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Balancing Act:
Controlling Your Limbic Brain's Controls
on What You Can Do

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

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Abstract

Is "exceptional giftedness" exceptional? Standard I.Q. testing is based on the assumption that only a tiny fraction of a population will be gifted. Here we explore the limbic brain as a key to locked cortical memory and changes in education that might lead to profound improvements in educational and personal performance. Based on the author's experience with seminar students' recollections of "squelched precocity," as many as two-thirds in one group were able to recall precocious episodes in their own experience before the age of three. He proposes that exceptionality may be more normal than commonly believed and that squelching creates a limbic "distaste" for learning and discovery. Methods that tap into limbic channels and extend those experiences into verbal description may offer a pathway to hidden genius.


Physical structure of the brain

Please hold one hand as a clenched fist. Wrap your open other hand over top of your fist. Your open hand represents the cerebral cortex in your brain; your clenched fist represents your limbic brain. Your cortex crowns your limbic.

The limbic is not a single organ but a cluster of distinct organs, each with specific and diverse functions. The three organs that generate and control our emotions — the thalamus, hypothalamus, and the amygdala — are part of the region and aggregate of organs we call the limbic brain. So are the physical appetite-controlling structures of the brain, located in the limbic region.

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Functional role

The limbic brain is our main "computer." The cortex in effect operates as supplementary memory chips supporting the main computer. The conscious mind is associated with only a tiny part of the cortex, but the brain operates as an interactive system.

From Ordovician swamp days if not earlier, the limbic brain maintained balance in our lives and in our bodies, as complex homeostatic equilibrium. In the body, as a master thermostat in a multi-story building, the limbic brain regulates not only temperature but fluid levels (thirst), energy levels and intake (hunger), endocrine and hormone levels, in the trillion-and-one complex systems that comprise a living physical body.

Fascinatingly, the limbic brain also regulates our lives, not only our physical bodies. One small example:  What if alcohol, nicotine, an opiate or other psychoactive drug pushes the "thermostat" setting out of position? Equilibrium is then redefined and a drug dependency set up which is tough to lick. It can be very difficult to get the thermostat restored to its proper setting, once the limbic brain accommodates to the presence of that new substance.

Another example:  People with poor self-image may meet unexpected success and then do all sorts of things ostensibly to improve their performance, but in effect "blowing" their situation, to return to comfortably familiar failure. Such behavior doesn't make rational sense to onlookers, but it makes sense from the perspective of the limbic brain.

A sensori-motor example:  A normal person, in a car accident, goes through his windshield and suffers severe brain damage. Equilibrium (rest position) for the body gets thereby redefined. A month later he is so physically distorted that the palm of his hand is twisted flat against his wrist, a kind of distortion seen with long-term brain-damage sufferers. Proprioception has found a new and grotesque equilibrium.

An example involving the eyes:  Near-sightedness, far-sightedness, and astigmatism are regarded as problems with the shape of the eyeballs. Yet, what controls the shape of the eyeballs? Muscles surrounding the eyes. What controls those muscles? The brain. Near-, far- or astigmatic-sightedness is a function of how the brain defines resting-point or equilibrium for the eyes. Correct the brain's definition of equilibrium and correct your eyesight.

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The key issue is balance

Our limbic brain, master equilibriator of complexity and homeostasis in living systems, performs as an athletic virtuoso balancing act. Attempting to restore balance, to prevent a fall, elicits from each of us a swifter, surer and more agile response than we normally are able to manifest. Even someone crippled and arthritic, if starting to fall, will, usually, by reflex, suddenly reach out in an effort to restore balance. We can't always succeed in preventing a fall, but an off-balance condition elicits more response than we're normally capable of.

Emotion is the added energy and response the limbic pulls into play in its effort to restore balance in an unbalanced situation. Emotion mobilizes the system to its best efforts.

Living has gotten more complicated since the Jurassic. The limbic now has auxiliary memory cells in the cortex. They expand the frame of reference and the span of awareness in which our limbic mainframe works.

Although the cortex works much more slowly than the limbic, it brings to bear far more perception upon given stimuli and frames of reference. It processes more detail, it recognizes patterns and it anticipates the unfolding of events within those patterns. It provides a focusing system which allows extra resources to respond to stimuli. The focusing usually takes place in the left temporal lobe, the main area from which we are "conscious." Pattern-recognition occurs in the opposite, right, temporal lobe; anticipation of pattern and outcome is mainly in the frontal cortex.
 

Moiré pattern created by Jacob Yerex
"Pattern and balance" — Moiré by Jacob Yerex
 

Usually portrayed as opposites, the two temporal lobes are actually much more alike than they are different. They are organs specialized for making sense of things, though they follow different methods for doing so. Consistency is important to both. The left seeks consistency with linear logic and rationalizes things; the right is driven to align other perceptions with recognized patterns. In this regard it has a special relationship to the limbic brain. As we shall see below in terms of amygdala functions, "reading" the body in relation to ongoing contexts determines the readiness of the system to act in those contexts.

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Relating to the intellect

The last several decades of research have shown us that the limbic brain directs the operations of the cortex, governing not only learning but all intellectual behavior. This was already suspected as early as the 1930s. In that era, general semanticists instituted the practice of a "cortico-thalamic pause," in the midst of crisis, where one aimed to remain consciously aware that his every thought and perception was traveling not only through his cortex but through the thalamus (seat of emotions and indeed a center for nearly all the traffic in the brain). Taking that process into account and taking one's emotional color into account, he slows the process to optimize clarity of thought and to optimize awareness of choices for how to act.

Most brain specialists until the 1970s assumed that intellectual functions, including teaching and learning, were largely or entirely a matter of cerebral cortex and not of more "primitive" levels of the brain, which were viewed as enemies to effective learning. It became increasingly apparent that the actual process of intellect was governed in the limbic, with the cortex merely carrying out its instructions.

It works like this:  On any given stimulus, the limbic (notably the amygdala as part of the limbic) reads the readiness attitudes of the body. Similarly, a desktop computer, while loading up, sends "readiness check" signals throughout its system and reads feedback before starting operation. The amygdala reads a reflexive "felt" readiness of the body to go, in that context, before it tells the cortex what to do and how to do it. The limbic can thus be said to "use the body like a brain" in reading feedback from physical attitudes before telling the cortex what to do after any given stimulus. Where do such physical attitudes come from?

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How does verbal description relate
to limbic/cortical, etc.?

The writer's own experience with workshop participants from 1974 to 1976 illustrates a predominant role of the limbic brain in human intellectual behavior, especially with regard to the phenomenon of giftedness. Verbal description imprints and extends the process into consciousness.

In those early weekend public workshops, the writer had recently discovered that to describe in some detail an object of current perception generated considerably further perception of that object and of related contexts. By formatting the contexts, and by encouraging such description toward sensory detail as distinct from abstractions, he was beginning to apply this "Principle of Description" to a wide range of objectives. An announced objective of those early workshops was "self-discovery," thus, he allotted an hour in each to having participants search through early memories for "important, formative experiences."

Through the descriptive process plus appropriate formatting (similar to the formatting of some of the step-by-step problem-solving procedures now free in the CPS Techniques section), participants routinely reached past their earliest conscious memories into significantly earlier memories, some of which were verifiable and several of which were informally verified. (This experiment could be repeated using formal procedures.)

With no more instruction than to search the earliest available memories for important early formative experiences, two-thirds of participants in these early workshops were discovering "episodes of genius." They were reporting that, in infancy or early childhood, they had experienced perceptions or performed acts normally regarded as extremely precociously gifted — and that the acts were at best overlooked, at worst painfully squelched, and long since forgotten. We were immediately reminded of the notorious "instability" of intelligence scores of young children before the age of three years, in which measured intelligence fluctuates over a range of 30 or more points.

Participants in these workshops, as in most of the writer's current workshops, were largely self-selected, and probably on the whole brighter than norms — but they were drawn from the general public. For two-thirds of these participants, in hundreds of instances, in just an hour of "search and describe," with no further instructions than that, episodes of genius as "important formative experience," squelched episodes of precocious acts and perhaps genius surfaced in the activity. This merits further thought and investigation, since it suggests that a large portion of the general public, indeed, may have had similar experiences.

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Transforming our perspective on
"exceptional giftedness"

Most people would not expect two-thirds of participants in a self-discovery group to have had childhood episodes of "exceptional giftedness." The generally held view of exceptional giftedness as a rarity grew out of the definition and redefinition of "I.Q. tests." The developers of those tests worked with them until participant scores matched a "bell-shaped" distribution curve.

I.Q. tests compare rather than quantify. A wrong answer at one level of performance means a much greater difference in score than a wrong answer at another level of performance. "Norming" these tests has meant extraordinary distortion of data to force it to meet bell-shaped distribution standards. Prevailing professional disdain for assessing even the comparative intellectual development of children until they've "stabilized" past age three years has sheltered the public from appreciating the nature and degree of this distortion. It is from these remarkable professional practices that we assume that only a few individuals in any population exhibit "exceptional giftedness." Yet, a closer look at prevalent professional approaches to such matters reveals the characteristics of "self-fulfilling prophecy" in its most extreme form.

Part of the reason for this distorted standard model is the confusion of "average" with "normal." "Average" is a profoundly different quantity from the intact, whole nature of "normality." If our tests oriented toward measuring intactness (or some actual quantity representing intelligence), we should see distributions very, very different from that of the bell curve. As it is, by confusing "normal" and "average" we kept redefining our tests for intelligence until, no matter how the actual quantities measured might come out, their results could be made to conform to "average" as "the norm."

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How does "squelched precocity"
relate to the limbic?

It has "re-set the thermostat."

We concluded from experiences in those workshops that "giftedness" and "genius" are not matters of ability. They are likely matters of (limbic) drive.

Only where the need to look further, to make sense of things, to hold things in relation to one another, to be exhilarated by discovering meaningful relationships, etc., is inextricably linked to the physical appetite structures of the brain does giftedness survive that first squelching episode or so. In everyone else, such behavior is likely to have been extinguished early on.

The high-ability base appears from this author's experience not only more wide-spread than was generally believed, but readily retrievable.

His results with mentally retarded teenagers and adults, in a class in Windsor, Ontario, in 1979 illustrated underlying potential. Given appropriately formatted, inner perceptual, "search and describe" instructions, 17 of the 29 mentally retarded members of that class on first try came up with original, workable inventions. (Format was a simplified version of the Beachhead procedure. The writer was left with the impression, however unscientific, that if he had been able to get the attention of the other 12 members so they also could follow the instructions, they would have performed similarly.) These were all people in the community being taught through St. Clair Community College, before and after this experience, to comb their hair, brush their teeth and (for only some) to tie their shoes. Presumably they are still being taught such basics.

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What our workshop attendees often reported
from very early childhood

It is safest to "run behind and not ahead," was the most common refrain among general public workshop attendees, two-thirds of whom reported discovery of early episodes of genius. They anticipated support and comfort for dragging behind, but punishment and alarm for running ahead.

Appropriate feedback is basic human nutrition for one's expressed perceptions, one's interests, excitements, and initiatives. If one relates to one's own actual intelligence, he is soon into some areas unfamiliar to his parents, unfamiliar to his teachers, and more often than not that unfamiliarity is made into an uncomfortable situation for the child.

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What this means in terms of "exceptional giftedness"
and the limbic brain

Only where intellectual drives are inextricably part of physical appetite structures, and/or those appetite structures themselves show some unusual characteristics, does giftedness survive to late childhood and adulthood. Virtually everywhere else, it is extinguished. Genius is more drive than ability.

o   Sometimes an unusual problem with physical appetite structures marks genius. Bulimics and anorexics, for example, are reportedly bright on average; also a high incidence of the very bright are obese. Surveys of some gifted populations, such as Mensa gatherings, display a remarkably high proportion of obese individuals. Alternatively, squelching may suppress appetites for learning and exaggerate appetites for comfort through eating.

o   The relationship between (limbic) physical appetite structures and giftedness shows also in other ways. The descriptions of "gifted" or "genius" behavior found in the literature, certainly correspond to what psychologists refer to as "drive reduction behavior" — i.e., efforts to satisfy physical drives like hunger, thirst, etc.

From a bio-evolutionary standpoint, it make enormous sense to link intellect to physical appetite in another regard. In more physically challenging prehistoric times, ancestors who didn't get smarter when hunting and pickings were lean didn't survive to become our ancestors. Even today, many mental and spiritual disciplines practice fasting, usually for announced reasons of establishing self-discipline, but almost always in conjunction with efforts to reach for unusually special or "high" mental or perceptual effects.

Likely times in life when gifted persons become ungifted, merely intelligent and well-informed but no longer inspired geniuses, are the teens and the forties. These are also times of major change in the physical appetite structures of the brain and of the physical appetites themselves.

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Considerations

One wonders, then, how the increasingly widespread use of appetite-suppressant drugs might affect giftedness.

If the occurrence of gifted behavior were not widely suppressed or extinguished, perhaps a substantial portion or even a majority of humans could be "exceptionally gifted."

The proportion of us who are not, then, might be viewed as a casualty list.

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