“They f*** you up, your mum and dad; they may not mean to, but they do”. With a clarion call that’s inspired generations of teenage rebellion and a fair amount of parental misgivings, poet Philip Larkin was speaking to a compelling truth with this ascerbic little ditty. Whether they mean to or not, our mums and our dads often do set us up for trouble in life, although have some heart because they were most likely set up by their parents as well, when they were small. Although bad experiences can contribute to a whole lot of personal problems, from low self-esteem to the most severe types of psychosis, the incredible recuperative power of the brain offers hope and the reality of real change. In this post, we’ll be exploring what neuroscience tells us about human growth and development – how we become who we become – and I’ll be introducing three ways that the incredible therapeutic potential of neuroplasticity can be harnessed to set us on a path towards freedom.
Human beings are incredible. From infancy through to old age, we continually grow and adapt and develop throughout the span of our lives without skipping a beat. Despite claims that there’s no such thing as society, we’re profoundly social creatures. Our lives are influenced and shaped – from the moment we’re born until the moment we die – by our relationships with other people and by the particular social context we find ourselves born into. Although this might sound like little more than folk-wisdom, developments at the frontiers of neuroscience are generating more and more evidence that this seeming folk-story is actually based in fact.
So let’s begin with a time-travel trip back to 1848.
Phineas Gage was an ordinary, everyday American labourer, working at the heart of America’s railroad revolution. What happened next remains a really good case for health and safety at work. Gage sustained a traumatic brain injury while blasting an outcrop of rock, after an accidental explosion sent an iron rod rocketing through his head. Incredibly, Gage survived the accident, despite much of his brain’s left frontal lobe being destroyed. But he wasn’t unscathed. Phineas Gage and the accident that transformed him from a mild-mannered family man into a disinhibited social nuisance went on to inspire generations of scientists to explore the brain and its role in our personality and behaviour.
So what do we know?
Our brains are incredibly sophisticated, split into two connected hemispheres and comprised of three distinct but inter-connected and inter-affecting parts:
- the evolutionarily-old brainstem which maintains vital biological functions
- the limbic system our emotion- and memory-processing centre, and
- the multi-lobe cerebral cortex the seat of higher functions like abstract thought, language, information-processing, and perhaps consciousness.
A typical human brain is comprised of an astonishing 100 billion neurons, forming an intricate and extensive neural network with 100 trillion neural connections. In contrast, a worm has just 23 neurons. Neurons ‘communicate’ via electrical signals that are carried by chemical neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphin and serotonin. Sound familiar? That’s probably because neurotransmitters are not only known to generate experiences like happiness, but neurotransmitter imbalances have also been implicated in a range of mental health problems.
As a part of the central nervous system, the brain is responsible for:
- regulating our endocrine and immune systems
- relaying sensory information
- coordinating movement
- activating and deactivating the stress-response system
- encoding and retrieving memories
- mobilising our fight or flight response (and bringing us back to a state of calm when a threat has passed)
- ensuring our needs for food, sex, shelter, sleep and safety are met
- expressing our emotional responses.
Our brains give us the ability to empathise and connect with others, to communicate and use language, to make and enact plans, to anticipate and imagine the future, to think in abstract terms, to appreciate art and music, to think about our thinking, and much more besides. Without our brains, we’d have no consciousness, sense of self, morality or free will. This doesn’t mean every thought or behaviour is reducible to what happens in the brain and it doesn’t mean “I think therefore I am”, as the philosopher René Descartes would have us believe, because we are more than just our brains.
During the past twenty years, with the emergence of brain-imaging technologies, neuroscientists have revealed that our brains are in a constant state of growth, adaptation, assimilation and change as we continually interact with the physical and social world. So it makes no sense to think of the brain – or the Self – in isolation. Instead, our humanity emerges precisely and only because our embodied brains form a dynamical interacting system with the world and the people we encounter.
And if that sounds complicated, it’s because it is complicated.
Our genetic inheritance plays a part, as you might expect, and we’re all hard-wired to have human-type brains (some argue that people with autism have atypical brains – a view I share – but an atypical human brain is still a human brain, rather than say a canine or feline one). But that’s only a part of the story. Our brains are continually re-wired by our physical activities in the world (say, learning a new skill like cycling or choosing to step outside you’re home, despite severe agoraphobia). Even our thoughts and emotional responses restructure our brains (something we’ll be looking to harness further on), and of course social context and human relationships are a powerful – perhaps the most powerful – influence on our ongoing neural development.
So, why should relationships be so powerful?
Human babies are born essentially premature. Our brains and nervous systems are surprisingly under-developed at birth, and this explains why we’re absolutely dependent for far longer than any other species. Following birth, the first nine months of a baby’s life sees rapid neurological development. During this time, and of course later, the mother or carer’s love, care and affection have a direct and fundamental role in the baby’s neurological development. Dad’s love is, of course, important – but mum is the centre of the baby’s universe. As incredible as it may sound, our brains are physically shaped, constructed and re-constructed by the experiences we have in infancy and beyond [i]. Every experience impacts upon the infant’s brain development as new neural connections are continually created, destroyed or rewired as neurons ‘fire and wire’ together. We also know that the way our brains develop in infancy and childhood will shape our personalities and the lives we go on to live.
As we grow from infancy into childhood and adolescence, we begin to interact with other people, the physical environment, and with the myriad forces, traditions, ideas, languages, symbols, and structures that shape our culture and society. From this continually interacting process, we come to have both a conceptual and an emotional understanding of ourselves, of what other people are like, and of the world we live in. We can think of this model of the self, others and the world as an Internal Working Model [ii]. Whether operating at a conscious and conceptual level or at an emotional and unconscious level (and, really, our thoughts and emotions are actually entwined), internal working models shape our expectations of what the world and other people are like, and they frame how we relate to other people, how we behave, the decisions and choices we make, and the lives that we live.
When things go well, positive interpersonal and social interactions create a virtuous circle that fosters healthy neurological-development and helps us develop the capabilities we need to live rich and full lives. This gives us a sense that the world’s a good and safe place, other people are reliable and trustworthy, and that we (“you” or “I”) are eminently capable, worthwhile and loveable. This all socialises us into our society’s way of being, cultivates positive personal-development, and helps us integrate into healthy interpersonal relationships.
However, when infants and children aren’t nurtured with enough love, care and affection, things tend not to go so well. Parental neglect, abuse, stress and traumatic childhood events like bereavement can seriously harm a child’s development and, as we grow into adolescence and then adulthood, this can hamper our ability to form relationships with other people, and undermine our emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing. The world and other people can feel unreliable, disappointing, unsafe, or positively dangerous, and we can feel helpless and unable to do anything about it. It can be a hopeless place to find yourself.
Even the seemingly benign experience of conditional parental love, where a child is only loved and accepted when she obeys a certain set of rules, can cause unintended harm, leaving the child anxious, sad, enraged, fearful, depressed, defensive, distrustful or angry.
Of course, children are resilient and extremely creative, and can adjust and adapt to challenging and stressful environments but, by the time we each adulthood, these creative adjustments may prevent us from living a rewarding or fulfilling life.
Alongside challenging family situations, emerging evidence tells us that intolerable social experiences like bullying and discrimination not only cause emotional and psychological pain, but also harm brain-function and neurological development, while of course causing significant harm to the person [iii]. Although we’re told that sticks and stones may break our bones but names will never hurt us, the last part simply – and factually – isn’t true. Words can be devastating. And it’s not just the case for children and adolescents. Discrimination, prejudice and bullying are as toxic and damaging for adults as for anyone else.
Instead of a virtuous circle, harmful interpersonal or social experiences tend to create a vicious circle that perpetuates harm, limits the horizons of our everyday experience and can lead to the kind of withdrawal we label ‘depression’, the fearful worry and unease we call ‘anxiety’, and an array addictions, compulsions and problems around anger, drugs, alcohol, risky and destructive behaviours, food, sex and self-harm [iv]. And all of this without mentioning trauma and psychosis, which both really deserve far more care and attention than I can offer here.
Yet, despite this, human beings are incredible. Even in adulthood, our brains remain malleable and plastic and, while harmful experiences may have impaired optimal brain-development (and thus limited how we are able to live our lives), neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to grow and adapt and change – means that new positive and healthy experiences can actually repair and rewire the brain, enhancing everyday life [v].
Although we can just leave things to chance, hoping our brains will somehow rewire themselves while everything spontaneously falls into place (and there’s no doubt that this can and does happen), there’s overwhelming evidence that we can actively, consciously and deliberately reconstruct our own brains – and thus our own lives.
It’s not too far a stretch to say we can all be brain scientists now.
My interest, and I hope it’s one you’ll come to share, is how we can expand the horizons of our everyday lives and live more fully, with greater freedom and vitality – despite the challenges that may have been thrown in our paths.
The reality of neuroplasticity offers us the greatest hope – and provides the greatest evidence – that people can and indeed do change, even after experiencing extreme harm. Although there are of course limits, I want to suggest three ways that we can harness the therapeutic potential of neuroplasticity:
- Mindfulness Mindfulness meditation – and the cultivation of what neuroscientist Dan Siegel calls mindsight – is a contemplative practice that allows us to actively and deliberately rewire our brain circuitry, a rebalancing of the brain that brings greater clarity, psychological flexibility, emotional balance, and awareness. Although nobody would claim mindfulness is a panacea, it has been shown to significantly alleviate depression and anxiety, not to mention simply enhancing the quality of everyday life. I’d also add Gene Gendlin’s Focusing to the list, but I’d need a whole new post just to introduce this remarkable practice.
- Counselling Healthy and supportive relationships can offer an arena for healing and reintegrating the neurological foundation of our everyday lives, helping us to adapt our concepts of what other people are like and create new ways of connecting with other people. Evidence indicates this is precisely how counselling and psychotherapy work, because it’s an encounter with another person that allows us to grow and develop in a safe and supportive space, free from judgment, criticism or fear. Anecdotally, it’s also something I’ve experienced time and again with the clients I’ve worked with.
- Conceptual-Engineering (aka ‘Learning’) Lastly, I want to suggest that informal education can also tap into the therapeutic potential of neuroplasticity. We all rely upon beliefs and ideas – conceptual building blocks – to help is navigate our way around the world. Some we inherit from our families, some from the wider world. However, some of the building blocks we’ve adopted may no longer be relevant or useful and, in some instances, can be significantly life-limiting. Conceptual-engineering, the application of philosophy and social science [vi], allows us to explore and reconstruct how we view the world, enabling us to integrate new perspectives into our individual worldviews, hang on to the elements that are useful, modify the parts that are a little worn or outdated, and let go of anything that’s coming between us and a richer and more rewarding life. As well as helping us on an individual level, it can also help us look at other people with more understanding and recognise that ‘bad behaviour’ might be a sign that someone’s actually having a really tough time. For me, this is all about the therapeutic potential of education: no assessments, no examinations – just positive learning and personal development.
During the coming months, I’ll be elaborating on these ideas and putting the theory into practice, posting progress reports from the outer-reaches of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience and social theory. If you haven’t already, do sign up for the mailing list and get articles sent directly to your inbox as soon as they’re posted, and – as always – please do take part in any discussions because what you have to say counts too.
In the next post, we’ll start looking at how ideas shape our understanding of the world by constrasting how ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle and Taoist exemplar Lao Tzu understand people. As well as looking at why this is important, we’ll also introduce a way of thinking about people as dynamic, flowing-process rather than the stone-cold objects we’re more familiar with from within the western tradition.
Until then, take care…
[i] Sue Gerhardt (2004), Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. Routledge: London.
[ii] John Bowlby (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Routledge: London.
[iii] Vaillancourt T, Duku E, deCatanzaro D, MacMillan H, Muir C, et al. Variation in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity among bullied and non-bullied children. Aggressive Behavior. 34: 294-305 (2008). SEE ALSO Vaillancourt T, Hymel S, McDougall P. The biological underpinnings of peer victimization: Understanding why and how the effects of bullying can last a lifetime. Theory into Practice. 52: 241-248 (2013).
[iv] This is, of course, an incredibly complex – and contentious – subject, and I’ll write about it in far more detail elsewhere. A single line is just not enough…
[v] Daniel J. Siegel (2010), Mindsight: the New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam Books: New York. While a powerful vehicle for repair and recuperation, neuroplasticity doesn’t have limitless potential.
[vi] Simon Blackburn (1999), Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford University Press: New York.
Richard Askew is a counsellor and psychotherapist, registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). Alongside his private practice, Richard has taught trainee counsellors, studied philosophy and modern history as an undergraduate and beyond, and worked in the community and voluntary sector in Brighton and Hove. His interests are wide-ranging and include: continental philosophy; community development; human rights; sustainability; gender; power and the exercise of freedom; international relations; and capability-based approaches to human development. Outside office hours, his interests tend to be far more light-hearted, infused with a passion for music, film and – of course – people.
Richard is taking bookings at his counselling practice in Brighton and Hove. To book an introductory appointment, call 01273 206174 or 07565 353389.