Thursday, March 26, 2009


This explanation/map of the brain is the best I’ve found so far. It’s from “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.” (p. 21 in the pb).

“Our four brain areas are organized in a hierachical fashion: bottom to top, inside to outside. A good way to picture it is with a little stack of dollar bills -- say five. Fold them in half, place them on your palm and make a hitchhiker’s fist with your thumb pointing out. Now, turn your fist in a “thumbs down” orientation. Your thumb represents the brain-stem, the tip of your thumb being where the spinal cord merges into the brainstem; the fatty part of your thumb would be the diencephalon; the folded dollars inside your fist, covered by your fingers and hand, would be the limbic system; and your fingers and hand, which surround the bills, represent the cortex. When you look at the human brain, the limbic system is completely internal; you cannot see it from the ouside, just like those dollar bills. Your little finger, which is now oriented to be the top and front, represents the frontal cortex.

“While interconnected, each of thee four main areas controls a separate set of functions. The brainstem, for example, mediates our core regulatory functions such as body temperature, heart rate, respiration and blood pressure. The diencephalon and the limbic system handle emotional responses that guide our behavior, like fear, hatred, love and joy. The very top part of the brain, the cortex, regulates the most complex and highly human functions such as speech and language, abstract thinking, planning and deliberate decision making. All of them work in concert, like a symphony orchestra, so while there are individualized capacities, no one system is wholly responsible for the sound of the ‘music’ you actually hear.”

What is striking and revelatory about Perry’s work is that he saw that deficits in functioning could be due to a flaw in any one of those levels, that the glitches in the most basic levels would be underlying the more obvious “higher” functional problems, and that (since, as he repeats often, the brain is an historical record) the organic and very real deep problems would have been laid down at the time that part of the brain developed. (Development never really ends, but the main unfolding program is complete in the early twenties.) It was often thinking through the relationship between the history of the person and their present difficulties that made it possible to find a solution.

There is no solution to some of the problems. For instance, a deficit resulting from the sensory starvation imposed at birth by isolation and confinement will cause the brain to simply be too small and limited to become fully human. One of those starvation is “skin hunger” which was demonically imposed at the time when pediatricians believed in a sterilized set of rules about not getting emotionally involved with infants. (At that time they also believed newborns and pre-borns could not feel pain and so they were provided no anesthesia if surgery became necessary.) Isolation is also imposed on children by crazy people who need social intervention -- if you can find out about the kids they keep in closets and cages. Or maybe the most notorious tragedy was the huge number of babies in orphanages in the Eastern European countries who were kept like pigs in industrial hog operations -- each in its own small crib -- staying alive by reaching to each other between cribs and inventing their own language. In some ways this neglect damaged them as much as infecting them with HIV contaminated blood meant to make them stronger, since they weren’t thriving.

Dr. Perry is eloquent about the need for rhythm in brain development: first the mother’s heart-beat, then the rocking in her arms, the rhythm of walking, then music. He has good success when children with this deficit are put into rhythm classes, Orph be praised! And then there’s Mama P who thinks no one is too old for a lap and a rocking chair. (In the early colonial days, very old folks were sometimes kept in giant cradles that could be gently rocked on the hearth. Of course, in rural places there was the rhythm of milking and churning butter.)

To develop social intelligence, brains must be in a community. Perry feels we have tragically created a society where community is broken, isolated people struggle with depression all alone, sucking what ought to be their own memories off of the television screen. We make our memories, he says, and our memories make us. So is it any wonder that so many people are flat and glassy?

Oddballs are shut out in our society. Kids with brain deficits, like autistic kids, can become victims or isolates in kid society, learning to be withdrawn for self-protection or aggressive to create some space for themselves. Perry had good results in a primary class when he asked the kids to help his patient as a new student. He explained the brain problem that had left the boy’s reaction askew so that the little kids wouldn’t be alarmed at his slightly off-center behavior, and suggested ways to guide him back to the norm. The kids turned out to be brilliant therapists.

Among the most interesting ideas are Perry’s understanding of our internal drug systems and how behavior is often a way of triggering those internal opiates and adrenalines. One girl, faced with the possibility of the return of an abuser, went into something like catatonia. The doctors couldn’t figure it out. Perry felt it was very much like a heroin overdose, flooding the system into a state called “dissociation.” He gave her the heroin antidote (which is safe enough that he feels confident letting private individuals carry it, just in case) and immediately she “woke up.” (This was a literary gimmick in the movie called “Orlando,” the protagonist faced with impossible conflicts slept through every effort to wake him/her up for a while. Sleeping Beauty Syndrome. Snow White had it, too.)

So, to review, the human brain is an accumulative organ; early deficits will cause later “higher” systems to malfunction; a rich environment with supportive people in it, lots of music and movement, will create a large dense brain with lots of connecting neurons; such a brain needs ideas, community, stimulation, and rewarding things to do; the culture and such a brain interact in the ways that make us human. And such people can much improve the lives of those not quite so lucky, healing trauma and making niches for oddballs. But a brain is made, not bought.

I’m so pleased by this book!

1 comment:

kathleen duey said...

*SO* glad I stumbled across this, will order the book and can't wait to read it.

THANKS!!! for a fascinating blog.