Of Marshmallows, Brain Plasticity and Attachment (part IV)

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Have you ever had this experience? You’re about to attempt an activity for the first time, say, snowboarding. You’ve taken a few lessons but now you’re on your own. There’s a bit of danger and a bit of risk. You ask yourself, “Will I fall getting onto the lift? Getting off the lift? Going down the hill?” Even though you feel nervous and a bit scared, you still pull off your first solo run without a hitch. If you focus in on this inner dialog it appears that there are two voices: one that says “there’s danger, there’s risk,” and another that says “yeah, it’s risky but I’ve taken a few lessons and I trust my instructor when she says I’m ready.”

To use brain science imagery, the middle brain—home to our early warning system, the amygdala—is duking it out with the upper brain—home to our so-called rational frontal lobes. Do these two brain centers actually have their own agendas, their own stories? According to Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s organic systems theory, the answer is “possibly yes.” When an overall organic system begins to break down under stress, the various subsystems may begin to operate autonomously according to their own scripts or stories. Autonomous subsystems? Is this a form of brain plasticity? It should be but brain plasticity discussions (see part II) typically do not take on a systems perspective. Autonomous subsystems do make good sense from a survival perspective. When you are threatened by a predator—say, a hungry lion—you better hope that the middle brain takes over and gets your butt out of there. Trust me, you won’t be thinking about your 401(k) or your kid’s college fund.

Sure, it’s a gross simplification to talk about the brain as having two main parts (three if you include the reptilian brain and its ability to maintain basic systems like respiration and blood flow) but it does facilitate understanding. And there are many examples of this two-part dialog. Here’s a few examples that come to mind.

Most of us have heard the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By day Dr. Jekyll is a mild mannered man of science. By night Dr. Jekyll transforms into Mr. Hyde, a monstrous figure who casts a homicidal shadow on the streets of London. Back in 1976, psychologist Julian Jaynes wrote the book he is largely famous for:  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes argues that ancient man (roughly 1,000BC) navigated the world using what he called a bicameral mind. Bicameral loosely translates to “two legislative parts” and is often used in political contexts. Here’s how Wikipedia describes Jaynes’ bicameral mind:

For bicameral humans, when habit did not suffice to handle novel stimuli and stress rose at the moment of decision, neural activity in the “dominant” (left) hemisphere was modulated by auditory verbal hallucinations originating in the so-called “silent” (right) hemisphere (particularly the right temporal cortex), which were heard as the voice of a chieftain or god and immediately obeyed.

Jung wrote about how we have “light” archetypes (i.e., the anima and animus) that are often balanced by the so-called shadow archetypes. Today, brain researchers who focus on the Executive Functions (EF) tend to talk in terms of a two-part brain: the middle brain with its focus on objects and content, and the upper brain with its focus on subjects and context. For more on this theme see Elkhonon Goldberg’s 2009 book The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World or Russell Barkley’s 2012 book Executive Functions—What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved. As an example, consider this quote by Goldberg as he describes behaviors often associated with patients suffering from an upper brain, frontal lobe disease:

Being at the mercy of incidental distractions and displaying an inability to follow plans [one of the EF skills] are common features of frontal lobe disease. This is known as field-dependent behavior [emphasis in original]. A frontal lobe patient will drink from an empty cup, put on a jacket belonging to someone else, or scribble with a pencil on the table surface, merely because the cup, the jacket, and the pencil are there, even though these actions make no sense.

Goldberg points out that diseases ranging from Tourette’s syndrome (i.e., outbursts that make no sense) to obsessive compulsive disorder (i.e., repetitive actions that make no sense) display some form of field-dependent behavior. Simply, when the middle brain—home to content and objects—is cut off from the upper brain—home to context and subjects—the resulting behaviors often make little to no sense. Middle brain behaviors in and of themselves are often coherent, but they are out of a normal context. This is why therapists will often tell us that the “fight or flight” response of the middle brain often makes no sense in a modern world. Sure, our fight or flight (or sometimes freeze) response does get triggered these days, but typically there is no lion after us. Today’s lion may take the form of a thoughtless driver cutting us off in rush hour traffic. It’s the job of the rational upper brain to bring context and calm to the fired-up middle brain: “Chill out … just another thoughtless driver.”

As I read Walter Mischel’s book The Marshmallow Test—Mastering Self-Control (see part I), I could not help thinking that the ability to delay gratification was principally about gaining access to the upper brain with its focus on context and subjects. Mischel essentially sketches out the following continuum:

secure attachment <==> ability to delay gratification <==> ability to access the Executive Functions

I’d like to offer up one caution: gaining access to the upper brain does not mean leaving behind the middle brain. Mischel talks about how we can use certain behavioral techniques to increase our ability to delay gratification, which, in turn, increases our Executive Function skills. But we need the middle brain because it is the middle brain that drinks from a cup, puts on a jacket, or scribbles with a pencil (using Goldberg’s examples from above). If we were to be chased by a lion (or maybe today it would be a mugger), more than likely it will be the middle brain that saves our butt. Mischel uses terms like the hot brain (for the middle brain)—emotional, reflexive, unconscious—and the cool brain (for the upper brain)—cognitive, reflective, slower, effortful. We need both. Sadly, Mischel does not offer up much in the way of behavioral techniques designed to bring hot and cool together. As Mischel puts it, “The power resides in the prefrontal cortex [of the upper brain], which, if activated, allows almost endless ways of cooling hot, tempting stimuli [coming from the middle brain] by changing how they are appraised.” I disagree. In my opinion, the power comes when middle brain and upper brain learn to work together. (1) Mischel does allow, “The hot system gives life its emotional zest.” More than likely it was the hot system that got you to take up snowboarding in the first place, or pursue a particular career path. Simply, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde need to find a way of working together as opposed to staying divorced from each other. Using the above as a background, lets finish this multi-part series by returning to Mischel and looking at the attachment – delaying gratification connection.

Mischel writes:

Preschoolers who delayed longer on the Marshmallow Test were rated a dozen years later as adolescents who exhibited more self-control in frustrating situations; yielded less to temptation; were less distractible when trying to concentrate; were more intelligent, self-reliant, and confident; and trusted their own judgement. When under stress they did not go to pieces as much as low delayers did, and they were less likely to become rattled and disorganized or revert to immature behavior [such as field-dependent behavior].

Toddlers rated as being securely attached on the Strange Situation Assessment (which I have blogged about before) also go on to generally display the same characteristics as high delayers. Mischel writes, “The self-control strategies that children develop are shaped by their attachment experiences with caretakers from the start of life.” Given that toddlers and preschoolers live principally out of the middle brain of content and objects (see note 1), something must be going on in the middle brain that ultimately makes it relatively easy for the upper brain to come online in a positive, “delaying gratification” way. The image that comes to mind is the toddler following along after his/her mother/father asking a question that begs for a context answer: “why?” I’m guessing here but it would seem that we must encounter the object world in such a way that there are calls to the upper brain for context, for explanation. So, yes, parents and other attachment figures do act as surrogate upper brains for their children, answering those calls of “why?” But as I pointed out in part III, the idea of surrogate brains fits within a liberal “we’re in it together” frame. Interestingly, some strains of postmodernism take on a decidedly conservative bent when they tell kids essentially “you’re own your own.”

Mischel writes:

Prolonged stress impairs the PFC [the prefrontal cortex of the upper brain], which is essential not only for waiting for marshmallows but also for things like surviving high school, holding down a job, pursuing an advanced degree, navigating office politics, avoiding depression, preserving relationships, and refraining from decisions that seem intuitively right but on closer examination are really stupid.

I think this is a key point because kids raised in chaotic environments (more on this below) with little to no predictable patterns of behavior experience undue amounts of stress. These environments often lead to insecure attachment relationships, which, in turn, lead to impoverished Executive Function skills, such as those needed to delay gratification. With enough early stress the middle brain can begin to operate autonomously using its own story. As Professor Robert Solomon tells us in his lecture series The Passions; Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions, the middle brain can come up with many more stories based on the presence of negative emotions (anger, sadness, fear, etc.) than the upper brain can come up with positive stories based on positive emotions (happiness, joy, etc.). Sure, the cool upper brain may have a plethora of cooling techniques, but the middle brain has a plethora of horror stories to tell. This in part may explain why teens (and many adults) are drawn to dystopian stories like those found in the Hunger Games series. These are middle brain stories. And as therapists tell us, such behaviors as catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, and black or white thinking come from the middle brain. Unfortunately therapists will often label such middle brain thinking as “stinking thinking.”

As mentioned in part I, Mischel points to research that correlates the results from the Strange Situation Assessment with results from the Marshmallow Test. Here’s how Mischel describes this correlation:

Toddlers who managed to distant themselves from Mom’s absence by playing with the toys, exploring the room, or engaging with the stranger avoided the intense distress experienced by those who could not tear themselves away from the door and quickly dissolved into tears.

I’ve watched a number of videotaped Strange Situation Assessments at attachment theory conferences and workshops, and I can say that watching insecurely attached toddlers dissolve into tears while fixated on the door to the playroom (which now comes to represent the last experience of mother) is heart wrenching. At least these toddlers display organized behavior. There is a subgroup of toddlers who are rated as disorganized. Under attachment stress these toddlers engage in disorganized behavior: freezing as in “fight, flight, or freeze,” rolling into a ball, standing wide-mouthed with no sound coming out, walking backwards or just toppling over as if intoxicated. Disorganized behaviors are particularly hard to watch. And these disorganized behaviors persist even after the mother has returned. The middle brain has taken on a chaotic life of its own. Mischel continues:

[T]oddlers who spent [the] last 30 seconds of separation in the Strange Situation distracting themselves from Mom’s absence became the ones who at age five waited the longer for their treats and distracted themselves more effectively during the Marshmallow Test. … These results underscore the importance of regulating attention to control and cool down stress, beginning early in life. … How lovingly and caringly infants are nurtured, or how cruelly and coldly they are neglected or abused, is inscribed in their brains and changes who they become. It is critical to keep infants’ stress levels from becoming chronically activated and to promote the formation of close, warm attachment so the babies feel secure and safe.

So, what are parents to do, especially mothers? Here’s Mischel’s prescription:

[I]nterventions designed to enhance how babies regulate their emotion and develop cognitive, social, and emotional skills have the best chance to make a difference during those early years of life, when children are most vulnerable to damage. Within a few months of birth, caregivers can begin to switch their infant’s attention away from feelings of distress and toward activities that interest them, and in time this helps their babies learn to self-distract to calm themselves. At the neural level, babies begin to develop the mid frontal area of the brain as an attention-control system for cooling and regulating their negative emotions. If all goes well, they become less reflexive, more reflective, less hot, more cool, and able to express their own feelings, and intentions appropriately.

As mentioned in part III, Pitts-Taylor makes the following statement: “Overall, brian potentiality [within a neoliberal frame] represents a competitive field in which one’s willingness to let go of sameness, to constantly adapt, and to embrace a lifelong regime of work on the self (and one’s children) are keys to individual success.” Does Mischel’s above prescription support a neoliberal frame? Possibly. It’s worth keeping the political frames of brain plasticity in mind. The only way one would buy into Mischel’s prescription is to buy into the political frame that holds it. Many feminists reject Bowlbian attachment theory because it tends to lead to the types of neoliberal prescriptions that Mischel points to above. Again, if you hear about an intervention, a worldview is close at hand. Or, looked at another way, if someone is trying to sell you on an intervention, they’re trying to get you to buy in to a worldview as well.

Allow me to end up by sharing Mischel’s thoughts on how “father absence” can set up expectations within family structures that do not favor the future. Back in the late 1950s Mischel was working on his graduate studies. He was working with African families living in Trinidad. Apparently these families experienced high levels of father absence. As Mischel puts it, “There’s no good reason for anyone to forgo the ‘now’ unless there is trust that the ‘later’ will materialize.” In many ways attachment patterns could be framed as expectation patterns. Securely attached kids expect that certain things—like a parent being there—will happen. They have reason to forgo the now in favor of the later. “Beginning in early childhood,” writes Mischel, “far too many people live in untrustworthy, unreliable worlds in which promises for delayed larger rewards are made but never kept.” Mischel continues, “Given this [attachment] history, it makes little sense to wait rather than grab whatever is at hand.” Hopefully the reader can surmise how divorce could disrupt if not decimate expectation patterns within a family system. And as a colleague commented to me as we discussed this post, “A parent can be present physically and at the same time absent psychologically.” Here’s Mischel’s “bottom line”: “When preschoolers have an experience with a promise maker [such as an attachment figure] who fails to keep his promise, not surprisingly they are much less likely to be willing to wait for two marshmallows than to take one now.” Simply, promise makers who consistently (or even inconsistently) break promises risk relegating their child to the hot, autonomous world of the middle brain. Sad to say but this is the world of insatiable appetites, hard-to-break addictions, and compulsive behaviors. It’s the world of content and objects cut off from context and subjects. Hmmm … sounds a lot like the digital worlds of the Internet.

So ends this four-part series on marshmallows, brain plasticity and attachment. In my next post I’ll write a brief recap of this series (essentially a Reader’s Digest version). I’ll also offer up ways we can bring middle and upper brain systems together. To whet your appetite these ways will focus in on such things as humor, appreciation, empathy, and morale. To further whet your appetite, give the following short article a read:

Why Apologizing the Right Way Matters by Beth Greenfield


(1) As I was putting the finishing touches on this post I began reading the 2005 book by Malcolm Gladwell entitled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In the first few pages Gladwell tells us that the middle brain allows us to make very quick but largely unconscious appraisals and decisions. In essence, Gladwell is championing the intuition that comes from the middle brain. Gladwell also talks about how we can train and develop the middle brain to engage in what he calls “thin slicing”—essentially arriving at salient patterns from very thin slices of experience, in some cases measured in mere seconds. In contrast, the upper brain is about very deliberate and largely conscious appraisals and decisions. The upper brain arrives at patterns using very thick slices of experience, typically hours if not days. As mentioned in the text, infants and young children operate largely out of the middle brain. Their first experience of life is about unconsciously arriving at appraisals and decisions based on a process of thin slicing. It is beyond the scope of this note but I would wager that the toddler – mother exchange captured by the Strange Situation Assessment is about middle brain thin slicing.