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Currently Browsing: Brain Development

The Baskin-Robbins Approach to Diagnosing Kids and Adults

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The DSM guide lists many, many mental health conditions, yet overlooks a common thread that may tie many of those diagnoses together.

I was recently talking with one of our Brain Highways parents, and we were discussing kids who act as though they (rather than the adults) are in charge.  The parent nodded, saying, “Yes, my child definitely has Alpha Dog Syndrome.”

Now here’s the sad part. I actually paused a moment before I realized she was making a joke.

But I also cut myself some slack.  That’s because, right now, there are so many diagnoses for kids and adults that Alpha Dog Syndrome doesn’t really seem like much of a stretch.

For example, guess what’s now included in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the holy grail guide that doctors refer to in terms of what’s a “true” diagnosis or not? Irritable kids who throw frequent temper tantrums may now be diagnosed as having “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.”

And most recently, a group of Australian scientists say extreme laziness may have a medical basis, describing it as a condition called motivational deficiency disorder—MoDeD.

Seriously. I’m not making any of this up.

Apparently, the trend of creating mental diseases to “fit” a behavior is nothing new. For example, after studying runaway slaves who had been caught and returned to their owners, Louisiana physician Samuel A. Cartwright became convinced he had discovered a new mental disease. So, in 1851, the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal reported that these slaves suffered from drapetomania, a disease that caused them to flee.

Somehow, having a desire for freedom became a medical condition.

But before we shake our heads and judge how such a notion could have ever appeared in a medical journal, we might pause and ponder who (in the future) will do the very same when reviewing all the diagnoses that we now slap on both adults and kids.

Please note: I’m not saying there are no mental health conditions. But the current trend is what I’ve come to think of as the Baskin-Robbins marketing strategy.

When this famous ice cream company first presented to the world that there were now thirty-one flavors of ice cream (who knew?!), consumers readily bought the concept. So many choices!

And yet, it’s not all that different when it comes to diagnosing today’s mental health conditions. So many choices!

Also, keep this in mind: The diagnoses in the DSM guide are often made by pure subjective evaluation, based solely on observed behavior—and nothing more. In other words, these diagnoses do not come about in the same way a doctor may diagnose cancer—where cancer cells truly differ from normal cells when looking at a biopsy.

Regardless, this influential guide is what’s considered the credible source that draws the line between what is normal and what is not. That’s even more concerning when we note the following: According to Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, more than 46 percent of the U.S. population will meet the criteria for at least one DSM diagnosis during their lifetime.

That means this guide has an awful lot of power that may then greatly affect many people’s lives—from determining whether or not someone qualifies for special education services or disability benefits to whether someone may be prescribed and treated with a variety of drugs.

But what if there’s a different way of viewing those very same behaviors that are presently justifying a diagnosis?

Turns out . . . that’s not just wishful thinking. After 14+ years of working with over 6,000 families in the Brain Highways program, I have long lost count of all the different diagnoses that have come my way. But there was always this common thread: Such kids and adults had not yet completed their lower brain development.

This isn’t really surprising when we note how behaviors associated with such underdevelopment so closely parallel those that are used as the criteria for mental health conditions such as ADHD, bipolar disease, autism, OCD, and more.

Yet, here’s the big difference when we view such behaviors as symptoms of underdeveloped lower centers of the brain as compared to symptoms of a disease.  We can actually do something about the former. That’s because neuroplasticity, the brain’s proven ability to change, makes it possible to go back and finish that development—at any age.

That way of thinking, in itself, is often a great catalyst for change, since research has also documented how our beliefs are so interconnected to how we act and how we expect others to behave.

In other words, a diagnosis almost always comes with restrictions and parameters as to what we may now “expect” from that person—like forever. Yet, none of that limited thinking is even on the radar when the focus is on completing lower brain development. Neuroplasticity is all about hope and curiosity in regards to how life might improve once those highways are in place.

Now, it should be noted that Baskin-Robbins has long surpassed offering just thirty-one flavors, as they continue to add more and more selections. As far as the ice cream world goes, I don’t see that as a problem.

But as a trend that seems to be presenting the newest “flavor” (i.e. disease) of the month, I am worried. So, I am encouraging everyone to pass along what’s been excluded from the DSM guide. Namely, symptoms of incomplete lower brain development may mimic symptoms of many of today’s diagnoses.

Seems like people should (at least) know this possibility exists, especially considering how so many diagnoses come with some pretty serious ramifications.

Expect the Unexpected with Brain Organization

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Heidi Guthrie, mom of Gigi and Dominic, is our guest blogger.

Although the Guthries live in Mexico, they crossed the border (every Sunday enduring long crossing-the-border lines) and then drove yet another 40 miles to get to the San Diego Brain Highways Center—just to attend the local pons program. They did this twice a week, for two months. (Impressive!)

Here, Heidi writes about the unforeseen changes she and her kids have experienced since they began Brain Highways eight weeks ago.

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The Guthries prove that any family member can change his or her brain.

When we started Brain Highways, my husband and I really thought that our daughter was the one who needed the class. But we also enrolled our son because we thought . .  .  well, why not?

So imagine our surprise when our son started making huge changes, and many of the things we thought my daughter needed to improve truly went away just by building into the structure.

Turns out, we all really needed the class, least of all my daughter!

Here are some changes we experienced after finishing the pons course and clocking 24 hours of floor time.

For myself, the improvement in my vision was completely unexpected. After 25 years of continuously worsening vision, my vision in one eye has now improved one complete point (which is a big deal by this measuring assessment).  My left eye now actually sees like it did 10 years ago!

I also have more patience and more awareness of my reactions. This helps me choose to pause and respond from my cortex rather than react from my pons, contributing to a more peaceful home environment. (Not bad for just 24 hours of brain organization.)

My daughter, Gigi, has improved her concentration. She used to resist reading of any kind, but she’ll now read without complaint and even asks to go to the library. Also, the bickering with her brother has vastly improved, and I see her trying to take care of business (a high level cortex way of expression that we learned during the course) when they communicate.

At school, Gigi’s teachers have commented on her improved schoolwork, which is reflected in her grades.  Gigi will now also sleep with the door closed (she previously had a distorted fear that the door had to remain open all night), and she has learned to stop trying to negotiate everything—she just goes with the flow.

My son, Dominic, used to hold a book while looking toward the ceiling and “guessing” at the words. He now asks to read and does so daily without complaint. His teachers have noticed improved school work, especially commenting on how his handwriting has changed (we learned—and have now experienced—that poor handwriting can be directly related to retained primitive reflexes).

Dominic also used to avoid eye contact while talking. But now, not only has his eye contact improved, but his optometrist also says his eye tracking is spot on.

At home, Dominic doesn’t provoke and needle his sister like he used to. He is more forgiving of himself when he makes a mistake, telling himself and others that they’re just “wrapping myelin.” I actually haven’t heard negative self-talk from him in over a month.

In fact, Dominic recently applied some of what he learned about negative self-talk (in the pons course) while at school.  One of his second grade classmates was talking very negatively about himself, while also doing other behaviors that Dominic recognized as being in “his pons.”

Dominic’s teacher shared with me that she overheard him telling his classmate that negative self-talk is a “never-ever” and then showed his classmate how he could just “slip-n-slide” those thoughts away!

Dominic has also taken to heart something else he learned during the pons course. Dominic won’t allow anyone to start a positive sentence and then say “but” and then continue with that thought, without letting everyone know how doing that just erased anything positive that was said in the first part!

Lastly, did I mention . . . no more whining!!!!!

So, what’s next? Well, on to developing our midbrain!  Ironically, that’s actually the class we thought we’d see some changes in when we first began. Little did we know . . .

Are There Hecklers in Your Brain?

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Once we're content with who we are and what we have, we experience a lot more joy.

When families finish their Brain Highways midbrain course, we ask the parents to list all the ways their kids have changed since first starting their brain organization. The list is always long and full of wonderful changes.

But sometimes, the parent ends that list by noting what still hasn’t changed—even though the question doesn’t ask for that information (since everyone knows the brain organization is not complete at that point in time).

So, I often find myself sighing because that last sentence reminds me how we seem to create what I’ve come to think of as a cluster of “scarcity highways” in our brain. I picture this as a group of neural connections that continually perpetuate the illusion that . . . we are never enough, or we never have enough of something. Think how many unproductive thoughts reflect this kind of thinking:

  • I’m not smart enough.
  • I’m not pretty enough.
  • I’m not thin enough.
  • I don’t have enough money.
  • I don’t have enough time for myself.
  • My house isn’t big enough.
  • My boyfriend isn’t nice enough.
  • My essay isn’t good enough.

The list goes on.

Yet, this “not enough” cluster of highways is crazy because we’ve created this fiction. But since the brain has no clue what’s real or not, it just believes whatever we tell it.

For example, we may make $50,000 a year, but if we don’t believe that’s a “good enough” income, we may even quit a job we actually like in search of something more lucrative.

Yet, even if the new job pays more, we’re still going to it with the same scarcity cluster that we had at the old job. So, once again, those neural networks will light up as soon as we think the new job isn’t close enough to home or this boss isn’t organized enough or our office space isn’t big enough—and more.

Of course, something has to trigger this cluster, and I’ve come to imagine two kinds of hecklers as the main culprits. There are the judging hecklers, who keep telling us how we’ve somehow fallen short, and there are the comparison hecklers, who keep pointing out how we’re lacking what someone else already has. Both hecklers constantly pick on us, always pointing out how we are just not good enough.

But, again, we’re the ones who write this fiction. We’re the ones who make up the stories where we believe we truly lack something within ourselves or something we need. Yet if we’re the author, then why not write a whole new story . . . with a happier ending?

If you’re interested in doing just that, here are some simple ways to get started.

1. Bounce the hecklers.

Honestly, if we’d just silence those hecklers (okay, why be polite) . . . if we’d just tell our brain hecklers to “Shut up!” then that cluster would be toast. Simply, a scarcity cluster depends on and thrives on our brain believing what others tell us is the absolute truth.

2. Create a new cluster of “abundance” highways.

So instead of thinking our house isn’t “big enough,” we focus on what we already have. And then . . . wow. Suddenly, we appreciate the roof and walls that keep the rain and wind and snow out of our home, the running hot and cold water that we turn on or off whenever we want, the warm bed we crawl into every night, the lights that go on with a flick of a switch, and more. 

3.  Ignore the negative influencers.

These aren’t just Grandma Mildred (who’s known for her harsh criticism) or our dad (who always reminds us that our sister makes twice the amount of money that we do). Such influencers also masquerade in the media as daily messages on television and the internet that tell us we’re not thin enough, not healthy enough, not savvy enough, not hip enough, and more.  And if that weren’t enough, the 24-hour news cycle continually reminds us of this: Anything bad can happen–at any moment—so we’re never safe enough.

4. Savor joy when you feel it.

When we don’t feel safe enough, we greatly reduce our ability to feel joy. That’s because even when things are going well, we immediately start imagining some impending disaster, just around the corner. Yet, as soon as we do that, bam!  We zap the joy right out of the moment.

So, what do you think? Do people all over the world have scarcity clusters in their brain?

I’m not so sure. Many, many moons ago I lived in the jungles of Mexico and Central America with people who most would deem as truly having very little. Yet, in all my interactions with them, I don’t ever recall anyone saying he or she didn’t have enough of anything.  In fact, these people seemed so grateful for whatever they did have.

I also remember the results of a study that one of my college professors conducted in the shanty towns of Tijuana. The researchers studied how the Tijuana kids—who owned no toys (this was long before electronic devices were available) or sports equipment or board games—“played.” They then compared the Tijuana kids to kids in the United States, who grew up with lots of toys, equipment, and board games.

Hands down, the kids from the Tijuana shanty towns outshined the American kids. Time and time again, they demonstrated incredible creative, imaginative, resourceful, and joyful play that the American kids never even came close to showing.

Of course, we don’t have to live in a jungle or shanty town to understand this bottom line:

We can write any story we want in our brain—and most of all, we don’t need anyone’s approval to edit one that hasn’t been serving us well.

Brain Highways

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At 12 years old, Rebekah is by far our youngest guest blogger.

Rebekah is our guest blogger.  She recently took a risk when she wrote an essay on Brain Highways for a school assignment. Until then, she had not shared with anyone (other than her family) how she had been organizing her brain. 

But In Rebekah’s essay, we get to “experience” a community screening session through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl. She holds nothing back in regards to what she thinks about her first time at the Brain Highways Center.  Yet, at the end of the essay, Rebekah shares incredible insights and reflections about her experience organizing her brain over the past four months. And at that point, it’s hard to believe Rebekah is just 12.

There is a life changing class called Brain Highways. The basic concept of Brain Highways is that when we were babies we crept and crawled, and while we did, our brain got developed because of those movements. If we didn’t do as much creeping and crawling as we should have, because of all the strollers and playpens, our brain isn’t fully developed.

When our brain is being developed, neurons connect and make ‘highways.” So when our highways aren’t complete, we walk around with what’s called a “disorganized brain.”

When kids have a disorganized brain, they may not feel full, get overly anxious, have irrational behavior, get distracted and go off topic really easily, talk a lot or talk too little, and lose their place when reading.

It turns out that almost everyone has an underdeveloped brain. We just learn to live with it. As we get older, it gets more difficult to cope with, so we get overwhelmed. It really stinks to be underdeveloped.

There is still hope! When people go to Brain Highways, they “go back in time” and creep and crawl like a baby would and that connects the neurons we should have connected and we have a completed brain! The cool thing is that it’s never too late to do the class. There are four year olds and people who are eighty who did it!

When my mom heard about Brain Highways, she wanted me to go with her to go check it out. I didn’t want to go. I had seen all the videos on their website (brainhighways.com) and I thought they were funny and interesting, but I didn’t want that extra work in my life. At the moment, the concept was silly; creeping on our bellies and crawling like a dog.

“Mom! I don’t want to go! I’ll look ridiculous!” I would whine. “This is going to be soooo embarrassing! Arggg!”

Then my mom would sigh and say, “Rebekah, have a good attitude about this. Now, I’m going. Are you?

Eventually I agreed to go. It was a long drive from San Diego to Encinitas, and I thought we would never make it. I thought about how ridiculous and stupid this was. When we walked, or in my case, “slouched” into the center, I saw a bunch of kids creeping on the floor. I looked at them with disgust. Why would I want to be with them, making a fool out of myself?

We were taken to a back room with about 6 to 7 other kids. There were mostly boys and all of them were 6 to 10 years old, and being the only 12 year old was awkward. The parents had to stay behind to talk or something. I didn’t want to leave them, but I followed all the other kids in the room.

The room was filled with toys like silly putty, slinkies, squishy things, and building blocks. There were a few pictures of kids playing with toys on the wall. One of the adults came over and invited me to a game with a few other kids. I thought that playing with building blocks was for kids, but I eventually gave in.

While I was playing with those stupidly silly toys, my mom and the other parents were watching a video on Brain Highways and red flags for an underdeveloped pons and that sort of stuff.

Then they took us out of the back room and did a bunch of screenings to see how developed our brains were.

First, they had us creep down a lane and then crawl down a lane. Unfortunately, my shirt kept on sticking to the floor. Then the director, Nancy, took out a pencil with a weird pencil topper on it

“Follow it with just your eyes,” Nancy said to me. I did, and she started talking to me. We talked about school, how annoying English can be, and why we need to learn long division when we have calculators. Or at least she talked. I sort of said a few words, and Nancy said that I did that because my brain was so occupied with following the pencil that I didn’t want to talk. I guess it makes sense, but I probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk even if she wasn’t assessing my eye tracking skills.

Next, she had us stand on one leg while she talked to us. Again, I didn’t want to talk. I passed the “she can balance” assessment, but didn’t pass the balance and “talk at the same time” assessment for the same reason I couldn’t track the pencil and talk at the same time.

After that, Nancy talked a bit more to us kids about Brain Highways. My mom signed me up (against my will) and we went home.

On Sundays and Tuesdays I would go the center and some other kids in my class and I would creep and crawl together. The director could think of some pretty wild games to play while creeping. After that we got assignment sheets on what to do in the week like activities, ideas for games, and statistics on how we were doing as far as our brain development.

I have to admit it isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but it gets easier and easier.

Everybody thinks I’m crazy for thinking that moving like a baby will help my brain, and I totally get it, but it’s that kind of thing where you have to do it to understand it. Every once in a while some new kids will come in for that first screening session. They see me creeping, and they look at me with the same distain that I once looked at the other kids. I just share a private giggle at how much their life will change.

As I look back and think of what I was and what I am, it doesn’t really matter how ridiculous I might have looked. It doesn’t matter how much time and energy it took. I have seen the change in me and the other kids in the class, and it was totally worth it to have a developed brain and an easier life!

Footnote: Rebekah’s teacher praised her greatly for both her essay and her skill as a writer (noting her incredible, mature  “voice” throughout her work), along with a comment that said: “I’d say creeping and crawling have certainly paid off!”

A 4-Year-Old Proves the Brain Can Change

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As the brain “wakes up,” it becomes easy to do what seemed impossible in the past.

Jin Xiong is our guest blogger. She is presently participating in the Brain Highways program with her son and husband.

When we started the Brain Highways pons course for our 4-year-old son, we already had completed 2.5 years of all kinds of therapies, as well as received many diagnoses: Autism, Oral Apraxia, Limb Dyspraxia, Global Development Delay (the list goes on).

Needless to say, when we came to Brain Highway for the initial assessment, we didn’t really believe it could help. We thought: Sure, this might be a program that works for everyone else, but not our son. Yet, we still decided to enroll.

We definitely struggled the first week. However, by week 2, we started to see changes! For example, I took my son to a playground with stairs. When he was done fidgeting with chains on the lower half of the playground, he decided to go to the higher part.

But for the first time ever, he just walked on the stairs, without holding anything, alternating his steps, walking straight up all nine stairs!  I couldn’t believe what I just saw!

Walking up stairs—and with zero assistance—was HUGE for him. During our two years of physical therapy, they always told us that our son had low tone and that he needed to be stronger to do such things on his own. But right there–he did it!  He actually did it without even looking.  He appeared so natural walking up the stairs, just like everybody else!

And then his occupational therapist started to see changes in him. Suddenly, he had a better arousal level. He was no longer lying on the floor for the whole session, waiting for someone to rock him or swing him. He was now showing initiative by going over to equipment that he preferred.

Next, we noticed he had a better attention span, staying with in an activity for a much longer period of time. For example, previously he’d do two rounds of Ring around the Rosie—and then just walk away. But now, he was doing five or six repetitions, and all with a great smile.

Overall, our son seems so much more aware about his environment. He now pays attention when people walk by. He will turn to you when you call him. He just seems to be more organized and just seems to have extra energy that then makes it easier for him to pay attention to the world.

His scribble pattern has started to change, as well. Initially, he would just hold a piece of chalk and do a few scribbles, all while looking elsewhere. But now, he’s starting to make vertical lines—and lots of them, as well as arcs, all starting from the same point. Then one day we noticed three circles on the board!  And while he’s creating, he’s now completely focused on what he is doing.

And today, Week 5 of the pons course, he tried to put on his Crocs sandals. I noticed he lined up the shoes wrong—the left shoe was in front of the right foot and vice-versa. But before I could correct that, I was distracted by something else.

Yet, when I eventually turned to help him, I saw him rearranging the shoes so that they were now in front of the correct foot—and then I watched him carefully put his foot in each shoe!

I was very excited! We had never really even taught him how to do that!  While this may not seem like a big deal to many people, it shows that my son does have the ability to differentiate position and do a sequential action.

Best of all, I realize that this is all just the beginning of so many more wonderful changes that will continue to happen. Since we’ve begun Brain Highways, my son has a whole new way of looking at the world, so I’m eager to see what’s going to change next!

And, I’m very grateful  . . .  that through my son, I now know that the brain truly can change, once given a chance to do so.

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Update on Nathan (from Jin)

After Nathan finished the pons and midbrain classes, he clocked another 50 hours of floor time. So, altogether, Nathan has now done 125 hours of brain organization work (We plan to resume floor time now that my baby is a little bigger.) 

When I originally shared the changes Nathan experienced while in the pons course, he had only completed16 hours of floor time at that time. As his brain keeps developing, we continue to see more and more changes.

Nathan’s teacher definitely saw him change throughout the year.  For example, his teacher said that his processing time (to respond) became much shorter. It used to seem like he couldn’t even   hear someone talking to him, or he’d take really long time to respond. But now, even if you call to Nathan from a distance, he will immediately start looking at you.

We also notice that when we’re at the zoo or near a lake, if we say, “Look, there’s a duck,” he now actually stops whatever he is doing at that moment and looks around. That never happened before.

About half-way through the midbrain class, Nathan finally understood the concept of throwing, and he can now throw overhead, using one arm or both arms. That had been delayed for years!

He also runs much better now. It used to be more like a fast walk, but now it’s a real running pattern.

Even walking seems to be easier. He can go a longer distance, walking with us with a good energy level from beginning to end, with no whining, no wanting to be carried, and no more needing reinforcers. And he asks to go for a walk every day.

Climbing has become easier, and the monkey bars now make sense to him.

He now also gets the idea of steering a tricycle or bike — left hand pull, right hand push, turn left and more. And he’s even able to turn while he keeps peddling. These may be lots of things others take for granted as being easy, but this all used to be impossible or so hard for him.

Just recently, Nathan put the body parts of a potato head into each correct spot—something that his teachers and ABA therapists had tried to teach him for years. I think he now has a better understanding of objects’ relative spatial position.

We’re looking forward to Nathan continuing to develop his lower centers of the brain so that he can just keep experiencing life in many more ways!

Here’s Nathan riding his bike for the first time in public:

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