Monday, March 7, 2016

It is never too late

Early relational experiences are encoded in our neural circuitry in the first 18 months of life. They are stored as implicit memory, inaccessible by means of conscious awareness, and form the templates through which we engage the relational world. As we have come to see, these organizing principles come surging in our intimate relationships – with lovers, friends, our children – as well as with the alchemical ‘other’ inside us, by way of previously disavowed emotions, feelings, and somatic information of all kinds.

Our expectations in relationship – the reliability of others, our worthiness of being loved, what we can count on, our fears around being vulnerable – are structured in a fragile little nervous system that is longing for safety and connection. The neural pathways are tender, open, and responsive, as we seek attuned, right brain-to-right brain resonance with those around us. We want to feel felt, to have our subjective experience held and mirrored, and for the space in which we can explore unstructured states of being.

While this encoding is deeply embedded, it can be rewired. While it may feel so entrenched, it is not as solid as it appears. Even if your early environment was one of consistent empathic failure, developmental trauma, and insecure attachment, it is never too late. The wild realities of neuroplasticity and the courage of the human heart is unstoppable and an erupting force of creativity and reorganization.

Through new relational experiences – with a therapist, a lover, a friend, a baby; or with a star, a deer, a tree, a sunset, or with the moon, it will be revealed that love is the basis of all neural circuitry. It is the substance which forms the neurons and their synapses, and lights up the cells in your heart in a fresh moment of warmth, presence, and kindness. Each time you meet and attune to another, receive their love, return it with your presence, and stay close with the ‘other’ within you, a new world is born.

As long as there is breath moving in and out, you can update the narrative. You can make new meaning of your life, make a new commitment to the miracle of the here and now, and learn to flood your immediate experience with presence, warmth, and acceptance. Slowly, over time, you can embed your neural circuitry with the new pathway of holding awareness.
No matter what is happening in your life, you can start right now. In this moment. There is only ever this moment. The opportunity for reorganization is always here and wired within you. Don’t give up. Love will never give up on you.


  1. Beautiful. A long process, perhaps, for some freedom, yet every moment is a forever in its own right.

    Matt, I've researched the possibilities for healing the early developmental circuitry and not found evidence for its rewiring. Neuroplasticity is remarkable, but does it apply here and to what degree? Do we know? What do you know about it? Thanks...Jack

    1. Thank you, Jack. Yes, the process of healing and opening the heart is the work of a lifetime, in my experience. From that perspective, it can seem long. The good news, though, is that there are so many moments along the way of new levels of meaning, intimacy, connection, and aliveness. These can occur at any time. Yes, exactly, every moment is forever in its own right. Beautiful.

      Neuroplasticity is a relative new discovery, actually, so what we know about it is new and coming in all the time. In the attachment literature, there is a concept known as "earned security," which shows how through the right new relational experiences (and inner work) we can convert insecure to secure attachment. This is very possible and happens. In my experience, it does not happen without a fair amount of work.

      Research has shown that two of the best ways to rewire old circuitry are through regular mindfulness practices, as well as through attuned psychotherapy. A few things you could check out regarding this - and neuroplasticity - Linda Graham's Bouncing Back, the great work of Lou Cozolino and Dan Siegel at UCLA, Rick Hanson's work on taking in the good and self-directed neuroplasticity, Catherine Pittman's work on neuropasticity and anxiety/ panic/ worry, and Bonnie Badenoch's work, Kelly McGonigal' work at Stanford in the neurobiology of change. In short, much of the work coming out of Norton's series in Interpersonal Neurobiology will provide the latest research on how and why neuroplasticity works, including with some guided, practical exercises you can do in your daily life.

      Just so it's clear (in case it's not already!), I am not an neuroscientist. Just a therapist (and human being) who has taken interest in what neuroscience is telling us about the mechanisms of healing, change, and therapy, and how and why it works.

      In some ways, neuroplasticity is just a fancy word for learning. We encode new neural circuitry by doing things differently. This is where mindfulness comes in. Each time we react differently to the appearance of a painful narrative, difficult emotion, surging sensation - turning toward it and not away - we are creating new neural pathways. As we train ourselves (and it does take training and practice) to respond the inner and outer world out of the slow, empathic, wide, kind, compassionate capacities of the prefrontal cortex and not from the very fast, urgent signals of the limbic/ amygdala, new pathways are laid down.

      Take care, Jack.

    2. "The slow, empathic, wide, kind, compassionate capacities of the prefrontal cortex"


      "Very fast, urgent signals of the limbic/ amygdala"


      If we respond out of courage and love, not fear, everything changes.

      Every one.

      Starting with us.

      Take care,