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Pajarito Reads: Robert Fuselier Explores How Survival Strategies Rooted Deep in the Brain Control our Behavior

on February 25, 2013 - 11:13am
Column by BONNIE GORDON
Los Alamos Daily Post

Robert (Bob) Fuselier may be the ideal person to tackle the subject of his new book, “From Violence to Freedom.”

Fuselier is a veterinarian, which of course gives him a lot of insight into animal behavior and a background in medicine and biology.

Bob Fuselier

He’s also a world traveler, having done volunteer work in Honduras and more recently, in Afghanistan, where he saw how different cultures cope with human behavior. Fuselier also has a lifelong fascination with exploring our spiritual nature and a passionate interest in the brain and how it functions.

Fuselier will be on hand to discuss the book and sign copies 1-3 p.m. Saturday, March 2 at Karen Wray Fine Art Gallery at the Community Bank Building, 15th Street and Central Avenue in Los Alamos.

Fuselier will give a brief presentation around 2 p.m. and his wife Susie will provide refreshments.

“A wealth of wisdom has come down to us from the past,” Fuselier said in a recent interview. “People didn’t know the physiology, but they knew about how to handle their emotions. Now science has given us new ways to understand how the brain works and some new tools to deal with our negative emotions.”

“From Violence to Freedom” starts with the hard stuff—the neuroscience. Do not skip this part of the book, you’ll need to understand what comes later and the going will get easier.

“My biggest fear is that people won’t make it through the science to the more assessable part of the book,” Fuselier said.

Without getting too deeply into the science, Fuselier examines how the parts of our brain developed to help humans survive.

Our emotional systems move us to seek pleasure and avoid pain, both physical and mental. Under the influence of emotions, we act through neural circuits that are for the most part, not in our conscious control.

These parts of the brain are the most primitive. The cortical areas of our brain, where our analytical faculties reside, are very powerful, but it remains dependent on the emotional system to function.

“Everything is based on reward and punishment,” Fuselier said. “Reward and pleasure can be especially problematic for us in an age of plenty, where it’s easy to go too far and to develop addictions to pleasurable sensations that are readily available.”

Fuselier goes on to talk about how memory is encoded in the brain and how biochemistry effects our emotions. From here, he goes onto the macro level of how we have developed as social creatures, needing to please others, feel secure in the group and have the respect of peers.

The book examines the panic system, which leads us back to the social system where our needs can be met, but can also rage through the fight part of the “fight or flight” equation that is our response to fear. This kind of response is obvious in social animals like dogs, whose emotional life, Fuselier says, is very similar to our own.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is Fuselier’s examination of what he calls “the seeking emotional system.

“This is the part of the brain that makes us get out of bed in the morning,” but it has its dangers, he said.

We’re programmed to desire things that give us pleasure, or that we think will give us pleasure because seeking is itself pleasurable.

The dopamine circuits in the brain start firing as we go on the hunt for whatever we’ve decided we want. Like fight or flight, this system was designed to deal with a very different reality from the one we live in now.

We don’t need to stalk our food or search for a warm place to sleep each night. So our desire system can go out of control, seeking stimulation in addictions to behaviors like shopping or to constantly changing romantic partners to experience the thrill of the chase for two examples.

So how do we control these emotional systems without losing touch with our feelings? It’s not easy.

“The hardest thing to do is to just stop,” Fuselier said. “But understanding what is going on with your brain can give you a lot of control over how you react. Reminding yourself that these reactions are normal and natural, but you don’t have to act in a particular way because of them, can help a lot.”

Since reading the book, I’ve discovered that realizing what you need is also very helpful in understanding one’s own behavior and controlling it.

Fuselier’s father has been a major influence on his life and on the writing of this book. The elder Fuselier not only stressed knowing one’s self, but understanding others.

“People said of my father, ‘He saw me when no one else could see me,’” Fuselier said. “His philosophy was to know yourself and to reach out to others. That’s how I want to live.”


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