“Global Burnout” popped into my head as concept on September 11th, 2001. The human family system had cracked. What was happening in my lifetime?
When studying the art of children who witnessed the 9/11 tragedy, I realized that the clinical lessons from treating traumatized children and families could be translated into a narrative intervention for our stressed-out global village in the face of numerous modern triggers and traumas.
And the most accessible medium for this intervention is the internet.
Because our brains are constantly connecting through an interactive screen, linking billions of fellow human beings could boost mindful cultural evolution… or be a rabbit hole for cultural devolution. Can we muster the emotional intelligence, the political will, and the cultural resilience to adopt a positive outlook for the emergence of a healing, humanistic global narrative — what I now call “Global Mind”?
Empowering a “we-team”
With each new generation comes the birth of possible changes for the human family. Culture begins in the family. Parents wield enormous power to change the attitudes and behaviors from their generation that are passed onto their children. Traditions are taught that promote resilience and connectivity — after all, open-minded parents produce open-minded children. But old biases are also passed on and these can perpetuate toxic stress.
In working with stressed-out families, it is critical to help parents activate their creative powers in what I call the “we-team.” Parents have the power to create a coherent family narrative that binds members together — trust in the family is the most powerful human narrative for species survival.
The bio-psycho-social fabric of the self is emotionally enmeshed with the family mind, where parents regulate, train, and coach their children into a “we” narrative. The everyday stresses of family attachment trigger disconnection that require reconnection. For instance, the push-back between toddlers and parents — between “me” and “you” — begins at the first utterance of “no” and becomes an existential conflict at puberty, when the brain’s abstract capabilities emerge. Such developmental milestones form the basis of a secure sense of self when so-called “good enough” parenting guides a child toward reconnection with validation and empathy.
The brain has two narrative structures: the body brain (the emotional brain or limbic system), and the mindful, storytelling brain (prefrontal cortex). A stressed-out limbic system disconnects from the mindful brain, just as stressed out family members withdraw from one other.
We know that trauma in early development has a profound effect on brain development, particularly the amygdala. Elevated stress hormones cause the amygdala to grow, becoming more sensitive and easily triggered later in life. A family that validates a child’s trauma, empathizes with confusion, and soothes fear and helplessness will provide security against toxic stress and curb amygdala hypertrophy.
I teach my patients to be aware of the distinction between the limbic narrative — freeze-fight-flight — and the mindful script — calm-connected-creative. The mindful brain can reframe the body’s stressed-out state through calm breathing. Within minutes, a calm mind adapts to whatever stress the family is in, rather than feed reactive anger, fear, and confusion. Calm minds cool hot-tempered bodies.
My eyes were opened to the power of calm consciousness after spending a summer in Dharamsala, India, during medical school, studying Tibetan medicine, meditation, and philosophy. I met the Dalai Lama, had extensive mindfulness training, and was steeped in Buddhist studies. One of the most impactful lessons of my life and career at that time is that everything is connected.
By integrating developmental neuroscience, mindfulness practice, and Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, I found parents eager to learn about how mindful awareness helps them regulate stress. When a co-parenting team learns to detoxify negative emotions that hijack their brains and destroys their loving bonds, they can share a deep sense of family security. In other words, training parents with mindful stress-regulation skills produces secure family connections for individuals, couples, and families.
A viral Global Mind narrative
The greatest stories ever told to shape human behavior and forge connection are the Bible — 2.4 billion followers and a 2,000-year run, and the Koran with 1.9 billion followers. In his book Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events, Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller explains how human economic behaviors are activated by emotionally charged stories of idealistic and catastrophic investment possibilities. This is true beyond the realm of economics.
Our need for a shared narrative is becoming more evident throughout our global village. Such a narrative could promote more trust and help us be less self-centered to create a global “we team.” On the internet and in life, the current story we share is driven by our base emotions, both positive and negative. We are in need of a new narrative of shared meaning and system regulation that helps us to avoid the conflict and violence marking so much of our history and current events.
Technology is a boon and we need to learn how to harness it for shared mindfulness — or Global Mind — and combat shared toxic stress. A viral Global Mind narrative must inspire longevity, shape behaviors at all levels of communication, and awaken us to the obvious: human beings are one family and share one story — that of bio-psycho-social survival.
But can we consolidate enough humanistic narratives to promote a cultural evolutionary leap towards species tribalism?