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The Hopeful Brain

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Copyright © 2019 Dr. Paul W. Baker and Dr. Meredith White-McMahon.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted by any means—whether auditory, graphic, mechanical, or electronic—without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief excerpts used in critical articles and reviews. Unauthorized reproduction of any part of this work is illegal and is punishable by law.

This book is a work of non-fiction. Unless otherwise noted, the author and the publisher make no explicit guarantees as to the accuracy of the information contained in this book and in some cases, names of people and places have been altered to protect their privacy.

ISBN: 978-1-6847-1397-4 (sc) ISBN: 978-1-6847-1399-8 (e)

Because of the dynamic nature of the Internet, any web addresses or links contained in this book may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid. The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.

Any people depicted in stock imagery provided by Getty Images are models, and such images are being used for illustrative purposes only. Certain stock imagery © Getty Images.

Lulu Publishing Services rev. date: 11/22/2019


Disconnected young people desperately need hope to be courageous in life. Despite living in a society that seems to cherish individuality, our young people are social and so they learn and grow best in the company of others. From the moment that people are born, everyone and everything in their ecology has a significant influence upon them. Our brains create ourselves in the context of these relationships and encounters. Without hope, our brains and bodies would constantly react, rather than respond to the ecologies around us in ways that are far from beneficial. We are our experiences. They shape who we are and who we will become.

How our brains develop in the context of our relationships impacts: how well we form attachments with others, how well we learn, and how we are affected by, and cope with, factors like success, challenge, isolation, mental illness, stress, and trauma. However, becoming the result of our relationships and experiences can be a double-edged sword. They can create healthy, functional individuals and healthy brain growth, or dysregulated, dysfunctional, and unhealthy individuals with far from optimal brain growth and development. The quality of a person’s relational and ecological support is a significant contributor to healthy outcomes.

For decades, neuroscientists have known that through experience, the brain is changeable or neuroplastic in the early years of development. Over 50 years ago, neuroscientists realized that brain cells, or neurons, were able to change and modify their activity in response to environmental experiences. Neurons that fired together, wired together creating brain connections (Hebb, 1949). The problem was that neuroscientists also believed that after the critical period of those early years, the brain was no longer capable of change, leaving people with little hope. Based on these beliefs, most research and therapeutic efforts focused on early childhood. Because learning and behavior were believed to be entrenched by the teenage years there was little hope of change. This instilled a sense of “false permanence”. Fortunately, new science is emerging across disciplines and shaping a more positive outlook of the individual’s ability to change throughout the lifespan.

The advent of advanced neuroimaging technologies in the last 30 years has further shown that while natural developmental milestones and sensitive periods of enhanced neuroplasticity exist, new neurons continue to appear in parts of the brain related to new learning, and new neural networks appear and grow throughout life. Instead of our brains being the individual, isolated, self-organizing systems that neuroscientists assumed them to be, we now know that our brains are dependent on interactions with others and supportive ecologies for survival, growth, and well-being throughout our entire lifespan.

This is great news for anyone working with challenging young people. By being a part of their experiences, therapeutic helpers are able to activate and guide change within the brain, encouraging growth and development to facilitate new learning and better adaptation to the ecological systems in which the child lives. Our NeuroTransactional model, a strengths-based approach, recognizes the brain’s unique willingness to make changes for the better. By blending essential elements of neuroscience within a relational framework, this model will show that, together with our challenging young people, you can create optimal experiences that can shape, reshape, and transform. By “being with, feeling with, and going with” these young people, you become the catalyst for positive change and a significant factor in shaping their social-emotional development. You will assist in the identification, facilitation, and the eventual reimbursement of necessary skills and experiences that will change the youth’s brain for the better



Chapter 1: Hope and Opportunity


People don’t come pre-assembled, but are glued together by life.   - Joseph LeDoux


A Model of Hope and Opportunity

In this book we will take a NeuroTransactional approach to the natural biological development and interpersonal repair of the broken lives of disconnected young people. In this approach, we strive to demonstrate that brains and bodies, when given positive relationships and experiences, have the ability to change negative life events into positive outcomes. We will endeavor to instill encouragement. There is tremendous hope for all young people, no matter where they have come from, the experiences that they have endured, or the approaches they have taken towards life. People can overcome adversity. Disconnected youth can become better connected to life when caring, NeuroTransactionally trained people are involved in their day-to-day events. This model will counter historical approaches that have addressed and labeled the tough to reach with negative words and phrases such as disordered, dysfunctional, “just like his father,” oppositional, “bad,” hopeless, sociopathic, and a host of other identifiers that might doom a child to a reputation to either “live up to” or to “turn around.”


For years many scientists and mental health practitioners have bought into the misconception that both “personality” and the human brain were fully formed and unchangeable by the time a person reached adolescence. However, we have seen the evidence, both in research and in the field, Dr. Paul W. Baker and Dr. Meredith White-McMahon that indicates that there is tremendous hope for even the most challenging of youth. Evidence in neuroscience (the study of the brain) and various disciplines within the field of psychology (the study of the mind) now clearly shows that people possess far more potential than ever expected; we are no longer on a predetermined “timeline” for the development of our true human potential. To those of us providing direct care, who work with those young people who approach life differently, this is both exceptional news and a tremendous responsibility. We, as therapeutic helpers, can no longer “write off’ a child because of their past experiences. We must now write a child “into” a transformed life, one filled with better people, experiences, ecologies, health, meaningful academics, and closer connections to his or her individual culture.


The NeuroTransactional Model

The NeuroTransactional Model is powerful, positive and strength-based. The primary purpose of this model is to provide a way for those of us working with children and youth to address and fulfill their needs by tapping into the power of relationships and harnessing the possibilities of an ever-changing brain with the hope of transforming lives. Relationships involve transactions that continually impact experience and development across the lifespan of everyone involved, and they can become a powerful opportunity for transformation. Everyone, even our most troubled children and youth, should be hopeful that they would thrive, not only as individuals but also as a part of a larger community. We see transformation as an integrative process. Focusing on the various biological, regulatory, relational, ecological, cultural, and academic needs that may be lacking or missing, therapeutic helpers and youth work together to understand how people and ecologies in their life can better meet those needs.




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