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Parenting and the brain

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Steven Jay Fogel, a longtime student of human behavior and development, explains in his new book — “Your Mind Is What Your Brain Does for a Living: Learn How to Make It Work for You” — the way our brain functions, the importance of parent-child attachments, and how our addictive use of technology has brought about a digital revolution.

He recounts his story of financial success at a young age, but that happiness still eluded him. Having studied with psychologists, educators and rabbinical scholars, Fogel has published this book to share his insights and experiences with others about how he found that inner joy.

Brain function

Initially, Fogel dispels the myth that the brain functions like a computer. The brain does process information like a computer, but the likeness ends there.

“Every-day experiences reveal ways in which your brain operates in a most uncomputer-like fashion,” he writes. “Examples include visual illusions, the emotional basis of decision making, irrational approaches to problem-solving, and the unreliability of human memory.”

Fogel said for years neuroscientists believed that humans only used 10 percent of their brain, but now they have discovered that people use all parts of their brain. They have also discovered that the brain is fully developed around the time a person is 25 years old.

Neuroscientists, furthermore, did a study in which 3-month-old babies showed a distinct preference for a puppet that was helpful to another puppet instead of a puppet that hindered another puppet. They concluded from the study that the babies were innately able to sense right from wrong.

One term Fogel often refers to is “default programming,” which is created by emotionally impactful experiences we have growing up. In his own words, Fogel describes “default programming” as “the wiring that we have been developing since infancy.” Past traumatic experience often leads to an adult responding to an event without rational thought or emotion.

Fogel’s book takes an optimistic stance about neuroscience because he writes, “Brain research has revealed that our brains are malleable, with the capacity to be shaped and reshaped, which scientists refer to as neuroplast­icity.” Although our brain may be programmed to a default setting that is based on past experiences, Fogel said it is possible to be “mindful” in which you are aware of your present thoughts and actions in order to make reasonable decisions that defeat old self-destructive behavior.

Parenting

For parents, Fogel’s chapter about parent-child attachment stresses the importance of children feeling secure in their bond with their parents.

“If you have a good parent-child attachment, then the child can go off into the world with a strong feeling of self-worth, feeling confident that they can handle things,” he writes. “If a parent or caretaker is remote, unresponsive, or emotionally turbulent and insensitive to the child’s needs, the parent-child bond won’t be secure, and children raised in these circumstances will grow-up with a poor self-image and are likely to have other problems as well.”

Fogel believes another crucial aspect of parenting are the messages that parents communicate to their children.

He explains, “If a child has a mother or a father or a caretaker or a sibling who is in that child’s daily life, and if that person is always saying that around every corner is disaster and that the child’s only choice in handling things is just going to be shooting himself or herself in the foot, how can that child go out into the jungle and expect to find berries? All that child is going to expect to find are snakes.”

The middle prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, provides the brain with higher cognitive functions, which are a result of a healthy parent-child attachment.

“The more attuned a parent is to his or her child, the safer the child will feel; the more secure the bond between parent and child will be; and the healthier the child’s development will be in the first seven areas the middle prefrontal cortex participates in that enable us to modulate ourselves mentally, emotionally, and physically. Thus, parents who are mindful in their relationships with their children provide secure attachments,” he writes.

Fogel lists the first seven areas of the middle prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for the following cognitive functions: regulating your body (vital organs such as your heart and other bodily functions to keep them in balance), attuned communication with people, emotional balance, response flexibility (taking in information, stopping and reflecting before you act), insight, empathy and modulating fear. When the parent-child attachment is strong, these cognitive behaviors function properly, giving the child a sense of well-being.

Technology and the brain

Another topic Fogel broaches is our modern-day addiction to technology, which is making us less-mindful individuals. Fogel says humans are fear-based creatures, as we walk around with our smart phones anticipating upsetting e-mails and text messages. He credits the smart phone for creating the 13-hour-a-day work mode, where it is not uncommon for a boss to call an employee for a file at 7 pm.

In regards to e-mails and text messages constantly coming in on our smart phones, Fogel says that often the messages that come in make people become “activated,” by which he means a highly dramatic state of intense emotions catalyzed by our default programming.

Fogel advises, “Any time you get a digital communication that activates you, don’t answer it for two hours. You want to be able to detach yourself, so you can be mindful enough to consider different possibilities for your response and respond productively rather than defensively. Once you’ve sent an angry or otherwise intensely emotional e-mail, you can’t take it back. As the old saying goes, ‘Once the bullet leaves the gun, there’s not much you can do.’ So when a digital communication upsets you, take a deep breath, keep breathing, and think about what you want to communicate and the way that you want to communicate it.”

According to Fogel, there are two crucial points in his book that can change someone’s life. He says, “First, we are not the voice in our head. The voice in our head sounds like an authority to us, and we believe it’s always right, but it’s not. Sometimes what the voice tells us is actually wrong — because what the voice says is just the interpretation of our default programming. We, not the voice in our head, are the ones that have to make the decision about how we’re going to act.”

The second vital point to his book, Fogel says, “Is that our feelings are not facts. Just because we feel our boss doesn’t like us, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t like us. Just because we feel someone is wrong about something and that we’re right doesn’t mean that it’s true.”

For more information about Stephen J. Fogel, visit stevenjayfogel.com/.

Allison Plitt is a freelance writer who lives in Queens with her husband and young daughter. She is a frequent contributor to New York Parenting.

Posted 12:00 am, August 14, 2014
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