Journeying Down the River of Brain Development

Posted: August 30, 2014 in Current Events, Integral Studies, Pedagogy & Education, Philosophical Debris, Survival Skills

Water, as a useful metaphor for the journey of life, has been an idea I’ve been attracted to and thinking about since my teenage years. (Which would be about 40 years ago.) From my earliest days of interest in Taoism (more a philosophy than a religion) water obviously played a central role. In fact, the title of one of Alan Watts’ books is Tao, The Watercourse Way. As Lao Tzu says, Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” In my initial courses in meditation and Native American philosophy with the Tracker School, water, comparing the clarity of a lake with the clarity of thoughts, became a central image. Later, as I became proficient in flat and whitewater canoeing, leading youth groups on wilderness expeditions, the dynamics of water made a further impression on me. I will explain all of this in more detail later, but I begin with it in order to elucidate why the Siegel metaphor that I’m going to start with had such an immediate impact on me.

Daniel J. Siegel has published a series of books in the past decade which examine brain development and neuroplasticity, especially as it pertains to developmental psychology. I came across the books in my recent research on brain development and its implications to education, and found them to be central to the thesis that I was pursuing.   In The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, they put forward a metaphor for brain activity.

They begin by outlining the various levels of the brain, such as the more primitive parts of the brain responsible for things like intuition and emotion, and the more advanced parts of the brain responsible for such things as decisions, abstract thought and self control. The primitive part often manifests as more impulsive, intuitive and pleasure related urges, while the more advanced brain reflects on self control, moderation and long term consequences. Looked at this way, one can easily see that this is the battleground of the adolescent. There is the desire to experience new things and have fun, countered by the need to make practical decisions, be rational, and show self control. Each originates and is associated with different parts of the brain, with the more developed part, more often than not, undergoing renovations during adolescence. In counselling youth it is all too easy to emphasize the rational part (as it is the weaker link) and neglect to take into consideration the more primitive part. In my opinion, falling into that trap is one of the reasons why adult advice to teenagers is often regarded by them as rather shallow. One of the central themes of Siegel’s book Brainstorm, primarily about adolescent brain development, is that all parts of the brain need to be respected and that adolescent development is as much about creating a relationship with the vitality of living as it is with reason and self control.

The Siegel river analogy has you cruising down the centre of a river, in a state of balance and awareness. “…you feel like you’re in the water, peacefully floating along in your canoe, you feel like you’re generally in a good relationship with the world around you.” On one side of you are rapids, faster water and lack of control. On the other side are shallows, calm water and low lying tree branches, logs, deadheads, etc. Siegel characterizes one as “CHAOS” and the other as “RIGIDITY” although I like the term STAGNATION better. One is out of control, while the other is too much control. The more your course strays to either side of the river, the more extreme the conditions become. Both sides have obstacles and are potentially dangerous.

Looking at it from a subjective perspective (UL Quad, for Integral Theorists), the message is to balance the excitement, fun and new experiences with self control, awareness and a longer term view. Too much of either becomes a problem, as I’ll point out below. Looking at it from an objective perspective (UR Quad), it becomes a balance between the primitive and the developed parts of the brain, -emotional impulsiveness juxtaposed with the rational and aware-, and with balance being achieved through the integration of neural pathways within the brain various compartments by the hippocampus. The more these compartments can talk to each other, the better the harmony and balance will be.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each side of the river in this analogy.

The CHAOS side has fast flowing water and rapids strewn with rocks. It is exciting (as anyone who’s done whitewater canoeing can testify) and challenging. It can be very fun if done right, and there is an atmosphere of the adventurous and the exotic in it. There is a danger of getting hung up on one of the rocks or capsizing in the rapids, though. This could stop or derail your progress, and the danger of injury or even death is very real.

This would correspond in real life to making impulsive and dangerous decisions. Driving too fast, doing drugs irresponsibly, risky sex, even over-partying to the point where it impedes any other progress in life. (The first examples would be akin to capsizing the canoe, while the last would be getting hung up on a rock.)

On the other hand, I want to go beyond the comparison presented by Siegel, into the greater richness of this analogy. Those of us who have done whitewater, along, I’m sure, with everyone from skateboarders to rock climbers, know the value of extreme sports. The challenge and the rush can be an important component in evolving self esteem, personal development and just plain fun. It involves a sense of vitality to add meaning to life (if you don’t progress to the point of becoming an adrenaline junkie). Playing in the rapids can be a productive and an invigorating thing. But you have to know how.

I’ve sat many times beside a fast river, reading the rapids, trying to understand the dynamics of the forces involved in the flow of the water. When canoeing through them, I realize that you can’t fight the forces of the river; you have to merge with them, understanding their power and how you can use that power to reach your own goal. When ferrying across a current, a minimum of paddle power is required and the river does most of the work. When entering and resting in an eddy, the river’s force can rage around you, and you know that your eddy is an island of calm. The river holds you in it. When reading the river, tell-tale signs on the surface reveal to you where the dangerous rocks are, hidden beneath that surface, unnoticed by the untrained eye. You understand the necessity of making a wide detour around fallen trees, knowing that they are death traps. If you have the skill and awareness, you can navigate or even frolic in the rapids. Without that skill and knowledge, you’re at the mercy of the river’s chaos, and that can be disastrous.

 

It is the same with our journey through life. There is nothing inherently wrong with the chaos. It is there for many reasons. One can party. One can imbibe in the pleasures of life. One can even have an evening of relative abandon, just having a great time, experiencing the vitality of existence. But if it is done without the proper awareness or skill in negotiating the pitfalls of life, it can be disastrous. When people make mistakes in rapids, sometimes you just get wet and get flushed out the bottom. Sometimes the canoe becomes damaged or destroyed. Sometimes people die. Sometimes that happens even when people are skilled and aware. But it certainly is more likely if approached without the proper preparation or attitude. To get those skills in life allowing you to take advantage of the chaos means becoming more self confident, aware and knowledgeable. Mistakes made with awareness can hurt, but are instructional in the long run. In the objective, brain terms that Siegel likes to use, that means being more integrated in the connections between the various parts of the brain, valuing not only the rational cortex, but extending that awareness to all parts.

The converse of all of this is to stray too far to other side, the side of shallows and stagnation. When approaching a bend in a river the canoeist knows to avoid the inside of the bend. Water travels more slowly there allowing the build up of sediment, and the river tends to have sand shoals and debris that will hinder the canoe. It is not exactly dangerous, but it is frustrating, time consuming and sedentary. Without challenge and without forward momentum, there is a tendency to move towards stagnation.

In living this happens when we approach life too cautiously, with too much control and too little risk taking. It can be a life of inertia, or rigidity.

And yet, again, there are times that tranquility in life is highly desirable. If the canoeist wants to stop for a leisurely lunch, or just to bask in the sun, one pulls over to the shallows for a rest. Sometimes you need to just lie on the beach, or just waste away an afternoon in pleasant idleness. And, again, perspective and awareness allows you to avoid lingering in stagnation for too long, becoming comfortably numb in your inactivity. It prevents you from doing the same ineffective strategies over and over again.

 

lakeshore

The key is that one navigates the river deliberately and with awareness. Being swept into the rapids or shallows unawares is not the same as approaching each with will and skill. And yet that deliberate approach does not mean that one fights the river. By understanding the river, one can drift through it in an enlightened way, allowing the power of the river to both take you where you want, and, to a degree, where it wants. Because one may use an eddy or a shallows to rest, the river decides where that point will be. You can utilize it, but you can’t change it. You can navigate through various options and courses, but you can’t change where those options are. You can decide how long to linger, or whether to bypass it, but the river holds the final say in much of it.

The problem is, of course, that part of the adolescent experience is that they automatically believe that they poses that awareness and skill, whether they do or not. The answer to that dilemma is obvious. Give them that awareness and skill as part of their education, at least to the best of our ability. There should be a pervasive initiative to involve the development of these life skills as part of education from grade 6 and up, with a particular emphasis on grades 7 – 9, where the neurological development is greatest. Decisions and behavioral patterns made in those years (and, to a lesser degree, for the next decade of life) influence the hard wiring of the brain and can establish a foundation that lasts a lifetime. The content and nature of such an educational initiative is a topic that I’ll discuss in subsequent writing.

In the end there is a magical interaction between your will and the will of the river. You learn to trust the river, yielding to its power while at the same time negotiating with it to reach your own goals. From this relationship we can learn a great deal about how to navigate the journey of our own lives.

And there are other ways in which identifying with water can be valuable. Becoming the water in the river is the next step, eliminating the duality between the canoe and the water. Lakes have much to teach as well. Like ourselves, the lake has surface and depth. A calm surface reflects reality accurately, but a stormy, agitated surface distorts it. Although a storm on a lake can be breathtaking in its power and beauty. But these are topics for another day.

[These are stock photos, not ones I have taken.]

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