trying to come to grips with an uncertain future.

I drove to my friend’s boyhood home, and his entire family, like everyone else in town, was in their living room watching images of the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, of the Pentagon, listening to the same unhinged speculation I had listened to in the car. 

They were thrilled to see me, thanked me profusely for making the effort to visit, apologetic over not being at the funeral home. We had a lovely visit for 45 minutes or so, and, anxious to get back on the path back home, I said my goodbyes.

Before I could resume my journey I needed gas. I drove to the closest of the town’s two gas stations and let out a gasp when it came into view. I quickly learned that not everyone was in front of a TV. Everyone in town with a car seemed to be in line to get gas.

The paranoia of the day, you remember, had engulfed the oil industry. Rumors ran rampant that the entire oil infrastructure would be compromised, and there was a run on gas. All over America people got in line to make sure they got some of the gas still in the underground tanks before it might run out. Some stations even jacked up the prices exploitively.

On this day of rampant fear, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a new fear, that I wouldn’t be able to get gas, that I wouldn’t be able to get home on this awful day to be with my family, that something terrible would happen at home and I wouldn’t be there.

I took my place in line, and because of the lay of the land, could look down a slight slope to where three separate lines of cars converged, all waiting to fill up. My adrenal gland, the gland that evolved to help us run away from hungry tigers, was pulsating, but I was bound to my car, the excess adrenaline having no release except in the form of stomach churning anxiety. After an hour of torture in which I hardly moved, I watched an attendant put a sign on the Regular pump to signify that it was empty. My heart sank. After another 45 minutes of torture, the Mid Range pump was marked as empty as well, leaving nothing but premium. I noticed that many people were only topping their tanks off, which drove me mad. I had driven an unimaginable distance, dizzy with anxiety, simply because of selflessness. Did this not serve as proof that I was a good and decent person who deserved gas more than the others?! I thought so.

At last, after over two torturous hours in line, I was able to fill my tank with some of the last precious drops of gas in the county. I quickly began the long paranoid drive home, arriving home near midnight after four more hours of listening to dark speculation on the radio. The world had changed forever, but the nuclear plants were not blown up, my beautiful family was safe, and now we know the formerly subconscious reason why I never let my gas tank get below half full.

The Quelle of my gas neurosis has nothing to do with gasoline and everything to do with buried emotional memory. My mammalian brain knows that day as perhaps the most uniquely stressful day of my life, as I hope my story illustrated. I consciously moved on, repressed the cognitive memories of the day, not knowing they were too intense to lie buried forever. To my limbic system, Sept 11 was ground zero of my emotional life. No emotional memory that intense will ever stay buried forever and Dr. Freud had the case studies to prove it. 

A colleague of mine once told me that there was a bit of conflict in his household because he was ruining his wife’s sleep. He was getting out of bed at about 2 every morning to indulge in a compulsion to open all the cabinets in his kitchen and confirm there was food in them. He hadn’t considered the reason he did this until his wife complained. When he was challenged, however, he quickly realized it was odd behavior, and, like me, once considered, the answer was obvious. As a child his family was terribly poor, he often went to bed hungry, his stomach gnawing painfully. That terrible anxiety of not knowing if food would be on the table each day followed him, buried in his mid brain, into his prosperous adulthood. Opening the cabinets and seeing food kept the emotional monster in it’s box.

Research shows that emotions are formed and stored in sub-cortical parts of the brain, that is, outside of the cerebrum, the mechanism for abstract, verbal, higher order thinking. 

Your sub-cortical nervous system, your mammalian brain, has a hierarchal memory of every emotion you have every experienced. I say hierarchal because more intense emotional experiences have the highest priority in the sub-cortical brain, are more apt to emerge in unplanned ways. Sept. 11 or a childhood of hunger sit high in the emotional hierarchy of anyone who has experienced them. 

We know that emotions have a limited palette of judgments. Where the cerebrum has an almost infinite palette of judgmental gradation, the mammal brain judges emotional memory in only two ways. Good or bad. Positive or negative. Emotion, it turns out, is a binary concept.

Your mammalian brain, then, keeps an emotional record of your life, labeling each emotion good or bad, and arranges them in a hierarchy based on their intensity.

In some cases the hurt and suffering and anxiety we experience are so great the emotions associated with them must be repressed for the individual to simply go on living. But all we are doing by repressing emotion is delaying a day of reckoning.

The most intense emotional memory, buried in the mammalian brain, as we’ve learned, is always probing, always looking for a way to emerge. 

When buried emotion inevitably does emerge, your cerebral cortex, speaking a different language than the limbic system, unable to easily make sense of the emotions that have risen from within the recesses of your mammalian brain, projects those emotions onto your current life. 

This, as those of you who have taken an introductory psychology course know, is displacement, the phenomena of emotions created by one set of events becoming attached to something or someone that is completely independent of the buried emotions.

When displacement occurs you find yourself compulsively filling your gas tank or rummaging around in the cabinets at 2 in the morning.

Much of the behavior you think you are the master of is in fact stage managed by the emotional memory in your mammalian brain, the devious synaptic maestro for the dynamic symphony that is your life. 

Sadly, not all buried emotional memory is as benign as my gasoline obsession. 

Consider the fireman who had to witness the horrifying carnage created by the collapse of the twin towers. He never so much as mentioned it to his family, who wonder at his emotional rages, rages that torment his loved ones, innocent bystanders to the emotions buried deep inside him.

Consider the wife and mother who lost her husband in the collapse of the towers, buried the emotion, and drinks to excess out of displaced fear that something will happen to her children. 

Consider the children who lost a parent in the towers, facing a confused and angry future, as buried emotions connected to their loss work their way to the surface over the years to come.

And consider the countless people who have suffered traumas that have nothing to do with Sept. 11, and never dealt with the trauma they’ve suffered. Consider the buried emotion associated with their anxiety that keeps them in bondage to the past.

Friedrich Neitzsche, who, as you know, provided a script for my current neurosis, took the view that, and I quote, “what we take to be the inexorable conclusions of clear rational thought are nothing but the reformulations of our innermost desires - disguised as the products of logic.” He believed that we are not as in control of our mental processes as we think we are, that the things gurgling around in our sub-cortical brain are the dynamics that are really directing the stagecraft that is our life, and that our cerebrum just provides an artificial rationale for the things we do.

Nietzsche suggested that the logic we use to reformulate our sub-cortical yearnings is so limited by the differences and limitations of our triune brain that we are often doomed to just apply cognitive facades to the emotions that drive us.

Humans are compelled to apply scripts to our life when the truth of our actions might be too painful to consider. We want an explanation of submerged emotions that justifies our behavior, sheds a flattering light on our actions, and organizes an exposition for our life that makes us like what we see in the mirror, regardless of what boils beneath the surface. 

The fact that the human brain has three components with competing interests and languages makes for a vexing conundrum. We must use our brain to solve our brain and our brain is a tool that builds illusions. Our challenge is to look past those illusions.

The concept of a triune brain explains so very much of the puzzling dissonance of human life and reveals the need for us to consider how the three evolutionary levels of our brain translate the three separate languages our brain speaks. A lack of precision in translating those languages leads to internal misunderstanding, and creates one of the great barriers to self understanding. 

Buried emotion is a universal phenomena, and it almost certainly affects everyone in this room, in some cases malignantly so. Blessedly, the triune model allows us to examine our behavior more accurately, more honestly, to discover what of our behavior is reasoned and what is rooted in emotional memory buried deep in our mammalian brain.

We avoid investigating our servitude to buried emotions, and the facades we construct to explain away those buried emotions, at our own peril.

Let’s not build a dishonest intellectual script around submerged memory to temporarily avoid a reckoning - we must face them down and deprive them of their power. You notice how quickly I discovered the source of my gas compulsion once I acknowledged that compulsion, how quickly it became a harmless curiosity once exposed to the light of day.

I don’t really believe that life is all suffering and despair, I just have a compulsion for misguided laughs. Life is, quite simply, the greatest gift in the universe. It is our obligation, given this astonishing privilege, to live life as fully, honestly, and joyfully as possible.

To do so we must discover the Quelle of our limbic underlords, the source of the emotional memories that serve as our masters, disconnect them from behavior that rings untrue and set ourselves free.  We must reflect, meditate, see a counselor, speak with a minister, lean on a valued friend - somehow break the bonds that lie buried in the structures of the mammalian brain.

These are a few possibilities to mitigate the conflicts between the three parts of your brain, a way to insert a mediator, a translator, a navigator, to plot a course from the Quelle to the Unitarian brain.




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