I am not a science guy. I’m not proud of it, but I have to say that science has never really interested me. This is despite the fact that my dad has a PhD in chemistry. Somehow that gene never got passed on to me.
Nevertheless—who knew—I have found that I love brain science. I love the explosion of scientific research that has taken place in the last 10 years about how our brains work, research made possible by new technologies that allow us to “see” inside the brain and image the activities that take place in it. Here are a couple of main themes that I find fascinating from the new neuroscience.
The first is how extraordinarily complex our brains are. Our brains are a dazzling dynamic array of centres and activities and neurons and hormones and hemispheres and electrical connections that are beyond our ability to understand, even as the new technologies reveal more and more to our understanding. Brain science is confirming a fundamental truth: the more we know, the more we realize how much we don’t know.
The second is how the brain manages the relationship between our need for safety in the face of danger, and our need to have the emotional regulation that allows us to reflect and think.
When as human beings we experience danger, high stress or trauma, the lower part of our brain, near the brain stem, gets activated (the amygdala). Mobilized by the stress hormone cortisol, the amygdala puts us on high alert and tells us to fight, flee, or freeze—whatever strategy is most effective for achieving safety. That’s a good thing: without an active amygdala in those situations, we would succumb to grave danger.
But the amygdala is near the hippocampus, which is essential for autobiographical memory, context and learning (it’s the hippocampus that gets damaged when Alzheimer’s disease sets in). And here is the rub: cortisol is toxic to the hippocampus. In situations of child abuse, the amygdala remains continually active. Safety does not arrive and so the amygdala does not get calmed. If as children we live in a continual or repeated state of threat (due to ongoing abuse or neglect), cortisol floods and damages the hippocampus, thus impeding our ability to make sense of events and of our lives with a coherent narrative.
That’s the sad reality: child abuse results in brain damage. All the more reason for all of us in society—our communities, our neighbours, our faith communities, our governments, we ourselves—to step up and do much more than we are now to prevent and mitigate child abuse. When we do so, we are literally preserving and repairing brains. But even when abuse happens, there is hope: the most recent brain science shows that our brains are “plastic” well into our 90s, and that healing in the brain can be very profound. In fact, the good news is that no one need be consigned to a lifetime of limitation because of long history of vigilance in the face of threat and harm.
When the amygdala is calmed because safety has arrived, then our brain’s social engagement system is activated. Our hippocampus thrives, serving as the bridge to something called the anterior cingulate cortex, which in turn brings together emotional regulation and cognitive processes, creating an affective/reflective, integrated brain dance.
When in danger, we don’t leisurely consider and discuss pros and cons—that would be dangerous—we simply act. But when we are safe again, the amygdala is calm, and reflective thinking which is in tune with our feelings happens again. A key gift of reflective thinking is an ability to hold seemingly opposite or opposing perspectives and examine them without judgment or rejection. And that means we are open to curiosity, to learning, to exploring the world and relationships.
When we are open in this way, then “mirror neurons” are ready to fire. When we watch someone engage in an action, mirror neurons unconsciously lead us to “mirror” the action of that person, which triggers the same motor system within ourselves that the other person is activating. Because this happens more quickly than language formation, this process “trumps” verbal communication, putting us affectively “in tune” with the other. Mirror neurons are the brain process by which we have empathy for someone.
Our defence system is given to black-and-white, survival-oriented responses that require the shutting down of reflective processes. Our social engagement system, activated because safety is in place, is oriented to empathy, co-regulation, learning, the integration of brain functions and the ability to hold differences, even opposing viewpoints, together.
How important then is that social engagement system, supported by a feeling of safety, in this day and age, when our public discourse seems to be rife with black-and-white, my-way-or-the-highway responses to just about everything? And how elusive does its presence seem to be nowadays? What does that say about the level of threat and insecurity that many people seem to be experiencing today?
Regardless, I will continue exploring brain science. Maybe your interest is piqued too. A book I have learned a lot from, one that I recommend, is called Brain-based Parenting: How Neuroscience Can Foster Healthier Relationships With Kids, by Dan Hughes and Jonathan Baylin. Dan Hughes is a good friend of Shalem’s, and our work in attachment is based on his pioneering work, which is beautifully grounded in brain science.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network