Category Archives: The Growing Brain

Meeting them where they are

When we are in conflict with a youth, our whole task is to be with him or her.

And we won’t see any change unless we can show the other people in the child’s life – their teachers, and parents, and youth workers – how to be with them.

The youth needs to grow their brain. This is a structural problem for them. Their needs are primary. The brain has not grown the channel where the youth meets other peoples’ needs, except perhaps when they encounter a safe situation, such as with younger children. In that case they can teach younger children how to meet their needs the same way as the youth would meet that kind of need himself or herself.

When a toddler wants something, they might yell at the top of their lungs, “I want it and I want it now.” That strategy won’t work for a youth who has yet to learn to be reciprocal. When the youth yells, random people don’t meet the youth’s needs.

In order to help a child grow a reciprocal brain, his or her parents, and professionals who work with the youth must see their behaviours, although delayed, as a developmental stage and not be fussed or pay particular attention to the child’s demands. By not fulfilling the demands until the youth becomes more civil, we can actually watch the youth’s brain growing right before our eyes.

Thus, when working with a youth whose brain has not had an opportunity to grow in that way, we must acknowledge that is where the brain is. The youth is not doing this on purpose. In any event, their strategy is ineffective, and they are unable to take part in the balance between their needs and another’s needs.

This youth is without a peer group, doesn’t accommodate other people, and isn’t learning. Their lack of emotional regulation is about the brain, and is merely another brain function. When it has not been built in, it has to be taught.

The brain, as we talk about it, grows as a biological organ. It is a real thing. As it grows it creates processes that allow for thinking.

As we start to understand the relationship between processes and organs, we can deconstruct them a little bit and observe that the child’s brain has suffered insults.

Our first step is to meet the youth ‘where they are’.

Being proximal in conflict

Some families are limited in their capacity for empathy and understanding for the needs of the other, although they are not limited by lack of intelligence or by lack of wanting to be attached to other people. They are limited by their experience of that attachment.

When people have never been able to get their needs met, it isn’t that they are unreasonable when trying to interact with others. They want what everyone else wants underneath, but they don’t know how to do the sharing part. They are so overwhelmed by their own needs that they can’t get outside their own needs to see that other people have needs too.

Each person has a growing brain. Optimally the brain is given emotional material early in its development that supports it to grow in empathy and reciprocal behaviour through practice and repetition.

When we don’t get to kids who haven’t developed reciprocal behaviour by the time they are fourteen and fifteen years old, we’re behind the 8-ball if we try to get them to use something that isn’t there.

All we can do is to let them do what they need to do in order to meet their needs, and give them the experience of being with them while they’re doing it, without demanding that they meet our needs.

Anxiety trumps cognition

Our feeling state always trumps our cognitive state. That’s partly because developmentally the feeling state arises before the cognitive state comes into play.

 When we excite the feeling state, the feeling state tracks are a more prominent response to automaticity of expression. In other words, the feeling state will be reinforced, and if that state is too intense it is difficult for the cognitive state to have sway and to determine how appropriate the feeling state is.

 There is not time to think about saving yourself from danger when we need to take immediate action. Thus fight, flight, or freeze – our primary responses from the automaticity centre of our organic brain – and stopping to think at that point in time, might not be sensible approaches, especially if the lion is two feet away.

 We can see then, how the feeling state becomes rather fixed. Response to threat is anxiety.

 Depending on how much threat a child perceives in the world from their organic brain will determine their behaviour – rather than the actual experience that is occurring in the now.

For clarity of purpose, at times we have told parents, “So you made a mistake and you yelled at your kid. So what? They know you got mad, but they also know you can be kind.”

 When we parent we will not always be kind, and we don’t want to nurture the expectation that the world will always be kind. Our kids deserve to know they will have to cope sometimes with difficulties, and there are times they will have to cope with not knowing.

Plasticity of brain and thought

In some of us, the track in our brain that says, “This is a dangerous world,” gets balanced with the track that says, “You can cope with it.” We are aware of the danger, but the danger guides our actions rather than determines them.

This balance is evidenced in the plasticity of both the brain and thought.

As an organ, the brain learns to get control of its tracks. It does that in relationship with the people in closest proximity. During the first eight or nine years, the child and the child’s brain are totally dependent on care from others. The child can’t feed itself except in the sense that the child can pick up food and put it in their mouth, but they are unable to source their own food.

Similarly the child can’t house him or herself. It can’t keep itself warm, or provide any basic needs. Everything is dependent on external care and parenting.

Building an internal world in the organic brain occurs during this period. These tracks are laid down in a way that promotes automaticity of thought and of action. That is, they are below the level of consciousness or consideration, for the most part. If we had to think about every action we are about to perform we would be paralyzed and unable to live in the world as we need to.

Parenting then becomes a reactive and proactive process that continues until the child’s brain reaches a stage of maturity where it develops a capacity to examine its own automaticity. The interaction between the thinking brain and the organic brain is an interface that allows for plasticity but is rate-limited. In other words, we can’t change our automaticity just by thought alone – it requires consideration and insight, which underlies critical thinking. Others may call this mindfulness. Thus most of our therapeutic endeavours are based on examination of this interface and rebalancing it towards a more fruitful expression of our needs.

In this way a child learns to balance as they go forward by relationships in their external world, and consideration of his or her past experience.


Children learn from their experiences, which are mediated to them through their senses of hearing, feeling, touching, seeing, smelling; and especially through information that seems important to them at the time. All experiences have potential for being recorded, thus children’s brains record all the good things that have happened and all of the bad things. We refer to balance as the measure of importance the child gives to each experience. This capacity underlies the child’s world view for good and bad. Whether the lessons of life are good or bad is immaterial. The child learns from both possibilities.

As an experience has happened, the brain has recorded that experience. We can add to an experience, but we can’t subtract from it.

If a child is traumatized we may then help them rebalance their experience through introducing new experiences, even though we can’t undo the past. An experience happened, the brain had the experience, and by its very nature, the brain recorded the event as occurring.

As we know, the brain prunes some experiences as they are not repeated, and other experiences are laid down, in what appear to be, permanent tracks. As the brain refines itself developmentally, it values some tracks over others, while some tracks may eventually be lost.

The science of this is expressed in a phenomenon. If you cover a cat’s eyes for the first nine days of its life, the cat is blind even though the seeing mechanism in the cat’s brain is intact. Since the cat has not had an opportunity to use its visual neural tracks, the tracks are unavailable and are not laid down.

Words and Meanings and Our Work

It becomes very difficult indeed to use words to get across an idea to another person, because each of us attributes a meaning to each word that is personal to us. Our meanings don’t quite match since we are all different from each other in some ways, though we are the same in other ways. And so it is with the meanings of words.

Although the meanings we are trying to convey to each other don’t quite match we can get close, or at least make an attempt to get close. Transferring our meanings for words is like trying to catch butterflies. We can run around with a net, but the net has to be bigger than the butterfly. That’s what meaning is. It’s bigger than, so we need a whole net full of words surrounding the meaning, to try and catch the meaning.

We can use mindfulness to get away from our automaticity and be present for another person, but there is a dichotomy in this process: we are dependent on our automaticity. We are dependent on the organ that is our brain, and we have to somehow transform that dependency and get outside the limits of that.

Information transfer is relatively easy, but the capture of knowledge is something else. Humans everywhere have developed cultural ways to transfer knowledge. We started transferring information orally. Through stories and personal narrative people shared their life experience but that information had to be worked upon to become part of a lived experience.

At my age I can talk about the information that has come my way in my life, and at this stage I have a lot more memories and stored information than someone who is twenty. Condensing my lived experience into words, though, and then saying, “Now you know what I know” is at best only an attempt at sharing my knowledge.

Although I encounter many challenges when I attempt to share what I’ve learned with people who want to find another way to raise their kids, sometimes I am able to reach them and they are able to understand what raising kids actually means. Then we both triumph; I get to share the meaning of my work, and their capacity to raise their kids in a mindful way expands.

Alienation and our work

Many of us have been doing the work of helping others for most of our lives. It often goes back to childhood – the whole sense of wanting to have a place, wanting to belong, to make a contribution, and wanting to be a member of a group. Some of us have very early feelings of being an alien, a stranger in a strange world – all of the feelings in childhood of wanting to belong. Perhaps we have come to this work from that place, where we have a sense of alienation, either as children, as adolescents, or even as adults. We may have a sense of not belonging, and a sense of not being successful.

The tenuousness of attachment is always part of it. Trusting other people often comes with the knowledge of betrayal, that someone can tell us one day they care about us and that we matter, and then the next day say, “I’m moving on. I have something else to do”. This message can come from a group of friends, or can be acted upon a child pre-puberty, where some people are picked for a team and others are not. We may be good at one sport and not another, or we might struggle with learning.

The sense of alienation we have, the sense of not belonging, is actually one part of belonging, but because of our alienation we aren’t able to merge with other people.

Each of us has parents who have somehow come to be together. Often we don’t come to understand our parents’ psychological reality until much later in our own life when we have developed a level of maturity. In order to really see our parents and their reality, we must see them as separate from, rather than as part of us. Then we can see that they had a life. Perhaps they had a separation. In that case we arrive at our own alienation without even knowing it.

If our parents are alienated from each other, their alienation affects their parenting style, because their attachment to their children is wrought, and we children might even have held our parents together, especially in the old days.

As children we have no words for the alienation we experience, but we grow into our brain so the alienation becomes part of our brain, and the idea of being connected or belonging somewhere is stressed. We grow up with an ability to be separate that is better than our ability to be attached. Trusting in another human being is always in question.

Many therapists, childcare workers, social workers, and other professional caregivers have a capacity for seeing the alienation in others. When we meet certain kids we may have an instant resonance, even though we have a determination to be separate – to not be dependant – because that’s what separation allows us to be.

While the connection part of attachment is important, the separation part of attachment is just as important. That’s what makes for a full personality. It makes for a person who is capable of taking care of others, because we can be separate. What we offer then is a true offer. We don’t have to act out our lives through the other. That is a gift. But as with every gift, we have to be aware that there is always a hook in the gift.

The lack of ability to be in relationship in a trusting way means that our relationships are always strained in the sense that we are ready to go any day. There is a part of us that says, “Okay, if you don’t want to be part of this relationship, you don’t want to be my friend, you don’t want to be around me, I’ll survive. I’ll go on.”

But whether we see it as a gift, or whether we see it as a flaw comes from our brain. Some of us are decimated by this: our relationships fail or we fail in relationship – it depends which side of the fence we are on and how we perceive it. If we go too far in that, or we don’t come to terms with that separation, then we are going to be alone and we are going to be immensely aware of our own aloneness, and that’s going to make us unhappy.

So, what do we learn about our work? We can come to every relationship with the knowledge that the other person is going to go about their business and at some point they will be ready to leave.

Their life is their own.

This distance is tolerable.

When we first meet the other person, if we are mindful of our own alienation we can consciously make a relationship with them, marked by a kind of intimacy and also distance, knowing that their life belongs to them.

Thus at the core of our work, we are illuminated by the separation in attachment.

Reality is an Agreement

Claudius Ptolemy, an astronomer who lived in Rome about 100 AD asserted that the sun orbited the earth. It was logical to presume the sun was orbiting the earth, since the sun seemed to arrive in the morning and leave at night, return the next day and leave that night.

Many centuries after Ptolemy’s model was formulated, Polish mathematician and astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus revealed a different way of seeing things, a different way of perceiving consciousness.

In 1543 he introduced the idea that the sun was the centre of the solar system. At the time Copernicus’ sun-centred theory was considered radical thought that went unproven until science eventually had the tools to confirm his reality.

Although centuries ago it was commonplace to hold the belief that the sun orbited the earth, no one asserts that old reality now.

The story of the shift from the belief of an earth-centred to sun-centred universe is an example of the summation over time of our experiences. Even culturally, when we accept new and contradictory information, the old reality or program of thought is pruned away.

Summing Human Experience

The possibility of the brain appears limitless.

In actual fact, the structure of our brain depends on summation of the brain’s information.

In the same way that our individual brains sum up, the enormous mass of information makes it necessary to sum up human experience as well.

Because we have so many different experiences, the information that is summed differs widely across different groups, which creates cultures.

When the information is summed and edited in a group, it reinforces the culture, and enables individual and collective brains to retain evolutionary knowledge to survive adversity from wars, clashes, poverty, and famine.

Reality is an agreement. It is what people say it is.

Although we may think our particular group’s consensus is reality, this belief contributes to the silly argument that one culture has more validity than another.


Brain/Mind Interface

Two very distinctive kinds of thought originate in the brain. The brain organ itself produces automatic thought. Flexible thought occurs via the plasticity of the mind. Paradoxically, the organ stays the same, and changes at the same time.

The brain as an organ is fixed in its capacity. Consequently throughout our lives the brain prunes or changes its content and removes memories and other forms of information that are stored in the organ, and it allows new information to enter, through its characteristic of plasticity.

Since there is only so much room within the organ, the brain summarizes our memories and other information, over time, and organizes itself in order to have the capacity to receive more information.

It is probable that we humans operate from automaticity most of the time. This results in us having formed relatively fixed conclusions about ourselves and others and how we interact, and how we go about the day-to-day tasks of living.

Within the fixed capacity of the brain, our stored personal narrative becomes an edited version of our reality, and not a reflection of the entirety of the experiences of joy and pain that occur throughout the span of our lives. For example, when our brains are stuck on the narrative of traumatic events that we have endured, we may become unbalanced towards our trauma; the brain not summarizing the daily joy that has occurred, instead, pruning away the joy. This may explain the onset of depression: when a person’s central experience is, “I’m in a terrible situation. My life is hopeless,” desperation readily sets in.

In the revolutionary T-groups of the 60’s and 70’s, participants stepped away from the automaticity of the ‘real world’, and experimented with interactive behaviours that stretched their sense of self. They summed up positive experiences in a way that balanced their sense of mistrust, fear of being hurt, and hopelessness, with actual experiences of trust in others, and frequently came away with a sense of hope.

Today, our ever-evolving knowledge of the organ that is the brain and the brain’s process, and the interface between the two (which we can access by the practice of mindfulness) makes it possible for us to challenge our automaticity in relation to others, and consciously re-write our attachment narrative.