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September 2003
BRAIN RESEARCH AND AFFECT REGULATION
By Joyce Parker, Ph.D.

Neurobiology has begun to explain how the brain develops the capacity to regulate affect. Dan Siegel, a neurobiologist and professor of Psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, has been studying how the brains of infants develop in interaction with significant others. He suggests that evolution has designed our brains to be shaped in the interpersonal environment. In other words, physical structures of the brain depend on social connections. Most of what caregivers do in the first years of a childís life is to help the infant regulate affective states. A sensitive and responsive parent helps the childís brain develop connections, ie. neural pathways, that foster emotional resilience. A sensitive, responsive parent or caregiver collaborates with the infant through eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice and comforting touch. The baby smiles at the mother, the mother responds with a smile, the baby giggles, the mother responds with verbalizations that indicate pleasure in the baby. When the baby is crying, the father calms and soothes by rocking the baby, singing softly to the baby, stroking the baby gently. These interactions impact the growth and development of the orbitofrontal cortex. Emotions are regulated along the same brain circuits that govern social relationship. Children who have inadequate caregivers who donít provide comfort and soothing or who may actually traumatize the child through abuse or neglect, develop deficits in brain functioning particularly in the midbrain area and in the orbitalfrontal cortex. They will be more likely to have difficulties dealing with their intense emotional states. They may be unable to manage their rage and aggression, calm their anxieties, console themselves when sad or tolerate high levels of pleasure and excitement. They may also have trouble interpreting social cues because of these deficits in brain structures. It is important to note here that the brain has plasticity. This means that the brain can change in relation to the interpersonal environment throughout the lifespan. So we can change our brain structures in many ways. By going to therapy and experiencing an interpersonal relationship with a therapist that is deeply understanding and empathic. By learning methods of self-calming and soothing such as relaxation techniques and meditation. By finding a loving relationship that fosters trust and safety. In these ways we can change how we respond in emotional situations. Throughout our lives, we can learn to control our feelings more effectively and adaptively through our interpersonal relationships and by learning more adaptive ways to calm and soothe.

Wylie, Mary Sykes and Simon, Richard; Discoveries from the Black Box, Psychotherapy Networker, September/October 2002, pp. 26-31.

Siegel, Daniel, The Brain in the Palm of Your Hand, Psychotherapy Networker, September/October 2002, pp. 32-37.

The author of this article, and founder of the Therapyinla.com website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.


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