brain highways

Disclaimer:  I’m a parent, not a representative of the Brain Highways organization.

I haven’t blogged in a long time about Brain Highways, probably at least partly because it consumes so much time.  But I get enough questions about it that making a blog entry will probably save me time, so here goes.

Our understanding of Ollie’s time at the baby-house in Russia from which he was adopted is that he spent a significant portion of his time in a crib on his back.  He was not able to play with the other children because he had a habit of making himself spit-up.  A lot.  This was a habit he brought home, too, but grew out of within a few months.  Because of it, though, the staff at this baby-house tended to leave him in his crib, where he spent much of his time, and seemingly most of it laying on his back (as opposed to on his stomach — I’ll come back to that shortly).

Parenthetically, he also came home with the remarkable ability, at ten months old, of being able to snap his thumb and middle finger on each hand, hard enough to be audible.  It was a sort of nervous habit of his, which he also eventually grew out of.  At four, he cannot now snap at all.

At any rate, the time on his back was obvious from the shape of his head, the back of which was very flat.  His head gradually reshaped itself, and now he is a very healthy and normal little boy, with the exception of some very important neurological development.

If you have kids, or are planning to have kids, listen to this part closely.  One of the best things you can do for your child’s development between birth and twelve months is leave them on their stomach on the ground.  Ideally, a smooth floor, so they can slide around on their belly (called “creeping”).  What we’ve been told by the staff at Brain Highways is that this time on the floor is critical to pons and midbrain development.  We of course, as parents who wanted our kids to thrive, encouraged them to stand and walk via toys, hand-holding, etc..  Ollie probably went from just barely sitting up to walking within the span of a few months.

As you can discover for yourself from the wikipedia articles, the pons is responsible for relaying sensory information, as well as integrating with the vestibular system to help (or hinder) balance, speaking, and sense-of-touch.  Apparently, it is also (though wikipedia doesn’t seem to mention it) largely in control of the “fight or flight” response system (perhaps the term “arousal” in the wikipedia article includes this).  The midbrain is responsible for managing things like auditory processing, visual processing, managing eye-movement (ie., reading), reflexes, and a number of other things.

The human brain is very good at adapting to and hiding weaknesses, though, so what seems to happen when these low-level “paths” (call them highways, if you like) through the brain remain underdeveloped is that the higher-level sections of the brain pick up slack, compensating as effectively as they can.  This means that, if your child has an underdeveloped pons and/or midbrain, they are likely doing a lot of juggling in their cortex in order to be able to walk, talk, focus their eyes, absorb the things you say to them, and so on, all at once.  Depending on the level of development your child has completed in these areas, you’ll see varying levels of overall functionality, and often in different areas.  For more developed children, in fact, you may not perceive any fundamental behavioral differences at all, whereas very underdeveloped children will exhibit symptoms strikingly like autism.

As your child ages, however, more and more demands are placed upon the cortex.  Sports, studying, more complex and difficult relationships, greater responsibility, and hormones among other things all conspire to increase the overall load on the cortex.  For a lot of kids, this means a difficult juggling act, and eventually, they drop everything.  With older kids, this type of failure can be very serious.  Worse, it can become cyclical, putting more and more strain on the cortex, and leaving the pons and the midbrain (underdeveloped though they may be) more and more in control, and all the pons knows how to do is fight-or-flight.

Fight or flight sounds simplistic, but it isn’t.  There are variations and subtleties, and sometimes it means different things for different children.  Flight can be shyness, avoiding certain activities, or social anxiety and avoidance of social situations.  Flight means withdrawing.  Fight means a lot of things: explosive outbursts, highly emotional reactions, and yes, physicality.

Neither Ollie or Reid have come to these stages, but Ollie especially has most definitely exhibited some of these fight-or-flight behaviors.  He struggles with sports and has a hard time concentrating.  Until we started brain highways, he had trouble standing still or sitting in one place without rocking and kicking.  He had trouble listening and complying.  Even though it was almost always clear he was trying to please us as his parents, he struggled to comply with even simple instructions.  He chewed on everything he could get in his mouth.  He would frequently have drool on his chin without noticing or reacting.  He was often easily frustrated.

So what is Brain Highways?  It turns out that a lot (all of?) of this low-level development can be made-up in later life, offloading the burden of performing these low-level tasks from the cortex, and sending it back to where it belongs: the pons and midbrain.  So what we do in brain highways are exercises modeled on the behaviors of young babies as they are developing these regions of the brain.  One of the exercises, for example, is called “swords”, and seems to be modeled on the tonic-neck reflex (also called the fencing reflex) that causes young human babies to strike a fencing pose, when they turn their heads (or when their heads are turned for them).  Another exercise is called “creeping”, which is the motion of sliding across the floor that babies do when they want to move, but before their muscles have developed enough to allow them to lift their chest or tummy off the ground.  We do dozens (sometimes hundreds) of these a day, and the results are hard to argue with.  After a few weeks of work, Ollie is different in any number of ways: he almost never drools, he sits much more still at the table, he’s much better at concentrating, remembering tasks and rules, and following directions.  His agility has improved, and he is much better at accepting quick transitions.

We just started the program with Reid (who at his baseline doesn’t have a lot of the problems that Ollie started with, but still has some very telling symptoms), and it will be interesting to see how they improve over the coming year or so.  If you live near Encinitas, CA (or even if you don’t, I think they do traveling workshops), check out the brain highways website linked above, it could be one of the best things you ever do for your kid or yourself.

  • Theron

    I love your article. We just found and started BH with our 3 year old son. We are only a week in and very exhausted and a little discouraged as we have seen some regression in our son’s behavior – we have worked so hard with an OT to overcome a lot of that. Anyway, I saw that you first posted back in 2008, so you aren’t likely checking this blog anymore, but if you are – can you tell me if you sons graduated from the BH program and how they are doing today? Was it worth it?

  • crowder

    We definitely saw some regressions with our son as we continued with the program. I believe you’ll see these as much as a result of your son testing your resolve and authority as from the actual changes and growth taking place as a result of the program itself. Whatever else brain highways is, it is an opportunity for you to create and build consistency and trust with your child, and help them to understand that you are serious about being in charge — but they will fight against that change, especially if it’s very new for your family.

    Both of my sons went through two weeks of the program, one of them went much longer. The one who went much longer still has his issues, and will probably always struggle to one degree or another with impulsiveness and focus. That said, he is also capable of stillness and calm that his brother isn’t, when he wants to do it. Overall, I’d say he benefited hugely from the process. I hope you stick to it, and I hope it works as well for you as it did for us.

  • M

    My son and daughter have been in BH for a year and have changed in SO MANY ways. It was worth every bit of struggle. We probably have a few months left. I used to get discouraged by that, but now I figure the longer we have to go the more improvements we’ll see. Thank God for BH. I think it saved our quality of life and possibly saved our kids from growing up to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. I used to be genuinely concerned about that, and now it is the furthest thing from my mind. We are even expecting baby #3, which we would never have considered before the program. Our lives were just too hectic before.

  • UGA

    It is over three years since you blogged about Brain Highways. We are interested in doing the online program they are now offering with our LD son (we live in Georgia). Would you please share with us your thoughts and experiences now that more time has passed? Do you feel as positive about Brain Highways as when you originally blogged?

  • crowder

    Yeah, I sure do! I wish we’d done more, then, actually!

  • I appreciate what u have written here thanks for updating. I am right now in dilema whether brain balance or highways. My son has issues with focus and processing speed and all related. So do u think online BH prog will work ?

  • crowder

    This is a great question and I’m pretty sure I am not qualified to answer! But I’ll give it a go… one of the real challenges for us, at first, with leading my son through the “homework” parts of the program (and the BH online program will basically be just that, you doing the BH “homework” with your child, from what I can tell in reading their FAQ), was (re)establishing the authority needed to get him to listen and perform. In some ways, it will be easier for a stranger (especially one with a strong presence, like those of the employees working at BH) to establish that authority. Your child won’t know what to expect and so will start out on best behavior — whereas with you (or should I say, me) they may test and resist more. If you can complete that process of earning or re-earning your child’s respect (or maybe you don’t have this problem, as we did) enough that they will accept your leadership through the exercises, then I think you will be in good shape!