The Triangle of Well-being and Resilience model, developed by Dr. Dan Siegel (2010), demonstrates how our thoughts and experiences literally shape the physical connections between the various parts of our brain. The arrows in Dr. Siegel’s model below point in every direction. Each point in the triangle interacts with the other two to create continuous feedback loops. The model demonstrates our mind, brain and relationships are parts of an open system that is continually responding to new experiences. This capacity for change (neuroplasticity) is a new idea. Not too long ago scientists were certain that once the basic structure of the brain was formed in childhood and physical reworking of the connections in the brain was impossible.
Dr. Siegel goes further to say that the “mind”, our thoughts and feelings, can and do interact with the physical nervous system to influence how we respond to experiences throughout our lives. What we intend and pay attention to directs and regulates electrical and chemical signals so that physical changes can be detected with scans that measure activity (like blood flow) in the living brain.
The mind regulates the flow of energy and information through the nervous system (Dan Siegel, November 20th, 2012, Keynote, Attachment Conference, Winnipeg, MB).
Relationships are part of this model because we form our view of the world through interactions with our parents, caregivers, teachers, friends and the larger community. These relationships, especially with care givers in our earliest months, have a profound effect on how our brain develops and what our mind will be preoccupied with. Our internalized experience of these interactions with our care givers will be the template that informs, often unconsciously, our relationships throughout life.
In this model, mind, brain and relationships co-evolve to make up who we are. This is particularly true when we are babies. It is our earliest relationships that lay down the blueprint of our developing brain. The study of parental influence on young children’s development has been explored through viewing the results of various forms of parent-infant bonding in Attachment Theory (Bowlby,1988). This is a rich area of research that includes many variations but for the purpose of this course we will focus on two broad forms of attachment, secure and insecure.
Secure attachment occurs when a caregiver is attentive to the needs of the baby. The parent recognizes the baby signals of hunger and other simple biological needs but also responds to emotional signals from the baby for attention, a cuddle or soothing after an upset, like falling down when learning to walk. It’s not necessary that every need be met, but that most of the time the baby has a growing sense that if she needs help, help will come.
Over the course of childhood this security allows the developing brain to build good connections between the prefrontal cortex (reasoning part of the brain) with the mid-brain structures; (which are involved in sensing emotions and their regulation, encoding of memory, achieving body awareness, and developing empathy).
Insecure attachment, characterized by caregiver neglect and/or outright abuse undermines normal brain development so much so that the child’s ability to regulate emotion, have a sense of their own body, free up the neural resources to lay down the kind of memory required for learning, and trust in the good will of others is seriously impaired.
A child with an insecure attachment history has a blueprint of relationships that may mix up the need for love and connection with feelings of fear and unease. So that in adulthood a person may find that abusive, dangerous or dismissing relationships seem predictable and normal.
It is very much the case that no one sets out to harm their child. Most people want to be good, responsive caregivers, however a history of neglect and abuse in a person’s past, without support for change, makes it more likely that they will have difficulty being attuned to their children. It is also important to see raising children as a social responsibility. Young families struggling with poverty, unsafe housing and few job prospects will face extra demands that make it difficult to be fully present with their children (Baer, et al., 2012).
Understanding the interconnectedness between relationships, the brain and the mind is important because it can help promote relationship by helping to identify qualities that will allow clients to “feel felt” and promote recovery and well-being.