If you’re paying any attention at all, it’s difficult to miss how much neuroscience is infiltrating just about everything that has to do with anything these days. From parenting to professional poker, from therapy to theology, from advertising to economics to education to ethics, neuroscience is making rapid inroads. Some of these areas desperately need the perspective that neuroscience has to offer. And much of the excitement, it seems to me is fully warranted. Take this experimental study that used transcranial magnetic stimulation to rouse a man who had been laying in a minimally conscious state for over a year. If that one’s not good enough for you, how about this experiment where V.S. Ramachandran at UCSD used a simple mirror to reroute brain neurons in order to eliminate phantom limb pain in a veteran’s amputated arm. And if that’s not enough to get you excited, how about this research that holds the promise to one day be able to restore functionality to fully paralyzed limbs. If you’re one of the people who has benefitted from these creative advances that are the result of increasing understanding about our living brain and how it works, I’m guessing you feel thankful … and hopeful. And these are just first successes in a very nascent field. For that reason and others, more and more I’m thinking of neuroscience as the science of hope.
Hope for the Heart
I’ve seen perhaps two dozen therapists as a client over roughly 35 of my 62 years. Of those two dozen, only two stand out as being especially helpful. (One of those two, Kay Godlewski, died in the middle of our work together. I tried not to take it personally). Over much of that same period, I’ve had four significant long-term relationships with wonderful women. Each of these relationships changed significantly when pain, confusion and overwhelming stress and suffering arose. Unknown to me (and I have two Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family systems with honors, as well as a separate five year Ph. D. degree in psychology!), the root of these challenges came from resurfacing traumatic memories stored without benefit of language – memories that I could not find words or feelings for. After repeatedly seeking out, but finding so little help that really helped, I essentially gave up hope. Looking back through the lens of social neuroscience, simply knowing that much of my struggle was resulting from a “damaged” brain with resonance circuits poorly connected to the frontal lobes, would have made an appreciable difference for me – it’s not me that’s the problem, it’s my brain! Learning and practicing some of the proven effective techniques of somatic psychology, would have restored that lost hope. Hell, even something as simple as learning there was a word for not being able to say what I feel – alexithymia – would have been a hopeful help.
Hope for our Children
Each generation surpasses the previous one in many ways. One simple measure is in brain capacity – the ability of the brain to process energy and information. We are Hardwired to Connect, and optimizing those connections early on, significantly increases capacity. My own daughter processes multitudes more energy and information than I did at her age – 25. Her own children will process multitudes more than her (something pretty difficult for me to fully imagine, actually). Some simple evidence for this is represented by the story that I’ve pointed to several times in this space – Bruce Perry’s Kindness of Children chapter from his book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. I can easily envision a collaborative community of Special Agents – kindergartners whose part-time volunteer job is to help regulate other kids whose brains are not able to easily perform that function for them … to help them grow the neural resources that will permit greater control of their emotional impulses. This collection of kids would continually be answering the Big Brain Question with a resounding “Yes” for those not getting that question positively answered elsewhere.
A number of years ago I had a bumper sticker printed up that I placed on my truck and then gave away to friends. It was a quote from the writer and poet, Alice Walker. She suggested a template to overlay onto education or social programs or impending life decisions. It was the simple question, “Is it best for the children?” I think the answer to her question, in terms of the hope and the creative possibilities offered by social neuroscience, is an unequivocal, “Yes!”