December 9, 2014

The Neuroscience of Fear-Based Mind & Culture.

scared cat fear Darwin

This is part three in a six-part series in which Acharya Fleet Maull explores some major themes we all struggle with:

1. Virtue & Goodness, the Forgotten Conversation

2. Freeing Ourselves from the Western Culture of Unworthiness

3. The Neuroscience of Fear-Based Mind and Culture

4. Fundamental Goodness vs. Fundamentalism

5. Working with Fear & Vulnerability

6. Awakening Through Service

Based on our exploration thus far, we are starting to see where this all-pervasive, internalized sense of shame and unworthiness—which in my opinion dominates our western culture—comes from. Now I’d like to go back and explore the neurobiological basis of this fear-based conditioning that contributes to our felt sense of unworthiness and the culture of shame and blame that arises from that.

It all starts with Oxytocin.

(Really, I know it might sound a bit simplified, but stay with me here.)

Many of you have probably heard of Oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone.” Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter produced in the hypothalamus and stored and secreted by the posterior pituitary gland. Oxytocin impacts our openness to and acceptance of other human beings.

Through an unconscious process, sometimes called “neuroception,” we are continually reading the world around us through our nervous system at a cellular or neuronal level. Our nervous system is basically reading “friend or foe.”

Friend or foe?

Friend or foe?

Our nervous system is continually assessing our situation as: Safe or not safe?

Friend or foe?

Because our brain quite naturally evolved with our physical survival as the highest priority, the default reading is “foe.” When our nervous system reads “friend,” based on familiarity or other signals, our body releases the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which allows us to open emotionally to another being. The process of “falling in love” involves the release of oxytocin, thus the term “love drug.” During pregnancy and early childhood, mothers experience a very strong and continuous release of oxytocin… they are basically flooded with it.

Some recent studies with infants have found that when babies see something familiar (and it doesn’t necessarily even have to be a human being), their bodies release more oxytocin which helps them experience a deeper sense of openness and safety. In contrast, there are bound to be plenty of things that are unfamiliar, which will then stimulate an internal subconscious alert… “danger, not safe” or “potential enemy.

The interesting thing is that it does not have to be anything overtly dangerous or threatening. It could just be something that is slightly unfamiliar to them that triggers the default survival mode, a fear-based response of some kind. This unconscious process of reading the world around us for friend or foe, safety or danger, through neuroception is happening all the time.

Fast forward to our adult years. In order for us to open ourselves enough to let another person in, even just a little bit—whether through basic communication or an open heart—a felt sense of safety is required. It is only after we’ve laid that kind of foundation, that we are able to release the oxytocin needed to predispose us to further relationship.

So, back to oxytocin and moms…

During pregnancy and childbirth, unless something like postpartum depression interrupts the natural process, mothers are flooded with oxytocin and the new born baby becomes the center of their universe…the most beautiful thing that ever existed on the planet. No babies are ugly, but, for a moment, just imagine this little baby was: the mother would still think hers was the most beautiful thing on Earth, and not only that, but that it can do no wrong. Really, I’m sure we’ve all seen it, the baby can puke all over it’s mom, it can burp and it can do all kinds of things and the mom says “ohhh, isn’t it so cute!”

Given this, the baby has an experience which is—“Here’s God, and I’m the center of the universe, an object of unconditional loving attention. Mom, who really is God in the sense of being the source of life to this new being, can do no wrong, by definition.  And by association, I as the daughter or son of God can also do no wrong.”

And this is a really important process, because it helps affirm unconditional love and safety.


So this is all great until the inevitable happens:, mom’s production of oxytocin begins to return to normal; and suddenly her loving attention and acceptance is no longer completely unconditional.

The new being, this little child who has no psychological structure for making sense of such an experience, suddenly finds mom (or God) irritated and capable of withdrawing loving attention and unconditional acceptance. This is the classic fall from grace. This is Adam and Eve being booted out of the Garden of Eden. This is the origin of so-called “original sin,” which would be better called “original shame;” except that it is not “original,” because it would imply something unconditional.

To the contrary, it is completely conditioned or conditional, a completely relative situation that is amenable to healing and transformation, thank goodness. Nonetheless, this little child has no way to make sense of this experience other than by concluding, “I’m bad, I’m unworthy of mom’s or God’s love.” Remember, mom is God for this completely dependent young being and, by definition, can do no wrong.

Now hopefully, emotionally and psychologically, even after the oxytocin production returns to normal, the mother and father or other surrogate parents are still able to generate a lot of unconditional love for their child, but no one can do that all the time or perfectly. The child does something and the person starts to feel a little irritated about it; it doesn’t look or feel so cute anymore. And the baby, on some level of cognitive processing, experiences something like, “Uuuuhhhh ohhhhh, God’s mad at me, God doesn’t love me”, which is a big shock the first time it happens. It’s a shock to our being.. and really, this is the beginning of our neurosis.

Again, it’s perfectly natural that the oxytocin wears off and parents return to a more conditional response disposition. It’s natural that babies and young children do things that annoy and/or frustrate parents, testing their patience and ability to be loving and accepting.

The problem is that as the adults continue to react with irritation, anger or frustration, throughout our development, the stories we then start to tell ourselves to make sense of this shift—from unconditional love and acceptance to alternating love and irritationbecome deeply ingrained belief systems. These beliefs and the adaptations we come up with at this very early age to keep ourselves safe, to avoid the withdrawal of love, or even to avoid being hit, becomes our personality and neurosis.

Basically it becomes all of the stuff we end up in therapy about or try to untangle through spiritual or psychological work. It gets very complex, and none of us can escape it…not even those of us raised in relatively loving or benevolent environment. And, Unfortunately, many children grow up in much more difficult circumstances.

At the collective level, all this extrapolates out to a largely fear-based, shame based and blame-based culture, where we believe human beings have to be coerced into good behavior through the threat of shame or punishment. We have lost track of the much more widely held historical human view of our innate goodness.

So how do we overcome all this apparent biological setup for fear-based culture? What is it in our western culture that locks in and systematizes feelings of shame and unworthiness, underlying most of our coping mechanisms and personality adaptations? In the next part of this series, “Fundamental Goodness vs. Fundamentalism”, we are going to look at how our Western culture creates this standard of unworthiness and begin to explore how we might reverse and transform negative forces in our culture. In the meantime, thanks for reading—and please comment below.

See you in two weeks!


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Author: Acharya Fleet Maull 

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Wiki Commons/Public Domain; Storyvillegirl/Flickr Creative Commons




Reply to Brce cancel

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Brce Dec 13, 2014 8:24am

I've observed the phenomenon of the mother's rapture with her new born children (who are now happy and mischievous 5 and 3 year olds). When her second daughter was born, my wife and I were concerned that she was withdrawing attention from her first born by virtue of her intoxication with the newly arrived baby. The shift in her loving attention was so pronounced that we raised the issue with her out of concern over the evident distress and confusion felt by her two year old. So smitten with her new baby, my daughter (who is sensitive, loving, and intelligent) could not really accept the suggestion that she should balance the affection and nurturing that she gave to her two expectant children. However, as the newborn has grew out of infancy, there was a natural shift to sharing herself equally. Having obseved this process, I can vividly see how my older granddaugher was really freaked out about this pulling away. It also occurs to me that the "terrible twos" may be an "up yours" response to mommy's oxytocin returning to normal!

Robert Haile Dec 10, 2014 11:20am

Dads may trigger the oxytocin response by caring for the newborn early and often. Individuals may als trigger oxytocin rather than stress homone, by being kind to themselves as per Kristin Neff Phd.

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Fleet Maull

Fleet Maull is an intrepid social activist/peacemaker and itinerant meditation teacher who travels the world leading retreats, peacemaker trainings, prison programs and transformational seminars. He is an empowered senior teacher in two Buddhist lineages, as an Acharya in the international Shambhala Buddhist Community and a Sensei in the Zen Peacemaker Order. Fleet is well known as a prison reform activist and the founder of Prison Mindfulness Institute (aka Prison Dharma Network) and the National Prison Hospice Association. He is also a sought after business consultant, trainer, executive coach working with business leaders in diverse industries to build healthy and sustainable enterprises with cultures grounded in mindfulness, emotional intelligence, transparency, accountability and integrity. Fleet offers similar training to the general public through his Radical Responsibility® and Radical Possibility™ Seminars in cities all across the United States.

When Fleet’s not traveling the world speaking and teaching, he loves to take his sailboat out on the Narragansett Bay with his son Robert and/or his best (dog) pal, Ziji, who happens to be a master sailor. Fleet is the author of Dharma in Hell, the Prison Writings of Fleet Maull and numerous articles and book chapters. He is currently completing his latest book called Radical Responsibility. Follow Fleet’s work and/or get involved through his website, TwitterFacebook or at Prison Mindfulness InstituteNational Prison Hospice Association, orShambahla International.