What we thought we knew about the brain is shifting rapidly because of the research of the past 10 years. Daniel Siegel (2008), Allan Schore (2009), and others have gathered recent neurobiological research, interpreted it, and transcribed it into common language. Therapists and others have brought the information into the counselling room and books such as David Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself have made their way to mainstream bookstores and television.
I have just finished a course on interpersonal neurobiology and I would like to share some of the knowledge that I believe can change your life. First our memory and what we take in from the world is a much more non-conscious process then we earlier believed. Apparently in one second we take in 10,000.00 bits of information of which only 16 are conscious (Gihooley, 2008). Further, this author maintains that cognitive research suggests that the unconscious is the main component of mental processes and that this realization has turned the psychological community on its ear (Gihooley (2008). He states:
“We’ve come to realize that there is an enormously complex mental apparatus working independently of, and largely invisible to, our conscious mind. . . these unconscious processes form the actual center of mental life; they are the origin of motivations and initiator of actions, and conscious thought. . . It may be all we know—plays a comparatively minor and peripheral role in mentation” (Gihooley, 2008 p. 93).
The author is, in effect, stating that our explicit memory and what we know is, in effect, more peripheral to our human experience than, as we thought, the other way around. He gives an example of speech suggesting that we are really not aware of our speech because it is orchestrated and delivered unconsciously. We, in effect, are only aware of what we speak after it is spoken. Implicit memories and knowledge underpin this process and consciousness is not a part of what we are continually perceiving and interpreting. Information processing is an involuntary process (Gihooley, 2008).
Many researchers and clinicians have agreed that in child development the first 18 to 24 months are crucial for a healthy mental and physical life later in life. We know that the child’s right brain is the main part of the brain that develops during this time and the memories are largely non-conscious. In order to develop the brain properly the child’s caregiver needs to create a secure attachment with the child. Attuned communication is also needed for the development of self-regulatory processes and the pre-frontal cortex, which is the centre of logic, reasoning, and executive functioning. Attachment experiences are independent in their influence of genetics and temperament.
Dr. Siegel 2009) presents nine functions that are required for the pre-frontal cortex to develop: balance of the body, attunement with others, emotional balance, response flexibility, ability to calm fears, insight and self-knowing, empathy, morality and larger social good, and intuition. He also focused on the importance of parents being attuned and present with their children in order that their pre-frontal cortex links with them. He suggested that a healthy loving secure attachment is important and that it is estimated that 65% of Americans are securely attached and 35% are insecurely attached.
Dr. Siegel recommended three requirements for developing the nine functions for healing and integrating the brain: loving relationships, internal reflection, and the functions of the brain itself. Practices that assist with the tasks are mindful awareness, prayer, Ta Chi and Yoga. The goal of healthy brain development is integration of the emotional centre of the brain (limbic area) and brain stem (reptilian or old brain) with the pre-frontal cortex or new brain.
Chaos and/or rigidity, Dr. Siegel suggests, becomes the state of being when the brain is not integrated. The presenter suggests that an integrated brain is harmonious and is able to manage separateness and togetherness from others and individuation and connection. He defines the mind as a “process that regulates the flow of energy and information”.
Childhood trauma, and poor attachment experiences produce a brain that is disorganized. The emotional brain is disconnected from the thinking brain and the physical regulation system resulting is chaos or rigidity in behavior and mental health issues. Because this is largely nonconscious it is challenging for the person and others to figure out what is not working.
The good news is that the brain is plastic and a disorganized system can be healed and integrated. Loving secure relationships and self-reflection is the key to healing. This can happen in love relationships and in therapy. Trauma experiences can cause an otherwise integrated brain to disorganize and cause havoc in a persons life creating depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress symptoms. Again healing can occur with therapy and being surrounded by loving family and friends. The difference in healing through a trauma is most often the support a person seeks and gets.
These advances in knowledge are helping people realize that their difficulties in life stem from early experiences and/or traumatic life events. They begin to view their issues as experience dependent and, for many, caused many years ago not as a result of them being a bad person whose life is hopeless. They also realize that they can change their life if they get help and reach out to others. The key here is awareness and bringing many of the memories and knowledge that motivates and drives their lives to conscious awareness. Those in pain and struggling can have control over how they deal with the information and then they can begin to heal and integrate their brain.
The key points of brain research are that the focus is now on unconscious processes and early childhood attachment. The growth of the brain in the first 2 years is in the right brain and its health is experience dependent. Poor attachment and trauma experiences result in a disorganized brain and behavior that is chaos or rigid, however the brain has neuroplasticity and can heal and integrate with therapy and loving relationships.
Books that are recommended are Daniel Siegel the Developing Brain and Parenting from the Inside Out.