++User’s Guide – notes on Ratey’s writings

A User’s Guide to the Brain:  Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain

By John J. Ratey, M.D.

Vintage Books, 2002


“The confusing terminology that neuroscience applies to the brain and its functions will itself eventually need to change – and it will as our understanding of the brain deepens.  Scientists looking at pathology are still caught up in the unitary hunt for the broken neural component they imagine to be at fault, and are doing their best to match up specific brain functions with specific neurogeographical locations.  The sooner we replace our mechanistic model of the brain with an ecologically centered, systems-based view, the better off we will be, for such a model better accounts for much of human experience.  (Ratey, ug/4)”

“…the brain is largely composed of maps, arrays of neurons that apparently represent entire objects of perception or cognition, or at least entire sensory or cognitive qualities of those objects, such as color, texture, credibility, or speed.  Most cognitive functions involve the interaction of maps from many different part [sic] of the brain at once…  The brain assembles perceptions by the simultaneous interaction of whole concepts, whole images….the brain is an analog processor, meaning, essentially, that it works by analogy and metaphor.  It relates whole concepts to one another and looks for similarities, differences, or relationships between them.  It does not assemble thoughts and feelings from bits of data.  (Ratey, ug/5)”

“Although metaphor and analogy are unconventional in scientific circles, I am firmly convinced that a more nonlinear kind of thought will eventually supplant much of the logical reasoning we use today.  Chris Langton, one of the primary researchers in the field of complexity theory, has speculated that in the future science will become more poetic…..real trust, when emotions are running high, is based on analogy, not calculation.  (Ratey, ug/5)”

“Many aspects of the way we are, formerly blamed on the environment, on bad parenting, or on early childhood trauma, are now more correctly recognized as deficits in the brain.  Autism, once attributed to a child’s being raised by an emotionally cold mother, is now known to be an extreme case of a developmental pattern whose causes have little to do with the environment.  (Ratey, ug/6)”

“…we are learning to see mental weaknesses as physical systems in need of training and practice.  The brain is a dynamic highly sensitive yet robust system that may adapt, for better or worse, to almost any element of its environment. (Ratey, ug/6)”

“Every brain is different, and no brain is perfect; it is our responsibility to learn about ourselves and about what gives us each a unique way of seeing the world.  (Ratey, ug/6)”

“It is a paradoxical age in which we live, for there seems to be a mounting tension between advances in human biology, with their power to heal, and the principles of responsibility that hold our society together.  (Ratey, ug/8)”

“As the fetal brain develops, each stage of brain evolution is reenacted in miniature, as successively more modern layers are added to the more primitive layers beneath.  (Ratey, ug/9)”

“There are a hundred billions neurons in a single human brain, and roughly ten times as many other cells that have noncomputaional roles.  Each of these neurons is connected to others by branching treelike projections known as axons and dendrites, most of which terminate in tiny structures called synapses….  Each one of our hundred billion neurons may have anywhere from 1 to 10,000 synaptic connections to other neurons.  This means that the theoretical number of different patterns of connections possible in a single brain is approximately …forty quadrillion.  (Ratey, ug/9)”

“If changes in synaptic strengths (not merely the different arrangements of synapses) are the primary mechanism behind the brain’s ability to represent the world, and if each synapse has, say, ten different strengths, then the different electrochemical configurations in a single brain come to a staggering number:  ten to the trillionth power…. Most astrophysicists calculate the volume of the known universe, in cubic meters, to be roughly ten to the eighty-seventh power…  (Ratey, ug/11)”

“The brain is, according to current theories, more like an ecosystem than a machine, and many of its systems are in constant competition with one another all of our lives…. Each network in the brain is striving against the others for feedback from the outside world.  (Ratey, ug/11)”

“There are more possible ways to connect the brain’s neurons than there are atoms in the universe.  (Ratey, ug/20)”

“…recent research indicates that childhood stress may trigger the expression of genes that might otherwise have lain dormant throughout development.  (Ratey, ug/12)”

“In a developing brain, each component initially develops on its own.  After a certain internal degree of complexity is reached, however, and after the environment itself becomes more challenging, the separate parts of the brain begin to (Ratey, ug/12) form more extensive connections with one another.  (Ratey, ug/13)”

“…self-knowledge makes it all the more our responsibility to live lives that maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.  There is no blame involved…..blaming yourself for the physiological shortcomings of your brain, whatever they may be, is misdirected energy, energy better spent in changing your habits and lifestyle to live the most productive life you can.  (Ratey, ug/13)”

Yet it is also a factor that someone else, our early primary caregivers, had a huge amount of influence on how our genes manifested and how our brain was made from the beginning.


“We are not prisoners of our genes or our environment.  Poverty, alienation, drugs, hormonal imbalances, and depression don’t dictate failure.  Wealth, acceptance, vegetables, and exercise don’t guarantee success.  Our own free will may be the strongest force directing the development of our brains, and therefore our lives…. The adult brain is both plastic and resilient, and always eager to learn.  (Ratey, ug/17)”

“…a child’s acquiring language, thinking, and emotional skills is an active process that may be largely finished before age three.  (Ratey, ug/18)”


“…our brains retain the three basic components found in the simplest vertebrates:

the hindbrain at the top of our spinal cord, which controls sensation and movement of the muscles of our face and throat;

the midbrain, farther into the center of the head, which deals with some movements of the eyes and some rudimentary hearing and vision, and

the forebrain, which achieves its most glorious development in human beings and which contains the cerebral cortex, the white-matter fibers connecting neurons of the cortex with each other and with other neurons, as well as those areas deep in the center of the brain that coordinate automatic sensory and motor functions.  The cortex is the layers of neurons lying immediately below the bones of the skull, arching from just behind the forehead and over the top and sides, back to where the back of the head meets the neck.  The cortex has evolved and expanded, adding many new functional areas, which participate in activities from playing basketball to designing software.  (Ratey, ug/22)” [[cc this part to cortex file]


  1. (Ratey, ug/22)”


Even in utero:  “From the beginning of its being built, the brain is a social brain, the neurons making connections with their neighbors or dying for lack of contact.  (Ratey, ug/23)….even at the very beginning of development the brain is a social organ:  where there is no connection, there is no life.  (Ratey, ug/26)”

“When a baby is born, it has millions of good connections waiting for a speciic assignment.  As the world makes demands, many of the connections are enlisted for specific jogs:  seeing, babbling, remembering, throwing a ball.  Connections that aren’t used are eventually pruned.  In the absence of the proper stimulation, a brain cell will die, but offer it a diet of enriched experiences and its neural synapses sprout new branches and connections.  (Ratey, ug/26)”


“…a theme that will be repeated time and again in this book:  Some types of antisocial and even criminal behavior could be linked to, if not caused by, physical problems in the brain.  (Ratey, ug/28)”


“…100,000 genes in the human genome, some 30,000 to 50,000 of which are designated for the brain…..The point to remember is that genes can be active or inactive and that everything we do affects the activity of our genes….they reside in every cell and are affected by anything that affects that cell, whether the cell is in the thigh or the cortex.  (Ratey, ug/32)”


“…the issue is not nature versus nurture.  It is the balance between nature and nurture.  Genes do not make a man….  Genes merely make proteins.  The chemical effect of these proteins may make the man’s brain and body more receptive to certain environmental influences.  But the extent of those influences will have as much to do with the outcome as the genes themselves.  Furthermore, we humans are not prisoners of our genes or our environment.  We have free will.  (Ratey, ug/34)”

“…but “harder” is a long way from predetermination.  (Ratey, ug/34)”

We also have to be very realistic about this.  There are extreme circumstances where there is enough environmental influence to compound problems so that free will is removed….as he is saying with FAS and FAE.  We may have free will, but we do not have magic wands!

It’s almost like he’s “talking out of both sides of his mouth” at the same time, and he can’t have it both ways.  On the one hand he is describing how conditions can cause cell death in areas of the brain, and on the other hand he is saying we can use free will to, what, do anything we want to?

We have to be realistic and not overly enthusiastic, or just dead wrong!  Then he goes on to say the following:


“Because the young brain prunes weak connections, environmental input in a child’s early years can have amazing or devastating effects on the brain’s wiring, and thus on future behavior.  Geraldine Dawson of the University of Washington followed 160 children from infancy until age six.  She found that infants raised by depressed mothers – and so not exposed to many smiles or sounds of excitement in response to their actions – showed reduced activity in the left frontal region of the brain, the area responsible for the expression of positive emotions.  At three and a half years of age, the children were more likely to exhibit behavioral problems.  In cases such as these, intervention by positive fathers or other caregivers and having the mothers undergo treatment could help to strengthen the neural connections before they are eliminated permanently.  “…but “harder” is a long way from predetermination.  (Ratey, ug/35)”


“Neurons are constantly competing to make connections….changes in input continually move the boundaries.  An accurate map of the brain would be different for each of us, and would shift over time.  (Ratey, ug/35)”

“The competition to gain more representation in the brain explains why babies born with cataracts that cloud their vision must have them removed by six months or never gain sight.  The brain must learn to (Ratey, ug/35) see, making connections and stimulating them with inputs from the retina.  If these pathways aren’t stimulated, they will be eliminated as not useful.  (Ratey, ug/36)”

I think the same thing happens in other parts of the brain, not just with vision…..like empathy and attachment.  Writer’s have a responsibility to be consistent and clear, not to lead their readers down the path of wrong conclusions.  All the will power in the world is not going to make a baby like the one he just described be able to see!!

Also, see notes below – why does he wait so long to talk about windows of opportunity? It is like he is misleading his readers by drawing premature conclusions – and then not clearly stating later when he adds more facts how they relate to what he said earlier.

“If one eye of a newborn kitten is sewn closed, the eye’s neural connections will wither and disappear from lack of use.  If the eye is later opened it will never gain sight, because the stronger eye has permanently taken over the available synapses, and, more important, the weaker eye has permanently lose its ability to make connections.  (Ratey, ug/36)”


Does Ratey have a drug bias?

“Changing your pattern of thinking also changes the brain’s structure…It is theorized that neurons contain tiny electromagnetic fields that become misaligned, or “locked,” for the duration of a disease or disorder.  The neurons get stuck in a rut of abnormal patterns of activity, becoming underactive or overactive or just nonperforming, it being either too easy or too hard for them to fire.  A person who forcibly changes his behavior can break the deadlock by requiring neurons to change connections to enact the new behavior.  Changing the brain’s firing patterns through repeated action is also what is responsible for the initiation of self-choice, freedom, will, and discipline.  The drug Prozac can be helpful in breaking these kinds of deadlocks.  (Ratey, ug/36)”


“The brain’s ability to rewire means that in principle it can recover from damage.  Young children who have had an entire brain hemisphere removed because of severe epilepsy manage to compensate with only slight mental or physical disabilities.  Intense physical and mental rehabilitation allows circuits in the remaining hemisphere to gradually rewire, taking over many of the functions that the lost hemisphere used to perform….Things won’t ever be “normal,”…but even complex functions such as language and reasoning are relatively spared after this sudden, massive loss of neurons….  (Ratey/ug/38)”

To me, this is an inane statement – a young child’s brain is a very different thing when it comes to something this massive….be realistic!

“The brain is amazingly plastic…..More than 500,000 Americans have strokes each year, killing many neurons and cutting many connections, yet in many of them undamaged neurons take over, changing the number, variety, and strength of the messages they send….  Rewiring is possible throughout life.  (Ratey/ug/38)”

Here again, if he says 500,000 have strokes, it is misleading information if you don’t include the rest of the story.  How many did this recovery he is describing/  And what areas of their brains were affected?  How severe was the stroke?  Be very careful of generalizations!

He is trying to be motivating, positive, encouraging – but a bit Pollyanna-ish.

Ok, NOW he says this next part – though at times he sounds like some sort of commercial – for what, exactly?

I see he talks about the windows of opportunities below – but why is he forming conclusions along the way before he presents all of the relevant information first as facts before “band standing” is partial conclusions?

I want to be more clear, more accurate, and more careful. He is confusing readers who are unfamiliar with the material – first telling them all it takes is will power and free will, and then telling them the truth – once a window has closed, that’s that!  He needs to be exact and accurate, not misleading with the information he presents, and the way, including which order he uses, as he presents it.

“The brain reacts differently to injury during different periods of development.  Prenatal or early childhood brain damage is often less problematic since many neural circuits are not yet committed to specific skills, knowledge, or memories.  The brain can readily rewire on a widespread scale.  Although the damage may result in a smaller adult brain or one of lesser overall intellectual abilities, it will seldom cause specific deficits.  Most lasting problems are actually due to misconnections from neurons that try to branch out and fill new roles.  (Ratey/ug/39)”

“Plasticity at multiple is more active in early life, so that damage at one site produces changes at many other sites, thus changing the brain and its functioning in a more widespread manner.  In later life, with less capacity for remodeling at multiple levels, effects at a distance from the site of damage areas likely and specific deficits are more common.  (Ratey/ug/39)”

From mid-adolescence on, there is less rapid growth of new synapses that allow for flexibility, and by then neurons are completely myelinated, or sheathed.  (Ratey/ug/39)”

“…any intellectually challenging activity stimulates dendritic growth, which adds to the neural connections in the brain.  (Ratey/ug/43)”


windows of opportunity including language and emotion is moved to emotion and the brain file


“We are coming into an age when mature nerve cells can be changed into undifferentiated young neurons in a Petri dish by manipulating the function of their genes….  (Ratey/ug/45)”


“It used to be thought that neural stem cells (neuroblasts) – which divide to produce nerve cells in the fetal and child brain – shut down in adulthood.  But Brent Reynolds and Sam Weiss at Neurospheres, a Canadian biotechnology company, have shown that stem cells may be inactive in adults but are still alive, and might be prompted to create new neurons.  They have coerced stem cells in a test tube to churn out new cells by adding “growth factors,” molecules that stimulate tissue growth.  (Ratey/ug/47)”


“…for the vast majority of us, who are not debilitated but are coping with everyday problems and with aging, the lesion about brain development is that we have the power to influence our brain’s ability to renew itself.  [here he goes again – and ignoring those whose windows of opportunity were screwed with!]  The human brain’s amazing plasticity enables it to continually rewire and learn – not just through academic study, but through experience, thought, action, and emotion.  As with e can strengthen our neural pathways with brain exercise.  Or we can let them wither.  The principle is the same:  Use it or lose it!  (Ratey/ug/47)”


“…the brain is a dynamic ecosystem.  The various neurons and networks are engaged in fierce competition for incoming stimuli.  Networks that succeed in processing new experiences or behaviors end up as strong, permanent members of the neuronal neighborhood, while unused networks, cut off from the ebb and blow of information, wither away and die.  In effect, the brain’s structure becomes the information that it receives, and so how it perceives that information determines its future state….Use it or lose it.  We must use the senses and their neurons or lose them forever to premature death or to be recruited for another function.  (Ratey/ug/54)”

“Because the brain seeks to maintain a condition of internal constancy (homeostasis) in the face of a changing world, it is constantly interpet- (Ratey/ug/54) ing all these incoming stimuli as instructions to modify the levels of neurotransmitters and hormones, the rates of electrical firing, and the chemical excitability of its own neural networks.  (Ratey/ug/55)”

“We are constantly priming our perceptions, matching the world to what we expect to sense and thus making it what we perceive it to be….  The brain’s neural networks respond in a pattern that is established by past experience:  the more often a specific pattern is fired in response to a stimulus, the more firm the nerve assembly becomes.  Hence the axiom:  Neurons that fire together wire together.  Input shapes the way we experience the next input….  Experience colors perception.  (Ratey/ug/55)”


“An act of perception is a lot more than capturing an incoming stimulus.  It requires a form of expectation, of knowing what is about to confront us and preparing for it.  Without expectations, or constructs through which we perceive our world, our surroundings would be what Wes called a “booming, buzzing confusion,” and

each experience truly would be a new one, rapidly overwhelming us.

We automatically and unconsciously fit our sensations into categories that we have learned, often distorting them in the process.  (Ratey/ug/56)”


“Our perceptive apparatus also filters signals from internal “noise,” just like the tuning knob on a radio picks out a station from the static.  Background noise is everywhere in a population of neurons.  Neurons are generally firing all the time, but in a random manner; stimuli merely cause them to fire faster and to do it in an organized, synchronized way.  (Ratey/ug/57)”



“The ability to enhance detection of a stimulus that is normally below an ordinary threshold of detection by introducing a specific level of noise or stimulation that helps ready the receptors to be more ace only noise level continues to increase it masks the subject’s ability to feel the test stimulus.  (Ratey/ug/58)”

“…a chain reaction can get started without any trigger from external stimuli.  In fact, it happens so often that most “idle” neurons are actually sending out neurotransmitters on their own many times a second.  The reason is that neurons are “turned on” by any electrical activity around them – even during of a nearby but unconnected neuron.  Each of the thousands of channels in each of our billions of neurons may close or open in response to electrical activity in the general area.  Consequently, most neurons are firing more or less randomly, in a sort of electrochemical free-for-all.  This makes it easier for the nerve to be trained, as it is easier to add more “oomph” to a firing nerve than to start from ground zero, or a nerve that is shut down.  (Ratey/ug/60)”  [Is this a sort of mental “coast the car and pop the clutch?  It’s easier if the car is rolling?] –

“Participating in this humdrum noise is the normal state of a neuron, until some form of more specific information passes its way.  When (Ratey/ug/60) light waves from a bird or a signal from an idea, or any other internally generated representation, comes in, the neurons suddenly begin to fire much more rapidly and, more important, in synchronized and ordered ways…..  This ability to synchronize electrical activity is the very basis of cognition.  Our brains are always filled with noise.  Whether we perceive something through the din depends on whether the pattern stands out strongly enough from the background.  (Ratey/ug/61)”

For those of us who were not raised in an environment that enabled us to have calmness as our homeostatic point, then we have more of some kind of noise operating all of the time – either fight or flight.  Our neurons would, therefore, be primed for incoming stimulus in either of those categories so that we would be more sensitive to the stimulus.

Someone who is starting out from a point of calm would not necessarily be pre-primed for perception of an emotional signal from the social environment.  We would, therefore, be super sensitive and super sensitized!  That would make us more reactive.


“Stochastic resonance, which is background noise that we all have in our perception systems – random clutter, static, or hiss that is too low (Ratey/ug/83) to be directly felt, heard, or seen – is playing an interesting role in helping some autistic people.  Normally, this low level of noise can serve to enhance otherwise weak, undetectable tactile, auditory, and visual signals.  This noise….actually primes the neurons in the brain, heightening their readiness to perceive a potential incoming stimulus.  Once a stimulus is perceived, stochastic resonance can even enhance the detection of the weak signal.  (Ratey/ug/84)”

“During both waking and sleeping [see below on nondreaming sleep???] , there is an ongoing din in the cortex.  Neurons are constantly interacting with each other, even if they are not currently being called upon to perform a specific duty.  This “noise” is not random, however.  Rodolfo Llinas at New York University made the remarkable discovery that all areas of the cortex emit a steady level of noise, or oscillation, at a frequency of 40 cycles per second (40 Hz).  Furthermore, some areas of the cortex, humming along at 40 Hz, were phase-locked, meaning their sound waves all oscillated in (Ratey/ug/133) unison; they kept the same beat. How could this be occurring on such a widespread scale?  Llinas, Churchland, and others suggest that the neurons perform in synchrony because they follow a kind of conductor in the brain.  (Ratey/ug/134)”

“The prime candidate for the conductor’s job is the many intralaminar nuclei, located deep within the thalamus.  These nuclei receive and project long axons to many areas of the brain.  They take in information, reply to it, and monitor the neurons’ response to their replies, creating an elaborate feedback loop.  The information flowing back and forth between the intralaminar nuclei and the rest of the brain modulates itself, setting up a regular loop of electrical activity oscillating to a synchronized beat of 40 Hz.  (Ratey/ug/134)”  cc this on NOISE to thalamus –

“…during waking there are large bursts of electrical activity in every brain region, in addition to the steady 40 Hz oscillation.  The bursts correlate to changes in our environment and activity.  During nondreaming sleep the intralminar nuclei are inactive; there is no 40 Hz oscillation.  But during dream sleep (REM sleep), the 40 Hz background hum returns, and it is again accompanied by heavy regional activity, smilar to that which occurs during waking.  A host of neurons operating on automatic pilot create imagery; they’re just less constrained in the absence of sensory input, and they feed you fantastic images and stories as they work to make sense of and store the prior day’s events.  Unlike in waking, however, the bursts do not correlate in any way to changes in the sleeper’s environment, not even to deliberate efforts by researchers to create moderate noise or gently move the subject.  In dreaming, the cortex activates itself purely from within.  (Ratey/ug/134)”

“In some autistic individuals, stochastic resonance has proved useful in combating sensory overload…..  The concept is analogous to the psychological aspect of attention.  You are more likely to hear what someone is about to say if you are already paying attention to them.   (Ratey/ug/84)”


talking about phantom missing limb sensations:  “The layout of cortical maps is rather different from the way our body parts are actually arranged…these cortical maps indeed lie right next to each other.  (Ratey/ug/59)”  mentions the thalamus, put in that file –


“If there is too much background noise in your neurons you can also get annoyed, but you can’t just switch to another station.  (Ratey/ug/61)”

“An excess of mental noise in the brain can make it difficult to perceive what’s going on, overloading other circuits of attention, memory, learning, cognition, emotional stability, or any other brain function.  The system goes into information overload.  If random neuronal firings are too fast and furious, incoming stimuli might fail to activate and assemble the neurons into properly synchronized behavior.  This, in turn, could result in the incorrect processing of a stimulus, and neurons would misfire accordingly.  (Ratey/ug/61)”

“The heightened anxiety drives up the mental noise, so much so that such people may literally see less of their environment, as though the brain space usually open for perception is busy with the internal noise.  (Ratey/ug/61)”

I can relate to this, both in terms of social stress when I miss things, misinterpret things, get confused –and when I am alone, and feel terribly lonely. –



“Because the olfactory system in the brain has a short and direct connection to the memory centers, smells can take us right back to a vivid scene from the past.  (Ratey/ug/62)”

“If we are not exposed to certain scents during our early development, we may permanently lose our ability to recognize them.  In the same way as with our other senses, we can train ourselves to smell better.  (Ratey/ug/62)”


Humans emit pheromones in all body fluids.  Our ability to communicate by pheromones is intriguing, even mysterious.  One phenomenon is menstrual synchrony, in which the timing of women’s menstrual cycles is affected by the presence of other women…..stud-  (Ratey/ug/65)ies found that when sweat from some women was rubbed onto other women’s upper lips, these women’s cycles became synchronized.  (Ratey/ug/66)”

“Recent experiments have also shown that an area in the nose can detect pheromones that carry no consciously perceptible odor; the subjects of these experiments reported that they smelled nothing at all, and yet electrodes picked up measurable changes in their autonomic nervous system, and they did note mild impressions of contentment or uneasiness, depending on the pheromone.  (Ratey/ug/66)”


taste and olfactory receptor cells replace themselves “over an average period of 10 days for taste and 30 days for olfaction – unlike the sensory receptors in vision, hearing, and touch, which are fixed and remain protected behind the eye, ear, and skin.  This regeneration cycle, called neurogenesis, serves an important function because these chemical receptors are constantly exposed to the environment.  (Ratey/ug/70)”


mentions Romanian orphanages


writing about autism

“Delores is hugely relieved to have learned about her touch problem.  However, four decades of horrible experiences will not simply vanish.  At age forty, it will be hard for her to stop believing that she isn’t a problem person, to change her attitudes about the abusive nature of other people and about herself.  (Ratey/ug/81)”


“Even the smallest ongoing perception problem can lead to a cascade of events that can result in a psychologically traumatic life.  (Ratey/ug/82)”


“It is easy to understand how the many processing difficulties of autism can lead to social isolation…..  Sadly, this social isolation, which begins in early childhood when the brain is developing, sets up behaviors that can last a lifetime.  (Ratey/ug/84)”


“In perception the brain breaks down sensory information into the smallest of elemental units, tiny parts that are seemingly unrelated.  The brain then distributes these bits of information and somehow reassembles them, according to a person’s memories, past experiences, and possibly even wishes.  (Ratey/ug/91)”

“…as with information from the other senses, we transform this auditory information into meaning along the way.  The process of hearing occurs even earlier than with the other senses, right at the ear itself.  Our brains immediately begin to adjust the pressure in the inner ear and to make other changes in the ear and head so as to maximize our ability to hear what it is we want or need to hear in our environment.  (Ratey/ug/91)”


“The process of hearing underscores a phenomenon that recurs throughout the sensory system:  the components of the system overlap.  The incoming sensory information is sliced apart and repackaged, then recombined to form a final “perception.”  (Ratey/ug/97)”



Brain areas mentioned:

Arousal center in brainstem

Limbic system


To cortex

Ultimately connecting the frontal & the parietal cortex

Orbitofrontal cortex

Prefrontal cortex

Frontal lobe

Anterior cingulate gyrus

Nucleus accumbens in the striatum

“…in recent years both theorists and experimentalsts have begun to regard attention and consciousness as different levels of the same brain activity.  In the newest view, our brains are always in “ready mode,” always tuned in to the never-ending incoming stream of perceptions.  Then an event takes place that causes the brain to deliberately pay attention to a stimulus – to put a spotlight on it.  (Ratey/ug/111)”

“Attention and consciousness are inexorably intertwined, and some scientists now believe that they are actually the same thing.  …consciousness, we still don’t know how to define it, or what brain activity gives rise to it.  ….without consciousness little else that the brain can do would matter.  (Ratey/ug/111)”

“Understanding consciousness is fundamental to understanding ourselves, and it is fundamental to diagnosing patients with any type of psychological, psychiatric, or neurological problem.  It is not enough to assess a person based on the question “How do you feel?”  The key questions are “How do you perceive and comprehend the world?  How do you attend to it and become conscious of it?  How do you know?”  (Ratey/ug/111)”

“Attention and consciousness are the foundations on which we create an understanding of the world.  Together they form the ground upon which we build a sense of who we are, as we define ourselves in relation to the myriad physical and social worlds we inhabit.  They also are the basic functions that give rise to “the mind” – a real kettle of fish.  (Ratey/ug/111)”

“If neurons are always communicating and acting in the background, we begin to see a physical system that is always in a ready state.  It does not sit idle, waiting to respond….  This state of activity, itself, may be consciousness.  (Ratey/ug/112)”

If the brain were simply reflexive, it would never be able to plan a future action.  The brain is a powerful prediction machine, continuously making elaborate mental maps of the world that are reliable enough to enable us to predict what lies ahead, both in space and in time.  All animals that move must have some predictive power – at the (Ratey/ug/112) very least a simple image of what they are moving into and a sense of how they are moving into it.  Building these navigational aids forms the basis for ongoing activity in the brain.  As time passes and the body moves, this conscious brain – or mind – experiences the world, adding new information and updating and revising its maps.  (Ratey/ug/113)”



Do we want them to say in the future, “Whatever happened to the Americans?”  Sort of what we might say about Atlantis today, “Did they ever really even exist?”  But maybe those looking back from some point in the future will say, “Whatever happened to that technologically advanced culture on planet Earth?  Something made them vanish.  “I wonder what it was?”

The nature of an accident is that it “just happened.”  Are we paving the road right now, plowing the furrow for a different tomorrow, one that will hold within it the consequences of the accident we are preparing to happen today?  How many of what we call accidents could and should have been prevented?  That full gallon of paint fell off the garage shelf and hit you in the head.  Who made that wobbly shelf?  Who put that can up there too close to the edge?  Who never saw “it” coming?  Who ran the ran light, made an unsignalled turn, didn’t stop at the crosswalk?

We can say of accidents, “It’s not my fault, I am not responsible.  I didn’t cause this to happen!  It could not have been avoided.  I am the hapless victim.”

What happened when my brain was made is that my power for choice was eliminated because the options for alternatives were never there in the first place.  I had to BUY whatever my mother did or said to me.  My brain was made that way.  Unlike Pelzner’s.  He had experienced an alternative and he knew the difference, so he could fight back.  He did not have to BUY his mother’s version of distorted reality.  I did.

We are creating a “subspecies” of people now from birth whose brain development is  being challenged without their awareness, knowledge, or consent.  When the average preschooler in America today spends 26 hours a week in front of the television set, when the average American father only spends a total of 7 and a half minutes of one-on-one time with his child per week, when most of us are raised being spoon-fed a consumer culture that insures and assures that there really won’t be much inside that skull, and what is there is likely to be miswired, we have serious cause for serious alarm.

We no longer really even know what abuse, neglect and maltreatment is.  All the lines of distinction are so blurred we can no longer even make out the form of what it is we need to see, or what we are even looking at.  Never before in the history of the human race have we even had to consider the consequences of preventable brain damage on a massive, if not global, scale.  We don’t have a conceptual framework for it.  We don’t have the words for it.  We don’t even have a name for it.  But the biggest question is, do we have the courage to consider what is happening NOW before the big ACCIDENT occurs and it will be far, far too late?

I am talking about the raising of children.  Twenty years is not a long time.  Yet for every twenty years that passes us by – RIGHT NOW – yet another major additional change is happening in the brains we are creating.  Brains do not manufacture themselves magically from whatever is around them, and then end up equal or nearly the same.  This has gone way past genetic potential.  The way we are currently approaching the raising of our children is not only tampering with their unfolding genetic potential, it is altering it in dangerous ways.  And what we are NOT going to be told is that we are creating NEEDY citizens that are perfectly fit to consume in order to fill the void we have allowed to be created within them.  They will not be centered, autonomous, calm, happy, balanced, or internally self-sufficient the rest of their lives.  Looking back from a not too distant point in the future, some will be able to say, “My God!  How did we let that happen?”

The platform the question will have to be addressed from is one of “good conscience.”  The question will be, “How did we, in good conscience, let that happen to our people?”

I was a consumer of my mother’s insanity.  I bought whatever it was she “fed” me.  After all, she is the one that made my brain, and she made it to perfectly and exactly fit the world she lived in.  I had no choice because it was never ever given to me.

On the simplest level, when they look back from the future, perhaps they will say, “They were dopamine impaired.”  Now this is no laughing matter, seeing that dopamine rules the motivational system of our being, controls the reward – punishment center of our brain, steers us in the direction of what we perceive as a need and something we should approach – and consume – or something that we should avoid as deadly at all costs.

But in looking at the larger, overall picture, what is damaging us most is that we are losing the one thing that gave our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, the Wise Ones, the competitive edge to take over the world and run all of our hominid-form relations right into extinction.  What was that again?  What was our most precious possession?  Perhaps it still IS our most precious possession, but if we don’t even know what it is, how are we going to identify the ways it is being threatened?

The Wise Ones’ received, for reasons nobody knows, through a process nobody knows, what can essentially be called a quickening of the mind. Now every woman who has ever carried an infant within her womb knows what a quickening is.  It is that very first time she feels her unborn infant move within her.  A quickening is like a bolt of lightening from somewhere, somehow, that sparks new life.

Now obviously from between 4 and 5 million years ago (mya) what is called hominid-form beings, those who began to move on two legs instead of four, or the bipedals, began to grow larger brains and different bodies as various adaptations to a new life on the ground and out of the trees began.  We don’t really consider these ancient ones to be human because they did not survive.  They did not endure.  They vanished.  Went extinct.

But about 50,000 years ago, which is NOT a very long time in passing, some branch of the hominid tree had what can be most clearly conceived of as being a mental quickening.  Something very unique and special happened between their ears.  And what that was led directly to you and me being here now.  The scary part of this story is that we are now running the risk now, because of the way we are treating our infants, of reversing the evolutionary process, not continuing it forward.  We are running the evolutionary race backwards, running movie backwards, running the human race backwards.  There is and will be a price to pay for our ignorance and for our actions.  Is this what we really want to do?  Is this, after 4 to 5 million years of evolution, the choice we really want to be making?  Who benefits?  Who loses?  If we don’t change our direction we will run our race right back up into the trees.  If there are any trees left by the time we get there.

What exactly was this mental quickening that happened 50,000 years ago?  It had to do, obviously, with the evolution of the brain.  But the physical brain seemed to have accomplished a miracle within itself, which gave rise directly to what you and I take for granted.  Hominid forms acquired a mind.  And not just any mind.  They acquired a flexible mind that operated differently from that of their competition.  And what does that mean?  Simply one thing:  the walls came down.

Imagine our planet for a moment, and think about all the variety of national boundaries that keep the countries apart.  Even the great wall of China, the only human-made structure visible on our gorgeous planet from the first pictures from space.  Think about all of these walls, all of these boundaries, and then think about everything that might be going on behind them.  In the evolving brain, each section of the brain operated from the first as a separate entity.  One area of the brain was adept and knowing what plants were deadly and which weren’t.  Then it evolved so that the owner knew which plants were in season when, and where.  That region of the brain evolved increasingly complex maps to provide a way for all of that information to be learned, stored, accessed, built upon and utilized.  Eventually even the healing properties of plants could be included, thus expanding the section of the brain that was responsible for this information.

Yet another area of the brain evolved for skills in hunting, and for making tools.  For locating meat which fed the growing hominid brains with fat and increasing amounts of protein.  Then the motor parts of the body had to evolve to adapt to long range hunting, longer range foraging, and larger groups of people accumulated to get the increasingly more complex jobs done, and to benefit from the food sharing.

Maps, maps and more maps found their way into the growing grey matter between the hominid ears.  Their bodies changed, and became more “modernly human” long before their skulls did.  But given the fact that humans are the only mammal that cannot swallow and breath at the same time because our larynx declined in our necks so that we could form all the new sounds for an increasingly complex articulated range of sounds that became our language, our brains expanded specifically in relation to our relationship with the world, and most particularly with our relationship with the people in that world.

A group of people cannot live together without communicating and getting along.  It may be that those hominid forms that were evolving in the more temperate areas of Africa experienced increasingly more complex relationships with a more varied environment than did the Neanderthals who must have had a heck of a challenge making a living in the inhospitable regions of the frigid north.  A warmer and correspondingly more complex world simply allowed the hominid brain to expand faster and reach the quickening stage earlier.  The finger was taken out of the proverbial hole in the dike and the waters rushed in.  The waters of a new and different life, made possible by a new and different, more flexible, brain.

It must have been that these brains were on the quickening verge, on the edge of “enlightenment” when they radiated out of Africa about 100,000 years ago.  Each band that left took with them this on-the-cutting-edge internal brain potential, which then shaped itself specifically within the environments these people found themselves in as they ventured further and further across a planet that was undergoing the last years of its Ice Age glaciation climatic changes.  They had a growing capacity to figure things out within their own individual brains and between each other.  They became a force that colonized the planet.

  1. They could build.

So it was not the long process from 4 – 5 million years ago that specifically made us who we are today.  It was not even the taming of fire by hominid forms 1.9 million years ago that made us what we are today.  No doubt many related hominid forms also had that capacity.  The Neanderthals managed to live on this earth for all those millions of years, evolving, surviving, enduring, fire and all.  But 30,000 years ago they vanished, and few of us mourn them.  Few of us mourn all those other hominid forms that are no longer with us.  We are just glad that we made it!

But our continued survival is not guaranteed.  But now it is the internal firing of all those billions of neurons between our own ears that will determine the direction our species will go in now.  And while we might like to think that all of us are equally capable of making wise, informed decisions as members of the Homo sapiens sapiens Wise One species, such is not, sadly and truly, the case.  Some of us have the development of our brains, and therefore our minds, tampered with since birth – and some of us even before.  But if we do not have individually what our species designed us to have in order to form a fully functioning, optimal brain from our individual beginnings, we will not be able to run the race.  Some of us will never even make it to the starting line.

And what we need to know is that this is not genetic determination from within our DNA.  Our genetic potential only manifests itself through our interaction with our external environment.  What comes into us from the outside, whether it be through our mother’s body or through our environmental interactions post-birth, the finally tuned manifestation of our genetic selves can become a reality in our bodies only to the degree that our needs are met in utero and out.

This is nothing new.  Life has always been that way.  But what used to happen naturally, all the way back through our 4 – 5 million years of evolution until the very recent present, can now be interfered with on a grand scale.  And most of us don’t even know it is happening, let alone that it happened to us.  My childhood was an extreme case of deprivation and maltreatment, so my altered brain development is now obvious and clear to me.  But for many many others the damage was much more subtle.  But subtle damage is still damage.  Optimal is optimal, and deprivation and interference is not optimal.  If not a crime, then at least it is a shame!

Subtle interference with an infant’s developing brain can result in more generalized alterations and damage – less than optimal conditions creates a less than optimal brain.  More blatant interference causes more specific damage ALONG WITH the more subtle consequences.  My point is that NONE OF IT should be occurring to ANYONE!

Some say that it was lead in the aqueducts that carried water to the rich that destroyed their brains and led to the destruction of the Roman Empire.  Today we are more concerned with the effects of an infant eating lead paint than we are with the specifics of what can cause the most permanent and profound damage to an infant’s developing brain:  toxic interactions with its early caregivers.

Nature, through its tool of evolution, was not a haphazard provider.  But neither are we passive recipients of the required information for our own personal evolution as individual members of our species.  Life is a participatory experience.  It is both interdependent and interactive.  Nothing creates itself in a vacuum.  Nor does being born guarantee the essentials of survival.

Life is about correct matches, and humans are no exception to the rule.  We need from our beginning exactly what we need when we need it in the form that we need it.  There may be some margin for error, but let me assure you, it is a very small margin indeed.  If we are fortunate, our bodies are born with the basic ability to operate essential functions efficiently.  It is all up hill from there.  If things go right, we will grow a body, including a brain, that is adapted to take primary care of itself.  It will take in the essentials for life and eliminate the rest.

Eventually we will regulate our elimination needs, and our temperature needs, and our sleep cycle, but not from the get go.  Nature, being the expert and efficient provider, has created and established systems that enable and allow the rest of our development to occur according to plan from the moment we are born.  We even have more fat cells on our backsides from birth and less on our front so that somebody who is there to hold us close to their body will keep us warm until our body matures enough to do it for ourselves.

But what we also must realize is that humans are mostly motivated to approach what feels good to survive and to avoid what feels bad – also to survive.  We are programmed to be a “feel good” species.  Our entire human operating system is based on a naturally occurring opiate (read opium) system that ebbs and flows so that we will be sure to do this – approach the good and avoid the bad.

The placenta is full of opiates.  Mother’s milk is full of opiates.  When the brain opiate receptors are empty, we are motivated to get them filled back up.  But we are supposed to do this in life enhancing ways, and for humans, as a social species, that means that we are programmed to get our opiate receptors filled through interactions with our HUMAN environment.  Baby opiate receptors empty, baby cry, mother come with good opiate milk.  Her comforting presence sends opiates to the brain, as does the milk itself.

Empty, full.  Checks and balances.  But let me give you just a glimpse of what this book is about.  In a culture that distorts this essential evolutionaryily defined process, opiate receptors cannot do the job they are meant to do.  Especially through lack of adequate human responsiveness in the environment from birth, we are left with opiate receptors that are not being filled correctly, and with a brain that will not develop optimally from the start.  But, do not worry!  We have the great American talent of ingenuity to save us.  That is why genetically modified rice is being grown in test plots in Kansas right this very moment that will no doubt help meet our needs!

Nobody normally grows rice in Kansas, so we don’t have to worry about crop contamination there.  What we need to know is that the producers of this new GMO rice have crossed a part of human DNA that carries the genes for the feel-good opiate in mother’s breast milk and crossed it with the rice DNA so that eventually – if this works and we buy it – the rice can be added into any food substance that we consume.  It can go in as a liquid ingredient, as a dry flour ingredient, and most of us will never know it.  But, by golly, our little opiate brain receptors will welcome it and we can all be happier and buy more more more!  Heaven forbid that we get our opiate receptors filled the way nature intended, through positive human interactions with fellow members of our species.  I don’t know about you, but this concerns me.  All the way back to the beginning, this concerns me.  It means, dear folks, that something is terribly terribly WRONG!

But this does bring me right to my point.  The brains and therefore the minds and selves of the children that we are raising in this great American consumer society are not the brains that evolution intended for us to have.  Unless we are aware of what is happening to us and then make the choice to let it continue.

But don’t worry.  Our DNA still officially measures up.  We are still officially human.  But we are changing the way that our genetic potential is manifesting itself.  We are changing human brains.  What is happening is that while we might still BE human, we will not be ACTING like humans.  And remember, the human body evolved to its modern form long before the brain and the skull caught up.  Just because we LOOK like humans does not mean that we are not operationally challenged!  And if we don’t watch out, we will have a great looking body, but when someone opens the hood, there might just be nothing to look at underneath.

We are not unlike our ancestors in that we do not primarily pass onto our offspring what we are through our DNA.  We pass onto them what we know through what we do.  To a very large extent what was done TO us becomes us.  And that is certainly how an infant’s brain develops.  There is no other way.  Nature has determined that process long before we were born, and we do not have the power to change it.  We only have the power to change what we do as individuals.  From there, it all adds up.

  1. But having your brain malformed as a result of it is quite another.

The tentacles of this problem reach all of us.  We are either on the brain drain train or we are under it.



Picture a target with its concentric rings moving out from the center.  This is not a small target like one would find in a bar for a game of darts.  This is a big target representing the heart of a child.

For some of us there is a huge spear implanted in its center.  This is where our soul wound is, and it is a wound of attachment because that is all that matters to a newly born human.  We are no different than any other animal that is born dependent for its survival on its parents.  But because we are building such a complex brain with a mind to go with it through our attachment interactions with our early caregivers, what happens at this center of the target of our selves will affect us for the rest of our lives.

This is not a maybe.  This is not an if.  This is a fact and a certainty that we can count upon like the sun in the morning and the darkness without the sun that surrounds us at midnight.  Attachments build our brain.  They set the rhythms and patterns within our brain, and form its circuitry and form the maps that are at the basis of all of our following interactions not only with the people in our lives, but with our environment, and that includes the environment within our selves.

Those of us that were injured from birth at the center of our souls by our attachment figures that not only did not attach to us, but scared and hurt us as well, received the formation of a different brain as a consequence both from what we did not receive as well as from the harmful things that were done to us.  We have a giant spear in the center of the targets of our hearts.

It is not an easy thing to move backwards in time to take a look at this wound.  I believe that it is both the most courageous thing we will ever do, and it is the hardest.  Most people spend their entire lives running from this wound.  They could not run as infants, but once they got old enough, run they did, for the fight or flight response is built into our bodies, our nervous system, and our brains right smack at our center.  Or as close to it as it is possible to be.

We cannot deny this.  It is the way we are built.  But it we are of those with this wound from the beginning of our lives, it has affected every aspect of our life, and it will until the day we die.  It keeps us from being “normal” and it keeps us fighting and fleeing in ways those who had a secure infancy can never really imagine – lucky for them.

In trying to understand what happened to me I have to be both the medic on the battlefield surrounded by the most terribly wounded and trying to ease their suffering and attempt to heal them.  At the same time I am also one of the most wounded whose life I am trying to save.  It is not an easy thing having a soul wound of this magnitude, because it is exactly like this.  Nobody else can help us.  We have to do this for and by ourselves.

It is like performing open heart surgery on ourselves, and there never is a guarantee that we will make it out alive.  We can just hope and pray and trust that the trajectory of our courage will take us to a better place where we will at least know what it was that happened to us, and what the damage has done.  This is not a book about denial.  It is about looking squarely at the sun, though its surface, into its center, and hoping at the end we have a newer vision that will help us to find a new way to be in this world we were never prepared to join.

It is very easy to get lost on this journey back to our center to find out who we are.  It is a journey fraught with dangers because of this reality, that we can get lost.  We have to set our vision straight ahead and trust that this can be done, knowing that others before us have done it themselves and came out of it stronger and clearer and wiser.


First of all it is important to realize that everything we do is in some way connected to our need to stabilize ourselves at our center.  This center point is called our point of homestatic equilibrium.  It is like the center point on a teeter totter.  Once we are “there” everything is at a state of balance.  This is necessary for all living organisms in whatever way evolution has equipped them to find it.

Have you ever tried to walk on water?  Maybe not because you know you can’t do it.  Maybe so and it didn’t work.


First of all, let me tell you that I am talking about parenting.  This is about the first parenting you received, the parenting you may have given your own children, the parenting you are giving them now, or the parenting you will give to your children should you have them in the future.  I am talking also about the parenting your parents were given, and the parenting they were given by their parents.  You get the picture.  It is like a long row of parenting dominoes, stretching back farther than we can see or tell.

Next of all, let me tell you about this target.  The center of homeostatic balance and equilibrium is supposed to be in a state of calm.  All experiences that an organism, and I am talking here particularly about the human ones, are supposed to originate from this state of calm and return to it.

When an infant is born the act of birth itself is a lot of work, and the center circle of calm will be disturbed.  But normally the mother is immediately there to respond to the infant’s needs and return the infant as quickly as possible back to its center state of calm.  I call this color purple.

The next circle out from the center on our target I call blue.  That is the color of joy and enjoyment.  As an infant has any need that disturbs its state of purple calm, equilibrium and balance, it would be best that the disturbance is responded to immediately and appropriately.  The infant will, quite simply, feel this as enjoyable.  I will explain shortly how this system is programmed into the brain, but for the moment lets move on to the next colored circle on our target.

The third color out is green, like the GO color on a stoplight.  When an infant is experiencing a need that is not met immediately, it will use experience this lack as distress.  The infant will cry, which is its attempt to do what all organisms are biologically programmed to do in order to survive – control their environments.  As soon as a need is recognized that must be met, and if there is a gap in time before that need is met (which is not always disastrous), the organism responds as if it is competition for resources – in this case for whatever it needs.  The infant will react with its  innate, or inborn responsibility – its response-ability.  It uses whatever active coping skills and abilities that it has in its attempt to stay alive through controlling its environment to get its needs met so that it can  “go on being.”  But about the only skill a newborn infant has is to cry, and that is exactly what it will do.  This is the green light GO response, that can be called anger.  It is more accurately a survival attempt to effectively compete when a scarcity seems to exist and it triggers the FIGHT response of active coping, and is really a response of attempted competency in a competitive environment.  We CALL this anger, but it is much bigger than that, and is built right into our cells, and into our body-brain-nervous system self from birth.

Now the fourth ring out from center on our target image, is yellow, as the caution middle color on a stoplight.  This corresponds to the state of fear, the flight response, but it is not one that a newborn infant utilizes in the beginning.  It works through a braking process primarily within the nervous system, but as a newborn infant’s nervous system and brain are just growing, forming and developing, it does not start out with a brake to use.

This is not unlike when someone, of any age, begins to learn to ride a bike.  The might have the GO response of pedaling like crazy to keep enough momentum to move forward and not flip over, and they might have to run into something and come to a total awkward stop before they learn to regulate their speed and use their brakes effectively.  This is a the fear response, the flight response, and is a more highly evolved reaction than is the next one I will describe.  Fear signifies within the human system that caution is in order, and directly corresponds to an awareness on some level that available active coping abilities are not sufficient to solve a problem and a question arises, “Now what?”

The fifth colored circle out from center is red.  It is the stop stop stop color.  Dead stop.  This reaction is built into an infant’s nervous system and brain from birth.  We call it despair.  It is as if our newly evolving bicycle rider hits a brick wall.  But this is not either a negative or a bad place in its essence.  It is a biological state that corresponds to learning something new, a new skill because obviously nothing else has worked.  And fortunately for us, the human brain is the best system in the known universe to do exactly that – learn something new.

So there you have it.  The essence of a human being:  purple calm center, joyful blue ring, green go ring, yellow caution ring and red stop ring.  That’s us.  Then what life offers to make all this happen is energy.  Stimulation and excitement.  I use orange to describe this aspect, which really is like the field that surrounds all that we are as long as we are in a body in this physical world.  This is on the one end, the startle response, and on the other just plain interest and curiosity.

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