Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being
By Linda Graham
New World Library Copyright © 2013 Linda Graham
All rights reserved.
How the Brain's Strategies of Resilience Become Wired In
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
My next-door neighbor has a big, affectionate, 125-pound malamute named Barney and an eight-year-old granddaughter who adores him. One day, as Samantha was arriving to visit, I watched her run up to Barney to give him a hug. Barney responded exuberantly, licking her face profusely. He was simply greeting her with affection, but Samantha clearly wasn't prepared for such rough-and-tumble love: she burst into tears.
As I witnessed Samantha's distress, I immediately felt a sympathetic response in my own body, as you may have felt in yours — a rush of "Oh, no!" I went to comfort Samantha with a hug and a quick wipe of her face with my sweatshirt. Then I held a bewildered Barney at bay while Samantha's mom came outside for a more thorough wash-down with a wet washcloth and clean towel.
With her mom's soothing words of "There, there," Samantha quickly calmed down, wiped a tear from her cheek, then took her mom's hand and walked over to Barney to start again. Her mom showed her how to hold her hand out and let Barney lick that first. After that, they both patted the top of Barney's head, then Samantha slowly moved toward Barney and gave him a hug. His tail wagged exuberantly, but there was no more face washing.
As you may have noticed, Samantha learned several resilient coping strategies from her mom in this encounter with Barney. She learned that receiving support from others could help her calm down, and she learned how to approach the big dog in a confident, competent way that didn't overexcite him. Her brain immediately encoded those lessons in her neural circuits for future reference.
Resilience, like all innate capacities in the brain, develops as the brain processes or learns from experience and translates or encodes that learning into its neural circuitry. Because resilience is all about surviving and thriving, our brains begin to learn and encode lessons about coping strategies that keep us alive and safe from the very beginning of brain development. Some responses to "safe" and "dangerous" even begin in utero.
In this chapter we will examine how learning from experience is translated or encoded in our brains through the interaction of two powerful mechanisms of brain functioning. The first is conditioning: broadly speaking, how the brain learns and stabilizes our conditioned patterns of response through repeated experience. The second is neuroplasticity: how the brain remains flexible in order to change that encoding, learning or unlearning patterns of response, growing new neurons, and connecting them in new circuits. Conditioning and neuroplasticity work together as the brain develops and matures. Much of this work occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. I call this structure of executive functioning in the brain the CEO of resilience because it guides the encoding process and integrates the work of other brain structures that use both conditioning and neuroplasticity to help us learn from our experiences in the first place and rewire that learning later if need be.
When our conditioning goes well, especially early in our lives, we build a solid neural foundation for resilience in the brain. The "rules" encoded in our neural circuitry allow us to respond skillfully and adaptively to the outer hiccups and hurricanes of our lives that trigger agitation or distress within. The brain structures that perform the encoding are stable, yet flexible enough to learn new coping strategies. They buffer us against the effects of external stressors and traumas later in life. And that's true for many of us, much of the time.
However, our conditioning — the wiring of our neural circuitry as we learn from experience — sometimes goes awry. When this happens, we can find ourselves stuck in negative, dysfunctional response patterns that leave us feeling ineffective and miserable and more vulnerable to stressors and traumas. We may refrain from pushing back to assert our needs, watching someone else get the promotion we worked hard for. We may avoid opening the envelope from an insurance company or doctor, afraid of bad news, only to discover a month later that the enclosed letter was no big deal. When encoded early enough in our development, these patterns can even derail the maturation of the brain itself. Chapter 2 explores how and why such glitches in our learning may arise.
With an understanding of how our brains develop, we can forgive ourselves for finding it hard to rewire those early coping strategies if they failed to become fully established, leaving us floundering in a "neural swamp," or if they became rigid, leaving us stuck in "neural cement." When we know how to choose specific experiences to deliberately rewire our brains for better coping, we can fully recover our capacities for resilience and even strengthen the brain structures themselves that encode the new strategies. Neuroscientists have proved irrefutably that you can teach an old dog new tricks; you can even heal the dog — or the brain — when necessary. Although the initial wiring of our brains is based on early experience, we know that later experiences, especially healthy relational ones, can undo or overwrite that early learning to help us to cope differently and more resiliently with anything, anything at all.
The Neurobiological Basis for Resilience
The human brain is a social-learning organ. Throughout our lives, it develops and matures most efficiently in interactions with other human brains. In fact, initially the brain develops only in interactions with other human brains. It relies on interactions with other brains to turn on the actual expression of our genes according to the developmental timetables that have evolved in small human groups over millions of years.
For example, a human infant typically recognizes the face of its own mother by three months of age and can say "Dada" and "Mama" (or the equivalent) for the correct gender of parent by ten months of age. Babies enjoy gazing at themselves in a mirror by twelve months of age and can string words together in phrases by eighteen months of age. They become interested in playing with other children by age two and can comprehend that someone else is thinking something different from their own thoughts, by age four. It's the social interactions of the child's brain with the brains of other people that nurture these neurological developments.
The rapidly growing field of epigenetics explores how non-genetic factors, such as environmental stimuli, can turn on the expression of parts of the genetic code. Research shows that contact with other people can catalyze or inhibit the expression of specific genes in humans. For example, a person may have a genetically inherited talent for music, but unless that talent is encouraged by people around her early on, those "musical genes" may not be expressed, and the talent will remain undeveloped. Interactions in the early environment stimulate more growth in brain volume between birth and three years of age than at any other stage of life. Those early years create the neural foundation for all subsequent development.
The prefrontal cortex develops on a longer timetable, approximately twenty-five years, stimulated by empathic relationships with other mature prefrontal cortices. Evolutionary psychologists now posit that it was the need for our ancestors to communicate with one another quickly, through body language and facial expressions, that catalyzed the emergence of empathy, language, and many other advances in human mental capacities. In other words, the increased brain volume and the strong executive functioning of the prefrontal cortex that we needed to become empathic and highly skilled communicators — discerning whether situations were safe or dangerous, whether other people were allies or enemies, making decisions based on those assessments, formulating a narrative of the experience and evaluating whether that worked or not, planning a future, and creating meaning — are what drove the evolution of the higher cortex of the human brain in the first place. It still does.
Secure Attachment: The Interpersonal Base of Resilience
We learn our earliest strategies of resilience in infancy, through interacting with parents, caregivers, and others close to us. The British psychoanalyst John Bowlby proposed sixty years ago that human babies are "programmed" by evolution to "seek physical proximity to a caregiver in times of perceived threat or danger." Neuropsychologists have repeatedly demonstrated that Bowlby's theory of attachment and the fear-attachment-exploration motivational system underlying it are valid and form the neurobiological basis of our earliest learning of resilience. Fear (like Samantha's startle reaction to Barney's licking her face) naturally drives us to seek reassurance and protection from someone older, wiser, stronger, and able to help. This behavior, wired in from birth, is lifelong. The successful soothing of the fear in an empathic and responsive relationship allows the child — or adult — to venture out and continue to follow the natural urges to play, explore, and create. This is resilient behavior based on what Bowlby called "secure attachment."
The parents' responses to the baby's initial attachment behaviors encode the earliest and most enduring internal working models or rules of coping in the human brain. You may recognize some of your own patterns of conditioning in the style of secure attachment described below, or in the three other universal styles described in chapter 2. In our quest to recover our resilience, understanding the results of this early conditioning is essential. The earliest strategies for resilience become stably encoded in our neural circuitry by twelve to eighteen months of age and have what the neuropsychologist Louis Cozolino calls "permanent psychological significance." They even affect the maturation of the developing brain itself. In rewiring our brains for resilience, we must take this early conditioning into account.
How Secure Attachment Leads to Stable and Flexible Coping
Bowlby and other attachment researchers have found that secure attachment is the relational style that is most effective in enabling the prefrontal cortex to mature and "teaches" the brain to be resilient, both stable and flexible. According to Pat Ogden, the developer of sensorimotor psychotherapy, "Secure attachment is the strongest inoculator you can have against future trauma."
When a parent repeatedly responds to a baby's smile with a smile in return, perhaps amplified by gentle holding, playful cooing, and empathic baby talk, the earliest processing of the baby's neural circuits is based on a sense of safety and trust. If a parent consistently responds readily and calmly to a baby's expressions of distress (by changing its diaper or with a feeding), the baby learns to soothe itself, and the baby's neural circuits begin to stabilize around the sense that "I am important. I matter. I am loved." The baby also learns that calls for help are answered and that solutions to problems exist. In other words, basic patterns of resilience are established. If a growing child sees that his efforts to communicate with a parent are valued and understood, even if the parent can't do what the child wants, right then or ever, the child's neural circuits stabilize around a trustworthy sense of his own competence and mastery.
Learning to communicate our needs and wants to others, mastering various strategies to get those needs met, trusting that we deserve to have those needs met, and delighting in our growing competencies to do so form our very first experiences of resilience. This resilience grows as we learn to bounce back from moments of fear, anger, grief, and shame. We learn strategies for reaching out to people for help and protection. As our neural circuits mature and integrate, the feelings of trust, being loved, and becoming competent generate a sense of inner security. They create neural patterns of response flexibility that become the brain's template for resilience for the rest of our lives. The maturation of the developing prefrontal cortex serves as a scaffolding for further healthy self-development, self-regulation, and self-confidence and further learning about resilient coping.
As we grow older, our brains learn to navigate an increasingly complex world, primarily through interactions with other resilient people: teachers, coaches, older siblings, peers, partners, mentors, therapists, and role models from life, history, and literature. Over our lifetime, it is through interactions with other people that we learn how to handle disappointment, how to stop gossip and backbiting at the office, how to pull a team of people together to stop the building of a toxic waste dump in our neighborhood, or how to think outside the box when it comes to helping a child overcome a speech impediment. Research indicates that even as adults, our brain's preferred method of learning resilience continues to be through interacting with resilient people around us, through dialogue and shared work and play. An ancient Chinese proverb reminds us: A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study.
A secure base of neural stability and flexibility helps you remain open to new learning. You can easily harness the brain's neuroplasticity to change old patterns of response and to strengthen the prefrontal cortex, which coordinates the encoding of those responses. Confident in your ability to respond effectively, you can take advantage of new possibilities. Your innate capacity for resilience continues to develop fully.
How the Brain Learns Habits of Behavior
Focusing our attention on any experience stimulates cells called neurons in various parts of the brain to fire; this firing extends from the brain into the nerves in the rest of the body. The experience may be an external event, like Barney's licking Samantha's face, or an internal response to the event, like Samantha's reaction of upset. When neurons fire in response to experience, they send electrical and chemical messages to other neurons across the gaps that separate them (the synapses), at times creating synaptic connections with more than five thousand other neurons at once. This neural messaging and synaptic connecting reinforce pathways in the brain. The reactions of people around us then activate another response within us, like Samantha's calming down in response to her mom's soothing touch. (If her mother had acted differently, for example by raising her voice, Samantha could have experienced another fear response instead.)
These bursts of neural messaging and connecting (processing the sense that a person or situation is safe or dangerous) may last only milliseconds. But as an experience is repeated, the thousands of neurons that fired together and created the neural network of the initial response tend to fire together again, strengthening that network and preparing the brain to respond in the same way when it next encounters a similar situation.
The neuroscientist Donald Hebb coined the phrase "Neurons that fire together wire together." It describes how repeated experiences and repeated neural firings cause neurons to strengthen the connections between them. These strengthened synaptic connections wire the meaning of an experience into more and more stable circuitry and more enduring patterns of response. How we respond to an event — this situation was safe or dangerous; this is what I did to cope with that situation; that coping worked well or poorly — becomes a stable, enduring pattern of response.
As synaptic connections become stronger and more stable over time, they begin to link up in neural pathways. When circuits are stable, the strength of the neural networks of associated memories and meanings makes it very likely that we will respond to the same or similar experiences in ways that we have already responded before. For example, Samantha's early experience of overcoming fear by receiving comfort from her mother may be reinforced by later experiences in which other people provide comfort or protection. Over time, simply the memory of such comfort may be enough to soothe her in frightening situations. And eventually, the memory of such support may be enough to prevent the fear response from occurring at all. This encoding of experiences and responses into stable, enduring neural patterns is what neuroscientists call conditioning. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Bouncing Back by Linda Graham. Copyright © 2013 Linda Graham. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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