As a kid raised on welfare by a single mom, lack of money tended to condition my brain and significantly shape my worldview pretty early on. Those experiences still affect me to this day. Much of that conditioning takes the form of implicit memories locked away inside my brain, but they are also stored in my body. And since the memories are often painful ones – showing up for school in wrinkled, dirty clothes, wearing no-name sneakers with holes in the soles – the brain and body work to keep those memories and others like them, pretty much under wraps. One result is that money has had a lot of charge on it in my emotional universe. And because the brain is an anticipation machine, constantly surveying the financial landscape for threats (that it often unconsciously brings into being), that charge carried great costs that I paid usurious interest on for a long time. (What early memories might be unconsciously circumscribing and limiting your own life?).
Raising Body-Smart Kids
The central problem though, wasn’t money or poverty. The central problem was having virtually no safe, direct outlets as a kid to express the thoughts and feelings that living in such an environment generated. And as more and more research is discovering, the body has powerful needs for channeling the energy of emotion out of it, either creatively or harmlessly into the world.
Emotional pain appears to be mediated by the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the same area that registers physical pain. Because the ACC is situated at the boundary of our thinking cortex and our feeling limbic regions, it links body, emotion, attention, and social awareness, and thus plays a key role in the resonance circuitry that allows us to feel connected both to other people and to ourselves. With few emotional outlets, that tender linkage can become significantly compromised early on.
One benefit for kids provided appropriate emotional outlets is that such outlets strengthen interoception – the ability to look inside and know how we feel. Being in touch with how we feel saves us the trouble of having to build up defenses to keep strong emotions under wraps. Energy and information that we continually need to defend against often comes back to create suffering in our lives. We miss important cues that someone less defended would take important note of and use to guide decision-making in their lives.
Having ready emotional outlets also helps build a wide window of tolerance for strong emotional states. That wide window becomes closely associated with emotional intelligence. We don’t have to turn away from painful feelings of grief and loss, our own or other people’s. We can approach and interact with strangers without excessive fear. We no longer automatically project negative stereotypes onto people different from us. We are protected from taking up health-compromising habits like smoking. We feel completely comfortable having large amounts of money flow easily through our lives.
The Body on the Brain
Not having such an outlet for thoughts and feelings might have been more problematic for me than it was. What saved me was sports. I played either baseball, basketball or football almost every day of the year. When it snowed in the winter, I was down at the basketball court before sun up with my snow shovel clearing shooting lanes. When it rained in the summer, we simply played ball in the mud. Unlike today, where less than ten percent (!) of public schools require physical education, we took gym three times a week, running track, playing dodge ball and learning to square dance.
Physical exercise, it turns out, isn’t just necessary for stemming the childhood obesity epidemic and keeping kids in some semblance of reasonable shape. That alone though would be reason enough to require it, not to mention saving kids from sleep deprivation (every hour sitting translate into more than three minutes of lost sleep), vulnerability to early heart problems, Type II diabetes, asthma, stiff arteries, sleep apnea and cancer. Beyond that though, physical activity turns out to be closely connected to brain development. It profoundly impacts not only what we think, but how we think. New research shows that our bodies and how we use them in the world affects our thinking ability, particularly our ability to think abstractly. And the ability to think abstractly is closely associated with our ability to delay gratification and engage in mental time travel or “episodic future thought.” That ability allows kids to make choices with high long term benefits. They don’t have to compulsively eat the one marshmallow as they did in Stanford psychologist, Walter Mischel’s famous study: they can wait and get greater marshmallow gratification later (or who knows – even happily trade marshmallows for carrot sticks!). And it’s all made possible by parents making it safe for kids to live fully in their bodies and freely speak emotional truths to parental power.