It’s Tuesday at the Australian Childhood Foundation Trauma Conference 2022 and it’s been yet another full day! There were several speakers that I had the pleasure of listening to today but I’m going to share the learnings from Louis Cozolino and Judy Atkinson as their work resonates with me the most (for very different reasons)!
Louis Cozolino, focuses on interpersonal neurobiology and the interface of mind, body, brain and relationships.
He asks us to reconsider how we understand executive functioning and how it connects with lived experience. The standard dogma is that executive functioning is located in the prefrontal cortex. However, the brain he argues, is more like a govt of systems; complicated, doesn’t work very easily together and doesn’t always get things right.
Why is executive functioning so vulnerable? It exists in our body, in our relationships. It’s not just a brain function: it’s a social and community function. We can only go so far if we don’t have the ability to connect and empathise along with the ability to self-regulate, it doesn’t matter how clever we are!
He prefers to refer to it as The Executive Suite rather than executive functioning. There is not one CEO but rather:
- The Primitive Executive – Grounded in survival and safety
- The Task Executive – getting the job done (much more aligned with the common dogma about the pre frontal cortex)
- The Social Executive – relationships and self-awareness
The Primitive Executive – amygdala centric. The job is to keep us alive. Mechanisms and systems help us to stay calm, to be our own amygdala whisperer. Amygdala system is anti-correlational to other two execs and has the most power. It’s the hub, designed to keep us safe but it’s not necessarily that intelligent, eg. doesn’t always know the difference between actual threat, perceived threat or an old threat.
The Task Executive – links goals to planning and execution. Links our thoughts, behaviours and emotions. This gives us a model to understand how somatic therapies might work. An Integration of mind and body – Cognition/relationship/emotion. It is focused on planning, goal setting and oversight.
The Social Executive – the default mode network (DMN) is active when we become involved in tasks involving self-awareness, understanding others, imagination and memory. Self-awareness – conscious awareness, self-reflection, auto memory. Social awareness – processing relationships, social rules. Perception and cognition – time travel, anticipation, imagination, create goals, environmental navigation, memory scene construction. In therapy we have to be the amygdala whisperer but also quiet down and inhibit the 2nd and 3rd execs.
- The brain is not a single structure. It’s systems within systems
- Higher order abilities – like executive functioning, arise from the proper development and integration of an array of neural systems. You cannot separate executive functioning from culture
- Executive functioning involves affect regulation, our reaction to stress, our relationships with others and our relationship with ourselves.
Optimal executive functioning requires:
- Secure attachment and ongoing attunement
- Intellectual and physical stimulation
- Immersion in an interactive social world
Judy Atkinson then takes us on a journey about the different forms of listening, how feeling comes before thinking. Thinking is last. I think this is something that most systems and services get very wrong because culturally there is a real terror about ‘feeling,’ a theme which is situated in my research about the kind of relationships that make a real difference for those with relational poverty
Judy, with emotional clarity, tells the room that the oldest living culture carries historic and collective trauma in the form of massacre sites, invasions, the killing times and fields. Indigenous healing practices are our gift of courage and hope to an oppressive world she tells us.
Hope comes through the communal storying, redefining our common humanity. When the unspeakable is spoken and heard, where there are no words, they are simply acted out. (The acting out is then punished I think to myself).
- Establish state regulation – safe touch
- Somatic sensory integration – movement and music and yoga
- Facilitate emotional regulation – dance play art
- Encourage abstract thought – story telling, writing, drama, therapy
- Resonance – growth, vitality, curiosity and openness
Whole community crisis intervention:
- Self and collective efficacy
We must create culturally safe spaces that allow us to
find and tell our stories, make sense of our stories, name and own our feelings and move through layers and loss
Tomorrow I’m delivering two sessions, one on my research about care experience, school exclusion and belonging and one on the trauma-informed education research insight undertaken in West Yorkshire. Luckily, there are a couple of keynotes I am attending first so I will still have a post for you tomorrow with lots of nuggets!