I believe it’s a mistake to think about the brain and brain science in any kind of reductive fashion. That said, our brains are involved in every aspect of ours and our clients’ lives. Might we be well-served to keep these 7 qualities of brain function somewhere in the forefront of our own brain?
1. The brain is the most complex creation in the known universe
I suspect it’s a rare neuroscientist who hasn’t been filled with awe and wonder at both the complexity and the beauty of how a healthy brain is organized and operates. Reposting from a recent blog, here’s how science writer Bob Berman describes that complexity:
The brain … is the crown jewel of our nervous system. It has 86 billion neural cells and 150 trillion synapses. These are its electrical connections, its possibilities. This figure is nearly a thousand times as great as the number of stars in the Milky Way.
The number of brain neurons is impressive. To count them at the rate of one a second would require 3,200 years. But the brain’s synapses, or electrical connections, are beyond belief. Those 150 trillion could be counted in 3 million years. And that’s still not the end of the matter. What’s relevant is how many ways each cell can connect with the others. For this we must use factorials. Let’s say we want to know how many ways we can arrange four books on a shelf. It’s easy: You find the possibilities by multiplying 4×3×2 — called “4 factorial” and written as 4! — which is 24. But what if you have 10 books? Easy again: It’s 10! or 10×9×8×7×6×5×4×3×2, which is — ready? — 3,628,800 different ways. Imagine: Going from four items to 10 increases the possible arrangements from 24 to 3.6 million.
Bottom line: Possibilities are always wildly, insanely greater than the number of things around us. If each neuron, or brain cell, could connect with any other in your skull, the number of combinations would be 86 billion factorial! This winds up being a number with more zeroes than would fit in all the books on Earth. And that’s just the zeroes after the 1, the mere representation of the number, not the actual count. The brain’s connection possibilities lie beyond that same brain’s ability to comprehend it…
It’s truly humbling to come face to face with the fact that our own brain is probably NOT sufficiently robust enough to fully understand its own workings. Let alone fully understand the workings of our clients’ brains. We can try, nevertheless.
2. The brain is in a state of constant, dynamic flux
While the analogy isn’t perfect, I tend to think of the brain as being similar to the sun at the center of our solar system. Viewed up close, the sun is a seething cauldron of energy (and most likely information, which we haven’t developed many tools to interpret or measure) in a constant process of transformation. Here on earth, change is not only a given and a constant, but barriers that show up to block or inhibit the impulse toward healthy, organic change in ours and our clients’ lives tend to have adverse consequences for the brain. Here’s a 2 minute pictorial video where you can see the irrepressible, dynamic movement of living cells: Brain Cells Embracing.
3. The majority of the cells in the brain are dedicated to moving the body
You won’t find this claim supported in any text or journal more than a year old – it’s been slow filtering into the brain science community. But as this research shows, some 80% of the cells in the brain are compacted and pressed down into service in the cerebellum, our “little brain.” What the Cerebellum is most associated with is … moving the body, mostly coordinating all the fine motor movements we make (like my fingers being able to type this post without my eyes having to look at the keyboard). Add in the cell collections in the motor cortices and it starts to look like Cambridge computational neurobiologist Daniel Wolpert’s assertion that the real reason for brains is to move the body is dead on.
Many people show up in the offices of helping professionals as a consequence of the adverse effects on the brain from experiences that resulted in the body being unable to move, e.g. the freeze response in the wake of a traumatic experience(s). Might the most effective therapeutic work involve devising ways and means for helping them to “unfreeze“?
4. The brain performs most of its operations below conscious awareness
Reading books like David Eagleman’s Incognito or Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion or Tim Wilson’s Stranger’s to Ourselves offers up overwhelming evidence that what cybernetic research and information theory claim is very likely true: the brain operates as a powerful filter in our daily experience of the world. Up to as much as 99% of the energy and information bombarding our senses day in and day out is registered by the brain non-consciously. This simple fact has huge implications for our ability to be accurate, authoritative reporters of our own experience. It also holds implications for the reports we receive from the clients whom we see and attempt to treat. Add in all the defensive strategies we acquire over a lifetime, and how many of us turn out to be confabulators of the first order and rarely realize it?
5. Brains are designed to work in whatever environment they find themselves
In his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – a powerful account of his work with street addicts – Gabor Maté offers up a wonderful analogy: “Think of a kernel of wheat. No matter how genetically sound a seed may be, factors such as sunlight, soil quality, and irrigation must act on it properly if it is to germinate and grow into a healthy adult plant. Two identical seeds, cultivated under opposing conditions, would yield two different plants: one tall, robust, and fertile; the other stunted, wilted, and unproductive. The second plant is not diseased; it only lacked the conditions required to reach it’s full potential….The same principles apply to the human brain.” If we’re going to skillfully work with clients, we need to effectively work with the environments they live and work in when they leave our office. Anything less fails to honor an essential brain function.
6. Many of the challenges people seek professional help for involve the brain’s compromised ability to skillfully regulate arousal
75% – 90% of all visits to doctors’ offices are the result of stress-related illnesses and complaints. What that means, looked at through the lens of brain function, is that “what we have here is … a failure … to self-regulate.” When we fail to regulate arousal, we end up flooding the brain and body with stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Stress hormones in large numbers adversely affect the growth of new brain cells and the connections the cells we already possess are able to make. They promote inflammation. Inflammation compromises immune function. And the more we fail to skillfully regulate arousal, the more we will continue to fail to skillfully regulate arousal unless we break the cycle by deliberately developing some personally relevant, skillful stress management practices (If you’re going to click on only one link in this post, click this previous one!).
7. The root arousal-regulation challenge for the brain (and body) is its inevitable, impending evaporation
Most of the human defense mechanisms, from avoidance to distraction to denial, operate with the intention to keep mortality awareness under close wraps. The success of many religions the world over, including the religion of Oprah, is rooted in their promise of afterlife salvation. Even neuroscience seems to hold out the promise of an afterlife, as presented in this documentary: The Day I Died. Nonetheless, the fundamental buried awareness – that we are all going to die (often signaled by losing our sense of smell) – unconsciously directs a great deal of the shape and direction our own lives and the lives of our clients. As we work with body and brain to get our own mortal coil in great good order, the people we live and work with in our lives may all reap the benefit.
Note: Might someone you know benefit from learning this information? Feel free to copy and paste This Link – 7 Essential Brain Features All Helping Professionals Need to Know (http://floweringbrain.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/7-essential-brain-features-every-helping-professional-needs-to-know-including-parents-teachers-and-business-leaders/) and pass it along. We all need as much help reducing suffering as we can get.