Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Neuroscience and Bullying.

Last year I attended a training looking at a brain-based understanding of adolescent issues. It was presented by Professor Pieter Rossouw of Mediros Associates and it has given me food for thought ever since.

This is a brief review of neuropsychotherapy to deal with bullying from the 'bottom up. It is based on understanding the way the brain develops. In the world of psychology, psychotherapy and counselling, a 'top down' approach works from the understanding that we can harness the abilities of our intellect to develop higher order thinking habits and through this, we develop better mental health. However the top down approach does not account for the fact that when our brains are exposed to fear inducing or non-nurturing environments, we are not able to access higher order thinking abilities. In fact if exposure to stress goes on for long enough, and particularly if it happens early in life, our brains do not develop enough connection between primitive survival areas and higher thinking areas and so we tend to operate in survival oriented, emotionally impoverished ways. This is not just  a wilful refusal to think about things more clearly. The brain has not developed to be able to think clearly. Some neuroscience influenced mental health practitioners are advocating that unless we work from the bottom up and teach people, particularly children to better regulate their primitive brain responses(which luckily is entirely possible), we have little hope of bringing about significant changes in behaviour.

Here are some of the key points in the article (you can read the whole thing by following the above link):

Young adolescents are particularly vulnerable in fear inducing environments (such as when exposed to bullying) because their brains are undergoing a great deal of intense modification at this stage. The brain can be wired at this stage in negative or positive ways that have consequences extending into later in life.

Most bullying programmes in schools have relied on 'top down' interventions, attempting to harness kids cognitive abilities to help them learn to behave in more pro-social ways.

If distress is not dealt with at the level of the survival oriented brain, the authors state (this is fairly dense bit of academic-speak):

Experiences of bullying up-regulates the fear system, (emotional and primitive brain) resulting in heightened activation and hypervigilance of the amygdala. Subsequently, stimuli that would not normally be perceived as threatening may be activated in the amygdala due to their ambiguous nature. The function of the hippocampus particularly relates to short-term memory, the application of context, and neural plasticity. Overproduction of stress chemicals can lead to impaired functioning of the hippocampus (Thomas, Hotsenpiller, & Peterson, 2007), compromising the capacity to form new memories and hinder academic learning (Rossouw, 2012). Similar to the effect bullying has on the amygdala, ongoing exposure to this trauma and damage to the hippocampus can result in an overgeneralisation of threatening stimuli. Subsequently, the victim may be unable to appropriately apply context to situations and respond to non-threatening stimuli as if they were a threat. Furthermore, damage to the hippocampus through continual stress activation further compromises the individuals capacity to form new memory connections (Rossouw, 2012), which can also play a role in academic learning. Third, the neomammalian brain consists of the large frontal cortical systems of the brain, and is known as the ‘smart brain’ due to its executive functions. The prefrontal cortex (especially the right) significantly contributes to the development of social functioning. Therefore, the social well-being of a victim can be significantly impaired to the up-regulation of the emotional brain and hindered neural proliferation of the smart brain. It is clear to see the significant impact trauma associated with bullying can have on the young developing brain, particularly relating to neural architecture and functionality. 

So - in short, your memory, ability to discriminate between genuine and imagined threat  and your ability to learn are affected by long term stress. This article is looking at bullying, but long-term stress could come from other factors such as problems in the family, poverty, social unrest or illness.

What can be done to counteract the effects of a negative and fear inducing environment? The brain based approach uses principles of neuroscience to define an 'enriched environment'. In their words: An enriched environment is one which enables an individual to feel safe and facilitates the fulfilment of three basic needs; 

  • the need for attachment, 
  • the need for control and orientation, 
  • and the need for pleasure maximisation and pain minimisation. 

The culmination and satisfaction these three basic needs then lead to the growth of the individual’s sense of self. An enriched environment facilitates neural proliferation, allowing for growth of the frontal cortical systems (i.e., smart brain) and its capacity to down-regulate over-activation of the emotional brain. 

At HPSS, we are developing a dispositional curriculum, which takes place primarily in the context of the hub. Our philosophy is that the need for attachment and safety can potentially be met in the hub. This context can also generate opportunities for students to experience taking control of their environment with the mentoring of their coach, learning to be organised, responsible and assertive. Because the hub is an informal and more intimate environment, there should be opportunities for the students to learn in ways that are pleasurable; food can be included, games, music, anything that involves healthy pleasure.

All secondary schools have initiatives and programmes designed to foster pro-social attitudes and behaviours but they tend to be co-curricular and extra curricular ( i.e. Duke of Edinburgh, Peer Mediation etc) This school is putting the dispositional curriculum right in the centre, alongside the academic curriculum. Perhaps this seems more akin to the way primary schools operate and we should be expecting students of secondary age to have mastered these basic skills. Well look at the world! How many adults are in control of their stress, fear and threat reactions all the time? I personally work at it every day. As far as I can see from my own life and those I work with, developing a healthy brain is a lifelong endeavour.

My hope as counsellor, is that students and staff really get that the enriched environment promotes healthy brain development and a healthy brain makes us both happy and smart.

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