All brain systems appear to function best when they are integrated and equilibrated with their connected cortical and subcortical networks. When this is the case, we are more able to govern our impulses and emotions and successfully negotiate happy attachments with an empowering sense of self control. Expanding knowledge in neuroscience has the potential to dramatically increase self understanding by teaching us how the ability to write our own life narrative-or rewrite it through conscious self examination, choice and perhaps therapy-is linked to self control.
Imaging technology has given us the ability to actually see the neuronal and molecular circuitry that underlie our body and brain systems. We can finally prove that emotion, cognition, and behavior have physical substrates, and that our human brain has evolved with certain areas specialized for the development and elaboration of specific functions. Feelings are essentially conscious perceptions of body reactions of arousal, resulting in sensations of fear, anger, sadness, pleasure, etc. Our brains are thought to be primary nodes on neuronal circuits that interface and branch to manage body systems. Neurochemicals seem to start out in different clusters, running up and down or bodies, branching into multitasking and intercommunication. Increasingly we are defining these circuits as well as delineating their connections and function.
Our brains are sculpting and re-sculpting themselves with each experience, even though we don’t always realize it. Our senses feed outside information into our receptive centers which in turn send these signals throughout the brain for sorting and evaluation of the possible reward and energy of behavioral reactions. Recent work in the orbital frontal center, a brain area folding inward above and below our eyes, tells us that this area serves as a relay station between sensory information from our surroundings and internal systems of intentional movement and assessment. This is an area of value determination and cost estimate, i.e. how much gain and how much energy expenditure may be needed in order to proceed with a particular behavior. It allows us to connect to the outside world from visual and auditory systems, smell and touch, to internal tagging centers of emotion, attentional focus, motor systems, and analysis, which help to make “go” or “no go” decisions.
Our experience of our life is a synchrony of coordinated inputs from both left and right, as well as top and bottom brain areas, which knit together thoughts, sensations, movements and emotions. The top/down/top/up and the left/right brain pathways are complex. Generally speaking “top down” movement involves the cortical (complex thinking) systems, whereas “bottom up” signals are connections from the systems and sensations of body to the top parts of the brain where they are integrated and sometimes brought to conscious awareness. Left/right systems mostly refer to left and right brain functions. The human left brain has specialized to include social appraisal for approach, positive experience, but also anger expression and language. Right brain functions include avoidance, threat related vigilance, disgust, etc. As we begin to map these complex interactions it has become clear that integration and balance are the roads to health and well being. As a side note, it is interesting that activation of our left brain by focusing to the right may actually trigger our “happier more rational” left brain. Even though this is very reductive, right brain activation is more associated with negative feeling states.
Our right brain seems to be involved in survival. It connects to and monitors body functions and reactivity. It is the seat of emotions, including feelings of fear and pleasure. It also is the seat of empathy, social interaction, face recognition and self awareness. It is the right brain that notices voice intonation, facial expression and body communication. It is also the place of implicit non-conscious, memory, including recollections of emotional reactions to a person or situation that may not be in mindful awareness. Early in life, when the right brain is particularly developing, our sense of ourselves and our relationships is being chiseled in neuronal pathways by our interacting genes, family and social experiences, outside of our awareness for the most part.
As noted, our left brain functions to modulate approach, social connection, well-being, linguistic analysis and mild activity, among other things. The development of language in the left brain gave us clarity in communication. The left brain is less connected to our body sensations than the right brain. It is the left brain that is able to logically sort through facts and emotions sent over from the right brain. The two sides of our brain interact through a connecting neural pathway.
The small cluster of neurons, the hippocampus, is one of the primary centers for the integration of information between the two hemispheres of our brain. The integration of information between the right and left brain, the upper complex thought areas and the lower, more physical circuitry, must constantly occur for optimal human performance and well-being. Certain circumstances may interfere with this process. If our primary stress hormone, cortisol, gets too high, the hippocampus stops working. Alcohol and certain drugs also inhibit the hippocampus. When this happens one problem is that implicit, unconscious emotional memory coded in the right brain, may not be integrated into conscious, explicit memory in the left brain. There may be subsequent situations that are encountered which trigger the right brain unconscious memory that was not brought into conscious awareness by the left brain actions. Such a person might have strong feelings that may influence their behavior in ways that don’t make sense to them and consequently be more likely to act on feelings without the discernment that is possible through brain circuitry integration and balance. This is the substrate of dissociative disorders where parts of one’s behavior or feelings simply do not fit into the generalized whole of the personality.
Early in life the right brain grows first. The beginning of the integration of the right/left brain information must wait until the end of the first year of life when the left brain language center begins to develop and the network that connects the two hemispheres matures. Thus many patterns of thinking, emoting and behaving absorbed in early life may be coded primarily in right brain implicit memory, outside of conscious awareness. Early parenting experiences not only influence later attachment behaviors but the number of receptors in certain brain parts that are associated with affection and nurturing. It is often difficult for people to question these mostly automatic patterns of thinking, relating, emoting and behaving. Integrating this material into left brain conscious awareness and linguistic discernment is the stuff of self-reinvention and self control that is taken on in psychotherapy.
The complex thinking centers that are so crucial for inhibition over right brain emotional impulses grow slowly and continue on until the third decade of life. One aspect of successful life is the development of cognitive flexibility and the capability to examine the present in the context of past experience while mindfully determining when a present occasion calls for a change in thinking and behavior. No one always has his or her own self-system in balance, but from what we know, maintaining a congruent and even-tempered, integrated biological and emotional state usually occurs when we are at the “top of our game” individually and as a community of people.
Finding Integration and Balance for Self and Society
Good mental health usually entails good physical health and seems to be intrinsically a matter of balanced integration. An enriched social environment gives an assist to brain cell health increasing plasticity for the development of skills related to learning and self regulation. Regular good sleep is a major player in emotional well-being. Sleep, of course, is related to daily light and exercise. Self-esteem and the ability to govern emotions are essential for any sense of empowerment over your life. Education is another key component.
Successful attachment has survival value for individuals and our world. Helping one another transition from periods of stress to positive calm is a natural social process. Interestingly, certain brain neurotransmitters and neurohormones are activated when we are in contact with others. Which ones develop depends on the particular experience, for instance, positive attachment promotes safety and pleasure and activates the underlying neuronal and biochemical circuitry of these sensations. Distress is more likely to result in fear or anger and their related pathways. Love and work are essential ingredients of a good life, but even the rich are not guaranteed wellbeing for themselves and their progeny. Intelligent interaction with others once played an important role in the evolution of mankind, but there are so many of us now and miscommunication and misrepresentation abound. How do we find measured self control as individuals and as a species who presently dominate the earth, a sphere more fragile than we once realized?
As a student at Columbia University years ago, I heard Margaret Meade speak shortly before her death. In the midst of an eloquent presentation, she quietly predicted that “rogue nations in the possession of nuclear weapons would terrorize the world”. Most of us were stunned and hadn’t thought of this possibility before. Afterwards some students said it was ridiculous. Others of us would remember her predictions with chills as we watched the crisis unfold. There are so many facets of life today that no one imagined then. A population explosion was certain but exponentially based internet connected knowledge was not anticipated. No one dreamed that our beautiful World Trade Center and their momentary inhabitants would crumble under the assault of hijacked commercial airplanes. No one in psychology at the time could imagine the clarity and extraordinary detail of neuroscience imaging that would reveal the underpinnings of our very human nature.
Over the past few decades life for educated people has become better and worse. Knowledge has increased, and for some of us our young adulthood dreams of a one world community have moved forward with international communication and travel. But the peace that many of us so desired has not resulted. The leisure that many predicted would come with modern living left us in the dust as we race to keep up with everyday life achievements. We find ourselves manipulated and driven by media and social
forces in contemporary society. Advertising is using knowledge of our brain and social habits to ping our attention towards their marketing goals and fabrications. Politicians of every persuasion gerrymander our emotional attention so as to sway beliefs and behavior. The problems of environment, world suffering, sharing of resources, threats of fervent violence and use of weapons may leave us adrift. The media, and individuals using media technology, seem to resort to exceedingly gross and exaggerated antics to get our attention. How do we find coherent self-understanding in this circus of movement and stimulation?
Could we collectively move away from dissonance, fragmentation and disequilibrium? Our life priorities may shift in the process. As we shape our own life stories by understanding our biochemical systems and living more carefully with them, can we- in the same mindset- shape our world culture? Yes, but it would mean taming emotion on an individual and societal level, which is no small dream. It would mean providing safe, supportive learning and life environments for all children. It may mean teaching people how their brains and bodies work so as to help them thoughtfully govern their lives and communities. Knowledge, including self-understanding may be the foundation of hope for our individual lives and for the human community. In the best of all worlds we find peace, meaning biochemical synchrony resulting in a poetic sense of well-being, good will, and self control.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist