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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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.