Some basic facts about the brain
By Gunnel Minett
Being a breathworker or psychotherapist has by many been seen as being on the opposite side of neuroscience. Not anymore. Knowing some basic facts about the brain and how it develops from foetus to adult brain means knowing about what can cause psychological problems. Below is a list of some of the basic facts of this development. To find out more about the effects of this development please see other articles on this website.
From conception the brain develops into three major parts (folding in on itself) reflecting the evolutionary process: (Paul Maclean)
Reptilian brain (oldest part – shared with animals up to reptilians) Mammalian brain (later development – shared with all other mammals) Neo-mammalian brain (latest development unique for higher primates)
The various parts and are centres for various brain functions:
Reptilian brain (brain stem, cerebellum, hindbrain) handles basic needs – self defence, food, reproduction and homeostasis etc. Focus on outer world with no sense of ‘self’ or time. Centre for unconscious processes.
Mammalian brain (midbrain, limbic system) handles emotions, basic social skills, immune system. Beginning of inner life – sense of past and present time. Centre for sub-conscious processes.
Neo-mammalian (cerebrum, cerebral cortex, neo-cortex) handles language, conscious thought processing, rational logic thinking – sense of past present and future time. Centre for conscious processes.
We are born with a set of instinctual needs – often referred to as ‘goals’ in neuroscience.
The goals include:
Need for nourishment
Need for physical and emotional care (including a ‘hard-wired’ love for closest carers)
Need for a save environment
The foetus is born with a full set of neurons but few neural pathways. The foetus creates a few neural pathways for the connection with the mother in the womb but most are created through learning that only can take place outside the womb.
During the first three months the baby sets up the basic neural pathways for handling relationships. This will function as a basic structure and determine our in/ability for future relationships.
At around 3 month after conception the fetus records its first (body) memories in the form of chemical packages.
In order to learn/adjust to life as fast as possible the baby ‘scans and copies’ the content of the mother’s (closest carer’s) brain but is unable to make distinction between conscious/unconscious material (‘assuming’ everything is equally valid and rational) This information will later become the ‘world out there’ (i.e. not assumed to be our ‘construct’ since it was acquired before we had a sense of self).
In order to start the development phase outside the womb, the child needs to make eye contact with another person at birth. If not the process can be delayed for up to a couple of weeks.
Breast feeding plays an important role for the brain’s development. It offers a ‘constant reference’ (mother’s face) in a safe environment with reward for learning (nourishment).
The mother’s voice is the first ‘constant’ in a newborn child’s life. Recognising the mother’s voice is one of the first things the foetus will learn and it will hear the voice the same way both inside the womb and outside. That means that the voice will be the first ‘identified’ phenomena in the new world outside and will act as a ‘safe point’.
During childhood the brain develops in stages with focus on the right half during the first two years (sensory-motor development), followed by a mainly left brain phase (reflected in development of speech and other left brain functions) for some years and back to right brain etc. until the age of around 20 years.
One intensified growth period takes place during puberty. During this period, the seed for ‘higher awareness’ is laid provided that the foundation is sufficiently strong.
Part of the brain’s development involves ‘pruning’ of brain cells (functions) no longer used by humans in our current state of the evolutionary process. This includes:
ability to do ‘air-lock’ when swimming under water,
use of smell, (remnants still exploited by the perfume industry),
intense learning of details (later replaced by social skills or autism),
language (up to the age of around 9 in particular accent),
Increased ability to read body-language and non-verbal communication etc.
Brain development can be compared with the construction of a house. If the foundation is not solid (i.e. if the basic needs /goals are not met during childhood) the brain needs to ‘repair/compensate’ for shortcomings as best it can. The earlier weaknesses most threatening for the adult brain. This can lead to ‘false’ assumptions, addiction and psychological problems.
Throughout life we are un/consciously trying to achieve our hard-wired basic needs/goals (often basis of personal preferences, life choices, personality etc). Much of this process takes place unconsciously in the right brain that operates much faster (nanoseconds) than the left brain. Because the right brain processes are too fast for us to distinguish we refer to them as intuition. To communicate at different speeds the two halves use a symbolic language (analogue states/emotions).
Our ‘overall picture’ of what happens in the body, environment and mind is mainly unconscious. To fully understand ourselves we also need to have access to our unconscious processes.
Many of the body/brain processes operate on a ‘need to know’ basis i.e. only enters conscious awareness when needed (decision making, forward strategies etc). Our exceptional (human) skill is for multi-tasking (running several processes in parallel – talking, walking, breathing etc).
There is no split between body/brain. Thought triggers body reactions and vice versa (blushing one example). ‘Positive (emotional and physical) environment’ is essential for optimal cell functioning.
How well we succeed to achieve our goals is reflected by our emotions (right brain processing). Our thoughts and emotions are reflected in changes in the body chemistry.
The foetus reacts to chemicals transmitted from the mother through the umbilical cord. The child learns to detect emotions in the mother’s voice by ‘reading’ the various chemical reactions transmitted as it hears the mother using a certain tone of voice.
Being able to distinguish distress calls from neutral and pleasant sounds is a much older function than word recognition and is handled by different parts of the brain. (One explanation for Turret’s syndrome that is triggered in the oldest parts of the brain).
Our appreciation of music originates from the older parts of the brain that deal with distress/pleasure sounds (reflected in our negative reaction to music out of key/atonal).
Music helps us focus and attracts our attention. When moving pictures were first developed they found that music made a huge difference in the viewing of the film (which is why silent movies always were accompanied by music to help illustrate the action on screen).
To improve the understanding of the functions of the brain (our conscious and unconscious mind) can be compared to Jung’s concept of individuation.
Keywords; brain development, foetus, childhood, needs, emotions
© Gunnel Minett 2010