Thursday, 20 November 2014

Weighing Feathers Against Rocks ~ A Reflection on Brain Science, Adversity, & Resiliency

A pound of feathers or a pound of rocks? Which is heavier? Answer carefully...

Last night I did a presentation on brain development, sharing science on how brain architecture is shaped—or misshapen—by early childhood experiences.  I impressed upon my audience that brains are not born, they are built, and that as such we have potential as opposed to innate abilities. That we are resilient but by no means bulletproof.

Data indicate that from the ages of 0-5 we have the greatest potential for brain growth, more than we will ever experience again in a lifetime. This open window is finite. The plethora of synapses created during this period will only stay active if we are stimulated by being looked at, cuddled, spoken to, sang to, or nurtured with food, sleep and physical care. Synapses strengthen and flourish under these optimal conditions, while the absence of the aforementioned interaction will do the reverse: synapses, (over-produced in these short, early years) will prune off and die—taking their immense amount of potential with them.

Adversity kills synapses too. Brain architecture is distressed by the rocks we carry or, as neurologists in this field label it, ‘toxic stress’. Toxic stress—or rocks—derail brain ability and growth.  Events like parental addiction, exposure to domestic violence, poverty, abuse in any form, family breakdown…all leave indelible marks on brain architecture—so much that if we envisioned our brains as houses, the toxic stress would be the rocks that busted all the windows to let the cold in. The snow. Allowed all the heat, light, and life to escape. 

Because rocks are hard. Rocks are heavy.

How heavy?

As a metric, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale serves to calculate the number of detrimental episodes people endure over the course of their childhoods.  The list looks like this, with each question scoring as 1 for a possible score of 10:

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often swear at you, insult you, put you down or humiliate you? OR Act in a way that made you afraid you might be physically hurt?
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? OR Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
  3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever: touch, fondle, or have you touch their body in a sexual way? OR Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
  4. Did you often or very often feel that: No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? OR Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to one another, or support each other?
  5. Did you often or very often feel that: You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? OR Your parents were too drunk or too high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
  6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
  7. Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her?  OR Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist or hit with something hard?  OR Was ever repeatedly or at least for a few minutes threatened with a gun or a knife?
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
  9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt / commit suicide?
  10. Did a household member go to prison? [1]

Please know that for people with an ACEs score of four or more, life is an exceedingly difficult journey—and not just emotionally. For while these folks certainly suffer lifelong difficulties with emotions and relationships, they also find things like work and school really tough. Self-soothing is difficult too and therefore often ends up being sought externally—through a bottle, a substance, or a bed partner.  Serious medical implications also exist for a person with an ACEs score of 4 or more in that this population has a significantly greater risk of heart attacks, strokes, lung disease, AIDS, asthma, ulcers, addictions, and even allergies.

To name a few.

Because the rocks are heavy. Life is hard.

And yet…

Last night I was grateful to be challenged by a question which, as I was presenting such discouraging information, served to encapsulate a great deal of hope. The question was this: “What about people who have gone through hell yet are nonetheless happy, healthy, and successful?”

Indeed. What of these people? We all know at least one of them. Perhaps they are one of our clients. One of our friends. Ourselves.

And how has their brain architecture, pitted by all those heavy rocks, survived? Thrived?

Because feathers weigh more than rocks. Not feathers as defined and dismissed by mere appearance: fluff and fragility. I’m talking about what feathers really are: something soft and yet sturdy. Delicate, yet strong enough to lift a bird into flight. 

Brain architecture, science says, deteriorates as a result of toxic stress. Yet that same science which measures destruction also measures construction, and what the data reflect is that even a person with that tell-tale score of 4 ACEs or more can have their brains rebuilt—sometimes so profoundly that even their genetic construct is altered— if they experience one or more of the following;

  • A  special relationship with an adult who was caring and nurturing
  • Somewhere other than home where they felt they belonged
  • Activities which were easy to participate in outside the home
  • A sense of mastery or feelings of success in at least one area of their life
  • If they could distance themselves from unhealthy family behavior
  • If they had a sense of purpose and future [2]

Science calls the list of bullets above ‘Protective Factors’. I call them feathers. Soft yet strong. Heavier than rocks, and how is that?  I confess I don’t know for sure, but the implication is that kindness is greater than cruelty.  That love perhaps really—even scientifically—does conquer all. 

Because it does make an impact, doesn’t it?  Consider the last time you experienced a welcoming smile. A shared laugh. A safe place to be.  A sense of knowing you were wanted, and trusted, and valuable.  Those feathers were soft, right?  Gentle. But strong.  So strong that we could, with science backing us and in our most officious voices say: “These protective factors rebuilt even the most damaged architecture in your brain!”

Or perhaps we could just say that you were given so many feathers that, despite brokenness, you learned how to fly.  For each feather, regardless of fragility, weighed more than any rock that ever knocked you down.


b.r. November 2014










[1] Screener Produced by the Frontiers of Innovation Early Identification of Risk Group
[2] Claudia Black, Ph.D. Family Strategies

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