Thursday, June 25, 2015

Liesel Meminger's Amygdala

I'm taking a class this summer called, "The Mind, Brain Science, and Learning." If I have an alley, this class is up it. The first topic we're discussing is "Emotions and Learning." Specifically, we're talking about the brain systems that correspond with negative emotion, and their impact on learning. (For a great discussion on the matter, check out this video). Neuroscience from the last 20 years has taught us some nuts and bolts of relatedness, but those nuts and bolts have been operating for a long, long time.

This post is about the long, long time. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak  takes place in Nazi Germany, before anyone knew that the amygdala triggers the hypothalamus, and that it matters. One of its characters, Hans Humberman, shows the power of relatedness. He is the German foster father of Leisel Meminger, who experiences nightly nightmares after her brother died en route to Hans's house.

Those first few months were definitely the hardest.
Every night, Liesel would nightmare.
Her brother's face.
Staring at the floor.
She would wake up swimming in her bed, screaming, and drowning in the flood of sheets. On the other side of the room, the bed that was meant for her brother floated boatlike in the darkness. Slowly, with the arrival of consciousness, it sank, seemingly into the floor. This vision didn't help matters, and it would usually be quite a while before the screaming stopped. 
Possibly the only good to come out of these nightmares was that it brought Hans Humbermann, her new papa, into the room, to soothe her, to love her.
He came in every night and sat with her. The first couple of times, he simply stayed - a stranger to kill the aloneness. A few nights after that, he whispered, "Shh, I'm here. It's all right." After three weeks, he held her. Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man's gentleness, his thereness. The girl knew from the outset that Hans Humbermann would always appear midscream, and he would not leave. 

Not leaving: an act of trust and love,
often deciphered by children

We now know a little more about what's happening when the Hans Hubermanns of the world slay aloneness with thereness. But that Hans Hubermanns existed should disallow us to confuse deeper knowledge for something new. 

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