How do you use neuro-science in small, safe experiments?

Complicated, eh?

Neuroscience of Attachment

It’s tricky because neuroscience is complicated. I am no neuroscientist myself but I do need to know something about it.

Just to illustrate my point, and with apologies to a great practitioner-researcher,  Allan Schore, do reflect on what the statement,  below, might mean.

What might it say when you are thinking about your own small safe experiments!!?

“Reciprocal right-lateralized visual-facial, auditory-prosodic,

and tactile–gestural non-verbal communications

lie at the psycho-biological core of the emotional

attachment bond between the infant and primary caregiver.

These affective communications can in turn be interactively

regulated by the primary caregiver, thereby expanding the

infant’s developing right brain regulatory systems.”

in Early interpersonal neuro-biological assessment of attachment and autistic spectrum disorders. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1049. Schore, A. N. (2014)

Let’s see what can be translated from this account. I think I am good at ‘translating’ and the website is devoted to this task. Even so, please keep in mind that simplifying anything presents its own problems. It can offend some people and even mislead.

So there is yet another HEALTH WARNING!

I’m OK about getting things wrong because I am trying things out, and changing things. After all, you have only to write to me about a factual matter, as does happen, and I can alter it very quickly should that be necessary. I’ll welcome opinion and comment as well. I work on the basis that I can learn as much, if not more, from mistakes as I make them, as long as we can keep them small.

I think you can do well from adopting a similar attitude. This website is ‘telling’ you things. You can absorb some of it, and ignore most of it, and still be a fine person!

Schore, here, is referring, for the most part,  to the workings of the Ventral Vagus Nerve; a key communicating channel for all human beings.

Schore on attachment systems

He is noticing that the different sides of our brain – called the left and right hemispheres – do different things when it comes to the human growth and development of infants.

He is adding that a caretaker, often a mother, has an intimate relationship with their child. Her tiniest actions, intended and unintended, can have a large impact on the child’s evolving understanding of the world. In particular, these early influences will shape the way a child comes to manage the emotional landscape in which they walk.

More importantly, he is inferring, not saying, that the caretaker’s influence is so profound it can still influence our thoughts and feelings throughout our lives.   What he is not inferring is that the influence is there for life, and unchanging; that was the view of early researchers into child development, but NOT the current view.

Modern research

What can be learned from researchers is that the more frightened and helpless I become, my neurology will take me the further down a ‘hierarchy of survival reactions’.

My locus of control (LOC) descends from my frontal lobe –  where I can maintain social engagement with others – despite feeling afraid. Instead, the ‘control’ moves to my brainstem where my reactions are triggered by an “exquisite” mechanism for generating “particular motor routine and physiological accompaniment” (Antonio Damasio (2010: 113).

During a traumatic experience, my smarter and younger brother can go off -line.  My subcortical reactions, my not-so-smarter and older brother, disconnects my awareness of events from my feelings and my body. Integration, as Dan Siegel describes it,  turns into fragmentation. Awareness narrows down to focus on the threat and to seek any avenues of escape. My brain beings to function in separate compartments; for instance, my Thalamus – my internal telephone exchange – becomes dysfunctional by disrupting sensory integration. That thalamus, having faltered in the normal task of combining sensory signals into a coherent experience, leaves the ‘rest’ of my brain to fragment or, as it is known, to dissociate into ‘parts’. 

For this reason, trauma are most often remembered implicitly – with powerful emotions. There is no conscious recall of information – so no narrative to ‘explain’ things.

Trauma makes it more likely that “the balance and coordination between left and right will be disrupted”, says Cozolino (2017: 364). The result? During a traumatic experience, subcortical reactions can mean that awareness disconnects from feeling and body. Until we are able to face what happened, and form a coherent account of it,  my affective (feelings) and my somatic (bodily sensations) responses remain dysregulated. 

How so? My left hemisphere has less capacity to organise my experiences into a sequence that makes sense. Van der Kolk puts it this way: “without sequencing we can’t identify cause and effect, grasp the long-term effects of our actions, or create coherent plans for the future” (2014: 45).

So, when our nervous system reacts with life threat and immobilisation, there’s ‘bio-behavioural shutdown’ (Porges 2017). Less oxygenated blood goes to the brain, causing a worsening of cognitive functions and sometimes fainting. Our ability to evaluate situations and make decisions wanes. After the trauma, we may feel uncomfortable in public places or if others get physically close, and we may develop intestinal problems. These are all characteristic of a massive reaction of the dorsal vagus; neural regulation changes so we don’t regain our former homeostasis.

Some complicated conclusions about human chemistry!

The high stress levels in trauma disrupt neurochemistry in ways that may become chronic. Cozolino (2017) summarises this as:

high noradrenaline accompanies fight-flight reactions: if it remains high, we’re prone to anxiety, irritability and being easily startled
high dopamine, correlating with hyper-vigilance, paranoia, and perceptual distortions
low serotonin, correlating with high arousal, irritability, violence and depression
high cortisol disrupts the hippocampus and therefore memory, as well as the immune system
high levels of endorphins cease their feel-good effects and begin to undermine our thoughts, memory and reality-testing. This may mean we experience blunting of our emotions and dissociation

So, have I kept you with me? You may wish to ask what can be done when dealt a dodgy hand as my emotional intelligence was evolving? The somatic therapies have a lot to say that helps here.

Some other, more practical leads to consider

Controlled Breathing and Relaxation

Practical relaxation and meditation

Relaxation techniques

Other actions you might consider

Safe experiments when the talking has to stop and Expressive Arts can start

TAPPING: actions to add to safe experiments

These small, safe experiments offer one way to remove the rocks that have fallen on your scenic route.

Poetry can help so what about this ‘left field’ idea?

Then there is the tension that exists between action to help myself and not acting in order to reflect on what is happening.

Further lines of enquiry

What is a nudge?

Using nudges on other people?

Designing a safe experiment

The autonomic nervous system

Do-able things