Before we begin, as usual, let's pause and take a deep breath.
Then say to yourself, "I'm learning now."
In the previous lesson, we practiced a simple method of producing moments of pleasant contrast by scanning the world around us and within us, and then placing our focus on something that makes us feel peace.
In this lesson, we'll learn about how the brain keeps us alive.
Let's start with the proposition that the brain's primary purpose is to keep us alive.
When facing a threat to our survival, there are four levels of response our brain produces.
First is level zero. A threat that we already have the right tool or skill to overcome is barely a threat. It wakes us up and engages our whole self to figure out the smoothest solution, but we know that we'll handle it one way or another. We enter a psychological "flow" state, when our skill level is equal to the challenge, and our brain networks all communicate clearly with each other.
Level one. A small threat that we're not prepared for, or a need we don't know how to satisfy by ourselves, gets us to ask or call for help. Imagine desperately needing a bathroom in a place where you don't speak the language. In these types of situations, our brain networks for complex thought, that revolve around the prefrontal cortex, become less active, and we have to turn to our social resources, also known as other people's brains, for help.
Level two. If help doesn't come, or the danger to our body is immediate, our social brain networks switch off, we disconnect from other people, and we enter a state of fight or flight. Our heart rate increases rapidly, and we prepare to take extreme physical action. This might happen if we crossed paths with a pack of wild hyenas on the way to the bathroom once someone pointed us in the right direction.
Level three. If we can't fight or escape, and we're out of options, our brain basically disconnects from our own mind and body. Our heart rate drops, we pass out and collapse or freeze, with eyes open but no control over ourselves at all.
Levels of threat are levels of disconnection from our survival supports.
Level zero has minimum disconnection. In fact, a challenge we're ready for affirms our survival fitness, and overcoming it makes us feel easily connected to life.
At level one, though, our brain networks disconnect somewhat from each other, making our thinking more chaotic, and we need to turn to our tribe members for help.
At level two, we disconnect from them if they can't or won't help us, and prepare to defend our own body with sheer strength in a fight or agility in an escape.
At level three, we disconnect even from ourselves, shutting everything down except for the minimum amount of organ functioning to keep us literally not dead.
At this point, if we do survive, it's not without significant lasting trauma.
Next lesson, we'll flip this depressing situation on its head. Understanding threat responses will enable us to understand the sources of our greatest aliveness.