Neuroplasticity – Lifehack your Brain for Hope (Part 2 of 3)

Dr. Karen Villa, a talented neuropsychologist, dives into the scientific definitions and understanding of the brain and the mind in the second part of a three-part series. She looks at four aspects of mind-brain development as offered by Dr. Siegel: balance; resilience; intuition; empathy (brie) and relates these to virtues in the Catholic faith.

Sister John Dominic: 

We’re going to continue our discussion with Dr. Karen Villa as we unpack our understanding of interpersonal neurobiology. Our first episode gave meaning to different terms and defined the structure of the brain and understanding of the mind neuroplasticity. I keep thinking of God’s amazing love for us that we’re not stuck in a rut. He’s always calling us back to Himself, and there’s this built-in means of redemption for us. I hope those of you who are listening can encourage others and share this because there’s such a message of hope in what we’re discussing. 

Dr. Karen Villa

I think all of neuroscience was His grace to us that He’s hidden in nature over time. He reveals Himself to us through science. Science always favors Him who it is right here. He’s the master of it. 

Sister John Dominic

He’s the creator of it. My love has been Catholic education. That’s how we got to know each other because I have the privilege of having your two wonderful children in school. My passion has been for over 30 years Catholic education. Yours has been as a mom first and as a counselor and looking to young people and the dignity of the human person. You saw the development of Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue. 

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Dr. Karen Villa: 

The Lord brought us together about the time you were developing it. He was teaching me more about the application of interpersonal neurobiology. I brought my kids too because of the dignity of their person, and I wanted this environment that taught them to be reflective and cared about their person in the midst of their learning, and it meant a lot to me to do that. 

Sister John Dominic

Looking at the dignity, I’m sure you see in your own profession that every person is created in God’s image and likeness. Every person has a dignity and a worth, and in education we want to help them become the person they’re going to be. Oftentimes, we encounter people that are hurt for different reasons. That’s the same thing you experience in counseling, and I think that it does take that understanding to take a step back and to see what God intended we see in Ephesians when He said in the fullness of time. He created us to be holy and blameless in His sight. From the foundation of the world, what God intended for man is that we would live in relationship with Him in a state of holiness and justice. Holiness is how we live with God in that relationship. He isn’t up there waiting for us to mess up because we see now, as we begin to unpack this understanding of the brain and the mind, that he’s always bringing us back to Himself. When we look at that time before the fall with Adam and Eve, there was this beautiful harmony that they experience with this holiness and justice that their relationship with God. Genesis says that He would walk with them. He was always present with them, and they had a beautiful relationship with one another within themselves and with creation. Then the story of the Fall with the serpent coming, and we all have our different understand how that happened, but the result of that was that everything was thrown into chaos. There is this rupture that took place in man’s relationship with God. They pulled apart and were no longer living in His grace. Grace is our participation in God’s life, and then we see that the consequence of that Fall is that there was this tension between man and woman that they struggle within themselves. Sin entered. You look at Cain and Abel. God says to Cain you can master this wish, but we have the first murder that takes place. You know that God is in you. You can overcome this, but we see this chaos that happened. The beautiful thing that we understand in Genesis is that God has always given us this promise of a redeemer. All of us are impacted by original sin. Nobody’s perfect. We’re not living in a perfect world. One thing that we’ve shared in our discussions is that we see in our culture and our society that there is more fragmentation, separation, and isolation. Could you talk about the impact of original sin? We’re not stuck there. We have a way out. There’s hope.

Dr. Karen Villa:

We have to understand that. One of the findings from this neuroscientific research in the decade of the brain is that it’s a relational mind and that separation is what disorganizes the mind and attachment organizes it. You see how this fits with original sin and the separation from God and that an integrated mind grown in the context of good attachment is a healthy mind, and a healthy mind is going to be more open to loving, kind, and compassionate relationships in the world. It’s going to be more open to God’s will for them. We all want to raise our children to be healthy and to be in relationship with God and His will for them. This issue of attachment and relationship and how it informs brain development is critical and important. You see in our society, especially with our kids, that they are getting more fragmented and isolated from their families and from each other. They can be together and yet feel so alone, for instance on social media. All of this focus on brain exclusively has led to poor performance in school and more mental health issues.

Sister John Dominic:

In my experience in education, I would focus a lot on the intellectual, the physical, the spiritual dimension, and I noticed that over time we needed to have some virtue education, but we didn’t have a framework for that, and I think that’s where this relational part was not happening in an intentional purpose and we needed to bring in that understanding of what virtue is. On the science side of things, there’s development that Dr. Dan Siegel has when we talk about the yes brain. Could you offer us some understanding of yes brain and no brain in light of the social development and this isolation and anxiety that we’re starting to see.

Dr. Karen Villa:

Social and emotional intelligence lead to better cognition. That was another big news find of the decade of the brain. One of the ways of Dr. Siegel translated this is giving parents tools to help hem create in their children a yes brain versus and no brain. A “yes brain child” has good information and energy flow, meaning that they are open to their environment. They’re curious, creative and resilient. Part of original sin and separation from God is that we live with a lot of things like loss and pain and challenges that we need to be able to relate to well. We need to hold steady around them and turn to the Lord and be resilient. Dr. Siegel talks about these parenting strategies and tools that build resilience in addition to creativity and curiosity. A “no brain child” is somebody who’s rigid or chaotic or reactive and fearful, and they can’t engage in their environment in a curious and joyful way. 

Sister John Dominic:

We talked earlier about the upstairs and the downstairs type of the brain. In the downstairs, this is the impulsive and the reactive part of it. If we talk about the no brain, if that’s all this child experiences that gives a pause, and that’s when I talk about a virtue education and learning this vocabulary. Virtue is this interior disposition to do what is good, to say yes, and it enforces these positive ways which we are creating a more positive environment that the neurons are going to go towards. What we discovered in the school is that the more we were using this language, the more a positive environment had done. Could you talk about that?

Dr. Karen Villa

Dr. Siegel is coming from the perspective that stress breaks down synaptic connection. A stressful environment is going to break down synaptic connection neurons connecting to one another and is going to make a child more reactive. A child who feels like they’re not under threat or ashamed when they make a mistake and feel safe in relationship with their school Community is going to learn better and be more open to learning. The Virtue program goes a good distance, not only creating that environment, but by creating a language around how to foster and nurture these skills within a child. In his yes brain book, Dr. Siegel talks about four skills that we need to foster in our children and amazingly these match the cardinal virtues. Dr. Siegel likes to use acronyms. The acronym he uses for these four skills is brie, like brie cheese. The first one is balanced, and this is the ability for a child to regulate their own mind and body so that they are in a balanced state and receptive rather than reactive. The second one is resilient. Can a child maintain that balance in the midst of dealing with challenges or disappointments or daily life stresses that come up in their family or in their school? The next one is insight. Insight is this ability to turn within yourself and have the subjective experience and come to know yourself within. How do I feel about what I’m learning? What’s my experience of this relationship I’m in with this other child next to me? Things that they know their own desire and passions for things. This is being able to sit with a subjective experience and develop thoughts and ideas about it. 

Sister John Dominic:

In order to do that with insight, they need to be alone, but there’s a difference between being alone and being isolated. It’s so important to have time for silence. Sometimes you may see people by themselves, but they may be isolating themselves and putting themselves on an island, which is what we don’t want.

Dr. Karen Villa:

Because that causes more anxiety and disorganization. I often find myself talking to people about the capacity for solitude where they are alone, but they are don’t feel alone because they’re in relationship with themselves. In the virtue education, we know that’s a good time to be in relationship to Christ as well as prayerfulness. The last one is empathy, and this is the ability to see the world from another’s perspective. It’s at the end because when we understand our own experiences, we are much better equipped to be empathetic and understand the experiences of other people. It’s this perspective taking ability, but it’s also the willingness to take action to relieve someone’s suffering or to deal with a problem that’s been created. It’s not a purely passive receptive thing. Empathy is more active in my mind. 

Sister John Dominic:

When you’re talking, the first thing I’m thinking about is that we look at this entryway into this. We talked about balance, which if I were talking with virtues, I would say Temperance. I keep thinking about all that takes place through social media and texting, or even doing videogames. These things are alienating and constant, and they’re preventing them from growth in the other virtues that need to take place. 

Dr. Karen Villa:

It’s creating a lot of imbalance. Kids are so overstimulated these days. We didn’t grow up with the internet, and they can have any thought gratified or any friend of available to them immediately, whereas we had this delayed gratification built in. It didn’t create this overstimulation and expectation that makes the downstairs brain more operative. Having more balance is a way to calm the downstairs brain so that it can be more mindfully and intentionally directive.

Sister John Dominic:

The upstairs brain would be where the frontal lobe development would be, so if this downstairs brain is always experiencing this stimulation, that would cause a delay or make it more difficult in a certain sense for the frontal lobes to develop.

Dr. Karen Villa:

Our frontal lobes are the part of your brain that’s right behind your head. It’s like your braking system, and the downstairs brain is like the gas pedal. When you’re driving a car, you need these to be working together in response to the environment. You need to break at a stop sign. You need to go at a green light. It’s teaching the mind to balance this breaking and gas pedal kind of system.

Sister John Dominic:

We talked about balance, and when I look at Temperance, honesty is a virtue that comes in that. The downstairs part of the brain is what is triggered by the flight or fight or fear, their reactivity. If I am trying to get someone to tell me the truth, or if I was trying find out who did something, I found that if I had more of a more caring, merciful, loving approach, [it was easier.] 

Dr. Karen Villa:

If the downstairs brain is overstimulated and active and a difficult situation comes up, it’s going to be very reactionary and impulsive. These are interpersonal neurobiology techniques as they integrate with your virtue program. The frontal lobes teach delay and thoughtfulness. The development of the frontal lobe is going to provide the opportunity when the impulse comes to put a braking system on to be able to see that I feel better when I do the right thing. This is difficult, but I’m going to feel better if I do the right thing versus no reflectiveness or slowing down frontal lobe functioning where somebody just does what’s the quickest, most impulsive shortcut to get out of the situation, which is to lie about it. 

Sister John Dominic:

That’s where I give pause or time, and oftentimes the student would come over, and I would have them sit out for a little bit and let us all get calm and then have a conversation about it. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Dr. Siegal makes provision for that because every parent experiences what he calls flip their lid when they’ve lost touch with their upstairs brain, and you have to be gracious with yourself. This is hard work raising kids and educating them. Our emotions are involved in it. He talks about when there is a rupture, that we engage in repair. You see this with your children when there’s a rupture, and you can step back and say, “I think I overreacted and on second thought this might have been a better way to handle that.” You can see that repair happening and that attachment being reinstated.

Sister John Dominic:

That’s really that beautiful virtue of humility to be honest. That language of virtue gives a language to all of this that we’re talking about. We talked about the balance and then there is the resilience?

Dr. Karen Vila:

That matches the virtue of fortitude, developing this strength and clarity because you have an integrated and calm mind, you have the strength and clarity to handle challenges and difficulties with strength. That’s an important skill to foster and to integrate that fortitude into a child’s daily life. You think of all the stresses the kids deal with at school. 

Sister John Dominic:

With the mental illness and everything happening, people can see that through this science we’re learning that there is a way forward, and that resilience is important. Everyone has hardships and suffering, but we need to be able to move through this, and for children to understand that sometimes they’re going to experience mean kids, so we’re going to have people that are going to be unkind, but there is a way forward, and we can talk about that with the strategy. 

Dr. Karen Villa:

I was watching a mom be interviewed on television one time, and she said it so beautifully that we try and raise our kids to feel no pain, and then we arrived at this place where we understand that they have to know how to deal with hurt and pain and go through it on their own. Speaking of the dignity of the human person, when a child develops the capacity to deal with the challenge and pain in their life, there’s a certain dignity in that. This is how we give them dignity in one way, and they’re maturing. You have parents who want to protect their child from every possible pain and that’s not realistic because of the Fall.

Sister John Dominic:

One of my favorite things, that I miss because I’m no longer in the principal role, was always the discipline because that was a teaching moment and you can see that child and let them see their dignity. You could watch them mature. They may do it again, but maybe not as bad as they did the first time. We can always let them experience that mercy, which is so connected to the resilience. I would connect insight with prudence, reason and action. 

Dr. Karen Villa

That requires this turning inward to develop thoughtfulness. A brain that’s reactionary is all about fight, flight, or freeze. They aren’t about the thoughtful intentional reflective decision-making. One of the other findings of the decade of the brain was that a lot of our decision-making and learning is intuitive and unconscious. I’m sure you see this when you’re teaching that students won’t get it for a while and then all of a sudden, they’ll have this aha moment because the intuition has to function alongside whatever concept or procedure you’re teaching them. 

Sister John Dominic:

The last one is empathy, which I think is so important, and I would relate that one to justice, that we give to others what is their due? I came to this realization later. We would do a think sheet and the student would write down what they had done and so much focused on what their behavior was and then I began to realize that we also have to have them say how did this behavior impact somebody else. We’re not necessarily talking about sin, but sometimes with sin we think my sin is private. It doesn’t have a social effect, but everything does.

Dr. Karen Villa spoke about the path to mental wellness for children in our mini-series available here.

Dr. Karen Villa:

One way to think about sin in this framework is that it comes from reactivity. If we aren’t engaging our higher cortical processing, and the best way to do that is to put these things into language, we’re coming from this reactive stance and we’re doing things that we wouldn’t do in our better judgment. That’s how the virtue program is so much help with this. 

Sister John Dominic:

Also, when I talk about what it means to live a virtuous life, all the teachings that we have were developed from St. Thomas Aquinas. He drew his teachings from Aristotle and early philosophers before the time of Christ, and what they recognize is that when society and culture lived virtuously and were intentionally wanting to be kind were just, fair and prudent, that they would think before they act, that Society was more harmonious and there was more order. That pursuit that they experienced was for human excellence, and for us as Christians, when we’re baptized, we experience that recreation in Christ. We talked about the renewal of the mind that takes place that we want to take on the mind of Christ. When we’re baptized, we become an adopted son or daughter of God and He infuses us with the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit because He wants to bring us back into this relationship with Him. We weren’t meant to be stuck living in that original sin. We are called to a life of perfection. What that means is becoming who God has created us to be. We all have a purpose. We all have gifts. We all have talents that we can contribute, and you see here that the brain is structured in a way to help us move towards holiness and wholeness in Christ, which is very hopeful.

Dr. Karen Villa:

These interpersonal neurobiology strategies in the context of virtue are to lay out a developmental pathway to mental health. We’ll talk about the river of integration in our next episode, but integration is health, and when someone’s not integrated, they’re rigid or chaotic and we can tie a lot of mental struggles back to too much rigidity or too much chaos. If you raise your children not to need you because you are turning them over to the Lord to be in relationship to Him and be about His business in the Kingdom, these principles become important so that a child can function from a whole perspective and then decide how they’re going to be about God’s business in the world. 

Sister John Dominic:

Karen, thank you so much. I know that our listeners are intrigued. There’s still more to come. We’re going to talk about the river of integration and see how living with a healthy mind gives us a healthy heart so that we can become the person God has created us to be and that we can experience holiness because our eyes are fixed toward eternity. We want to live in the household of God, and our destiny is to be with Him forever in heaven.


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