The efforts of Dr. Dan Siegel, Dr. Rick Hansen, Dr. Alan Shore, Dr. Bruce Lipton, and Dr. Bassel van der Kolk are all leading mental health away from the subjective observation of behaviors to more objective brain mapping measurements.
I always like to start out my presentations and some articles with a disclaimer. Today, my disclaimer is that the information I am providing his a reflection of what we know today and is always subject to modification. As the original Buddha said “don’t take my word see for yourself, I am only human just like you.” However, the information provided by the research today is far more accurate because it is based on more objective measurements with the use of different types of brain scans.
With research shows in a general sense is that the brain operates out of two modes. One mode is a nonthreatened state that results in the accessibility of the highest brain called the cortex, and more specifically the prefrontal cortex. Prefrontal cortex (PFC) has many amazing features and according to Dr. Dan Siegel this includes the following list:
1. Body regulation
2. attuned communication
3. emotional balance/affect regulation
4. response flexibility
6. insight or self-knowing awareness
7. fear modulation/fear extinction
The second mode, the threatened state, instinctively pulls us out of our PFC and places us in our emotional brain and brainstem that modulate fear response and survival behavior. This threatened states means we lose our ability to have access to the wonderful qualities of our PFC. If we were encountering a life-threatening event, this would be an ideal situation. The lower two-thirds of our brain work much faster and reduce options, so that are reaction is done in a timely fashion to ensure the highest probability of survival. However, very few people that become emotionally reactive are faced with life threatening challenges. So the question is, why would a brain designed to deal with life-threatening encounters be so susceptible to being engaged with existential (non-life-threatening).
Answer this question seems to be answered by Dr. Alan Shore’s research on of UCLA. Dr. Shore’s research suggests that early attachment determines the wiring of the brain. Simply put, from the time of conception a child’s nervous system is open for development. The young developing brain will gravitate to its environmental influences to prepare for the highest probability of survival. Meaning, if the environment is filled with stress the brain will develop to be highly sensitive to perceived threats. In sports, we would refer to this as training specificity. The brain adapts specifically to survive and thrive in its environment. Dr. Shore and Dr. Siegal’s research both discovered through brain mapping/imaging that stress hormones inhibit growth and repair of brain function. This stress hormone influence means that the last developmental parts of the human brain (cortex and specifically the PFC) show decrease integration to other parts of the brain. As a result, the nine PFC functions are dampened because of decrease integration. This decrease integration represents itself in the form of anxiety, depression, impulsive behavior, anger, chemical addiction, a version of social situations, eating problems, sleeping problems and as Dr. Shore reported “attachment is at the root of all mental health disorders.”
So how do we increase integration? Research is suggesting mindful meditation as the foundation of integration. Intentional, focused awareness increases neural connections of the PFC to other parts of the brain. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh are two sources for beginning and meditation practice.