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Dreambody, neurobiology & attachment (written in 2009)

posted 20 May 2014, 13:30 by Mark O'Connell   [ updated 20 May 2014, 13:40 ]

My first ever seminar in Process Work was a 'Childhood Dream' seminar with Sonia Strawb and Julie Diamond in London,
  in 1990 I think. At this time of writing I find myself more than ever fascinated by the patterns which influence and organise us through childhod and adulthood. Working now as a Senior Practitioner and Processworker in the NHS I am hugely privileged to participate in the incredible (often turbulent and traumatic) life journeys of many children and families.

In my previous work in residential children homes there seemed to be a predominance of approaches which focussed on how to alter children's behaviours when they were perceived to be 'acting out' or 'acting in'. Behavioural approaches mostly focussing upon rewards and reinforcement of positive behaviour seem to continue to abound. There seems to be little doubt that children learn and reinforce behaviours through inner and outer feeback mechanisms, and so some form of behaviourism will always be important in the care and education of children. However if a child is resistant, doesn't trust, or cannot trust the adults around them then these approaches often fail or escalate into major conflicts, 'holding techniques' and so on. Alongside this is the difficulty that through reinforcing certain behaviours it is not uncommon that other impulses and behaviours, which may be a part of a young person's wholeness, are repressed or marginalised.

Interestingly many residential children's homes have changed in their organisation over the years from large buildings with many children, to smaller clusters or units each with a more homely atmosphere. I think that the spirit of this direction is the somewhat basic realisation that children need a 'home'. Lets not forget that many children have suffered serious abuse and neglect commonly within the four walls of their 'home'. So what kind of home is needed?

I love the ideas in attachment theory formulated by John Bowlby and later Mary Ainsworth showing the central importance of a child attachments to his or her caregivers. Neurologists now demonstrate that a child's most important brain development takes place through attuned relationship interactions with adults: eye contact, touch, rhythmic movement, and 'motherese' (sing-song voice) help develop a proto-narrative, an internalised non-verbal but patterned narrative about life, self/other, the inner and outer worlds. Attachment relationships seem to help download a kind of central operating system fundamentally organising central beliefs and approaches to life. Attachment ideas seem to suggest that essential attachment patterns (normal, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganised) develop in a child which determine how they perceive and behave in relationship to future life events. Simple behavioural interventions often don't work because the child is not feeling at home with herself or in relationship to others. For example if a child was often hurt as an infant, they may develop a powerfully avoidant attachment style in order to survive which pushes away future relationships with adults. I see this often in children who will take no directives from adults and frequently engage in dangerous behaviours such as suddenly running in front of cars in the street, or having no wariness of strangers at all. An ambivalent or anxious attachment leads to a child clinging and feeling intensely anxious about engaging with the world. Attachment based therapies are often focussed on understanding and helping to repair attachment relationships, supporting parents to 'reparent' their child at developmental stages seeking attention, developing curiosity playfulness and empathy, helping parents notice how they 'hold in mind' their child and developing reflection and 'mentalisation' in families.

The human brain has evolved in a layered archeology with the brainstem (or 'lizard' brain) operating the basic bodily rhythms and functions as well as 'fight', 'flight', 'freeze' survival responses, the mid-brain or limbic system ('mammalian' brain) governs the emotions,social and relational levels, while the pre-frontal brain (which is almost uniquely a 'human brain') is involved in executive functioning, language, specialisation of skills, planning, mentalising, and so on.  This evolutionary development is mirrored in the development of each child whose growth from conception through to childhood involves critical stages layer upon layer of organisation and functioning. As a result of this  Dr Bruce Perry has developed the term 'neuroarcheology' and suggests that therapeutic work may often need to follow a 'neuroarcheological' sequence, addressing the basic needs, safety, stress, life rhythms such as sleep and feeding patterns etc.., followed by more emotional and social levels, love, play, communication and relationship, and finally the higher functioning such as thinking, planning, verbal communication. Neurobiological and attachment ideas are increasingly popular in the NHS working with children and families, but surprisingly often there is still a difficulty with the evidence-base for such approaches.

Process work naturally lends itself to working in many of these ways through following process, thus it wouldn't be unusual for a processworker to work with a bodily rhythm at one moment, leading then to a relational/emotional process in the next moment, followed by reflection and anchoring the process. But in Process Work the aim is not to be led by goals of normal functioning or development, nor to be deterministic in it's approach. From my understanding the conception of the 'Dreambody' or Mind in process work is not limited by or contained within the brain or the physical body, but rather is a spirited pattern which manifests through the physical. I went to see a teenager for the first time in his high-school, he was being bullied by other children, he came in with his head lolling low and his limbs dropped heavily into the chair. I asked him some questions about his life, but was then struck by a little glint in his eye. I told him I noticed a little spark in his eye, and he looked deeply into my eyes with his blue eyes and we both began to laugh to our core. Each week we stared at each other and laughed and laughed. After a few weeks he told me he didn't need to come back anymore.

Western approaches to child and family therapy seem as yet to have little experience of working with dreaming processes and spirit. I am looking forward to the continuing journey of weaving together modern ideas in neurobiology and attachment theory, with my experience and learning of Process Oriented Psychology.