It was just last week when one of the kiddies I am working with made huge progress in his development. His Mum was thrilled that he had started to use more eye contact in his relationship and communication with her. In the 4 weeks before this, we had been working to integrate his retained primitive reflexes and to improve his self-regulation skills... what I was not expecting was so much improvement, so soon, with his eye contact and connection.
The neuroscience explanation of this change is fascinating…
I’ve put the following points together after reading the information which comes from the work of Linda Graham, (Marriage & Family Therapist) who practices in the States. Linda is passionate about integrating the paradigms and practices of modern neuroscience, Western relational psychology and Eastern contemplative practice to help people shift out of old patterns of response to life events. Linda has authored the book “Bouncing Back; Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being” which offers an insight into rewiring old patterns of response encoded in your neural circuitry and how to move into the five C’s of Coping: calm, clarity, connections to resources, competence, and courage. Linda first presented this information on The Neuroscience of Attachment at the Community Institute for Psychotherapy, Fall 2008.
The book has been reviewed by Greater Good Science Center & Berkeley Publishing - Read more
OK - so before we get into explaining eye contact, there are a few facts about the human brain that I need to share with you. These facts will help you understand and acknowledge just how complex the human brain is and the enormous influence our mind has on the brain and visa versa.
The Human brain is the most complex “machine” on the planet. It’s astonishing to think that….
90% of what we know about the Human brain was only discovered in the last 20 years.
There is 100 trillion cells in 1.36 kgs
Some brain cells fire between 10 – 100 times a second
The Human brain has been designed to generate new neurons when required. Even more impressive is that the brain can create new synapses (connections) between different areas of the brain when required. This is called Neural-Plasticity.
Thinking about a child with a learning difficulty - their brain is much like Sydney’s road network. Expanding with all the best intentions to cope with the fast income of people (information) but it’s messy and ultimately becomes slow in time of stress/pressure. When Occupational Therapists who use Neural-Plasticity to reorganise these structures in the brain it’s like sending the construction crew into Sydney CBD for over night works. Most of the changes happen in short/intense periods of time but the unsightly traffic diversions and barricades remain for a few weeks and cause more traffic chaos than usual… but once it’s all finished, the roads are smooth and the traffic flows faster with less accidents. I often explain Neural-Plasticity like this to parents so they expect and can plan for the “organised chaos” that will happen before we achieve our goals for organisation, sequencing, memory or planning skills.
Right - explaining eye contact, we are getting there. One more vital piece of information to help fit all the pieces of information together. It comes from a video by Rick Hansen from The Greater Good Science Center and talks about detailed Neuroscience relating to brain development.
Watch the Video. Really, watch the video - he explains it quite well in only 7 minutes.
Otherwise, here’s the dot-points…
As the brain changes the mind changes - we can have a lasting change to our mind by training the body to be more outwardly coordinated. For example, when we improve coordination on the right side of the body, it leads to better organisation of the left brain. The left brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex is responsible for controlling/limiting our negative emotions. Therefore, if we can organise the right side of the body, we increase the accuracy of neural firing in the left brain which changes our ability to emotionally regulate.
As the mind changes the brain changes - Even more impressive is that we can increase the size of each part of our brain with practice. We can also change the chemical makeup of our brains with practice. The Hippocampus is largely responsible for skills in spatial navigation, orientation, emotional regulation and long-term memory. When we practice mindfulness and find supports for our emotional regulation system we can increase the size of the Hippocampus and improve our ability to learn new skills for spatial awareness.
Use the mind to change the brain to change the mind - It’s the old saying “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. What that means is, our brain likes routine and patterns. The more we practice something; a skill or a thought, the more likely we are to revert to that behaviour as a default.
We have arrived. Understanding Eye Contact - Neuroscience explains
Knowing the Human body is the most complex “machine” on the planet, I’m now going to add that Human-interaction is the most complex task these “machines are required to complete”. It is our ability to connect socially and emotionally with each other that will drive our civilisation forward.
“The brain is a social organ, developed and changed in interactions with other brains” Linda Graham
Our need for human connection begins within minutes of life as we cry out while searching for nutrients. From the age of 12-18 months we are busy building the neural-circuitry and framework that will scaffold our relationship development for our whole life. This stage is sometimes referred to as “knowing without remembering”.
The most primitive structure within the brain, the one we share with other “unintelligent” creatures is the amygdala. A small almond shaped structure in our limbic system. Its primary job is “perception-appraisal-response”, it’s our 24/7 threat detector system that continues to work long after we are asleep. The amygdala is fed with hormones from the Hippocampus and generates the well known “Fight/Flight” response. This structure is also key to emotional reactions, emotional learning and implicit memory as the amygdala decides what information to send into the higher-cortical processing centres of the brain. It can react to a trigger in 200 milliseconds rather than the 3-5 seconds it takes for a cortical decision/response. This is why some children “lash out” at others, then looking surprised by their own actions, have little or no explanation - it’s a hypersensitivity of the amygdala.
Eye contact is hard wired into our brain stem. We seek it out within minutes of our birth and continue to seek it for emotional regulation and a sense of social connection throughout our life. Steven Porges wrote that “when there is eye contact and connection and then a sudden break in the eye contact, the rupture immediately triggers a “separation distress response” in our brain stem”.
When children find eye contact difficult to achieve or maintain, this theory suggests that higher cortical regulation is disrupted (or may not have developed) which places more emphasis on the amygdala to make decisions about threat. From our primal behaviours we look at other people’s mouths - “am I going to be eaten?”
The secure attachment that is achieved through eye contact is a wonderful experience when we can regulate through our higher cortical processing centres in the brain. It provides engagement, connection, acceptance and safety within social intelligence. When we are processing through the amygdala, this same attachment is overwhelming and therefore avoided.
Once this overwhelming feeling is experienced this theory of eye contact and attachment suggests that we react from a brain stem level which “gets down to a shame based survival strategy [and] we look down or away, hiding from the other”
What did I learn...
Our behaviour, when viewed through a lens of neurology, neuroscience and neural plasticity, is fascinating and extremely complex. I have come to appreciate the levels of brain function and the important role our social and emotional connection to others will play in our abilities to learn.
Within the brain of the little boy I was working with last week, I believe we shifted the physical (integrated primitive reflexes) which shifted the mind (more positive outlook) which then allowed the body to socially engage through eye contact because the threat triggers had reduced.
Overall - it’s so important to remember that each child develops at their own pace. Differences to their peers is not always an indication of lasting impairment but it does suggest that learning and developmental processes are currently requiring more effort and attention from your child. From everything we have discussed above, reducing the stress on the brain by supporting streamline neural development will assist your child to retain new information and lay-down lasting memories from their current experiences more completely. Supporting this process will also open their mind to emotional and social development, awareness of self and lasting friendships.
Smarter EveryDay posted this great video about riding the "Backwards Bike". It's just another wonderful example of our brain's ability to change our pre-established patterns and just how much we all rely on those same patterns to take the "thinking" out of our daily activities.
7 mins of very funny moments, cool neuroscience explanations and lots of bike falls...