0 Comments

right_brain_left_brain
Image source: Dreamstime

As recently as 25 years ago, it was still frequently believed that the structure of the brain had already been genetically determined at birth. Now, however, we, of course, know that this is absolutely NOT the case. Indeed, the experience, in early life, of trauma, abuse, or neglect can have a profoundly adverse effect upon both the brain’s chemistry and its architecture (ie the way in which its physical structure develops).

Studies on animals can help us to understand the effects of trauma on the developing human brain. For instance, if animals are subjected to inescapable stress they develop behaviors such as :

 

   – abnormal alarm states

   – acute sensitivity to stress

   – problems relating to both learning and memory

   – aggression

   – withdrawal

 

The symptoms listed above are, in fact, very similar to those displayed in humans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In both the cases of humans and animals, investigations suggest that prolonged exposure to stress adversely affects a vital brain system ( the NORADRENERGIC BRAIN SYSTEM).

Indeed, in humans, it has been found that even in adults (let alone children) just one exposure to severe trauma (eg a terrifying battle) can significantly alter an adult’s brain and lead to PTSD.

 

STUDIES ON EFFECTS OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA ON THE BRAIN :

Drissen et al (2000) found that those who had suffered severe childhood trauma had smaller volumes of two vital brain structures which play a role in stress management; the two structures physically affected by trauma were :

 

1) THE AMYGDALA

2) THE HIPPOCAMPUS

 

On average, those who had experienced severe childhood trauma were found to have :

 

  – amygdalae which were 16% smaller than those who had not experienced significant trauma

 

   – hippocampi which were 8% smaller than those who had not experienced significant childhood trauma.

 

Further research by Shore (2001) has shown that the brain’s right hemisphere which has deep connections into the limbic and autonomic nervous systems, is impaired in terms of its ability to regulate these systems properly; leading to profound difficulties managing stress in those who had suffered serious childhood trauma.

 

The Brain’s Two Hemispheres :

The brain is split into two hemispheres (or halves) referred to, simply enough, as the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere.

What Is The Difference Between The Brain’s Left And Right Hemispheres?

In terms of their functions, the LEFT HEMISPHERE is associated with :

  • logical and analytical thought processes
  • reasoning
  • language (including written language)
  • mathematics / numerical skills

 

whilst the RIGHT HEMISPHERE is associated with :

  • intuitive thought processes
  • creativity/appreciation of art/appreciation of music
  • holistic thought
  • insight
  • imagination
  • empathetic feelings with others
  • emotions and emotional attachment to others
  • feelings of trust
  • ‘reading’ the emotional state of others from their facial expressions
  • self-awareness

 

Controversy :

The above lists of functions derive from the work of Sperry (a Nobel Prize Winner) in the 1960s. However, recent research suggests that whilst LATERALIZATION (the tendency to employ one area of the brain more than others with respect to certain functions) is a genuine phenomenon, the popular idea that people can be simply split into two groups (so-called left brain-dominant individuals versus right brain-dominant individuals) appears to be a myth.

Furthermore, a recent study conducted at Utah University suggests many functions previously believed to be mainly associated with a particular hemisphere may, in fact, actually involve the opposite hemisphere as well to a greater degree than many originally believed.

 

Relevance To Childhood Trauma Survivors :

Notwithstanding this recent confusion, it is still the case that therapy which concentrates upon many of the functions listed in the FUNCTIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE RIGHT BRAIN column above may be particularly helpful for those of us who have been unfortunate enough to have suffered from severe childhood trauma. This is because many of these functions are found to be impaired childhood trauma survivors (especially emotional attachment to others and the ability to trust). For more about RIGHT BRAIN THERAPIES – CLICK HERE.

‘Right Brain’ Psychotherapy :

Allan Schore, in particular, argues for the importance of ‘right-brain’ psychotherapy.

Schore devised Affect Regulation Theory which incorporates the idea of how early life ‘affective interactions of attachment’ (in particular, the quality of our early-life emotional bond with our primary caregiver, usually the mother) physically affects the development of our brain.

The quality of the bond depends upon the quality of the emotional communication between the (usually) mother and the infant. This communication includes :

  • voice rhythms
  • voice inflections
  • mutual gaze
  • bodily interactions (e.g. holding, stroking, etc)

 

When this communication between the primary caregiver and infant is healthily synchronized, the infant experiences a positive state of affect and arousal.

However, when the infant experiences negative arousal, the synchronicity is temporarily lost until the primary caregiver is able to re-establish it, soothe the young child, and ameliorate his/her (i.e. the aforementioned young child’s) distress.

If the primary caregiver interacts with the infant in ways that inspire infantile distress (e.g. too little physical contact, rejection. unpredictability, the transmission of anxiety, etc.) this will cause the young child’s autonomic nervous system to become dysregulated. And, furthermore, if such dysfunctional interactions occur frequently enough, and over a long enough period, the physical development of his/her (i.e. the young child’s) right / emotional brain will be adversely affected.

RIGHT BRAIN TO RIGHT BRAIN EMOTIONAL COMMUNICATION :

Schore argues that emotional communication between the primary carer and the young child is strongly founded in RIGHT BRAIN TO RIGHT BRAIN interaction (i.e. how the right brain of the primary carer communicates with the right brain of the young child).

And, as the young child goes through life, both soothing and stressful emotionally interactive experiences with others become indelibly woven (encoded) into his / her brain’s rich tapestry and this process gives rise to (unconscious) internalized, mental working models of attachment that reside in the brain’s right hemisphere. In other words, the quality of our relationship with our primary caregiver as we grow up physically affects the brain’s development, and this, in turn, affects how we act, feel and behave in connection with our relationships with others in later life – attachment trauma can therefore be considered to be a phenomenon closely interconnected with right brain hemisphere development and functionality.

IMPLICATION FOR THERAPY:

Schore, therefore, infers that those of us who have been affected by childhood trauma and have, as a result, incurred attachment trauma, require therapy that taps into the way in which the right brain works. According to Schore, therefore, the therapist should concentrate on core skills and techniques which include :

  • empathy
  • regulating his / her own (i.e. the therapist’s) affect
  • ability to communicate non-verbally and to be sensitive to non-verbal communications from the client/patient (including very tiny changes in the client’s / patient’s facial expressions, intonation, etc.)
  • immediate awareness of his / her own (i.e. the therapist’s) subjective and intersubjective experience

 

Schore emphasizes that the above-listed skills/techniques provide an indispensable and essential foundation to the therapy without which other skills/techniques are likely to be ineffective for helping the individual affected by attachment trauma.

His theory is based on research into neuroscience and infant development.

 

RESOURCE :

 brain eBook

Above eBook is now available from Amazon for immediate download. Click HERE for further information.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)