Category Archives: The Growing Brain

Memory

The process of memory represents our ongoing personal narrative that is recorded in the organ that is the brain.

This narrative guides our behaviour and interactions, and is the story we tell about ourselves to ourselves.

Mindfulness and the Now

The relationship we have with mindfulness is a present event. It is Now.

We are stuck with our automaticity – our brain as it is – and when we choose to be mindful we attempt to move away from the mechanics of our brain, into the mind. In other words, we seek to experience the world from a mindful place, not a ‘brainful’ place.

The brain collates. It marks down our experience. The recording of experience is memory. When we think of that recording in a mindful sense, memory forms a narrative of ourselves to ourselves.

Memory has other realities as well – the biological reality, which is the chemical reality, the electrical reality, the neurological reality, and the connectedness that exists in the world right now that allows us to interact with others.  These are all automatic functions that are in the brain. Using imaging technology, we are able to see the various functions light up areas of the brain as they become active. In these images we don’t see the mind. We see the brain.

The sum is greater than the parts. The mind is greater than the brain, but the mind is dependent on the brain. Without brain, we have no mind.

Our narratives move from brain to mind, and mind to brain.

The brain will insist that things haven’t changed, because that’s what the brain does, while the mind says, “That’s not how I want to store this stuff. I want to reorder it in some way so I’m not depressed or anxious all the time” – or whatever the issue might be.

In mindfulness, in the Now, we can attempt to change our automatic narrative by keeping the information our brain has stored out of mind for a few moments.

Automaticity and the growing brain

The brain grows in size, limited by the physiological space of the skull, and so it grows connections between parts of itself. Even the shape of the brain as it curves in on itself and folds, allows it to make maximum use of its limited space.

When the brain is new it has connections everywhere and it has room for everything. As information comes into the brain, the brain drops some of what it has previously captured in order to make room for new information.   

Since some information has more relevance to what our needs are the brain gradually starts to build up patterns of response to perceived behaviour as it prunes certain connections and collates others. Thus our brain’s preferentially of collated, stored information is the basis of our automaticity.

A context for self-harm

When we discover our child is engaged in self-harming behaviour – whether burning, cutting, or otherwise interfering with their body – our automatic response as a parent is to be fearful. We fear because we don’t understand why our loved ones are doing this, and we intuitively know it relates to their attachment to themselves.

The child’s relationship to their harming behaviour is a private one. It provides him or her with a physical and emotional form of stimulation.

Our skin is our body’s largest organ, and we use it in many ways to soothe ourselves and to present ourselves to others. We manipulate our skin through dying and styling our hair; getting a tattoo; piercing a body part; tanning our skin; reshaping our body; or adjusting, and changing our appearance. This is a widespread phenomenon, and when taken to the extreme, it can result in what we refer to as self-harm.

When we take a step back from our concerns about the child’s behaviour, we can see the behaviour in attachment terms.

When we try and take choices away from our adolescents, we change the meaning of the behaviour and it becomes an interactive rather than a private one.

We relate to the behaviour as it appears to us. It becomes something we see as harmful, and we want them to stop. Therefore it has a different meaning. The behaviour moves into the relationship, and we begin to say, “I want to control you. I am determined to control you.”

When we intervene, the cutting becomes involved in the context of our relationship with the child.

The child has a personal and individual reason for the behaviour, and in order for them to stop they will have to meet that reason for doing it in another way.

By stepping back and offering proximity and conversation, we begin to understand the reason for the behaviour, and thus we are able to offer them substitute alternatives.

When we are triggered in this way by our adolescent’s behaviour, mindfulness helps us get past our automaticity and move into the present moment. Then we are more able to have a conversation in which we might ask, “How does that behaviour help you?” rather than, “How does it hurt you?” Our curiosity can be interactively mindful, non-judging, and intended for the benefit of the child.

In my practice I try to see behaviour, including self-harm, in the context of choice. I see the person separate from the behaviour. The harming is what they do, not who they are.