Re-wiring Our Brains for Good

Dr. Karen Villa
Developmental Neural Psychologist

This article is an excerpt taken from the mini-series Education in Virtue and is part of the educational materials published by Lumen Ecclesiae Press and used by over 400 schools around the world.

My name is Dr. Karen Villa. I am a developmental neural psychologist who works with children and families. My focus is on providing learning characteristic evaluations and working with children who are showing anxiety, attention, and concentration disorders.

The field of study I subscribe to is called interpersonal neural biology. The basic idea is that there is a developmental pathway that leads to wellness and mental health in adulthood and there is another that leads to mental illness. We are very tuned into how the brain develops and what experiences a child is exposed to, and how this can optimize a child’s neural development.

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An interdisciplinary field, neural biology also focuses on the view that life’s experiences impact brain development. We are very concerned with how a child’s relationships impact their developing growth, and how their ability to reflect and organize their mind impacts their developing growth.

I’m a proponent of the Lumen Ecclesiae Press’ Virtue Program because it gives children a way to structure their thinking about what their goals are. It also helps them to develop the ability to reflect and calm their mind so that they are more receptive to the learning they receive throughout their school day.

Over 20 years ago, our field evolved and there was interdisciplinary work that arrived at this concept of neural plasticity. What neural plasticity means is that the brain has the ability to wire and re-wire itself across the lifespan, but this ability is greatest when a child is young. Because the brain has this neural plasticity, much of the brain structures develop entirely outside of the womb, postnatally, and in the context of a child’s family relationships, their school relationships, and the everyday experiences that they have. The basic idea is that experience is the architect of the mind; our experiences shape our neural circuitry so that a child, as they grow and develop, operates from a more integrated perspective where they are open to receive information from their environment and interact with their environment in a more calm way.

Besides neural plasticity, we also look at whether a child is well-integrated. Well-integrated means that the different parts of their mind all work well together so that there is an easy flow of information into and out of the mind. You can imagine a child who is well-integrated is going to be better at learning. They are going to be better at receiving information throughout their day, and they are going to be better at having good output – like being good at doing their homework and participating in class. When children are not well-integrated, they can take one of two paths. One is rigidity where you see overly rigid behavior (with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, for instance, they are doing the same thing repetitively and they do not show mental flexibility). The other path that they can take when there is a failure to integrate is chaos. This is a path you might see with a disorganized mind or with attention and concentration problems. We find in the mental health field that literally every diagnosis we make can be attributed to one of those two failures in integration: rigidity or chaos.

One of the things the Virtue Program does (besides identifying things for children to strive towards as far as their character development) is this practice of what we call time-in that develops something called mindsight.

Time-in is taking the time to intentionally sit down and focus our attention on our inner world and on our subjective experiences. When a child does this, they are also more aware of the subjective experience of another person. They develop insight into themselves, and they develop the ability to have empathy for other people in their environment.

Mindsight is when a child’s brain develops enough to enter abstract thinking so that they can reflect back on their own behavior. When a child can do that, they are better able to focus their attention in the classroom. They have a better sense of themselves, what they are learning, and what those around them are doing. This is a really important concept, and the focus on Virtue is one that gives children the ability to reflect on what is going on in their internal world and strengthen the skill of mindsight.

One time this time-in happens for children in the Virtue Program is when they are in the sanctuary doing the Lectio Divina reflective journal. In my estimation, this helps to fulfill the second commandment where we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is the brain’s way of being able to think about self and others. This has so much to do with the social and emotional intelligence that contributes to a child’s well-being as they move through their adolescent years and into their young adulthood.

When children have time-in experiences, they are specifically wiring the part of their brain that integrates all the information they are taking in, which happens in the frontal cortex. This processing informs all of the different functions of the brain known as executive functions. Executive functions sit as executors over all our other kinds of thinking, which is why time-in and mindsight are both so important to developing that part of the brain.

Attention and concentration, which are executive functions of the frontal cortex, are like a camera lens. They can be jittery and restless, and not well-focused, but when a child participates in these time in practices, it’s like the camera lens is more still. Things are more detailed, they are more focused, and they can just be better about absorbing information throughout their school day.

In contrast to time-in, today’s social media can take kids outside of themselves, almost creating an addiction to overstimulation. While social media can have a positive purpose as well – helping children to separate from their parents, assert individuality, and attach to their peer group – excessive amounts deter neurological development. It is very stressful for children to process that much information. We need to direct them back to calming and quieting their spirit and their mind so that neurological development and growth can happen in a more optimal way. Parents can aid in this by carving out a clear relationship with social media and balancing it with other educational experiences, such as the internal education of time-in.

When a child uses their mind to reflect on their inner world and to come into a relationship with Christ, it calms their spirit and helps them to focus attention and concentration. This, in turn, allows them to build foundations of social and emotional intelligence that both enhance their academic achievement and build the prefrontal skills that support a healthy mind.

The time-in approaches developed by Lumen Ecclesiae Press’ Virtue Program really catalyzes this capacity for focusing attention, concentration, and strengthening the mind. This leads to increased learning, resilience, character development, and empathy. Through this work, children are better equipped to develop the kindness, compassion, and virtue that they need to be disciples in the world.

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