Why should we bother learning about the brain?
There are many possible answers to this question.
I'm going to propose one possible answer from the
perspective of parenting.
I'll start with two premises:
There is a constant flow of energy and information in our bodies and brains. In the present moment we interpret the world by the instantaneous linking to past experiences. This linking involves neurons firing together in our brain, this is how associations are formed. You may have heard the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” (Hebbian Theory, 1949)
Memory networks link together different memories. The reason that things are linked together, is often not obvious. Ever not understand in the moment why you reacted to something the way you did?
We have different kinds of memories. Implicit memories are those that we don't consciously recall. These memories can be stored by the way something smelled, sounded, the way it felt against our skin, etc. “Implicit memories cause us to form expectations about the way the world works, based on our previous experiences....Implicit memory creates something called priming in which the brain readies itself to respond in a certain way.” (Seigel, 2011, p72).
The brain reacts to threat with a fight, flight or freeze response. If through links in our brain, a current situation activates threat, our response may be extreme. “Play recruits the aspects of what might be viewed as defensive systems with social engagement systems: we mobilize and yet we don't hurt each other.” (Porges, 2013, p14). This means that through play we can tap into these defensive systems (fight, flight, freeze) and explore alternatives to our immediate reactions.
People have been saying that play is the language of children for a long time. That's true, but we also now know that play is a vehicle to the nervous system and a way to rewire neural connections in the brain.
The idea of rewiring a brain can make some people nervous. What does that phrase actually mean?
When we store memories, they aren't neatly stored in one file folder and put in one place in the brain. Different pieces of memories are stored all over the brain. They can be implicit memory or other kinds of memory. When an experience is integrated it basically means all the pieces of the memory are linked together in our brain. We can make sense of the memory; the pieces fit together in a way that makes sense.
When things aren't integrated, pieces of the memory aren't linked up with one another and can even be associated with other memories. Things can get very confusing. Dis-integration feels chaotic and can cause children to be overwhelmed by their emotions. Siegel (2011, p6) says that most “...challenging experiences of parenting – and life -- are a result of the loss of integration...”
We can use play to tap into these reactive dys-regulated states that are triggered by a lack of integration. We then explore other possible responses. Instead of old neural pathways leading to negative outcomes, the child is now having new experiences for which there can be new associations. This is how we rewire neural pathways.
Hebbian Theory (1949, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebbian_theory).
Porges, Stephen (2013). Beyond the Brain: How the Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma. NICABM.
Siegel, Daniel (2011). The Whole-Brain Child. Delacorte Press. NY.
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