Week 1: The Emotional System
We begin with a deep dive into self-knowledge – understanding the role of the brain and body in our emotions, the effects of our childhood environment on our emotional system, and emotional trauma.
Video 0103: The Emotional System
An overview of the areas of the body and brain that are involved in our emotional system.
Guided Practice: The Full Breath
An optional guided practice exploring the stages of a full breath – useful for increasing conscious awareness of body sensations, and for expanding the capacity to take deep, relaxing breaths when needed.
Guided Practice: The Full Breath (audio)
Video 0104: Emotional Development
The stages of development of our emotional system, and the importance of the environment for healthy development.
Video 0105: Emotional Trauma
What is emotional trauma? What causes it, how do we recognize it, and how do we heal?
This is an enlarged copy of the image referenced in this week’s video.
Emotional Intelligence and
“The link between emotional intelligence and earnings is so direct that every point increase in emotional intelligence adds $1,300 to an annual salary. These findings hold true for people in all industries, at all levels, in every region of the world. We haven’t yet been able to find a job in which performance and pay aren’t tied closely to emotional intelligence.”
- What were you told about emotions as a child?
- What did you observe as a child about how emotions are managed?
- What did the culture you grew up in teach you (directly or indirectly) about emotions?
- Which emotions are you comfortable to feel and express? Which emotions “shouldn’t” you feel or express? Which emotions seem “too much” to handle?
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is the “three brains” theory still valid? I heard it was wrong.
A: The original “triune brain” theory was proposed by MacLean in the late 20th century. Aspects of the original theory have been disproven, such as the idea that these “brains” evolved one after the other. While there are three areas of the brain which roughly correspond with MacLean’s three “brains”, they are actually much more interconnected than MacLean originally assumed.
In this program we work with a simplified concept, rather than explore the full neuroanatomy. This simple idea is useful to help people understand what is happening in their brain and body. For those who want a more detailed and accurate understanding of the neuroanatomy, there are references below.
Q: Can kids be trained to develop mental empathy, or do they simply lack the brain structures?
A: The brain structures that let us imagine another person’s perspective develop in stages. The first stage is simply understanding that other people see the world from a different vantage point (once this develops, kids are actually able to play “hide and seek” effectively, instead of “hiding” by putting their hands over their eyes).
The logic of fairness develops next, where a child can understand that they wouldn’t like it if their brother ate all the cake, so they should leave some for him. This gives them a limited form of mental empathy in situations that they are familiar with, but they are actually engaging with their own emotions when they do this process, rather than understanding the emotions of the other.
The full capacity for mental empathy requires an awareness of social systems, and the ability to accurately imagine oneself in a situation that one hasn’t personally experienced, which are only available after puberty.
Q: Is it possible to fully heal from childhood trauma, or only to be more functional?
A: Yes, it is possible to rebuild the neural pathways in adulthood. Nobody is ever 100% free from all irrational fears, insecurities, and self-doubt, of course, but it is entirely possible to become merely as neurotic as the average person.
And, in fact, having developed the emotional system to maturity as an adult often results in a person who is MORE stable then the average person. In part because they have experienced many intense emotions and know how to handle them, and in part because a conscious program of development produces better results than the random influences which shape the average person as they develop.
Q: What if I can’t feel my breath moving anywhere?
A: If there is too much adrenaline in your system, it can suppress the information from the proprioceptive nerves (the ones that tell us what is happening in our body). Next week, you will learn a range of physical techniques you can use to calm the nervous system and make it easier to feel these subtle sensations. In the meanwhile, keep practising with the guided practice audio, and simply focus on relaxing as much as possible during the practice.
References, optional further study and additional practices
Erikson, Erik H. (1963). Childhood and Society(2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Meng-Tan, Chade (2012) Search Inside Yourself, Harper One
Nestor, James (2020) Breath, Penguin.
Perry, B.D. (2000). Traumatized children: How childhood trauma influences brain development. The Journal of the California Alliance for the Mentally Ill 11:1, 48-51. Samakow, J. (2013, February 20).
This book collects three early papers that―along with Childhood and Society―many consider the best introduction to Erikson’s theories.
Piaget and Inhelder: The definitive account of psychologist Jean Piaget’s work
Kohlberg described how “morality” – for example, thinking about right and wrong, making ethically “correct” choices – develops in stages as the brain develops.
Australian Institute of Family Studies: Evidence-based principles for supporting the recovery of children in care
About Jean Piaget
Piaget moved to Paris, France after his graduation and he taught at the Grange-Aux-Belles Street School for Boys. The school was run by Alfred Binet, the developer of the Binet-Simon test (later revised by Lewis Terman to become the Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scales). Piaget assisted in the marking of Binet’s intelligence tests. It was while he was helping to mark some of these tests that Piaget noticed that young children consistently gave wrong answers to certain questions.
Piaget did not focus so much on the fact of the children’s answers being wrong, but that young children consistently made types of mistakes that older children and adults did not. This led him to the theory that young children’s cognitive processes are inherently different from those of adults. Ultimately, he was to propose a global theory of cognitive developmental stages in which individuals exhibit certain common patterns of cognition in each period of development.
Jenny has combined the work of Piaget, Erikson, and Kohlberg with descriptions of how each stage is experienced by the child at the time, and an analysis of how the childhood environment affects the developing brain. This combination allows you to map the academic theories to your own experiences, to understand the sometimes paradoxical or confusing nature of some experiences, and to see clearly the pathway to making positive changes.
“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”