I was intrigued by an article in the most recent issue of Psychotherapy Networker that discussed implications for the latest discoveries regarding brain plasticity. MRI’s and other brain imaging technologies have become responsible for new discoveries about how we can change the way our brains are “wired.” Apparently, parts of our brain can be developed like real estate. Ownership is determined through repeated behaviors and thought processes.
The author, Mary Sykes Wylie references psychologist Edward Taub. Taub found that stroke patients who lost the use of their left arm learned to compensate by overusing the right one. The right arm, in effect, bought up the unused real estate, leaving the right less opportunity to recover. When the right arm was immobilized, however, the left was more likely to keep trying and eventually to recover lost ground, using it or losing it. Parts of the brain, it seems, are open for offers.
It is encouraging to know that our brains maintain the ability to change throughout our lives. We used to think that they were “locked in” at age 18 or 25. Now we know that they continue to change structurally, and we can sculpt them like musculature, for good or for bad.
Of course it helps if you are young, encouraged, and motivated.
Which reminds me of a story. When I was little, my older brother and I loved baseball. Because he was 5 years older, he played a large role in shaping many of my skills and interests. In the realm of baseball, he wanted me to be a switch hitter. Because it is harder to hit a right hand pitcher’s curve ball while batting right handed and the same for batting left against a lefty, being able to switch is an asset. Especially in the big leagues. So, my brother had me bat left half of the time.
And I did it. It took extra work, but, despite my strong right-handedness, I learned to bat just as well either way. My brother was proud and so was I. I’m sure that a brain scan would have confirmed the progress as the real estate was transformed.
The problem was that when I started to play less with my brother and more with peers, I realized that no one my age threw curve balls. And my little league coach just thought I was eccentric. Being a switch hitter offered no advantage aside from status in my brother’s eyes, which was becoming less important. And it was still hard work.
So I stopped. No more practicing left. Brain snapped back. I could only hit right handed again. Use it or lose it.
I think that the same principle applies with students learning bullying prevention. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a school counselor tell me, “The kids are terrible in the spring. In the fall, we cover bystander skills and the Olweus rules for including others and they do really well. But in the spring, they forget everything.”
I truly believe that when we teach children to be empathetic, to speak up for the powerless, and to stop laughing at mean behavior, we are rewiring their brains. In my blog From The Mouths of Babes, I reference a study entitled “Schoolchildren’s Social Representations on Bullying Causes.” In it, the authors determine that children have a natural proclivity to shun those who are different. The implementation of bystander skills, however, relies on teaching the majority of students to do exactly the opposite.
We are teaching them to bat left-handed.
Changing a school’s climate by empowering the majority to become empathetic and inclusive is radical. It develops new neural pathways and, like a muscle, the new wiring will wither with lack of use. If kids feel unsupported or their work offers no practical advantage, they will return to the path that is easy.
It’s a real challenge to inspire a majority of students to be kind. The message must be consistent, and kids need the opportunity to “do it” rather than just talk or be lectured about it. Actually performing a bystander skill and feeling the power of affecting another human being will change a young brain (and an old one as well). But the effort needs to be repeated. And repeated. And…. you know. Or it will return to the more established path of old habits.
Luckily the work can be very fun and rewarding. We need to be good models, keep it creative and exciting, and reward children for their progress.
Let me know if I can help.
Wylie, Mary Sykes. “Beyond Phrenology: Let’s look at how the brain really works.” Psychotherapy Networker. Jan/Feb 2014.
Thornberg, Robert. “Schoolchildren’s Social Representations on Bullying Causes.” Psychology in the Schools, Apr 2010, Vol. 47 Issue 4, p311-327, 17p, 1 Chart