Of Marshmallows, Brain Plasticity and Attachment – RECAP

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My four-part series on Marshmallows, Brain Plasticity and Attachment was triggered by my read of Walter Mischel’s 2014 book entitled The Marshmallow Test—Mastering Self-Control. Today’s post will be a recap, a Reader’s Digest version if you will. I will also offer up a few possible ways of connecting the middle object brain to the upper subject brain (talked about in part IV).

The Marshmallow Test is fairly straight forward. As talked about in part I, researchers would offer treats (like marshmallows) to kids around age five or six. Kids could eat their treats immediately, or they could delay eating their treats for about twenty minutes and, in doing so, earn twice as many treats. The Marshmallow Test measures a child’s ability to “delay gratification,” which is one of the Executive Function skills along with such cognitive abilities as planning, appropriately focusing attention, and mental modeling. When compared to low delayers, Mischel’s research showed that high delayers tend to go on to achieve such things as academic success, relationship satisfaction, and well-funded retirement accounts.

Mischel engaged in research that showed that there is a correlation between the Marshmallow Test and the Strange Situation Assessment (as talked about in part IV). The Strange Situation measures attachment patterns in toddlers around one-and-a-half to two years of age. Turns out that toddlers assessed as being securely attached go on to do well on the Marshmallow Test. All of this research points to the following continuum:

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

Mischel suggests that all is not lost for adolescents or even adults who started out life as low delayers. Adolescents and adults can learn to be high delayers. Mischel tells us that the brain is rather plastic and can learn new cognitive skills. Because brain plasticity figured prominently in Mischel’s book, part II looked at the extent to which the brain is plastic while part III looked at the political frames surrounding brain plasticity.

Drawing from work by Michael Thomas, turns out that brain plasticity depends on a number of factors such as the brain center being looked at, the stage of brain development, and the amount of trauma the brain may have sustained. According to Thomas, “There is likely no single thing as the brain’s plasticity.”

Political commentator Victoria Pitts-Taylor tells us that neurocentrism arises when the “brain is conceived as foundational of many aspects of human nature and social life.” Neuroscientific thought today expresses a conservative worldview that sees “various attributes of individuals and groups” as being “hardwired in the brain” (quoting Pitts-Taylor). Postmodernists are trying to offer up another way to frame brain plasticity that does not focus on biological determinism. In their view, brain plasticity carries with it the potential to lead to a “progressive postmodern subjectivity” that sees an end to such things as “singular subjects and truths, linear history, and hegemonic dominance of singular ideas” (quotes by Brian Rotman).

As I talk about in part IV, my position is that the middle object brain needs to “play nicely” with the upper subject brain. How can we get these two brain centers to work together? As mentioned at the end of part IV, here’s a list of the processes that I see that have the greatest potential to get both brain centers working together:

  1. humor
  2. appreciation
  3. empathy
  4. morale

Lets look at each very briefly.

Humor—Back in 1910 the French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote a book entitled Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic… . I remember listening to an audio tape lecture on Bergson by Princeton professor Michael Sugrue. This tape was a part of the Great Minds series offered by The Teaching Company.

According to Professor Sugrue’s lecture, in Laughter Bergson puts forth the idea that much of comedy centers on the fact that humans are at once subject and object. Humans follow certain societal conventions (e.g., ideas) as they follow certain mechanical or biological rules. According to professor Michael Sugrue’s lecture, when we see a person, say, slip on a banana peel, several things happen: We first assess whether the person is hurt. If they are hurt, we offer aid. However, if it is clear that they are not hurt, most of the time we begin to laugh. Why? Because slipping on a banana peel demonstrates that we are both subject and object. Looked at another way, falling on a banana peel allows us to see the object and subject aspects of what it means to be human as separate domains. When object and subject are shown next to each other in a comedic fashion, we laugh. Humor is one of those times when our object and subject selves are both in on the joke at the same time.

Writing in their 2002 book entitled The Way We Think—Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities, Fauconnier and Turner reveal that we live in a world where concepts are continually blended. Metaphor would be but one example here. It’s often funny when we are presented with opportunities to recognize the object and subject blends that we live in all the time without much thought. We are both societal and mechanical (biological) at the same time unless through some comedic device (i.e., slapstick comedy) we are able to see them side by side. Quoting Bergson, Professor Sugrue tells us that “the comic is that side of a person which reveals his likeness to a thing.”

Appreciation—Lets take the snowboarding example from part IV. As we move down the slope there’s the physical experience of movement and also the subjective experience of being able to move down a snow covered slope. It’s as if both brain centers are paying attention to the same thing at the same time but coming from different perspectives. It’s the same thing when we are moved by a sunset or a work of art. We are similarly moved when someone goes out of their way to do something for us.

Empathy—Empathy is often described as “walking in someone else’s shoes.” It’s also described as “having someone else’s mind in mind.” When we have someone’s mind in mind, we also have a sense for what their body might be experiencing. These mind-in-mind experiences allow us to experience mind and body together. In part IV, I mentioned an article by Beth Greenfield entitled Why Apologizing the Right Way Matters. Greenfield quotes psychotherapist Bethany Marhsall when she tells us, “[H]aving empathy when you’ve hurt someone … is the best way to apologize.” She continues, “The most important thing is that you feel the other person’s pain.” Using the logic of the upper brain alone will not work. We have to also “look inward to identify why [we] did the bad thing” (quoting Marshall). According to Marshall, to complete the apology we have to convince the victim that we will behave differently in the future. Imagining the future is the work of the upper Executive Functions. So you see empathy is a dance that takes place between middle and upper brains. Marshall suggests that empathy is mainly about repair. And this fits with Bowlbian attachment theory where it’s not as much about relational rupture as it is about relational repair. One reason I do not care for the current expression “my bad” is because it tends to take the repair out of an apology.

Morale—I learned a lot about morale reading Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s 1996 book entitled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. To a large extent morale keeps a fighting unit together. According to Grossman, once morale drops below a certain point, a fighting unit falls apart. Morale takes the individual object body and blends it with a shared subjective experience. It’s this blending of individual object and collective subject that allows a fighting unit to continue on against all odds. Morale plays a big role in environments such as university campuses, corporate offices, and even towns and villages.

I know I moved through this recap at breakneck speed. Hopefully in a future post I’ll say more about getting middle and upper brain centers to work together. If you have some suggestions or possibilities, feel free to leave them in the comments box below.