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Capacities of the MPFC

Previously on the Brain Pages…

          So far, we’ve talked about the mid-prefrontal cortex - the MPFC for short - and described it as the rightful “captain” of our brain-body ship.   When the MPFC is well-developed and in charge, we feel as though we have a “core” of inner strength, peace, and contentment.  We have the ability to anchor ourselves at the “hub” of the wheel of our awareness, and from there calmly observe, and wisely relate to all the happenings around the rim of the wheel – our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, as well as the outer circumstances and events of our life.

The Capacities Associated with Integration

          The MPFC has the capacity to link together different parts of our brain and body. This gives it the unique ability to integrate and harmonize the knowledge and understanding of our upstairs brain with the emotional reactions and instinctive drives of our downstairs brain. It also balances the literal, detail-oriented thinking of our left hemisphere with the wider, more holistic thinking of the right.

          Neuroscientists have found that when the MPFC is doing its job and the different parts of our brain are working together in harmony, we naturally develop certain qualities or capacities. Dan Siegel has described these at great length.  For simplicity, we’ve organized them into the following four categories:  

  1. Self-awareness:  With greater self-awareness, we’re more in touch with the messages coming to us from our bodies, more aware of our emotional states, and better able to observe the activity of our minds.  This is the necessary foundation for self-regulation, response flexibility, and connection to others.

  2. Self-regulation:  When we’re more aware of our thinking, moods, and physiological states, we’re better able to regulate them.  We can calm ourselves when we’re nervous, shift from a negative mood to a more positive one, and redirect our attention from a negative, non-productive train of thought to a more positive and productive one.

  3. Response flexibility:  With greater self-awareness, and an increased capacity to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and physical states, we develop the capacity to observe old, automatic emotional reactions and behaviors without having to act on them.  This gives us the freedom to respond in new ways that are appropriate to whatever particular circumstance we’re in.

  4. Connection to others:  With more self-awareness, we’re better able to attune ourselves to others’ moods and states of mind, and can more easily see things from their perspective.  These qualities are at the heart of intimate, meaningful, and harmonious relationships.

Where’s the Evidence?

          Is there any evidence for these claims about the power of the MPFC to so profoundly change our lives?

When the MPFC is Broken

          Dr. Dan Siegel describes how he first came to understand the power of the MPFC.    It was through the tragic case of a woman he calls Barbara, who had suffered an irreparable injury to the mid-prefrontal area of her brain as the result of a motor vehicle accident.  It was Barbara’s husband and children who initially came to see Dr. Siegel because they were having a hard time adjusting to the person she had become. 

          The family wanted Siegel to see the warm, loving person Barbara had been before the accident, so they brought him a home video of her playing with her young daughter.   Dr. Siegel describes seeing a mother whose “smile lit up the room.” He saw her “gently lift her daughter into the air, again and again, and then pull her into a huge enfolding hug, the two of them shaking with laughter…”  It was clearly a mother who was deeply attuned to her children. 

          But after the accident, though she appeared physically the same, Barbara was not the same person they had known.  She was no longer connected to her children – it was if she didn’t register anything they said to her.  She seemed to have no self-awareness about the fact that she became easily agitated at an innocent comment from her husband, or yelled at her children for no real reason.  And she seemed disconnected from her own state of being. When Siegel asked her if she could describe how she felt different since the accident, she said in a bland, factual way, “ It feels fine, I guess. Things are fine.  Just empty. But if you had to put it into words, I suppose I’d say that I’ve lost my soul.”   She spent most of her day either watching TV or wandering the neighborhood while her husband continued to work, and took over care of the house and the family.

           Essentially, what Barbara lost were the qualities of integration associated with the MPFC.  She was unaware of her own emotional states (lack of self-awareness) and unable to control her irrational reactions to her family (lack of self-regulation).  She could no longer communicate with or understand the people she had loved most (lack of connection to others), and was unable to break free of her habitual behaviors in order to help out her overburdened husband or tend to her children (lack of response flexibility).

          Nothing in Siegel’s training had prepared him to deal with this situation. Anxious to find a way to help, he spent hours in the medical library reviewing cases in the recent scientific literature about people in accidents who had suffered damage to the same mid-prefrontal region of the brain as Barbara had.  He discovered that they all experienced losses that were very much like hers. This was how he came to learn of the amazing qualities associated with MPFC and the central role they play in who we are as human beings. 

          Siegel showed Barbara’s family a copy of her brain scan and explained to them how the part of her brain that was injured accounted for the changes in her personality. The children listened attentively and seemed to be able to grasp that their mother had “a broken brain.” This helped to relieve them of the feeling that they had somehow been responsible for her irritability and lack of warmth.

          And with this new understanding, the family was better able to connect to what Barbara was experiencing.  They were able to step back from the anger and resentment they’d been feeling (self-regulation) and respond to her in new, more appropriate ways (response-flexibility).  They were more patient and tolerant toward her distant and irritable way of being, and treated her with more kindness and compassion (response-flexibility).  And although Barbara never recovered her ability to connect to them, the family was able to strengthen their connections to each other (connection to others).   
       

          Ultimately, what enabled Barbara’s family to handle their grief over her lost integrative functions, was an ability to call upon more of their own.

When the MPFC is Strengthened

          Without a functional MPFC, there is a dramatic loss of the qualities that make us warm, caring, self-aware human beings.  On the other hand, a steadily growing body of research shows that when the MPFC is deliberately developed through meditation and other methods, these qualities spontaneously increase.  We saw this to be the case in the story of the officer who was able to shift his inner state and outer behavior after completing just a few weeks of Kabat-Zinn’s training. In addition, brain scans show that this increase in qualities is accompanied by an actual increase in the size of the MPFC.

When Trauma Removes Obstacles to the Development of the MPFC

          There are many ways that the MPFC can be developed. Some involve intentional practice of techniques, such as those you’ll learn on this site. Loving, attentive relationships and strong supportive communities naturally foster neural integration, strengthen the MPFC and bring out qualities of greater self-awareness and attunement to others.

          But sometimes intense suffering can be an indirect means of developing the MPFC. A profound trauma can so disrupt the self-image, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors on the rim of our wheel of awareness, that we are, in a sense, drawn inward to our core. 

          Here is a story where tragedy became the spur for greater expression of qualities of the core.

The Parents Circle - Families Forum


          Arik Frankenthal was a young Israeli Jew with a conscience.  At the age of 15, when some kids in his class started yelling, "Death to Arabs," Arik responded by getting up on his desk and yelling, "Heil Hitler." When he had their attention, he said, “That's how it all began in Germany.”  

          In July 1994, while Arik was serving in the Israeli army, he was abducted by members of Hamas and murdered. Grief-stricken, Arik’s father made what to many might seem an unusual choice.  Instead of giving in to his emotional and instinctive brains’ drive for revenge, Yitzhal Frankenthal devoted his energy to building bonds of connection across the highly charged lines of division between Israeli and Palestinian peoples.  He created public activities that would help foster understanding and forgiveness between opposing sides of the conflict.

          Frankenthal’s first activity was to bring together bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families – all of whom had lost loved ones in the struggle - to share their stories and their grief.  This led to the establishment of The Parents Circle-Families Forum (the PCFF), which developed into a dedicated group of over 500 Israeli and Palestinian families working together for reconciliation and peace.  As Frankenthal expressed it, “What could be more conciliatory than a parent whose son was murdered working for reconciliation?”

          

Robi's Story


          Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman who joined the group, told the story of her son who was killed by a sniper’s bullet at a checkpoint near the Ofra settlement in the West Bank. After joining the Families Forum, Robi explained, “It took me time to understand, to look at the differences in temperament, in culture, in all these things, to be much less judgmental than I'd always been. I learned a lot of lessons from David, and the pain of his loss created a space in me that was less egocentric, that allowed me to be concerned with what would be best for everybody.” 

          Gradually, she became committed to doing what she could to make a difference. When the sniper who had killed her son was caught, her commitment was tested.  After four months of struggling with her conscience, she wrote this letter to his family.  It was delivered by two of the Palestinians in the group:

This for me is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write. My name is Robi Damelin, I am the mother of David who was killed by your son. I know he did not kill David because he was David - if he had known him he could never have done such a thing. David was 28 years old, he was a student at Tel-Aviv University doing his masters in the Philosophy of Education.  He was part of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the occupied territories. He had a compassion for all people and understood the suffering of the Palestinians, he treated all around him with dignity.

All my life I have spent working for causes of co-existence, both in South Africa and here. After David was killed I started to look for a way to prevent other families - both Israeli and Palestinian - from suffering this dreadful loss, to stop the cycle of violence.  After a year, I closed my office and joined the Parents Circle - Families Forum. We are a group of Israeli and Palestinian families who have all lost an immediate family member in the conflict. We are looking for ways to create a dialogue with a long-term vision of reconciliation.

After your son was captured, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do - should I ignore the whole thing, or will I be true to my integrity and to the work that I am doing and try to find a way for closure and reconciliation. This is not easy for anyone and I am just an ordinary person, not a saint. I have now come to the conclusion that I would like to try to find a way to reconcile. Maybe this is difficult for you to understand or believe, but I know that in my heart it is the only path that I can choose, for if what I say is what I mean it is the only way . . .

I understand that your son is considered a hero by many of the Palestinian people, fighting for justice and for an independent viable Palestinian state, but I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another may not be the way, and that if he understood the consequences of his act, he might see that a non-violent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace.


The Arik Institute


           Ten years after Arik’s death, Frankenthal felt it was time to move on from his work with grief and reconciliation, and to address the attitudes of repression and denial he’d seen on both sides of the conflict. In Israelis he saw a failure to recognize the occupation as a form of terror – a failure that led Israel to perceive itself as the victim in the current conflict, and to label those who oppose its policies as “terrorists.”  Among Palestinians, he saw a failure to recognize Israel's need to be assured, beyond doubt, that Palestinians are willing to live harmoniously side-by-side with Israel -  and that they would in fact do so if given an independent Palestinian state.


          Frankenthal understood that his own son had been “born into a democracy with a chance for a decent, settled life,” but that Arik’s killer “was born into an appalling occupation, into an ethical chaos.”  He realized that “had my son been born in his stead, he may have ended up doing the same.”  And so he established the Arik Institute to help change perceptions and attitudes on both sides.

          Since the second "Intifada" there had been a generation of Palestinian and Israeli youths who’d never even had an opportunity to meet each other. So one of the primary functions of the Institute has been creating dialogue sessions between Israeli and Palestinian students.  Given the opportunity to hear the stories of Israeli and Palestinian representatives from the Parents Circle-Families Forum, the students come to realize that they are all human beings, just with different nationalities.  They come away from the sessions with an interest in pursuing dialogue as a way of understanding each others’ needs, and as a possible alternative to violence.


         We’ve said that when the obstacles are removed, there is a natural tendency of the brain to move toward greater integration, coupled with a natural tendency toward the expression of core qualities. By creating a dialogue space that is somewhat sheltered from the heat of nationalist interests, the Arik Institute, in effect, is able to screen out some of the major societal obstacles to a more balanced consideration of the issues.  It gives Israeli and Palestinian youths an opportunity to connect as vulnerable human beings. 

          In the wake of their interactions, the young people on both sides of the conflict have,  in fact, shown a greater tendency toward the expression of core qualities.  In place of anger and distrust, what has emerged is greater empathy and compassion. And in place of rigid cultural stereotypes, there’s been a willingness to see from the other’s perspective and to replace old conditioned reactions with new, more constructive ways of addressing the conflict.