Limbic System: Robert Sapolsky Stanford Lecutures

Robert Sapolsky is a valuable resource of knowledge.  He has a set of Stanford University  lectures on YouTube regarding various aspects of his field, taught from his undergraduate course at Stanford University in 2010,

It’s free, it’s available on YouTube, search on Dr. Sapolsky’s Stanford Lectures:

YouTube: Robert Saposky Stanford University Lectures

All mental health professionals working with court-involved family conflict must watch Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford lecture on the limbic system.  It is free, it is available, it is your introduction to the limbic system.

YouTube: Dr. Sapolsky Stanford Lectures: Limbic System

Attend to statements about the amygdala, frontal cortex, and anterior cingulate.  Attend to the James-Lange theory of emotion, and the role of interpretation and attribution for a bodily state.

Dr. Sapolsky’s lecture on the Limbic System is mandatory.  From this point on, I will assume that all court-involved mental health professionals will be familiar with all of the material discussed by Dr. Sapolsky in this lecture.  The remainder of his 2010 course at Stanford University on YouTube is “optional” – a post-doc of mine would watch the entire course, knowledge is a good thing when working with children.

Child Development Knowledge

Mental health professionals working with complex family conflict surrounding divorce must understand child development.  In 2020 this is substantially more than Erickson’s stages of basic trust vs basic mistrust, industry vs inferiority, from the 1940s.  Since 1990, understanding child development means understanding the neuro-social development of the brain during childhood,

They are inseparable.  Childhood is the period of brain maturation.  To understand childhood, and importantly, the different phases of childhood and the different socio-neurological developmental tasks-challenges for that period, requires – requires – an understanding for the neuro-development of the brain in childhood across different developmental levels.

If the mental health professional does not want to learn the neuro-development of the brain during childhood, that’s fine – just don’t work with children.  Work with adults.  Because since the 1990s, child development has required a professional understanding of the neuro-development of the child.

This is not optional knowledge – knowledge of child development when working with children – it is required knowledge.

Robert Sapolsky’s Standford University course lectures on YouTube are an exceptionally good introduction.  Of central importance is information about the limbic system (emotional system), which includes essential information on a cortical portion of the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex and the executive function systems.

Professional Ignorance

I am only assigning you Dr. Sapolsky’s Stanford lecture on the Limbic System.  I do that with post-docs, I “assign” some material, and I “recommend” other material, the difference being direct relevance and indirectly important.

You should watch them all.  You will only be using the knowledge about the limbic system when you reach the material from Stern, Shore, Tronick, Trevarthan, van der Kolk – and others – attend also to the Polyvagal Theory and Porges.

Notice something important at the start of Dr. Sapolsky’s Limbic System lecture.  It is a week before the midterm and the material about the limbic system is not going to be on the midterm.  Dr. Sapolsky nonchalantly comments on a number of empty seats.

There are two types of humans, and they are reflected in the students’ decisions.  One group, “Is this going to be on the midterm?” and if not, then they disregard the knowledge that they will need as professionals, because it is not directly relevant to their task at the moment, passing the midterm exam.

This failure in frontal lobe systems surrounding time projection, called foresight and planning, indicates unresolved traumas in other regions of the prefrontal cortex and limbic system that is inhibiting full activation of frontal lobe executive function systems – or – developmentally appropriate maturational processes during the 18-to-24 period. 

The students that skipped the class did not have the frontal lobe capability “to do the hard thing” (attend class) “when it is the right thing to do” (learn knowledge).  The students came to Stanford University, a top-tier educational institution, to learn.  Yet they do not attend class because the material is “not on the midterm.” 

A very “now” orientation to their motivation.  Is this going to help me… now?  The frontal lobe systems for foresight and the inhibition of other competing limic systems activity driving motivation has not yet fully developed.  That’s relatively normal for that age period.  The frontal lobe does not complete its maturation until age 25.

Other students attended. Even though they weren’t going to be “tested” on the information, they came to learn the information.  They understand the value of the information, that’s what they came to Stanford University for, the knowledge. They want this knowledge because it then serves as a foundation for the next set of knowledge, and they will need this next set of knowledge for the tasks they will undertake professionally. 

Do you see the difference between a limic brain of motivation that’s oriented toward the now, and the executive function systems of the prefrontal cortex that inhibit limic activity to allow us to “do the hard thing, when it’s the right thing to do.”

Ignorance is Not Acceptable with Children

To my professional colleagues, you are working with children. Their lives are in your hands. Your ignorance can destroy their life trajectories, or it can fulfill and enrich the entire future course of their lives, and the lives of their spouses and children.  Their future is in your hands – in your ignorance or your knowledge.

What reason do you have for ignorance and sloth?  Is any level of ignorance and sloth acceptable when working with the lives of children?

The court also holds the lives of these parents and their children in the balance of its decisions, lives will be changed, potentially destroyed or saved, by the court’s decision.  The court is seeking consultation from professional psychology for recommendations supporting the child’s healthy development – the “best interests of the child.”

The court is coming to you.  You hold the lives of these children and the lives of these parents in your hands, in the difference between your ignorance and knowledge.

The Limbic System is on my midterm, the midterm of Dr. Childress for professional competence in working with children, especially emotionally dysregulated children – that’s the limbic-prefrontal cortex network.  You will need this information for the information on intersubjectivity, attunement, emotional regulation, and complex trauma that will follow next. That is the information you need to know; Stern, Tronick, Trevarthan, van der Kolk, Fonagy, Shore, Lyons-Ruth, and others.

The rest of Sapolsky’s Standford University lectures are not on the midterm of Dr. Childress.  Bear in mind that I already know the material.  I watched them anyway, and I learned more.  Because ignorance is never acceptable when working with children.

What’s your excuse for your ignorance?  Is understanding child development not important to working with children?  Is understanding the neuro-development of the brain too difficult? 

Then you are ignorant of child development, and you need to go away and not work with children, or you should follow the instructions of people who are not ignorant and who do understand child development – including the neuro-social development of the brain across its various phases and processes.

Do you understand intersubjectivty?  “What’s that?” you say.  I know.  You don’t know what that is, do you?  You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?… I know.  That’s a problem.

Do you understand the roles of attunement and misattunement in the joint construction of meaning?  Do you understand the processes of affect regulation and dysregulation, and its treatment?  Do you understand the neuro-social processes of identity formation and stabilization within the variations across the developmental stages of childhood? 

If not, then I cannot even have a professional-level discussion with you.  You are too ignorant (lacking knowledge or information).

You do not understand child development, the scientific research on child development… you don’t know any of it.  That’s a serious problem if you are working with children whose lives hang in the balance of your knowledge or ignorance… because you’re ignorant.

Dr. Sapolsky’s class is an undergraduate course.  You are not even at the level of an undergraduate student if I cannot discuss the role of the limbic brain, particularly and especially the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and the vagus nerve of the autonomic nervous system.

I have to first educate you in order to have a professional-level discussion with you. That’s not okay.  I shouldn’t have to educate you, you should already be educated before – before – you start to work with children.

Start with van der Kolk’s two day course-seminar from PESI in trauma and complex trauma.  As a preliminary assignment, watch Sapolsky’s Stanford University lecture on the Limbic System.  Google Polyvagal Theory; Porges.   You will ultimately be headed toward Tronick and Stern (intersubjectivity), this will include Trevarthan and Fonagy.

Oh… know Bowlby.  Read all three volumes on attachment, know Lyons-Ruth, buy and know the Handbook on Attachment.

I would consider all of this an assignment for a post-doc.  If you do not know this information, you are not ready to begin work with children… you are not ready to even – begin – not even begin – your work with children if you do not know this information about child development.  You are ignorant, which means you will be incompetent.

If you were my post-doc and didn’t know this information, I would not let you have patient contact until you knew this information.  Not only would I be supervising your work because you’re still in training, I wouldn’t even let you work with child patients until you knew this information.

Google ignorance: lack of knowledge or information

Do you know Sapolsky and van der Kolk?  Cicchetti and Lyons-Ruth?  Stern and Tronick?  Then you lack knowledge or information, you are ignorant.

Ignorance solves nothing. Ignorance is unacceptable professional practice when you hold the lives of children in the balance of your knowledge and ignorance.

Google incompetence: inability to do something successfully; ineptitude.

Can you resolve interpersonal conflict?  Then do it.  You can’t, can you.

You can’t do it because you lack knowledge about how to do it, about how to resolve conflict.  You are ignorant.  And because of your ignorance, you are unable to solve the parent-child conflict, you are unsuccessful, you are incompetent.

Google sloth: reluctance to work or make an effort; laziness.

Have you watched Sapolsky’s Stanford University lecture on the limic system, available for free on YouTube?  Have you watched all of Dr. Sapolsky’s Standford University course lectures?  Have you taken Bessel van der Kolk’s two-day course from PESI on trauma and complex trauma?  Or are you reluctant to work and make an effort? Are you lazy and slothful?

Google negligence: failure to take proper care in doing something; (law) failure to use reasonable care, resulting in damage or injury to another.

Did you use proper care?  Or are you ignorant, incompetent, and slothful?  Did your ignorance, incompetence, and professional sloth result in injury to the parent, harm and damage to the child?

Do any of those words apply to you?  Ignorance, incompetence, sloth, or negligence?

Do you lack information and knowledge, are you unable to solve the family conflict because you lack knowledge and information about how to do that, and do you fail to know this knowledge and information because you are reluctant to make an effort, you’re lazy, and then this causes harm, causes injury to the child and the parent, because you failed to take proper care in first learning about child development and parent-child conflict and bonding – before – you started to work with children.

None of those words apply to me.  I work with children.  None of those words apply to me.

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

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