Did you know that the part of your brain that regulates your emotions and allows you to see more than one point of view at a time does not fully mature until you are in your 20’s. In fact, this part of the brain barely comes on line until you are 5 or 6 years of age. It’s no wonder childhood and adolescence is fraught with disagreements, tears, disappointment, selfishness and raw, untempered emotion!
The part of the brain I’m talking about is the prefrontal cortex. It’s the part situated just behind the forehead. It makes up the front third and is primarily responsible for our ‘executive functioning’; for monitoring our personality, for decision making and for moderating social behaviour. It’s the part of the brain that tells us to keep our head down and our mouth shut when we find ourselves in a potentially threatening environment such as being the only Chelsea supporter in the Arsenal section of the stadium! It’s also the part of the brain that allows us to see the world from another perspective at the same time as our own (at the same time is the important part!). It’s role is so critical in terms of helping to moderate aggression that there is some (controversial) evidence to suggest a link between impaired prefrontal cortex functioning and the propensity to commit murder!
I want to touch a topical and perhaps emotive subject for a moment; the pictures released to the media last week of an RAF Soldier giving the thumbs up to a colleague whilst crouching over his recently killed insurgent enemy. There is little doubt the photo and the behaviour is distasteful, and that even during war there is protocol when it comes to showing respect to your ‘dead’ or captured enemy. But, it’s important to understand the context within which this behaviour and the resulting photo occurred. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be under siege and the effect that knowing you have to ‘kill or be killed’ has on an otherwise civilised human being. I can also only imagine the relief and primitive satisfaction of overpowering your enemy.
Back in the sanitised world we live in, I know I’m guilty of moments of ‘childish’ vitriolic behaviour when I ‘get my own back’ on someone who I perceive to be ‘my enemy’. Thankfully, the incidents I face are usually at traffic lights, in the supermarket queue or because one of my kids is being criticised (often very justifiably!), but I wouldn’t like to bet on my ability not to completely ‘lose my head’ in more challenging circumstances.
How many of us can safely say we ‘keep our head’ 100% of the time?
‘Keeping your head’ is very much the role of your prefrontal cortex. Keeping it relies on your ability to think about ‘this and that’ at the same time. To be able, in a split second to provide yourself with context and perspective in order to balance instinctive emotional reaction with a more rational reasoned response. It’s challenging because the emotional response, sent from the limbic system is like a ferrari whilst the more rational response can be more like a caravan! At the end of the day we are still very much wired, in times of heightened emotion and danger to act first and think later.
Research indicates that the more developed our prefrontal cortex, the more we are capable of ‘this and that’ thinking, which undoubtedly improves our decision making and ability to regulate our emotions. As with all areas of the brain, the way to do this is practice! We can help our kids develop their prefrontal cortex from a young age by taking the time to help them investigate the ‘this and that’ of frustrating, challenging situations, whilst at the same time not being too disappointed in their inevitable inability to be able to do this naturally from a young age!
If we can’t always control our own and other people’s more random bouts of behaviour at least we can try to understand it and forgive it! For some easy reading and watching check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvteZ_bq0nk and http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201204/shaping-your-kids-brain-success