“The brain only knows what the brain only knows,” said a new favorite teacher of mine, Tammi Sweet, an herbalist and anatomy and physiology expert. Anatomy and physiology was one of my all time favorite subjects in High School. And in college I went on to love Biology and was asked by my professor to tutor fellow students. I still love learning about the multitude of systems that are invisible to the naked eye. Recently, I was excited to learn what I already intuitively knew. It is that we have the capacity to lead our lives from different parts of our body, oscillating from one to the other: the brain, the heart, and the gut. Here I will share what I understand about the developing brain and our amazing heart.
Most of you understand that young children’s brains are not as adult’s brains. The prefrontal cortex, also referred to the higher brain, where reasoning and self control live, doesn’t potentially fully develop until age 25. So asking children to make sense of things that are scary or stressful or to ask them to control their reaction to something that is overwhelming are unrealistic expectations. From birth to age 3, the part of the brain called the amygdala is busy tagging experiences and because children’s reasoning is not developed, this tagging is not always accurate. Rudolf Steiner calls young children one big sense organ and indeed they are taking it all in as current research supports. Around age three, these stored experiences can be triggered and the amygdala lets loose emotions on a whole new level. This is also around the time when the ego, the “I” of the child, peeps out. And guess what! The prefrontal cortex’s job is to decrease the amygdala response. Yep, the little one’s prefrontal cortex’s lights are not fully on, no matter how clever those children are. (And it’s not fair to ask those lights to be turned on when there’s other work in the body that needs to be done.) It is our job as the adult to be the “higher brain” in the relationship, to ensure that all is well, to make the decisions so the child may simply be. It is also our job to discover the triggers and bring our reasoning to the situation and allow healing to happen.
The brain is where our fight, flight, and freeze responses live. It is also where anxiety, judgement, anger, and fear live. These “brain conscious” feelings can unfortunately become habits. And although we need these feelings to survive, it is not our birthright to be in these states as often as we are. It is concerning to observe so many young children experiencing these states in much of their daily lives.
So what can we do to support our little ones’ brain development? Find “goodness”. The children come with the expectation that the world is inherently good and we can support this outwardly and inwardly. Establish healthy and rhythmical relationships with caregivers and the world so that triggers of stressful unknowing is decreased. Protect them from harsh environmental stimulants such as loud noises, dramatic music (so often made to hijack the amygdala) and bright, unnatural lights. Keep them cozy and warm. Provide opportunities for them to use their bodies freely. Does the book or video you are showing have characters being mean to each other? Remember that the young child can’t make sense of these interactions like you can. And when I witness other’s being mean to each other, I get anxious. Whether real or pretend, stressful thoughts and real threat cause the same physiological response. Ask yourself in all that you expose to your children, will this give a sense of well-being? If not and you have little choice in the matter, what can you do to remedy it? Stressing out about it is probably going to be counter-productive.
If stress, anger, fear, resentment, and all those icky feelings live in the brain, where does forgiveness, appreciation, and tenderness live? Yes, in the heart. Gratitude, wonder, trust, contentedness — this is “heart consciousness” and it is our optimal state of being. It is the child’s birthright. I believe the heart is as equal a seat of intelligence as the brain. I truly believe that it is an organ of perception. And there’s all this exciting scientific research demonstrating this for anatomy and physiology geeks like me!
So how do we move from being so often in brain consciousness to being in heart consciousness? We acknowledge our heart and we practice. We practice gratitude, forgiveness, and reverence. We practice mindfulness, being in the present moment with open interest. We spend time in the oscillating wonders of the natural world, where healing so often happens.
With three children of my own, and 16 children I have the honor of caring for, I know how challenging each day can be. Remember your heart when you are feeling overwhelmed, when you feel triggered, when you are worried. Breathe. Place your hand on your heart. Speak to your heart. Then listen for an answer or feeling. It can help you find goodness.
Jerilyn Burke loves exploring how current research supports Anthroposophy with her dear husband Chris. She is a mother of three and currently teaches kindergarten at the Waldorf School of Philadelphia. She graduated from the Asheville, NC LifeWays training in 2015.
Sources Cited: Sweet, Tammi. “The Heart of the Matter.” Mid Atlantic Women’s Herbal Conference. Mid Atlantic Women’s Herbal Conference, 30 Sept. 2018, Kempton, PA. HeartMath Institute, 2018, www.heartmath.org.