Neuropsychologist Dr. Karen Villa Sits Down with Sr. John Dominic to Discuss How the Practice of Virtue Leads to a Healthy Mind and Soul. (Part 3 of 3)

The article below is an excerpt taken from Mind and Heart, a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. John Dominic Rasmussen, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Dr. Karen Villa, a talented neuropsychologist, looks at the practical application of mind-brain balance in the third part of a three-part series. She addresses ways that parents and educators can help their children develop proper processes for dealing with issues, emotions, and feelings as they arise.

Sister John Dominic: 

We’re going to continue our discussion with Dr. Karen Villa as we unpack our understanding of interpersonal neurobiology. We talked about the structure of the brain-mind, and we gave some definitions of neuroplasticity and interpersonal neurobiology. We talked about the decade of the mind. In the second episode we began to see the beautiful connection between living the virtuous life and brain development and the yes brain and the no brain. The decade of the brain started in the early 1980s.

Dr. Karen Villa

It was funded mostly in the 1990s and being integrated into what we know about development learning and mental health. 

Sister John Dominic: 

For me with the development of Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue, seeing this coming together is exciting because we see the wonder of God’s love for us and His desire for us to be whole and experience wholeness. In this episode, we want to look at integration and the understanding of the river of integration and what does it mean on the opposite side of that and look at strategies and give tips to educators and parents on how we can implement this and understand this. Why don’t we start with integration and what that means. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Integration is a sign of a healthy mind. It is that yes brain where a child is curious and creative and joyfully engaged with their environment, willing to try new things, and resilient to handle mistakes and challenges. There’s this good information flow like a river in and out of the brain. That’s the river of integration. We find when a child is integrated that they can be on one of two banks: one is rigidity where they’re stuck and stubborn, unwilling to try new things for instance; the other is chaos where there’s restlessness, anxiety, and disorganization. We see the river of integration as that flow of information. 

Sister John Dominc: 

You want them to get a harmonious river flowing. To go from the chaos or the rigidity would be a process. There have to be certain tools that would help them along in that process. 

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Dr. Karen Villa: 

Yes, to have that balance that we talked about in the last episode where the child has this ability to know that they can use their mind to regulate their emotions and their body and their decision-making, and that is an evolving process, but it’s very much fostered by a virtuous environment that is safe and non-threatening and respects that emotion does need to be regulated. We don’t want to flood kids with a lot of our own emotion. We want to help them regulate theirs.

Sister John Dominic: 

Maybe it’s the age in which we were raised, but if there were hardships that the parents experienced, you would sense that they have a difficulty but they would keep those conversations private. These are things that the adults would worry about, and you as a child had more freedom, even though you see that, so sometimes we don’t want to introduce adult things too soon. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

That’s intentional parenting, and this skill that we want as parents to understand our own subjective experience and whether sharing that is helping or hurting our child, and it could be either one, but a mindful parent who has good subjectivity will be able to make good decisions about that.

Sister John Dominic: 

Decide what’s appropriate to share or not. Sometimes when we’re trying to see something clearly, it’s good to see the opposite of it. We did that when we defined the virtues. We gave a definition of it, and then we show the opposing trait, especially if we wanted to help schools use this as their discipline or trying to have parents to recognize it. We’re our own worst critics, and we’re always looking for the negative, but the beautiful thing about living the virtuous life and developing the yes brain is that you can look at the negative that may be there but have a path towards a positive. In your experience, what are some of the challenges in the culture that you’re experiencing with young people? What is preventing them from being integrated?

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Children are getting much more isolated and disconnected from one another even though they have this device to stay connected. It’s deceptive because it’s not authentic and true connection, and social media itself tends to cause quite a bit of anxiety, and young people who are feeling their worth comes from how people are responding to them on social media aren’t developing that sense of worth from turning inward and getting to know themselves and having real relationships and connections. Social media serves a purpose, but one of the reasons why social media isn’t helpful is because you lose what we call contingent communication where we are talking back and forth. We’re listening to one another and responding to what each other is saying. We’re tuned into nonverbal cues. All of that is missing with the short snippets of contact that end up not being very meaningful. What happens is kids are much more anxious and depressed than we have ever seen them because of this biological determinism, and looking at the brain, we tend to treat them with medication rather than through relationship and understanding and trying to help them balance vice and virtue to achieve this integration between desire, which comes from our downstairs brain, and conscience, which comes from our upstairs brain. It really is about developing these frontal lobe functions that support a healthy integration of conscience and desire. 

Sister John Dominic: 

One of the things I experienced sometimes is that in this time in our culture, where we have instant gratification, are people patient enough? We have this tendency to treat with medication, but are we patient enough to not allow them to have that screen time during the academic week? Are we patient enough to set those boundaries for them and deal with the temper tantrums when they’re not doing what everybody else is doing? You may think medication may solve it, but that should be the last thing. If we create these new pathways with things that are cognitive or helping them to think differently, how long does that process take?

Dr. Karen Villa: 

The frontal lobe, which is responsible for these executive functions for planning, attention, and focus for goal-directed behavior and for morality, or how we filter our desires through our conscience, develops outside of the womb. The frontal lobes are developing entirely in the context of experience relationship. This is the architect of the mind. One of the findings from the decade of the brain is that the frontal lobes aren’t fully developed until the mid-20s. You can think of all of childhood and launching into young adulthood as this critical period where you really want to consider what a child’s environmental experiences are, what their relationships are, how you’re teaching them to regulate emotion and balance desire and conscience. 

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

Sister John Dominic: 

You are intentional, as if you’re bringing somebody from this situation of chaos or the opposite side of rigidity. It would depend on what their experience is. You have to find out what’s an impediment.

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Throughout their development from 0 to 25, kids have these moments of chaos and rigidity, and it’s how we navigate these using the language and tools from the virtue program [that matters] because they’re bound to happen, and in childhood, they don’t have fully formed frontal lobes. Childhood is a critical period, but there are certain times where it’s crucial such as emotional and social development from 0 to 5. Around seven, kids reach the Age of Reason, and things are quiet, but then when they get into those middle school years, is good relational aggression that we’ve dealt with. They’re moving into another period of upheaval and chaos, and we have to get intentional again during those times transitioning into high school. The next chaotic time is when a young person is launching into young adulthood and separating from their families, and we see that chaos and rigidity show up again, and we use these tools to respond to it and they’re certainly less intrusive than turning to medication. Sometimes if there’s a severe issue, we need to be willing to consider that support of medication.

Sister John Dominic: 

What that does is it calms the mind down.

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Enough that you can keep this river of integration operating relatively well. 

Sister John Dominic: 

One thing I find exciting about all of this is that sometimes there would be a stigma or something, like someone needs counseling or therapy, but we all need it. Going to confession is like therapy. Writing in a journal is therapy. Talking to somebody maybe we all need it, and it’s helping our mind. It’s so important that if we begin to understand the science and strategies, that you can begin to create and develop healthy patterns.

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Rather than see a child struggling as a fixed entity that requires medical intervention, you see it as an evolving process and that you as a parent or an educator have a way to enter into that in a relational and emotional way that actually helps to tame whatever that struggle is. Another interpersonal neurobiologist was Dr. Stanley Greenspan. He was on the East Coast while Dr. Siegel was on the West Coast. He understood that getting down on the floor with young children and relating to them and communicating with them impacted any problem that they could have, whether that was attention and concentration problems or autism. It could be made less severe by using a lot of these techniques that are about tending to emotion and building that relationship.

Sister John Dominic: 

Going back to talking about the dignity of a child, our body language in how we’re speaking to them and looking at them, attunement is so important. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

That’s mindsight, when we understand ourselves and can take the perspective of another person. Social media and so many forces in the culture breakdown the family. All these distractions prevent us from being in these connected relationships where a child feels really known by their parent and their teachers at school, and because of its structure and language, The Virtue program creates an approach that helps the environment to be tuned into the inner world of that child. 

Sister John Dominic: 

I explained this to different educators and parents alike that when you have this language that you can look at the child and say, “You are so courteous or so affable, that was foresight. You’re thinking ahead, or your honesty that you have.” This language naturally affirms them. It’s not a little moment of praise, but you’re recognizing something in that child. You’ve seen this, and what I what I want to do is encourage them to use that language when they’re talking to the parents because you would know as a parent when an educator or someone else sees something in your child. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Every parent wants to know that whoever I’m turning my child to over during the day is seeing them and knowing them and cares about them. The child internalizes that, and then they can be caring and concerned about others. It’s this beautiful Harmony again when that’s what the environment is like.

Sister John Dominic: 

Is there anything else with mindsight?

Dr. Karen Villa: 

I would go back to the virtue program where you have words to talk about vice and virtue. You are moving it into the upstairs brain to the conscious cortical mind. It’s not this primitive behavioral or bodily expression. It’s in a totally different part of the mind when you put language to it. It’s in the part of the mind that can benefit from these frontal lobe abilities where somebody can be reflective, thoughtful, and moral about whatever their struggle is. 

Sister John Dominic: 

Even when you talk morality or living that out or foresight planning and the executive skills, which are so important, is much a part of the mindsight. Could talk about time-in, and then I can relate that to what we’ve developed in education and virtue?

Dr. Karen Villa: 

When you listen to Dr. Siegel talk about this interpersonal neurobiology and education, he says we not only need to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, but we need to add in these other three R’s, which are reflection, relationship, and resilience. The time-in piece is the reflection part where children are taking time in their day to step back and be tuned into whatever their internal bodily or mind state is and to contemplate whatever they’re experiencing. We find that as this emotional intelligence grows, it has a strong relationship to cognition and how thinking works. In the virtue program, you have the Lectio Divina, which is a process for children to step back and calm their minds and be reflective, coming into relationship with their inner world and into relationship with Christ and then go into their learning, which goes so much better because we are attentive.

Sister John Dominic: 

There’s so much busyness, and you could take that 15-20 minutes a day in a school setting and provide that opportunity for them to read the word of God because when you read the word of God, the Holy Spirit is present. God who has created our minds in a way in which He brings us into this relationship, and it does naturally calm them. I had so many examples of young people where they’ve written down what their experience has been when they’ve used the Life of Christ journal during Advent or moments of reflection that they feel calmer. They feel less anxiety. If we want to toss them into it, you can do that during the school day, and it’s important because oftentimes they like to be the first one done. It’s the smart person who turns their test in first. The smart kid gets all their work done, but the last time I took a standard essay, I think I was the last person. I passed it, but we must break through that need to rush, so here it’s slow down. You don’t need to be the first one done. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

That is critical to so many other things. Besides this increased capacity to pay attention and to be calm so that you can hear and construct responses better, it helps a child feel like they can be more thoughtfully connected to their social world, achieving that balance where they can regulate their emotion and come from more thoughtful places in their school day. 

Sister John Dominic: 

I encourage educators to take that 15 or 20 minutes because you’ll gain it back as they’re a little more alert. Is there anything else as far as this connection with virtue education and mindsight that you would like to offer? 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

I would add that it’s an extraordinary thing that you’re doing, and I’m so glad that you’re passionate about it. It’s incorporating these things into our ordinary daily life, and when you’re in a school system where a child is doing this, day by day year after year, you get a picture of how much it becomes a part of their person and their personality. When they do transition into adulthood, they are more whole than if they had been in an environment where they weren’t taking time to be calm and look at this balance between vice and virtue. 

Sister John Dominic: 

Dr. Siegel talks about the healthy mind platter. What would be some of the strategies to create this river of integration?

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Back to that first skill development and balance, Dr. Siegel talks about how important it is to have balance in daily life. Kids can get stuck for hours playing video games, and we might let them because we’re so busy trying to run their lives, but he outlines that a healthy mind platter is about things like time to be connected somewhere in your day, certainly a family meal or team activities at school. He talks about the importance of being physical and having exercise in your daily life. It’s important as a parent to intentionally balance these things rather than just rushing all the time with activity.

Sister John Dominic: 

You talk about the word play, like playtime. There is something about going and building a fort in the woods that would be using your executive skills, which is different than doing organized sports. They’re both extremely important. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Curiosity being in nature translates to curiosity about ideas and learning in the classroom. That kind of playful exploration that isn’t structured is very helpful and good for a child. It is so important for children in this culture of immediate gratification to learn how to be bored as part of the resilience piece. I can tolerate boredom. Back when you and I were growing up, if you said you were bored, you got a chore, so you learned how to handle boredom. You didn’t say it because you knew you’d have another job to do. Maybe I’ll read a book or go walking out in the woods. Learning how to handle boredom and unpleasantness, we develop diligence and have time for pleasure, but we don’t let that interfere with work. We had that balance between work and pleasure. 

Sister John Dominic: 

All of these things are strategies to work towards integration. It’s good to encourage teachers and parents that if you start to see this rigidity or chaos in your son or your daughter, don’t panic because that’s going to impact the downstairs part of your brain.

Dr. Karen Villa: 

It’s just part of growing up. Our children don’t come to us fully formed. They are in formation and have these natural periods of aggression. When you see rigidity or chaos, you should stand back and be curious about it yourself and wonder, “What is my child struggling with internally that I could help them with through some of these tools from the Virtue program or tools from the yes brain or the whole brain child or brainstorm.

Sister John Dominic: 

I’d like you to speak on the connecting part of the healthy things to do as we draw this to a conclusion. We talked earlier about this isolation and that young people can almost put themselves on an island, and this is something you see becoming more common among teens and young people. Is there any advice using this connection you could offer to parents or teachers if they start to see a student by themselves at lunch or moving away when they have time to work on a project or on the playground or at home? How do you connect in a proper way to keep that connection?

Dr. Karen Villa: 

I’ve been noticing this a lot with high schoolers that I work with and even in middle school that there is this tendency to disconnect kids from their parents and to make their peer group really important and it’s absolutely important in their development that they separate some from parents and attach to their peer group, but for whatever reason, we as parents seem to be going along with it that they’re connecting too much and too soon and then this peer group that’s disconnected from the adult world is developing their own set of rules that aren’t very virtuous. They’re more about who has power and control and who’s popular. Kids can even be among their peer group and feel very alone. Then they’re conditioned to disconnect from the adult world and not have that as a resource, so it can cause lots of anxiety and overwhelming feelings of loneliness for them. I think this is contributing to our epidemic of suicide where young people are thinking they’re so alone, so why even try to build a life for myself ahead of me. It’s very tragic.

Sister John Dominic: 

All these different healthy habits you can do to help the brain to be more integrated, which would be mind and heart as they’re doing and the connectedness and even the family dinner. I think that would be a beautiful way parents could restore that opportunity where you can sit around and talk at the meal. They can take them out of this peer group daily.

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Yes, in a comfortable way where you have this understanding of the rigidity and the chaos that’s happening when a child isn’t in the river of integration. You have a way of tuning in and paying attention to those signals early on before it becomes a full-blown problem that requires intervention and a diagnosis and treatment. You can turn up the volume to yourself to be more intentional. When a child is rigid or chaotic, they’re trying to manage some emotion and relational issue, and when you know that there’s a mind behind the rigidity or the chaos, you can tune in with that mind and figure that out together. Here’s where you’re bringing that sense of we like any problem that shows up. We are approaching it together. That’s very comforting to a child to know you connect to that problem behind the rigidity or the chaos and redirect, and that’s the action of parenting. 

Sister John Dominic: 

I think it’s so true when you think about that behind that is the mind, and even how you order the words to say I am a door. I am angry or I am sad but don’t understand that those are feelings, and you could say I feel sad and then continuing with why are you feeling this way?

Dr. Karen Villa: 

When parents do that, they put a language to what’s behind that rigidity or that chaos. They need to understand that they’re doing about 80 percent of the work because they’ve just moved it into the upstairs brain and that cortical connected place that’s about problem solving and learning to regulate, so having this language that you have developed in a Virtue program is so important for a child to make that transition from my body feels sad to I can think about why I’m sad and I can reflect on that and connect to help soothe that and solve it.

Sister John Dominic: 

That’s why when I mention the Lectio Divina in The Life of Christ, I put lines in there. There are pages to write and hopefully they encourage them to write in cursive because that again is moving that to the other part of the brain. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

An active experience to one that I can reflect on and the pains and futilities of life are so much more tolerable when we can think about them and see them from a distance and seek out soothing or seek out problem-solving. 

Sister John Dominic: 

Towards that happiness, which is living a virtuous life and a yes brain. It is becoming the person God’s created us to be so that we can move towards this human flourishing. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

What parent doesn’t want that? 

Sister John Dominic: 

That’s exactly what they want. That’s what you would want as a counselor or anyone who is [with your children.] The scientists that have studied this are bringing this to our attention and helping us by giving us the tool, and we see that God is showing this through the silence. Oftentimes we can wonder is God there. Think about the Israelites in the desert. It was better back in Egypt when we could eat that and they’re out here the desert, and God started feeding them, and then they began to complain about that, but here with the suffering that many people are experiencing because of the mental illness and the sadness, if we can see through the eyes of faith that faith and reason come together and that God is truly hearing the cries of people, and He’s interceding and showing this to us.

Dr. Karen Villa: 

When the science was evolving to see ourselves as stuck and static entities, it was actually making us sicker and less happy, and I think you can look at culture and see that that’s the truth of it. I think this was His grace to reveal this to us that we can transform ourselves by using our minds to look in on our own minds and to reestablish the relationship and connection.

Sister John Dominic: 

Karen, I can’t thank you enough for giving your time and being brave enough to sit here. God has given you so many special gifts and talents and to be able to share that and bring this work and what we’re trying to do as far as The Virtue education, bringing these worlds together in a beautiful way and most importantly to help parents and educators to study this and begin to see. I’m sure oftentimes a parent thinks, “What do I do next year?” You don’t have much time for me to go get a book with each child. I learned how to be a principal on my knees, as your teachers learn how to be teachers on your knees. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

You’re doing an amazing good work, and I appreciate your yes to hearing about this interpersonal neurobiology and incorporating it.

Sister John Dominic: 

Thank you very much. For those people that are joining us for this last episode, I encourage you to go back to the last two episodes where Karen and I began our discussion understanding and unpacking this beautiful Revelation that’s come to us through science as God shows us a path to wholeness, holiness, and happiness and to know that true happiness is living a virtuous life with the yes brain. 

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