Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Building Better, Long-Lasting Brains for the Long Haul

Just as our own brains have done – learned to process significantly more energy and complex information than our parents’ brains ever had to – our own children’s brains are going to end up processing significantly more energy and information than our brains. Compared to when we were their age, between Twitter and Google and video games and Instant Messaging and Iphones and Blackberries, I’m guessing many of our children’s brains already do process significantly more information.

But that’s only part of the good news. Renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that our children will very likely be putting their brains to use for an average lifespan of 150-200 years! In his best-selling book, The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil makes a compelling case that the explosive growth of information technology alone is already creating dramatic changes in all areas of life. And living longer is just one of these changes. Inventions and research findings delivered at a TED talk on Monday morning, can be disseminated and accessed virtually anyplace on the planet by Monday afternoon at the latest. This has significant implications for medicine, nutrition, neuroscience, education – virtually any area where energy and information is put into service by human brains.

Thus, our kids are going to need bigger, better connected and neurologically balanced brains than ours, and they will very likely be needing them far longer - University of Idaho gerontology professor, Steven Austad has bet $500 million that a 150-year-old person will be alive and in good condition by the year 2150. If and as this comes to pass, what are some of the things we can do to insure optimal brain growth and development in our children?

First, it’s important to realize that children’s brains don’t develop uniformly. Rather, neurons begin connecting in the greatest amounts before and after birth on the right side of the brain. This is the side where traumatic, overwhelming memories are mostly stored in what's known as "implicit memory." Overwhelming memories result from experiences that convey more energy and information than our children’s brains can easily handle. (Obviously, adult brains can be readily overwhelmed as well!).

An example: when my own daughter was under a year old she spiked a very high fever that resulted in her going into convulsions. Needless to say, this comes close to being a parent’s worst nightmare. The remedy for this was to plunge her into cold water. This too, had a chilling effect on everyone, as her body immediately registered the abrupt change in temperature. At the same time, this painful memory became stored in her brain without any way to talk about it. (To this day, the image of Amanda shaking in uncontrollable convulsions remains clear in my mind, although as would be predicted, she has no narrative recall of the experience). 

These are the kinds of memories that are stored early on, without the benefit of language, since roughly between ages two and three language has yet to come on line. Consequently, many of us have any number of such stored memories that we simply can’t speak about. They are stored primarily on the right side of the brain as something attachment researchers call “the unthought known.” When these kinds of stored, overwhelming memories are activated, we are often upset and don’t know why. One important process for helping with brain development in our kids then, is to find creative ways for them to first nonverbally express and then begin to construct narratives - tell stories about these early stored experiences. Again from the attachment literature this process is known as “constructing a coherent narrative,” and the shift across the mid-line of the brain, which speech and language seems to accomplish, turns out to be important for optimal neural development.

So, helping our children construct coherent narratives is one way to help them grow bigger, better integrated brains. But our children have many different kinds of experiences in the first 36 to 40 months of life (beginning in utero) that exceed the ability of their brain to adequately process. As a result, a lot of neural real estate is taken up with what Bob Scaer calls “dissociative capsules” – collections of neurons that have had to be systematically and preemptively inhibited from firing. The neurons that become wired together and represent such experiences become necessarily shut down so as to allow the brain and body a timely return to a balanced state of homeostasis. Reclaiming this neural real estate can and should be a practice for growing better connected and more robustly integrated children’s brains. Through the upcoming weeks I will be presenting even more specific information on effective ways that continue to be developed and discovered to actually accomplish that reclamation.

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