Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Neurobiology of Irrational Commitment

One of the things that helps provide a strong sense that I am truly there for my children (and for adults as well), and thus provides an optimal environment for neural development, is something Attachment Researchers label “irrational commitment.” I love this term. It clearly captures the relationship that many parents feel with their kids. 

A few months back I saw a movie that unexpectedly depicted the profound power and real essence of this bond – the Bruce Willis movie, Live Free or Die Hard. In that movie a rogue ex-government agent has assembled a team of thugs and hackers intent on paying back America for not listening when he warned them about how vulnerable the country was to really smart, socially and emotionally handicapped people like himself. As his “Fire Sale” plot unfolds to disrupt all finance, transportation and utility services across the nation, and in the process steal ALL of the money in America, Thomas Gabriel makes one small unfortunate mistake: he kidnaps NYPD detective John McClane’s (Willis’) teenage daughter. 

“My dad’s gonna kick your ass,” Lucy McClane tells this arch-villain, who has just cold-bloodedly murdered all his expendable staff after they have faithfully and naively served his diabolical purposes. And, of course, Lucy’s right. She knows beyond a shadow of a doubt the extent of her father’s love. And in the name of love, John McClane goes up against wave after wave of skilled martial artists, ultra-Uzi-wielding thugs in attack helicopters, a rocket-launching F-14 fighter plane, and surveillance teams who can locate and chastise him instantly anywhere he goes (even as he attempts to take a needed time out in the expected safety of the Warlock’s basement!). In the end, McClane makes the ultimate decision to shoot himself – a flesh wound that goes through his own body and into the heart of the bad guy. As I walked out of the movie, a little teary actually, I thought, “Now THAT is irrational commitment!” 

And it is. It is precisely the feeling that many of us have with respect to our children and the lengths we would go to for them (especially if we had the blockbuster budget and the same access to stunt doubles and special-effects wizards that Bruce has). But what if we don’t. What if all we have is an insecure, ambivalent attachment history, a model of parenting that includes a father who left for parts unknown, a mother overworked, overwhelmed and unable to do even half of the ten thousand things that need to be done to adequately care for children in the course of a day? What then?

In this case, a difficult one to be sure, then we have more work to do than other parents. A lot more. Just the work of figuring out what our work is can be confusing – not to mention, frightening and overwhelming. Even more so when we figure out that our work is not “won and done.” That it is work that we will most likely be charged to do as long as we continue to breathe as living beings with embodied consciousness. 

It’s for precisely this reason that I am so strongly drawn to brain science. It helps to greatly clarify what the work is that we parents truly do need to do: whatever it takes to grow new neurons and connect them up with as many of the old ones as possible. Essentially, that’s it. Why? Because it is these new neurons and connections that will begin a process of establishing for us in the moment and continuing on into later life, what should have been formed and stabilized early and never got sufficient chance to. 

And as I’ve mentioned previously, the Nobel Prize-winning work of Eric Kandel suggests that one of the best ways for parents to do that is by regularly engaging in novel situations in secure environments where it’s safe to play. There are other ways as well to begin doing the necessary neural reconstruction and we’ll continue to explore them in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, consider this question: What might it look like for you to make and sustain an “irrational commitment” to the important people in your life? To the point that you would willingly take a bullet for them?

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