Report On The 2016  Childhood Trauma Conference (Part 2)

Haley Peckham

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In Part 1 of my report on the Childhood Trauma Conference, I talked about Dan Siegel’s thoughts on integration and connection between brain regions, brain and body, and among one another as human beings as being key to health. The capacity to integrate our current thoughts, feelings, and sensations with our memories, previous learnings, values, goals and hopes—drawing upon all regions of our brain and body—provides us with a flexible range of options to respond to life’s challenges. In Part 1 I also discussed how the research and work of Judy Atkinson, Martin Teicher, and Ed Tronick supports this view. When we are fortunate enough to experience benevolent, connected, and attuned early relationships, the neural pathways that integrate information from our bodies and between the higher (cortical) and lower (brain stem and limbic) regions of our brain are well rehearsed. It becomes second nature then to integrate the wealth of information we experience in the form of memories, feelings, reflective thoughts, values, goals, and sensations. In contrast, if our early relationships are characterised by a lack of safety and a lack of connection, the opportunities for putting our thoughts, feelings and sensations into words, having them soothed or responded to, and reflecting on them are limited. And without regular opportunities, we cannot build the connections between the regions of the brain that are involved in these healthy experiences. We cannot achieve integration.

The neural circuitry connecting the regions of the brain responsible for language, planning, reflection, feelings, and memories is built from times when these experiences are linked, such as when our caregivers help us name our feelings, when they help us understand why we might be feeling a certain way, or when they dream with us about something we want to happen or reflect with us on something that hasn’t gone the way we want. Without these linking experiences, we don’t develop the neural circuitry that would enable us to integrate all the available information in our brain. In the absence of a rich tapestry of integration afforded us by safe, connected relationships, we experience instead a whirl of unsafe experiences and disconnection where those unsafe experiences cannot be conceptualised or articulated, and our brains opt for one simple guideline: to prioritise our survival. This survival-focused approach is quick and dirty; we may misinterpret, overlook subtleties, discount extenuating circumstances, and assume the worst. Accuracy in our appraisal of a situation is traded for a faster, aggressive, defensive, or submissive default position—a relational “fight, flight, or freeze”. Defaulting to one of these positions, particularly in the context of reacting to a relationship challenge, is something that many adult survivors of trauma experience because they have not had safe opportunities to integrate their experiences, connect up regions of their brain, and develop a range of ways to respond to situations rather than just react to them.

Part 1 of my report focused on integration from a range of research perspectives, broadly indicating that the desirable outcome of integration occurs in the context of safe experiences of relating. This a consistent message from the research presented throughout the conference: Safety, especially safety in relationships, is paramount, and our adaptive brain is sculpted chemically, physiologically, and architecturally by our experiences of safety to give us the best chance of survival in the world we come to anticipate. Now in Part 2 of my report I introduce Vittorio Gallese’s work on the mirror neurons that help us understand another person’s experience, and Dan Hughes and Jon Baylin’s intentional targeting of brain regions or processes to create a feeling of safety in children with traumatic attachment issues. Later I also look at Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory and Sue Carter’s research into oxytocin, both of which mediate and moderate feelings of safety.

Mirror neurons were named about 20 years ago for their curious property of firing both when we watch an action and when we execute the same action. For example, mirror neurons fire in my brain when I perform a purposeful action such as reaching for an apple to eat, as well as when I watch you reach for an apple to eat. This phenomenon was first described by Vittorio Gallese’s research team in the 1990s. They observed that that a group of F5 neurons in the ventral premotor cortex of macaque monkeys fired when the macaque grasped an object to perform an action, and a subset of those neurons fired again when the macaque watched another macaque grasping an object for the same purpose (Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rizzolatti, 1996; Rizzolatti, Fadiga, Gallese, & Fogassi, 1996). Further studies have revealed that mirror neurons code for both the action of grasping and for the intention behind the grasping—the goal, for example, of eating the apple you have just picked up. Patterns of firing rates of mirror neurons change for the action of grasping alone compared to grasping with the intent to eat (Iacoboni, 2009). In the case where I perform an action that you then perform with fidelity, the mirror neurons that fire are “strictly congruent mirror neurons”, whereas “broadly congruent mirror neurons”, numbering about twice as many, recognise actions that are directed to a matching purpose, towards the same goal, even when the actions themselves differ (Iacoboni, 2009). As Vittorio Gallese said in his talk, this means that “through the activation of our mirror neurons we can grasp the meaning of others’ basic actions from within ourselves.”

Mirror neurons can code for facial actions, allowing us to imitate others unconsciously. We often play with babies by opening our mouths (especially when feeding them), or poking out our tongue to watch them perform the same action. As the face is the dominant conveyor of social and emotional information, our mirror neurons’ capacity to simulate experience in ourselves while watching the facial expression of another may underlie our ability to recognise emotion in another, and our ability to empathise. In a significant development, mirror neurons have been found in other brain regions, including in emotional and pain centres in the brain, suggesting a broader role for them in our ability to empathise. Research findings indicate that individuals who have pronounced empathic qualities also exhibit a stronger tendency to subconsciously mimic the posture, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others, suggesting that the mimicry and imitation facilitated by mirror neurons allows us also to feel what others are feeling (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). Knowing what others are feeling facilitates our capacity for compassion, social connection, group cooperation, and survival. Giacomo Rizzolatti in an interview (http://www.gocognitive.net/interviews/emotional-mirror-mechanism) explained that “there is a mirror mechanism embedded inside emotional centres [of the brain].” Again this means that when we experience an emotion and when we see someone experiencing that same emotion, there are a group of mirror neurons that fire allowing us to know and recognise what we see in another as something we have felt in ourselves. Vittorio Gallese noted that when we see or hear someone in pain, mirror neurons in the insula respond just as they do when we experience pain ourselves. Mirror neurons therefore allow us to simulate and experience in part, or empathise with, emotion in another. A corollary is that we may be able to use our own emotional state to regulate or influence the emotional state of another person through the action of mirror neurons. Dan Hughes and Jon Baylin in their work with traumatically attached children do exactly this.

This has been an excerpt from Report On The 2016 Childhood Trauma Conference (Part 2) by Haley Peckham. To read the full article, and more excellent material for the psychotherapist, please subscribe to our monthly magazine.

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