Kim Barthel video: The Neurobiology of Relationship Heritage

Photo Credit: Unsplash User  Alex Pasarelu

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Alex Pasarelu

Kim Barthel began studying sensory processing in 1982 while in university training as an occupational therapist. She has brought the concepts of sensory processing to diverse populations, including children and adults with autism, attention deficit disorder, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and also to populations with complex disorders that combine psychiatric etiology with attachment based challenges.

In her university training, she took a class on “The Therapeutic Use of Self”, which introduced the idea that you could use your personality to inspire change for another person. What was then a new and relatively vaguely-defined concept, has since been extensively developed through brain research.

She refers in particular to the work of Geraldine Dawson who, in the course of a study of depression, did research work on what happens in the brains of mothers giving birth. Working with volunteers who were fitted with special EEG-receptor head caps, she looked at brain imaging and brainwaves during delivery and the immediate post-partum period. The research results demonstrated that, during and immediately after delivery, oxytocin (the “love chemical”) is produced in high volume in the brain and body of the mother. The effect is to enable the mother to focus her attention and sharpen her nervous system for a period of time after delivery, triggering her to bond strongly with the infant she has brought into the world. As well, oxytocin shuts down some of the chemicals in the primitive brain area of the limbic system, so the “survival brain” can be inhibited, and for the “loving brain” to be the prominent function in that moment.

The right orbitofrontal cortex, situated behind the right eye, becomes activated in the mother, with its multiple receptor sites loaded with oxytocin, during the time of birth. Within moments of birth, the newborn’s brain, which is initially limited in its activation, responds to the mother’s activated gaze, and the baby’s right orbitofrontal cortex activates in response. Kim Barthel describes this as “gleaming and beaming”, a magic of awakening relationship between mother and infant.

Why is this process important, she asks? She has learned, in particular from the work of Dr. Gabor Mate, that this right side of the brain is the senior executive of our cognition, the part of the brain responsible for paying attention, working memory, and determining impulse control.

In response to questions she has been asked about what happens if a mother and baby experience a disruption at this crucial point: when there is a ‘C’-section; when the baby needs to go into intensive care; when there is an adoption? During the first two years of life, the baby’s cortical development continues, even more than that which occurs in utero, so opportunities continue every day throughout that period, through repeated relational interactions, to develop attachment and cognition. She stresses that each person does the best they can with whatever they have to give, but in a situation where a caregiver is emotionally unavailable and unable, for whatever reason, to make that emotional connection with the infant, the development of the functioning capacity in the child is interrupted. She states that when a child is left unsoothed, or is unable to find themselves reflected in the eyes of its caregiver, then the brain’s developmental capacity is sacrificed, and references Gabor Mate’s description of the emptiness in the eyes, and the high levels of stress responses, in a child who has experienced early developmental trauma through relational interruption. The nervous system loses its capacity to sooth itself and regulate itself in a healthy and manageable way, leading to a variety of coping strategies.

She ends the talk on a note of hopefulness, talking about recent findings on brain and neural plasticity throughout life in the context of a secure and healthy relationship, and how therapeutic relationships can assist in creating change and healing.

Click here to view Kim Barthel’s keynote address on “The Neurobiology of Relationship Heritage”.

Nelli Agbulos