A Healthy Mind & Soul using Virtues & ‘Lectio Divina’ Journaling (Part 1 of 3)

Dr. Karen Villa, a talented neuropsychologist, dives into the scientific definitions and understanding of the brain and the mind in the first part of a three-part series. She explains the distinction between brain and mind and defines the left versus right brain as well as introducing the concept of neuroplasticity, which has revolutionized the study of mental health.

Sister John Dominic: 

In this series of podcasts we’re going to be looking at the brain and understanding all the wonderful studies that have taken place during the time of the decade of the brain with my special guest, Dr. Karen Villa. Karen and I have worked together for a number of years. Tell us about yourself and how you became interested in this field of study. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

I came to Michigan to study clinical neuropsychology at Michigan State University in the early 90s, which is when the decade of the brain was beginning. I was studying neuropsychology when George Bush had infused funding into neuroscience research. We had all these diagnostic instruments that could look in the brain in real time as somebody was learning or experiencing a flashback or performing a task. At that time, we learned all these neuroscientific findings. I was at Michigan State University getting my degree in clinical neuropsychology. After that I did a couple of postdocs, one of them with University of Michigan in neuro psychoanalysis where we were looking at inner experience in the context of a neuropsychiatric lens. After I graduated, I had my own children and sometimes I felt like I was parenting without a map. This interpersonal neurobiology became my map for my own children, which was the classroom for me to learn these techniques and how they apply to everyday life.

Sister John Dominic: 

I think that’s the value and the experience that you bring and why I wanted to have you on here as a guest because not only do you bring the experience from your study, but you have the experience of being a mom and a counselor and this depth of understanding the brain and the development of that. Let’s go through and define some terms for people. What is the difference between the brain and the mind? 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Interestingly when the decade of the brain arrived, we had no definition of the mind as a field of mental health. We had been studying the brain and looking at structure and function and had no definition of mind, so while we were able to look in real time at what was going on in the brain, we found we had to develop this definition of mind because we were finding that mind was forming brain substance and having a huge impact on the brain. The definition of the mind that we came up what with was not only that it was the brain, the central nervous system, this embodied organ, but it was also this relational process that regulates what we call energy and information flow. This is the idea of how you interact with your environment, how you learn from your environment, and how you create responses and decision-making for the environment. This was the field of the mind, and out of this decade of the brain came this new learning science called mind-brain. From there we defined interpersonal neurobiology.

Sister John Dominic: 

I’m new to studying all this. I’ve been an educator my whole life, so for me, this is extremely fascinating. When we talk about the brain and the mind, oftentimes we hear about the left side and the right side, but it’s not what you naturally think it would be. What does the right side of the brain do? 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

The right side of the brain processes information from a holistic standpoint, the big picture or intuitive side of things, more the emotional information that’s embedded in any experience or learning. It works more on a harmonious basis and takes whole information as opposed to the left side, which is granular. It looks at detail. It’s important in processing language rather than emotion and seeing things from a detailed perspective. 

Sister John Dominic: 

One scientist that you introduced me to his writings was Dr. Dan Siegel and all this that he’s developed. Talk a little bit about his [work] and what he’s done with the mind with the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

We just talked about right hemisphere and left hemisphere. We’re trying to put the brain in dimensional space. Another way to look at the brain is the cortex versus the subcortex. The easy way that Dr. Siegel talks about this is the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. You can think of it as conscious and unconscious processing. Unconscious processing is very quick. It’s the part of our brain that’s always thinking 24 hours a day, even when we’re sleeping. It’s very important in survival in this fight, flight, or freeze response. It’s the seed of emotion or relationship templates as we’ve come to talk about them. The upstairs brain, the cortex, the conscious mind is slower moving. It’s very logical. It’s based in reason, whereas the non-conscious downstairs brain is not, and for learning purposes what we found from the decade of the brain is that information comes in through that subcortical brain. All information we’re learning and experiencing first arrives to that subcortical brain and that information is either going to be treated with reactivity and go down into the body and non-cortex or it’s going to be treated with responsiveness. A mind that is integrated and functioning well is going to be responsive to its environment rather than reactive. What we want is that incoming information to go to the conscious mind. We don’t want children in a state of reactivity when they’re learning or in their families and having those experiences. We want them in a state of responsiveness. That’s what the yes brain is about. 

Sister John Dominic: 

When we’re talking now with the upstairs and the downstairs part of the brain, we want to make sure that whatever is downstairs eventually makes it upstairs and that these two are working well together. Is there anything else that you can think of about the brain that’ll help people?

Dr. Karen Villa: 

There’s this idea of neuroplasticity. There were so many findings that came out of this decade of the brain, and we are incorporating them into the learning culture into mental health. One of the important findings was neuroplasticity. We used to focus on biological determinism, which is that the brain is set and it’s not a malleable thing, but neuroplasticity showed us that the brain is very sensitive and tuned into daily experience. Experience is our emotional environment and our relationships. Brain growth was very sensitive to experience and relationship. The basic idea of neuroplasticity is that variance is the architect of the mind and where attention goes, that’s where neurons grow as well.

Sister John Dominic: 

That is so fascinating. Of course, we look at this from a Christian perspective, and it’s so amazing to think that when God created us, we’re not stuck in a certain way. The central part of us that makes us move and think and have our being has forgiveness or mercy built in. Explain again that quote about the neurons.

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Where we direct our attention with our mind is where neurons are going to wire together. This was big news coming out of the decade of the brain, and as a Catholic and a Christian, it revealed this biblical truth that the Lord tells us. We can renew and transform our minds. 

Sister John Dominic: 

Our minds can be renewed in Christ. The beautiful thing is that if you bring a theological understanding of it, we’re all destined for eternity. God wants us all to be united with Him. We’re not like some people are born to be bad or good. This science proves that we’re all created and we have the opportunity for goodness.

Dr. Karen Villa: 

We can transform towards that our whole lives. The beauty of neuroplasticity was that it wasn’t just for these critical periods in childhood, which are important, but that we could have this capability our whole lives. 

Sister John Dominic: 

This extends all the way all the way into adulthood. As you’ve begun studying it and understanding it, how has it impacted you as a professional that you began studying it when this was beginning and then you were raising your children and then now you’re able to work as a counselor? There has to be something about that that is so fulfilling and exciting. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

To watch people transform is a privilege and to be this vessel that helps people become more who God intended them to be has been a great blessing to me and a privilege. I have enjoyed taking this on as a value system in my work where I help people clear out their minds so that this energy can flow through them. If the energy and information flow is getting backed up, my job is to use my mind to help another person’s mind sweep out those things so that they can be more open to their world and function in a more healthy way and as a Christian to be more receptive to God’s will for them.

Dr. Karen Villa spoke about Neural Plasticity in our Education in Virtues Series as seen Here.

Sister John Dominic: 

So they can understand and have that sense of learning. We talked about neuroplasticity. There’s another term: interpersonal neurobiology. Can you define that for us?

Dr. Karen Villa: 

There is a progression there. I think it was back in the 1960s and 70s that Margaret Mahler wrote this book called the Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. Not only was a child physically born but then they had the psychological birth. You move forward to the later 70s early 80s, Mary Ainsworth developed this scientific methodology of looking at the influence of early attachment on long-term mental health, so she had a way of discerning whether a child had a secure attachment or an insecure attachment that then fanned out across development into long-term problems. When we got to the decade of the brain and we were able to look in on the mind, we saw that the interpersonal relationship was the environment that was really influencing brain development, so that became part of the interpersonal neurobiology – the idea that our brains develop in the context of our relationships. Then this was the definition of the mind that it’s actually not only an in-body brain, but it’s a relational process that influences energy and information. 

Sister John Dominic: 

As you say that, I’m thinking about that beautiful image of Michelangelo where there’s the creation of man, and you see God’s hand coming to touch Adam, but if you look at what he’s emerging from, it’s the shape of a brain. We see through the science and what we were able to do, it reinforces that there’s no contradiction between faith and reason. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

When I’m working with someone who’s not of my faith, we’re essentially teaching them love. God is love, and that’s a very emotional relational thing. When you hold that in mind that these prophecies brain processes and moving a mind in the direction of health is going to make this person better able to be loving in the world.

Sister John Dominic: 

That is the bringing together of the mind and heart. In the biblical understanding, the heart is the center of the person where the reason and will come together to their formation of who they are. I think that’s another beautiful thing that’s come out of this study is that we can’t be dualistic that right, but the emotions, our intellect, and our will can’t separate. With the rigidity and the chaos and the different ways they impact people, are there any other terms you can think of? 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

I would add this term of mind-sight. Not only did we define the mind as this embodied relational process that influences energy and information flow, but there’s this idea that you can use your mind to see your own mind. You can save a piece of your mind to look in on your own subjective experience, and this has a big role to play in how people come to health and come to direct their attention in ways that serve growth. When somebody takes the time to see their own inner workings and subjective experience, not only do they learn and grow better, but they are also better quick to see the mind of another person and come to know this capacity for empathy. 

Sister John Dominic: 

Which is so important, and again that’s that relational part that we see in the study of the brain the, but we also need to have that relationship in ourselves to help us to become whole. As we begin to conclude this and move on to the other series, the scientist that we’re looking at is Dr. Dan Siegel. Could you say a bit more about him and his colleagues? 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

He would call himself a synthesizer. He’s a very bright man who is really the father of interpersonal neurobiology, which is this framework of integrating all these different sciences to look for universal truths. That’s how we recognize truth is that it can be seen from many different perspectives and confirmed by different scientific lenses. He took all of these findings from the decade of the brain and synthesized them into this understanding, and then he translated that beautifully into a series of books for parents, which is how I came to know him and his work more deeply. He started first with this and his books matched his own raising as though he is taking all this knowledge and using it at home and at work. His first book was Parenting from the Inside Out, this idea that we have to have our own subjective experience as parents if we’re going to keep our own psychological struggles out of the way of our children’s development, and I thought that was really critical and important. He has other books like the Whole Brain Child, which is for the elementary school years, and then for adolescents he has a book called Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, that he turns on its head. That storm has a purpose. 

Sister John Dominic: 

I’ll say he makes that one of the most exciting times. 

Dr. Karen Villa: 

Then he arrived at the yes brain, which we’ll talk about later. He’s a prolific writer and communicator of this new neuroscience in this new mind brain education.

Sister John Dominic: 

Next, we can look at that from a moral perspective. Don’t think, “Oh no, I’m doing something wrong as a parent,” but understand that science supports the understanding of living the virtuous life that you have two reasons and that you are helping your child to live a more full life, to become fully alive and become the person that God has created them to be. We’ll continue to unpack this as we continue our wonderful discussions on understanding interpersonal neurobiology. Join us next week for Part 2 of 3 articles with Dr. Karen Villa.


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