How The Brain Works: The Mentoring Miracle

In his book The Developing Mind, brain researcher Dr. Daniel J. Siegel explains that development of the frontal cortex, or impulse control center, of the brain is greatly affected by trauma. In normal development, the frontal cortex helps an individual know when to behave in a certain way, and allows the individual to regulate emotions appropriately. This part of the brain also sorts out messages about how to envision the future and moderate delayed gratification.

How Fear And Trauma Affect The Brain

In situations where fear exists on a perpetual basis, or where abuse takes place, the development of the frontal brain lobe is severely adversely affected. Dr. Siegel refers to this type of development as “Disoriented Development,” because the brain is in essence scrambled. The brain connections in the frontal cortex especially, “sizzle,” and can no longer send the proper messages. Because this part of the brain is so closely associated with impulse control, the individual does not develop the ability to regulate his or her own actions. Although youth offenders are typically viewed as “bad” or “evil,” Dr. Siegel’s research suggests that a quantifiable physical limitation may exist in some of these individuals that renders them helpless to control their impulses or regulate their emotions. The ramifications of this are profound in a society, especially one in which violence and abuse take place frequently, as is the case in many communities where poverty, gangs, crime, children raising children, and substance abuse are rampant.

Fear Without Resolution

Dr. Siegel’s research also shows that brain scrambling of this sort is most severe in situations where “fear without resolution” trauma takes place. This situation occurs when caregivers such as parents are also perpetrators of violence. When infants and children are subjected such an environment, their brains are continually sending messages of “flight” or “flight” at the same time. These children do not know whether to trust or fear their caregivers.

The Juvenile Justice system is overflowing with youth who have been brought up in the “fear without resolution” environment that Dr. Siegel describes. In Cloud and Fire’s work with incarcerated youth, almost all of describe extreme violence at home as typical. Drug use, beatings, and even murders commonly take place in front of them. Some have been horrified as they watched their fathers murder their mothers in front of them, and then were left to deal with the trauma of being thrust into the foster care system. Though it is impossible to determine exactly what took place during their infancy and early childhood, these youth bear all the symptoms of having this “Disoriented” frontal cortex development described by Dr. Siegel.

The Brain Can Recover

Lest we be left without hope for those who have experienced early trauma, Dr. Siegel explains that in his brain research he has also witnessed what can only be described as a miracle. Brains in which the patterns in the frontal lobe indicated that “fear without resolution” had resulted in development damage and lack of impulse control, there was one situation in which the brain could actually repair itself and restore healthy connections. When individuals with these underdeveloped frontal lobes came into sustained and meaningful contact with safe, nurturing mentors, brain patterns became normal within six weeks! Dr. Siegel observed this with subjects from 6 months to 90 years of age, and surmised that the mentor relationship is powerful at any stage of development. This amazing observation provides substantial evidence that mentoring works!

CFM’s True Freedom Works

Cloud and Fire’s True Freedom program works. Clearly, it helps incarcerated youth process through their pain and through past traumas. It also helps them discover new ways to communicate, and reveals to them the common humanity they share with their victims. Since the program began in January, 2005, we have been able to observe that lives have been changed. However, after learning of Dr. Siegel’s amazing research on the brains of those who have been exposed to violence and trauma, we now understand why it works.

Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples…” Discipleship is mentoring. For eons, Christians have seen that discipleship changes the heart and spirit of a person. How breathtaking to discover that a 21st Century brain researcher has now uncovered the physical, visible, quantifiable evidence that what Jesus mandated His followers to do also dramatically changes the brain.

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