Brain Development and Trauma

With apologies to MD’s everywhere I would like to give a very short lesson on the brain and its development. I am hopeful that a short synopsis of some of what we know about the brain will then help us understand some of what can positively impact the brain in later, teenage life. So here goes:

The brain can be subdivided into three regions–the hindbrain, the midbrain, and the forebrain. The hindbrain is where autonomic bodily control is regulated. Food consumption, hunger, digestion, food search, breathing, various senses, etc. are regulated and controlled here. In general, the feeling of "I need, I will go get what I need" for physical well being comes from this area of the brain. The midbrain is where relationships with others are felt and where physical proximity is interpreted as good or bad. Touch with emotional meaning is interpreted here. To some extent, love is felt here. The forebrain is where cognition is accomplished. It is the part of the brain that uses rational argument, that formulates sentences, that writes in this blog and uses logic. It is the part of the brain that allows us to think about our existence in existential terms.

Various activities and life events operate more substantially on just one of these three regions of the brain at any given time. During early formative years, keeping a child away from food would activate his/her hindbrain and keep the child in a survival mode in ways that would adversely affect brain development. In ways, the child would become partly stuck in base survival activities. S/he might hoard food. S/he might run away and try to survive on his/her own. Another child who is given food, shelter, and water, but who is abused sexually from birth to pre-adolescence might then learn that sex is to be used in relationships to get what s/he wants. S/he might be promiscuous. S/he might always look through a lens of who has the power in any given situation and then try to align with the power players in the environment. Or s/he might try to always maintain the power position by intimidation and manipulation. That would be what s/he has learned from abuse and control.

The teens we work with at Calo come from situations where the hindbrain and midbrain were developing in abusive or neglectful situations. These teens are usually stuck in maladaptive patterns that are responses to stresses in early life. In trying to help these teens, many professionals and well-meaning friends and family will try to reason with and talk to the teen. Therapists will engage in cognitive interventions. Well-meaning individuals will attempt to intervene on a cognitive, forebrain level with the teen who is stuck in a mid or hindbrain development. It does not work.

This has much to do with the philosophy of the varied interventions that we employ at Calo. We realize that talk has not worked to date. We understand that logic does not seem to penetrate the deficits that our teens experience. Using cognitive interventions, What you are doing is not working, why dont change your behavior? has not worked because our teens are operating on a survival framework and talk is just noise. We need to use interventions that grab teens at pre-cognitive understanding. Bonding with canines and showing how to build relationships with them in safe ways has touch and connecting emotion involved and is understandable to our teens. Taking a kid out and teaching them to lean on others while learning to water-ski teaches more about trust than talking about trust. They experience it on a hindbrain level while changing the lessons they have learned at that hindbrain level. The experiential ways we intervene are part of a strategy that Dr. Bruce Perry ( calls bob-and-weave teaching. We purposely try to keep interventions and experiences varied as we teach through interaction AND cognitions. We are, in essence, trying to teach and reorganize on many different levels at one time. We do it in recreation therapy, academics, therapy, and the living environment at Calo.

The parenthetical link above has some good information from Dr. Perry on how the brain learns. If you search that same scholastic site you will find some other articles from him that are very helpful as well.