Having done some investigating into the work of people such as Bruce Perry and Nathan Wallis, I wrote some notes to try and make brain development theory a little easier to consume. Talking about the brain, we literally know nothing. We have been investigating it for thousands of years and we still don’t really know how a thought is actually produced! Anyway, here is my over-simplified interpretation of how the brain develops and what its areas are used for.
To warn you, I am making objective assumptions about peoples’ brains. Brains are a subjective matter! We are all individuals and I am opposed to the system that treats humans as if all of their brains are the same!! We are all unique, but we have similar biological structures that sometimes make us act in a similar fashion. I am generalising greatly about how all brains function. This information is to be consumed at your own risk, and if you come out the other end slightly less intelligent, then it is your fault for reading that far.
The brain basically has three systems.
System The age of most active growth Complexity and malleability
Primitive 0-2 years old Most simple, least malleable
Emotional 1-4 years old Higher complexity, more malleable
Rational 3-6 years old Most complex, most malleable
A complete oversimplification of the role of each system:
-The primitive system records sensations.
-The emotional system makes memories.
-The rational system helps us think critically about memories and make informed decisions!
This system of the brain has to develop first because its basic function is survival. It controls the freeze, fight or flight reaction. In uncertain environments, this system is in high alert! This part of the brain functions automatically without previous thought. For example: when you touch a hot surface and you immediately retract your hand before your brain can even register that it is hot. That is your primitive brain. All information going to the brain passes through this system. If nothing causes alarm, the other systems in the brain kick into action.
The issue with traumatized children is when the transition from home (sometimes a place of high alert) to a safe environment, they can’t turn off the primitive system. They are stuck in this state because they spent so much time there that it is almost their normal state. If the child is caught in this state of alert, very little information can pass to the other parts of his brain. While they are trapped there, they can’t form secure connections, manage their emotions or behaviour, think, learn or reflect, because they are simply trying to survive in a world that their brain considers very dangerous.
When I think about children in times of high alert, this makes a lot of sense. There have been so many circumstances where I have seen a child who at that present point in time, literally doesn’t have the capacity to process information or make good decisions. They are trapped in the alert state. The responses are automatic. We have a young boy in the project, with whom we are finally seeing some changes. We have been working with him for the last four years and only now he is beginning to open up. He lives in a house with 15 other people. He is constantly picked on, and his mother and grandfather are violent towards him. When we first met him, he was in a constant state of alert. His body posture was closed and he wouldn’t talk or look you in the eye. His actions were freeze, fight or flight. Mostly freeze or flight.
This system is responsible for the experience and expression of emotions. If the information received by the primitive system does not cause alarm, it is sent to the emotional system. Now, this information is processed, and the result is an emotional response. If the Rational system is sufficiently developed, there is an exchange between the systems, and the answer is more rational!
To oversimplify, this system controls hormones, arousal, and memory. With these three functions working together the brain can create emotional responses. Hormones drive us, arousal motivates us, and memory is the function that links feelings with our experiences. I think it is important to make the link between our memories and our emotions. In essence, our memories are what drive our emotions. This system is in high activation in the teenage years – highly emotional responses, hormone fluctuation, and irrational behaviour. Ring a bell parents??
We are emotional beings, so this system molds us. But we are also social beings, so we use this part of the brain to manage our behaviour, which in turn allows us to form secure connections! That's the key to our emotional health - Secure social connections!
This system makes us human! It is the most complex of the three systems and here in collaboration with the other systems, we have created the world in what we live today! This system makes us think, learn and reflect. Humans are fundamentally emotional creatures, but what makes us intelligent is the interconnection between our emotional system and the rational system. The interplay between the two systems allows us to learn things with high complexity and continue building layers of learning upon others.
Although this system is the most complex, it is also the most malleable. We can continue to develop this system, thinking, learning and reflecting until the day we die! For example you can teach a 95-year-old person how to use facebook.
We need the rational system, so we can act with less reactivity or explosiveness, and not just with emotional impulses. The emotional system is responsible for our instinct! Instinct is very important, but only with the experience of the rational system. Sometimes our instinct drives us to scream in someone's face. But with experience and a little critical thinking, we decide that this action will produce a negative result, and we make the decision not to shout in the face!
To make a complete mockery of all of the amazing work done by thousands of psychologists, scientists, social workers, doctors, teachers, etc, I would like to oversimplify and summarise my notes by saying:
If a child is constantly moving in between the primitive and emotional systems, they are on the road towards mental health issues!!
If a child is constantly moving in between the emotional and rational systems, they are on the road towards healthy development!!
You can make your own conclusions from there...