“Be careful who you make memories with. Those things can last a lifetime.” – Ugo Eze
We are all aware that our early experiences shape who we are as adults. Dr. Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s new book What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Healing, and Resilience demonstrates that it’s our actual brain that changes, resulting in different behaviors and responses.
Dr. Perry writes that the brain is hierarchical and “can be divided into four interconnected areas: brainstem, diencephalon, limbic, and cortex. The structural and functional complexity increases from the lower, simpler areas of the brainstem up to the cortex. The cortex mediates the most uniquely “human” functions such as speech and language, abstract cognition, and the capacity to reflect on the past and envision the future.”
He further explains that, “all experience is processed from the bottom up, meaning, to get to the top, ‘smart’ part of our brain, we have to go through the lower, not-so-smart part.” This means that the most primitive and responsive part of our brain is the one that processes (or does not have time to process) the information coming from our senses. In other words: Our brain is organized to act and feel before we think.
If you look at infant development you can see that this is true. A baby acts and feels, and these actions and feelings help him to organize how he will begin to think.
This takes us back to the title of Perry and Winfrey’s book – “What Happened to You?” It’s not just an important question if you want to understand someone, as Dr. Perry points out, “it is the key question if you want to understand the brain. In other words, your personal history – the people and places in your life – influences your brain’s development.”
Our experiences quite literally shape us – and more specifically – shape our brains. That means that we will each see the world in a unique way because of the way that our previous experiences have shaped our brains.
So, what can we do with this information? The truth is that from what I see in my office, children’s (and adults’) early experiences shape who they are, their responses, and their expectations for the future. When a child experiences traumatic events, he or she often does not know how to process those events. Instead, that trauma gets written into the way that his or her brain functions. When left unaddressed, what can follow is a difficult and painful pattern of self-sabotage, violence, or addiction. But, that doesn’t mean that just because someone has experienced trauma, they are doomed to these painful recurring patterns.
Instead, the authors of What Happened to You? Explain:
This is where the work begins – the work to excavate the roots that were put down long before we had the words to articulate what was happening to us… the ways in which powerful, frightening, or isolating sensory experiences that last mere seconds or are endured for years can remain locked deep in the brain. Yet as our brains develop, constantly absorbing new experiences while continuing to make sense of the world around us, every moment builds upon all the moments that came before.
Recently, I wrote an article about the eight basic emotions as described by Pia Mellody, a prominent psychologist and author. She explains that when we can identify the feelings we are experiencing, we can move forward in dealing with them. For instance, if you are feeling overwhelmed by all that you need to do, you are likely feeling fear, and in that case, once you become aware of that emotion, you are able to address it.
In that article, I wrote about how awareness is strength. Sometimes it is hard to name what you are feeling. Suddenly, you feel hot. You feel a bit of a burning sensation in your chest and on your neck. You can open a window to cool off, but you might not actually be addressing where that physical manifestation is coming from. Are you in the middle of a discussion that is making you feel shame? Are you embarrassed about an action you took or something that you said? Taking a moment to reflect on where that heat is coming from (whether it is internal or external) can help you become aware of the feelings that you are experiencing. And, when you are aware of those feelings, you are better able to address them.
This awareness is equally important when it comes to trauma. If you can recognize the emotion you are feeling, then you can dig a bit deeper to delve into where it is actually coming from, and you might be able to understand the sensory information and actions that are influencing your thoughts. This work is not to be taken lightly and there is no easy fix. However, if you find yourself consistently reacting to seemingly benign situations with intensity, consider returning to the root of the matter. Your early experiences change your brain – and only when you take a moment to gain that awareness – can you start to do the work to reshape it!