Western Reserve Public Media


Why Study the Brain?

What does the brain have to do with the study of trauma and loss? In a word, everything!

“Experience can change the mature brain — but experience during the critical periods of early childhood organizes brain systems.” — Dr. Bruce D. Perry

There are three parts of the brain: the brainstem, midbrain and cortex. Each has its own purpose. The brainstem deals with the essential or survival functions while the midbrain deals with feelings and emotions. The cortex controls the functions of language and problem solving and also holds the capacity for learning. For learning to take place, a child must be functioning with the cortex part of the brain.

When a traumatic incident occurs in a child’s life, the brain is fundamentally changed and the response to the trauma is imprinted. So if the child responds to the trauma with aggression, he will tend to be aggressive whenever an event triggers a reaction. If the child withdraws, that behavior is also patterned.

Under times of stress, the midbrain reacts fastest and therefore learning cannot take place. If the child is functioning in the brainstem, he or she may exhibit survival reactions such as freezing or fleeing. If the child is functioning in the midbrain, he or she may be unable to concentrate, remember, pay attention, think clearly or make sense of what people are saying. Learning takes place in the cortex, and this is only possible when the child is not in an aroused or anxious state.

Facts About the Brain

  • The brain weighs about three pounds and looks like a gray, unshelled walnut

  • A person is born with over 100 billion brain cells, which are called nerve cells or neurons

  • Changes in the neurons allow for storage of “information”

  • More brain cells are not developed after birth

  • Brain cells that are not used wither away

  • The brain can send signals to the other cells in the body at a speed of more than 200 mph

  • Learning peaks between 3 and 10 years of age, but continues throughout life

  • Systems of the brain interact and are interconnected. The hierarchy goes from the most complex (cortex) to the least complex (the brainstem)

  • Different states of arousal (calm, fear, etc.) activate different neural systems

  • Different parts of the brain deal with different functions

  • Brain development is predictable

  • Life shapes the brain’s development

  • Periods of “vulnerability” are times when the brain is more sensitive to both positive and negative stimulation

  • The brain remains sensitive throughout life

  • The cortex is more plastic or changeable than the brainstem





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