Welcome to the blog website of Anne Heffron: writer, mother, adoptee.

Musings after reading Your Brain at Work

Musings after reading Your Brain at Work

Here are some things I learned and thought about while reading Your Brain at Work by David Rock (much of what I have here is taken verbatim from this book):

In the heart of the Doge’s Palace in Venice is a room that is floor to ceiling with drawers for documents that listed the status of each person in the city. The documents stated whose child you were, how you were connected to royalty, merchants, or others of importance. These documents implicitly defined where you would live, what you would eat, how much you would be educated, how much attention others would pay you, and even how long you would live.

I thought this idea was interesting for, as an adopted person from New York, I don’t have access to my original birth certificate. What does this mean? Does this mean that in this day and time it no longer matters who gave birth to you? There is wonderful freedom here, a freedom from a restrictive class system, but there is also a strange mystery. The son of a farmer inherits the farm, and, in part, this life may be in his DNA, so it may be right in a very fundamental way. What if you don’t know what careers your birth parents had because this knowledge was deemed unimportant by those in power? How can I follow in the footprints of my parents, or how can I rebel, if I don’t even know what they are? And why is this important?

Because knowledge is power, particularly knowledge of the self.

The German word schadenfreude is about the feeling of joy that comes from seeing or hearing about another person’s misfortunes or failures. I’m glad I’m not you. Rock said that in one study they’d seen that reward circuits were activated when people saw others worse off than they were. He said that status is relative, and a sense of reward from an increase in status can come any time you feel “better than” another person.

This is a bit of a stretch, but is it possible that one reason the world as a whole doesn’t seem to care much about adoptee rights or sufferings is because the world gets to feel superior, gets to feel the relief of the unrelinquished? Well, it’s too bad that your mother didn’t choose to keep you. Mine kept me.  

In one study, there was a game where certain participants weren’t thrown the ball. The brains of the excluded people had increased activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the neural region that’s also involved in the distressing component of pain, or what sometimes people call the “suffering component” of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region. Exclusion and rejection is physiologically painfully. A feeling of being less than other people activated the same brain regions as physical pain.

Rock said, “Your brain manages status using roughly the same circuits used to manage other basic survival needs,” and I started to wonder how the idea of status affects adoptees.

This is important to note because while I believe the suffering of adoptees is real and that it originates in chemical changes in the brain, not everyone does and so adoptees don’t get the specialized attention they need as children and adults.

Certain words make me feel strong: love, hope, run, spaghetti. Candy bars. I hear these words and I feel good. Other words make me feel weak: hate, murder, skunk, bastard, orphan, foster home, abandoned. I hear these words and it’s harder to take a full breath, as if trouble just walked into the room and had sucked up half the oxygen.

How, as an adoptee, one who lives in a world where words like bastard, orphan, foster home, abandoned are part of the mythology of life, can one garner strength from language rather than buckle under disempowerment? How can one get a sense of strength from a thing—adoption—that has inherently implied to adoptees the world over you were not good enough to keep?

But I tell my adopted nephew he is lucky, you say. I tell him he was chosen. I see adoption as opportunity, you say. And that is wonderful, and it doesn’t work. When your nephew hears the word orphan and knows that he was, once upon a time, that thing, how is his sense of status not affected? How is his brain not affected?

How do we get adoptees to feel really good about themselves? How do we help them see they are not of a lower status just because their mothers didn’t keep them? I have this funny feeling the answer has to do with creativity, with neurolinguistic training or biofeedback or something that involves machines that tap into the brains. I have this feeling we are on the cusp of figuring this stuff out. We have to keep asking questions, looking for answers, barking up the tree of love.


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