Today we’re going on a journey to the center of our brains! I’d like to introduce you to the Cingulate Cortex. Cingulate Cortex, this is the people. People, Cingulate Cortex.This is one heck of an amazing structure handling a number of functions that just so happen to share processing with regions of the neocortex (all the white above) — though at less-to-more conscious levels, respectively. It is one of the primary areas in the brain which is activated in both infants who are in distress and crying, and in the adults who are hearing and responding to those infants (Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, pg 106); and its development is experience-dependent. Today we’ll take a look at why our cingulate matters to our abilities to parent and handle emotion (in ourselves and our kids); why it matters to our children’s emotional, cognitive, sensory, and motor development; and how to grow healthy, resilient, and fully empowered cingulates in the brains of all our future generations for a more peaceful and empathetic world.
Here’s a weird factoid. Did you know we’re one of only a thimbleful of species capable of parenting in a way that is anything but virtually identical to the manner in which we were parented. That is, of all other species on Earth only humans, and arguably the higher primates or dolphins, can parent differently than their parents did. All other animals repeat exactly, or as nearly as they can physically muster to exactly, the same parenting choices, maneuvers, and nurturing processes as their parents and their parents’ parents, and so on into the historical predawn.
It is this one fact alone “that got us the wound and will get us well” in our parenting. Because we can change our parenting with our thinking, humans have changed parenting from its natural, “out of Eden” state — with whole family clans raising the progeny year after year including them in the society by rite and ritual in a timely and natural fashion as it was done before them and before them — to its postmodern postindustrial equivalent — single-parent or “nuclear” families living in relative parenting isolation far from relatives or other like-minded parents, kids are sent away from their parents and/or other loving care-givers far too soon, for far too long each day, and at great internal duress for financial reasons and/or misguided intellectual pursuits, learning is placed over experience and development, “socialization” via isolation with ones peers has replaced actually being socialized to the broad spectrum of society. Being able to change our parenting with our thinking f*#%ed up the whole beautiful nurturing system that our biology had perfected into sheer glorious magic. But. Because we can change our parenting, we don’t have to be stuck with parenting how we were parented; and even if we were (somehow, miraculously!) parented well in our own upbringing, we can still improve on that mold based on what we learn about parenting our own children.
Remember this when you find yourself doing exactly what you never wanted to do as a parent; when you find yourself being your Dad, or your Mom; when you find yourself having to leave the room because your child’s emotions are simply too much for you. Remember it every time you (re)act from the programming you got as a kid instead of from your parenting ideals. A big hunk of your brain just can’t help itself because if you weren’t parented through your emotions well as a kid (and let’s face it, who the hell was…), your brain built fewer connections to the parts you need to be able to parent your children through their emotional processing. By the time you get to parenting, hopefully, you have had other opportunities in life to re-parent yourself a bit, and/or develop other healthy neural and functional process-habits, but you never get a chance to redo those that one gets when one is parented with the “full measure” of emotional as well as physical nurturing. Remember, though, that we can change the way our brains function in response to our children being upset, and while we’re parenting them just happens to be an ideal time to do so.
Before I go on, I want to go back just a moment and underscore that when you hear your kid(s) scream, your cingulate cortex lights up just like your kid(s). Your brains are having the same meltdown. Automatically. This means: 1) You’ve got to cool out to be able to function, and 2) You can use your own cool-out and the same techniques you use on yourself with your children to cool out their brains and help them get back to higher brain functionality as well.
When stressful emotion strikes (whether it is high or low emotion), our kids especially and to a lesser extent, we ourselves, lose access to the upper limbs and branches of the brain tree — that whole neocortex where all of our executive functions (like making a compassionate choice, or creating a solution to a perceived problem, regulating impulses, even calming the brain itself) take place — and the energy of the tree recedes into the trunk for protection, if protection doesn’t come (in the form of emotional connection), then the brain tree’s energy recedes further into its primal roots. The cingulate cortex is in the trunk of the tree. Because of the way our brains mirror the cingulate reaction our kids are having when they are upset, and because we lose access to our children when they slide further down into root survival reactions, I think of the cingulate cortex as an important neuro-emotional link between us and our children. It’s here, where, from early on and throughout development we can return together when there is trouble, when executive functioning fails, or emotional stress derails things — we do anyway since we mirror our upset kids, and we ought to intentionally since that is what helps them get back up to higher brain functioning. Which is why most of us need to reprogram our own processing around emotion…
Let’s get a little more intimate with the cingulate cortex for a second, here, too. The cingulate is a mind-boggling component of the brain — in part, because it is at the center of so many important top-down brain processes, being “involved in cognitive, emotional, sensory, and motor processing, integrating input from the entire cortex with subcortical structures” (The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, p106). If there is damage to this area or incomplete development, then consequences can range from “decreased maternal behavior”, “emotional instability”, and “increased response to stress”, to “decreased empathy”, “decreased expressiveness”, “inappropriate social behavior”, and “impulsiveness and increased motor activity”, not to mention “mutism” (p107). One notable part of the development of the cingulate is that “early neglect, stress, and trauma may negatively impact the development and organization of [its] cells, resulting in deficits in the abilities organized by the cingulate” (p108), thereby creating a life-long effect on cognitive and emotional functioning. Another note-worthy part of the cingulate’s development is a kind of entrainment with the parent’s emotional and cognitive states, such that, even without saying or doing anything (that we’d be conscious of) in particular, we provide input which unconsciously shapes the infrastructure of our children’s social brains. All of this neuro-speak basically just means that our kids are picking up what we knowingly put before them, but they are also picking up, and developing based on, the stuff we think we’re keeping to ourselves. Our emotional states, our outlooks on life, our ways of handling our emotions — all are being sensed and mimicked by our children’s brains, particularly the cingulate cortex.
Returning to the brain tree, then — when kids go into the trunk, so to speak, and lose their executive abilities, during “emotional winters, droughts, and heat-waves”, then we have to meet them with calming touch, soothing countenance and approach, out-loud empathizing, hugging, nursing, and/or listening in order to assist them in emotional processing and offloading, and eventually inspire their brains to reach back up into the neocortex long enough to trigger the message to the limbic-trunk system to stop sending out stress brain chemicals and start sending out ones that make our kids feel better and more connected with us and further able to calm down, think more clearly, and act more compassionately, etc., etc.. When we do it a lot over time, we give our kids better coping skills in the moment and a brighter developmental future — we can make those branches flourish just by making sure to nurture that trunk whenever necessary (and the roots, of course, too, earlier in development and more generally). And the wonderful thing is, we get plenty of opportunities to help them process their emotions!
Back to us for a moment, because, remember our brains can’t tell (at least at first) just who is having these emotions. Emotion is a trigger for a lot of us, right? It’s bad enough to have my own without having someone else’s! If we got good programming from our parents and/or picked up skills along the way, then we can process our emotions in a top-down kind of fashion, we manage duress in creative ways and keep our brains from emitting more than a necessary amount of stress hormones. We mellow out our cingulate response, we link with our kids and mellow their cingulates out, we model empathy and tenderness and compassion and their brains mirror it back. They get back to growing branches, and actually, so do we!
I think if we were parented well, then we have an easier time neuro-psychologically speaking than other parents who were not. If we’ve been emotionally nurtured then we have brains better trained to deal with emotions and upset, and we not only experience the benefits of that, but we can pass it on to our children by being fully, totally, and how-ever-long-it-takes-ly present with them while we assist in their emotional processing. To help ourselves build better neural pathways for making ourselves better emotional support for our children, we can practice empathizing on them (we’ll get neurally better at it after awhile), we can self-empathize (yes, actually recognize and look at our own feelings while we are having them), and wait (because patience will help). So basically the same steps we use to help our children process their emotions is what works best for helping us process ours in the moment, and develop better neural capabilities for helping ourselves and them in the future. Cool, ain’t it? It’s such a nice package, in fact, that I tend to think our kids express their emotions as they do, and require our help to process their emotions as they do in order for us all to get neurally better at it.
Now we just have to remember to count on it…
When, my partner, Natalie was in labor, one of the few things I whispered into her ear (besides I love you so much…) was that if she wanted to she could think of the contractions as guests that she was welcoming at the door, all coming to bring her our baby. Reading back over it now, it’s a wonder she didn’t hit me, but the effect at the time was that she leaned into the idea. She began to see each contraction as something to bring on, rather than shy away from, and she kept her mind on the goal. I think the brain changes we all go through in parenting are much the same. Even if we were parented well, becoming a parent develops us in ways we can’t possibly imagine beforehand. We grow parts of our brains that were hitherto almost unseen. Some of the terrain we cross to get there is a revisiting of places we crossed during our own upbringing, but much of it is new. We can welcome it, and get on board with the process, or go down kicking and screaming about how hard it is or how awful our parents may have been… I think we’ll get further welcoming the process of our own development — further for ourselves, and further for our little developing progeny, too.
So, I say go for it!
- When your kid’s emotional sh!t hits the fan, and you get all caught up in the cingulate cortex entrainment, give yourself some empathy. Say in your head or out-loud: “I feel so triggered by this!” or “I am so pissed right now!” or “I get stressed out when they/you are upset!”. Get some neural-psycholgical distance from your own emotional upheaval, and give yourself a chance to get back to your own higher brain functioning — that is, your empathy (for others in this case), your creativity, your calming brain processing, etc..
- Practice making space for your child(ren)’s emotional processing. Realize that the expression of their emotional upheaval is often a biological attempt to get connection and help with emotional processing. Approach them with empathy and tenderness and touch and (if it’s still part of your parenting tool kit) nursing. All of these help the emotional process, and get higher brain functioning back on line.
- And, again, model empathy. This how we teach what we want our kids to do for themselves and others; and this is how we trigger their brains into mirroring empathy for themselves and others.
- And, also again, wait. Empathy, when done fully and honestly, will make room for and then settle feelings and help get “issues” “solved” with a kind of ease that I can only call magic. Not always, but often enough to mention, when we give our children full space to have their upset feelings about particular situations, scenarios, interactions, or issues, those so-called “problems” vanish as the feelings subside. But also, teaching empathy is a process, both neural and functional. Wait for it to develop and nurture it as it does.
Now that we’ve met the cingulate cortex, and become familiar with each other a bit — let’s get down to making peace with emotional processing and growing amazing brain trees! For more on how to do that, look here.
Be well, my fellow brain arborists.