April 21, 2016 By Stephen Grant affect regulation theory. Alan Schore, amygdala, attachment theory, desire, guilt, John bowlby, left brain, limbic brain, mary ainsworth, prefrontal cortex, right brain, shame
Is there anything that all healthy humans want in life? In other words, is there anything that crosses social, economic, and cultural divides that is a desire or longing for all humanity? I ask because if we don’t understand for that which we all long, we will never grasp how people respond, develop, and break.
Before answering, however, let’s quickly sketch the human brain using very broad strokes (like creating a picture using google maps from 30,000 feet). For the sake of perspective in our overview the brain will have three primary regions: the amygdala — also known as the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the pre-frontal cortex. The Amygdala is the part of our brain that keeps us safe. Typically it employs three responses: Fight, flight, or freeze. Additionally, it has the power to override the other areas of the brain to keep us safe. If it is fully turned on, the pre-frontal cortex is either turned off completely or barely activated. In those moments, we describe people as “acting on instinct.”
The limbic brain is a catch-all region of the brain that includes: most of our emotions, our long-term memories, and our motivational and pleasure centers. It also guides our intentional muscle movements and is involved in how we learn. It comprises most of our brain mass.
The prefrontal cortex is central to our personality, our social choices, and sophisticated planning and thinking. This is the area of the brain that helps us filter our behavior while simultaneously guiding our thoughts and actions so that the are consistent with our internal goals or drives.
While the above paragraphs contain the most general of outlines and are not comprehensive or complete, they set the scene. The main characters in the story, however, are our “right and left brains.” For they process life differently. Their interaction about how to get that which everyone wants becomes the human script.
The right brain is the originator of our dreams. It is intuitive, visual, seeing the forest before seeing a singular tree. It is artistic .and non-verbal, the place of imagination, creativity, emotions, and rhythms. The right brain allows you to sing in tune or stops you from carrying a melody. The right brain is where fetuses and infants start to think learning life. It is also the place that stores trauma for not just children but also adults. It does not require words to feel or see. In many instances, words only get in the way of creative expression. It is important to note that the right brain also contains what Freud called, “the unconscious.” And finally, to recognize that it is the birthplace of shame. Shame is a critical player in this drama because, at its root, it is the feeling or sense that one is undeserving of their longings and desires; that either, they are not enough or are too much. It has devasting consequences for us physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Physically, both the right and left brain encompass the prefrontal cortex that connects them, allowing them to communicate and the limbic brain. So as you think about our left and right brains, please simultaneously remember the limbic and prefrontal cortex functions.
The left brain is analytical, logical, and verbal. It is linear, likes math, facts, and learning languages and always uses words or numerals to think. While the right brain gives birth to shame, the left brain is the uterus for our guilt. This is a primary difference between guilt and shame: Guilt always begins with words, while shame always starts with emotions to which we later give language.
The above aids us as we consider humanity’s desire(s). As a Trinitarian, I believe God created people both corporately and individually In his loving, relational image; Therefore, every human’s deepest desire is for a relationship with another. However, this desire is not innate, but rather developmental. For early on, infants have no sense of “inside/outside” or “otherness.” Those concepts are learned. There is no way infants’ minds can grasp that everything “isn’t me.” They learn that there is me and you and that we are separate and other. That is only one of the billions and trillions of things that infants learn as they grow. How they learn to be other and relate to the other will make a huge difference in how their minds develop and grow.
The child’s prefrontal cortex isn’t online at birth. It is still under construction. The connection between the right and left brain is not operational. Dr. Alan Schore argues that the development of the prefrontal cortex and children’s ability to utilize it to regulate right-brain emotions is of utmost importance developmentally. In other words, our ability to integrate our right brain with our left brain is crucial. When it does not happen early in life, feelings overwhelm the child and trauma ensues.
20th-century theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed attachment theory based on these observations. Subsequent discoveries in the 21st-century of mirror neurons have made this theory almost as accepted as gravity. Alan Schore, mentioned above, used attachment theory as a foundation to create the 21st century’s version of it, calling it, Affect Regulation Theory.
Schore theorizes that mothers lend their brains to their children, using their mirror neurons to do so, allowing their infants to cope with overwhelming emotions swirling in their right brains. When parents succeed in doing so, the infant learns over time how to “contain” their feelings, creating neural pathways between the right and left brains that regulate emotions. When parents fail, they must work to repair the rupture addressing the failure with the child, thus allowing the child to continue to process their feelings and grow. Clearly, all parents fail, in this task and children are left picking up the pieces, needing to find other ways to live safely with emotions that threaten to consume them. (To be continued)
Comments are closed.