BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

And if they're Northern ...

OK … this one came my way through a somewhat convoluted path. My elder daughter, who is in her first year at college, is having a problem with insomnia, and I went a-Googling to see what I might come up with to suggest to her. Among the resources I found was a book, Say Good Night To Insomnia by a Dr. Gregg Jacobs … the name was familiar, and I did a bit more research, and found out that the author was, indeed, an old college chum of mine from back when dinosaurs roamed the frozen tundra of Appleton, WI. While poking around in those corners of the web, I also noticed that he had written another book: The Ancestral Mind: Reclaim the Power which sounded very interesting, and, while apparently out of print at the moment, was available from the on-line big boys' aftermarket sellers … so I ordered a copy, which jumped right into my reading rotation.

Now, I'm not talking “out of school” here (as Gregg mentions most of this in the book), but the author was a bit of a strange bird (to all L.U. alums ... I know, “I should talk”), who spent every Friday night during football season off somewhere (I'm pretty sure it wasn't on campus) floating in a sensory deprivation tank, mentally going over his on-field routine (he was the placekicker, and ended up holding some conference records). He also managed to have co-authored a research paper on sensory deprivation tank therapy while an undergrad, which apparently is still referenced in the field, and pretty much launched him on his career path - he's currently assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a Senior research scientist with the Mind/Body Institute of Harvard Medical School (not bad for a liberal arts college grad). All of this happening before stuff like the Altered States movie came out – so it was “pretty mysterious” at the time!

Anyway, the concept of the “ancestral mind” hooked me … and he does a pretty good job of presenting arguments for paying more attention to the older parts of the brain, and their perceptual patterns. However, I don't think he makes a solid case for there being an “ancestral mind” per se … early on he defines the Thinking Mind (henceforth TM) and the Ancestral Mind (AM) and treats them almost like they were two balls in a box … and I'm still not fully convinced that they're that easily dividable.

Jacobs digs back in time and suggests that language developed some 35,000 years ago, and this was the spark for the evolution of the “Thinking Mind”:
Language is an essential medium for all the activities we associate with the TM:
         • conscious awareness and reflection
         • analytical and abstract reasoning
         • planning, anticipating, and predicting the future
         • problem-solving and skill learning
This was also, supposedly, the start of the sense of the individual, separated from nature, which observed the world, rather than participate in it the way the species had for vast stretches of time prior. Aside from the obvious utility of the items on the list above, how did the Thinking Mind get the upper hand over the Ancestral Mind? It simply would not shut up, “engaging in an almost continuous internal monologue” that anybody who has ever attempted sitting meditation will recognize. Jacobs then goes into a litany of the stressors of modern life, and how the Thinking Mind has driven these, especially with the concept of measured time … nothing comes “in its season”, but “on a schedule”, and the TM is constantly “keeping score” from how well you performed at work to how your car compares with the neighbors'.

Next we get into the “meat” part of the equation … where we might find the “Ancestral Mind” … he first posits a three-level functional division between the “reptilian brain”, the “mammal brain”, and the neocortex (where, of course the TM hangs out). The parts he points to for finding the AM are: the reticular formation (basic alertness), the thalamus (in charge of “directing traffic”), the amygdala (which “sets off alarms”), the hypothalamus (which “spreads the alarm” throughout the body), and all these working somewhat at counter-purposes to the prefrontal cortex (where thought and emotion meet and likely produce the “troublesome internal monologue”). The problem here is that the hardware evolved to deal with infrequent, but serious stress – avoid the saber-toothed tiger, not freak out that you can't afford the latest Apple accessory – and the TM has hijacked these systems to flood the body with signals that we're about to be lunch ...for an endless stream of small issues of modern life.

All this theorizing aside, The Ancestral Mind is essentially a “self-help book” for those of us who are over-stressed (frankly, every example of a modern-day TM-driven psychology “fail” Jacobs comes up with here was flashing neon as being something I deal with on a daily basis), and trying to get to a better place.
The TM's mental chatter shifts continually from the past to the future, from hopes to fears, running through endless arguments and schemes. Through the TM's internal monologue, we mull over our needs and desires, create mental lists of what we have to do, or what we regret we haven't accomplished. We endlessly review our worries and concerns, compounding and intensifying them while creating an exaggerated sense of time pressure to complete the tasks that face us.
To fight this, Jacobs walks the readers through some tools, such as cognitive restructuring which is focused on stopping NAT's (negative automatic thoughts) before they take hold on the mind. One tool is to keep a “Cognitive Restructuring Diary”, which has four columns, “Situation”, “Emotion”, “NAT”, and “Reframed Thought” with a list of 10 questions to help diffuse the NATs (such as “4. Is there anything that might be positive about this situation?”). A second method of changing those negatives is the “double standard” technique … in the sense that you're holding yourself to a far lower standard of reality that you might for others, asking the question “Would I say this to a close friend with a similar problem?”. Yet a third approach is suggested, tapping the emotional wisdom in “millions of years of evolution” contained in the AM, in this case asking “Has anything like this happened to me in the past, and, if so, how did it turn out?”. Once you get practice on these reframing approaches, he suggests a further tool, the “Stop – Breathe – Reframe” technique, where you recognize a stress situation that is likely to generate NATs, and say to yourself “STOP”, then take a deep breath, and then reframe before the NATs get traction.

Now, folks who know me outside the on-line world realize that I'm a just a few gamma rays short of being Hulk on the “rage beast” scale, and another useful thing in here are 11 exercises for reducing anger. I could probably work a lot with #5: “Don't expect perfection. Be realistic and modify your expectations for the behavior of those around you.”. There's also a list of “Rx's” here for using laughter to defuse stress … his first question in this section is “How often do you laugh?”, and I have to admit, the way my life's been going, that's probably down to once or twice a month, so I should probably pay more attention to these than I'd do “voluntarily”. He also has a section on “faith” in here, but I'm not going to “go there”. The chapter following is about social support, but this is another big set of triggers for the “moody loner” set, trust me on that.

One of the things that gets a lot of pages here is sleep … with interesting research about how our “natural” sleep patterns – “polyphasic sleep” here – were pretty much wiped out with the invention of reliable lighting and the clock. Now, having been a guy who's “made do” with 4-5 hours of sleep a night nearly my entire adult life, I have a hard time taking seriously suggestions that dusk-to-dawn sleeping is a possibility. One of the things featured here, in relation to this is the “Relaxation Response” (RR), which is very much like classic hypnotic inductions, but (as far as I can recall), this material is never noted so. Like meditation, the RR is recommended as a “daily practice”, if just for 10-20 minutes … although he also charts out a “mini” less-than-a-minute version that can be done any time. Gregg really hits the target (for me) when he writes (emphasis mine):
The most difficult part of establishing regular RR practice is finding the time to do so. The tyranny of the Thinking Mind tells you that the day is too busy for relaxation, and will try to make you feel guilty or “unproductive”. Think of the RR as something that will improve not just your mood and your health but your performance as well. It is something that you need and deserve. If you still can't find time for the RR, you are probably one of those who need it most
The final chapters deal with how the TM is verbal, and the AM is visual, how the AM needs three things daily: music, light, and exercise, how times of solitude are renewing, and, finally, how we can look at pre-verbal children for a model of how the AM looks in practice (OK, maybe without smearing the veggies on the wall). Three appendices follow, one on (more) brain physiology, one on stress and health, and one on additional hypnotic inductions relaxation scripts.

Again, the parts I had issues with in The Ancestral Mind were largely ones pointing directly to my personal issues with stress, etc., and I found the book fascinating, well researched, and very restrained for its genre. I'm still not sure I'd recognize the Ancestral Mind if I saw it, but I'll give Jacobs the credit that he's at least used the concept as a functional model for an “escape from (the worst elements of) modernity”. As noted, this appears to be out of print, but the new/used guys at the online big boys' sites have “very good” copies of the hardcover for 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping), so you don't have any real good excuses to not get yourself one if the above sounds interesting to you!

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Tags: book review
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