Neuroscience

February 18th, 2010 by Collin Canright | Filed under Psychology.

Neuroscience is wired. News reports on the latest discoveries in neuroscience appear with increasing frequency, as shown by a Google Trends graph (bottom line) on the search term “neuroscience.”

With advances in medical technology, especially magnetic resonance imaging, developed in the 1970s, neuroscientists have been able to watch the brain in action and gain a much more detailed look at how the brain processes information. As a result, neuroscientists have gained insight into the overall structure of the brain and which areas are responsible for what functions and the biochemical processes through which the brain communicates with the body.

Since the mid 1990s, for instance, neuroscience researchers have been mapping the portions of the brain responsible for emotion. In 1996, researchers in England identified a tiny brain structure called the amygdala as the crucial bran area for the perception of fear (Trudeau, 30 October 1996). The amygdala isn’t logical. It just reacts. “Before we are even consciously aware of something the amygdala has activated the fight-or-flight reflex and activated the fear system,” said Kerry Ressler, a psychiatrist at Emory University and investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Hamilton, 4 September 2009). (Note: All references appear at the end of the post, with links.)

Indeed, of all the recent neuroscience research, perhaps the most relevant to learning and development is research on emotions: how they work to connect the brain and the body and their critical role in human learning and development. “The inextricability of thought and emotion is one of contemporary psychology’s most important discoveries,” wrote Winifred Gallagher. The Greek separation of “supposedly lofty cognition, which focuses on reason and absolute truth, and funky emotion, which centers on subjective value judgments” has been brought back into a whole over the last 10 years, as “scientists have discovered that thinking and feeling often have a chicken-or-the-egg relationship and are heard to tease apart” (Gallagher, 2009, p. 29).

One of those scientists, Dr. Candace Pert, pharmacologist and former Chief of the Section on Brain Biochemistry of the Clinical Neuroscience Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, has done pioneering work on brain chemistry, communication between the mind and the body, and the biochemical nature of emotion. In her view, the mind is in the body’s nervous system as much as it is in the brain. “The body is the unconscious mind,” she wrote. The chemical mechanisms of communication between the brain and the body are short amino acid chains called peptides and receptors, and the information that they carry is experience, by both the brain and the body, as emotion. To Pert, “emotion creates the bridge between mind and body” (Grodzki, 1995). As Pert wrote, “Neuropeptides and their receptors thus join the brain, glands, and immune system in a network of communication between brain and body, probably representing the biochemical substrate of emotion” (Pert, 1999, p. 179).

The implication is that emotional awareness and expression is critical to learning and development. Indeed, both memory and actual performance are affected by mood, Pert’s research shows. Emotions are both the arbiters of what people remember and what people learn. The human brain is bombarded by sensory input. In order for the brain not to become overwhelmed, it needs some mechanism to decide what information is important to pay attention to and what information should be ignored. Pert concluded that “our emotions . . . decide what is worth paying attention to” (Pert, 1999, p. 146).

Researchers studying attachment theory and its role in parenting say something similar and take it a step further. “How emotion is experienced and communicated may be fundamental to how we come to feel a sense of vitality and meaning in our lives,” wrote Siegel and Hartzell (Siegel and Hartzell, 2004, p. 59). Their experience and research suggests that “emotions shape both our internal and our interpersonal experiences” and, as a result, allow us to integrate our experience within our selves, deepen our connection to others, and prepare our bodies for action. Emotional communication is especially important to how children develop and learn. “The experience of emotional joining helps children develop a stronger sense of themselves and enriches their capacity for self-understanding and compassion (Siegel and Hartzell, 2004, p. 68).

Couples therapist Sue Johnson goes so far as to call attachment theory the “science of love.” Listen to her explain the origins of attachment theory from pioneering psychoanalyst John Bowlby in “Hold Me Tight,” a February 2010 CBC “Ideas” interview  and title of her book.

It’s a physical as well as an emotional process and becomes the equivalent of a dance between the mind and body. “Emotions are at the nexus between matter and mind, going back and forth between the two and influencing both,” Pert wrote (Pert, 1999, p. 189). Neuropathways are forged in the brain, though mechanisms that include attachment, and those pathways, along with the emotional tendencies that our individual neuropathways support, serve as a filter our experience. As a result, we cannot objectively define what is real and what it not. We are, in a sense, the product of our emotional experience and select information based on that experience, both past and present. Even so, the biochemical receptors in our brains and body can and do change. “Emotions and bodily sensations are thus intricately intertwined, in a bidirectional network in which each can alter the other,” Pert wrote (Pert, 1999, p. 142). Because that generally unconscious process can be brought into consciousness, “even when we are “stuck” emotionally, fixated on a version of reality that does not serve us well, there is always a biochemical potential for change and growth” (Pert, 1999, p. 146).

References

Gallagher, W. (2009). Rapt: attention and the focused life. New York: The Penguin Press.

Grodzki, Lynn (1995). “Approaching a theory of emotion: an interview with Candace Pert, Ph.D.” Retrieved from http://primal-page.com/pert.html on 20 June 2009.

Hamilton, J. (4 September 2009). “In the future, science could erase traumatic memories.” National Public Radio broadcast retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112531962.

Pert, C. (1999). Molecules of emotion: the science behind mind-body medicine. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Siegel, D. J. & Hartzell, M. (2004). Parenting from the inside out: how a deeper self understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Trudeau, M. (30 October 1996). “Brain and Emotion.” National Public Radio broadcast retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1041718.

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