Dr. Karen Villa Part 6 | Neuropsychology Insights for Healthy Brain Development

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“The quality of experiences and relationships and childhood impact brain development in a really profound way, which stood in contradiction to that ‘things are genetic purely and set in stone.’ So that’s the idea of interpersonal neurobiology: our experiences are the architects of our minds.

Dr. Karen Villa

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: Welcome to ‘Mind and Heart.’ I’m Sister John Dominic, and I’m so happy to have with me, Dr. Karen Villa. I’d like for you, Karen, just to give us a little background and introduce yourself to our audience.

Karen Villa: I’m a clinical neuropsychologist. I’ve been practicing for over 25 years, but I did the majority of my training in the decade of the brain which was in the 1990s when George Bush funneled all of this funding into neuroscience research because we had all these new neurodiagnostic tools.  So I finished my training about the time I was having my own kids and I took a lot of these interpersonal neurobiology tools and used them to help give me a map to raise my own children.

The whole field of interpersonal neurobiology lays out a developmental pathway to mental health in adulthood; that the quality of experiences and relationships in childhood impact brain development in a really profound way, which stood in contradiction to ‘things are genetic purely and set in stone.’ So, interpersonal neurobiology is that our experiences are the architects of our minds and the Virtue program, I think really integrates a whole experience that children are exposed to that supports and promotes their brain development.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: I think the one book that we’ve talked about is with The Yes Brain by Dr. Dan Siegel.

Karen Villa:  He’s a neuropsychiatrist.  He originally started in psychiatry and when all of this research was coming together from so many different disciplines, he integrated it into an understanding that the brain grows in relationship to other people.  So he’s launched this field with a couple of other scientists and he took this hardcore science and translated it into everyday tools that parents can use.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: I think we’ve talked about the ‘brainchild,’ but what we’re unpacking here is ‘yes brain.’ So what would you say is the difference between the ‘yes brain’ and the ‘no brain’?

Karen Villa: So it might be helpful to start with a definition of the mind. We didn’t have a definition of mind when we came to the decade of the brain. We were really studying structure and function of the brain. And we realized that mind was energy and information-flow in and out of the brain.  This was that embodied and relational process. So a ‘yes brain’ is somebody who’s integrated and has good information-flow in and out of their mind; they can receive learning and experiences from their environment and they can construct responses thoughtfully, mindfully; to engage with the world around them.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: And so then the ‘no-brain’ is when we come into this ‘river of integration,’ where you have on one side chaos and the other side rigidity.

Karen Villa: So the river itself would be the ‘yes brain’, where things are flowing smoothly along.  but when somebody’s not operating from an integrated perspective, they can either be very chaotic, so that would be impulsivity and hyperactivity, anxiety, or they can become rigid, which is very stuck and stubborn and repetitive. So obsessive-compulsive kinds of things or school refusal would be kind of a rigid response to the environment.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: So I’m sure if there’s any parents or teachers that are listening than like, “Okay, okay, let’s get some strategies.”  But before we get to that, maybe if you could unpack the acronym B.R.I.E.

Karen Villa: In [Dr. Siegel’s] Yes Brain book he is talking about these parenting tools and skills that parents want to cultivate in their children to arrive at a ‘yes brain;’ and the four letters stand for ‘Balance’, which is the ability to regulate your brain and your body; not become too chaotic or too rigid and that’s a really important one we’re going to look at today because that informs all the others. And then the other three are ‘Resilience,’ so the ability to maintain that balance in the midst of challenge or disappointment or mistakes; and then ‘Insight,’ which is the ability to turn inward and understand your own internal world; and then the last one is ‘Empathy,’ which is the ability to take the perspective of another person and care about what’s happening to them.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: So, when I hear you talking I immediately think ‘balance’ is ‘temperance,’ ‘resilience’ is ‘fortitude,’ ‘insight’ is ‘prudence,’ and then we talk about ’empathy,’ I see that related to the virtue of justice.

It really is amazing!  God is good and we can see that! One of the big things we hear so much is about ‘health’ and ‘keep our body healthy.’ But I think understanding this ‘healthy mind platter’ that we wanted, there are things we can actually do to keep our minds healthy. And then obviously would have a positive impact on our body.

Karen Villa: With all of this overstimulation we have to be very mindful about balancing our lives because it’s not balanced naturally. So [Dr. Siegel] developed this ‘healthy mind platter’ and really talks about them like mental nutrients for your brain. So if you have these things embedded in your daily life you really are nourishing your mind and body in a way that keeps it healthy and keeps it mentally healthy.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: So, why don’t you go through all of those.

Karen Villa: There are seven of them and maybe it would be good just to list them first:

  • Sleep Time
  • Physical Time
  • Downtime
  • Time to Focus
  • Time to Play
  • Time to Turn Inward
  • Time to Connect

If you can have those in your daily life, you’re really supporting good brain growth, brain strength, and brain function.

So ‘sleep time’ is maybe first because it’s so critical to brain health. And we very much see that there’s a strong correlation between good sleep and good behavior during the day.  There’s a lot of thinking that’s going on even in sleeping and it’s consolidating what we have experienced; recovering from what we’ve experienced during the day and consolidating anything we’ve learned during the day.

The next one is ‘physical time.’ So this is the idea that when you are exercising your body, even getting it to an aerobic level, you are delivering good blood flow to the central nervous system. So it keeps your body physically healthy, but it’s very important in brain growth to support it from a nutrient standpoint and the ability to carry away debris or toxic buildup in the brain.

And then the next one is ‘downtime’ and ‘downtime’ is where you’re not doing anything. It’s very important in just recharging.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: Right.  So let me ask you this:  sometimes people say, “oh I need this, I need the downtime so I’m going to just like play my game or whatever.  But then your mind’s active. Does it depend on the person or the individual or is it just something that’s helping them just kind of relax?

Karen Villa: I think if they find that relaxing that’s a fine activity. But again from a virtue standpoint everything in moderation.  And these video games and game playing and you know surfing social media, it creates a very passive mind.  And we’re wanting this to be an active and engaged mind; too much of that can lead to passivity, rigidity, and then on the other side, so overstimulating, to have this constant visual input that it can lead to chaos.

[Woodworking or knitting] would be refreshing but that might be something like ‘focus time.’  So, every day we need to have places where we are concentrating on something and seeing it through from beginning to end; not multitasking and, something like a woodworking project or learning about a new concept would be a way to focus. From a brain standpoint, this really strengthens neuronal connections; to have good ‘focus time’ every day and outside of that ‘focus time’  it just leads to more clarity of mind and clear thinking. 

And then ‘Playtime.’  ‘Playtime’ is really important to just be spontaneous and have new experiences and creative experiences. We adults don’t get to ‘playtime.’

So then we have ‘time for connection.’ So this is the idea that we take the time every day to sit down and have conversations to connect with the people around us.  And, I know Dr. Siegel would add ‘time to connect to nature,’ time to give back to the world and just extend ourselves in a generous way to the world around us. And I think family dinner as a nice way or just games are a nice way to do that.

[And finally, we have] ‘time in.’ This is taking the time every day to stop and look in on your inner world and be reflective about your thoughts and your feelings; any sensations that you’re having. For children, they might get butterflies in their stomachs and it’s good for them to know that that’s a sign of nervousness. So we’re trying to get people in touch with their inner worlds from a mind and a body standpoint. And the research shows that taking ‘time in’ every day specifically builds these integration pathways in the brain. So integration is all the different parts of the brain working well together.  And there are certain pathways that connect, say the back of our brain to the front of our brain, or our upstairs brain to our downstairs brain, and these time and approaches build those integration pathways. So then what you find outside of ‘time in’ is that a child is better integrated for the rest of their day. That’s why they’re so important and the fact that you do the lectio divina in the midst of a child’s school day, or they are in the chapel having adoration, or journaling some of the journaling work that you’ve done with them, is really critical to building those integration pathways, which really integration is, you know where mental health comes from.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: And I think too what you mentioned, it’s so important just to have some acknowledgment of just the feelings or like “I’m having like butterflies” or “this is anxiety” and you can begin to identify maybe what the source of that anxiety is so it’s not like you’re controlling it and does not necessarily controlling you, you just begin to learn those skills during that time and not to be afraid to acknowledge whatever it may be.

Karen Villa: It’s such an important point that children do feel like things are just happening to them and when they can reflect, it starts to put them back in charge of their experiences.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: So what are the groups that we have for the strategies?

Karen Villa: I tried to break the strategies down into ages and stages because I think that’s important. There are different developmental tasks at every stage:

  • ages 0 to 5 – before schools; so foundational
  • ages 6-10 (the latency age) – when a child’s instincts get kind of quiet; they call it latency because it’s a quiet time and it’s really a good time for learning. the instincts resurface during pre-adolescence and adolescence.
  • ages 10-15 (middle-school years) – the first stage of puberty
  • ages 16 and beyond

Sr. John Dominic, O.P.: These have been very helpful and I know our listeners and parents and teachers are going to be very eager to learn about each of those different strategies and at the age levels.