Changes are happening in our brain all the time—whether we’re aware of it or not. And so, there’s a good chance we’ve created (what we refer to at Brain Highways) some automated, unproductive highways—without even realizing it.
That’s because our brain wires both helpful and unhelpful automated responses in the very same way. Simply, if we do a behavior, again and again and again, it becomes automated.
Now, for the most part, automation is a great feature of the brain. Can you imagine if we had to do everything as though it was the first time? That would be mentally exhausting.
But here’s the problem. Our brain doesn’t have a special edit mechanism where it goes, “Hmmm . . . I see you’re doing that unproductive behavior again. But since that’s NOT helpful to you—I won’t make it automatic.”
No, whenever we do a behavior, again and again— it’s as though we’re texting our brain, “Hey, make this highway automatic”—and so our brain merely complies.
Now, unfortunately, there’s another reason we end up with automated, unproductive highways. First, we have to understand that the brain is always going to make survival its number one priority. So, as soon as our brain even thinks it’s being threatened, it sends out a survival stress alarm. Once in survival mode, we now have just three ways to respond—fight, flight, or freeze. That’s how our brain is designed to work.
In times of real danger, that’s exactly what we want to happen. If our survival is truly being threatened, we don’t have time to analyze, ponder, and contemplate information.
However, our brain has no clue as to what’s a true or imagined threat. In other words, something such as a parent saying, “It’s time to do homework,” may be all that it takes to trigger a child’s stress response.
In such case, that child might now react by screaming or throwing a textbook—which would be examples of fight responses—or hide under the table or say he first has to go do something—which would be examples of flight responses —or doesn’t budge or only stares at the assignment in front of him–which would be examples of freeze responses.
But here’s where those initial survival responses may then start a long-term automated, unproductive highway. It’s very possible that the child’s brain processes that initial survival response . . . as helpful. After all, the response got him out of doing homework, at least for a while.
And that’s when the brain goes, “Ah . . . well, then let’s repeat that behavior—and maybe not just for homework. Let’s do that behavior any time something seems threatening.” And so begins the making of an automated, unwelcome highway.
Now it’s important to note: We all have automated, unproductive highways, although sometimes these responses aren’t so obvious. For example, perfectionism (where we need everything to be just right or in place) and negative self-talk (where we think pessimistic thoughts) may also be viewed as automated, unproductive flight responses. After all, the end result is no different than the child who hides under a table—since those subtle automated responses still delay us from moving forward.
So, if we truly want to create a positive brain, we also have to learn how to disable our automated, unproductive reactions. That’s because how we integrate retained primitive reflexes and complete pons and midbrain development is very different than how we immobilize automated, unwelcome reactions.
Of course, when we do both—complete our lower brain development and disable our automated, unproductive reactions—it’s like wining the “neuroplasticity sweepstakes.” That’s because we now have a brain that works for us, where it’s incredibly easy to share our unique gifts, creative ideas, and kind heart with the rest of the world.
Imagine living on the top of a mountain with a really sharp drop-off. Well, we’d definitely want to spend our days far from that edge—since we already know . . . it’s more than possible to get “bumped” in life.
For example, suppose on Friday, our boss says everyone has to work the entire weekend. Okay, that’s definitely a bump. Then on Tuesday, we learn a family member has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Wow. So, that’s two bumps. And then on Thursday, the water pipe in our home breaks, flooding everything. Three bumps–right in a row—not to mention all these new stresses are in addition to everything else we’re responsible for every day.
But guess what? If we were originally positioned far, far away from that hazardous cliff, we’re going to be just fine. That’s because we had plenty of room to be “bumped”—again and again–without ever being in danger of falling off the edge.
However, most parents who are about to start Brain Highways do not see themselves with such leeway. We say that because we now ask parents to initially rate their stress level over the past few months.
On a 1-5 scale, about 95% rank themselves as follows: a 3 (they’re right at the edge) or a 4 (they’ve already fallen—but are barely hanging on) or a 5 (they’ve already fallen and are quickly spiraling downward). Note that it doesn’t seem to matter where any of these parents live in the world. Almost all of all participants say they’re right at the edge—or have already fallen—when we first meet them.
Of course, we never judge how parents rate themselves. In fact, we appreciate their raw honesty, and such information helps us know who would initially benefit from extra support at the start of the course.
But most of all, we’re eager to prove that it’s more than possible to climb back onto the ridge (if we’ve already fallen) and how to live a life far, far from the edge of that cliff. And again, we say that with confidence because those very same parents then rate themselves a 1 or a 2 once they’ve learned about the brain–and most importantly, how to apply that information to truly change their lives.
Note that such change isn’t going to happen by reading a few blog posts on ways to relieve stress or hearing some words of encouragement. Yet, that kind of change is possible when we’re finally taught how our brain actually works. (For whatever reason, that information seems to be sorely missing from our general education.)
Best of all, anyone can learn about the brain! Such knowledge includes, but is not limited to, concrete ways to ensure we’re never near our brain’s threshold, how to complete our lower brain development (if that’s not yet finished) since such underdevelopment, in itself, often causes so much stress, how we “catch” the brain’s attention—rather than demand we “pay” attention, how we really don’t have to feel anxious all the time, and much, much more.
Yet, here’s a troubling question. What happens to the kids of parents living at the edge or who have already fallen? Wouldn’t we expect those kids—even if they’re not experiencing their own daily challenges—to now also be thrown off balance?
That scenario may also explain why many kids are resistant and non-compliant. On a subconscious level, none of us want to follow those who may inadvertently pull us over the cliff as they fall.
In truth, an entire family may be presently living on the edge or have already fallen of the cliff.
So, that’s why we strongly believe that in order to help kids, we must also support their parents. That’s why Brain Highways parents learn how to change their own brain, right alongside their child. By doing so, their brain also becomes one that’s positive, efficient, calm, and energized. Such a brain greatly contrasts with one that had previously been in survival mode—most or all of the time.
Now, the airlines already “get” that parents must be equipped to lead, which is why flight attendants instruct them to put on their oxygen mask before helping their child. But when we learn about the brain, it doesn’t even have to be a “parents first” approach.
In fact, the more family members who change their brain at the same time, the more quickly a family starts living very far from that edge. And once that happens, everyone now experiences a life where stress and fear no longer dominate.
Yet, many people may not even believe that kind of life is possible. After all, the masses seem resigned that being stressed and overwhelmed—all the time—is just today’s new normal.
But if the brain could talk, it would tell us that being stressed-out-to-the-max and feeling overwhelmed was never intended to be its default mode. Our brain would also want us to know that it’s more than possible to change a brain from a surviving one to a thriving one—and that our kids will most certainly thank us when we make that shift.
We had barely posted the Dear Teacher video when people in countries from every continent in the world started viewing and sharing it at lightening speed. There’d be posts from Lebanon, Malaysia, Australia, Bulgaria, Iceland, Panama, Peru, along with countries (I confess) I had to google just to learn where they appeared on the map.
But it wasn’t only the sheer number of countries or views or shares that threw me off balance. It was the reaction and raw emotions that people kept expressing in their comments—and that no matter where people lived in the world, their posts were remarkably similar.
For example, while the kids in the video were from San Diego, California, people everywhere still somehow “saw” their own son or daughter or sister or brother or student or friend or relative—and many times, themselves—in that footage.
And it didn’t matter from what corner of the world people shared the video. People kept urging—actually often pleading—others to also watch and truly “listen” to what the kids were saying (such posts often ended with a string of exclamation marks!!!!). It also didn’t matter whether a comment was from a teacher, principal, school board member, parent, grandparent, or therapist—male or female, young or old. Time and time again, people wrote how the video made them tear up, cry, even sob, or how it pulled at their heart, broke their heart, opened their heart, melted their heart, spoke to their heart.
As I was wading through thousands of comments, an undeniable theme started to emerge. And then, suddenly the reason this very short video was resonating with literally millions of people was staring me in the face. Yes, we live in diverse places, speak different languages, and attend many kinds of schools. But we all are the same in that we each just want to be heard, understood, and appreciated. That truly was the “heart” behind the never-ending comments.
But I decided to write this post to share more than just that reflection. Many people also noted that it took true courage for the kids to share their thoughts and thanked them for voicing what they themselves had always wanted to say—but never thought they could.
So, it appeared that a less-than-two-minute video managed to break through the stigma that often prevents us from talking about our “mental” health (noting we can talk about our physical health all day long). Somehow, a small group of kids made it safe for thousands of people to open up and now share their own thoughts and experiences . . . by the way of a Facebook video comment. And that, in itself, was incredible.
But since the Dear Teacher video needed to be short, here’s what wasn’t noted. While each child in that video has his or her own “back” story, with different challenges and struggles, they all have something in common. Each has already learned how the brain works and has applied that knowledge to his or her daily life. And these kids would be the first to tell you it was those specific experiences that then made it easy for them to “go brave” and speak up in the video.
The Dear Teacher video also didn’t mention that it first appeared on a multimedia site that Brain Highways specifically created for the families of CAPS (Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services) at Rady Children’s Hospital. On this site, we wanted to make it possible for not only kids, but also moms, dads, sisters, and brothers to learn how our brains may be wired differently, how every brain responds to stress, how to keep a brain calm and alert, and how to reset the brain once it “thinks” there’s a threat. Such information can be very powerful and then truly makes it easier for all of us to show our innate awesomeness.
And that’s why after reading so many people’s reactions to the Dear Teacher video, I now found myself wanting to give others—beyond just the families at Rady Children’s Hospital—a chance to access those same videos, audios, and handouts.
So, here’s how we can make that happen. Since this is a private site, we do need to ask interested people to first email us at email@example.com, using the subject header: Login Info. After we receive that, we’ll send you the url, user name, and password to log onto that site—but that’s it! You’ll then be able to access everything.
However, there was still another reason I wanted to write this post. Many people commented that they didn’t think the letter should have been addressed to teachers. Rather, such people thought it should have been a Dear Principal, Dear Superintendent, Dear Headmaster, Dear Policy Maker letter.
Many even saw the video’s message as going beyond the field of education, saying the letter could have just as easily started with Dear Parents, Dear Grandparents, Dear Football Coach, Dear Karate Instructor, Dear Therapist, Dear Employer, Dear Clergy, (and my favorite) Dear Actually All of Us.
But why not go with that last suggestion? What if we did each accept a “Dear Actually All of Us” letter? Think how many doors that might open so that everyone could be heard—without judgment—which might then springboard creative solutions that truly honor all of us.
Not realistic, you think? Well, I don’t agree. Turns out some very young kids have already begun that conversation—among no less than 17 million people, worldwide–with just a single letter of a mere 238 words.
It used to be we’d ask, “How are you?” and most people would respond, “Good.”
But today people ask, “How are you?” and the answer often is a long sigh, followed by, “So stressed.”
Somewhere along the line, we’ve become resigned to being stressed—all the time. And adults are no longer the only ones who are stressed. Kids, even very young kids, will now say (and show) that they’re stressed, too.
Now while we all know how it feels to be stressed, we may not be aware of the subtle yet damaging ways chronic stress actually interferes with our daily life. For example, we’re more likely to revert to prior not-so-positive habits whenever we’re stressed. That’s why we can be doing great on our diet—that is until we discover we owe back taxes we hadn’t anticipated. Suddenly we’re reaching for that carton of ice cream.
And while it seems rather cruel, chronic stress actually generates a downward spiral of even more stress! For example, chronic stress can shrink our hippocampus—the part of our brain that saves memories. So, when we can’t remember something for a test or presentation or anything we need to recall—bam! We’re totally stressed, once again.
There’s more. If we’re already stressed, we’re much more likely to trigger our amygdala—the part of the brain that acts like a watchdog to ensure we’re safe. But here’s the problem. When we’re continually stressed, our amygdala is easily triggered even when there’s no danger.
Yet, since our brain thinks otherwise, it still sounds the alarm, telling the brain to release all kinds of hormones to prepare to fight or flee from that imagined impending threat. That alarm also signals the entire body to make a myriad of physiological changes to respond in kind.
But remember—there really wasn’t any danger. So now all that released adrenaline may turn into cortisol. However, elevated levels of cortisol can then interfere with sleep (and who isn’t more stressed from being up most of the night) and wreak havoc on our immune system (and who isn’t more stressed when not feeling well)? In other words, there are physiological reasons why we’re also so tired when we’re so stressed.
But the upside is . . . it’s more than possible to enjoy life without chronic stress.
However, to make that statement a reality, we first have to understand how the brain actually works. Otherwise, we’re probably acting in ways we think are helpful and moving us forward—when, in truth, we’re just continuing to trigger a stress response in our brain—again and again.
Ironically, most of us can go through the entire educational system without ever learning how our brain works, let alone how it’s truly possible for anyone to change his or her current brain’s neurological wiring—at any age. Yet, it turns out we can greatly influence the kind of brain we have. (How cool is that?)
That’s why Brain Highways offers an entertaining, creative way to teach families all about the brain, as well as how to organize it so that it works optimally. When we then apply that information to our daily lives, the changes can be incredible.
For example, such knowledge about the brain makes it possible to remain calm even in the middle of chaos. It makes it possible to feel energized long after others have tired. It makes it possible to do more tasks, with more efficiency, in less time. It makes it possible to have positive interactions with others no matter how they address us.
And, yes, once the brain is working as intended, we also see great improvement in academics, focus, social interactions, coordination, anxiety, and many other areas we may have previously felt stressed about—especially when we didn’t seem to move forward.
But here’s the bottom line: The brain hasn’t changed how it works. It’s the same brain today as it was centuries ago. Yet, we have changed much of how we now spend our days—even though many of those changes are contrary to what our brain needs. Simply put, a brain that doesn’t get what it needs, day after day, is going to be stressed.
So now, more than ever, we need to reject the idea that it’s just “part of life” to be tense and stressed and frazzled and anxious much of our day. Now, more than ever, we need to learn how we can actually create a calm, energized, efficient, well-organized brain.
That’s why learning about the brain is not only fascinating—it can also be life-changing.
Here’s some irony: Much of what we’ve “learned” about learning just isn’t true. So, what fiction is still circulating?
Lie #1: We learn best when we’re still.
Lie #2: We can choose to pay attention.
Even though the brain is amazing, we already know it can only focus on so much at any given time.
For example, think how our concentration becomes impaired whenever we have the flu or a pounding headache.
And that’s similar to what’s going on with people who haven’t completed their lower brain development. When the lower centers aren’t fully developed, the brain is intently focused on basic survival needs—morning, noon, and night—which then makes it very challenging to pay attention to just about anything else. In fact, one could make the case that these people actually concentrate more than those who are viewed as attentive.
Lie #3: IQ does not change.
Suppose we’re given an IQ test after we’ve been up all night and are on a medication with a side effect that makes us dizzy. Do you think our IQ score will be influenced by such variables?
Well, when we administer IQ tests to people who have not completed their lower brain development, we may also not get an accurate score. That’s because such people’s brains are already distracted—only in this case, the cortex is preoccupied by trying to figure out how to compensate for missing automatic brain functions.
Yet, without this understanding, people may believe their IQ scores are etched in stone. For example, at Brain Highways, we’ve worked with many parents who were devastated when they learned their child’s IQ was so low. But when those same kids completed their lower brain development and were re-tested, their IQ scores were now higher—sometimes increasing even as much as 30 points!
Lie #4: Learning thresholds don’t vary among people.
Not only do we have different learning thresholds—where we truly can’t absorb one more piece of information without taking a break—but some of us may hit that wall within minutes of information being presented. Yet, those who do easily concentrate for long blocks of time just can’t seem to fathom how someone could run out of gas so quickly. However, if we’re trying to learn with incomplete lower brain development and retained primitive reflexes, that’s what typically happens.
Lie #5: Learning is linear.
Most curriculums are designed with an assumption that students first learn “A,” then move to “B,” and then to “C,” and so on. Those who do not move forward this way are often viewed as failing.
Yet, in truth, learning is an upward spiral, where we all periodically return to where we’ve been before. This retraceable part of our learning spiral is actually very important. This is where we’re given a chance to either learn previously presented information at an even deeper level, or we’re given an opportunity to absorb something we may have missed altogether at the first pass.
Lie #6: Mistakes are bad.
Whoever initially gave mistakes a bad rap clearly didn’t understand how the brain learns. For example, the brain wraps the most myelin (a fatty substance that covers neurons to help to increase the speed at which information can travel) when it’s actually struggling a bit. And, yes, during that phase of learning, mistakes may appear. But that just means mistakes are an integral part of true learning.
Well, what’s the fallout if we believe one or more of these lies? Plenty. For example, if we think we’re lazy or dumb or unfocused, then we may conclude we’re not capable of great learning—even though we are. In such case, we may stop dreaming of what we might accomplish. And once we stop dreaming, we stop creating. And once we stop creating, we’re no longer able to share our innate gifts with others.
So, maybe it’s time to debunk the lies about learning, and let the world know the truth. Who knows how many brilliant minds may be unleashed?
When our guest blogger, Misha, participated in the Brain Highways online program, she learned how to be her son’s brain facilitator. But for the past 15 years, Misha has also been working in the field of public health. Motivated by what she learned about cortex responses (while in our pons and midbrain courses) and the current reaction of many to Ebola, Misha felt motivated to share her thoughts in this blog. Note that Misha says these opinions are completely her own, lest people try to connect them to an official statement of an organization or group.
It’s all over the news right now and has monopolized conversations. Everyone is talking about Ebola.
What should be our response to all of this news? It’s tempting to be filled with worry, anxiety, and fear. Ebola is a deadly virus to be sure. When we don’t know much about a disease or exactly how we can get it, our mind can fill with panic. Then, instead of staying curious (in our cortex), it’s easy to lose perspective and move into our pons (flight or fight/survival mode).
We’ve also sure seen a lot of finger pointing and blame when it comes to Ebola. Assigning blame, however, doesn’t help make the situation any better, nor does it help us all move forward.
Did you know that many health organizations have had to recently shift a great number of their staff away from their research and important everyday public health work in order to field calls from people who are scared, angry, enraged, and completely panicked? So, instead of being available to frontline workers or finding solutions, they have to use their time to calm the frenzy.
This doesn’t seem like the best use of talent or resources. But this is what happens when we allow the sensationalism of the media and our fear of the unknown, cripple us from logic and appropriate responses.
So what should be our response? What can we do to help? There are a number of cortex-based actions we can employ in a time like this:
-Be a source snob
-Have a grateful heart
Be a Source Snob
Instead of believing everything you hear, let your brain filter information based on fact, reason, data, and trusted sources. On matters such as an infectious disease, you probably aren’t going to get great answers to your questions through headlines, pictures from social media, or sound bytes. There are, however, some really great articles that do a wonderful job of laying out the facts.
What is the anatomy of a good article? A good article or website about Ebola will define what it is, how it’s transmitted, how to prevent it, how it’s treated, what the major symptoms are, and so on.
For example, I read a great article the other day that explained the R nought or R0 number for various diseases. The article explained how contagious a disease is by the number of people that can catch the disease for every one person who is infected. Spoiler alert in case you are wondering: measles, HIV, influenza (the flu), tuberculosis, hepatitis and other viruses have a much larger R0 number than Ebola.
So, lay aside any conspiracy theories, and stay thirsty for knowledge and facts. Become source savvy, and please consider limiting your media diet right now.
I once heard that compassion is really just passion in action. We know that compassion is an important part of our cortex journey. So where do we start?
Keep those in the front lines working with patients, family members, and health workers in your thoughts and prayers. Learn about ways you can support efforts and give generously. Most West African countries lack basic infrastructure to stop the spread of Ebola. Many non-profits that have a well established presence in these communities are requesting funds to purchase hygiene supplies, protective gear, and other needed materials. Truly learn about organizations before you give as, unfortunately, many scammers try to profit from panic.
Stigma is also a huge issue surrounding Ebola. Many people are being shunned, not even being served food or allowed into places of worship because of the stigma surrounding being on a contact list. People need compassion. Think of practical ways you and your family members can help.
Have a Grateful Heart
Finally, perhaps the best way to stay calm amidst the panic is to have a grateful heart. If you went to turn on your shower and warm water came out, think about how blessed you are. Do you have plenty to eat? What a luxury to not know hunger. If you live in a part of the world with great public health infrastructure, don’t take it for granted. Thank an EMT, or firefighter, or healthcare provider. Sometimes, we just need to pause and take the time to count all of our blessings.
By changing our perspective, choosing to practice compassion, refraining from finger pointing, and filtering our information, we are poised to be ambassadors of hope. We can be a voice of reason in our conversations with family, coworkers and friends. We can make a difference and (hopefully) shift the collective energy from panic to peace.
Here’s what commonly happens among Brain Highways participants.
Parents who have multiple children often enroll just the one they view as problematic. To be clear: These parents definitely love that child.
But the Brain Highways participant is the one they’ve identified as being difficult and challenging. Some of those parents even go as far as to say their child is aggressive, disruptive, manipulative, controlling, and more.
However, once that child starts organizing his or her brain and begins to apply the create-a-positive brain approaches included in the course, suddenly . . . there’s a major shift in the home.
That problematic child now becomes the “good” one, while the sibling who was not enrolled starts acting up and becomes the “bad” one. The siblings have just switched roles.
Of course, there’s still chaos in the home. After all, the only change has been the source of the turmoil.
Can’t even count how many times parents have shared that scenario happened once they started the program.
So, what’s going on here? Well, first we have to ask this question: Why might a parent (subconsciously) want one “bad” and one “good” child? It’s a fair question since that crazy shift more than infers the child is not the variable.
To start answering that question, we need to first remember that the brain doesn’t participate in anything, again and again, if it doesn’t perceive some benefit. Since that’s true, then what might be the upside of having a “bad” kid? I know that sounds strange, but (trust me) a parent’s brain is experiencing some benefit if kids in the home just keep shifting back-and-forth in terms of who is good and who is bad.
Here’s a possibility. When kids create chaos in the home, there’s now a distraction.
And then, when we’re distracted by all that mayhem, we can’t possibly have time to reflect on, let alone do, whatever we may need to address in our own lives, right?
For example, maybe we’re subconsciously worried that our spouse is not as connected to us as when we were first married. Or, maybe we’ve been putting off quitting our job or re-entering the work force we left so many years ago.
It doesn’t matter “what” we’re avoiding. The common thread is . . . there’s some kind of fear attached to whatever we’re avoiding—and that fear is then greater than our desire for peace in the home.
Ouch. But that’s why fear does often disrupt our lives in so many ways.
To note: More times than not, we probably have no conscious awareness that we’re avoiding something. But again, that’s the beauty of keeping a distraction in our home, right?
From a brain’s perspective, living in chaos means that we’re hardly ever in our cortex—which then ensures that we have little or no time to ponder and reflect on whatever we are avoiding.
And since living in chaos requires that we expend lots of extra time and energy, here’s the next question: What could we be doing with that time if the chaos was suddenly gone from our lives? Believe it or not, many of our prior participants could not even envision a life without chaos when they first started the program.
Okay, so then why do we also need a “good” kid? Wouldn’t double or triple the amount of “bad” kids create even more chaos? And then, if the subconscious goal is to avoid focusing on something we don’t want to face, wouldn’t even more chaos be better?
True, but we probably also fear that people judge us. If so, then we’ll still need a “good” kid to validate our parenting skills and to deflect the spotlight from shining right on us. In other words, see? It’s not us. Right here is also our “good” child, and he can (fill in the blank) without any problem, and he never (fill in the blank).
That’s why it doesn’t matter which kid is good and which is not. The avoidance set-up works, regardless.
Now, I acknowledge that some parents may think I’m way off here. They may even be angry with me for suggesting there’s a subconscious message that actually invites siblings in a family to step into the role of “bad” kid.
But here’s what I know and have experienced. When parents ponder and then address whatever they are avoiding, the good kid/bad kid set-up goes away.
I also know this. At Brain Highways, there are never “good” or “bad” kids in any of our classes.
I’m not just saying that. When parents first broach the subject of how their “other” child is now causing problems, I always ask, “Are any of the kids in our classes perceived as better than others?”
And they’re always quick to say, “No.”
To which I agree. Even when siblings are enrolled in the same class, there’s no notable difference in their behavior, no matter if one is perceived “good” and the other “bad” when at home.
That’s because there’s only one role for kids in our classes—and that’s the role of “champion.”
Simply put: If kids are given the role of a champion wherever they go—with zero openings for any other role to fill—then only champions will show up.