Anyone who's ever worked with trauma survivors knows the therapeutic challenge of helping them deal with the overwhelming emotional cascade so often triggered by seemingly innocent life events. I recall one client once telling me a story about how even the most mundane errand could leave her in a state of helpless terror. "Yesterday, I was trying to do the grocery shopping," she recounted. "I saw a man who looked like my father, panicked, and almost threw up. I had to leave my cart and get out of the store." Too often, no matter how skillful we may be at helping trauma survivors deal with their emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations, they can be overcome by the bewildering intensity of their feelings.
Five years ago, in search of more effective tools for working with such clients, I attended the annual Attachment Conference at UCLA and there, for the first time, plunged deeply into the scientific thicket of our emerging understanding of early-brain development and neurobiological functioning. In particular, I remember listening to psychiatrist Dan Siegel describing the difference between what happens in an infant's brain when things go well and when things go badly. Suddenly, I felt the mesh between the unimaginably complicated patterns of neural firings he was asking us to picture and the miraculous dance of lived experience and emotional attachment. My response surprised me, since I'm a person who was too squeamish about the inner workings of the body even to take an anatomy course in college. Yet despite all the technical, polysyllabic scientific terms, somehow the intimidating subject of the brain and how it works began to feel warm and nourishing inside me.
Ever since that conference, my own work and the work of my colleagues at the Center for Hope and Healing (CHH) has become more and more focused on how to integrate these new understandings of neuroscience with our clinical work with trauma survivors. We've increasingly come to see our therapeutic task as affecting the brains of our patients and rewiring implicit memories resulting from traumatic events and torn attachments. Instead of a fuzzy sense of how empathy heals, all of us have gradually developed living pictures of new synaptic connections making their way from the calming prefrontal cortex to the agitated amygdala, as our own brains help rewire those of our patients. Paradoxically, as we've tried to ground our work more and more in the science of the brain, we've grown richer in empathy as we've learned to better hold our patients' brains and hearts in our minds. Of course, all of this didn't happen overnight.
After my eye-opening introduction to early-brain development at the UCLA conference, I began to investigate the brain in earnest, joining Siegel's ongoing study group. When it came to understanding the brain, I was just a beginner, joining a group that had been meeting for four years, and I frequently felt as if I were swimming in
a delicious but somewhat incomprehensible neurobiological soup. Fortunately, just as my feelings of being intellectually overwhelmed were becoming unmanageable, a unique opportunity presented itself: to participate in Siegel's first two-day immersion workshop on brain function. The assignment for workshop participants was to read his book The Developing Mind closely enough to be able to teach it to him, and we weren't to know which section we'd be called upon to teach until shortly before the workshop. It's easy to imagine the focus and emotional intensity engendered in us by not wanting to look like fools in front of such a masterful teacher as Dan Siegel!
Armed with pencil, highlighter, flashcards, and determination, I did the necessary thing—I learned the nuts and bolts of interpersonal neurobiology: the details of brain structure and flow, a whole new way to think about emotion, how we shape each other's minds. To feel confident about actually presenting the material, I learned it in as whole-brained a fashion as I could—drawing pictures, applying what I was learning to every social interchange, and talking with all my patients about their brains for the first time.