Happy Mapping for Resilience and Healing

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There is a deep and interesting explanation of one kind of brain mapping by Antonio Damasio in “Self Comes to Mind”. In “Inside Jokes“, the authors explain about the brain constructing “mental spaces”, a neurological architectural requirement in the process of creating our sense of humor, mirth, and laughter. I highly recommend both books.

The term “mapping” has been used many ways. Some use the term to refer to being prepared by practicing for stress before it hits. This ‘practice’ can be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. This kind of mapping takes time, repetition, testing and correction.

For example, let’s say you need to do 10 repetitions of bicep curls once a week for a year in order to reach a particular bicep strength goal. The idea is that, at the very moment when you need strong bicep muscles, it is too late to go to the gym. You cannot achieve that goal by doing 520 reps all in one session! With each rep, the brain draws in the details of the ‘strength map’ for that muscle. It must have the benefit of space and time and repetition. (There may be some exceptions, e.g., Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which may arise from the construction of a seriously imprinted brain map based on a single experience. But, in all other cases, it takes time, repetition, testing and correction.)

I attribute my resilience in the face of being deathly ill last November to my years of this kind of practice of positive attitudes. I was very sick, and had several complications. Even my complications had complications. How did I recover? I am sure that a lot of my recovery was due to years of mapping about laughter, humor, positive attitudes, and about loving relationships, and one love relationship in particular. My ‘atlas’ of positivity, laughter, humor and love had been constructed over a period of years with thousands of repetitions, tests and corrections, but for a while, I could not consciously find the maps; my humor gyroscope was way off kilter.

For weeks following my initial emergency surgery (subsequently there were four other surgical procedures), I was so infused with anesthesia, pain medications, and other powerful drugs, that I was in a dense fog and “blind” to anything humorous. It was as if a thick coating of armor was insulating me from my great sense of humor. During that time, laughter was absent and humor was almost totally impossible. Pain and fog and delirium ruled my life. It was like a waking nightmare in which I could hear a distant voice faintly telling me to find the humor, but when I tried to run in my dream-like state, my legs would not move; when I tried to scream or laugh, no sound could come out. I was “humor helpless,” in a black box trying to fight my way out of a proverbial paper bag.

I am certain that during that time, my brain was still determinedly and constantly a driving force pushing me toward life and health, because that is the natural state and function of the brain (always to seek and restore homeostasis). I believe the maps I had laid down were a special source of fuel and direction for that energy. During the time even though I was unable to consciously will myself to humor and laughter or positive thinking, or love, somewhere inside my head my brain still had excellent maps to follow.

My mind had to work on locating my humor without my conscious assistance, but with wonderful external forces helping. I was dimly aware of the rubber chicken that my wife, Pam, had hung faithfully from my IV pole (a family tradition for any of us who is hospitalized). For weeks, hundreds of humorous get-well cards and gag gifts poured in, and Pam read every one of them to me. Although my response was minimized by the medications and being weak and tired, it was as if each one of those chipped away a small bit of the armor that had built up. My first realization that my sense of humor was gradually being exposed came when I least expected it.

Eventually, those maps guided my brain to where I needed to be, and I had an amazing breakthrough. Here’s what happened.

In the hospital, every few days, I would be sent for a CAT scan. CAT scans are a specialized type of x-ray.  The patient lies down on a couch (more like a hard, flat table) which slides into a large circular opening.  The x-ray tube rotates around the patient and a computer collects the results.  These results are translated into images that look like a “slice” of the person.

Transferring from my hospital bed to the CAT scan table was such a painful move, and because I was so weak, it required the help of 3 staff. Each dreaded trip to the CAT scan room seemed to add to my depression. But, with one of these, the last one, came a fabulous development that marked a switch-point in my recovery.

The staff tried to be gentle in transferring me to the motorized CAT scan table, but it was agony. They left the room so as not to be exposed to the x-ray radiation. As always, the room was darkened as the table and I slid into the giant donut ring of the equipment.
A recorded voice, reverberating in the room, says, “Take a deep breath.”
(I was only capable of a shallow breath.)
Recorded voice: “Hold it!”
(Are you kidding?)
Machinery whirs and rumbles for several seconds.
Recorded voice: “Breathe normally.”
(There is no normal breathing. For me, every breath is painful.)
Again, the reverberating recorded voice says, “Take a deep breath.”
(Here we go again. This entire process is repeated 2 or 3 times.)

Finally, the staff came back into the room as the CAT scan bed was simultaneously slid out of the donut ring. (I was dimly aware of the name Torquemada, a prominent leader of the Spanish Inquisition.) I was breathing only slow and shallow breaths. My eyes were tightly shut in pain. I am sure I was grimacing as a nurse leaned over me to ask, “Are you comfortable?” And, there, instantly was my breakthrough!

“Are you comfortable?” is part of an very old joke*, the set-up or straight-line. When she asked the question, after weeks of depression and “humor blindness”, as if by magic, I instantly remembered the whole joke, and the punch line, and the proper delivery, with great relief and a great inner giggle. At long last, my funny bone was tickled. My eyes popped open, to look directly into hers, and I could feel energy rising in me as I replied. The right answer requires a Yiddish inflection, a shrug and the words, “I make a living.” I think I did a pretty good job of it. With the proper shrug and little bit of a Yiddish accent, I told her, “I make a living!” 

I was ecstatic that after so much humorless time, and in spite of my pain, I was giggling on the inside and delivering a punch line.

The nurse, however, did not get the joke. She looked at me sternly and asked again, more emphatically, “Are you comfortable?”

I am sure my shoulders must have been shaking with my chuckling as my energy rose and I repeated the punch line with  the requisite Yiddish inflection and a shrug, but also more emphatically, “I make a living!”

She said, “Sir, this is serious. Are you comfortable???”
I said, “This is vaudeville. It’s an old joke. I make a living!!

We weren’t getting anywhere. I could see that she was never going to get it, but she was getting exasperated with me. I, on the other hand, knew that the exchange was a signal that I was going to be OK, and I happily forgave her in my heart with gratitude for unwittingly activating an important map in my brain, which led me to the onset of what was to become a full recovery. “Please, take me back to my room,” I whispered, exhausted but exhilarated.

I did not instantly bounce all the way back to health, but the joke was the start of a slow, steady, sure and laughter-filled program of physical therapy, occupational therapy, loving care at home, and the support of hundreds of friends around the world.

The positive (funny) maps that my brain had been constructing for years were triggered into action by a straight-line, and good health followed naturally.

The human brain is amazing in so many ways, conferring upon us the resource of constructing funny maps, happy maps, and mental spaces for our resilience and ultimately for healing. What humor does it for you? What punch line or funny image can throw you into a mirthful mood? Have you helped your brain do some funny mapping today? You should all be doing it as it daily practice. After all, it is the most fun that you can have that could possibly save your life.

Love, light, and laughter.

*The joke: A pedestrian crossing the street is hit by a car. As he lies dazed in the street, a policeman comes over, takes off his uniform coat, rolls it into a pillow and places it under the man’s head. The officer asks the man, “Are you comfortable?” With a slight shrug and a bit of a Yiddish accent, the man lifts his head slightly and replies, “I make a living!”

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Steve Wilson

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Award-winning psychologist, Steve Wilson, also known as The Joyologist and The Cheerman of the Bored, has spent 30 years specializing in applied and therapeutic humor with a humanitarian mission. As Director of National Humor Month, he intertwines science and ancient wisdom with substance and humor to create practical methods to lead the world to health, happiness and peace through laughter. More than six thousand people have completed his unique training in how to create therapeutic laughter, and tens of thousands more around the world have been uplifted by his talks, classes, books, and articles. He established the World Laughter Tour, Inc., in 1998, to be a rich resource and inspiration for improving productivity, health, and well being in business, healthcare and education. For more information http://www.worldlaughtertour.com and http://www.humormonth.com.