Celebration Features Dr. Bruce Perry on Brain Science and Behavior

SaintA’s 165th anniversary celebration earlier this month featured a series of sessions with Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., an international expert on trauma and its effects on the brain and behavior. Dr. Perry presented a training for staff that morning; met with a group of guests, including the mayor, that afternoon, then was the keynote speaker at a dinner held at the Performing Arts Center that raised $55,000 for youth who have aged out of foster care.

His repeated message: Everyone should learn the simple functions of the brain. It is essential to understanding behavior and achieving substantive changes in society.

Dr. Bruce Perry
Dr. Bruce Perry

Person-to-person interaction can change the biology of the brain; brains are meant to change, and neurons are designed to respond to the environment, he said. Brains react to frequent patterns of activity, and having a rich web of people interacting with a child can prevent trauma and heal a brain affected by it, Dr. Perry said. Children who lack relationships or whose relationships are shallow and not nurturing are vulnerable to adversity, he said. And kids who feel respected and cared for can be protected against further brain deterioration.

Movement allows the brain to function more effectively; to be most open to learning, the brain needs movement, Dr. Perry said, noting that these are good messages for schools, day care centers, and anyone who works with children.

Repetition is essential to brain changes, he said, and doses of interaction can be very short – 10-30 seconds – but they need to be repeated four times an hour to alter the brain.

“That’s why it’s so important to teach these things to teachers, parents and siblings,” he said. “Our ability to convey these concepts will make way more impact than you can imagine.”

An influential person for a child needs to be present and non-judgmental, he said. Reflective listening is essential as well as using rhythmic, repetitive movements to regulate the child. And it is critical for those who interact with kids to include high-quality self-care, because children readily pick up on someone else’s feelings of stress or anxiety.

A key reason for problems in our society, Dr. Perry said, is that humans have “invented ourselves away from the way we came to the planet. It’s a rebellion from the natural world. And violence is a consequence of that.”

Humans are meant to have close and meaningful contact with lots of other humans on a daily basis, providing input and nurturing, and that simply is not happening in the modern world.

SaintA President and CEO Teri Zywicki with Dr. Bruce Perry
SaintA President and CEO Teri Zywicki with Dr. Bruce Perry

In early childhood the brain is most malleable, yet “we underfund in a systematic way the key to dealing with violence,” and other societal concerns. For example, he noted “the very low value placed on people who care for young children,” who often earn minimum wage. Putting a high value on quality relationships with young children “is the absolute core of solving the problem of violence,” he said.

He told the guests that schools often make the brain “less acceptable to cognitive content” by requiring children to be quiet, sit still and follow rigid rules.

“Today touch is not common, eye contact is fading and conversation is a dying art,” Dr. Perry said. “All of this creates a poverty of relationships, which create frayed societal fabric.”

The core elements of positive developmental, emotional and therapeutic experiences must feel safe to the child, be matched to the child’s actual developmental level; patterned, rhythmic and repetitive; pleasurable, and respectful of the child, his or her family and culture, Dr. Perry said.

But this kind of understanding is slow to take hold in a society, he said. “What we are doing now arose 15 years ago, and we are now beginning to change practice, policy and law,” noting, for instance, that the original ACEs study was conducted in the late 1990s. He predicted that it would take 30 years for current understanding to be embedded into programs, organizations, policies and practices.

In the future, he said, mental health services need to be “de-officed,” and located in the community through the “therapeutic potential” of teachers and all others who work with children. He stressed a need for an awareness of the importance of physical space and how it can increase the quality of daily interactions. Creating spaces in which the elderly can interact with small children or juveniles also would be greatly helpful, he said.

“Our culture only graduates 50% of kids. Why? We now know enough about how the brain functions that we can achieve change,” Dr. Perry said.

“Aspirations and hopes can be affected if you understand how the brain works,” he said. “You won’t be effective if you don’t.”


View photos from our anniversary event.

Interested in learning more about trauma informed care? Attend a community training session.

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