This week marks National Healthcare Science Week, a celebration of the role Science plays in informing modern healthcare and changing lives for the better.
Science is a fascinating subject and even more so when it comes to the world of Neuroscience, the study of how our brain works. In recent years, there have been huge advancements and research into this area, and is a subject that underpins the work we do with young people here at The Youth Fairy.
For years, scientists believed our brains were ‘fixed’ once we reached adulthood, but with amazing advancements in science, we now know that our brains are mouldable and change throughout our lives as a result of our experiences, our thoughts, and our habits. A phenomenon we now understand as Neuroplasticity.
Why is Neuroscience, particularly Neuroplasticity, so important for children to learn about?
The term Neuroscience might sound like a complex subject and, whilst this is true, it is an important topic that can be made accessible to children when presented in an age-appropriate and easy to digest way – something that as Youth Fairies, we feel extremely passionate about!
The benefits of young people learning about how their brain works are clear: when we understand something, we are more able to gain control and influence our thoughts and behaviour for the better. This is why teaching young people about how their brain works forms a huge part of the work we do with young clients in their sessions. We are supporting children not only to move towards their preferred future but are equipping them with the knowledge and skills needed to help create healthy habits for life – knowledge that can stay with them long after their time in the therapy room.
How does Neuroscience underpin The Youth Fairies’ approach to therapy for children?
The Youth Fairies are a creative team of Solution Focused Therapists dedicated to improving the mental health and emotional well-being of children, teenagers, and young adults. Our work with young people is positive, engaging, and evidence-based and actively supports young people to focus more on what they DO want out of life (rather than what they DON’T) and to develop strategies to move forwards.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways The Youth Fairies use research in Neuroscience to help young people develop healthy habits and move forwards:
- Our brain learns through repetition. Studies in Neuroscience have shown that neural pathways (a series of connected neurons which send messages from one part of the brain to another) are strengthened the more we practice and repeat an activity. This is true not only for our actions but also for our thoughts. A famous study conducted by Neuroscientist, Pascual Leone, tested volunteers on their ability to learn a piece of music on the piano and observed their progress under a brain scanner. At the same time, he asked a separate group of volunteers to simply just imagine their fingers striking the piano keys. Incredibly, both groups showed similar development of the part of the brain that was involved in the motor control needed to play the piano. In other words, just imagining something in our brain can create similar results to performing an act itself. This is one of the reasons why visualisation and positive mental rehearsal form such a powerful part of our work with children.
- Thinking positively is not about ignoring the negatives. We are Solution Focused in our approach to therapy, which means that we support children, teenagers, and young adults to set goals and move forwards. By supporting young people to focus on what is working well in their lives or how they can cope better with events that are out of their control, we help them to recognise their unique strengths, skills, and talents and create new neural pathways in the brain that contribute towards increased feelings of positivity. The beauty of this approach is that it does not require children to dwell on their problems. Whilst, as human beings, we experience a wide range of emotions and all feelings are valid, we understand it is not necessarily the events in our lives that cause us to experience negative emotions, but rather, the thoughts we have that surround them.
- We get more of what we focus on. We have an important part in our brain called the Reticular Activating System, which acts as a filter for the millions of information that is presented to our brain each second of every day. It is responsible for bringing information that our brain scans into our conscious awareness. Due to the ‘fight or flight’ part of the brain we have inherited from our ancestors, as human beings, our Reticular Activating System is hard-wired to focus more on the negatives. Therefore, when we become ‘stuck’ in a negative cycle of thinking, it can be difficult to break this cycle. By supporting children to focus on the good things in their day, we help children to reset the filters in this part of the brain so that they learn to switch this balance and focus more on the positive aspects of their lives. This is so important as studies of the brain have shown we literally get more of what we focus on!
- Our subconscious brain cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality. During therapy sessions with children, the Youth Fairies teach young people about the different structures of the brain and how they might influence their thoughts and behaviours. Scientists have found that about 95% of the behaviours we perform every day are done at a subconscious level, or in other words, are automatic behaviours that we do without thinking. The same is true for our thoughts too and, as we have already seen, the majority of them are likely to be negative. Many of you reading this might have heard of the saying ‘fake it until you make it,’ but did you know this is actually a scientific phenomenon? Studies on the brain have shown how our brains and bodies are intertwined and so just activating particular muscles in our body can evoke a chemical response in the brain that mimics the emotion associated with that particular set of muscles. For example, studies have found that power posing (the upright posture we tend to associate with increased confidence) can actually alter the chemicals in the brain to increase feelings of confidence just by striking the pose! These findings are fascinating and positive mental rehearsal is one of the ways we can support children to feel happier and to develop healthier, more positive thinking habits and behaviours.
- Relaxation allows our brain to problem-solve. Relaxation forms a huge part of our work with children and there is a very important scientific reason for this. There is a part of our brain, namely the Anterior Cingulate, that works like a secretary to quickly access information stored in our subconscious. This part of the brain is constantly interrupted by other parts of the brain as we go about our day-to-day life. The exception to this is when we are in a lovely, relaxed state and the ‘fight or flight’ part of our brain is calmed. When we become relaxed, the Anterior Cingulate is able to come up with solutions to problems by interpreting stories and metaphors that reflect the positive goals children have set for themselves. Relaxation combined with stories and metaphors is so important in helping young people to bring about positive change as this is how this part of our brain interprets information.
What strategies can I try at home?
The results of studies that Neuroscientists have conducted over recent years are truly fascinating and, as Youth Fairies, we see first-hand how knowledge of this research can impact the lives of young people in positive and powerful ways. So, here are a couple of activities your child can try for themself at home:
- Start a ‘good book’ or positive diary. Encourage your child to write down 3 – 5 things that have been good about their day each night before they go to bed. These do not need to be big things and can be as simple as enjoying a walk with the dog or having their favourite treat for lunch. This is a great way to help children to focus more on the positives in their day and to help break the cycle of negative thinking. As we have seen, our brain learns through repetition, so the more they do this, the easier it becomes. The days they find it the hardest are the days when it’s most important to do!
- Play a little experiment on your next trip out. To see the effects of the brain’s Reticular Activating System mentioned above for yourself, play a little game with your child the next time you go out together. How many yellow cars have you seen out and about recently? Yellow isn’t a hugely common car colour so the chances are you haven’t seen any or not many at all. The next time you go out with your child on a drive or walk, ask them to look out for all the yellow cars they can spot. Over the week, you are likely to have noticed many more than you usually would have. It’s not because there are suddenly more yellow cars on the road, but it’s because you have been telling your brain to pay extra attention to them. This is exactly how positive thoughts work – the more we look for, the more we see!
Where can I go to find out more if my child needs help and support?
All Youth Fairies offer a free hour-long initial consultation where we explain how the brain works to create your child’s particular concerns and, most importantly, what we can do about it.
To learn more, or to find a fairy near you, follow the link below for more information: