There has been a lot written about the effects that prolonged exposure to traumatic events–particularly in the early years–is thought to have on brain development. On the whole science tells us, children exposed to neglect may be more vulnerable to general delays in cognitive and language development. However there has been very little written about interventions that might be effective in helping affected children.
Psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist has spent many years researching the divided brain and the role of both hemispheres in language development. For many years the common belief was that the left hemisphere does language and reason and the right hemisphere does emotion and pictures. McGilchrist tells us this is a partial truth. People who experience strokes in their left hemisphere often lose their capacity to speak. But there is much more to language than speech. Both sides of the brain need to function for language to be effective.
The biology of language
To the left half of the brain, the world is closed, certain, knowable, and finite. The left manipulates the world. When it comes to language, the left hemisphere is extremely good at what comes from the dictionary or rule book.
The right hemisphere interprets reality as open, infinite, and ever changing. This is the alert, questioning, and empathic side of our brains. The right understands the world. When it comes to language, the right hemisphere places speech in context. For example, if someone said to you, “it is hot in here”, your right hemisphere will interpret this as, “please open a door” while the left wonders what the purpose of this piece of meteorological information might be.
The right hemisphere also understands tone of voice. “We communicate a great deal of information through what is called prosody, that’s to say, the intonation,” says McGilchrist. Body language, also, is a right hemisphere specialty.
So, what happens if you lost function or experience damage to the either hemisphere?
- Left: These people often lose their speech, but not their ability to form thoughts. Those thoughts are only expressed with difficulty even after they recover, however, and sometimes in metaphor (for example, Russia may become “that red place on the map”).
- Right: These people usually have no speech difficulties. But metaphors and other non-literal language escape them. They may also only relate to their right sides, with the left becoming completely foreign (for example, only able to eat food off the right hand of their plate).
We need language, or do we?
It may seem obvious what language is for: communication. But consider this, we have been around for 500,000 years living together in social groups and only in the last 80,000 have we had language. Although, interestingly, we had the capacity for language—by means of control over the thorax, pharynx and larynx—long before we had speech. What is particularly interesting is science now tells us that the capacity to think predates language. Great scientists and mathematicians often describe how an idea came to them through an image, not language.
Unfortunately, in our culture we value language so highly that the stuff that is not articulated tends to be overlooked altogether. This isn’t necessarily the case in all cultures. In the Orient, for example, language can be an impediment. There is a Zen saying that language is “like a finger pointing out to the Moon; don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” Instead, emphasis is placed on cultivating silence.
“Without it, we cannot be fulfilled human beings,” says McGilchrist. “But we fill silence with noise, with unnecessary communication, and with a barrage of distracting talk or sounds. We need to cultivate silence, it’s a scarce commodity in modern life, but its only in moments of silence that our unconscious mind is able to speak. It’s often drowned out by the talkative left hemisphere, which in Eastern culture is called the ‘monkey mind.’”
When the brain chatter stops
McGilchrist suggests mindfulness is a tool that all humans need to learn. “All the time we are verbalising we are not in the present moment, we are somewhere else, where the words are. If we can stop that and listen, we become aware of many things, including our groundedness in the present.”
Think for a moment. When communicating with a child who is agitated or stressed, language can often become an impediment. Or when you go through a distressing experience, language tends to fail. You say, “it’s beyond words” or “I can’t speak it.” Language is, therefore, a useful tool, but not essential. And it’s important to keep this in mind when communicating with our children.
So, what should we do instead? First and foremost, provide safe environments and rich experiences that stimulate and enrich brain growth. The window of opportunity for addressing underdeveloped skills may be greater than previously thought, says McGilchrist, extending to the ages of 14 to 16. Other suggestions are:
- Use less words. Better yet, replace a lecture with a few words of compassion.
- Watch tone of voice and facial expressions.
- Learn to interpret other people’s body language and be mindful of your own.
- Encourage “big picture” thinking.
- Embrace silence.
Finally, McGilchrist tells us that nonverbal therapy can often be more successful than verbal. “Some people are particularly good at talking their way around a situation, that they don’t allow emotions to surface or be in touch with that part of themselves.” If this sounds like your child, art therapy or psycho drama therapy can be beneficial.
“There is much that is beyond language,” McGilchrist says. “In fact, almost everything that is most important is not easily verbalized. And if we attend only to what is verbalized, we have missed most of the picture.”
© Felicia Stewart, 2019