Part 4: The Fragmented Self
Neural Networks: The Biological Location of Change | The Ceramic Baseball Analogy: How the Self Becomes Fragmented | Integration: Rewire the Brain for Healing and Harmony
The image below is called a neuron, aka a brain cell. There are up to 100 billion neurons in our brains. Each neuron has up to 100 thousand dendrites making over 100 trillion constantly changing connections. According to John Ratey, MD, author of A Users Guide to the Brain: “The neuron and its thousands of neighbors send out roots and branches – the axons and dendrites – in all directions, which intertwine to form an interconnected tangle with 100 trillion constantly changing connections… We call them Neural Networks
The neural networks of our brain and central nervous system are comparable to but infinitely more sophisticated than the fiber-optic network connecting millions of computers together in a single network that we have come to know as the Internet.
One main difference is that instead of millions of computers — our brain has up to 100 billion “computers” called neurons connected together in a biological network that would put AT&T to shame. And, just like the Internet, our brain has networks… embedded in networks… embedded in networks… and so on. A neural network is a cluster of neurons connected together to form a “database” of encoded information such as thoughts, feelings, beliefs, programmed reactions, emotions, memories, and even physiological data.
Neural networks are the actual biological location of change. Change does not take place without re-wiring of existing neuronal connections or creating entirely new connections. We call these biological changes “learning something new”
The Four Stages of Learning Something New
Learning as it relates to self-preservation, such as the survival skills and developmental tasks of childhood, is accomplished at the subconscious level. The learning process for information related to self-actualization (growth) requires conscious effort and self-discipline. This learning process can be boiled down to transforming explicit memory into implicit memory (growing a new neural network). There are four stages one must go through in learning a new behavior or routine:
Unconscious Incompetence – Before people even become aware that they need or want to learn a new behavior or skill, they are incompetent it and unaware of just how incompetent they really are at the behavior. For example, I may decide I’d like to go bowling although I have never tried it before.
Conscious Incompetence – once an awareness of the desire to learn the behavior arises, the awareness of incompetence soon follows. I throw my first ball and it goes into the gutter, as does the second, and even the third! I suddenly realize that I SUCK at bowling! (The reluctance to go through this awkward, clumsy stage of learning is often the reason some people won’t try new things.)
Conscious Competence – If I keep at it and push through the initial stages of learning, with the help of explicit memory I start knocking some pins down and eventually get a spare or even a strike once in a while. As the new behavior is practiced repeatedly, skill is developed in the form of neural networks (Neurons that fire together, wire together) In the next stage of learning, those neural nets literally become part of me. We call it “muscle memory” the actual term for that is implicit memory.
Unconscious Competence – Once a certain level of proficiency is reached the new behavior or routine becomes automatic or “Second Nature.” Now I can put a spin on the ball and make it do tricks as it rolls down the lane. This is because I have become ONE with the bowling ball! In other words, it becomes programmed into the neural networks of implicit memory.
There is no “Good” or “Bad” - Only Intensity and Repetition
You may have guessed by now, it matters not if the learning is “good” or “bad” learning. With intensity and repetition (practice), new learning moves from inside physical changes (neuronal connections) to outside physical changes (actual behavior). This is why we can literally “become” what we think about most of the time…
For example, if we frequently ruminate about depressive or obsessive thoughts, we are building a neurological database for depression or obsession and can experience everything that goes with it! If we think of each brain cell (neuron) as a computer and a neuron’s dendrites and axons as the fiber-optics, then try to fathom this — There are more possible ways to connect the brain's neurons than there are atoms in the universe. The connections guide our bodies and behaviors; even as every action we take physically modifies their patterns…
Thanks to sharp imaging technology and some brilliant research, we now have proof that [network] development is a continuous, unending process. Axons and dendrites and their connections can be modified up to a point, strengthened, and perhaps even regrown. – A Users Guide to the Brain, (page 20)
Each network has a function. We have simple networks for daily routines…
How to tie our shoes
How to brush our teeth
How to shave
And more complex neural networks for such things as:
How to do relationships
How to perform various duties at work
How to drive a car
How to read
Who I am
A Neural Network Demonstration…
Try this experiment, cross your arms in a comfortable position across your chest… You have just accessed your arm-crossing neural network – a small cluster of brain cells connected together and programmed for this behavior. Now take a close look and notice exactly how they are crossed… Got it?
Great, now try to cross them in exactly the opposite way. You should notice that the first way is comfortable and automatic…you don’t even have to think about it. The new way is uncomfortable if you are able to do it at all…most people experience momentary confusion and others freeze up totally and can’t do it. The new, uncomfortable way is new behavior for which you do not yet have a neural network.
You could create a network for doing it the new way, but it will take a few weeks of discipline and repetition. See Part 3: Basic Neuroplasticity to learn how to do that with the use of Heebs Law: “Neurons that fire together, wire together. & Use-it-or-lose-it.” This is why changing habits and behaviors can be difficult… it is simply easier to do it the way we are programmed to do it. If you happen to be ambidextrous you may be able to do it comfortably and easily both ways. This simply means you have a neural network for crossing your arms both ways, writing with either hand, etc.
The Ceramic Baseball Analogy
So, why is all of this stuff about neural circuitry and neuroplasticity important? To answer this question, think of the self as a ceramic baseball. When this ceramic-self comes into the world and life throws us a curve, then it gets hit with a bat… what happens to the ceramic baseball? That’s right, it shatters. This is a great analogy for what happens when people suffer trauma and attachment wounds early in life. A core chunk of the self continues to grow and self-actualize into the adult we know and love today.
But there are these pieces or shards of self that float or orbit around the core self, like little satellites. These are what we call fragments of self. They are frozen in time, disconnected from the actualized self (the adult self). As such, they do not have access to our adult resources and coping skills. They remain the age they were when created and employ the survival skills that got them through the trauma at the time.
Example of a Fragment of Self
Let's say an 8-year-old boy walks into a dark room, there is the scent of garlic in the air, the door slams shut and it becomes pitch black – then he gets badly beaten. Thirty years later, the same person walks into a dark room, there is the scent of garlic present, and the door slams shut – PANIC ATTACK!
Pattern Match Activated: Dark Room+Door slam+Garlic = Get Badly Beaten
The 38-year-old man’s awareness left the adult core chunk of self and into the wounded 8-year-old boy fragment of self. He then re-lived the trauma as if he was back there again. He had access to only the resources available to the 8-year-old part of self because of the disconnect from his adult self. This is what we often refer to as being triggered.
Another clinical term for this fragmentation of the self is Compartmentalization. When a traumatic experience gets encoded into a neural network of it’s own, this is accomplished by one-trial learning due to the intensity of the experience (think 9/11). Intense threats get encoded in the area of the brain for survival instinct, the limbic system or feeling brain. Then that network gets compartmentalized as if a firewall forms around it, closing it off from the thinking brain and our awareness.
When a pattern match is activated, the doorways to that compartment are opened. It’s like we get sucked inside and trapped in that traumatized network. In other words, when all the key elements of the original trauma are present (e,g, Garlic+Dark room+Door Slam) we get triggered and re-experience the trauma because it has not been fully processed (We will cover that in another post). When the experience subsides we are outside the compartment and the doors are closed again.
With ongoing trauma and attachment wounds there are several, if not many, compartments, which I refer to as fragments of self frozen in time.
Back to our Question…
Why is all this about neuroplasticity important? We began creating and growing dendrite connections the moment we were conceived… Later on, we create networks for sitting up, walking, talking, reading, and so on. Below is an image of neural networks in the brain of an infant compared to those of a 2-year-old.
Neurogenesis & Synaptic Pruning
Brain growth, also known as neurogenesis is staggering! The lifelong process of synaptic pruning begins when neural connections weaken and are no longer needed (use-it-or-lose-it!) Networks that were necessary at one point (nursing) stop firing when that behavior is replaced by eating solid food and drinking from a sippy cup.
A network contains explicit and implicit data for all the skills, knowledge, emotions, beliefs, physiology, motor skills, thoughts, memories, and experiences that have to do with that function or behavior. We have networks for identity and self-esteem… We have networks for how to drive a car, how to swim, how to be a good spouse, how to do our job. We weren’t born with these networks, we had to create and grow them.
We may also have limiting or unhealthy neural networks devoted to addictions, self-sabotage, phobias, anxieties, depression, PTSD, and other unwanted feelings and behaviors. But there is good news based upon Heeb’s Law, the subconscious mind uses a process known as synaptic pruning to rewire these unhelpful neural networks!
Networks you want to re-wire or new ones you’d like to create, such as one for regular exercise, will take several weeks of consciously directing your attention toward it. With concentration, dedication, and discipline it only takes several weeks of effort to feel like the new behavior is becoming part of you or “second nature” – Continuing the behavior becomes easier and easier.
Integration and the Biological Location of Change
Now for the bottom line ~ Why is all this stuff about Neuroplasticity so important to understand? Because Parts of self, including fragmented parts of self, are encoded on our neural networks. We need to connect with and update them in a process called integration. Integrative psychotherapy is all about the integration of fragmented parts of self! We need to be able to do this in a safe way so as not to re-traumatize and strengthen that part of self.
Those reactive, fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (submit) parts outlined in the LSPM Model live in the non-dominant hemisphere (usually the right brain) and are driven by the wound of abandonment, the infection of shame, and the scab of contempt described in the Iceberg Model. Everytime they are activated or triggered, they grow stronger.
The proactive, growth-oriented executive functioning parts-of-self live in the dominant hemisphere (usually the left brain) This is where, through therapy, we build the safe-container, activate the self-soothing parts of self, and strengthen the ego for the process of integration. With this in place we can finish the unfinished business without retraumatization.
In order for your manual, growth-oriented left brain to communicate with your automated, survival-oriented right brain, you have to open a channel, a neural pathway to establish a link vs bouncing back and forth between survival mode and growth mode. This IS integration aka psycho-biological change. That is why I call the neural circuitry of the brain and nervous system the biological location of change!
Practice Makes Perfect
As you read these articles and watch the videos, remember to review them in order, and more than just once or twice. Also remember that INTENSITY and REPETITION are the mechanisms for building these healing networks, aka parts-of-self. As indicated in the four stages of learning something new (above), practice makes perfect!