Human behavior is complex! Our hope is to break it down into some helpful information.
Many of the ideas in this blog come from a book that we highly recommend: "The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind" by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, PH.D. If you really want to take a deep dive into this topic, check it out!
Different Areas of the Brain Have Different Responsibilities
Most people have heard of the left and right brains (logical and emotional), but did you know there is also a “reptile” brain and a “mammal” brain (survival and relationship-oriented)? Sometimes they are called the “downstairs” and the “upstairs” brain, due to their locations. It’s as if your brain is made up of multiple committees, each specializing in different areas.
While neuroscience has advanced significantly over the past couple decades, we still have a lot to learn and discover about how the brain works. Functional MRIs were invented in the early 90s and have allowed us to learn which parts of the brain are involved in different activities. While breaking the brain down into different areas helps us to learn and understand the nervous system, it is important to remember that the whole brain is involved in many different functions. Neuroscientists come up with different models and theories to try to explain how the brain works, but there is still much that remains a mystery. In order to set the stage for our children to thrive, we have to think about how we can help all the parts of the brain work well together. This is called integration.
(Siegel and Bryson, The Whole Brain Child)
We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, we want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival.
We’ll talk more about integration later. For now, let’s learn the different regions of the brain and nervous system. If it ever seems confusing, remember this quote from a physicist to keep it all in perspective: “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we could not."
The Left and the Right Brain
Our brains are anatomically divided into two halves, or, hemispheres - the left and the right. Each side functions differently.
The left brain loves logic and puts things in order. It interprets things literally and likes to prove things with data. It likes using words and putting up boundaries.
The right brain is our emotional intelligence. It processes nonverbal cues. It is our intuition. It’s not logical. It deals with relationships and context.
In order for us to be successful, we need to be able to problem solve logically just as much as we need to understand emotions and build relationships with others. The corpus callosum runs down the center of the brain, connecting the two sides, enabling them to work together harmoniously. There are a lot of neural pathways (called "white matter") running through this structure that can be seen during dissection.
Brain-scanning machines have shown researchers that the brain is moldable. The brain continues to grow through age 30, but continues to be shaped and molded for the rest our lives. Our experiences shape our brains, and for better or worse, our nervous systems are constantly being rewired. Scientists call this characteristic “neuroplasticity”.
Structures like the corpus callosum can be made stronger through certain experiences, in a similar way that you could make a muscle stronger through exercise. When we talk about integration, we are talking about building up the parts of the brain that help the various areas work better together. There are studies that show that certain exercises like yoga can increase the white matter in the corpus callosum.
The best way that parents can help children balance between logic (left) and emotion (right) is through their own example. When parents are integrated, they are able to connect emotionally with their children, while still enforcing boundaries and making logical decisions.
The Upstairs Brain and the Downstairs Brain
In “The Whole Brain Child”, Siegel and Bryson use the analogy of a house to talk about the brain. They divide the brain into the upper regions and the lower regions. Calling them the upstairs and downstairs brain is helpful when explaining to children.
Anatomically, the regions that are responsible for thinking and planning are at the top of the brain. The regions that are responsible for strong emotions (like anger and fear) and the autonomic functions in the body (like breathing, heart rate, and digestion) are located in the bottom part of the brain (to the south of the nose).
This diagram shows the regions from top to bottom and their associated functions:
The downstairs brain is from the top of the neck to about the bridge of the nose. These areas are responsible for autonomic functions like breathing, heart rate, and digestion. This is where the fight or flight response happens, and hence this region is considered our more “primitive” brain. This area is responsible for processing signals that we receive from our bodies, which may trigger impulsive actions or reactions. The downstairs brain is already well developed at birth.
The upstairs brain is involved in more complex and analytical thinking. When we make sound decisions that take into consideration how our actions impact others (using empathy and morality), we are using our upstairs brain. If it seems your child is prone to flipping their lid with emotional outbursts and making decisions that don’t take others’ feelings into account, remember, this part of their brain is still under construction. The upstairs brain continues to develop throughout childhood and the teenage years, reaching maturity in the mid-twenties.
The Amygdala: The Brain's Smoke Detector
Life Science Databases(LSDB). [CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)]
The parts in red are the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to detect danger. It is also really good at quickly processing and expressing strong emotions like anger and fear. Some have called it the smoke detector of the brain, as it is always alert for threats to our safety. When it senses danger, it can hijack our upstairs brain. We’ve all had the experience where we place our hand on something like a hot stove and suddenly our arm jerks away before our thinking brain knows what happened. The amygdala lets us act without thinking, which is helpful in those types of situations.
When we aren’t in harm’s way, we are better at thinking before we act. But if the amygdala is engaged, then it can block our connection to our higher brain. While this happens in adults, it is even more likely to happen in children, because the upstairs brain is still developing.
The challenges of life as a parent can mean that from time to time, the parent’s amygdala will hijack the upstairs brain, often during critical parenting crises. This is also a great opportunity for the parent to model self-regulation for the child, if the parent is able to gain self-control. Easier said than done, but here are a few tips when your downstairs brain is hijacking your upstairs brain:
- Pause, and take a few deep breaths.
- Remove yourself from the situation until you can regain your composure.
- Press your lips together and keep your mouth closed as you breathe, and resist the urge to speak.
- Tell your child that you need a break.
- After calming yourself, immediately reconnect with your child to deal with any harm that may have been done.
These cartoons (below) from the book “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind" (also by Siegel and Bryson) show an example of using an approach that engages the upstairs brain by asking thought provoking questions. Keep in mind this only works if the child has calmed down enough to be receptive.
The Right Temporal Parietal Junction (TPJ): The Home of Empathy
Another part of the upstairs brain that is not yet fully developed in kids is the right TPJ. This area works together with the prefrontal cortex to allow us to empathize with others. This is the part of our brain that lets us see things from others’ perspectives, considering their motives and intentions. This capacity becomes part of our moral compass and allows us to develop meaningful and loving relationships.
The important thing to remember is that this area is not fully developed in kids. If it seems like your child is behaving selfishly and not considering how their actions impact other people, remember that they are still developing the ability to do this.
This is not to say that kids get off the hook for bad behavior because their brains aren’t fully developed. But it is important to remember that they are not working with the same physiological equipment as adults are. The point is to realize that kids don’t have the internal skills to navigate the world on their own, so it is all the more important that adults consistently set boundaries and provide external support.
We need to help develop our children’s upstairs brain--along with all of the skills it makes possible---and while doing so, we may need to act as an external upstairs brain along the way, working with them and helping them make decisions they’re not quite capable yet of making for themselves.
(Siegel and Bryson, No-Drama Discipline)
- The “downstairs brain” (the one that facilitates the fight/flight/freeze response, and is involved with intense emotions like anger and fear) is already fully developed at birth.
- The “upstairs brain” (the one involved in empathy, morality, and analytical thinking) doesn’t reach maturity until the mid-twenties.
- Due to neuroplasticity, the brain and nervous system continue to change even through adulthood. (There’s hope for all of us!)
- One of the most impactful things on a child’s brain development is the way they experience their parents modeling self-regulation and emotional expression.
Doidge, N. (2017). The brain's way of healing: Remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity.
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