As someone who has witnessed the amazing power of storytelling and other expressive modalities to support healing in many hundreds of people coping with the impact of childhood abuse, adult trauma, grief, severe mental illness, and depression, I'm interested in neuroplasticity, which is the term for the brain's ability to repair and rebuild itself throughout life.
(The graphic comes from http://www.knutsford-scibar.co.uk.)
Recently I listened to a series of web conferences on this topic sponsored by the The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. http://www.nicabm.com.
On Wednesday, April 6, 2011, Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who's well known for writing a number of books on the developing brain and the mindful brain, spoke about how early relationships shape the development of the brain, and how later experience can change it. (His web site: http://drdansiegel.com/.) I'm going to share with you a summary of the notes I took during the call, with my later reflections in italics. Basically, Dr. Siegel's talk scientifically affirmed everything I've experienced in egalitarian, non-clinical, expressive arts groups.
Dr. Siegel noted that the right brain is the seat of compassion, sense of context, oneness, refreshment, and it can be accessed through creativity, exercise, and meditation. It holds the consciousness of the Ground, context, symbolic meaning, interior life, and the ability to rejuvenate and heal. The left brain -- dominant in our culture -- connects to exterior life, strategic thinking, and literal meaning. A balance of both halves of the brain is necessary for optimal functioning. In some of its aspects, healing can be understood as a journey of patient and caregivers to strengthen right brain functioning:
1. Empathy -- connecting to the inner life of another person -- has been shown to improve every physical system in the body: immune, cardiovascular, and organ systems. The more interest a doctor expresses in the inner life of a patient, i.e., how that patient experiences their illness rather than symptomology, the more likely a positive outcome. According to Dr. Siegel, THE KEY TO OPTIMAL HEALING IS THE CONNECTING INNER LIFE TO INNER LIFE [my emphasis]. This means that doctors, teachers, therapists, parents, clergy must be in touch with their own inner lives. He called it practicing medicine, parenting, marrying, etc. from the inside out.
Storytelling is the most ancient and powerful way of reciprocal sharing inner life with another. Any of the non-verbal expressive media serve the same purpose. But we're narrative creatures, seeking meaning in our experience. This is the realm of story.
2. Scientists now accept health as wholeness, integration -- a natural drive, rather than conforming to an external standard of "fitness" or "normal," as it had previously. Neural integration means the linking of fragmented parts through brain fibers that connect different neurological parts and functions. In people who suffered early neglect or abuse, these integrative fibers have been damaged and the brain is not functioning as a harmonious system. Consequently, the body's systems are not functioning harmoniously and trauma or neglect often shows up somatically.
Story making, in its very nature, creates wholeness and integration. It holds conflict in the form of characters and situations in a larger container, and allows these conflicts to play out and resolve themselves naturally as a new story emerges. As storyteller of our lives, we are also the integrating consciousness.
3. The brain regulates the movement of energy throughout the nervous system and healthy, harmonious outer relationships strengthen this function. Chaotic, draining, turbulent relationships significantly impact neurological functioning.
The healing community that forms in story groups, or any other healing relationship based on a right-brain modality (not therapy necessarily, unless it has these qualities of creativity and inner life to inner life), be it authentic movement, expressive dance, free form visual arts, music making and listening, yoga, reiki, qigong (my spiritual practice), mindfulness meditation, equine therapy, shamanic chant, etc. becomes the container that holds a person and gives their brain an integrative environment, time, and space to heal itself and the integrative fibers to regrow.
4. Humiliation, shame, bullying are assaults on the whole system. What happens in the brain is that a natural drive for wholeness and expression slams on the brakes, and the victim is left with a sense of helplessness, anger, toxic release of cortisol -- the stress hormone. It kills synaptic connections in the brain. This manifests physically as nausea, a sense of being punched in the gut, avoidance of eye contact, heaviness in the chest. Inwardly it manifests as a sense of a defective self.
Storytelling and witness gives each person a sense of safety, belonging, and dignity, so necessary to thriving.
5. We are hard-wired to sense the intention of another -- especially if they have destructive or harmful intentions toward us. The stress hormone cortisol keeps us in a state of vigilance when our right brain senses danger in a relationship. But we are out of a state of integration and flow. Long-term emotional danger has enormous physical consequences.
Working with intuition, which is strengthened by the receptivity involved in creative process, makes us even more aware and responsive to toxicity in other people and situations. In these story groups, which are built on the sensory elements of time, environment, character, situation, and storyteller -- we become very attentive to where we are, what we're doing, and the often unconscious motivations and inner lives of others. For me at this point, story -- experiencing my life as an unfolding story with myself as the witness and storyteller -- is spiritual practice.
6. Mental illness, including depression and bipolar disorder, are apparently caused by thinness or inadequacy of integration fibers between the prefrontal cortex (our center of thought and choice) and the amygdala, the part of the brain that warns of danger and controls emotions. Meditation seems to enable these fibers to rebuild. In Dr. Siegel's work, patients suffering from manic-depression became completely symptom-free when practicing meditation and the other activities on a regular basis. Even with genetically created vulnerabilities, such as alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, and illness, we can change those parts of the brain that are affected, thus moderating inherited weaknesses.
7. The practices that induce the brain to develop integration of its synapses and thickening of connecting fibers, especially between the prefrontal areas that support integration and the brain stem, which supports brain growth, are:
- aerobic exercise;
- Omega 3;
- originality, innovation, creativity, fresh ways of seeing things;
- paying close attention to everything coming in from the senses;
- enough sleep.
Expressive modalities - writing, dance and other expressive movement, visual art, music - create a state of healthy alertness, relaxation, and release. It feels like joy. It's the state of flow -- which is synonymous with the dynamic Self (vs. ego) delineated by ancient wisdom traditions and modern psychologists, including Jung and his followers.
8. Wholeness and integration manifests as vitality, fun, and light-heartedness.
In the mythic journey (the heart and soul of my story approach) the highest evolved archetype is the jester, who holds the whole truth of existence -- both its light and shadow -- within a non-harming joke and a good laugh.
A list of Dr. Siegel's books, provided in a follow-up e-mail by Ruth M. Buczynski, PhD, President of The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, include:
The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are;
The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being;
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation;
The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology).