A Unified Theory of the Brain: Explaining the Incomprehensible
By Charles F. Glassman, MD – CoachMD
Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach accused of child abuse, has helped me think of my automatic brain theory on a larger scale. I will tell you how in a moment.
Albert Einstein sought for much of his life to develop a Unified Field Theory,a theory of everything. In some respects, my work to define and understand what I call the automatic brain (AB) is similar. It’s my attempt to develop a unified theory of why we do the things we do and think the things we think, especially when they are self-sabotaging or hurtful to others.
I do not claim to be an evolutionary psychologist, nor a neurobiologist, nor to be recognized as an expert on the brain. In seeking to learn about the AB, I did not rely on the results of laboratory or clinical experiments. I looked no further than myself. And what I came up with was a theory that seems to apply to many life situations’and not only for me.
For those who are new to my work, the AB can be summed up as the primitive part of our brain. It runs 24/7 in its effort to detect danger, threat, or vulnerability, and then causes us to fight or flee by conjuring up thoughts or behavior. The AB reacts essentially the same way it did for our prehistoric ancestors, even though now the dangers are different.
If my theory is correct, it must explain a wide range of human behaviors, including those at the extremes, such as psychiatric illness. In other words, a very strong danger trigger must be behind someone’s psychological illness. And if my theory of the AB explains the basis of psychiatric illness, then dealing with the general angst of everyday life we all feel should be simple!
Danger triggers mostly appear before the teen years. Once they take root, they become the instigation for every subsequent fight-or-flight response later in life. That doesn’t mean that traumatic adult experiences have no effect, but often the brain interprets the new trauma as a validation of the childhood danger. The more serious the psychiatric illness, the more severe must have been the childhood trigger.
When a child witnesses trauma or abuse, it becomes part of his or her AB database for life. As an adult, the AB will interpret every hint of stability and happiness’and every tendency to let its guard down,as potential vulnerability. And the AB will fight or flee the vulnerability of stability. Some fight with aggression and rage; some flee and become depressed or escape into a fantasy world of schizophrenia; others do both (bipolar disorder).
Over the past few weeks, we have learned about extreme deviant behavior in the case of Jerry Sandusky. I usually recommend not watching the news because over time the steady drum beat of bad news numbs us and makes us less aware. The Sandusky case is an exception, because I think we can learn something from it. It has helped me better understand the workings of the AB.
Applying my AB theory, the explanation for his extreme behavior (alleged, it must be added) lies in his childhood. From 1952 through 1985, Sandusky’s mother and father ran the Brownson House, a recreation center and the center of activity for the blue-collar town of 14,000 about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh where Jerry grew up. The family lived in an old red brick building. What I find interesting is that the same language now being used to describe Jerry was used to describe his father: an icon, could have run for mayor of the town, an outstanding citizen, standup guy, generous, heart of gold in one of the most respected families in town.
Our AB fights and flees what it interprets as dangerous, threatening, or making us vulnerable. I believe a few things happened in the developing AB of Jerry Sandusky. It stored memories of his father’s participation with young boys and how that brought his father respect, esteem, and even adoration. That was the father’s safe place, and anything that didn’t fit in would cause his father to fight or flee.
Surrounded by many other boys, it is also likely that Jerry needed to compete for his father’s love. I suspect Jerry did not feel his father’s love, and the lack of love is a very strong danger trigger. (As I describe in Brain Drain, the AB has a love receptor, and it detects lack of love as danger.) Fighting and fleeing the AB’s danger trigger of lack of love from his father combined with a need to be surrounded by young children, Jerry’s AB had him flee to the safety of relationships with many boys, thus feeding the AB’s love receptor and its need for familiarity.
But how does this explain the allegations of abuse? When anyone forces another to perform an act against his or her will, it means that the aggressor has been triggered somehow by the victim and is responding with a fight reaction. How in the world could a 10-year-old boy represent danger or vulnerability to Jerry Sandusky, a middle-aged man?
As I’ve said, the more egregious the behavior, the more severe the danger trigger must have been. It has to have come from his childhood as his AB developed. The gestalt of Jerry Sandusky’s home as a child must have been heavily centered on the recreation center. I suspect anything that caused even the slightest threat to the elder Sandusky’s stature in the community would produce dire consequences. My guess is that those dire consequences could have included abuse of Jerry, his mother, and/or the boys.
Jerry’s adult AB steered him into the familiar pattern of seeking love and affection (and stature and power) from an affiliation with young boys. I suspect that any threat of the boys” pulling away from him, not accepting his hugs and physical closeness, and losing their love and affection, would result in violent (fight) reactions. Hence the aggressive behavior of sexual abuse.
Jerry Sandusky’s autobiography does not support my speculation, but it also does not include anything about his abuse of children either.
Does this have anything to do with our own health and wellness? As I mentioned, if my AB theory can explain the egregious, it must explain the regular, mundane reactions that most of us experience on an everyday basis. It explains such things as why we can’t stick to healthy lifestyles (our unhealthy lifestyles are familiar to us and we fight or flee the unfamiliar healthy ones), why we get stressed and argue with people from the cashier to our spouse (we fight or flee the primitive danger of being one-upped by someone else). And of course, much of what we fight and flee as adults is what we learned was dangerous as a child. Not only is our AB primitive, but for the most part it is a child’s brain in an adult body.
Just because we may not have experienced direct abuse, the developing child’s automatic brain is subject to all sorts of erroneous associations, what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls errors of subjectivity. The AB and all its baggage does not have to lead us to hurtful or illegal activity, but it can certainly stand in the way of ultimate progress or success. All of that will affect our health and happiness.
I suggest next time you do something that you later regret, look closely to see if you were fighting or fleeing some erroneous danger, threat, or vulnerability. See if my unified brain theory resonates with you and whether or not an understanding of it can help you to a more fulfilled life.
He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Brain Drain, which helps explain and fix self-sabotage. It is the winner of the 2011 Independent Publisher's Award and 2011 Eric Hoffer Award as the best Self-Help and Health book, 2010 Pinnacle Book Award for best Self-Help Book, and 2009 LA Book Festival Best Spirituality Book.
To new subscribers on his website, he is now offering his free, new EBook, Destiny Diet. Weekly, Dr. Glassman hosts Medicine on the Cutting Edge, which gives a voice to pioneers in medical research and development. Dr. Glassman lives with his family in Rockland County, NY.
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