“Every time we make a promise and fail to keep it, an angel loses her wings and gets booted out of heaven.”
One of the very first posts I made to this blog, almost 8 years ago, was on something I made up called The Big Brain Question. I didn’t make it up out of whole cloth, however. I based the question on my own personal experience, anecdotal reports from friends, colleagues and clients, and a considerable amount of data from attachment research, pre- and peri-natal developmental psychology, traumatology, polyvagal theory, social neuroscience and somatic psychotherapy. All that research is probably best summarized by Karl Pribram of Holographic Brain fame, who wrote: “The most basic human brain function is the regulation of arousal.” The Big Brain Question is all about arousal regulation.
The primary way the brain regulates hypo-arousal is with excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate and acetylcholine – those are the neurotransmitters that get energy (action-potentials) flowing. Hyper-arousal or over-excitability, on the other hand, uses inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA, glycine and serotonin – to calm us down. Those twin binary processes are what the brain spends most of its day attempting to keep in balance. What becomes quite evident is that actions we take or fail to take, are the result of complex processes that mostly operate outside our control – as much as we might like to think otherwise. Positive answers to The Big Brain Question help us develop our own capacity for self-regulating arousal. They help us begin to gain more control.
A Well-Regulated Excitatory Brain Neuron …
When I was about 10 years old, I recall a sticky summer evening in the housing projects. It was getting dark and I was sitting on the front porch with my sister and her girlfriend whom I had a crush on. In the middle of playing and flirting, my mother suddenly appeared at the front screen door and announced, “Time to come in and wash up for bed.”
I balked. She insisted. When she opened the screen door to come out and try to grab me, I bolted from the porch, raced to the sidewalk, stumbled on the curb and went flying face-first full into the gravel-filled street. My mother had caught up to me by this time, and my spontaneous, desperate plea to her was, “Please don’t take me to the hospital. Please don’t take me to the hospital” (At age 4 I’d had my tonsils out under general anesthesia. As a result I experienced an unconscious traumatic “freeze response,” and had inexplicably and unconsciously become terrified of any potential return to any hospital at any time, ever).
My mother checked my injuries, made sure there were no broken bones, and then took me back inside the apartment to clean and bandage the deep gash over my right eye (still visible and holding somatic memory more than a half century later!). All the while she assured me that we would not need to go to the hospital.
Because my own brain networks were immature and were not up to the task of self-soothing in those hyper-aroused moments, my mother’s brain had to serve as an external arousal regulator. In effect, in that moment, she was positively answering The Big Brain Question “Yes” for me when my own brain could not.
This is one critical, essential function that parents and other adults need to provide to children (and often other adults in times of great stress). Because the emotional centers of our brains don’t have sufficient connections to enable them to self-soothe – to self-regulate – when we’re kids, that soothing needs to be provided externally. This is fundamentally what neuropsychiatrist Bruce Perry taught a class of kindergartners to do for Peter, a Romanian orphan, when Bruce went to Peter’s class and taught them brain science – one of the most important things those kindergartners learned that year.
Keep Your Word
Promises made and kept are another way to positively answer The Big Brain Question. Healthy parents make a number of implicit promises to their children. They promise to provide a home, food, safety, guidance, loving connection. In healthy homes these things are provided as a matter of course. As such, they become a given – implicitly wired into our neural network. The result: as adults we mostly take them for granted.
Parents also make explicit promises. They agree to take us to a movie, buy us a computer game for our birthday, let us have a friend sleep over, etc. If our parents are reliable and trustworthy and know the importance of giving their word and keeping it, we come to expect that behavior, too as a matter of course. Over time, with repetition, the explicit becomes implicit. Until the first time it doesn’t. Promises made and unkept violate a fundamental neurological need. They deliver a resounding “No” as the answer to The Big Brain Question.
But here’s something we only rarely come to realize: when we, as a parent (or simply as a person), make a promise and don’t keep it, the angel that gets booted out of heaven … is us! It’s our brain – our Vigilant Sentinel or Spy Consciousness (to use a term from neuroscientist Mike Gazzaniga) – watches everything we do. And then it goes about unconsciously making up stories about us – who we are, how much we can be counted on, what we’re worth, etc. And unfortunately for you and me, all those stories get delivered to our unconscious where they constantly operate behind the scenes, silently and surreptitiously regulating excitatory and inhibitory neurons, constantly arguing for or against our self-limitations, mostly under the radar of awareness.
Bottomline: Be extremely mindful of the promises you make. Your brain health and balance and self-esteem depends on it.
And now, with that said – as promised – here’s a regularly scheduled Enchanted Loom on one of the best-selling neuroscience books of all time.