by Robert Blundo, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW
...the brain is structured with an innate capacity to transcend the boundaries of... its own body in integrating itself with... the world of others. —Dan Siegel
Have you ever wondered why it is that when someone yawns, it is likely that you and others will, too? You are walking down the street and someone on the street stops, looks up, and stares—and suddenly, you have a compulsion to look, too. When we see someone cut their finger, many of us will gasp and feel our own finger pull back—just as you might have just winced when reading these words. These are examples of the social nature of our brains and minds. The significant point is that we do not develop what we refer to as our mind and the brain with the ability to communicate, learn, have memories, express cultural based behaviors and have relationships without significant social interaction and attachments in early childhood and throughout our lives.
Neuroscience recognizes that the brain/mind is dependent on ongoing social relations throughout our lives (Cozolino, 2006; Siegle, 2013; Cacioppo, Visser, & Pickett, 2006). Cozolino, (2006) states that, “As a species, we are just waking up to the complexity of our own brains, to say nothing of how our brains are linked together. We are just beginning to understand that we have evolved as social creatures and that all of our biologies are interwoven” (p. 3).
It is through the physical—including facial expressions, body tensions, physical contact, and hearing language with its tones and subtle emotional meanings—that the brain is brought online to understand, know, behave, and speak. It is through the interactions within a caretaker relationship that the brain of the child initiates neuronal growth, organization, and complexity. Siegel (1999) stated that “the mind develops at the interface of neurophysiological processes and interpersonal relationships” (p. 21).
When I write the words “Golden Gate Bridge,” an immediate image comes to my mind and to your mind, if you have seen the bridge or pictures of it. Through symbolic language, we have—or our minds have—created connections within the brain that are storing the visual and emotional tone that these words represent. When you first saw a picture or saw the bridge in person, you immediately and in a non-conscious moment encoded the complex information that includes the emotional experiences, as well: Oh my, how beautiful, and many other emotions and ideas combine to create your mind’s particular representation of the bridge. By reading these last few statements, your mind has initiated connections that represent the bridge in your own mind.
The experience you have just had will also increase the neural connections and strengthen those already present through a process called neuroplasticity, in which ongoing connections and reconnections are made every second between neurons in complex patterns. Repeating something in order to learn to perform a task builds stronger connections between neurons and increases the number of neurons connecting. This process will make it more likely that you will have an increased potential to recall the bridge (or other information) in the future.
Neuroscience and Social Work
The question for the profession of social work is: how might this new understanding of the social brain/mind change some fundamental concepts found in our literature, taught in social work education, and practiced? A brief example might give clues to what this might look like.
Consider a child growing up under the stress of poverty, possible gang violence, and family stressors. If this young person demonstrates disruptive behaviors and aggression, how might you understand this behavior and how might you intervene at the individual, the community, or the policy level of practice? Any ideas?
When considering the findings in social neuroscience, we discover that a neurobiological process takes place under these conditions that results in poor academic and behavioral performance in school, which is escalated by zero tolerance policies and punishments in the schools. Lynch and Cicchetti (1998) state:
Children exposed to ongoing stress and trauma, such as that associated with exposure to community violence, may develop schemas [models] of the world as a hostile place (Chicchetti and Lynch, 1993, Dodge, 1993) and experience changed attitudes about people, life, and the future (Terr, 1991). Significant figures, such as children’s caregivers, may come to be viewed as incapable of keeping children safe from dangers present in their environment. Likewise, children may feel that they are not worthy of being kept safe, if such beliefs persist, then they may contribute to the development of insecure relationships with caregivers among children living in threatening and violent environments. (pp. 756-757)
Further, this stressful context results in increased and constant amounts of cortisol damaging the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with emotions, learning, and memory formation. In this scenario, the consequence of this damage is the inability to form and store explicit memories (including factual material, as well as autobiographical memories) so important in learning in schools, and thus, students have problems with academic achievement.
The consequences for the functions of the amygdala, which processes negative and threatening events and creates emotionally laden implicit memories, involves non-conscious processes that include perceptions, emotions, bodily sensations, and behavioral responses and is set to prime behavioral responses to assumed and real threatening events. It becomes increasingly sensitive to negative events in the world and school.
The development of the amygdala in the primitive brain structures evolved to enable a person to react immediately, without thinking, to threats to one’s life—the fight, flight, or freeze responses. It is uniquely always on station, so to speak, watching for any potential threat from the environment. It is on automatic pilot, and unless the person was raised in a secure and safe environment, it creates immediate reactions rather than thoughtful responses that are generated in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.
These negative events have very strong neural connections built up over time, and thus are easily activated in the presence of any negative event or any event interpreted by the child as negative, such as a loud voice—even when not directed at the child. This automatic interpretation initiates defensive behavior that is challenging to the decorum of the school classroom, and thus starts a cycle of aggressive behaviors and negative reprimands, further escalating the incident (Lynch & Cicchetti, 2002).
It is not that the child has not been properly parented or some belief that they should know what is appropriate behavior in school. They are not merely choosing to be defiant, but are responding to what they experience as an unsafe situation. The damage to the hippocampus also results in a lack of development and connections between the hippocampus and amygdala with the prefrontal cortex, where the ability to judge and make flexible responses occurs, rather than just reacting to situations. The pre-frontal cortex is also the area that enables us to pay attention and focus on tasks.
So, many of the behavioral problems and learning difficulties are the consequences of the conditions of poverty and stress on the neurological development of the child. The stress is also affecting the neurological systems of the parents and siblings.
These important findings also point to the fact that these neurological structures and process can be changed. Because of neuroplasticity—the ability of neurons to reconnect and make new pathways, as well as repair the hippocampus—interventions are available to assist children in restructuring their brains and neuronal connections. Social-emotional learning and mindfulness meditation are potential mediators of stress-based functioning.
Interventions based on social neuroscience, such as MindUp (see http://www.thehawnfoundation.org/mindup/), have been developed. This program is used within schools to teach children how the brain functions and its relationship to their emotions. Importantly, MindUp develops a curriculum of mindfulness or a form of meditation that develops the ability of being aware or focused in the moment. The ability to remain focused or attentive is required for comprehension, memory, and learning. Being attentive enhances the ability to be aware of one’s own emotions and the emotions of others, permitting better social interactions. This program requires an all-out effort to shift a school setting to one of mindfulness training, compassion, and caring. The time devoted to these efforts pays off in better learning and successful children.
Given this brief introduction and scenario, consider how this new understanding will affect the social work curriculum. Consider this in terms of policy issues, human development and the social environment, nature vs. nurture, social justice, diversity, and potential practice approaches around many different human problems.
For example, what impact might this have on social work’s traditional mix of multiple theories and models of child development? When engaging a child just described, how might your present practice model be changed?
Change is very hard. The profession of social work has much invested in the present sets of models and theories, and it will be a difficult shift away from what is comfortable, traditional, and familiar. Neuroscience and cognitive science demonstrate that it is very difficult to change one’s perspective. The mind has a way of rationalizing and sustaining what we believe to be true.
The integration of evidence from neuroscience, social neuroscience, interpersonal neuroscience, and mindfulness challenges me to consider the incorporation of mindfulness into the practice curriculum as a tool to assist my students to do better in the classroom, and to increase their social-emotional learning, resulting in greater empathy and compassion toward clients. This practice will also prepare students to use mindfulness and neuroscience as an intervention with clients.
Human behavior and the social environment content would need to rethink the numerous developmental theories taught and consider the social brain as a significant shift in how we understand behavior and the social environment as being a whole and not separate. In turn, policy would need to consider the impact of the social brain in the development of guidelines and programs to be used, such as mentioned above in our example. How might we view poverty now, given what we have just read? How would we talk about policy addressing poverty with this new understanding?
Acknowledging these new findings is the first step toward integrating them into our future curriculums and practice. As a social worker and a teacher, I hope ways will be found to help make this shift sooner, rather than later.
Cacioppo, J. T., Visser, P. S., & Pickett, C. L. (Eds). (2005). Social neuroscience: People thinking about thinking people. Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Cicchetti, D., & Lynch, M. (1993). Toward an ecological/transactional model of community violence and child maltreatment: Consequences for children’s development. Psychiatry, 56, 96-118.
Cozolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Dodge, K. A. (1993) Social-cognitive mechanisms in the development of conduct disorder and depression. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 559-584.
Lynch, M., & Cicchetti, D. (1998). An ecological-transactional analysis of children and contexts: The longitudinal interplay among child maltreatment, community violence, and children’s symptomatology. Development and Psychopathology, 10, 235-257.
Lynch, M., & Cicchetti, D. (2002). Links between community violence and the family
system: Evidence from children’s feelings of relatedness and perceptions of parent behavior. Family Process, 41, 519-532.
Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind. New York: Guilford.
Siegel, D. (2013). Mindfulness and psychotherapy (2nd Ed.). New York: Guilford.
Terr, L. (1991). Childhood traumas: An outline and overview. American Journal of Psychiatry, 148, 10-20.
Robert Blundo, Ph.D., MSW, LCSW, is a professor in the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Wilmington.